"No work tonight?" He asked.
"No. It's my only day off till after Christmas. Tomorrow I work from seven a.m. to seven p.m."
"Well, that serves me right for leaving the other ambulance squad I worked for and starting over."
"More money though, right?"
We sat, eating in silence for the rest of the meal. He filled up our wine glasses and sat back in his chair staring down at the glass in his hands.
"I think I'm going to head to New Jersey tomorrow." He said and I stopped chewing, feeling a lump in my throat.
"Why?" I asked, when I was able.
"I think it's better, Ryan. I don't want to hurt you and that's all that I seem to be doing. Hurting you and making you angry."
I was shocked and to tell the truth, pissed. I laughed.
"What?" He asked.
"Nothing. Fine. Leave."
"What do you want me to do? I didn't know how to tell you that I cheated but you knew already. How can I expect you to be friends with me much less.... what I want?"
"I don't fucking know, Charlie! All I know is that you come here, worm your way into my house for the holidays, drop this shit in my lap and now you want to leave! So go! Get the fuck out! Why wait till morning?!"
"You want me to stay?" He asked, incredulously.
"I don't know what the fuck I want. I never do when you're around. I want what I shouldn't want, what's bad for me. I wish we could start all over but we just can't."
"Why not?" He asked and reached over to take my hand. His grip was firm and I clasped it back as if I were holding on to a lifeline.
"Because there's so much shit that we'd have to get over and I just don't think you have it in you to put the effort in." I said, coldly but honestly. I felt his grip weaken in my hand.
"You don't trust us. You don't trust me?"
"I don't know that I do."
I let go of his hand, blinked back a few of the tears in my eyes and stood up.
"I think you're right. I think you should go. Second chances never work anyway." I said and headed to my room.
A half hour later, I heard the front door open and close. When I forced myself out into the living room, I saw his bags were packed and the sofa was straightened with the blankets folded. I fell down onto it and shut my eyes against the blinding pain in my chest. I sat there in the dim light of the neighbors Christmas lights shining through my window until I fell asleep.
The next morning I woke to a muffled but insistent and horribly repetitive sound. I opened my eyes and saw the first rays of morning streaming into my living room. The sound I realized was my alarm clock blaring from my bedroom and quickly checked the clock on the cable box. It read 6:30. Fuck! I was going to be late.
I made it barely five minutes after my shift started and that only because I had skipped a shower. Checking the duty roster I saw that I was going to be stationed in the more populated area of Kingston but I was going to be working with the asshole Paul. My day couldn't have gotten any worse.
"Hey, sissy!" Paul called from across the room. "You're late!"
I dropped my gear on the floor and walked over to him, again getting right in his face.
"Listen, you little drop of dick snot," I whispered. "I usually let you say whatever the fuck you want because you're a fucking homophobic moron who doesn't know shit about shit but I swear to God, Paul, if you screw with me today I'll tell everyone here the reason you're always ragging on me is that we had a torrid love affair and I broke it off."
"They won't believe that." He said, in fear.
"Why wouldn't they? You're always saying shit against gays and insulting me. Sounds a little personal, if you ask me. And if you keep up your shit, then I'll start filing sexual harassment charges against you. So whaddya say, Champ? You just stay the fuck away from me and I won't even acknowledge you exist. Can we do that?"
"Yeah." He said, looking down at the floor.
I grabbed my stuff and headed out to the ambulance to do a quick rig check and make sure our supplies were all stocked. Paul had followed me after a few minutes and mumbled that he had already done a rig check. I didn't trust the fuck with most things, but he was a good and conscientious medic so I took his word. I jumped into the passenger seat since I didn't want to drive and closed my eyes as we rode along the city streets. We drove for a while before Paul got the nerve to attempt conversation.
"So-.... so what's up with you today?" I was surprised to hear genuine interest in his voice.
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"You seem.... pissed. I mean, more than usual."
"Are we really going to do this? You're really going to have a conversation with a fag?" I asked and was rewarded with a couple minutes of silence.
"I don't hate fags." He mumbled.
"I don't hate fags. Gay people. I don't hate them."
"Well, that's good. It shows you're one step closer to achieving human being status."
"My brother's gay."
"Seriously?" I asked, genuinely surprised.
