CARDIFF-BY-THE-SEA is one of Southern California’s best-kept secrets. It may disappear in the shadow of the better-known Welsh city for which it’s named, lose itself in the bend of an unremarkable of stretch of coastal highway, but die-hard surfers aren’t fooled by such obscurity.
They’re kind of like birds that way—if you pay close enough attention, the dude with the shortboard beneath his arm can give you the inside track on what kind of weather to expect over the next few days and when to get the hell out of Dodge, or even if there’s an ear infection going around due to some funky lagoon water. Modern-day medicine people, they are. I like to think those old-school surfer dudes knew exactly the treasure they had on their hands when surfing first became a scene out here in California; they anticipated the millions of people who would make the pilgrimage to the West Coast month after month, year after year, to experience what native Californians grow up knowing in their bones. Cardiff is far from the exception.
Although winter is Cardiff’s best season, these beaches bring out surfers in droves pretty much year-round, from total beginners to world-renowned athletes, all of them for a taste of some of the best wave action in Cali. Even Rob Machado, one of the most gifted damn surfers going, lives less than a block away from the ocean. On weekends things can get insane, though: just try to find a parking spot somewhere. I suppose that doesn’t make it sound like the secret is that well-kept after all, but during weekdays it’s quiet as can be. That’s when the magic happens, when people turn into converts.
I would know—it happened to me.
Humankind has been attempting to rationalize and explain the draw of the ocean for thousands of years. Millions, maybe. Have we ever really succeeded? Perhaps the only reason no one attempted to capture the beauty of the sun-sparkling sea in the caves of Lascaux is because its beauty could never quite be adequately rendered, like an arabesque pattern conceding its imperfections to a far more transcendent and unknowable God.
Personally, I think water fascinates us because the waves make us untouchable. On land it’s hard to run away so no one can find you, but that’s not the case in open water, where there are no boundaries and no rules. Where surfers are concerned, as long as you don’t purposely endanger another person, you’re not accountable to anyone else; the only life you’re responsible for is your own. With that freedom comes the realization that “safety” is very relative, and by no means a guarantee out here. But I suppose that’s why, when I needed to get away from Phelan Price and my brother Nate, my first thought was to grab my board and hit the surf, to keep paddling until I could see neither hide nor hair of land or my brother’s ridiculously fucked-up life. I knew no one would follow.
The late-autumn waves are fierce, with coastal winds whipping the water into a frenzy of chilly foam and salt spray. I struggle to remain seated on my board even without paddling farther out to sea, and every so often a swell approaches and threatens to engulf me whole. When faced with a wall of water rushing toward you, there are only two choices: Go over or under. Swim for your life or drift back to shore. I’m not quite ready to go back to land yet, so instead I dive beneath each wave as it comes, a stubborn refusal that leaves me shivering and winded. The moment of being suspended beneath all that power is breathless and meditative, the seconds ticking away into infinity as the water deafens your senses and every muscle strains to keep you submerged, weightless, until reality reasserts itself and you’re thrown back to the surface with a gasp. I can lose myself in that for now. The concentration required to keep me from being swept away by the waves is almost enough to make me forget the disaster that’s been brought to my shores, but not quite.
How did things get so complicated?
Before moving to Cardiff, I wasn’t much of a surfer. Not much of an athlete, actually, beyond putting in my time at the gym and going for regular runs. I tried it once in Australia on a book tour, despite Nate’s warnings that a man of my size has no place on a surfboard; I got talked into taking a few lessons by my publicist, Caroline. Good photo op, yadda yadda, and apparently it’s hard to beat Gnaraloo for waves in July. At first I had my doubts they’d be able to find a board big enough for me—they breed us hearty in Alabama—but Caroline pulled it off somehow. She always does. True to Nate’s word, though, I almost died. For a while I thought my foray into marine sports would be short, as much for my own safety as to prevent more awkward tabloid stories about Hugh Dorian embarrassing himself in a wetsuit. I had enough I-told-you-so material to last me at least two decades into my professional relationship with Caroline, if we didn’t kill each other before then.
That’s why Cardiff kind of took me by surprise. My girlfriend, Nell—I don’t even know if that’s still the right term, since the relationship never technically ended, but “former girlfriend” doesn’t sound right either—was from there, and we visited her family a few times while we were dating. Only a few times, though, since it isn’t exactly close to where we lived in Berkeley. The plan was to visit more often after college, once we settled into our house in Los Angeles and I got my first book deal, but then the shooting happened, and all that stuff, along with Nell’s life, got cut short. Suddenly my only reason to visit Cardiff was the funeral.
I didn’t think much about anything beyond what to say and how to act like a normal person until I found myself wandering the town’s beaches and sleepy coastal streets and realizing, hey, life here wouldn’t be so bad. Quiet. Relaxed. Just how I like it. I’ve never been one for the crowds, not like Nate. It’s probably really cheesy to pick a town based on its proximity to your dead girlfriend’s gravesite, but it wouldn’t be the first time someone accused me of being a sap.
Besides, that was only part of it. In the bigger cities, enough people recognized me from my book jacket photos, and after Nell’s funeral I started playing with the idea of moving someplace secluded to get away from it all, to avoid the tabloids and the showbiz types and do what I supposedly get paid for: write. I also really, really needed to get away from the celebrity scene, which was turning out to be dangerous in more ways than one. I had to distance myself from the deceptive glitter of Hollywood and the person I found I had the capacity to become when escapism turned ugly. Cardiff proved to be that place.
