Up and Down

Bernice

I wrote this in about 1998, for the 1997 movie In and Out starring Kevin Klein as Howard Brackett, a teacher who is outed to the world, and himself, days before his wedding, and Tom Selleck as the reporter who goes to Greenleaf to cover the story, and awakens Howard to his own nature.  It's a fun movie – I recommend it - and this story won't make any sense without it.

This story appeared in Cohorts 6.

 

   They liked Darlene’s restaurant. It wasn’t as smoky as the bar, nor as noisy, so they could chat in peace and comfort. At least, Howard liked the restaurant better than the bar, and the guys … the guys just humored him. No, that wasn’t right, Howard scolded himself mentally. The guys really liked him; they always had. He’d always been popular, straight or gay, and sometimes he went to the bar with them, so it wasn’t like they were always forced to accommodate Howard’s obvious, overbearing, sissy, prissiness… His mind insisted on adding a whole ‘gay’ spin to things he’d taken for granted all his life. He’d always just been neat, sensitive, and kind. Now, suddenly, everything he’d been pointed like a great neon sign to the fact that he was gay – something he’d never been before he’d been so publicly outed.

   Suddenly, his whole 40 years of life was turned around.  His entire adult perception of himself as a normal heterosexual man had been stripped away. One kiss and he’d changed his sexuality. One insane kiss.

I didn’t even instigate the kiss. It’s not like I asked him to kiss me. I’ve never even thought about being kissed by a guy before! He refused to dwell on the way his brain had scattered under Peter’s lips, or the way his body had simply disengaged itself from his control. Howard fiddled with his lemonade, listening with half an ear to the sports chat from his friends.

Surreptitiously, he scanned their faces from under his lashes. Faces he’d known all his life, friends with whom he’d grown up – same schools, same teams – faces as familiar as his own. And not a spark of attraction towards any of them. Not one frisson and, Howard realized with a deep, sour, sinking feeling, there never had been.

“Hey, Howard?” They never called him Howie. He knew they all loved him, in their own macho-manly ways, but they never got familiar enough to use a nickname; no one ever had. Bob gave him a concerned look. “You okay?  You’ve been awful quiet tonight. It’s the end of the school year.  You should be celebrating!”

You mean I should be parading about like a screaming queen, Howard’s mind supplied on one level, although another part of his conscience scolded him for his less than charitable mood. His friends really did care, and they’d been wonderful since he’d come out – during the dreadful wedding debacle and the graduation ceremony they’d shown him more love and acceptance than he’d felt at any other time in his life.

“I think I made a terrible mistake,” he whispered.

“What’s that?” Aldo – stylist, not barber – moved his newly naked head closer. “A mistake about what?”

Howard scanned them again, looking them quickly up and down, “About being gay.”

He could hear Walter’s jaw snap shut in the sudden silence.

“You what?”

He could imagine what they were thinking. After their huge show of support when practically the entire town had ‘come out’ as gay, after all their outpouring of love, he wasn’t gay at all?

“Well, it’s just… just that… I never… you know…”

“Oh, we know!” Bob laughed. Howard’s virgin status had been a gentle joke in the group for some 25 plus years. He was over 40, now, and he’d never been laid once.

“No, I mean… I’ve never…” he twitched and waved his hands, trying to think of a nice way of putting it. “I’ve never thought about it… with a guy. Not once – not before the Oscars anyway. I mean, how can I be gay and never even think about wanting to make it with another guy?”

“But, you said…” Aldo was horrified.  It was in his eyes; if Howard backed down on being gay, did that mean Aldo would have to go back to hiding his balding head?

“Maybe it was just… wedding jitters and... and... and the Oscars speech and everyone said… and the tapes and the dancing...”

“The what?” Of course, they had no idea about his embarrassing failure with the ‘Exploring Your Masculinity’ tapes.

“Never mind, it doesn’t matter. I’m just… I’m just not sure anymore. I do love Emily,” he waved off their increasingly worried expressions. Emily was in Hollywood now, discovering herself and many new restaurants in the world of bright lights and big city and Cameron Drake. “I don’t mean I am in love with her. I never was. I know that now. That was just Mom and her wedding obsession.” His friends nodded and looked at each other with a mix of sympathy and horror. They all liked Howard’s Mom, but they all knew she was utterly, frighteningly insane. “So I’ve never loved a woman in that way, but I’ve never loved a guy either. I’ve never wanted a guy in that way.”

He could sense their discomfort and disbelief.

“Not even any of us?” Bob asked gesturing towards the group sitting around the booth.

Howard looked at them all, doing the decent thing of weighing each of them equally. And he did love them, like he loved Emily, and this whole town, but he didn’t… “Nothing. I’m sorry,” he twisted his lips and shrugged.

“Not even me?” Errol had always considered himself a stud, bald head and pot belly and his wife of six years encouraged him still. Their disappointment at not being found attractive was quite palpable. Some of them had not had a lot of luck with women, and had entertained some vague fantasy that perhaps Howard, now the town gay, would at least find them attractive, giving them some uncomfortable sexiness.

He tried not to grin, “Nope. Maybe… maybe I’m just… nothing. Maybe I just don’t-”

“What about Peter?”

Peter? With his wicked, laughing eyes, ego the size of Mount Everest and dimples like the Grand Canyon. Peter and his kiss that stopped Howard’s brain and started his heart and set fire to his loins, and Peter’s big hands and mischievous grin and his brutal honesty and those dimples again. Mr. Hollywood.

