Chapter 1—Loathing

LOATHING WAS not an emotion I felt all that often. I really liked to think I was a nice guy who tended to get along with others, but some days were trying beyond belief, and right at this moment, I found I couldn’t stand to be in the office for a single minute longer. My boss had made me angry, but I didn’t really loathe the man—that was way too strong a word. There was one person on earth who I could definitively put in that category, and my boss didn’t come close to him. Not that I’d thought about that asshole in years, so why the hell was I going down that path? I needed to get a grip.

I had dreamed of a career in show business. I hadn’t figured it would be on the theatrical-agent side of the curtain, but what could I do? I had just been hired and relocated from central Michigan to New York. A dream come true, or so I had thought at the time. I loved New York, and the job I’d landed was a very good one. I’d even managed to sublet an apartment in the Village through a friend of a friend for surprisingly reasonable rent.

“Payton,” my friend Val—short for Valentine—called as he bounced down the street in my direction, while I stood huddled in the doorway of the gym to stay out of the gale-force cold wind blowing from the East River toward the Hudson. I clutched my gym bag in my hand, hoping like hell my hand didn’t freeze and fall off. “You made it.”

“Yeah,” I grumbled. “I thought I’d landed a new client, but my boss, the dick from hell, decided that even though I’d done most of the work, it was really Garren’s find, so he got the client and I’m out in the cold… again. How was I supposed to know Garren had already approached him?” I followed him inside and checked in at the desk before heading to the locker rooms.

“Let it go, Pay,” he chirped in that way he had that made the worst problem seem stupid and overdramatic. “You’ll get ’em next time. Did your boss give you any credit at all?”

“Yeah, he did,” I answered, letting go of some of my anger at the man. “He said I did a great job with follow-up and determination. Then he handed the client over to that sleazeball Garren.”

“Was that shudder drama or real?” Val teased as he pulled open locker after locker until he found the one he wanted. Val had this ritual where he never took the first locker available and always had to open the empty ones until he found one that seemed just right. Not that I could ever tell the difference. I asked him last week about it, and he’d looked at me like I was crazy. I actually didn’t think he realized was doing it. “Because if it’s drama, knock it off. This is a gym, not a theater,” Val went on as though he hadn’t paused. “If it’s real, get over it. This is New York, and you got to be tough here or you’ll get chewed up and spat out.”

“So what’s your advice, all-knowing sage?” I quipped as I took the locker Val designated as mine and began pulling off my tie.

“Honestly?” he asked. “Get the client to sign the contract and specify in it that you handle the account. Who cares then if Garren or anyone else has approached him—you’re in.” Val hung up his coat and shoved his shoes in the bottom of the locker before shucking his clothes faster than a stripper on a deadline. Val was a nice enough looking guy; most would say he was cute. He had the “floppy blond-haired twink” look down pat, and he was trim enough to pull it off, regardless of his actual age.

“Hey, Val,” a guy said suggestively as he passed the bay of lockers wearing only a towel. I was half surprised he didn’t decide it needed straightening, just to give Val a look at the goods. But given the look, Val had probably already done more than just see the goods already. Val did little more than wave slightly before pulling on his workout clothes. I finished getting my suit off and hung up, then pulled on my workout shorts and an old T-shirt. I sat on the bench to put on my shoes while Val talked briefly with another guy.

“You ready?” he asked once I had my shoes on. We went back out into the lobby to take the elevator up to the workout floor. What always surprised me was that even in a health club, no one took the stairs.

“Do you know everyone?” I asked once the doors opened and we got into the otherwise empty elevator.

“I grew up here. Everyone thinks New York is huge, and it is, but it’s also neighborhoods with people you see every day. The club is like that. You’ll see once you get used to it.” My real friendship with Val began the first day I moved to New York, as I was moving into my teeny ground-floor apartment. He lived upstairs in a comparative palace. He’d been raised by his grandmother, and when she passed away, she left Val the apartment, which she’d owned. I’d originally met Val when he’d come to Mount Pleasant to visit relatives who lived down the street from me. He spent the summer with them, so we got to know each other pretty well, but only for that summer. Still, Val was pretty unforgettable. So when I got the job in New York, I called him and he took me under his wing, for which I would be eternally grateful.

The elevator doors opened at the weight machine floor, and a huge guy got on wearing the smallest shirt I had ever seen. It had to be made out of dental floss.

“Hi, Val,” the man said as the doors closed and the elevator started up again. I had to cover my mouth to keep from laughing.