"Yeah. My twin brother. I got a lot of shit about it in school. `Are you the one that sucks dick?' or `It doesn't matter, they both suck dick. You know how twins are'."
"Paul, I'm really sorry but you know high school kids are fucking rejects. Think how your brother must have felt. Not only was he getting shit, you were getting shit too. He must have felt guilty. It's not fair but it's not his fault."
"I know. I just... I started with the jokes and shit so that people-."
"Wouldn't think you were gay too."
"Well, guess what. You're an adult now. It's time to put on the big boy pants and get over shit like that."
"I know. I'm sorry for the stuff I've said."
"Whatever. You didn't bother me. I just can't deal with it today." I sat silently for a moment before a random thought crossed my mind. "How are you and your brother now?"
"We don't really talk." Paul said and I saw that it hurt him to admit that. "I said something he overheard and... well, we just don't talk now."
"Maybe I'm not the one you should be apologizing to."
"Yeah, I guess."
Another treasure of silence passed between us, though it was interesting to know where all the homophobic bullshit he spewed came from. The silence didn't last long.
"So why are you so pissed?"
"Paul, I know we've just had a heart to heart and that's an amazing step in our relationship but I really don't think I can talk about this with you. Nothing personal."
"No, I get it. I just figured- I don't know what I figured. Maybe it would help."
I thought about it for a moment and decided that it might not help but what could it hurt.
"My ex who cheated on me and left me two years ago came back and wanted to get back together."
"Wow. That's pretty big."
"Still love him?" I thought about lying but couldn't.
"Gonna give him a chance?"
"No!" I said, with defiance. "No, I'm not. It's done."
"But you still love him."
"And? What the fuck does that have to do with anything?"
"It means that you deserve to give him a chance."
"He doesn't deserve anything!" I spat out. "Look Paul it's nice that you're trying here- actually it's a little weird, but you're young and you'll realize that there are some things you can't get over."
"But you haven't even tried."
"What do you mean?"
"You sound pretty angry. It's been, what, two years since you've seen him? Sounds like you're holding on to that pretty hard, using it more like a hurdle he's gotta jump."
"He CHEATED on me. Do you know what that means?"
"Yeah, I do. I've been there. I've done it and had it happen to me. Sometimes you can get over it and sometimes you can't. But at least be honest and say you're not even trying."
"All right, fine. So how am I supposed to get over it?"
"You believe the person is sorry that it happened."
"You don't let it affect you anymore. Say it's in the past."
"Then forgive the person."
"O.K. I might be able to do that."
"And then you learn how to trust them again."
"Yeah, there's the problem. That I can't do." I said, shaking my head.
"Have you even tried?"
I was saved from having to answer by a call coming over the radio. I had never been so happy to have to deal with a case of food poisoning in my life. After we dropped the patient off at the hospital and cleaned the rig of vomit and God only knows what else, Paul tried to bring up the conversation again to which I staunchly refused to comment. The rest of the day seemed to lag until we were finally off the clock at seven. I left work and headed home, kicking off my shoes and sat down on the couch. Not ten minutes after I got home, the phone rang. I answered.
"I hate you for not being here." Sarah started.
"I know. I miss you too. I REALLY do."
"Why? What's going on?" She asked, her ears always attuned to the presence of drama in one's life.
"Nothing. I just miss you." I said, not wanting to hear her thoughts on Charlie. She would just confuse me and I was already confused enough.
"Life's boring without me, huh?" She asked. `Not so much', I thought.
"Yeah, I feel like I'm losing my mind."
"Well, here's something that will pick up your spirits. You're going to have a little company for the holidays."
"Oh really?" I asked, warily. "Who?"
"Dennis. He felt really bad that you're down there all alone and figured he'd spend some time with you."
"Oh my God." I said, feeling my stomach churn with stress induced acid indigestion.
"I know, isn't it great?"
"Yeah. Really, really great. Listen Sarah, my dinner's burning. I'll call you later, ok?" I hung up the phone before she could respond and refused to answer when she called back.
I shook my head and thought, `this can't be happening. Why did Dennis have to chose now to hang out?' That's when the door bell rang. Figuring it would be Dennis, I tried to put a smile on my face and opened the door to find Charlie standing there with a large Christmas wreath.
