“So, what’s the plan?” Cindy asked out of the blue.
“Plan? I have no plan. What are you talking about?”
“Have you got that guy’s number?”
“The good-looking intern from your work with the nice eyes. He sounds like a great person to talk to.”
Chase stared at his phone in disbelief. “Are you insane?”
“Come on, little brother. Why not give him a call? You said yourself he had a story to tell.”
“So! So what? Everyone has a story.”
“Yes, and maybe you could help each other. I don’t get why you won’t call him.”
He sputtered, wondering how their call had gotten here. “Because I don’t want to,” he shrieked and whined at the same time. “Sorry,” he continued, softening his tone. “First of all, I don’t have his number, and second—”
“You could get it.”
“No, I couldn’t, because I don’t want to. Look, I shouldn’t have brought him up.”
“Then why did you?”
“Because you called, and I was telling you about my day since you want me to be more open—and I didn’t want to dwell on how fucked up my life is.”
“And that’s it?”
“Yes. It’s called conversation, Cindy, and I’m trying. Okay sure, maybe I did connect with his bad timing comment and his expression when he said it, but not because I was attracted to him or anything.”
“Except for his beautiful eyes.”
“Jeez, touchy, aren’t we?”
“Cool your jets, little brother. I’ll stop, but it wouldn’t hurt to have another friend, would it?”
“No, but… no, I guess not. Other than Stacy, not one single person has called me.”
“Hey, I’m a person.”
“Barely—just kidding—you know what I mean.”
“I do, but it’s a sad part of breakups.”
“I know, and I was the villain in mine.”
“Stop that, right now! You are not a villain.”
“Really? What do you think I look like when Hank tells the story… or our other friends do?”
“Well, knowing Hank, he won’t trash you.”
“No, but he’ll tell the truth, and the truth is bad.” He could hear his sister’s long sigh.
“Okay, you’ve owned your actions, and that’s good, but don’t pile on the guilt.”
“I’m not. And stop worrying about me. I know where my head was at that night—I’m not beating myself up like I was—but I can’t expect Hank not to. He saw something different, and as much as I don’t like it, I don’t blame him.”
“He needs time—but he knows you.”
“I don’t know what that means. He knows what he knows, and it’s over. It couldn’t have been any clearer than it was tonight.”
“I’m sorry, Chase.”
“At least I got to see Rex.”
The next morning, after another torturous evening, and a mediocre sleep, Chase decided to get out of the condo. He needed a change of scenery, and had to begin to live his life as a single man. By the end of his shower, he began to feel upbeat. As he was dressing, he stared at the stack of paintings in the corner of his bedroom. Christine Leeman had been an incredible artist, with both commissioned and non-commissioned work gracing many a home in North America and abroad.
Cindy had told him there were lots of condolences and testimonials on their mom’s official website, but he hadn’t visited it since the death notice was posted there by her agent. Maybe someday, but he wasn’t ready yet. In the meantime, he was thankful he had this small but precious collection. She’d given him his creative side, and it served him well in his career as a graphic designer and print editor.
He could tell which paintings were which, just from their size, and picked out the one Hank had marked ‘Family.’ Removing the wrapping, he stared into the younger faces.
He’d been fifteen when they’d sat for the photos that were turned into this beautiful painting, and she’d caught the happiness of them all. His dad had the proudest look on his face, and his mother was serenely happy, both with beautiful smiles as they bracketed him and Cindy. He smiled back at those faces, remembering that time without crumbling. His mother lived in his heart, and in the person he was. He didn’t kid himself there would no longer be bad days, but he would strive to do her memory justice. He set the painting on top of the others so it was visible, and finished dressing. Grabbing his keys, he left the condo feeling pretty good.
Chase was starving by the time the flirty waiter served him his breakfast. He was in the gay village for the first time in weeks—his old apartment was within easy walking distance—but he drove because the condo really wasn’t. While he wasn’t used to sitting alone, he was okay with it. Apparently, his server was too, but Chase had no desire to send any signals that might be misinterpreted. He’d learned his lesson the hard way.
He looked up at the sound of the restaurant door opening, and saw Trey and Carlos, two of his and Hank’s closest friends. He caught Trey’s eye and waved, and received a quick wave in return. Carlos, though, turned his back on him, and after a brief conversation and another wave from Trey, the couple left.
Chase’s stomach sank. This was sure proof he had become a pariah in his circle of friends. So much for feeling positive. He tried to convince himself they’d left for some other reason, but it didn’t work. He also told himself it didn’t matter, but that didn’t fly either.
