I don't know what to say about the next few weeks. They rapidly became a blur of sameness. I went to the site, making excellent progress in determining how the transformation I envisioned was going to take place. The rest of the time I operated in a daze.
I couldn't tell you what I ate or where. I grabbed a lot of fast food on my way back home from Lynx Woods -- funny how that name stuck, even though officially it was known as Thurlow Site 1629, Project 23 -- and probably had an even more official name in the government books. I'm sure my cholesterol count rose several points following Michael's departure.
I don't even know if you could describe me as lonely. I didn't let myself think enough to be cognizant I was alone.
The project entered its second phase. The trucks and their crews moved in and at first things seemed to get worse. The ground was torn up and what few plants and scrubby trees had managed to eke out a living in the hard pack clay were ripped up. Only the willow was carefully skirted; the work that had to be done near it would be done by hand tools and grunt work.
Not that it all wasn't grunt work.
Twelve hour days became the norm and I came home each night exhausted. I was grateful for the need to do little more than to fall into bed and sleep six hours before waking up to start the grind all over.
I continued to add to my picture gallery. When I heard that Charlie had gone back to Tennessee I spent one Saturday going over digital images and selecting several I thought he might find useful. I emailed them off to him and got back a terse, thanks, they'll come in handy.
I sent a reply saying no problem, I had more if he wanted them. Then I asked how the four panels were doing and he was noncommital. He was still working out the exact design of them. He'd let me know.
I arrived at the site one morning to find a heavy fog had blanketed the area. I wandered down to where the willow tree lapped at the shores of the muddy brown river and startled another blue heron. Or the same one, who could tell. Fringes of mist curled around the base of the willow, moving silently through the soft weeping fronds. I pulled out the digital camera and began to capture images. I examined each one after and deleted some, made hardware adjustments and took some more.
I sent a dozen of them to Charles and this time I got an enthusiastic reply.
Fantastic shots. Could I try for more? I began scouring the weather channel for changing temperatures that might trigger an early morning fog.
And got lucky. This time when I drove into the site, the fog was so thick it seemed to encase the Landrover in wet cotton. I crept out of the vehicle and moving as silently as I could I headed toward the willow. The site was so preternaturally quiet I could hear the river gurgling along the muddy shore on its sluggish way downstream. I heard a nearby blue jay scream and a more distant one answer. There was movement near the tree and I froze, camera ready.
Three deer, a young two prong buck and two does stepped out of the roiling mist and passed like golden brown ghosts within two meters of me. They circled the willow and the buck paused briefly to taste the rough bark before following the does.
They vanished into the mist as silently as they had come. If it wasn't for a steaming pile of deer droppings one of them had left behind it might have seemed like a dream.
That night I enthusiastically wrote a long email about my work at the site, the deer, the fog and added as an after thought: Michael's gone. I'm alone now.
He wrote back thanking me for all the images. He said he was sorry about Michael. That he was alone too. It was a bitch sometimes but that was the way of it.
That night I took the digital camera upstairs with me. I took a few shots of the fish tank - I was keeping an online record of growth and changes - then lay back on the bed and dumped the camera beside me.
I began leafing through a stroke magazine, and almost idly reached in and pulled my semi hard dick out. I fondled it lazily until it grew to full hardness then flipped the page and found myself staring at a bronze skinned hunk with sultry eyes and a luscious looking brown cock that reminded me painfully of Charlie's. I began to pull at my cock in earnest. Then my eyes snapped to the digital camera.
Don't ask me what came over me. But I started shooting pictures of myself. My erection grew stronger as I captured stroke after stroke. My chest started heaving and I sighed when I shot my load onto my abs. Once I had cleaned up I began skimming through the shots I had taken.
Some of them looked downright silly. Others were hot. And that gave me the idea. I picked out two that showed more upper body shots and loaded them onto my laptop. There I cropped them carefully, removing all traces of my actual erection but leaving in the site of my sweat sheened chest and the expression on my face which made it clear what I was doing.
Then before I could chicken out and change my mind I emailed them to Charlie with the simple words: I miss you.
And got a very thunderous silence back.
"What the hell did you expect?" I castigated myself. "That he'd wallpaper his studio with them?"
