A Friend in NeedbyRalphyNJ©
[This story is fiction. It includes depictions of unsafe sexual practices. Such practices would be reckless in real life, and the author cautions strongly against them.]
I had been working at Simpson & Garvey for about two years when I was assigned to train a new employee in company procedures. The new man's name was Todd.
In contrast to the impression given by his close-cropped hair and muscular build, Todd was shy and reserved, never speaking to anyone unless they spoke to him first. He kept to himself and never joined in gossip sessions, even as a spectator. However, whenever I had occasion to confer with him he was cooperative, if somewhat ... jumpy, as if he were expecting to be attacked.
He was an enigma, and it made me curious. I began striking up conversations regardless of whether the work actually required it, and I broadened them to include topics other than our job. He was always responsive, but his timidity made it difficult to speak with him for any length of time. His wore a chronically gloomy expression and seemed a bit ... lost.
It made me sad to see how unhappy he was, so after a few weeks I went over to him in the company cafeteria, where he was sitting alone eating lunch, and asked if I could join him. He nodded, and waved a welcoming hand toward an empty chair.
The informal atmosphere of the cafeteria apparently relaxed him, and we had a pleasant, relatively easy conversation. I found him surprisingly likeable.
Ok, so he wasn't bad to look at either: His handsome face, graced by riveting green eyes, was crowned by a crop of slightly wavy, chestnut-brown hair whose luster was increasingly noticeable as he gradually let it grow longer. Also, his figure gave evidence of regular workouts.
So I liked what I saw. So sue me.
After that first chat, we ate lunch together every day, and got to know each other better. During one of our lunchtime conversations, I mentioned that I was gay. I've never tried to hide it, but ordinarily I don't bring it up in casual conversation. In this case, though, in view of our developing friendship I thought he should know.
It didn't appear to bother him.
We talked about a wide variety of things, including our families. I told him about my wonderful, understanding and accepting parents and about my sister, who I love more than life. He told me about his father, whose accounts of combat experiences as a marine had fascinated Todd, and his late mother, who had devoted her life to making a good home for her husband and her child. We also talked about current events and I found that, notwithstanding Todd's powerful-looking body and his interest in his father's war stories, he was averse to violence and expressed genuine sorrow whenever we discussed news reports of brutal or sadistic behavior.
One day I asked him what he did before coming to Simpson & Garvey, although I was pretty sure I already knew. He gave me an evasive answer. Clearly he didn't want to talk about his recent past. I couldn't be sure whether it was out of shame, or embarrassment, or because he found it too painful.
Todd and I have somewhat contrasting builds: He's more brawny, but I'm several inches taller. Some of the elderly coworkers, seeing us together so frequently, began referring to us as 'Mutt and Jeff', the title characters in an old comic strip about two friends one of whom was tall and skinny, the other short and squat. Todd is no shorter than average, and husky but definitely not overweight. I'm slim but not skinny, and our height difference is nowhere near as large as that in the comic strip, but the nickname stuck. I found it irritating; Todd brushed it off as a trivial matter. His reaction was "Don't sweat the small stuff, it's not worth the effort."
The better I got to know him, the more I liked him.
We had been eating lunch together for a little more than a month when I decided to invite him to my apartment for the following Saturday evening. He appeared happy to get the invitation.
That Saturday after dinner, we went into my living room for an evening of comfortable conversation. Todd looked around for a minute and then went over to one of the chairs. "Do you mind if I move this?" he asked.
That seemed out of character; he had never struck me as a fussy person. However, I certainly had no objection, and I told him so.
I chose the couch.
As we sat chatting amiably, I happened to glance through the window near Todd's chair and noticed distant lightning. A few minutes later I heard faint rumbles of thunder. A storm was approaching.
All at once there was a bright flash. Todd jumped as if something had bitten him.
"Lightening" I said, thinking he might have suspected an electrical problem in the apartment. "We're going to get a storm."
He got up and, looked out the window at the gathering clouds. Then he let out a nervous laugh and sat down again, looking uneasy. "It kind of startled me" he offered apologetically.
A few seconds later there was another flash, followed by a loud clap of thunder. He dove to the floor, yelling "Incoming!" and crouched with his hands clasped over his head.
