"May you live in interesting times," Anya intoned. "Man, I always get that one!"
"In bed," I reminded her saucily.
"Speaking of which… Josh's coming over tonight," she giggled. "Read yours!"
"You are about to embark on a fabulous adventure." I paused for a beat then added, "In bed."
"Well, you are going on a trip tomorrow!" Anya squealed excitedly. "And it's been way too long since you had a man in your bed, mister."
The reminder that I hadn't had any dates since Peter left stung a little. "I hardly think that will be a fabulous adventure, little sis," I scoffed. I still couldn't believe my editor Kate had assigned me a sports article. I wrote music reviews and covered the local music scene. I had my own column on political activism on campus. I was a journalist. I did not write for the fucking sports section.
"Hmm, something just tells me that this trip is going to be good for you," she replied. "You know, something different, maybe shake you out of your lonely funk."
We cleared up together, leaving our fortunes on the table. Maybe.
At five-thirty am the next morning I hoofed it the half-dozen blocks towards campus, messenger bag slung across my shoulders and small overnight bag rolling along behind me, to meet my ride and the subject of my interview. It was too damn early and I couldn't wait for a cup of coffee. I was really hoping to get there first and have a few minutes of just me and my caffeine before I had to deal with Ethan Doyle, incredible hulk, for the next 36 hours. This was going to be one long-ass weekend.
As I got closer to the Sureshot I was dismayed to realize that Ethan had already arrived. I knew him from the track team group photo that Kate had handed me the day she gave me this assignment. The way he was leaning self-assuredly against the wall outside the front door with his ankles crossed languidly in front of him just reinforced my impression of his cockiness. I bit the inside of my cheek trying to school the scowl building on my face. I stopped in front of him and introduced myself.
"Ethan Doyle, right? I'm Mark Ferris from the UW Daily." I offered my hand secretly hoping he wouldn't crush it some caveman grip of dominance. I found a to-go cup in my hand instead.
"Mornin' bro! I got us some java for the road." I stared in surprise at the massive man in front of me.
"Americanas. Hope that's ok. I have a bit of a sweet tooth myself and I tell ya the chai smells fan-fuckin-tastic this morning but I gotta watch the sugar before a meet." He punctuated the statement with two slaps to his stomach with his free hand.
"Uh… yeah… fine. Um, thanks," I stuttered. He had clear blue eyes, a mop of curly black hair, and a charming dimple on each side of his enormous grin that was pretty charismatic when it was aimed in my direction. Too bad I sounded like a moron.
Ethan's empty hand clamped down on my shoulder and he began to guide me down the Ave. "I'm parked just over there," he said, nodding his head towards an old, though shiny, Chevy SUV. "You know, you look different in your picture," he announced, squinting at me.
"Wait, what? When did you see a picture of me?"
"In The Daily. You know that little square one next to your column. You don't wear nerdy glasses in that picture," he teased.
I stared at him in surprise for the second time in as many minutes. "You read my column?"
"Yeah, man," he shrugged and left me standing in front of the passenger door of his ride. "Hop in."
Ten minutes later we had cleared the city and we were cruising south on I-5 towards Portland. I dug through my messenger bag for my mini-recorder, notepad and a pen with one hand while sipping my coffee. Damn, that's good. I had a few questions already prepared but I also understood the art of observation, of sniffing out the scoop. Glancing covertly at Ethan's bulky frame I reminded myself to be on the lookout for signs of steroid use. He was enormous but it was obviously all muscle. That would net me a juicy story though I really hated to resort to that kind of angle in my reporting. But what else of interest would an ego-driven jock have to offer that was newsworthy?
Ethan had offered to drive separately from the team so that we could have the two and a half hour drive time to Portland for the interview. I guessed now was as good a time as any to start. Let the boredom begin.
"So, Ethan," I cleared my throat and pressed the record button on my device. "Why the decathlon?"
Ethan chuckled and scratched his head. "Well," he started, "I guess you already know that decathlon is ten separate track and field events performed by one athlete over a two-day period." He glanced over at me and I nodded. "Decathlon is considered the ultimate test for an individual athlete. It requires one person to master their personal potential for power, endurance, strength, agility and speed more than any other sport."