“Peter doesn’t count. He was just here for the story.” And Howard’s Mother’s wedding. No one dared turn down a wedding invitation from Mrs. Brackett, not even movie reporters from big cities. Peter wasn’t here anymore. Peter had walked in and blown apart Howard’s identity like a cheap special effect; shattering him to the four winds, dancing with him at his Mother’s wedding, kissing him on the cheek and then returning to his job in the big city. Peter wasn’t here and probably never would be again.

So where did that leave Howard? Like a hurricane Peter had blown into his life and torn apart everything in his wake, leaving Howard to pick up the pieces and get on with his life. But, it wasn’t fair to blame Peter, and Howard knew that. Marrying Emily would have been a huge mistake for everyone concerned. Peter had wanted his story, and his kiss had shown Howard that he could never love Emily in the way she needed. The insane, mindless passion she needed was never going to come from Howard. Howard had never known such a thing existed outside of sonnets and Shakespeare’s plays until Peter.

“I don’t think I’ve ever loved anyone in that way, and I think I probably never will.” Whoa… what a downer! His friends loved him because he was fun, because he could always make them laugh, and here he was bringing everyone down with his depressing self-revelations. He physically shook off the cloying sadness, “Hey, what’s on at the movies?”

“The Mirror Has Two Faces!”

Even Howard joined in with the groans and threw his spoon at Aldo.

“Hey, it’s not just Barbra! This movie has Pierce Brosnan!” Aldo protested, dodging cutlery. “Even I could turn gay for Pierce Brosnan!”

There was a general murmur of consensus.

-oo0oo-

He’d been alone, before, but this was the first time he’d been truly lonely. He missed Emily, he missed their three years of talks, and walks, and friendship. He’d never known such a close relationship before Emily, and, despite the major falsehood on which their relationship was based, it had still been the mainstay of his social life for a long, long time. They’d known each other for what seemed like forever, and the fact that she’d always had a crush on him had been something he’d just taken for granted. The whole town had taken their relationship for granted, despite his long protracted procrastination over the initial proposal, and the three years of engagement. She’d loved him. His mother had always wanted him to be married so that she could have the big wedding, therefore it had been nothing but logical for him to marry Emily, no matter that he’d never felt any passion for the young teacher.  He'd thought that would come in time.

He took another sip of lukewarm coffee, rocked backwards in his chair until his back rested against his piano, and tried to shake off the melancholy feeling that had haunted him since his parents had left on their second honeymoon. Howard and his friends had enjoyed the movies last night, and he had a whole day to spend doing things he liked: composing, reading poetry, all the things he never had time for while the semester was in session. He was no more or less alone than he had been, before, and he tried to convince himself to let go of the loneliness. He was going to spend his life as the only gay man in Greenleaf - loved and admired as a teacher, tolerated as a gay - a unique and fascinating example. The town had a number of town idiots, now they had their town gay. Maybe this was a more honest life, but he almost missed the lies. At least they’d been happy lies, and he hadn’t even recognized their lack of truth.

He wasn’t going to sit around pining for… pining. He was going to call some friends, visit his brother and his new super-model girlfriend, maybe take around some food for the poor girl, or even get a head start on next year’s lesson plans. He was not going to sit alone and palely loitering while the day faded into evening. Enough of feeling sorry for himself! He jumped to his feet, clapping his hands together in approval of his plan, and jumped a mile sideways when his doorbell buzzed.

“Errol? What are you doing here? I thought this was Home Improvement night?” Errol never left the house when Home Improvement was on.

“I…” Errol shuffled his feet on the mat in embarrassment, “I was thinking about what you said today. You know, that you were wrong? That maybe you weren’t gay?”

“Yes,” Howard prodded as Errol faded off.

“Well… I thought… maybe,” and then Errol lunged forward, with a totally unappealing, inadvertent parody of Peter’s amazing kiss. Howard stayed still, out of politeness if nothing else, letting Errol grab his arms and press their lips together. Errol’s mouth was wet and soft, and nothing else. Howard waited for him to finish, noting the traces of coffee and pie on Errol’s breath.

“Nothing?” Errol asked.

“Nope, sorry.” Howard shook his head and shrugged. He new that Errol wasn’t really interested in him, wasn’t gay in any way, but also wasn’t prepared to accept that someone couldn’t find him attractive, and was honestly trying to help Howard sort himself out.  Errol obviously thought if Howard was going to find any man attractive, then it was going to be Errol.

Errol shrugged, unconsciously copying Howard, and thrust his hands deep into the pockets of his coveralls. “Sorry, man.”

“That’s okay. Thanks, anyway.  Thanks for trying.”

“Yeah, right, okay.” Errol looked around, apparently trying to find something ‘cool’ to say. “Well, I’ll see you later, then.”

“Yeah, later. Goodnight, Errol,” Howard said firmly, waving his friend off down the path and shutting the door behind him.

Life was getting way too weird, lately.

Food – that’s what he needed. Pie and coffee, or something more substantial. He wouldn’t go out, after all. He’d stay home and cook; he hadn’t cooked a meal since Emily had left. Getting something delivered would mean more weird conversations with Chueng. If anyone had been happy to see Howard come out of the closet, it was Chueng. The only Chinese person in Greenleaf now had someone else to take the heat of curiosity away from him, and had offered Howard a bundle of coupons for free meals. Buy one gai low meal, get another free. But who would eat the free meal with Howard? So it was back to cooking. He started to walk towards the kitchen like a man to an execution.

Aren’t gay guys supposed to like cooking? he thought.  I hate to cook! Cooking meant making a mess and it was simply something for which he had no talent.  Another reason to think I’m probably not gay, I don’t fit every stereotype.