“Hi, Jerry. This is my friend Pay. He moved to the city a month ago.”

Jerry turned to me, and I shook hands with the guy.

“Nice to meet you.”

“Same here,” Jerry said, and the elevator doors opened, letting in some fresh air. Jerry stepped out, lumbered to the nearest treadmill, and started it right up.

“Jerry’s a nice guy but….” Val blew out his breath.

“He sounds like a girl,” I whispered.

“Yeah,” Val nodded. “He’s competitive. I don’t know what he’s on, but the ‘see Tarzan, hear Jane’ thing is kind of sad. The stuff also makes them sweat like crazy.” Val strode around the cardio floor until he found two step machines next to each other. Val always insisted that we start with those because of what he claimed they did for his ass. Granted, Val had a great backside, so I didn’t argue and got on the machine. I started stepping and set the machine at the level I wanted, then settled in to watch the people around me.

“Aren’t you glad I talked you into joining?” Val said from next to me, and I turned toward him. “There’s a lot to see.” He smiled and I nodded. “A lot of the guys are gay, which tends to make the place a little cruisy, but the equipment is awesome and people are pretty friendly.”

“I guess.”

“There’s no need to be shy,” Val chided and chuckled when I blushed. He’d noticed I did that and seemed to enjoy it when it happened. I blamed it on my Midwestern upbringing. Things like sex and being gay were rarely talked about. The few times my mother had ever mentioned sex to me, she’d done so in a whisper, as if the angels might hear her and punish her for it. She used the same tone whenever she mentioned what someone died of or was in the hospital for, as if those same angels would give her cancer if she said it loud enough. Sadly, maybe she had something there, because that’s what she had died of just a few years ago.

“Please. With my luck I’d look at the one straight guy here and get my face beat in,” I countered and went back to my workout as Val laughed at me and then struck up a conversation with the attractive, slightly older but built man next to him. I ended up watching the countdown clock on my machine until the elevator doors slid open and a man stepped out in a light blue tank top and black shorts that hugged his thighs and accentuated the curve of a Greek statue butt.

“Val,” I whispered, thankful he was no longer chatting up the guy on the other side.

“What?”

“Do you know who that is? The guy in the black shorts.”

Val grinned over at me. “No, but damn you got good taste.” He giggled and we both followed him with our eyes as he moved around the floor. John Travolta had nothing on this guy when it came to strutting, and I watched those glutes shift up and down with each step. Of course, as soon as he turned to where he might see me, I looked away and did my best not to stare at him. But dang he was hard not to look at: tanned skin with just a hint of olive tone to it, legs I wanted to climb to get a glimpse of where they led, and shorts that hinted, loudly, that everything on him was perfectly proportional. My mouth went kind of dry for a few seconds, and I licked my lips, nearly faltering on the damn machine. I caught myself and pulled my attention back to where it needed to be. He passed by right in front of me, and I turned to Val just as I thought he might have actually glanced in my direction. By the time I turned to see if he had, I was treated to another view of his retreating backside as he made another circuit.

“He checked you out,” Val whispered and nudged me with his elbow.

“He was probably looking to see how long I had left on the machine,” I said logically. What did I have that could catch the attention of a smoking-hot guy like that? The place was packed and every machine was in use. In fact, some people looked as though they were getting ready to pitch tents rather than give up their machines. I was getting thirsty and wished I’d remembered a water bottle, so when my time ran out, I asked Val if he’d guard my machine so I could get a drink. I stepped off, and the guy I’d been watching made a beeline across the floor and jumped on the machine before I could open my mouth.

“I’m only getting a drink of water,” I explained, but he paid no attention and started climbing.

“I need to keep my heart rate up,” he said emphatically, like it was the most important thing in the world. Then he turned toward me, and I felt myself pale and then grow hot. I instantly turned on my heel and marched away, trying my best not to punch the fucking wall as I approached it.

“What’s wrong?” Val asked as he hurried up behind me, pushing my wiping towel into my hand. “We were already done.”

“Screw that. I know that guy,” I forced between my teeth.

“From where?”

“High school. He’s one of the pieces of shit who made my life miserable senior year.” I tried to push away the absolute loathing I had for the man. I’d been angry at my boss, but this was deep hatred. “I thought Beckett was my friend. You know, not a close friend or anything, but we had some classes together, and unlike all the other kids, he was fairly nice.” I stepped out of the aisle to give others room.