Because I’m not afraid to admit I’m a geek, I can tell you that Cardiff Reef is the cause of such awesome waves. It extends for about a quarter mile south down the coast, over flat, grass-covered rock that becomes exposed when the tide goes out, allowing the daring and curious a chance to wander out and explore all the marine life normally hidden beneath the water. A biologist’s dream. Where surfing is concerned, the wave off the reef is usually described as being a little slow, not ideal except for its low tides and the huge swells that move in during the winter season. There’s a peak at the southernmost point that, whether or not you’re prepared for it, is one badass tube regardless of skill or experience. North of the reef is what’s known locally as the Suckouts, swells that can challenge the most seasoned surfer with quick drops and low water levels as the waves empty into the channel. It’s no coincidence any surfer worth his salt cuts his teeth here in Cardiff.
Caroline had her doubts about my moving here, probably because she worried about not being able to keep an eye on me, but for the most part I haven’t had any trouble. For an author, the ratio of rabid fans to people who don’t give a shit is pretty low, and in Cardiff it’s almost zilch. At first there was some excitement to have a best-selling author in the neighborhood, especially one with a troubled history like mine, but after threatening a couple of lawsuits, Caroline was mostly able to keep me out of the local papers. Not to mention I’m usually too boring to warrant much attention. With Rob nearby and a couple of other famous musicians and actors who call Cardiff home, I quickly faded into the fabric of everyday life. Hugh Dorian—though around here I go by my real name, Hugh Fessenden—is just another guy with an inflated salary and too much free time on his hands.
Even after Nell’s parents eventually moved away, haunted by memories of her childhood, I was welcomed into the community with open arms, if maybe a few more sympathetic looks than I normally like. Pretty much everyone who grew up here knows about Nell and mourns that someone so kind and well liked should have lost her life to a mugging gone horribly awry. I took up surfing because there wasn’t much else to do, and it’s a nice way to break up the monotony of my day when I’m not out promoting a new book or struggling to justify the recent publisher’s advance. Luckily I embarrass myself a lot less out there on the waves than I used to. Some might even call me proficient.
I wish I could say being a well-known author has made for an active social life and lots of friends, but that isn’t really the case. For one reason or another, I keep to myself. Privacy is a hard thing to come by in a small town, and I’d hate to make the mistake of divulging too much of my life to the wrong person. Writers, even the famous ones, don’t have it as bad as the Brads and Angelinas of the world, but we still see our fair share of public interest. That I’m under thirty and, I suppose, passably attractive seems to make me a natural target for gossip, especially since some of my stuff got optioned for film adaptations.
While I can’t say it’s something I ever really worry about, there have been a few incidents to make me think twice about who I let into the inner circle. I often used to wish Nate lived closer than Ohio, but his own family was a full-time job, especially since Emilia opened her dance studio and Liam started middle school. My mom died when we were little and my dad a couple of years ago from a heart attack, so for the most part I lie low and have fewer than five people on speed dial. I talk to Nate all the time, but brothers don’t count; he just harasses me about being a bore, anyway. “How’s the free booze and groupies this week? Or did you spend another Saturday beating off to Internet porn by yourself?” is his usual refrain when he calls.
Like I said, no one I really hang out with on a regular basis.
Except, that is, for Phel.
WHAT is there to tell about Phelan? Way too much and not enough. He’s both the most unremarkable and the most interesting guy I’ve ever met. To this day, I have no idea how the hell he wound up in a place like Cardiff—although how does anyone end up here? His story probably isn’t all that different from mine. Then again, he could have escaped from a circus for all I know, or fallen from the sky.
I met him on the beach a couple of months ago while on a morning walk with my dog, Callie. He was having some trouble. Beginners take to the surf all the time around here, and normally I don’t think anything of it, but Phel stood out a bit more than the rest, wrestling with his wetsuit like it was a live animal and not a piece of neoprene. It being late July, there were a few kids gathered together for lessons, their small bodies zippering easily into the suits before they grabbed their bodyboards and paddled into the surf after their instructor. Certainly there was no rocket science involved, but this poor schmuck couldn’t seem to figure out which end of his suit was up—not what you’d call an experienced surfer.
I probably would have continued on my way if Callie hadn’t sprinted away from me in her excitement to catch a slow-moving target. Phel looked up when he found himself under the investigation of seventy pounds of Australian shepherd.
“Uh… hey,” he greeted me awkwardly, and his nose wrinkled in the universal sign for people who like dogs a lot more in theory than in practice. “Can I… help you?”
The incongruousness of the question made me snort. I decided to rescue him before Callie could get any more friendly, and she whuffed happily as I approached over the sand. “Get back here,” I told her with mock sternness, and she played her little game of running back and forth across the beach between us, inviting one of us to chase her around.
Phel wasn’t having any of it. “Is this an off-leash area?” he asked peevishly when I got close enough. “I didn’t think dogs were allowed to just….” With a look of frustration for the wetsuit, he threw it down on the sand with a lame slap.
“What, judge people’s surfing ability?” I asked. The sun was glaring kind of awkwardly from behind Phel’s head, and I had to shield a hand over my eyes just to make out a vague impression of his facial expression. From what I could tell, he looked a combination of embarrassed and exasperated. That’s Phel down to a T—always too much going on below the surface to get a proper read on the guy. “Don’t think many people care round here,” I pointed out, “and Callie won’t give you half as much trouble as that wetsuit.” This earned me a glare, and a little spark of humor made me add, “By the way, it goes ass-side down.”