"Hey." He said with a smile and walked into the apartment.
"Hey. I thought you left."
"Nope. I moved into a hotel." He handed the wreath over. "This is for you."
"Thanks." I said and took it. I then realized that I was standing in my doorway holding a wreath and looking like a schmuck. "Why did you move into a hotel?"
"I figured that it would be easier this way."
"What would be easier?" I asked. He smiled and held out his hand.
"Hi, I'm Charlie Novak. I'd really like the chance to start over."
"Oh God, Charlie." I stared wide eyed at him. He lowered his hand but his smile didn't diminish.
"I REALLY want to start over Ryan. I want to show you that you can trust me, that you can depend on me and that we can make this work."
"You think it's that easy?"
"No, but I'm willing to do what ever's necessary."
"Why are you doing this?"
"Because you make me happy and because I want to make you happy. Because I feel stronger when you're with me, Ryan and I'll show you that you can believe in that."
"You think that will be enough?"
"Come to dinner with me and find out." He challenged and I thought over the conversation I had with Paul this morning.
"All right, but no Indian." His smile was bright and I wondered for the first time in the longest time if we might actually make this work.
"You don't like Indian anymore? It was your favorite."
"I love Indian but my stomach hates it and I'll be in the bathroom for three days."
"Gotchya. No Indian."
"I'll need to shower." And left to to take the fastest shower I had ever taken. I got out and headed into my bedroom to dress. I threw on a nice pair of jeans and a turtleneck which brought out my eyes.
"Wow." Charlie said as I returned to the living room.
"What?" I asked, worried that I didn't match or something.
"You just look great." My heart skipped a beat. He used to say sweet things like that when we first dated. "I mean, you always do but..."
"Let's go." I said and we left for our `date'.
The restaurant was a nice one, but crowded as hell with all of the holiday shoppers out for a bit of frolicking before heading home. The food was good, the liquor flowed, and the atmosphere was light. I was grateful the ambiance was more festive and not particularly romantic. It led the way for the conversation to be light and easy, which we had always done well. I had been crushed when Charlie left then hurt beyond reason that he had betrayed me but after that had faded I was left missing our friendship more than anything.
"I don't understand." I said, laughing. "She got drunk and did what?"
"Tried to stick her hand down my pants." Charlie answered with a bright grin on his face as he remembered a particular Christmas party that his construction company had hosted.
"Really? How far did she get?"
"Let's just say I've had medical exams that weren't so thorough."
"Pig. You just wanted to see what a woman holding it felt like."
"Let's remember, I was drunk too and she was fast. I mean, one minute we're talking about her husband's new car and then she was grabbing my junk."
"She's what, seventy?"
"She was a very sprightly sixty two at the time."
I chuckled and shook my head at the thought.
"I'm surprised she didn't break her wrist, you're a handful." Charlie looked up at me and his smile widened, while my eyes did in shock. I can't believe I had just said that. "If memory serves." I added lamely.
"You're memory's just fine, Ryan."
I made a mental note to switch to water after I finished my forth glass of wine. My mind swam a bit with the warm, fuzzy feeling of alcohol, good food and happiness. I was on dangerous ground and seemed to be loving it.
"Why don't I pay the check and we'll take a walk down the avenue. They've got it all done up for Christmas." Charlie said, pulling out his wallet.
"Oh, here." I started pulling mine out to contribute to the bill and stopped when he glared at me.
"No, Ryan. Whatever this is, whatever it becomes let me do this. Give me this one night. If you decide you only want to be friends I'll at least have this."
I couldn't answer but to nod and watch as he paid. The temperature outside had dropped by more than a few degrees but the small city I lived in had gone all out for the holidays and the streets were decorated with lights and wreaths. The seasonal decorations tempted a few brave souls out of their houses to walk under them. `Damn,' I thought as we walked down the street pressed close together. `This was romantic'.
"What's wrong?" Charlie asked.
"What? Oh, nothing."
"Don't do that, Ryan. I think if this thing is going to work, especially if neither one of us wants to get hurt more than necessary, we have to be honest with each other. Brutally honest."
"All right." I said and sighed. "I'm feeling confused. This is great, being here with you. I had a great time at dinner and this is romantic. It feels like old times."