“Get your drink and then we can do some of the machines. We need to work on more than cardio,” Val said. “The gorilla isn’t worth getting upset over.” I couldn’t help smiling at the way Val glared at Beckett on my behalf. “Some people are just rude,” he said loudly enough to make sure he could hear. Then, when Beckett turned in our direction, Val put his nose in the air, turned his back, and walked away, doing a dang good impression of a model walking a fashion runway. Half the guys in the place took notice. Val pushed the call button for the elevator, and by the time it arrived, we had to cram in along with the four other guys who’d answered Val’s “call of the wild.” Not a single one of them looked twice at me.

Val was in his element. He talked with the guys a little, soaked up their compliments, took their phone numbers when offered, and then led me out of the car and onto the floor with the weight machines. It was quieter here, and we each took a chest machine and got to work.

“I really hate that guy,” I said as I sat down.

“What did he do that was so bad?” Val asked.

“Okay. It was the beginning of senior year. I was in the drama club and I liked photography, but I stayed away from the yearbook people because I didn’t want to add to my nerd credentials any more than I already had. Word got to the head of the yearbook that I could take pictures.” I set up the weights and began pushing the handles forward, clenching my chest muscles to get the most from the workout. Val did the same on the next machine, and when we were done, I continued. “They asked me to take pictures at one of the football games. Beckett, the gorilla upstairs, was the star quarterback, of course.” I rolled my eyes. “Anyway, I went to the game and took the pictures they wanted. Then I decided I wanted to get some of the empty stands before they shut off the lights. There were some really interesting shadows,” I added when Val looked at me like I was insane. “To make a long story short, I heard noises and caught Beckett getting a blowjob.” I leaned closer. “From a guy. And it wasn’t a ‘close your eyes and imagine a girl’ blowjob either. He was into it, telling Peter that he was going to fuck his hot little ass once they got home and that Peter wasn’t going to come until Beckett swallowed his beefy cock. Stuff like that.”

“Did you join in?” Val asked with mesmerized interest.

“No. I tried to get out of there, but Beckett saw me. I got away anyhow, and that’s when he really started coming after me. His favorite taunts were ‘Gaydie Paydie’ or ‘Pay-ton’ because I was, like, five foot eight and weighed about two-ten at one point. I was big and clumsy, with a double chin and everything.” I sat back and increased the weight, jamming the arm forward on the machine. My anger seemed to have taken over. When I was done, Val stared at me.

“You should put that energy to good use. How about kick the asshole in the nuts? If you could find them.” Val was being catty on my behalf, and I really appreciated it.

“Beckett doesn’t have grapes—more like grapefruits,” I retorted, and then I looked at the floor. “I saw him, remember, in all his spit-slicked glory.”

“Okay. So he saw you. Did you say anything?” Val asked.

“No. I pretended it never happened. I mean, I was gay too. I didn’t need to make myself an even bigger target.”

“So to speak.”

“Shut up.” I lightly smacked Val’s shoulder. “Anyway, I figured it was his business, and I didn’t want anyone to go through what I had, so I kept quiet and stayed away from him. Then a week later it’s all over school that Beckett’s gay. It was a big deal for a while, and he took a bunch of flak, but he was still the star player and he just played harder.”

“You have to admire the guy for that,” Val said, and I turned and growled at him. “What? You do.”

“Yeah, except Beckett made my life miserable as soon as it came out. I guess he had to show everyone there were still some things worse than being gay in the high school world, like being fat. It didn’t matter that at Thanksgiving I went to the doctor and they changed my asthma medication, and the weight melted away like crazy. Mom was a nurse. She helped me devise a diet I could live with, and I dropped, like, fifty pounds in four months. The old meds had apparently been messing with my metabolism, and after that I had energy and never stopped moving. The weight came off and I felt better about myself, but the teasing only got worse.”

The elevator was right across from where I was sitting at the machine, and when the doors slid open I half expected Beckett to come striding out. I actually held my breath and released it when the doors closed again.

“Why?”

“I came out as gay, figuring that since people had accepted Beckett it would be no big deal. To my friends it wasn’t, but Beckett only made me hate school more. He was a real piece of work.” I decided to end the story there. No use going into all that right now. The elevator doors opened again, and this time Beckett strode out and around the rows of machines. I got up, found one to work my back, and got to it. I needed to keep busy and blow off the tension and anger that increased the longer he was in the room.

I knew I was being completely unreasonable. High school was six years ago, and I thought I’d moved beyond it. My college experience had been amazing—I made wonderful friends who were lining up to visit me this summer in New York. I’d made a lot of changes in my life and liked to think I had grown beyond the pettiness of adolescence. But maybe that was a little premature.