"This really sucks." I lay next to my friend James, touching him at hip, knee and ankle. It was three a.m. and three hours away from him leaving.

"It's only a week," he said.

A week. Might as well be a year. Ten years, a millennium. "Six months I wait for this moment and now you're gone."

"Whose fault is that?" he asked.

"Oh, shut up."

The truth was--if there can be any truth in a situation like this--the fault was equally shared. I had liked him from the first and hadn't done much about it. He, on the other hand, had actively put me off.

It went like this: It was lunchtime on a warm day in June. I usually go to McDonald's, just to get off the property, but that day I didn't. Instead I ate at the food court. Tray in hand, I spotted him sitting alone a table, chin propped on his palm. I walked over for no particular reason and said, "Hey! Books-A-Million, right?"

He looked up from his hardback copy of Wolves of the Calla and squinted through his wire-frame spectacles. He was eating a salad. He smiled rather shyly. "The Coming Global Superstorm," he said in a soft, oddly husky voice. "How are you?"

I grinned, feeling comically pleased. "Great. I can't believe you remembered. It's been what, a month ago?"

He was tall and lean and had a mop of blonde hair reminiscent of Dennis the Menace. His glasses and the spray of freckles across his nose and cheeks didn't help. He wore a crisp gray-striped cotton shirt and and khaki Dockers. "I never forget a purchase," he said. "But I'm terrible with names."

"Martin," I said.


I sat down uninvited and commented on his book. I had read the first three volumes of The Gunslinger series, but had soured on it reading volume four. I didn't like the back story on Susan Delgado.

"I kept him in cocaine before the accident," he said. "Now I keep him in morphine."

I peeled the skin off my Subway sandwich and salted my French-fries. I was conscious of being attracted to James, and that felt very weird. My attraction to members of my fellow sex (no pun intended) was usually limited to the arc of their exposed erections--and then only in pictures. I had never felt attraction for a guy before.

"You like Martin Cruz Smith?" I asked.

"Arkady Renko. He's the coolest."

I thought so too. "Any idea when a new book's due? And if there is one?" After Havana Bay, I had serious doubts about my old friend Arkady.

He shook his head. "I'll try to find out," he said. "Working at Books-A-Million doesn't make me any smarter than the average bear about due dates; it just lets me hear the rumors first. And so far, no rumors."

"That's too bad," I said.

He stabbed a cherry tomato with a plastic fork clasped by long slender fingers, and nodded.

The next time we met was a week later, out in the parking lot. He stood in front of an old brown Toyota with the hood up.

"Everything okay?" I asked.

He pushed hair out of his face and grinned. I noticed, not for the first time, how straight, white and even his teeth were. Today he wore a stiff white shirt and baggy gray slacks with string-loafers. "It thinks it's female," he said. "It has periods of temperament." I was struck again by the softness of his voice. When he bent over to inspect the engine, I looked at his ass.

Stop that! Stop it right now, I berated myself. I had never looked at a male's hindquarters before.

"Battery?" I guessed.

"Battery's new," he said. Off to the west, lightning exploded in the clouds and thunder roared angrily. We both jumped and looked at the sky. "No," he said, looking at the sudden splatters of rain. He slammed the hood closed just as huge splats began peppering the asphalt.

"Get in!" I flung open the car door.

He hesitated a moment, then hunched his shoulders against the rain and ducked around to the other side of my car. Slash-Boom went a lightning bolt not a second later. Rain lashed the parking lot ad car.

"Jesus! I don't believe it." He smeared his glasses on a wet shirt front. "Where did that come from, anyway?" he asked.

I directed him to my glove compartment and its cache of McDonald's napkins. He dried his glasses, then wiped his rain-soaked face and his hair. My windows were turning into impenetrable fog banks by then, so I turned on the defroster.

"Need a ride home?"

He looked from the pouring sky to his car. "No," he said slowly. "I'd only have to find a way back out again. My roomie's a real asshole, so I don't want to ask him. Besides, it always starts in the rain. It's something electrical, I guess. Thanks for asking though."

"Sure." I wanted to sit and chat, but the cloudburst suddenly let up. Thanking me again, he jumped out and ran back to his car. I prayed to whatever god placed hexes on automobile engines but the damned thing started right away. Somebodyup there hates me, I thought.