Trey might have talked to him—he’d at least waved—but Carlos acted like he hadn’t seen him. He paid for his breakfast and skulked out, giving up on his plan to walk around the village. It was a beautiful morning, but he couldn’t handle running into more of the same. Taking a detour that led him off the main street, his eyes landed on the bar where it all had fallen apart. The broken neon sign with only one word lit up, mocked him. “Endings.” How fucking appropriate that stupid name had turned out to be.
“Hey, Chase. How are you, sweetie?”
“Stacy! Hi… it’s good to hear your voice. I just got back from breakfast.”
“Rainbow Grill, right?”
“Yeah, how did you know?”
“Trey called me.”
“That was fast. I just saw him.”
“I know… he asked me to call you.”
“Oh? Why?” He tried to sound nonchalant, but doubted he succeeded.
“Because he feels bad. He’s mad at Carlos for making him leave the restaurant without talking to you, but he wants to keep the peace.”
“It’s not like I didn’t expect it, but….”
“I know. Everyone is having a hard time.”
“I understand, I really do. All our friends are couples, and what I did made people take sides. I don’t blame Carlos, or anyone else.”
“We’re all worried for Hank, that’s all. I guess some of us need time too.”
“I was just talking to Cindy, and she… well… she reminded me it’s a part of breakups.”
“Yes, it can be, and this is the first one since John and Kevin.”
“And we never see John anymore… or even Kevin for that matter.”
“No, that’s true… we don’t. Kev kept to himself after John screwed him over.”
“Like I screwed Hank over.”
“So… how is Hank?” He listened to Stacy sigh before she finally spoke.
“Not good. He’s not talking, and he doesn’t want any company. I called him this morning, and he said you picked up the rest of your stuff last night.”
“All that’s left is what’s in the storage locker, but I have no place to put it until I find a place to live.”
“Lord, I hate hearing that.”
“I hate saying it, but I don’t have a home anymore.”
It took Stacy a while to respond, and Chase heard a sniffle while he waited. “No luck finding something?”
“There’s a junior one bedroom and a full one-bedroom available immediately on the other side of the park, but I don’t know if I want to live that close to Hank’s building. He might not appreciate me being his neighbor.”
“Oh, Chase. Don’t worry about that. Besides, it would be good for Rex if you live beside his park.”
“I thought of that, and I have an appointment to view both vacancies, but, after last night, I don’t know….”
“Last night? What about last night?”
“Oh… ah… nothing… it’s not important.”
“Come on, Chase. You can talk to me. I’m still your friend, and you can count on that, I promise.”
Chase, who’d been leaning on the kitchen counter, moved to the living room and sank into the comfort of the sofa.
“Yeah, I’m here. I saw Hank in the park. When I called and told him I would pick up the rest of my stuff after work last night, I asked to go for a coffee so we could talk.”
“He said he couldn’t because he wouldn’t be there. He was, though, Stacy. He was sitting at a picnic table on the far side when I took Rex out. He probably thought he was being inconspicuous, but I knew who he was right away. He didn’t mean it when he said he wanted to be friends.”
“Oh, damn. I’m sorry… it’s… maybe he just wanted to give you time alone with Rex?”
“Yeah, right,” Chase scoffed.
“Okay, well… all I can tell you is he’s sad, Chase. He’s hurting and he’s sad.”
“Yeah, and I did that. I wouldn’t want to be friends with me either.”
“God, I hate this. You’re both in pain, and I wish there was something I could do.”
“You’re doing it. Showing you still care about me means a lot. But I want you to put Hank first if he needs it to be that way, okay?”
“No, absolutely not. I talked to Don and he doesn’t think what you did was so terrible—stupid yeah—but if Hank didn’t come from such a screwed up family, he might have been able to get past it. He said if I got drunk and kissed someone, he’d put me in leg chains, but he’d get over it.”
Chase snorted. “Leg chains, eh? He’d be doing that at his peril.”
Stacy giggled. “That’s what I told him.”
“Well, thank him for not judging me too harshly, but I did a lot of things wrong and Hank has already put up with a lot.”
“You know, I’ve thought about it since we talked last time, and I see Don’s point. You made a mistake but you didn’t follow through, right?”
Chase hesitated, smiling ruefully. She needed to hear him say it again. “No, Stacy, I didn’t follow through, but Hank doesn’t believe me… and even if he did, he’d probably think it was because I got caught.”
“Well, if it helps, I believe you. You and Hank do love each other, and it seems such a shame you guys can’t work through this.”
“Thank you for that—I mean it—but Dr. Chorney says I can’t force Hank to feel differently, and I wouldn’t want to. I knew all along how he felt about cheating, and I should have pushed that guy away as soon as he tried to come into the stall. Jeez, I just remembered how big he was.” Chase hesitated at that little flash of memory, recalling how cramped it had felt when he’d squeezed in, but he still couldn’t picture the guy’s face.