“And you’re the expert?” snapped Phel. I shrugged. The gesture drew another grunt of frustration from him, then Phel motioned at the discarded pile. “I just… I’ve been cooped up for days, and supposedly surfing is the one good thing to do around here. So far it’s a disaster.”
“Have you surfed before?” I asked neutrally. We both knew I’d already guessed the answer.
In all fairness, Phel called me on it. “What does it look like?”
“Touché.” I stooped, half to put the guy out of his misery and half to save him from further embarrassment, then grabbed his wetsuit off the ground and stretched and untangled the neoprene until I held out a neat person-sized article in front of me. “You should get yourself an instructor if this is your first time,” I suggested. “Waves can get pretty intense out there if you don’t know what you’re doing.”
“I know even less about where to go for that kind of thing,” he answered. “I borrowed the board from… some friends I’m staying with.” There was no denying the emphasis on the word “friends” was weird, but I tried not to comment since it would only make him more uncomfortable. Say what you want about writers, but we’re pretty good at psychoanalyzing on the spot. I didn’t need a psych degree to know Phel was lying to my face about something he didn’t want to talk about. However, the fact that I had one didn’t hurt. He was definitely lying about something.
“That’s cool, man,” I said. Before I could think twice about the impulsiveness of the gesture, given my tendency to avoid people, I extended my hand. “I’m Hugh.”
Though Phel responded with a proper handshake, something seemed to dawn on him after he spent a couple of moments looking at my face with a puzzled expression. Two guesses what that was. “Hugh Dorian,” he said slowly. “I thought you looked kind of familiar, but I’m not great with faces. Plus it’s entirely possible I’m just going crazy.” His mouth snapped shut at this. Hesitantly, he added, “You are Hugh Dorian, right? The writer?”
Next time I’d ask for a smaller jacket photo or, fuck, a composite sketch that didn’t quite get my nose right. “Got it in one,” I told him instead, trying not to sound bent out of shape. “Here I thought I was undercover.” Please don’t ask me for a fuckin’ autograph, I thought.
Now that he’d stepped closer and correctly guessed my identity, I was able to get a much clearer look at Phel’s face. He was pretty handsome, I had to admit: scruffy and wild-haired in a rakish way, full lips that probably made a lot of women jealous, huge blue eyes. Not surprisingly, he was shorter than me by a few inches, compact but for his broad shoulders and strong legs. Despite the gruffness of his voice, he was actually pretty young—early thirties was my guess, around Nate’s age.
The difference was that Phel looked tired, more tired than I could remember having seen a person look, the exception being myself in the mirror the night Nell died. It made me wonder what stories lay behind the shadows under Phel’s eyes, and to be honest, I still wonder. But that day we were just getting our introductions out of the way, and it wouldn’t be another few weeks until I worked up the nerve to ask why he was the most miserable guy in San Diego County.
“Sorry for spoiling your anonymity,” he apologized. “For what it’s worth, you don’t look a whole lot like your jacket photo—it makes you look short, for one thing, and kind of smug.” At this, I blinked, and Phelan immediately backpedaled. “But you don’t look short or smug here, I mean. You’re tall and kind of stun—”
“Can I stop you right there?” I interrupted. This was getting ridiculous. The guy spoke like he’d gone to finishing school at Eton but had less tact than Howard Stern. “I think I get the idea.” A regretful look crossed Phel’s face. Nevertheless, I was glad when he didn’t try to apologize again. Instead I surprised us both by asking, “How would you feel about me teaching you how to surf? I wouldn’t charge anything, and I’d sleep a lot better at night knowing you won’t die a watery death on my watch.”
“I can pay in beer,” said Phel, and that, as they say, was that.
That first meeting was a little awkward, plagued as it was by Phelan’s enigmatic qualities and tendency to talk about his past life like it’d all happened to someone else, but we’ve been hanging out every day since then, having graduated from early-morning surf lessons to the kind of stuff regular friends do, or at least insofar as I’ve ever had a regular friend. You know: coffee, football games, movies, beer. We also run together a lot, and the first time I saw his fast, steady gait on the beach as he plowed ahead of me despite my much longer strides, I knew how he got those leg muscles. Phel’s kind of a natural athlete, even though he knows nothing about real-people sports like basketball or football, and tons about weird shit like fencing and cricket and polo—and baseball, for some reason, though he dodged the question when I inquired about the source of his info. His knowledge of the Texas Rangers would have made Nate proud. He’s even come around to tolerating Callie’s high-energy canine demands, after enough of her persistent affection.
While there’s no denying he’s still the weirdest person I know, at least I understand a few more of the reasons behind that. The purpose of Phelan’s visit to Cardiff is so he can rest up and pull himself together before he figures out what he wants to do next with his life—I guess the less polite way to put it is that the dude had a nervous breakdown and retired to Cardiff to recoup.
I’ve tried to get more of the story out of him, but the most he’ll give me is he made a mistake with the wrong person and had the misfortune of getting caught. There’s nothing to suggest he knows what even happened to the other guy, but from the sounds of it, that doesn’t matter; Phel’s family disowned him either way, being the staunch religious types that don’t much care for gay love affairs. Phel has never used that word—love—but I can tell by the look he gets when he talks about the man in question that there’re still some feelings there, stuff that won’t be cured by a few weeks of R & R. I feel bad for him, but that isn’t why we’re friends. More than anything, I think we understand our mutual need for privacy and a reliable person to have your back.