Our next encounter occurred three months later. By then I was resigned to seeing him only on my weekly excursions into the book store. He had become impersonal now, answering my questions in one or two word sentences, seldom meeting my eye. I never saw him anywhere but the book store, so he was obviously avoiding me. It's one thing to have a girl purposely avoid you; have a guy do it to you sometime.

It was a rainy October evening when I unexpectedly ran into him at a party . . . with another guy.

"Martin," he said, looking almost panicked.

"Well, fancy meeting you here."

The apartment was on the third floor of an off-campus housing unit on Adelphi Road. The University of Maryland, where I attended occasional classes, was just across the road. The apartment belonged to a friend of a friend of a friend, which meant I was barely invited. I was in the company of, of all people, my sister Kierney. I expected her to come bounding up to this decidedly good looking fellow, taking a liking to him, and steal his friendship. It had happened before, though not under these particular circumstances. But then Michael walked up.

"Introduce me to your friend, James." He spoke with a blatantly bad British accent.

James's face darkened. "This is Marty. I work with him at the mall."

Michael looked me up and down and I was suddenly enlightened--and chagrined. He wore a black satin shirt and black leather pants, had slicked back hair flaring into a duck-tail above his collar, and looked just like a cast member from Grease.

"You do books?" he asked.

"No," I said, casting a glance at James. "I do computer games and software."

"You do, do you? That's very interesting. Ever play, Singles: Flirt up you Life?"

"I've sold it," I said.

"Cool game. James and I have a sim running on our computer with two guys. We named them Michael One and Michael Two. Isn't that cute?"

"Cute," I agreed. I every bit expected him to pinch James on the cheek.

"You here with anyone special," he asked.

"My sister," I said. Maybe he was thinking of a foursome.

He laughed. Then Kierney walked up and had the last laugh on him.

Two months later, I looked up from a game I was discussing with some kid, and saw James. He stood ten feet away, hands in his pockets, and looking very embarrassed. He nodded and I suddenly remembered that rainy day out in the parking lot.

"Need a ride home?" I had asked.

He had looked out the window at the pounding rain. Sounding terribly unhappy, he had replied, "No. I'd only have to find a way back out again. My roomie's a real asshole, so I don't want to ask him."

I wanted to kick myself. I said, "Be with you in a moment, James."

He nodded again.

I took lunch early and drifted down to the food court with him. On the way he said, "I wanted to explain about that night."

"No explanation necessary."

"My roommate's an asshole."

"Most roommates are," I agreed. Mine certainly was.

He shrugged and cleared his throat quietly. "I, uh, I'm not like Michael, Martin. I wanted you to know that."

"I didn't think you were," I said. In fact, I didn't know what to think about him. If he was gay, he did a good job disguising it because he didn't act girly. On the other hand, he had that soft voice and winsome manner. Certainly, he had an effect on me.

"I liked it back in June when we struck up a friendship. I've never had friends before and once I had gotten to like you, I began to worry Michael'd step in and ruin it. He has that effect on people."

"I noticed," I said. I also noticed that his face was a fine pink color and he might as well have been wringing his hands.

"I guess what I'm saying is that because I didn't want it ruined, I stepped back before it could happen. I do that a lot. Easier than dealing with the hurt I guess. That's why I have no friends." He laughed, blushing even deeper. "Listen to me. I sound like a Soap Opera or something. Or exactly what I'm trying to tell you I'm not." He looked around, making sure we couldn't be overheard. "Would you--" He hesitated. "--maybe like to go out to a movie, or something like that?"

I was stuck. I liked him, of course, but I wasn't ready for a boy-boy date. At least not yet. "Only if you dress up like a girl," I joked unwisely.

Rather than take offense, he smiled pensively and said: "If it would get you out with me, or in bed with me, I would."

If food or drink were in my mouth, I would have spit it out. As it was, I coughed explosively and looked around in a panic. Then I stared at him.

"What?" he said. Then, "Stop it! You're embarrassing me." His face was beet red and his freckles shown out like beacons. "I wouldn't make a cute girl?"

Taking in the fullness of his mouth, the high cast of his cheekbones and the finely dimpled point of his chin, he might actually be a girl. A little blush, some mascara and lipstick--

"You're staring at me," he complained, looking away. His face was crimson and he stood stoop-shoulder and fidgeting, hands in his pockets. I wanted to kiss him.

"Have you--" I said, and then stopped. "Never mind. Let's eat."