"But there was a lot of shit we went through and that brings up bad times."
"I don't have a right to ask you to wipe the slate clean, do I? And that's what I'm doing. I'm not perfect, Ryan. I've got flaws, you know that better than anyone. If you take me back I'll piss you off."
"What?" I asked, surprised that he would say that.
"Come on, how could I not? You're a bit anal, I'm a slob. You're a penny pincher, I spend it like it's going out of style. You're practical, I've got my head in the clouds. We let ourselves get into a bad place last time, we don't have to do that again."
I stopped walking and turned to him.
"So we're just gonna steer clear of that `bad place'?" I asked and actually heard hope in my voice for the first time in a long time.
"Yeah, and we can. But I'll need your help." Charlie said and leaned in as if to kiss me.
"I don't know Charlie-."
"You don't have to, Ryan. I'm gonna give you as long as you need to decide." He didn't step back and his face was mere inches from mine. I could feel his warm breath on my lips. "But while you're making up your mind, I'm gonna do my damnedest to convince you. In fact, I'd like to take you somewhere."
"Where?" I asked suspiciously.
We drove to a club which had closed down a couple years ago because of all the fighting that had gone on. From all of the cars in the parking lot it seemed someone had reopened it and was catering to redneck hicks. Not my type of place and I said as much to Charlie.
"Oh come on! Where's your sense of adventure?" He grinned and got out of the truck leaving me no choice but to follow him.
Inside, the décor definitely convinced me that the ideal clientele of the establishment were those of the `shit-kicker' variety. Country music poured out of the doors, most people wore cowboy boots and there was more flannel and polyester here than one could find at Walmart.
"Charlie, I'm not sure-."
"Just a couple dances. I got into it a few years ago. I think you'll like it." He said, pulling me to the bar and ordering us some beers. He dragged me to the edge of the dance floor where people were spinning, kicking and stepping to the music in sync.
"I can't do that." I promised.
"It helps if you're a bit drunk." He said, but I didn't feel confident and I was pretty sure I was still buzzed. The song changed and he smiled. "This is an easy one. You can do this."
He pulled me onto the floor and made me watch his feet as he began to dance. It was pretty simple and by the time the song ended I had gotten the hang of it and was actually having fun. I figured I'd give it another dance or two and then make him take me home.
They bar closed four hours later after I had stripped down to my t-shirt and stolen a hat from some large woman named Cindy. Charlie helped guide me as we made our way to the truck. I was wasted and I knew it but I also realized I hadn't had that much fun in years. I actually giggled as I climbed onto the passenger seat and Charlie chuckled at my state.
"You ok, tiger?"
"I'm fine." I said and tried to close the door but couldn't seem to manage it. One of the cowboys from inside who had shown me one particular dance walked by.
"You boys have a good night." He called.
"You too, Pete! See you next Saturday." I answered, thinking `when the hell had I decided to come back? When the hell had I learned his name?' and coordinated myself enough to close the door.
"Look at you, making friends."
"Yeah. Pete's good people." I slurred making Charlie chuckle again.
"Jesus, you're bombed."
"Maybe a bit. Which means you can't hold anything I say against me."
"Oh?" He asked. "Why is that?"
"Cause I'm drunk." I said.
"Ok. I promise I won't hold anything you say against you." He started the truck but left it parked. "What do you feel like saying Ryan?" He had lowered his voice when he asked and suddenly the cab of his truck felt very intimate.
"That I love you. I've loved you for so long that I can't remember not loving you. I never believed in love at first sight, I still kind of don't. It's stupid. But the first time I saw you I fell for you really hard, Charlie."
"Oh God, baby." He whispered and leaned across the seat toward me. "You can't say stuff like that to me in a parking lot."
Charlie took my mouth with his and near sucked my soul from my body. I threw my arm around him pulling him closer to me and in seconds I was stretched out across his seat with his hard body on top of mine. His weight felt so good, so right. I knew I didn't want to think too much about what this meant and that if I did, reality would crash down around me and ruin the moment. I moaned, or maybe he did and I felt his hands roam over my body.
"No, Ryan." Charlie said and lifted his head to stare into my eyes. "We can't do it this way. I can't take advantage of you like this. You're blitzed and I don't want you rethinking this in the morning."