After all, those things aren’t exactly easy to come by, not even in sunny Cardiff-by-the-Sea. I just wish we’d known enough to appreciate them before they got swept away with the tide.
MY DAYS at the Palermo Springs Centre for Addiction and Mental Health all start the same: I wake up around seven, shower, go to yoga, shower, have an uninspiring breakfast of fresh fruit and oatmeal, dress to meet Hugh at the beach for a few hours before lunch, shower, then go to my afternoon session with Willa, my counselor. Evenings I have to myself. For the record, I don’t have OCD—it’s just necessary to bathe several times a day to keep from smelling pervasively like seawater or sweat in this climate. Growing up, I split my time between the East Coast and the Midwest, so with the exception of New York in August, I’m not exactly built for these kinds of temperatures. No one wants to be the sweaty guy in group therapy, not with all that hugging.
Hugh is fond of mocking the predictability of my days, but Willa says routine can be grounding in times of chaos. There’s not much chaos in my life—more like a void—but if a routine can feel like a tranquil island in stormy seas (Willa’s words, not mine), I don’t see why it can’t serve the same purpose if the water around you is totally becalmed and empty. Besides, I kind of like yoga and having nothing else to do each day besides surf and hang out with Hugh and think about why I’m here. I don’t just mean here in the philosophical sense, though that’s part of it. Mostly I mean this slip of a town called Cardiff-by-the-Sea.
I came to Palermo on the recommendation of my sister, Aurelia. Turns out she spent some time here while I was away at college, when her drinking got just a little too out of control. Our parents thought she went to Bali for a month, when really they were the reason she needed rehab in the first place. Not hard to see how that could happen, since dealing with our mother and father can be intense on a good day, but I’m the first to report that not dealing with them isn’t necessarily better. We all hate our families until they’re gone, or they ask us not to come back, and suddenly we realize why Donne went on about how no man is an island. Woe betide the poor asshole who discovers he is an island after all. Which is to say, I’m that asshole.
It took being disowned at thirty-two to realize how little I had going for me besides my family and my job. The other incident I don’t like to talk about, the one that put me here, was a rash and ill-advised way to break out of my dull existence in the Midwest. Gay love affairs, especially poorly planned ones with married men, never go over well when your family is oppressively Catholic. Turns out there’s a reason I’ve never been known as “the spontaneous one,” because all spontaneity had to offer was a broken heart, some frozen bank accounts, and a big fat nothing in place of the life I used to have. Probably not even Nate—that’s his name, the asshole—would take my calls anymore, were I to actually pick up the phone and dial.
Willa tells me I don’t show enough appreciation for the little things, like the fact that I’m alive and healthy and in full control of my mental faculties, but as much as I like the woman, sometimes I think Willa is full of shit. She has a family, and a gorgeous one at that—I’ve seen her husband at the pool enough times. Rumor has it she had an Oxy addiction before becoming a counselor, but now she’s all about the Zen and the Eat, Pray, Love. Elizabeth Gilbert she’s not.
But I’m not bitter, honest. I’m getting better.
However morbid this might sound, I wish I’d come to Palermo with a substance abuse problem—at least I would have stood the risk of having a little fun beforehand, or damaged enough brain cells to keep me from remembering everything in living color. Instead I’m stuck in the independent living program with all the other depressives and anger-management cases—talk about the amateur ward. It’s somewhere between an outpatient program and a retirement home, with my own private residence on the Palermo compound and the freedom to come and go as I please outside of my mandatory counseling schedule. I guess I’m kind of a sorry excuse for a crazy person—I barely even attempted suicide. Sure, a nervous breakdown is nothing to sneeze at, but I know the other patients probably look at me and think I’m just some melodramatic rich kid who can’t get over losing his trust fund. Maybe I am. Maybe I also have a bit of paranoia thrown into the mix.
That could be why I like Hugh so much, because he’s got his own issues and isn’t constantly on my case to talk about my feelings, or even about his. Occasionally I’m struck by the urge to ask him about his family and his dead girlfriend and anything else he’ll tell me, but Hugh keeps that stuff locked up tighter than Fort Knox. I know he has a brother somewhere at the opposite end of the country, and their parents are dead, but that’s about it. Part of Hugh’s reluctance to divulge information has to do with his celebrity, which I understand, and part of it has to do with not being ready, which I also understand. He’ll have to have it out with that stuff eventually, though. He’s too smart not to realize that.
The same goes for me. But I don’t feel judged around him. He knows all about what happened in Columbus—the short version, with names withheld to protect the guilty—and his first response was “The guy sounds like an asshole. I probably would have freaked out too, if a girl treated me like that. You were lucky you got out.”
Got out, yes. Came out—not so much, though I more or less agree with Willa that a weight has been lifted from my shoulders. Still, it meant a lot that Hugh took my side without question, without even knowing the other half of the story. I have Willa to make rational arguments about how I should have seen the break-up coming, should have predicted it’d blow up in my face. Hugh is there to teach me surfing and be my friend and tell me that everyone bets on the wrong horse sometimes.
The whole thing with Nate started off in what I thought was a completely innocuous way. And if innocuous isn’t the right word, because affairs so rarely are, then at least it wasn’t anything sinister. I thought I had my money on Secretariat, and instead found myself with a Phar Lap. After the arsenic poisoning.
