IAN HAD been back in New York City for three whole weeks before he had a panic attack.
It happened one evening after he went to visit his mother. He felt off balance as he descended the front stoop of his childhood home, a gorgeous brownstone in Park Slope, Brooklyn, that Ian’s family had bought for peanuts back when the neighborhood was home to gangs and drug dealers instead of yuppies with strollers. When a ponytailed woman in yoga pants nearly ran over his foot with her double-wide stroller, Ian was not entirely convinced the neighborhood had improved. He had to admit, though, that it was prettier than it once had been, that the renovated old brownstones on Sixth Street had taken on a new sheen. The cherry trees lining the sidewalk were a nice touch, certainly.
So it was good to know that his mother was in a good place, even if he still basically hated the house. He’d spent the early part of the evening lounging on the same brown-and-cream plaid sofa that had sat in the living room since 1984. Then he’d had dinner at the scuffed table in the dining room, and it had all been routine, except not quite. Ian’s father had not been there. And that was cause for rejoicing.
His father’s decision to leave Ian’s mother and move to the suburbs was part of why Ian had moved back to New York to begin with. The paycheck his new employer had dangled before him was an even bigger incentive.
Although none of that mattered now that he was back in the relative safety of his nostalgia-free block on Eighty-Fourth Street, the Upper West Side of Manhattan being the farthest from Brooklyn he could move while still being reasonably close to the new job. Now his breathing had suddenly become a labored thing and his heart was beating faster. A vague disquiet plagued him, one he couldn’t quite put a finger on. He hadn’t been in New York long enough to establish a routine to deviate from, so that wasn’t the trigger. He was a few miles away from his childhood home, so that couldn’t be it either. Maybe it was just the noise of the city, louder than the neighborhood in the Chicago suburbs he’d just left, or the taxi that whooshed by him when he put his foot on the street to cross it. Maybe it was job stress. Maybe he had no business being back in New York.
He jaywalked, cutting across Eighty-Fourth Street to get from the north side to the south, where his building sat, and he could see the gold numbers above the glass doors that led inside, but then they went blurry. Armand, the doorman, took a step away from the door and shot Ian a quizzical look. Then, bam, right in the middle of the goddamn street, the panic attack seized him and all was lost. His vision went fuzzy, his heart rate kicked up too fast, and he gulped for air, but nothing was going to stave this off.
“Sweet Jesus,” he heard someone—probably Armand—say, and then a hand wrapped around his arm and yanked him into the building. Swiftly he was pushed into one of the ugly red chairs in the lobby, and a man—again, probably Armand, who was earning a larger holiday tip with each passing minute—shoved Ian’s head down so that he was hunched over, his head between his legs, and Armand was muttering, “Breathe. Just breathe.”
Though the symptoms eventually abated, the unease didn’t.
“I don’t even know what I’m panicking about,” Ian said softly to a furrow-browed Armand.
“You and everyone else in this neighborhood,” Armand said.
As he rode the elevator up to his apartment, Ian tried to remember what his mother had said. “Get out there. Meet new people. Make some friends.” Re-entrench was the implication. She wanted Ian to make New York his home again, even though he didn’t see how it ever could be. He’d work this job for a year or two and then he’d be off to the next one.
Besides, he had friends.
Once he felt almost normal again, Ian called Josh, not for advice but just to say hi. Unfortunately he ended up unloading instead. Not about the panic attack—Josh knew enough about Ian’s anxieties to frequently compare him to a yappy little Chihuahua on speed, but he didn’t need every symptom of Ian’s anxiety catalogued, certainly—just about the visit with his mother and the whole speech about what an asshole his last boyfriend had been and how he really should meet someone new.
“You know,” Josh said, “there was an article in the Times last weekend about how gay sports leagues are the new hookup spot. More so than bars.”
Ian rolled his eyes. “Here we go with the baseball league. Josh, I already told you—”
“Not that the bar scene is dead, but we’re a little old for it, don’t you think?”
“What I think is that you’re married to a very nice man who would not appreciate—”
“Seriously, sign-ups are on Saturday and you really should come. If not for me or the love of the sport then because the league will provide you with about a hundred opportunities to hook up with some guy.”
Ian laughed despite everything. “I bet this article also had some stats about how many deeply committed, loving relationships had resulted from gay sports leagues.”
“There may have been a mention of that.”
“I don’t want a deeply committed relationship.”
Josh made a raspberry sound into the phone. “Oh, honey. I hope you end up on my team. I’ve got just the guy for you to meet.”
“In that case, forget it.”
“Ian. Honey. Please. Just come to the sign-ups. See what the league is about. If you hate everything about it, fine, but I think you’ll have fun.”
TY TOSSED a baseball up and watched it arc through the air before he held out his hand to catch it. He did it again, enjoying the satisfying slap each time the ball hit his palm.