The project work load increased even more. We brought in nearly two dozen mature paper birches and larch trees for the site. Next spring I would return to plant a hundred more saplings. For now the mature trees would help anchor the newly laid down soil and lock it in place, safe from further erosion. Other plants would go in to facilitate that. Ground hugging ivies and fast growing native grasses would tie the soil down and keep it from washing away.
The spring I had discovered was carefully cleaned up and planted with native bog plants. Cattails now swayed in the early morning breezes all the way down to the river and I began to hear the familiar konk-la-reee cry of returning red wing blackbirds.
No more foggy mornings greeted me which was just as well. I wasn't sure I'd photograph it or, if I did, send the images. I hadn't heard squat from Charlie since my impetuous act and by now I didn't expect I would. He would be back for the unveiling of the site, which would coincide with the completion of his panel pieces. I wasn't sure if I looked forward to seeing him then or not.
I was kept up to date on the progress of the paintings by Thurlow. He positively glowed whenever he spoke of Charlie and his work. I nodded and smiled at every word, aching a little each time Charlie's name was mentioned, but giving nothing away to anybody. Not even Michael when he called occasionally to see how I was doing. The honeymoon phase was still going strong with Donny and it stung sometimes to hear the warm passion in Michael's voice whenever he mentioned his lover. I hated to admit it but I missed the little queen.
Friday night finally arrived after an especially grueling week. A newly planted paper birch had been damaged by one of the trucks and I'd had a hell of a time sorting out what had happened. The trees were insured, but the paperwork was a bitch. It was nearly six by the time I finished up with that and crawled into my Landrover for the ninety minute drive back to Broadview. More if traffic was backed up.
It was and it wasn't until nearly nine o'clock that I put the truck into my leased parking space and trudged through the deepening dusk for home.
My heart dove into my throat when a shadow detached itself from my front step and came out to meet me. Christ, mugged on my own front door -- I could see the goddamn headlines now.
Then the shadow stepped into the light and I saw who it was. My heart did a different dance.
"Can I come in?"
"What - oh, sure." I slid the key into the deadbolt and sprung it. I shoved the door open and waved him to precede me. I closed and locked it behind us.
Leading him into the living room I took off my jacket and regretted it instantly. I had spent the day sweating over ruined trees then later over insurance forms. I stank. I had to do something about that.
"Want a beer? I've got Sleeman's and Riccard's Red."
"I'll - Sleeman's I guess. Thanks." He took the beer and cradled it in his work roughened hands. I watched him peel back one corner of the label. "Listen, Ty, we need to talk --"
I put my hand up. "Can you hold that thought for five minutes. I've been out at Lynx Woods almost twelve hours. I'm overripe, if you get my drift. Just let me grab a quick shower and I'll be right with you, I swear."
"Sure, okay." Charlie sank back into the overstuffed love seat that faced the empty fireplace.
"Want some peanuts or chips or something while you're waiting?"
"Nah," he said. "That's okay. I had a snack on the plane."
Charlie flushed and looked at the wall over the fireplace. It sported a huge Andy Warhol print of Mick Jagger, a gift from the lover before Michael. "I was in a hurry."
With that ambiguous statement ringing in my head I hurried up stairs to take that shower. I returned to the first floor fifteen minutes later wearing a casual set of tan cargo pants and a La Costa T-shirt.
Now that I had time to look at him, Charlie looked... rumpled was the best word I guess. He hadn't been a fancy dresser when I knew him, nor was he the type to fuss about his clothes once they were on. But he had always looked neat. Hell, he'd look delicious in damned near anything he wore.
Now he looked like he had slept in what he was wearing. For days. Maybe it had been a bad flight.
"You want to go for supper?" I said softly. Whatever he wanted to talk about seemed to be stressing him out. Maybe a calming down period would help.
"What did you have in mind?"
"We could walk up to the Danforth. There's some great Greek places up there. Or Tex-Mex or Irish."
"Greek sounds good. Love lamb."
The weather had turned chilly once the sun went down. I grabbed another jacket and when I realized he didn't have one, dug through my closet until I found an old leather thing I hadn't worn in years. It fit him well enough that he wouldn't freeze to death.
He tucked his hands into his jean pockets and we headed south. Traffic on the Danforth was heavy. It usually was on Friday night. We found a table at my favorite Greek place and studied the menus with more attention than they deserved. Now that he was here Charlie's desire to talk was meeting some resistance.