We chose Sbarro's because that was closest. I got a roast beef sandwich and James a salad. We sat at a table as far from anybody as we could get at noon in the food court; we ate in silence. Finally, leaning close so as not to be overheard, I told him: "I have to admit, I am attracted to you. It's just a little, you know, unsettling."

"I know that." He brushed back his hair in a decidedly feminine manner and I shivered. He had never done that before.

I said, "This is gonna sound strange, but do you like me as a guy likes another guy? Or as a girl likes a guy?"

He piddled with a slice of tomato, then chased croutons around his plate. "I don't know," he said finally. "Is there a difference?"

"I'm not sure," I said honestly. "Maybe I'm more attracted James the Pretend Girlfriend, than to James the Imitation Boy. Does that make sense?"

He laughed softly. "As much as anything has this morning." He looked up from beneath his bangs and I almost kissed him again. Instead, I asked him out.

* * *

Our first "date" was Friday night. I spent the entire next day suffering sweaty palms and itchy underarms. I wanted to throttle every kid I saw. I wanted to throttle half of their mothers and most of their dads. I made five o'clock, somehow.

At six-thirty I went to pick him up. He shared an apartment with Michael in Columbia, on a back street you needed GPS guidance to find. I was driving a Honda CR-V, having traded up from my previous wheels three weeks before. I wasn't sure James even knew I had it. One more thing stressing me out.

At seven o'clock he came down the apartment's front steps and onto the curved sidewalk to the parking lot. I had been instructed not to call, even though Michael was out. I assumed there was Caller ID. When he appeared, my jaw dropped.

He wore a cream-colored jacket over a powder-blue knit top and tight jeans. There were brand new Reeboks' on his feet, ankle socks underneath. A purse was slung over his right shoulder which he clasped with both hands. His walk had a distinct, well, gyration.

"James?" I whispered as he approached the car.

Either he saw my surprised whisper or was just exploding with excitement because his face burst into a sudden gorgeous grin and he laughed. He left the shelter of the building and wind caught his hair and he quickly ducked into it, holding it both sides. No longer was it a "Dennis the Menace" mop. It was now swept back on the right and held in place by several silver clips. The rest looked both stiff and spiky--perfectly fashionable. He hurried the rest of the way to the car and got in.

"Hi!" he gushed.

"Hi," I replied. I had rocks in my mouth.

He suddenly giggled and it was as girlish a giggle as I'd ever heard. "James?" I asked, making him giggle more. He leaned over and kissed my cheek.

"Cut that out," I said. I looked everywhere, both embarrassed and titillated. My heart skipped like a seven-year old playing hopscotch. With eyeliner and mascara, with blush on his cheeks, lipstick making his mouth a luscious pink, he was less boy acting girl, than girl-representative. "Wow," I said, feeling my color rise.

"You like?"

"You've done this before, haven't you, James."

He bit his lower lip fetchingly. "Are you mad?" His voice was an octave higher now, not as girl-representative as my sister's perhaps, but higher. He looked at me tentatively, as other prospective bed-partners have looked at me in the past. Only he was a guy.

"You look wonderful," I said honestly.

He smiled. "Thank you. So do you."

My ears rang and blood pounded in my temples. "I'm having a hard time seeing you as a James, James. What do I call you?"

"Jamie. Or Janelle. I've gone by both."

Now, insanely, that made me jealous. Unbearably jealous. "No, no, no," I said, laughing and shaking my head. "You tell me this is new, James. This is something no one's ever experienced before."

He bit his lower lip again, only now in exasperation. "You are mad at me."

I sighed. "I don't know what I am. I look at you and . . ."

"And what?" when I trailed off.

I searched for words. "Lets go eat dinner."

We dined at Chilli's. At the table, I watched and cataloged her. She had traded her wire-rimmed glasses for tortoise shell. She clasped the fork delicately in her left hand, cutting properly with her right. Her fingernails were long and lavender, with painted designs on the tips. She wore a silver bracelet on her right wrist, a silver wristwatch on her left, and a diamond pendant around her neck. She had breasts. Not big breasts, not big enough to call attention to herself, but enough to make me wonder. She chewed as I imagined a girl might chew, and swallowed with no bob of an Adam's apple. I thought all guy's had Adam's apples; I must have been mistaken.

Without looking up, she said, "Concentrate on me any harder, Martin, and I might become hypnotized."

I smiled. "I'm thinking of you as a girl right now, you know that, don't you?"