“Showing off?” Josh walked over, a stupid grin on his face.
Ty snatched his baseball out of the sky. “Someone has to,” he said.
Josh crossed his arms over his chest. He scanned the scenery. They were standing at the periphery of one of the East River Park ball fields, next to a card table they’d set up for league sign-ups. A colorful banner advertising the Rainbow League, New York’s premier LGBT amateur sports league, hung from the front. On this particular cool spring afternoon, they were signing up new players for summer baseball. Ty hadn’t had much else to do that afternoon, so he’d volunteered to help with registration. Somehow he’d been left there by himself for the past twenty minutes while Josh and a few other volunteers had thrown a ball around on the field. Ty was bored out of his mind.
At least Josh had come back. He walked over to the table and flipped through the binder that served as their roster.
“You know,” Ty said, “there’s this thing called the Internet. Much as I like sitting out here in the sun, we could have saved time and manpower by getting that damned website up.”
“Hey, I argued that we should,” Josh said with a shrug. “This was Will’s directive.”
“And where is His Majesty?”
“He just got here. He’s trying to get Nate and Carlos to play a real game instead of just tossing the ball around. They don’t seem to be having any part of it.”
Ty sighed. “Sounds about right.”
“Whatever.” Josh pressed his palm against an open page, the sign-up sheet for his and Ty’s team, the Brooklyn Hipsters. “So, look, with Bryan gone and that Adam guy going MIA, there are two slots open on the team. Everyone else re-upped.”
“Good.” They’d had a great team the previous season, and after a few seasons in the league, Ty had come to loathe adjusting for new players. New guys were too unpredictable.
“I’m hoping my friend shows up while we’re manning the table so we can get him on our team before someone else gets him,” said Josh. “Once it becomes knowledge that he’s actually played baseball, everyone will be fighting for him.”
Ty cocked an eyebrow and shot Josh what he thought of as his best sexy insouciant look. “Actual baseball experience.”
Josh was unfazed. “We played together in high school.”
Ty tossed the ball in the air again. “Ha. And here I thought you were going to tell me he’d been a pro. If playing in school is the only measure, I had actual baseball experience before I joined the team.”
“You played T-ball in elementary school.”
Ty just smiled. “We have Mason, though. Much to the envy of everyone else in the league.” Actually, most of Ty and Josh’s teammates had some kind of baseball experience. Nate and Carlos—who, along with Mason and Josh, were Ty’s closest friends on the team—had played on the same Little League team when they were kids, for example. Joe and Shane had played college ball.
“Sure,” said Josh, “but it’s nice to have more than one person on the team who knows how the game works. As opposed to some other people.”
“Hey, just because I don’t give a shit about pro baseball doesn’t mean I’m totally ignorant.” Ty really pulled out the Texas when he said that, so it came out sounding like “tote-ly ig-nant.” He cleared his throat. “So where is this baseball god?”
“Dunno. He wasn’t that keen on joining, but I tried to persuade him that it would be worth it for the hookup opportunities. He seemed intrigued.”
Ty laughed. “Well, sure. Who wouldn’t be? I saw that article in the Times. Allegedly the New York gays are all joining sports leagues instead of going to bars. Which is horseshit, as anyone who has been in Hell’s Kitchen lately knows perfectly well.” Ty considered that for a moment. “Although I guess I did make it my mission to, er, work my way through the entirety of the Queens team last season.”
Josh took a sip from his water bottle and narrowed his eyes. “How did that work out for you?”
Ty shrugged. “Well enough. Every team has to have a token slut. I’m happy to fill that role.”
Josh shook his head. “Did Bill James say that?”
Ty turned and saw a blond guy making his way across the park. He was, well, he was pretty good-looking, actually. Slender in an athletic way. Jaw that looked like it could cut glass. Package nicely highlighted by the dark jeans he was wearing. “This your secret weapon?” Ty asked.
Josh looked smug.
Ty tossed the ball again.
“Hi,” the guy said as he arrived. “I made it.”
Ty took a moment to really scope out the man. He’d started cataloguing his merits when Josh slapped his arm.
“Stop that!” said Josh. “So. Ty, this is my friend Ian from high school. He just moved back to New York after many years away and blah blah.”
“And blah blah?” Ian said. “That’s my whole backstory?”
“This,” Josh went on, “is Ty. He’s second base.”
“And I Don’t Know is on third,” said Ty, holding out his hand to shake.
Ian shot him a wry smile. “Nice to meet you.” He shook Ty’s hand.
Ty supposed that this would be the moment in the movie when the music swelled, or the moment in the novel when the characters touched and electricity passed between them, but even though Ty was absolutely attracted to Ian and had already begun his strategy to get the man naked, nothing like that happened. They merely shook hands, casual as you please, as if this were a business transaction.