I was splitting my time between Chicago and Columbus, managing the Midwest offices of my family’s advertising business. For the obvious reasons, I liked Chicago a lot better, especially since that’s where Aurelia lives, but my attention was most often needed in Columbus, where the biggest number of things seemed to go wrong without someone to oversee the process. That the responsibility fell to me was just family obligation and bad luck.
It’s not a bad town, Columbus, just a little boring for anyone who isn’t a student or into tailgate parties, or who doesn’t start hyperventilating every time the Buckeyes come up in conversation. (No, I’m not one of those people.) My time in the city was spent either at our offices downtown or my apartment on Parkview Ave., not including places like the gym or the grocery store.
On that one particular Friday, I was actually getting ready to drive to Illinois the next day, happy to leave Ohio behind. I considered Chicago home; it’s where my friends were. There weren’t many people I hung out with socially in Columbus—nor in Chicago, being honest—and in retrospect, that was part of the problem. Desperation and boredom can make a fool of anyone. One-night stands were a common occurrence for me, because even lapsed Catholic ad men have needs, and I didn’t have much time for dating. Too much effort involved trying to keep my personal tastes hidden from my family. Honestly, Columbus was the last place I thought any of this would happen.
So of course, that’s where it did.
Sexual orientation isn’t something I ever had to think too hard about. I knew from a young age I was queer, and if my ultrareligious upbringing wasn’t enough to shake it out of me, probably nothing would. Disguising my lack of interest in women became second nature early on, and I bore the blind dates and family-arranged meetings with as much equanimity as you’d expect. Never was I anything but polite and friendly to those women. A few of them even figured out I wasn’t interested in them not because of their clothes or hair or personality, but for another fundamental reason—the lack of dick, for one.
My point is that, when I decided to go out for a couple of drinks and unwind after work that night, it wasn’t to some random breeder bar, but rather a gay local called Foxley’s. Their meal service was decent, but the real attraction was the down-to-earth crowd that flocked there on weekends. It encompassed neighborhood gays, businessmen, and the odd tourist in search of a quiet, old-timey pub atmosphere not overwhelmingly populated by OSU students, which was hard to come by in Columbus. In other words, Foxley’s was a place for gay men to paw at each other in a civilized way, without concern for straight judgment or public decency laws. I might like dick, but straight men have never interested me. Although I know plenty of guys who go in for the excitement of feeling they’ve “turned” someone, that’s not for me—I don’t want ambiguity about who’s checking me out and whether they might be a sexual tourist. The night before a short road trip seemed a perfect time to take someone home, since I could truthfully say I had to be up early the next morning. No muss, no fuss. Or so I thought.
The dinner crowd had mostly cleared out by the time I got there, replaced by those more interested in cruising than the nightly special. It was barely June, and during the summer months, Foxley’s always did good business. Things were starting to get busy at the front of the restaurant, which was crammed with men chatting in groups or more intimate couples, a familiar mating dance in full swing. I looked around and smiled at a few people I knew, particularly shy Adam, who was mixing up martinis and pouring wine behind the bar. By no means did I spot Nate right away—it was he, in fact, who spotted me, though not until much later. I settled myself a respectable distance away from the throng of people and ordered a Scotch on the rocks, something I didn’t really like but had grown up watching my father drink.
Three or four men paused to say hello or offered to buy me a beer, but for one reason or another, they didn’t compel me—this time because of their hair or clothes or personality. I started to think about leaving after I’d been there less than an hour. Either no one really appealed to me, or I wasn’t as motivated to cruise as I thought. But then this guy sat down a few seats away and ordered the same thing, except he drank his Scotch neat and didn’t seem to care whether it was top-shelf.
Now, I consider myself a man of restraint, for the most part. No doubt a lifetime of checking my flamboyance at the door saved me from acting like one of those silly fags who faints at the first sign of a hot body or a gorgeous smile. But the minute I saw Nate’s face, I would have done a striptease on the bar just to get his attention. After a few minutes, it became clear that wasn’t necessary, because Nate cast a lingering glance my way, holding eye contact when I returned his look. I remember thinking he didn’t seem altogether comfortable in this environment, then quickly dismissing the thought because he was hot, for one thing, and he was here. No one walked into Foxley’s without knowing exactly what he’d signed up for.
“All-American” was the first thing that popped into my head when I saw Nate. Tall, athletic, and so beautiful I actually started to feel insecure about my own appearance, Nate looked too much the meat-and-potatoes jock type for a place like Foxley’s. And yet, he still managed to turn every head in the place. On the one hand, I was flattered to have caught his eye, but knew I cut a fine figure of my own in my tailored gray Armani. (Seriously, Mom and Dad—how did you not figure it out sooner?) Nate’s own suit seemed plain by comparison, but it was dark and he’d already managed to lose the tie and jacket, anyway. All I cared about was getting him to stop staring and come talk to me, so I tilted my head and gave him my best come-hither smile, which Aurelia says could charm the panties off a nun. Or a priest. Whatever. Ducking his head as though to hide a blush, Nate smiled to himself and pushed away from the bar to wander over.
“Hey,” he said easily. With his arms on the bar, he leaned forward and met my gaze. Green, green eyes, like a cat’s, and no less sharp. His eyelashes were so thick they gave the appearance of eyeliner. Up close he was even more enchanting, tall and freckled and with the most voluptuous lips I’d ever seen. True, my own lips draw plenty of comments from interested parties, but Nate’s were as red and shapely as a Dürer portrait, all sharp Cupid’s bow and upturned corners. I noticed his fingers drumming a rapid tattoo against his glass and, sensing his nervousness, I smiled a little wider. He cleared his throat. “Can I buy you another drink?”