He jumped again, cursing his jittery nerves, as the door buzzed once more. He started talking as he walked towards the door, calling out, “Errol, I told you; I’m not interested.  It’s nothing personal, I just don’t… Peter…”

“Hi, Howard,” Peter drawled, leaning against the doorframe with his arms crossed, standing in a pose calculated to show the length of his leg and catch the best of the dying sunlight.

“Wh… what are you doing here? Howard was totally stunned; he’d never expected to see Peter again.

“What am I doing here? What happened to ‘Hi’ or ‘Hello’? Anyone would think you’re not pleased to see me!”

“But, but what are you doing here? I thought you’d gone back to Hollywood. There’s no more story here!” Howard was embarrassed at his own lack of manners and angry again that this man could throw him so off center with so little effort.

“Why don’t you ask me in? It took me four hours to get here!”  Peter held up a carry bag full of take-away containers and grinned enticingly. “I brought dinner. The guy at your local Chinese restaurant gave me a discount when I said I was picking it up for you.”

“For me? You told him you were getting me dinner?” Howard stepped aside as Peter just sauntered in as if he lived there. Now everyone was going to know that Peter was here, in his house. Peter hadn’t been in Howard’s house before. Not just the two of them, alone. Howard shook off the thought, trying not to worry about the gossip that would spread like wild fire about the two of them. There was probably another story angle Peter was after; he’d bring in the camera after Howard was browbeaten into giving another interview, and then he’d go.

“Even gays have to eat, Howard. Kitchen through here?”

 Howard stood for a moment, before shutting the door quickly, as if he could stop everyone finding out Peter was here.

Peter was setting food out on the tables, finding Howard’s plates and knives and forks as though he’d lived here all his life.  As if he just knew everywhere that Howard would keep and put things because all gay guys kept everything in the same place, same as they all liked Barbra Streisand. As if he knew more about Howard than Howard did, not just about the whole sexuality thing, but every detail. Peter’s confidence threw Howard off balance more than ever, making him a stranger in his own home.

Peter was laying out the food and lighting the emergency candles. “Have you noticed it’s so hard to get good, cheap, ordinary candles, nowadays, Howard? Everything is Forest Mist or Midnight Garden or Raspberry Fart.”

Howard didn’t want to mention that his candles were pine-scented and let Peter think him even less manly, and he was way too busy trying not to notice how incredibly sexy Peter looked in the candlelight. He had no idea what to say or do when Peter was around; the man made him utterly crazy.

“Come on, sit down. Don’t just stand there flapping.”

“I don’t flap,” Howard protested, and sat at the other end of the table from Peter, surreptitiously moving his plates from where Peter had put them so that they weren’t sitting side by side. He wanted to keep Peter fully within his sights. This, he realised, was a mistake as the candlelight flickered over Peter’s face and it became harder and harder to concentrate on their small talk. The food was a solid mass of flavourless lumps; each bite was harder to choke down than the one before it as his nervousness grew.  Fluttering butterflies in his stomach were making it far too difficult to eat and breathe at the same time, so even when Peter mentioned he’d once interviewed Barbra, that piece of information took several minutes to sink into his brain.

This all Peter’s fault, Howard thought.  With his movie star looks and his casual self-assurance and those blasted dimples. I used to be a smart man, an intelligent man, but he turns me into a babbling fool!

“Barbra?” Suddenly, he backtracked to Peter’s comments of a few minutes ago.

“Yes.  Streisand, remember?   Your favourite? I was saying I knew her. Wondered if you would be interested in an autograph?”

“I’m giving up all that stuff,” Howard bit out, glad to finally have the upper hand, to take Peter by surprise, for a change.

“Why? You love Barbra!” Peter was surprised enough to drop the cashews he’d been about to eat.

“Because… because I don’t think I’m gay! I just… just… got caught up in wedding day cold feet, and I… I’m prissy.” He chewed out the words, knowing now that he was a – as the tape put it – pussy boy. “I don’t like guys! I just have to learn to be more masculine, and try and put things right again.”

“Really?” Peter’s all-knowing smile grated like nails down a blackboard, the glint in his eyes saying he knew better than Howard, as always. “We can test that, if you like.”

“No!” Howard pushed back from the table, his hands pushing at the air between them like a lion tamer with a chair. “I don’t need what you think I need; I just need time to…”

But then Peter was doing it again. Moving with the speed of a snake, his lips so warm and soft on Howard’s.  One arm curled around the small of Howard’s back, pulling them together, one hand cupping the back of Howard’s head, holding him close will he worked their mouths with firm determination.

And again Howard could feel the world slip away. The warm, expensive cologne and incredibly masculine male scent tingling their way into his brain, causing his mind to smash into millions of tiny atoms that shot off in all directions as firm lips slid over his own. The faint prickle of stubble, so unfamiliar and arousing as it grazed his cheeks, the slight wet warmth of a tongue tip that caressed his lips as their jaws worked, and then his knees were giving way and his body falling forward until they were pressed length for length and his arms were around Peter’s shoulders feeling how broad they were and how strong and the arm was slipping lower and cupping one buttock and giving it a firm squeeze and there were no more thoughts or worries or doubts just the gusts of warm air near his upper lip as Peter breathed and someone was moaning deep and desperate and needy as Howard tried to swallow Peter’s mouth with his own…

And again, Peter had to pull Howard off with strong hands and a loud sucking noise, and hold him steady until Howard’s brain came spinning back from outer space and back into his head, so he could think again.

“Well?” Peter was grinning, his hands still firm around Howard’s.

“You squeezed my butt!” Howard protested as he finally caught up with what they’d just done.

“They don’t do that in Greenleaf, either?”

