Middle of Somewhere: Book Two
The only thing in Colin Mulligan’s life that makes sense is taking cars apart and putting them back together. In the auto shop where he works with his father and brothers, he tries to get through the day without having a panic attack or flying into a rage. Drinking helps. So does running and lifting weights until he can hardly stand. But none of it can change the fact that he’s gay, a secret he has kept from everyone.
Rafael Guerrera has found ways to live with the past he’s ashamed of. He’s dedicated his life to social justice work and to helping youth who, like him, had very little growing up. He has no time for love. Hell, he barely has time for himself. Somehow, everything about miserable, self-destructive Colin cries out to him. But down that path lie the troubles Rafe has worked so hard to leave behind. And as their relationship intensifies, Rafe and Colin are forced to dredge up secrets that both men would prefer stay buried.
THE FIST comes toward me in slow motion like some fucked-up cartoon, slamming into my jaw and knocking me sideways. My head hits the metal garbage can, and a few seconds later the blond guy’s load hits my neck and drips onto the cobblestones of the alley. Blond guy’s boots scuff cigarette butts, condoms, and wads of mucky leaves as he stalks toward the back door of the bar, cursing me out.
I didn’t peg him as being able to hit quite that hard when I chose him. He’d looked smaller in the bar, though once we got outside I realized he was about my height—six feet or so. Must’ve been the paisley shirt. Fucking paisley made him look like a wuss. I definitely ripped off a button or two when I shoved him to his knees in front of me, but he didn’t seem to mind. Didn’t mind when I shoved myself down his throat, either, staring past his light hair to the dark brick behind him and trying to pretend I was somewhere else… someone else. He minded being pushed away when he asked me to return the favor, though, and he sure as hell minded when I said I wasn’t a faggot.
My jaw gives a throb and my breath finally comes effortlessly. But it won’t last. It never does.
My vision’s blurry, but that’s probably mostly the whiskey. I drag myself up and stumble the few blocks to the subway, trying desperately to hold on to the calm and think of anything but the feel of another man. When my mind starts to wander to his firm chest and the rasp of stubble on my dick, I run through tomorrow’s transmission rebuild on Mr. Coop’s ’87 Volkswagen Fox until I can relax a little.
The calm’s gone by the time my dingy green-and-white awning is in sight, though, and the catch in my breathing is back, like I can’t quite inhale fully. Because I know what’s waiting for me inside. Nothing. An empty house filled with it. My quickening heartbeat throbs in the bruise emerging on my jaw.
Worse, I’ve sobered up on the walk from the subway and it’s still hours until I can go to work in the morning. The more aware I am of my breathing, the more labored it seems, and I bend slightly at the waist, taking a deep breath with my hands on my thighs. Desperate for something, anything, to distract from the quiet of the walls pressing in on me, I strip off and hit the weight bench. The familiar heft and clank of metal scraping metal and thudding on cheap carpet helps a bit. I lift until my muscles shake and my sweat smells whiskey sweet. If I’m lucky, it’ll be enough to let me fall asleep. But I’m usually not.
The second I flop onto the bed, still damp from the shower, the images start playing behind my closed eyes. Blond guy from earlier, but it could’ve been any of them, really—nameless, interchangeable, seen through a fog of whiskey and revulsion. Their mouths, their sweat, their dirty hands…. But I keep going back even though the thoughts make me squirm.
I GET to Big Jenny’s Dive around nine to meet Xavier. X has been my best friend since we played high school football. The guys on the team teased him for being a black kid from North Philly who loved hair metal instead of rap, and since I loved it too, we spent most of our time arguing about Poison, Mötley Crüe, Def Leppard (which Xavier contended was only pop metal but I worshipped), Twisted Sister, Van Halen, and, of course, since they were from Philly, Cinderella. We’d replace Nas and Goodie Mob with Quiet Riot in the locker room stereo and push Play just as our teammates got in the showers, posing and roughhousing; then we’d crack up as they were stuck doing so naked to the soundtrack of “Cum On Feel the Noize.”
X left for a few years to get his MBA and we lost touch. While he was in North Carolina, he got married and cleaned up a bit. Not that he had ever been into much. Just selling a little pot when he’d needed the money and pills when he could get them. He seemed different when he got back, though. More focused. He put it down to his wife, Angela. I never got the whole story, but I think she basically told him he was acting like a dumb kid and needed to grow the fuck up. Angela doesn’t like me. Xavier denies it, but I know it’s true.