I rolled my eyes when he wasn't looking. Here comes the ego; that didn't take long.
"You're obviously in amazing physical condition. On the road to Ethan Doyle, World's Greatest Athlete, I take it?" I nudged his ego and mentioned the title bestowed on Olympic gold medal decathlon champions hoping to bait him. That's right, I've done my research, I smirked.
"Yeah, uh, not so much. I'm not in it for a title, man," he disagreed. "You'll see when you meet the decathlon guys from the other schools. There are so few of us we go pretty much unnoticed most of the time. It doesn't really feel like we're competing against each other, you know? Despite being from different schools, it's kinda like we're all on the same team, just guys trying to improve ourselves, to beat our own records." He looked across at me, gauging my reaction.
His face was open with honesty and I wasn't sure what to think about his answer. It didn't seem to be rehearsed or a bullshit answer intended to make a good quote for the paper. In fact, it sounded pretty damn close to the philosophy I applied to my writing: I edited and polished each piece until it was the best I could get it and with each assignment I strove to be a better writer than before. My curiosity was piqued. I shifted in my seat to get a better look at his face while he spoke.
He must have noticed the slight shift in my body language because I saw the hint of a smirk appear on his own face. "So, Mark," he cleared his throat, mimicking me. "You noticed my amazing physical condition, did you?"
"Don't be an ass!" I shot back, sounding as affronted as I felt.
"Now you wanna talk about my ass?" he chortled.
I huffed in frustration, muttering and calling him childish under my breath, just loudly enough to be sure that he could hear me. The smirk stayed on his face so I turned on the radio hoping to distract him from further innuendo about my sexuality.
It fucking figures. I scowled out the window remembering the ridicule and bullying I experienced at the hands of Bobby Patterson, captain of my high school's football team. Fucking Bobby.
I was pissed now. Maybe I'd find my angle after all. I pictured Decathlon Athlete Homophobic in big letters across the top of the sports page. I was trying to think of a clever way to lead that line of questioning when Ethan spoke up first.
"Relax Mark, please. It was just a joke." He cleared his throat again though this time he seemed nervous rather than smug. "I just get, um, a little nervous when people talk about what a big guy I am. Like I'm just this body, you know? I just wanted to blow off your comment with a little humor. I didn't intend for you to take it personally." If his admission to me was unexpected, I was equally unprepared when he reached over to squeeze my shoulder. His touch lasted a beat longer than seemed appropriate for a simple friendly gesture and when his fingers brushed gently across my arm, I felt a pinprick of heat in my cheeks.
"It's fine, whatever." I turned away to stare out the window again wondering why my traitor body had responded to the touch of his hand on my arm. I wasn't into the whole macho muscle-man bear scene. Peter's figure had resembled my own, tall, slim, in shape but not overly muscled and certainly no brainless jock. I fell somewhere between stud and twink on the gay spectrum and so did most of the men that I found attractive. I didn't understand why that brief touch was taking up so much space in my brain and there was something I needed to know right the hell now.
"So what is your stance on homosexuality in athletics?" I challenged.
"What the hell does someone's sexuality have to do with their participation in a sport?" Ethan asked incredulously in return.
I paused, staring him down.
"Nothing in my mind, but not everyone would agree with that statement. Especially in the…" I shook my head with a grimace. My mind flashed painfully back to high school again, thinking over the many indignities I'd both witnessed and suffered.
"In the what…?" he prompted.
"Locker rooms," I bit out tersely.
Ethan's head whipped around in my direction and he spent a moment studying my face before answering. I was frowning at him but I met his gaze fiercely. I don't know what he saw when he looked at me but I saw confusion then understanding cross his features. He took a breath, considering his response.
"A good coach makes sure an athlete learns that everyone deserves respectful treatment, on and off the field." A little more vehemently he continued, "Being an athlete, being physically strong, is no excuse for being a goddamn bully. A good coach nips that shit in the bud."
I didn't know what to say to that at first. With chagrin I realized how limiting my assumptions of him had been, perhaps were still. That wasn't the kind of reporter I wanted to be.