“Not to me!” Howard tried retrospectively to be outraged at the liberty.

“That’s a shame, Howard. You have a very squeezable butt! People have really missed out, if they haven’t had a chance to squeeze this butt.” Peter pulled him close again and slipped both hands under Howard’s butt and squeezed it like he was testing the ripeness of a melon, pursing his lips in appreciation.

“Stop that!” Howard leaned forward, and up onto his toes, trying to get away from those hands, but realizing he was only leaning in closer to the rest of Peter, including those incredible, brain-stealing lips.

“Really? You really want me to stop?” Squeeze, release. Squeeze, fondle, release.

“No,” Howard finally choked out, grabbing Peter’s shoulders. His innate honesty, and his body’s increasingly obvious reaction, finally won out.

“So… no more questions over whether you’re gay or not?”

“I… no, I guess not.” How could he argue with Peter when Peter’s breath was so warm and sweet and sour against his jaw? “It’s just… I never have… before you…” It was so hard to put a coherent sentence together when Peter’s mouth was moving closer to his own.

Their skin barely touched as Peter gently lip-nipped their mouths together. These feelings were still so alien, so unfamiliar, and his mind was screaming at him to halt, that he didn’t really know this guy at all. Three years of engagement to Emily had slowly developed into a little not-so-heavy petting now and then, (they were both still entitled to marry in white), but after knowing Peter barely three weeks, Howard was prepared to throw himself at the man. His erection strained against his jeans, harder than he could ever remember being before, as he squirmed in Peter’s hands, trying to turn his hips so that he wasn’t too obviously humping the larger thigh that slid between his own.

“C’mon,” Peter whispered in Howard’s ear, sending shivers down his spine. “Let’s make out.”

Howard let himself be tugged to the couch. Make out? Grown men didn’t make out. Teenagers ‘make out’. In the backs of cars. Howard had never made out. He’d rubbed Emily’s feet, and even kissed a few girls now and then, but he’d never groped and fondled… not like Peter was doing now. Little tremors shivered through his body; his muscles contracted and twitched in the wake of Peter’s knowing hands as they slid under his shirt and skimmed over his back. I’m too old for this, Howard thought frantically, even as he pushed forward, following Peter down onto the couch until they were prone. I should be behaving with more dignity – I’m an English teacher! But he feels so good, his mouth is so delicious, I could write a sonnet of joy about the dimple in his chin if only my brain wasn’t misfiring. He feels so good, I can’t get enough, I can’t touch him enough. Howard rubbed himself against Peter’s body, feeling the strength of large thighs between his own, moaning into Peter’s mouth, wiggling back into Peter’s hands, feeling one hand link with his own to pull it away from the furry chest it explored under the well starched shirt. Pulling me away? I’m coming on too strong, I’m making a fool of myself, he’s putting my hand on his…

Howard jumped back, breaking all contact, and sitting straight up on the couch with his hands in the air like Peter was holding a gun on him.

Tie askew and shirt up round his armpits, grinning maniacally, Howard couldn’t help but think that Peter looked absolutely edible, but there was no way he was going to touch another man’s dick. “You… you… you…”

“Yeah, I did, didn’t I?” Peter grinned and sat up again. “Want me to do it again?”

“No!” Howard jerked backwards, horrified at the suggestion, and yet the muscles in his arms put up all the resistance of over-cooked noodles as Peter gently took his hand and put it back. And he didn’t move his hand away when Peter let him go. He couldn’t help but think how foolish they had to look, totally disheveled and not touching in any way other than Howard leaning forward with his hand on Peter’s crotch. He couldn’t meet Peter’s smiling eyes and his gaze dropped down to where his hand rested, fingers cupping down between Peter’s thighs, thumb lying next to the closed fly. It was hot. And hard. And moving. Howard could feel it pulse and twitch as he very gingerly squeezed it through two layers of fabric. He’d never touched another man’s dick, never wanted to, had never even thought about it. Yet, sitting here with this thing in his hand, every ribald joke he’d ever heard about the things gays did ran through his head, and he wanted to do them all with this thing in his hand like he’d never wanted anything before in his life.

He looked up again, mindless desire overcoming any feelings of foolishness at their odd position. The dark eyes that stared back at him still sparkled with amusement, a perpetual expression they would never lose, but the pupils were dilated with lust, making them appear almost black in the dim light.

“You want me,” Howard whispered, an epiphany of self-realization tingling at the edge of consciousness.

“Of course, Howard. Why do you think I’m here?”

“No, I mean, you want me,” Howard emphasized.

“Has no one ever wanted you before?”  Peter slid a little closer, not dislodging Howard’s fingers.

“No, not like this. They’ve wanted me to make them into someone else. They’ve wanted me to fulfill their expectations. They’ve wanted me to live up to their standards. No one has ever wanted me.” Howard could feel the expectations and desires of others sliding away as he saw now that he’d lived his whole life trying to please other people… his parents, his fiancée… never giving a thought to what he wanted or desired from life as he realized that coming out as gay had been the first selfish, first honest, first truly ‘Howard’ thing he’d ever done in his entire life, and as he realized that Peter was so aroused there was a small damp patch appearing under Howard’s hand.

“Do you want to know how I want you, Howard?”

Howard nodded; he could feel his powers of speech leaving him. His lips and tongue felt swollen, filled with blood like the rest of him; his eyes burned and his head swam with lascivious thoughts, and he held his breath half a beat until they were both breathing in rhythm.