“I don’t get a cute tidbit of information?” Ty asked Josh. “Just ‘second base’?”
Josh shrugged. “What do you want me to say? Ian, this is Ty. He’s from Texas, as I imagine you’ve gathered from the accent. He’s been in New York about ten years. And he fancies himself the team slut.”
Ian laughed. “Nice. Every team needs one.”
“That’s what I told Josh.”
Josh crossed his arms over his chest. “So, you’re here,” he said to Ian. “Are you signing up or what?”
“Is Ty here as a sample specimen? Are all the guys on the team this hot?”
Ty guffawed. “Look at you, indirectly flirting with me. It’s the slut thing, right? The fact that I’m easy makes me intriguing?”
“Sure,” said Ian. “The ginger hair doesn’t hurt.”
“Josh, let’s sign him up right now.”
“Can you play third base?” Josh asked.
A matter of minutes later, Ian had registered for the league and was on the roster as the new third baseman for the Brooklyn Hipsters. “But living in Brooklyn is not a requirement, obviously,” Josh explained. “That’s just the way they do the team designations. There are eight teams in the league.”
“All gay men?” Ian asked.
“No, some teams have women too.”
“The Mermaids, man,” Ty said.
“They’re kind of our rivals,” Josh explained. “The all-woman team representing Coney Island. Totally ruthless, those women.”
“I see,” said Ian, looking a little dazed.
“So, quickie rundown? Each team has a twelve- or thirteen-man roster which includes every position plus a couple of pitchers and a backup utility player. We do all our games here at this park.” Josh pointed at the perimeter of the park. “You’ll play one game a week, probably, at least until the play-offs, which happen at the end of the season in October. After each game, both teams go to this bar in the East Village for postgame drinks.”
“The owner of the bar is sort of the league mascot,” Ty chimed in.
“So that’s it. And it’s just fun.” Josh gushed a little.
Ian laughed. He had a pretty great laugh, Ty could admit. And his voice was low and had a husky quality to it, like he’d smoked once upon a time. “I don’t know why you’re giving me the sales pitch after I’ve signed up. You got me, Josh.”
“Did my presence sweeten the deal?” Ty asked, mostly out of curiosity. He certainly hoped it had.
“Maybe a little.”
Josh rolled his eyes. “I see how this is. You’re already fucking, aren’t you?”
Ian sputtered. “Okay, first of all—”
At the same time, Ty said, “That’s not what’s going—”
Josh let out an exasperated sigh. “All right. Well. Welcome to the Hipsters, Ian. We practice in Prospect Park every Sunday too, just to make sure we don’t completely suck. I’ll e-mail you the info.”
“Fair warning, though,” said Ty. “Our manager, Scott? He’s kind of a dick and super competitive. And according to the calendar, we’re playing Hell’s Kitchen first.”
Ian’s eyes went wide. “What’s wrong with Hell’s Kitchen?”
“Will manages the Hell’s Kitchen team. He’s the guy over there with the mustache, pretending to play catch with the skinny guy in the yellow T-shirt.”
“Pretending?” asked Ian.
“He’s probably berating that poor guy,” Ty said. “Will is constitutionally incapable of having fun.”
“He is a tiny bit competitive,” said Josh.
“Sure, if by ‘a tiny bit’ you mean ‘sacrifices children and small woodland creatures before each game to ensure victory,’” said Ty.
“A couple of those other guys are on our team, though,” said Josh. “That’s Nate and Carlos throwing the ball back and forth over by the backstop. Nate’s the best pitcher in the league.”
Ian shook his head. “This is a lot of information all at once, guys. But thanks, I think.”
“You will learn the ropes quickly,” Ty said. “Just come to practice next week and we’ll, uh, ease you into it.”
Ian narrowed his eyes. “Are you coming on to me?”
This guy. Ty was definitely interested. “I was making a sexy pun, yes.”
“Geez Louise,” said Josh. “I kind of suspected this might happen when I introduced you two, but the league certainly doesn’t need any drama. So, you know. Fuck if you want, but keep it off the field.”
Poor Ian looked startled by that. Ty laughed. “And you, Joshua, never start any drama, of course.”
“I’m married!” Josh said.
“I don’t see how that makes you immune to drama.”
Josh huffed. “Well, whatever. Welcome to the team, Ian.”
Will suddenly barked at the five guys standing on the field, snagging everyone’s attention.
Ty laughed. “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”
“You said that guy’s not on our team, right?” said Ian.
“You learn fast,” Ty said.
ACROSS THE field, Nate fiddled with his glove while he avoided Will’s gaze. It wasn’t too hard, especially now that poor Jake had shown up. Will sometimes held back when yelling at players he didn’t know well, but if you were on his team, all bets were off. Jake was now bearing the brunt of Will’s aggression with a resigned expression on his face.