And it's damn sure not the kind of person I want to be, either.
Finally I settled on something to say. "I think you'd make a good coach, Ethan." His eyes twinkled as he flashed a huge grin in my direction, the air between us clear.
We drove for a while without much to say, just listening to the radio. I felt grateful that Ethan and I could agree on road music, settling on a Seattle-based alternative rock station. At the ad break I turned the volume down and began digging into Ethan's background.
He told me about growing up in Tennessee, what he liked about living in the Northwest since coming to UW, and how good the hiking and rock-climbing were both here and at home. He regaled me with stories about going to car shows with his dad, praised his mom's home-cooking and joked about goofing off with his kid sister Cassie. The stories he shared reeled me in little by little and eventually I realized that for each memory he recounted he had somehow lured me into sharing something of myself as well. I'd never done so much of the talking during an interview before.
Ethan was an open book and even though he was ostensibly the subject of the interview, and therefore the conversation, I couldn't help but observe how unassuming and self-effacing he was. Just as he was admitting how much he missed his sister since leaving home, he changed subjects abruptly.
"Damn, the oil light is on again."
I glanced out the window for what seemed like the first time in ages. We'd been driving for a while and seemed to be in a pretty rural stretch of I-5 which meant we were likely about half-way to Portland. I pointed out a sign for Food & Gas at the next exit. We parked at a gas station and looked at the engine. There was some oil seeping out from the gaskets.
"I just replaced these things again last month!"
"Do we have time to let the engine cool down before you check the oil?" I asked him.
Ethan checked his watch. "Yeah. Wanna get something to eat?" He nodded his head in the direction of a diner.
"Sure." I grabbed my stuff from the front seat and Ethan locked up.
I listened as Ethan relayed the recurring oil leak trouble he'd been having with his SUV while we made our way to the diner and found a booth. He'd bought it used and did most of his own maintenance.
I made a humming sound as I thought it over. "I used to work on cars with my dad. If the engine keeps blowing gaskets then it probably means the crankcase valve is jammed."
Ethan eyed me appreciatively. "You know how to fix one of those?"
"They're not too hard to replace." I shrugged and bit into the burger that had just arrived. Three bites in, a big blob of ketchup dripped right onto the front of my favorite black button-up shirt, the one with the pearl snap buttons.
"Fuck!" I muttered and excused myself, heading to the washroom. I took off my shirt and stepped up to the sink to rinse out the ketchup, grateful for the v-neck undershirt I was wearing. The white shirt was thin and fitted my torso closely but it was better than wearing a wet shirt for the next few hours. I didn't usually wear such tight tees but my arms were toned and my abs flat so it looked good on me. I used the facilities and after washing my hands I dried them under the blower. Then I tried drying the wet spot on my shirt under the hot air too. It helped a little.
My glasses were starting to give me a headache so I traded them for my contacts. There was a crease on the bridge of my nose and I tried to rub it away with my finger.
I stalked back to the table and dropped into my seat with a huff, slouching as I ate my fries, without ketchup. It felt significantly colder where we were sitting without my long sleeves. I had goose bumps forming on my arms and my nipples tightened from the cold air blasting down on me from a vent above my head.
I looked up to see Ethan staring at me intently.
"What?" I bit out, a bit more sharply than I intended. It wasn't his fault I dripped ketchup on my shirt like a clumsy fool.
His eyes snapped to mine and the look on his face made the muscles in my belly tighten. Huh. That was… unexpected.
"Nothin', man," he croaked strangely before clearing his throat. "Uh, you gonna finish that burger?" I thought his cheeks were slightly pink.
"Nah, I don't know why I ordered this for breakfast. It's too much fucking food for this early in the morning." I pushed my plate at him, seeing that his was already empty.
The cloud cover was breaking up when we made it back to Ethan's SUV and popped the hood once again. He checked the oil and saw that the engine needed a least a quart added. He grabbed one from the case he kept in the trunk and poured it in while I pointed out the crankcase valve. We didn't have the tools or the time I'd need to fix it so we settled on just feeding the leaky beast for now. Ethan had pushed the sleeves of his shirt up past his elbows to keep it clean but that didn't stop him from getting streaks of dirt and grime all over his hands and forearms. I watched him check the oil level again. His hands were strong and deft, large but handsome. I wondered if the smattering of black hair on his forearms would be soft or wiry under my fingers.