Leaning in closer, with still the only point of contact being Howard’s hand and Peter’s crotch, there was a bare half inch of distance between them so that combined body heat enveloped them both.  Peter whispered against Howard’s lips, low and earnest, “I want to lick you all over – every inch of your clean, fresh-scrubbed, repressed, oppressed, earnest, honest, taut, and sexy body. I want to strip away that prissy, school-marmish attitude with my hands and mouth until you bite and scratch like the wild thing I know is buried under there, somewhere. I want to tear off your crisp, pressed slacks, throw you over the back of this couch and fuck you hard until you squeal like a stuck pig.”

It was the most disgusting, vaguely threatening, and filthiest thing anyone had ever said to Howard.

“Oh… yes, please,” he moaned, and leaned in, giving up all sense and reason, eyes closing, and lips parting as he surrendered himself totally to his seducer.

Then suddenly, it was gone. The heat, the crotch, Peter. Howard looked up, mouth agape, as Peter walked away.

“Howard, we have a dilemma.” Peter talked earnestly he walked back and forth.

“A dilemma? Now?” Howard tried desperately to hear what Peter was saying over the pounding in his ears.

“I don’t want to take advantage of you, Howard.”

“Advantage?” Howard realized that his hand was still extended, as if hoping that the dick would come back of its own accord, and he dropped it quickly, hoping Peter wouldn’t notice.

“You’ve just come out. You’re feeling unsure and exposed. I’d bet money that you haven’t had sex bef... in a long time. You’re in an emotionally precarious position, and I don’t want to take advantage of that vulnerability.”

“Take advantage?” Howard managed to change it to a question in the last second, as his brain tried to un-addle itself.

“You’d hate me later if I pushed things now,” Peter continued, his voice earnest, even if his face was still flushed. “If we’re going to have a relationship, we should get to know each other.”

“Relationship?” Howard wished he could do more than stupidly parrot Peter’s words.

“Yeah. I know a lot of guys just look for one-night stands, or short-term relationships before they move on. But I’m getting older,” Peter fidgeted with his hair, vain enough to be aware that he was still incredibly handsome, “and I think you’re just adorable,” he threw a wicked grin at Howard, “and I would like to get to know you better, and not just be the first gay guy you’ve met since coming out, or your only option, or an experimentation.” He paused, waiting to see if Howard would say something, then continued, “So, it’s up to you, Howard. If we go all the way are you going to yell at me tomorrow? Say I took advantage of your delicate condition? Or are you going to hate me if I stop things now? Howard?”

He’s waiting for an answer; a sensible, well-reasoned answer. Does ‘I want to put my hand on your dick again’ count?

“Yes?”

Smiling and shaking his head, “Think, Howard. I know you can; I’ve seen you do it. Come on, you’re a smart guy – think. How do you want to handle this?”

Closing his eyes, Howard thought.  And with the thinking came back the fears; the fear of making a mess of this, the fear of embarrassing his family, the fear of the unknown. “Tomorrow.” He wasn’t sure what he meant. Tomorrow they’d talk about it? Tomorrow they’d have sex? But Peter seemed to accept the answer and nodded, a little disappointed, but still smiling slightly.

“I’ve got my suitcase with me, Howard. Just a few things for the weekend. Do you mind if I crash on the couch?”

“No, no, not at all.” Howard was pleased to have something to do, to have something to occupy his hands, and he set about grabbing pillows and blankets, trying to ignore the painful bulge in his pants as he played at being the good host. He fluttered around as Peter got himself settled, fetched a clean towel and guest soap, and dropped them on an armchair, along with Peter’s tie and socks. He stood and stared at Peter’s naked feet, again at a loss at what to do, until Peter took his face in large hands and pressed a chaste kiss to his cheek.

“Good night, Howard. Tomorrow, remember?”

Howard nodded, not sure of what he was agreeing to.  “I’ll see you in the morning. Let me know if you need anything.”

“I will.” Peter flopped down onto the couch, sprawling, still in his expensive suit, and even those innocent words seemed to drip with innuendo to Howard, as Peter smiled at him.

“Goodnight,” Howard muttered.  His feet felt like lead as he walked upstairs to his own room, and slipped into his favourite T and sweat pants. The sheets were cool against his over-heated skin, and he abstained from watching television in favour of staring at the ceiling and groaning softly to himself. He pulled the pillow over his face and beat it from the other side with his fist, all the time hyper-aware of the beast that lurked below.

-oo0oo-

He ached. That was his first thought on waking up. Life had been too stressful, recently, and Howard just wasn’t used to stress in his perfect, small-town life. He’d done what was expected of him and been loved for it. Now, his muscles were protesting the tension, and febrile thoughts chased around his brain before he’d even had a chance to wake up properly. He could have done something to help relax himself last night, but having Peter downstairs had made that seem… distasteful. The man would have known, just known if Howard had done anything, and Howard was having enough trouble reconciling his over-the-top lust-struck actions with his self-image as an in-control and sensible man.

He threw the blankets to the ground and padded to the upstairs bathroom. He took a moment to peer down the stairs, but he couldn’t see Peter’s head off the edge of the couch, and continued on to relieve himself, shave and brush his teeth.

Many ways to say good morning were inspected and discarded.  Ways to save face and be cool, ways to swagger in John Wayne-cool and self-possessed.  Ways to say he didn’t care about dilemmas and tomorrows and just throw himself on Peter’s mercy and beg for some 'good lovin’.’’ Ways to just pretend nothing had happened and make some final desperate grab at normality, heterosexuality, and his old safe blind and deaf existence, shut away from passion, danger, exhilaration, freedom, and self-knowledge.