I stuck with beer. Charlie ordered a coffee.
"Too much alcohol would knock me out right now."
I nodded and waited.
Finally he scrubbed his face with his hand and met my eyes.
"First off, I'm sorry I never replied to your email. I meant to, but... I didn't know what to say."
I shrugged. "It was a stupid thing to do. I had no right to embarrass you like that. I'm the one who should be sorry."
"If you knew..." Charlie surprised me by smiling. "When I opened that first picture of you I admit my first temptation was to hit the delete button. But I didn't and the next thing I know the second one pops up and it's even hotter. You have no idea..."
He had called my pictures hot. Did that mean --?
"The next day I called up this woman I know. She's a shrink, crisis counselor most of the time. I asked to see her." He went back to peeling labels, this time off my beer. "I've been seeing her three days a week for the past four weeks now. Since that day... She's helped me a lot."
"Helped you how, Charlie?"
"Help me see who I am. Learn to understand why I do what I do. Turns out I'm a pretty fucked up guy. Like you said, in denial."
"I had no business jumping on you like that. It's not my business to tell anyone who they should sleep with."
"True," Charlie said. "But it was also true that I was pretending things weren't true when they were."
"Like admitting I'm gay." He winced and stared down at his big hand holding the bottle. "That's hard. I still don't want to think - I still can't see it. Can hardly even say it."
"Why did you come here, then?"
"To see you. Those picturers, they made me think of things. I remember that night in the hotel room. I tried to pretend at first that I didn't. That I was just too drunk to be responsible... but that's bullshit. I'm a hundred percent responsible for my life. That's one of the things Carol, that's the counselor, was really adamant on. Take responsibility."
I got a second beer and poured it into the stein. I handed the bottle to Charlie who grinned weakly and began attacking the label. After a few minutes of that I leaned over and touched his hand lightly.
"What happened, Charlie? Back at the hotel room you mentioned something happening, saying it wouldn't happen again. What was it?"
Charlie grimaced. "Oh, yeah. That was lot's of fun to unload. God, I hate thinking about that even now."
"Sorry," I said. "Forget I said anything."
"No, it's actually okay now. I got through it with Carol. with her it was hard, now it's just... aggravating."
I thought at first he still wasn't going to talk. Then he set the beer bottle back on the table and folded his hands in front of him.
"I was a freshman in college, little dinky place down in North Carolina. My student advisor was this older guy, maybe in his forties. Everyone loved him. He was the kind of guy you could take any problem to and he'd talk about it. Didn't judge, just let you talk and work things through yourself.
"I got along with him great," Charlie said softly. I had to strain to hear. "He even used to drop in on me sometimes in the evening, see how I was doing. I think he knew I was having a hard time adjusting to college life. I was younger than most of the other students. Graduated high school at sixteen and got a scholarship to this place. I was big for my age, so that helped, but so damned naive."
He shook his dark head, his pony tail flipping forward on his chest.
"The first time he touched me I thought it had been an accident. His hand just... brushed me. I was startled, but admit it felt good. I'd been looking around at the other students and it seemed to me the most interesting one were the guys. The girls just never seemed to catch my eye."
"Yeah, I know the feeling," I murmured. "Scary but exciting at the same time."
Charlie nodded fiercely. "Exactly. So when he did it again I didn't really have any objections. It felt good, I liked the guy. Maybe intellectually I knew he shouldn't be doing it, but I didn't let that stop me."
"What happened then?"
"We became lovers. That's when I found out the guy was married and that the whole thing was going to have be very hush hush. If his wife found out, she'd kill him, if the ethics committee found out they'd can him. It didn't seem to matter to him, he said he had to have me. He was obsessed."
I had no trouble understanding the guy's feelings. The more I saw Charlie the more I could easily fall for him. But that's not what he wanted to hear right now.
"What happened, Charlie?"
"We got caught. It as almost inevitable if you think of it. It was a small college, everybody knew everybody. And they all loved this guy."
I think I knew where this was going now. I cursed under my breath.
Charlie went on, oblivious. "So when we got caught in the locker room one night after lights out..."
"They blamed you," I said flatly. "Here's this good guy, married to a wonderful woman, loved by his students and the faculty. Shit, what else do you do, blame the fucking pouf who tempted him."