As far as pickup lines went, it was classic but effective, and I appreciated his directness. “You can,” I told him. “We’re more or less drinking the same thing anyway.” He signaled to Adam for another round, and I propped myself on my elbows against the bar, matching his stance. Allowing myself the opportunity to rake my eyes down his body and ending on a smile to show I liked what I saw, I added, “I haven’t seen you around here before.”
This drew a laugh, and in spite of myself, I blushed at the brilliance of his smile. Where did you even see teeth that white and perfect, outside of a fucking Abercrombie catalogue? I found myself wondering where the hell this guy had come from and what had taken him so long to find me. “I didn’t take you for the type that recycles tired pickup lines,” he chuckled.
“Coming from the man who opened with ‘Buy you a drink?’” I shot back.
Nate bit his lip around another smile and sighed in resignation, but didn’t argue.
I continued, “In this case it’s not a come-on, just a statement of fact. Foxley’s doesn’t get a lot of new faces.”
“So you must come here pretty often, then,” he observed. Something mischievous twinkled in his eyes. “Either that or you’ve slept with everyone already.”
I waggled my eyebrows and resisted the urge to contradict him the way my good Christian upbringing dictated—defend that virtue! Unfortunately, Nate was off, but not far off; there wasn’t much virtue left to defend, if by those standards queers had any to begin with. “Not everyone,” I eventually replied, and with a nod acknowledged Adam’s reappearance with two fresh glasses of Scotch. I took a quick sip and offered a handshake. “I’m Phel.” Those perfect eyebrows shot up, prompting me to frown and withdraw my hand. “Yes?”
He shrugged casually, broad shoulders momentarily fixating me as they flexed beneath the fabric of his button-down. “Oh, nothin’. That’s just not the name I expected you to give—you look more like a Jimmy or a James or something. Is Phel a nickname?”
“Sort of—it’s short for Phelan.” Surprised this failed to draw a bigger laugh, I added, “My parents had a thing for lavish names; my sister is an equally plain Aurelia. Maybe they just wanted to see how far they could push the envelope before I got the shit kicked out of me at school, who knows?”
“Phel is definitely better,” he agreed, “but still—I gotta admit Phelan’s pretty sexy. Definitely not a name you’d forget the morning after.” I savored his slow smile as much as the mental picture of waking up to a face like that. The way “sexy” rolled off his tongue was even more dangerous than the way he growled my name in a voice like dark brandy. “I’m Nate. Nate Smith.”
This time it was he who offered his hand, and I accepted it politely, noting the warmth and firmness of his grip, the slight awkwardness with which he gave his name. Probably a fake, but it’s not like I could judge—my last name was so well known I didn’t bother to give it out. The “Phelan” was a big enough risk to anyone who bothered to look at the society pages of The New York Times once every few months.
“Nice to meet you, Phel.”
“Likewise, Nate.” I nodded at our surroundings and nudged him with my shoulder once he finished sipping his drink. Our faces were very close together, and a slow tendril of heat curled through me when I caught him watching my mouth as I spoke. “What moved you to grace Foxley’s with your presence this evening?” I asked.
“Curiosity, mostly.” Nate must have noticed my back stiffen, because he quickly added, “I’m not from here, so this is all kinda new to me. Didn’t know Columbus even had a gay scene. I live about an hour northeast of the city—little town called Mount Vernon. You ever been there?”
“Can’t say I have,” I admitted. Clearly that was a mistake on my part, if the rest of Mount Vernon looked anything like Nate. “You picked the right place, anyway.… Most of the other gay bars around here are either lame, or skeezy, or both. At least Foxley’s is halfway respectable, and Adam likes to mix ’em strong.” Mouth twitching, I suggested, “Maybe you should start a gay scene in Mount Vernon. With a face like yours, people might actually pay attention—and I’m sure you’re not the only fag in the suburbs.”
Nate gave a careful pause I couldn’t interpret, which he attempted to hide behind his glass of Scotch. “That probably wouldn’t go over so well,” he answered tautly. “Besides, I like Columbus. It’s nearby, and a helluva lot more interesting than Mount Vernon.” With a smile and a glint in his eye, he added, “Plus, you’re here.”
Unable to help myself, I rolled my eyes at the cheesy line, earning a laugh. Good to know Nate had a healthy sense of irony, or didn’t mind a little teasing. As someone who’d been accused of being too literal and serious on multiple occasions, I appreciated someone who wasn’t afraid to laugh at himself—or me, since I probably needed to lighten up.
It was too early to tell whether Nate would understand my biting brand of sarcasm, so I settled on sauciness instead, it being the more obvious—though not necessarily less dangerous—route. Something my father taught me at a young age was to never undervalue your talents, be they few or many, great or small; as such, I have always valued my intellect and strategic reasoning. I am also, however, quite adept at using tone of voice to my advantage. I inherited my father’s deep growl, something that surprises a lot of people, given my relatively slight frame. Nevertheless, it’s effective at getting people to listen to me, if not flat-out obey.