Carlos picked up three balls and started juggling them. “Check out the fresh meat talking to Ty and Josh.”
Nate looked over at the registration table. There, indeed, was a guy Nate had never seen before, and Nate could tell by their body language that he and Ty were flirting madly with each other.
“I bet it would have been nice knowing that guy,” said Nate.
Carlos chuckled. From the other side of the diamond, Zach yelled, “Practicing your ball-handling skills, Carlos?”
“You know it!” Carlos shouted back.
“Ball handling? You’re doing it wrong!” said Aiden.
“I’ll handle your balls later, papi!” Carlos said. He pursed his lips and made a kissing motion.
“You’re all clowns!” said Nate, mostly to deflect from the fact that watching Aiden and Carlos flirt drove him bananas.
Carlos tossed the balls high in the air one at a time before catching each one. He said, “You see the game last night?”
“Caught the end of it.” Nate didn’t have to ask which game. For two guys who had grown up in the Bronx, there was only one baseball team worth anything. “Hell of a hit Gardner got in the ninth.”
“Yeah, it was a beauty. What do you think of the new catcher?”
Nate could already see where Carlos was going with that. “As a player or as a man?”
“I wouldn’t kick him out of bed.”
Carlos motioned to Aiden and hurled one of the balls at him. Aiden caught it deftly. “Lourdes said he came into her nail salon last week. One of the other girls gave him some crazy trippy manicure.”
“That’s the thing catchers are doing now, I guess.”
“Can you imagine Joe getting a manicure?” Carlos said, mentioning the Brooklyn Hipsters’ catcher.
Nate laughed. “Nope. Well, maybe with black polish.”
“Oh, oh, new guy is signing on the dotted line over there.”
Sure enough, back at the registration table, the blond guy appeared to be filling out the registration form.
Aiden jogged over to Nate and Carlos. Carlos stared at him, starry-eyed. Nate wanted to throw up.
It wasn’t that he was jealous. Well, okay, that was a lie. Nate was extremely jealous. Carlos should have been with Nate, not that asshole Aiden—who, sure, was handsome, but man, he was a dick. Nate had no right to complain, though, since he had never said a word about his feelings for Carlos. Although, Christ on a cracker, it wasn’t like Carlos and Aiden were even doing more than flirting at this point. Nate had gotten an earful already about how much Carlos wanted Aiden and how frustrating it was that Aiden hadn’t made a real move yet.
“Who’s the new guy?” Aiden asked, gesturing toward the registration table.
“Ty’s next victim,” said Carlos.
“Do you know if they filled the rosters for all the teams yet?” Aiden asked.
“Probably not if they’re still letting that guy sign up,” said Carlos.
“We’d get more people if Will would just get the goddamn website done,” said Nate.
“Sshh!” said Aiden. “Don’t anger the beast.”
Nate rolled his eyes. He didn’t want to incur Will’s wrath any more than anyone else, but he was not in the mood to deal with Aiden. Maybe he could bow out of this gracefully. “Do you think we really need to hang around much longer? Ty seems to be getting the job done over there.”
Nate, Carlos, and Aiden watched for a moment. When Josh gestured toward them, they all turned and pretended to be doing something else.
“Eh, probably not,” said Carlos. “Did you need to be somewhere else today?”
Nate didn’t really have to be anywhere in particular, but he didn’t want to hang around here if he was going to have to watch this bullshit. “I’ve got some work stuff.”
Carlos looked at him as if he were trying to communicate telepathically. Nate and Carlos had mostly volunteered because they found out Aiden was going to be here, and Carlos wanted an excuse to spend more time with Aiden. Nate, apparently, was a sucker. Carlos wanted someone to lend him some courage to ask out Aiden, and here was the opportunity for the two of them to be sort of alone.
“I think we’re all going to Barnstorm whenever this wraps,” Aiden said.
And now alcohol would be involved. Nate schooled his face to not betray his frustration. “I should probably go get my work done. Give the new guy my regards.”
Carlos gave Nate a halfhearted hug and then turned the full force of his attention back on Aiden. Nate gave them both a little wave before he left the field.
Josh snagged him before he could leave, though. “Nate is the pitcher I mentioned,” he told the new guy. “Nate, this is my friend Ian. He’ll be our new third baseman.”
“That’s great! I heard Adam moved to Chicago.”
Josh scrunched up his face as if he found the mere thought of Chicago distasteful. “Are you headed out?” he asked Nate.
“Yeah, I… have a thing.”
“Okay. Well, we’ll see you at practice next week.”
“Sure. Nice to meet you, Ian. Don’t let Ty scare you off.”
“I’m not scary,” Ty said. He turned to Ian and shook his head. “I’m really not.”
Ian laughed. He tugged on Ty’s sleeve playfully.
Nate wanted to scream. Instead, he gave those assembled a quick nod and then made a beeline out of the park.