I’m just a small-town English teacher, he thought, staring at his face in the mirror, a face on the upside of 40, a comfortable, and, he knew, acceptably handsome face. A face that had never been kissed like it had last night. Nothing in my life prepared me for a future like this, he confessed to his face. Everything I planned is upside down. He sighed in relief that they hadn’t taken teaching away from him; at least he had one thing he loved and relied on that would remain steady in his life. An Oscar on the mantle downstairs testified to the love of his students.

He finally girded his loins and made the decision to go downstairs and face Peter. He’d grab his robe, go downstairs and tell Peter what he’d decided. What had he decided? He went back to his bedroom, by-passed the robe, got back into bed, and pulled the sheets over his head.

There were clattering noises coming up from below, and he ignored them. This solves nothing. He wasn’t going to go back to sleep, Peter wasn’t going to go away, time wasn’t going to roll backwards to before the Oscars so he could hire a sniper to take out Cameron Drake before his ex-student would open his mouth and utterly change Howard’s life.

The noises downstairs changed. The clunks and clanks stopped and were replaced by the squeaking of a large man coming up the stairs. Howard could feel every muscle in his body contract another degree with each squeak until he thought his legs would cramp or his back would break. The blood pounded in his head as if he were a small child expecting the bogeyman. The monster of his childhood would creep up the stairs of his parents’ house, his brother Walter would squeak in terror as they would lie, terrifying each other with campfire ghost stories. Tales of headless child-eating monsters that stalked, slathering and muttering curses, through the houses of Greenleaf, seeking innocent victims, throwing open bedroom doors and calling out:  “Good morning, Howard.”

Howard pulled the blankets down a notch and cast a baleful eye in the direction of his tormentor.

Peter smirked and moved to sit on the edge of the bed, balancing a tray of toasted waffles and coffee. “Sit up,” he said, voice sleep-rumpled, setting the tray over Howard’s lap. “How do you take your coffee?”

Howard stared at the coffee pot as if a cobra would come dancing out of it. He doesn’t even know how I take my coffee, yet I was willing to… This is exactly what Peter was talking about last night.

“Black?”

“Yes, black is fine.” A good guess is all, he doesn’t know that much about me, it’s not that creepy, really.

“Did you think about it, Howard? What we were talking about last night?”

“Yes,” Howard admitted.

“And?” Peter prompted.

“I don’t know, Peter,” Howard replied honestly. “I’ve only been gay for a short time…”

“You’ve been gay all your life, Howard.”

“I’ve only known it for a short time,” he snapped slightly.

He watched Peter’s mouth twitch as if he had something else totally obvious to point out to Howard, but then Peter softened and gave in, just nodding, his eyes smiling kindly. Far too perky for this early in the morning. Then Howard realized that Peter wasn’t perky, he was nervous. There were the slight twitches as his fingers plucked the rumpled blanket, and maybe the smile wasn’t all-knowing. Howard thought about the things Peter had been saying the night before, and realized that maybe Peter had quite a lot to lose this time as well. Perhaps not as much at stake as Howard, but he could still come off looking the fool if Howard turned him down, or decided Peter ‘wasn’t his type’, or backed out altogether. Howard felt himself soften a little as well, some of his nervousness fading a little – not altogether, just into the background.

He looked away, over the beige bedspread of his darker beige bed, around his beige room. Such a safe colour. No reds or purples, no flashes of gold lame’ or silvered sequins. Safe and comfortable, boring and self-deceiving in its lack of personality. Should he have gold lame’ throw cushions? Do all gay guys have gold lame’ throw cushions? His mind was wandering off topic. He brought it back sharply, like a way-ward student in his class, concentrating on the matter at hand. Peter. By his right hand. His warmth permeating Howard’s right side. His breathing low and soft. No one else had ever breathed in this bed, besides Howard. Now Peter was beside Howard.

He turned and looked at the nervous and confident man, and gave him the honest appraisal Peter had requested. This entertainment television reporter. This gay man. A man his own age, a man who found Howard attractive. A man of patchy ratings and stunning dimples and smiling eyes. Did they know each other? Not well. But Howard had to admit that he didn’t really know himself that well, either, and he could live with that. This relationship didn’t have to last forever, despite his parent’s example and teachings; it was perfectly all right to have ‘a fling’, and yet, he still hoped it might last. If it was good, it would grow. If it was bad… He hoped it wouldn’t be. He hoped that he and Mr. Showbiz would make magic, the magic of Shakespearean soliloquies and John Donne’s poetry… But if not, they could still make some warm memories.

Turning from his thoughts and his beige bedspread, Howard looked at Peter and his raised, questioning eyebrows. As Peter’s lips started to form a question, Howard placed his fingertips against them and leaned forward.

“But…”

“No buts,” Howard shushed, moved the breakfast tray aside, and pressed their lips together again, and waited for the magic to start.

There it was, trickling in from the sides like a cold mountain stream, an edge of delight sparkling over their lips like cool, fresh water to a parched and starving man. Peter hadn’t shaved, his beard already dark, even this early, and it scratched at Howard’s cheeks, but his lips were soft and his moan even softer, as the big body relaxed under his hands; arms, chest, and back, releasing the nervous tension they’d held since Howard had been offered his choice.

Peter hadn’t been sure I’d accept! The sudden realization of the power he’d held filled Howard with a sense of strength, and the masculine pride so lately battered struggled from the mire of humiliation and gave him the will to gently push Peter down.

A smile, possibly from them both, curved between their mouths, and a questing tongue sought and received entry to a cool, moist mouth. Warm moans, still early-morning soft, met their answer as big hands slipped under a T-shirt, stroking and rubbing, and softer hands unbuttoned a pyjama top, carefully folding aside the lapels to caress the furred flesh underneath. Cool breath warmed, became a little shaky; eyes closed as excited gusts where exhaled.