We meet at Big Jenny’s most Thursday evenings to watch two cover bands battle it out, playing hits from the seventies, eighties, and nineties. How loud the audience sings along acts as an applause-o-meter, and the winning band gets free drinks for the week. Cover band night reminds me of singing along to the radio in our garage when Pop still worked at the other shop, my younger brother, Daniel, sitting on the steps into the kitchen watching me and trying to sing but getting all the words wrong.
X is late so I’m stuck at the bar by myself. A couple of ladies in their forties chat me up. They’re clearly slumming it, their clothes a little too fancy, their heels too high to fit in here. They ask the usual questions: What do you do? Do you come here often? Are you married?—this last with exchanged looks and laughs like they’re reveling in breaking some rule they’ve set for themselves. It’s embarrassing and exhausting, so I do what I always do.
“You ladies want to see me pass a coin through solid glass?”
They make the usual expressions of disbelief and jokes about me being a magic man. Then I do the trick I’ve done a thousand times at a hundred bars, the motions as natural as changing a tire or unlocking my front door. The women’s delight brings others over and I do it again and again. An older guy buys me a whiskey and everyone’s laughing, and now talking is easy. I’m nodding and bumping him with my elbow at the appropriate times, delivering one-liners like it’s my fucking job, and he’s laughing and leaning in like I’m the second coming, and signaling for another round, and all I can think is that he likes me. They like me. This person I’m pretending to be. I do the trick again and again as more people wander over.
It’s just misdirection and practice.
“MY MOM and Angela had a total throwdown at Nika’s birthday party,” X tells me once he finally shows up, harried. X’s mom, Sheila, is a maternal beast. She’s totally protective of X and his sister. And now, of X’s niece Nika, the first and only grandchild, who just turned three. Sheila and Angela have been locked in a fiery battle of wills from the moment they met, which amuses me to hear about but stresses X out.
“What was it this time?” I ask. “Did Sheila accidentally buy nonorganic juice?” Angela is one of those super healthy people who drinks smoothies and eats nuts as a snack.
“Bro, when Sheila buys nonorganic juice, that shit is not by accident. It’s waving the red flag in front of the bull.” He shakes his head.
“Dude, did you just call your wife a bull?”
“What? No! I… oh.” He chuckles. Angela is kind of… forceful.
“No, Angela bought Nika some kind of… I dunno, car toy? A plastic car that Nika can sit in and pedal and it has wheels. Anyway, it’s cool. Like a mini VW Bug. And Nika loves it. But my mom has decided that it’s too dangerous because Nika could pedal out into traffic. And Angela has decided that my mom just wants her to take it away from Nika so that Nika resents her.” He shakes his head and downs his drink.
“Jesus Christ,” I say. “Hang on.” I grab us another round and X has perked up considerably by the time the music starts. He never stays mad long. It’s one of the things I’ve always liked about him.
X elbows me discreetly in the side to point out that Katie has come in. I wink at her and she smiles broadly but doesn’t come over. Katie’s the kind of girl my mother always said she wanted me to marry: sweet and smart and not mixed up in anything shady. A nice girl. We’ve slept together a handful of times over the last year, and I know she likes me. But every time I scramble home afterward, or accidentally fall asleep and wake up to feel her in the bed next to me, her pillows smelling of strawberry shampoo, my guts clench and my chest tightens, and the next time she offers, I say no. She never forces the issue, but I can tell how disappointed she is when I don’t go home with her. I don’t know if she’s too proud, too scared, or too embarrassed to demand more from me. Whatever her motivation, it’s a relief.
When I was a kid, my mom used to tell me that I had to be a good man or I wouldn’t attract a good wife and have a family. Her words. Being a good man meant treating nice girls nicely. My mom worked as the receptionist for a doctor’s office, and she would bring home out-of-date waiting room magazines that she quoted as gospel. You have to listen to her. Don’t go to bed angry. Buy her unexpected gifts. Tell her she looks beautiful no matter what. Marry a woman who will make a good mother. She would sling them at me like boomerangs as she cooked and I did my homework at the kitchen table, neatly pocketing each one after it had hit me so she could deploy it again.