Another bright flash, and a louder boom. Still on his knees he curled up into a ball and started to tremble.
I now knew why he had moved the chair: He had placed it away from the window and close to the wall, so that nothing unseen could get behind it.
I got off the couch and knelt next to him. "I'm going to put my hand on your back" I told him, not wanting my gesture to frighten him even more.
Under my hand, his trembling stopped, but he remained curled up and kept his head covered.
Another boom. He moaned.
"It's a thunderstorm, Todd" I said softly.
He took his hands away, turned to me and began to speak, but more thunder caused him to cover his head again.
"Todd, it's not artillery" I said in as reassuring a tone as I could produce, "It's thunder."
I kept my hand on his back, now rubbing soothingly.
When there was a lull in the storm, I extended my hand and said "Come sit on the couch with me."
At first he didn't move, but after a few minutes of quiet outside he accepted my hand.
As we were sitting side by side, there was a new clap of thunder. Todd was halfway off the couch before I managed to grab him around the waist. "No Todd, stay here!" I ordered, using all my strength to keep him from diving to the floor. Impetuously I added: "You're safe now, I'm keeping you safe."
More thunder. He yelped, and unable to break out of my grip he turned and threw himself against me, possibly having meant to land against the back of the couch. The force of his lunge knocked the wind out of me and caused me to let go, but he didn't break away. Instead, he buried his face in the hollow of my shoulder, threw his arms around me, and held on as if for dear life.
The thunder increased, and he started to whimper. I put an arm around him and placed my free hand protectively on the back of his head.
The storm raged outside, and I listened helplessly to Todd's muffled cries of terror while he fought to regain control. As lightning continued to illuminate the room and loud thunderclaps echoed, he went through bouts of moaning and sobbing, alternating with "I'm sorry, Shawn, I'm sorry."
I stroked his head and responded each time: "It's alright. Just let it out."
After a few minutes, I said: "The storm can't hurt you here, Todd. You're safe."
When the storm waned, he became calm. He released me and raised his head.
Keeping one arm around him, I reached over to the box of tissues on the end table and took one out. I was about to hand it to him, but I changed my mind and wiped away his tears myself. He submitted like a young child, looking at me with a face of utter woe.
I drew out another tissue and handed it to him. He blew his nose, ignored the hand I offered for the used tissue, and stuffed it into a pocket, saying "You shouldn't have to deal with this." I wondered whether he was talking about the tissue or his meltdown.
His next statement resolved the question: "I shouldn't have come here."
Continuing to hold him, I asked: "Where did you serve?"
"How did you know I was in the military?"
"Your haircut when you started at the company; and you shouted 'incoming' when you heard the thunder. It wouldn't have taken a Sherlock Holmes to figure out what you've been doing these past few years. What branch? And where?"
"Marines. Three tours in Iraq, two in Afghanistan. Were you in the service?"
"Yes, but I never saw combat. I can't even imagine what you must have been through, what you must have seen."
The storm was almost gone now. There were occasional lightning flashes, but they were faint and the thunder was distant. He wasn't reacting.
Then there was one last bright flash. He threw his arms around me again and pushed his face against my chest. Feeling the large wet area he had produced earlier, he said "I got your shirt all wet. I'm sorry."
"It'll dry" I replied, putting my other arm around him. "It's nothing to worry about."
We sat that way for a while. Then I asked: "How are you sleeping these days?"
He turned his head to the side but kept it against my chest. "I'm not. Not much, anyway."
"And when you do; nightmares?"
"How long since you were discharged?"
"It'll be three months this Friday."
"You know, don't you, that you're suffering from post-traumatic shock? Have you talked to anyone about it, I mean a professional?"
"Todd, you need to talk to someone. Post traumatic shock disorder is serious. It doesn't go away on its own, and it could destroy you. If you don't go to see someone soon, I'll bug the hell out of you until you do. PTSD could cost you your life. I like you too much to stand by and watch that happen."
He turned his face up and looked at me quizzically, apparently surprised to hear that I cared about him.
"I'm serious" I said.