A large, hard thigh slipped between Howard’s, raising his hips a little, arching his back. His hands couldn’t get enough of the chest beneath his fingers. He found nipples; tiny, warm, soft, hardening, puckering as he stroked with his thumbs, his own body flushing and hardening as Peter’s hands ran over his back, over his butt, squeezing through the fleece of his sweat pants. He couldn’t keep Peter’s promise/threat from the night before out of his mind, and his body throbbed as he mentally replayed them: ‘I want to tear off your crisp, pressed slacks, throw you over the back of this couch and fuck you hard until you squeal like a stuck pig.’

He could feel Peter’s body stir and harden beneath him. Two layers of fabric separated them, yet Howard had never felt so naked, so vulnerable, as Peter broke their kiss, his mouth moving over Howard’s jaw, gently biting his freshly shaven chin, and licking at his throat, warm saliva cooling rapidly over Howard’s pulse, large hands kneading his buttocks. Needing his buttocks. He felt them cup him closer, forcing him to thrust his hip against stirring flesh… He squeezed the hard, round pectorals in his grasp, and sucked down another lung-full of air, his head swimming.

Peter lurched beneath him, their bodies surged together, blood pounding through Howard’s head. Again, he was squeezed, fondled, his hips pulled forward as Peter pushed back, teeth sinking into Howard’s neck…

“Ahhhhhhhhhhhnggggg……..”

He fell over the solid warmth, his body pulsing as he gasped for air once more, sparks dancing in front of his eyes. Oxygen deprivation, his stupid intelligence, absent until then, spoke up. You forgot to breathe just then, conversing with himself.  I forgot to wait, as well, he told his brain.

“I’m sorry,” he wheezed, “I…”

Peter chuckled, rich and indulgent, his breath as damp as his kiss, against Howard’s ear. “Never apologize for finding me irresistible!” he said, and his voice held an insufferable, ‘I can make grown men scream’ smug kind of tone.

Howard was shuffled over to his side a little. He found that one arm and one leg wouldn’t co-operate, and remained draped over Peter, as his head slipped into the crook of Peter’s shoulder and his body curved to Peter’s side as if they had been carved from the same block of wood.

He swirled a little of that fascinating chest hair around his fingertips, summoning the post-coital courage to ask, “What about you?”

He feared for a second that Peter was going to say ‘I can wait’, and was ready to snap back, ‘but I can’t!’ …but Peter must have worked that out. Peter’s eyes crinkled roughly again.  “If you like, you could put your hand on it again. Inside my pants this time.”

Howard reacted with alacrity. Too fast? He wondered if he came across as too eager, although he knew he didn’t really have anything left to give away.

It was a live thing in his hand, independently alive, and for a second he had to struggle to mentally attach this thing to Peter. Heavier than his own, it pushed against his fingers. Hairier. He grasped the base, suddenly sure of what he was doing. He curled slightly, his head on Peter’s chest, eyes half closed as Peter’s hands caressed his face, his hair; as Peter’s voice made soothing encouraging noises as Howard’s fingers explored knowingly, teasing and tugging.  

A thumb circled, fingertips teased, a hand caressed and urged, until a heavy body stretched, a lower lip was bitten, and an unnaturally high-pitched ‘Mmmmmmm’ rewarded Howard’s efforts.

They lay still for a long time. Howard was peaceful, more at peace than he could ever remember being before. There were probably times… but he couldn’t be bothered trying to remember anything right now. Thinking was such hard work. Lazy fingers stroked and idly picked at his hair.

Peter was humming under his breath. The theme to Inside Entertainment? Howard sighed, a long, shuddering exhalation, snuggled a little closer, and they both snoozed and canoodled their way towards lunchtime.

-oo0oo-

Peter had decided he was starving after their morning’s activities – activities which would have put the school’s Gymnastics club to shame – and although Howard had protested leaving the house, he was now standing out side Darlene’s again, waiting for Peter to come back with a newspaper. Peter had wanted to check the TV listings and the entertainment gossip. The important things. None of that boring front-page rubbish. Who cared about normal people problems? The important things were who’s too fat, who’s too thin, and who got photographed nude this week?

“Good morning, Howard,” a nervous voice greeted him, and Howard jumped slightly, turning to see the school headmaster fidgeting with his own paper and peering up at Howard as if he might jump him any moment and do unspeakable, terrifying, gay things to him.

“Good morning, Carl,” Howard choked out, aware of his boss’ discomfort, and the fact Howard only still had his job because the town had bullied this man into giving it back to him.

“Are you all right? Not catching a cold are you?”

Howard cleared his throat, “No, why?”

“You’re sounding a bit husky, there. Wondered if you were catching a chill.”

He can tell… He can tell that I screamed in passion until my voice broke, screamed another man’s name. They say that the skin glows - or is that the eyes? - after sex. Do my eyes glow? Is my expression different now that I’ve looked into the eyes of another man as he … comes?  Even saying it in my mind is difficult. Are my lips swollen from his kisses? Can they tell I’ve tried to hide razor burn from another man? Is my skin different from being caressed by another man, from having another man’s hands sculpt and mould my body? Are my own hands different from touching another man for the first time? Running my fingers through the hair on his chest – the first time I’ve touched hair that wasn’t my own – clutching at the muscles that worked in his back as he moved…

Howard could feel his body temperature rise at the last thought, as he remembered the feel of muscle and sinew that flexed and relaxed with each movement, and he could see Carl staring at him curiously… “Looks like you’re a bit feverish as well…”

He knows… He can see the evidence. My hands are sweating, I’ve had another man’s sweat on me… It’s there in the way I walk, that I … that I had another man … in me, that I touched his… body with my mouth and my hands, that we curved and writhed and sweated together in carnal lusts…

Carl fumbled in his pockets, pulling out a tube from the depths, “Here, have a lozenge, you don’t want to catch a summer cold!”