She would’ve liked Katie. I like Katie. But the idea of Katie as my wife… of us with children… a family…. Yeah, I’m panicked just thinking about it.
X hands me another drink. “Katie’s looking for you, bro,” he says, gesturing behind me.
“Uh, yeah, thanks.”
“Don’t sound too excited that a beautiful woman wants you, man. Wouldn’t want anyone to think you’re that into her.” He rolls his eyes at me.
“No, yeah, it’s cool; I’ll just—”
Xavier nods exaggeratedly, like I’m an idiot.
Which I pretty much am. Katie’s beautiful, smart, and sweet, and she wants me. And I….
“Hey, Col,” Katie drawls from behind me, running a hand over my shoulder. I stand in case she sits down, trapping me at the table. “Great set, huh? I liked the U2.” She looks up at me. Her eyes are almost the same blue as mine, but where mine always seem cold when I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror, hers are as warm and uncomplicated as a summer sky.
“Yeah, I like that song.”
“Me too,” she says excitedly, like it means we’re similar. Katie truly believes the best of people. Thinks they’re inherently good. Of course, in my case, she couldn’t be more wrong. All I want is for her to disappear forever and never look at me again with those hopeful eyes. But Xavier’s grinning at me over Katie’s head, so I do what they both want. I kiss her.
When I pull back, she grabs my biceps and leans into me, part shy and part turned on. It should be sweet, endearing, hot—something—but it just makes me wish I were somewhere else. I turn to Rawlins, an annoying regular who always finds his way over to X and me, and take the whiskey out of his hand. He deserves it for always being such a dork. He doesn’t complain and I slam the whiskey, Katie still clinging to me.
“Sooo,” she says, running a provocative hand up my arm to my chest, “you wanna…?” She nods toward the door. I can tell she’s pretty sure I’ll say yes tonight. I’m already drunk; I could go with her and pretend to pass out, but then I’d be stuck at her place. I could say I have to work early tomorrow and beg off, but the thought of going home to my empty house sets my heart beating even faster.
“Colin?” Katie sounds concerned and I realize I’ve been staring at the wall behind her. Fuck, I don’t want her to touch me, but I don’t want to be alone. I pinch the bridge of my nose and squeeze my eyes shut, trying to buy a minute to think of an excuse that the guys won’t laugh out of the bar.
“Not tonight, sugar.” I immediately hate myself as her eyes dim and she sets her jaw, taking it like a champ.
“Sure,” she says. “Sure, some other time.”
I give her a weak smile and run my hand over my buzzed hair, feeling sick. Then I pat her on the shoulder and split.
I MEANT to take the long way home, change my clothes, and go for a run so I could sleep.
At first. But then, yeah, all right, even with my jaw still throbbing from last night’s encounter, I kind of knew I’d end up here again. The Cellar.
It started when my youngest brother, Daniel, moved away last month. I don’t remember where I heard about it. Okay, maybe I looked it up online. While Daniel lived in Philly, there was no way I could go to… that kind of place. There was always the chance, no matter how slim, that he might be there. But once he was gone, I couldn’t stay away. It was like there was a light blinking in my periphery that I had to go turn off. Of course, when I flipped the switch, the light just burned brighter, hotter. Impossible to ignore.
Inside, it’s so dark that all I can see is the curve of a chin, the bulk of a rounded shoulder, a gesturing hand as it catches the light. For a second, my eyes land on an uncommonly tall guy at the end of the bar who’s staring at me. In the whirlwind of seeking bodies, he’s noticeably still. I lose track of him fast as I scan the crowd for a likely target. When a built blond guy settles on the stool next to me and orders a beer, I lean toward him and grin. I nod toward the tip I’ve put on the bar and slide his bottle on top.
“Betcha I can get that dollar out without touching the bottle.”
He just raises an eyebrow, clearly unimpressed, eyes icy and face hard. His remoteness suits me fine. He doesn’t snatch his beer back, so I do the trick, rolling the bill with my fingers on either side so it nudges the beer onto the bar top. It’s usually enough for at least a smile, but he just picks up the beer and drains it. Then he nods at me and tips his chin toward the alley, and the tightness in my chest loosens a little even as my stomach clenches. The room tilts when I slide off the stool, but I steady myself and follow him.