He looked down again and for a minute he didn't speak. Then he told me: "Our base was shelled almost every day. Mostly RPG's. We never knew when one would come over the walls. It could be day or night."
"That must have been torture."
"And they got the range down pretty good. I saw guys get blown apart right on base. Once a ripped-off arm hit me in the face."
For a long time after that he was lost in thought. Then he continued. His cheek was against my chest and I could feel the movement of his jaw as he recounted another horror. "Our vehicle got hit by a roadside bomb. It rolled over a few times and landed on its roof. A couple of the guys were killed. But I wasn't even wounded. I just couldn't hear much for a week or so."
I tried to think of something useful to say. I couldn't.
I waited, but he didn't say anything more about it. Again he didn't say anything at all for a long time.
I decided to ask the obvious question: "Do you feel guilty that they were killed and you weren't?"
After a pause: "I don't know." And after another pause: "Yeah, I guess so."
"You said it was a roadside bomb."
"How was that your fault?"
"I don't think it's my fault, only it seems ... I don't know."
"Todd, you need to see someone. You're feeling survivor's guilt. It's common, and a professional can help you with it. If you don't do something about this, it will eat you up."
Another consideration now occurred to me: "Are you afraid that if you go for therapy other marines will find out and think you're a wimp?"
"It did cross my mind" he admitted. "Marines aren't supposed to need that."
"That view is changing fast. Hey, suppose I go with you. I don't mean into the room with the therapist, just to the office, so you can tell your buddies I'm going to a therapist and you're coming along for moral support. I'll back you up."
"You would do that?"
He raised his head and for the first time that evening, he smiled. In fact it was the first time I had ever seen him smile.
He has a beautiful smile.
Then he sighed, but still smiling he once again put his head down on my chest. "Thank you."
I waited to hear whether he had more to say.
After a few minutes I felt his arms slowly sink to the couch. I looked down at him. He was asleep.
I was besieged by conflicting emotions as Todd slept quietly in my arms: It had been heartrending to see him so consumed by guilt and fear, and so in need of comforting, but those were my very reasons for holding him, and holding him felt very good. Compassion and pleasure were mixed with shame that my pleasure was a result of Todd's misery.
I gazed at my sleeping friend. He looked adorable. I wanted to run my fingers through his hair. I wanted to kiss him. It was not just sympathy I was feeling - I was strongly attracted. I lamented that he was straight and nothing could come of this.
His dive against me at the beginning of the storm had left lying across my lap, held partly upright by my supporting arm around his shoulders. Acting on impulse, I turned him toward me, reached around with my free hand, and cupped a cheek of his behind. I hoped it wouldn't wake him.
Half an hour later he opened his eyes and looked up at me. "Did I fall asleep?"
"No, that was good. You looked so serene I wouldn't even have considered waking you unless the house had caught fire."
"It was good. It's the best sleep I've had since I don't know when. How long was I out?"
"Not long" I answered. "About half an hour."
He made no comment about my impetuous hand on his behind. Instead, he asked: "Have you been holding me the whole time?"
"Yes. I didn't want to rouse you by putting you down on the couch."
"That was ... very kind."
He didn't speak for a while. Then he said: "Thanks for getting me under control before. I'm sorry I lost it like that."
"You have nothing to be sorry for" I assured him. "So stop apologizing. You've been through hell. You have a right to lose it from time to time. I'm glad I could help."
"And I'm glad I was here when it happened" he said. "Most of all, thank you for understanding. My family and my friends think I should just be able to put it all behind me now that I'm home. They don't know it doesn't work that way."
He looked at his watch and mumbled "It's getting late." But he made no move to leave. He was waiting for me to end the visit.
"Todd, I have a guest room" I told him. "Would you rather stay here tonight?"
He looked at me as if I had just relieved him of a heavy weight. "Yes."
"Then" I said, "we should both be getting to bed."
I showed him to the guest room and pointed at a door and said "The bathroom has a shower." Then I reached into a drawer and handed him a pair of briefs. "I don't have pajamas, but you can wear these overnight if you like. In the morning I'll bring you fresh ones along with socks and a T-shirt."
As he took the underwear, he began: "Shawn, about before ..."
"What about before?"
"I shouldn't have broken down that way. I apologize."