In a split-second decision, I elected to turn it on Nate, lowering my voice to a much quieter decibel as I slid a hand around to the small of his back and murmured, “What do you plan to do with me, now that you’ve got my undivided attention?” He all but had to press himself against me to catch the words, his breath hot against my jaw as he brought his ear closer to my mouth. His warmth made me shiver.
The question caught Nate off guard—I saw that much in the quick lift of eyebrows and the blush that suffused his cheeks, making that smattering of freckles stand out even more. He hid it quickly, however, and once recovered didn’t shy from the challenge of close physical proximity with a near stranger. If anything he seemed relieved, perhaps happy to be back on even footing, certain of my interest.
At the brush of his lips against my ear, I couldn’t disguise my shudder or the quick puff of breath I expelled in his direction. Compared to a lot of straight folk, gay men make agreeing to sex a pretty painless and straightforward transaction. The anticipation gave me a feeling like someone had started a motor in my belly, tiny vibrations growing stronger until they were indistinguishable from a racing heartbeat. “I’ve got a hotel room nearby,” Nate informed me.
I stopped to consider the offer. Nine times out of ten, a hotel room is my preference—so much easier than having to consider the alternatives, like if bringing a trick home is the best way to safeguard my anonymity and my possessions. I’ve never had anything bad happen, but you hear stories, especially in the God-fearing Midwest or southern states, about unsuspecting gays who invite the wrong sort home. A few drag queens and transvestites have lost their lives this way, even in quiet Columbus. The promise of safety gave me a moment’s pause, even though I’m normally a good judge of character. Nate didn’t set off any warning bells. Most pressing of all was the sudden desire I had to see him amidst my possessions, drinking from my favorite mug, lounging on my sofa. His head against my pillow.
“N-no,” I answered slowly, and for a split second our mouths were so close I couldn’t have licked my lips without licking his as well. “My apartment is just down the street—I’d very much like to see how you look in my bed.” The sight of Nate laid out on my sheets was an afterimage I’d be sure to keep long after his scent faded away in the wash. Tricks weren’t something I tended to hold on to, but I had this feeling, this nagging suspicion Nate would be different. I expected those intelligent green eyes to haunt me for a while; already I had a hard time looking away. “Besides, we can make as much noise as we want without worrying about the other guests.”
Apparently this reasoning was sufficient for Nate, his expression gone soft and heavy-lidded at my words, and we each finished our drinks in silence before he threw a few bills down on the bar for Adam. I was barely conscious of the men milling around us, pressing close in their effort to navigate the bar or attract Adam’s attention. I didn’t care about anything but Nate.
“I’ll do my best not to disappoint you,” he murmured into my ear. He gave a cheeky tug on my tie, fingers lingering against my breastbone for a half beat. “Lead the way.”
The promise implicit in the statement made me flush and harden slightly in my pants, my mind already racing ahead of us down the street to my apartment. I saw us hurrying out of the bar, Nate’s arm around my waist beneath my suit jacket. We wouldn’t stop to kiss the whole way there, not even when the elevator doors slid closed and we were totally alone. No, I wouldn’t get to feel that mouth against mine until my apartment door closed behind us and I turned to see Nate unbuttoning the cuffs of his shirt, a man getting down to business.
He didn’t disappoint me at all, not that night. In fact, he so far exceeded my wildest fantasies that I never drove to Chicago the next day, content to bend to the suggestion to put the weekend to better and more creative uses. It’s not that Nate was some spectacular hard body with a ten-inch cock or a tongue that could work miracles (well, maybe that last one); I’ve had those types before, and they never lingered in memory longer than a few hours. No, Nate was an average man with a heartbreaking face and a slight air of mystery to him, prone more to observation than talk, like he’d lived his whole life with a silence so deep he couldn’t possibly see how words could fill it. There was so much passion in him, however, that for a minute I reconsidered what I was getting myself into. The way he touched me, the way he fucked me, the way he looked into my face afterward like he didn’t quite know what to make of the whole thing… it made my skin tingle and burn like an ant beneath a child’s magnifying glass.
Dozens of men have warmed my sheets before, but Nate was the first to make me want to stop the whole ride and think about how I’d feel when he walked off, never to be seen again.
Like I said, he didn’t disappoint me. Not in the slightest. Maybe that’s why it hurt so much when he finally betrayed me; I don’t know. Hugh’s probably right in saying I was lucky to get out when I did, but I must have developed a wicked case of Stockholm Syndrome; breaking up with Nate felt like cutting off my own arm, tearing away what had become a part of myself. I still check myself for scars sometimes, as though I should see his name branded on my skin when I look in the mirror. Let’s just say the fall back to Earth was a hard one. Small wonder, really, I wound up in Cardiff with a suitcase full of Valium and more baggage than a luggage car.
But. That’s all in the past now, isn’t it?
After yoga and the second shower of the day, I throw on jeans and a T-shirt and grab my wetsuit from where it hangs drying over the bathtub, and shrug off Nate’s memory and the foul mood it never fails to put me in. Time to head over to Hugh’s.
I’m looking forward to surfing today—Mondays are always best, the beaches quiet and free of weekend crowds. Sometimes I think I’m really starting to get it—I might not be ready for the Suckouts yet, but weather patterns have taken on a new significance that extends beyond “rainy” or “sunny” or “windy.” I used to favor bright summer days with gentle breezes and low humidity, but now find myself excited by overcast skies and the threat of precipitation. Beyond a doubt, that’s where the best waves come from, and Hugh’s now comfortable letting me tackle a few of the bigger tubes off the reef. With that much water splashing you in the face, a little rain is immaterial.