It happens so fast that it takes me a moment to understand that what’s going on isn’t what I planned for. I was distracted, one hand at my fly. The second man must’ve been behind me and I didn’t notice. He’s squat and heavily muscled, but I could definitely take him one-on-one. Could probably take either of them one-on-one, but the hits are coming too fast, and when a hard shove sends my face into the greasy brick and then me to the ground, I can’t quite get my feet under me again. And maybe I don’t try that hard. When they start kicking me, I close my eyes because the alley is spinning and focus on each distinct point of impact, each throbbing, stinging locus of hurt.
Like a sick meditation, I can lose myself inside the pain, make it bigger than I am, pull it around me like a blanket.
Then someone rips the blanket away and my eyes jerk open. There’s a third guy, and for a moment I panic. But he’s pulled the other two off me and is—Jesus, he’s systematically taking them apart. He fights dirty, but every motion is perfectly controlled, as if he were making a science of hitting exactly as hard as is necessary to take these guys down and not one bit harder. I’ve been in a lot of fights and seen even more, but I’ve rarely seen anything like this level of control. His face is expressionless and he’s totally silent. He shoves the men down the alley and they scamper off like rats. I close my eyes and try to sink back down into my body, hoping that when I open my eyes, the alley will be empty just like all the other times.
The guy grabs me by the shoulders and pulls me up. His grip is unbreakable, but I try anyway because sitting up doesn’t agree with my spinning head.
“Get the fuck off.” I try to push against him, but he may as well be the brick wall behind me for all that he gives. Irritation is quickly overshadowed by the humiliating impulse to puke, and I shove at him again.
“Get off.” He doesn’t let go, just keeps holding me steady with that maddening pressure: not tight enough to hurt me, not loose enough to let me go.
“Oh fuck,” I groan after I’ve puked my guts out against the wall. I twisted at the last minute and avoided vomiting on the guy. Mostly. His fault, though, since he wouldn’t let me go. Now that I’ve thrown up, the shame hits. I’m in a filthy alley where I followed a complete stranger in the hopes of getting my dick sucked. I got the ever-loving crap kicked out of me and was too wasted to fight back. I got rescued by some hulking giant who—shit—may actually be mute. And to say thanks? I puked on him. Heat rises in my cheeks and throat, and I need to get the hell away.
Suddenly, I become aware of my breathing and that thing happens where I can’t quite take a deep breath. I scramble to my knees and hunch my shoulders, willing my lungs to expand that last little bit, but the more I pay attention to it, the worse it gets.
“Is there blood in it?” The man’s voice is low and detached.
“The vomit. Is there blood in it?” He leans down to look at the puke on the ground, nodding once at whatever he sees. He slides a hand under my shirt and pulls it up.
“The fuck?” I say, pushing him away again. He’s looking at where they kicked me, leaning me forward to examine my back and sides.
“You a doctor or something?”
He shakes his head, then slowly pulls me up to a standing position.
“I’ll call you a cab,” he says, propping me against the wall like a bike or a piece of furniture, one arm loosely across my chest.
“Uh, no, man, I’m fine.”
He snorts. And finally looks at me. Well, looks down at me. Dude’s even taller than I thought when I saw him in the bar. And bulky with muscle. He has shoulder-length brown hair, and his left eyebrow is broken by scars, the kind you usually see when someone’s taken a bottle to the face. His mouth is grim and his brown eyes are sharp, and he’s looking at me with a combination of amusement and scorn that immediately pisses me off. Like he knows me or some shit.
“You’re wasted,” he says. “Those guys would’ve killed you.” My brain shies away from this piece of information and focuses back on my breathing. As I try to get a deep breath, the edge of panic is back. I know I can get enough air in, but the sensation freaks me out every time. Like at any moment I could drown where I stand.
“Come on,” he says, patting my shoulder lightly, like my old Little League coach—You’ve got it, tiger; back in the game!—like I did to Katie.
Suddenly, I’m so humiliated that I think I might puke again. Pathetic. I squeeze my eyes shut.
“I’m fucking fine, dude,” I say coldly. “I could’ve handled it.”
I jerk away from him and stagger down the alley. When I glance back, he’s still standing there, completely still, watching me.
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