"Oh it was something. Yeah, they blamed me. He had to leave town and I guess his wife dumped him. But none of that mattered. I was the whore of Babylon who had led the man to his doom."
"How long before you dropped out and started working all those he-man jobs?"
"Oh shit, you noticed that? Carol finally got me to see the pattern. I just figured I was taking no brainer work. But there was more to it than that."
"You wanted to become what they had told you that you weren't. A man."
"I could beat the crap out of anyone who looked sideways at me. I did it too, often enough to get a reputation for being a mean Indian. Someone you don't mess with. I lived with that for longer than I care to remember."
"What about the art? Where did that figure in?"
"I was always good. In college I had some small shows, strictly local, but it was big news down there. So when the big scandal broke they latched onto that as a 'sign'. I'd been a deviant from day one. The art proved it."
"So you dropped the art."
"Faster than you can say faggot."
"Charlie," I wasn't sure how to ask, so I bit my lip and just said it. "Have you ever been with a guy, since then, I mean?"
He shook his head.
"Not since... most of what we did I managed to block out of my head. Easier to pretend none of it ever happened." He laughed, a rough, unhappy sound. "Then of course I got married so none of it could have been true, right? I mean, faggots don't get married. Ergo, I wasn't a faggot. Instant salvation with two little words."
He traced a calloused finger through a ring of condensation on the table.
"Poor Tracy. She didn't deserve what she got marrying me. I got so many jobs out of state, hell, out of the country, that she was lucky to see me three four months a year. I sent her money, made sure she didn't want for anything material but she wanted kids, a white picket fence, the whole suburban nightmare. I couldn't do that. Not in this lifetime. I think she was actually relieved when I said I wanted a divorce. I gave her everything and went up to the North Sea for six months. Even kept sending her money afterward even though she was working a good job and there was no alimony order."
"When did you start painting again?"
"Right about then actually --"
Their food came. Charlie had the lamb and I had my favorite, the moussaka. We eschewed wine in favor of another coffee for him and a third beer for me.
The waiter left and Charlie picked up his fork. "Looks good." He took a mouthful of lamb, chewed and swallowed. "It is good."
We ate in companionable silence for a while, then Charlie grunted and tapped his fork on the plate.
"I started doodling during my off hours. They provide lots of entertainment on those offshore rigs, but the doodling let me sit by myself." He grinned. "In retrospect I'm not sure it was a good idea to sign on for six months to an isolated hunk of steel floating in the middle of nowhere with nothing but a bunch of hard-muscled roughnecks for company. I started having crazy dreams. Some of them got pretty raunchy. Thank God I couldn't remember most of them the next day. But I did a lot of laundry on that tour. And I started drawing again since it forced my mind to concentrate of details other than the fact there were six guys who made me look like a panty waist bunking down with me."
I laughed. "Michael's all time favorite wet dream. He would have been in twink heaven."
"Whatever happened to Michael? You guys seemed pretty tight the night I saw you."
"You mean the night you and Sonya saw us?"
"Ouch, okay. I had my agent find her," Charlie said. "Thurlow told me he invited you and no way I wanted to face you alone. Put a broad on my arm, I told my agent, or I'm not going."
"So they found Sonya."
"Michael was a real bitch that night."
I shrugged. "Michael's always a real bitch. It's part of his charm. Truth is though, we were breaking up that night. He had someone else and I had no reason to try to hang on to him."
"Why?" Charlie asked quietly.
"Because I'd already found someone else I wanted more."
Charlie flushed and his eyes darkened. He looked down at his plate.
"Do you want to come back to my place, Charlie?"
"Yes," he whispered. "I do. More than anything. But..." He looked miserable. "I --"
I reached out to grab his hand. "Whatever happens will happen because you want it, Charlie. Not for any other reason."
"You mean that?"
"Cross my heart." I grinned. I squeezed his hand then released it. "Yes, I do."
His smile was heartbreaking.
Abruptly I stood up. "Come on," I said. "Let's get out of here."
We found our waiter, got our bill and settled it then we headed back to my place. I didn't try to take his hand. Charlie had a long way to go before he'd be comfortable with his sexuality, I didn't want to inflict any unwanted stares on him.
At the front door, just before I unlocked it I leaned over and kissed him softly.
"Only what you want," I said. "I promise."
[More to come]
If you like this story so far, let me know at Patrick I'm always happy to hear comments, suggestions, anything.