Howard took the lozenge and smiled weakly, nodding back as Carl ducked his head in nervous farewell. He stuffed the lozenge into his jacket pocket as Peter returned and they went inside.

The place had been almost deserted when they’d arrived; one booth occupied, one waitress gossiping with a friend at the bar. Yet, by the time their salad arrived, the place was half-full and filling steadily. Howard peevishly speared his lettuce and tried to ignore the whispers and the aborted stares. Peter was prattling away merrily, holding forth a monologue of famous people he’d interviewed, stories he’d broken, and scandals he’d unearthed. Despite a distinct lack of prurient curiosity on Howard’s part, it was an entertaining discourse, if for no other value than Peter’s bright style and cheerful manner. Again and again Howard struggled to block out the whispers from the other patrons, focus on Peter’s chat, and insert an intelligent comment or question now and then. The whispers were getting louder as their mains arrived, and Howard wished he could shrink down until he could fall through the cracks in the floorboards. The whispers pressed and inveigled until they seemed to all but drown out Peter’s voice.

“They guy with Mr. Bracket, ain’t he from TV?”

“Paul someone....”

“Do you think he’s Howard’s boyfriend?”

“Would you like more coffee?”

“Percy...?”

“Are they on a date?”

“How would I know?”

“Pass the salt.”

“What are they eating?”

“Perry....”

“I’m sure that’s his boyfriend; he was at the wedding!”

“Oooo, do you think that’s the guy who broke up the wedding?”

“Maybe he’s the one who turned Howard gay!”

“Perkins...? I know it starts with a P...”

“He’s handsome, isn’t he!”

“Such a waste.”

“What did they order?” 

“Oh no, I ordered cob salad too – gay food!” 

“Hush! Don’t be mean.”

“Patrick?”

“Do you think they are having sex yet?”

“I’d like some ice cream, what flavors do you have?”

“Not right now.”

“I mean at home; do you think they are...?”

“Howard looks too tense. If they’d... you know, he’d look more relaxed, wouldn’t he?”

“Parker?”

“Peter!” Howard couldn’t stand it anymore, and turned to snap the correct name at their audience. There was complete silence, a frozen tableau as the patrons stalled in their eating and gossip, forks halfway to their mouths, lips in mid flap.

Howard dropped his eyes, not willing to meet Peter’s as he turned back. Now Peter would know Howard was embarrassed to be seen with him. Ashamed of the sexuality in which Peter took so much pride.

A large hand covered his own. “You get used to it.” Peter’s voice was warm. “It’s the price of fame.”

It was on the tip of Howard’s tongue to correct Peter, to say fame wasn’t the issue. But the look in Peter’s eyes was understanding and Howard realized that Peter had given him a deliberately graceful out. They were both quiet for a moment or two, in a restaurant where there was no sound but the clank of fork and knife on plate. Someone cleared their throat and was shushed by his embarrassed wife, and Howard felt like a heel again. He felt mean for spoiling their fun when he knew they meant no harm.

He turned to the person at whom he’d snapped.  “Peter Molloy, from Inside Entertainment.”

“Oh, yes!” She exclaimed in relief and excitement, the ice broken again. “I watch your show all the time!” Peter beamed, the noise level resumed a more normal level, a few autographs were signed, and Howard offered to buy them both ice cream from a booth in the street. 

Howard fussed and bothered and made an adventurous choice of pecan, while Peter enjoyed double-double chocolate, with chocolate dip and a chocolate dipped cone. “I like a theme to my food,” he confided, leaning into Howard’s space to whisper in his ear as if it was one of the great secrets of the US government.

Trickles of melting ice cream stickied up his fingers and he licked it off as it oozed down the side of the cone. The sun was warm, the breeze was cool, and he was pleased with himself when he didn’t jump three feet sideways when warm fingers entwined with his own.

Down the main street of Greenleaf, Indiana, hand in hand with his... what?  His boyfriend? Why not? He had nothing to hide. Peter was a large, solid presence by his side.  Powerful, sexual, sexy, slurping his ice cream. Howard could see the people staring at their entwined hands. He was mortified. And... a little excited. He was... happy. He was walking three feet off the ground. He stood straight, nearly eye-level with Peter, and matched that wicked grin with one of his own. He wondered if his eyes sparkled as brightly as Peter’s.

Gay. He knew it now. Not a panicked reaction to trapping Emily in a passionless marriage. Not fear of making a huge mistake. And if he’d never found another man attractive, then it was simply because Peter hadn’t been here before. Howard had been waiting, prissy and not knowing how much and what he needed. Needing the wrong things. So Peter had torn his world apart, thrown his sensibility to the four winds. Peter had also put him back together again. Healed Howard with his understanding and humour. And his dimples.

“Happy?” Peter asked, licking away his chocolate mustache.

“Yes. And proud.”

“Oh, pride is such an 80s concept.”

“Maybe so, but I wasn’t gay during the 80s.”

Instead of giving Howard the ‘give it a rest’ expression Howard was expecting, Peter leaned closer and murmured in chocolate scented tones, “Then I guess we have some serious catching up to do!” The rest of the afternoon led into the weekend, and a great deal of catching up was done, and many important questions were answered, once and for all.

 

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