"Stop that! I told you, nothing you did warrants an apology. So relax." I had an urge to hug him, but decided that it might spook him.
He thanked me, and undressed without waiting for me to leave the room.
I tried not to be obvious as I checked him out. He was built like some of the football players I had secretly ogled in college locker rooms: Broad shoulders, muscular back, a stunning rear end, and powerful-looking legs; overall a well-proportioned body that went nicely with his enchanting eyes. Best of all, unlike many of the football players, his body was free of hair except for his currently unruly brown locks, wisps of beige hair in his armpits, and a downy dusting on his arms. His skin everywhere else was completely smooth.
I didn't get a look at his 'package', because his back was to me.
He put on the briefs and said "Thanks for everything, Shawn." Then he bid me goodnight and crawled into bed.
As I was leaving, I turned to him. "Todd, if you need anything during the night, even if you just want to talk, please let me know. Ok?"
"Ok" he answered. "Thanks."
I usually sleep in the raw, but with Todd in the house I decided to wear briefs to bed.
I spent time thinking about him before I fell asleep.
Sometime later I was awakened by a rustling sound. I turned my head and in the dim light I made out a figure settling very slowly into the upholstered chair across the room.
"Todd? What's the matter?"
"I'm sorry" he answered. "I didn't mean to wake you."
"I told you to wake me if you needed anything. What's wrong?"
"I didn't want to be alone. Is it ok if I sleep in this chair?"
"Yes, but you don't need to. This is a king-size bed. Come on." And I lifted the blanket.
He didn't move at first. Then, hesitantly, he rose and came to the bed.
He got in, I pulled the covers up and turned onto my side, facing away from him as I said "Goodnight."
I was hoping he would fall asleep easily now, but I could hear that he was restless. I turned and faced him. "What's troubling you?" I asked.
He chuckled. "I'm not used to sleeping with a man."
I silently wondered 'With any man, or specifically with a gay man?' But what I said was: "I'm harmless. Go to sleep." And I turned away again.
Because of Todd's unfamiliar if welcome presence, it took me a long time to drift off.
I'm not sure how long it was after I finally got back to sleep, but I was awakened once more, this time by someone speaking. I listened. Todd was mumbling unintelligibly.
I looked at the clock. It was 3:15.
The mumbling got louder, and then he began to groan.
I turned toward him. His eyes were closed.
Suddenly, he shouted "No!" and started to thrash around.
I grabbed his shoulders. "Todd, you're having a nightmare."
I had to say it twice before his thrashing stopped and he opened sleep-glazed eyes. When he saw me, he looked confused for a few moments and then I saw tears in his eyes. "Oh Shawn I'm sorry. I shouldn't have come in here. You don't need me waking you up."
"I told you to wake me" I reminded him. "I'm glad you were here with me so I could stop the nightmare."
He managed a faint smile. "What did I do to deserve a friend as good as you?"
I took my hands from his shoulders and smiled at him. "Go back to sleep."
We both turned away.
I could hear that he was still restless. Then I heard: "Shawn?"
"Could I ... Would it be ... alright if ..."
"Todd, what is it? Tell me."
"Could I maybe ... kind of ... hold onto you for a minute?"
"Of course" I answered.
He put a hand on my side, but remained at a distance.
"Todd, are you comfortable reaching from all the way over there?" I asked.
"I didn't think so. You can move closer, I won't attack you."
He moved right up against me. No halfway measures for Todd.
His hand remained on my side. I took it and pulled his arm around me, adding "And I don't bite."
It was no more than a minute or two before his slow, even breathing told me that he had fallen asleep.
The next morning, I woke up first. His arm was still around me. Needing to use the bathroom, I tried to move it and get out of bed slowly enough not to disturb him, but he woke up. "Good morning" he said groggily. "What time is it?"
"It's early" I answered. "I'm going to get up, but you can sleep as long as you need to. It's Sunday. We don't have to go to work."
I put out a fresh pair of briefs and socks for him. As I was about to leave the room, he told me: "I only had one nightmare last night, Shawn. I have you to thank for that." Then he began to pull the blanket down. "Hey, I've been enough trouble. I should be getting home."