"That was my general intention. You're more comfortable with a girl. I have serious doubts about your homosexuality, Martin."

"You might have to remove your own clothing," I said.

"Who said I'd let you?" She sipped her diet-Coke. She smiled at me. "All joking aside, I'm not used to dating. You'll have to take it slow with me tonight. Otherwise I might turn tail on you and run like a doe."

I wondered what her tail looked like, running or otherwise. "Can I ask you something personal?"

"Ask me anything you want," she said, sipping again.

"How much do you really like me?"

She laughed softly. "I think you know the answer to that."

"Enough to have sex with me?"

She stopped sucking and looked around. "You know what you're asking, Martin?"

"I do."

"No," she said. "You don't."

I tried another tack. "How about Michael? Are you committed to him?"

She shrugged. "It's not that simple."

"Nothing's that simple," I said. "You're a cross-dressing fag with a gorgeous figure and I'm a closet homosexual asking you for sex. Simple doesn't exist for us."

"You think my figure's gorgeous?" she asked.

"Come on."

She put the drink down and leaned toward me. Closeup, I saw that she had facial hair, very fine and soft. She hadn't shaved. I also noticed that her sideburns tapered to delicate points and that her eyebrows were plucked. I was noticing a lot of things about her tonight. To stop her from saying anything, I leaned forward and kissed her.

* * *

"I've been wanting to see this," she said.

We pushed through the crowd outside the Muvico Theaters, hand-in-hand, me leading the way. It was opening night for the new STAR TREK movie, and I had the tickets.

"I am so glad you ordered online," she said, looking at the crowd.

At the refreshments counter I ordered a big bag of popcorn and two diet-Cokes. She wanted candy, as well, but couldn't make up her mind. Watching her bent over the selection gave me an erection. I wanted to grab her butt and grind up against her. We walked hand-in-hand into the theater.

"Do I pass a a girl?" she asked.

"I'm more convinced by the moment that you actually are a girl. Or a girl playing at a guy playing a girl."

She laughed and squeezed my hand.

We sat in the back row and shared small-talk and popcorn and then whispers and popcorn once the movie started. The crew of Enterprise G looked absurdly aged in this movie, but it didn't diminish the action. In fact, it was the best STAR TREK movie I'd seen. I held Jamie's hand and played touchy-feely along her inner thigh. I had nothing close to the courage, however, to approach her crotch. Halfway through the movie, I realized she was staring at me intently. I kissed her.

"I want you," she breathed into my mouth.

"I want you too." My hand was on her ribs, just below her bra strap and she felt all trembly and hot.

"Think anyone would care if we fucked?" she asked.

I managed not to laugh. "I could ask."

"Would you please? Would you pretty please?"

I drew her to me and lifted her from her seat. She swung effortlessly over the armrest and into my lap, straddling me, arms locked around my neck, tongue deep in my mouth. People turned around to see this sudden competition to the movie; we didn't care. I encircled her waist with my arms and forced myself into her crotch. She moaned loudly and we had to stop.

When the movie ended, we were ogled with varying degrees of good humor, envy, and disapproval. I weathered the stares with a good-natured smile; Jamie stared at the floor. Outside, we laughed and headed for the mall entrance. Michael caught up with us at the door.

"Michael!" She looked everywhere around us, at once terrified and angry. "What are you doing here?"

Her roommate said sarcastically: "A movie, you said? You didn't tell me who with, love." He was white with suppressed rage but evidently not surprised at her appearance.

"Come on," I said, leading her away. Michael matched our stride.

"You look great tonight," he said, echoing my earlier statement. "Too bad your lipstick's mussed." He held out a napkin.


I stopped, halfway to the car. "Look, Michael," I said. "You're--"

He hit me so fast I didn't even see him. One moment I was speaking, the next I was on the ground, him kneeling on my back, my face ground into the asphalt. "Jesus!" I sputtered. "Get off of me, you clown!"

"Let me tell you something mate," he said, "I--"

"Michael! For God's sake! What are you doing!" Jamie wailed.

He ignored her histrionics. "I'm gonna tell you this once, mate. So listen carefully." His left hand ground my face harder into the pavement while his right one sought out my balls. I grimaced in agony as he continued in his fake British accent. "The lady--or laddy, if you like-- belongs to me. I don't like blokes jumpin' my turf just as I'm sure you don't like someone jumpin' your's. I don't go round and bangin' your little sister--"

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