I set out determined to have a good day and not waste more time dwelling on Nate fucking Fessenden. Lucky for me, Hugh lives within walking distance of my little house on the Palermo Springs compound. While far from being a hotbed of excitement, Cardiff is such a beautiful town that it’s hard to be in a snit with the smell of the sea in the air and a touch of eternal summer in the breeze, even during overcast days, the palm trees swaying in the wind like perpetual motion machines.
There’s a laid-back atmosphere to the whole place I’ve never experienced in the Midwest or the East Coast. People very much seem to take life in stride here, which I suppose is the perfect quality for a rehabilitation setting. If you walk around long enough, some of that sense of calm starts to rub off. Surfers are a pretty relaxed group at the best of times, but in Cardiff they actually seem… happy. I can see why Hugh settled down here. Once my program at Palermo is finished—soon, now—I think I’ll use what money is left to me from the sale of my Columbus and Chicago apartments, and buy something in the neighborhood. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t sometimes think about how much Nate would like it here, because he’s certainly got the right constitution, but then again, I kind of like that Cardiff is just mine and Hugh’s, not anyone else’s. Funny how much changes in a year.
As I round the corner onto Cape Sebastian Place, past where it veers off from Manchester, a few young guys are making their way to the beach, wetsuits already half-unzipped to their navels, shortboards tucked beneath their arms with easy pride. They can probably tell the weather’s going to churn up some nice waves too. We nod at each other in passing, and I wonder if we’ll all end up chasing the same tubes together before day’s end, or chatting in a floating circle as we wait for the next swell. A couple of them are exceptionally handsome, even to my jaded eyes, and some old part of me halfheartedly hopes we’ll see them again. Hugh’s house is the third down from the left, so with any luck we’ll join them soon.
Sebastian Place is a lovely street, one of the prettiest in Cardiff, in my opinion. It’s set at the top of a hill that leads down to the water, and there’s a great view in every direction, the ocean to the east and San Elijo Lagoon to the south. No matter how much Hugh wishes otherwise, his house is like an oceanfront palace. There are too many windows and angled terraces, and the Land Rover in the driveway is a quiet reminder the owner isn’t short on cash. He said he tried living in a more unassuming house when he first moved to Cardiff, but was hounded by curious townsfolk until he caved and moved to a private corner lot with a single neighbor. Still, the overall effect is one I like. Somehow it doesn’t scream ostentatious wealth like some of the residences I’ve seen around the area, which is to say, Hugh’s house is gorgeous, but not the nicest one on the street.
What disturbs me is that Hugh appears to have a visitor: a huge black motorcycle is parked next to the Land Rover, gleaming in the pale sunlight and reflecting the sky back a darker shade of gray. The make and model I recognize instantly—it’s a Ducati Sport Classic 1000, beautifully maintained but with an irrepressible attitude. I knew someone who drove a Ducati once, and I swear to God that machine was more precious to him than a child. He called her Lucy and would talk to her in the mornings as though she might actually answer back and wish him good day. All the hairs on my arms and the back of my neck stand up at the sight of that bike, and it’s the first time I start to worry, seriously worry, there’s something else afoot besides mere coincidence. Swallowing, I mount the front steps.
I ring the doorbell, resisting the urge to walk right into the house the way I always do. My heart is hammering so hard in my chest that my ears ring and my cheeks tingle. Panic. It’s just a fluke, I tell myself adamantly—there are plenty of hot bikes in this part of California, where rich folk like to throw money away on something flashy to drive around on the weekend. It doesn’t mean anything at all, except maybe I’m not as recovered as I first thought. There’s no way, none, that this Ducati is the same one Nate Fessenden used to drive back in Ohio, because that would just be fucking crazy.
I hear Hugh’s booming laugh echo from inside the house. There’s a scuffle to get to the door amidst Callie’s barking, like the occupants are wrestling to see who will get there first. The answering voice is so instantly familiar, I have to fight my body’s immediate fight-or-flight response, which, since I’ve never so much as punched another person, would probably translate to me puking, then passing out. The door opens as I’m darting my eyes around, palms clammy, throat tight, trying to find the nearest escape.
On the other side, with his hand poised above the doorknob, Nate freezes. No better word for it. Whatever smile brightened his face a second ago disappears like someone slapped it off him, his whole body going so still the rest of the neighborhood seems to quiet in response. Even the birds fall silent, or at least that’s what it feels like. All I can hear is blood rushing past my ears as my heart jackhammers a frantic tympani rhythm. For a second neither of us says anything. We don’t even blink. Then from behind Nate, Hugh exclaims, “Oh, shit, Phel—I forgot!” in his dopey, clueless way.
Nate doesn’t turn to acknowledge his brother’s statement. He’s still caught staring at me like he’s just seen a ghost—which I suppose he has. I think a part of me died the second that door opened and I saw him standing there, like a vision from my worst nightmare.
“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me,” I whisper under my breath, barely loud enough to be heard. But Nate hears, and for an eternity our gazes collide and hold, the two of us too stunned to waver or look away. “This cannot be happening.”
The words make Nate’s spine straighten a bit more, and those green, green eyes, every bit as dangerous and beautiful as I remember, glint as he steps back to allow me into the house. His expression slides gracefully from surprise into cold challenge.
“Hey,” he says in that old down-home accent of his, and gestures for me to enter. “I’m Hugh’s brother, Nate. Now who might you be?”