Where the hell did that come from?
I snorted at myself for ogling and looked down at the smudges of grease on my own hands. There were only a few but I wanted to wash up before we got back on the road.
Ethan was leaning against the brick wall next to the gas station washroom, waiting his turn, when I finished and stepped out. He had that same nonchalant pose as when I first met him this morning outside the Sureshot. Looking at him now I didn't see the smug arrogance I had assumed less than two hours ago. Instead I saw a man at ease, a man who respected and valued others as he did himself, a man comfortable in his own skin. I met Ethan's eyes intending to let him know that the washroom was free but the look on his face stopped me in my tracks.
My feet were frozen in place, I was mute, and my breath hitched in my throat. I nodded my head in the direction of the door in lieu of speaking. Ethan pushed himself off the wall and walked toward me silently, his eyes locked on mine up until the moment he passed me. His shoulder brushed mine lightly as he passed and suddenly I was in motion again. My foot released the door and I took off for the truck.
Holy Bedroom Eyes, Batman!
I suppressed a shiver and took a few deep calming breaths, intent on regaining a shred of the objective distance I needed as a reporter.
Back on the road, with the radio on lightly in the background, we returned to our easy conversation. If I worried the atmosphere would be tense between us after that… moment or whatever the hell it was, Ethan's jovial chatter put it out of my mind. I started my mini-recorder again and began a new round of questioning.
I learned that of the ten decathlon events Ethan's favorite was pole vaulting and that his proudest moment on the field was the first time he scored over 5 meters in that event. When I quizzed Ethan on nerves before a meet, worst event, and biggest goof up he answered me with candor. He admitted to pre-meet jitters that ran the gamut from the shakes to puking. He told me that he was rubbish at throwing the javelin because his aim sucked. He shared that his biggest goof up was tripping over thin air on a long jump approach once, landing flat on his face and giving himself a black eye.
He thought he was showing me the worst side of himself. I found myself appreciating him more by the minute. He was honest and imperfect and thoughtful and fucking real.
There was one question left on my list and honestly, the more I learned about Ethan Doyle, the decathlon athlete with the handsome hands, bedroom eyes and a heart of gold, the more I dreaded asking it.
"Love interest?" I kept my head down and eyes focused on my notepad as if the answer to the question was no more interesting to me than the number of hours he spent in the gym.
"I'm interested in love, love just doesn't seem to be interested in me," he deadpanned.
"No significant other? No better half?" I quipped.
He looked at me for a moment as if he wanted to say something but couldn't make up his mind.
"Let's just say there's… someone out there with potential and leave it at that for now, ok?" He smirked and his eyes glittered with mischief. This was the first question he had evaded.
What juicy little secret are you hiding Mr. Doyle?
Ethan was still holding my gaze. I was starting to feel strangely and unbearably tense. I wanted to look away and I didn't want to look away. Finally he broke the connection to concentrate on the road once more.
I looked to the road as well and noticed that our surroundings were getting progressively less rural as we approached the state line. In just minutes we would cross the Columbia River into Oregon and drop right into the suburban sprawl of Portland. I spied the bridge ahead and wondered if it were possible that Ethan was gay or if he was just a very progressive straight man. Then my pervy brain went right into the gutter as I mentally calculated all the most enjoyable ways to find out.
Mount Hood rose in the distance to the east as we crossed the bridge. We entered Portland proper and it didn't take us long to navigate our way to the rec field behind the Portland State University athletics center. Ethan found the UW team bus and parked. His eyes seemed lit from within and I caught onto his rising sense of excitement, matching him grin for grin.
We exited the truck and Ethan pointed out the sidelines and stands where I could sit to watch. He was headed to the locker rooms to find his teammates and prepare for the meet but he left me the keys to the Chevy in case I needed a place to keep my things. I appreciated the trusting gesture. There was time to kill before the meet began and I intended to spend it observing my surroundings with a reporter's eye.