“Anyway, I didn’t, and I have to live with that… and I am. I was wrong to flirt in the first place, and to drink so much, so fast… we all know I’m a lightweight when it comes to booze.”
“No kidding,” Stacy interjected, and Chase heard the smile in her voice.
“I know, right? The thing is, I made a lot of mistakes in one night, but despite what Hank might believe, I didn’t sleep with that guy. I’m not proud of what I did, but I have to forgive myself and move on. If I lose some friends, well, that’s a part of what I have to pay.”
“I’m so sorry, Chase… oh, speaking of friends, I almost forgot. Trey. He wanted me to tell you he still loves you, and Carlos just needs some time.”
“Well that’s nice to hear. Trey is such a sweetheart, but, as far as Carlos… we’ll see… he wouldn’t even look at me. What about Ray and Frank? They haven’t called me.”
“They were here last night, actually. We played euchre, and they pretty much agreed with Don. Frank is hoping Hank comes around, and Ray wanted to invite you both for dinner so he could work on it.”
Chase snorted again. “That wouldn’t be a good idea.”
“Frank killed that plan right away, so you don’t have to worry about them trying it. He says you have to work it out between yourselves, and they’re staying out of it. I think that’s why they haven’t called.”
“There’s nothing to work out… we’re ended. I know it, and Hank knows it, but it’s good to find out they don’t hate me.”
“Nobody hates you, Chase… and that includes Hank.”
“Like I said… we’ll see. He’s rebuffed his mom for years, and that’s putting it mildly.”
“That’s different… you didn’t do what she did.”
“No, but Hank sees it differently, and I’ve lost his trust.”
Only a week had passed, but it felt like months. He needed comfort and affection, and there was no one better at that than Hank. So many times in the past, the man had managed to get through Chase’s despair, dispersing clouds with the love that seemed to ooze out of him. He was the one person who could always make him feel safe. Leaning on the balcony railing, ten floors up, he experienced his ex’s absence like an ache. His back felt naked and exposed in this moment, despite wearing a shirt. More than anything, he wanted to feel Hank’s arms wrap around him and hold him tight, and for his body to press against his, absorbing his pain like he’d done so many times in the past. But, it wasn’t going to happen.
Suddenly feeling dizzy, he swiped at tears and moved back. Heights scared him at the same time they tantalized him. He remembered being so low at the loss of his mother that he’d actually considered an insanity for a few terrifying seconds while standing on his old balcony. Even though his mind had immediately rebelled at the fleeting thought, his depression’s claws had been deep. Ever since that time, he’d balked at any echoes of that feeling. He was stronger than this, and he would prove it. He needed to prove it… to himself.
Stepping back into the air-conditioned condo, he sat down at the table and started to mentally organize himself. His mother used to say ‘Idle hands were the devil’s workshop.’ He had to do something, but he wasn’t sure what. His plans to walk through the village had been dashed after seeing Trey and Carlos, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t walk somewhere else.
He could go to the gym, but he might face the same situation there. Saturday afternoons were always busy at the one he and his friends belonged to, and he had no desire to make anyone feel awkward. As Stacy had said, everyone needed time.
He could go for a run or… his bike? Damn. His bike was in the storage locker, unused since last fall, months before his mother died. He used to be an avid biker… his whole family had been, until Christine had been forced to set it aside for good. After that, his rides were solitary, or with Hank, who actually preferred running.
He missed it. The delicious torture of climbing hills, and the incredible freedom of flying down a steep slope with his heart in his mouth. He could run to Hank’s place, grab it from the locker, and bike back.
Would his tires be okay? He thought about it, and remembered they were replaced late last summer. They might need a little air, but his travel pump was attached to the bike. There was WD40 in the locker for the chain. Yes, physical activity was the answer. He felt better now that he had something to do.
Should he let Hank know he would be picking up his bike, out of courtesy? He was leery of calling after the previous evening, since Hank had shown how much he didn’t want to see him or talk to him, and the fact was, he didn’t want to speak to him either. The last thing he needed was to hear the coldness again. Besides, he didn’t want to seem like he was making excuses to contact the man. His laptop was right in front of him… he’d send him an email just in case he noticed the bike missing.
Opening the lid, he saw he had an email notification. It was from his dad. Clicking on it, he began to read.
“Hi, Chase. I miss you and Cindy too. I’m sorry I didn’t reply right away, but I was in a remote part of Italy, at a little place your mom and I stayed at on our fifteenth anniversary trip. It hasn’t changed a bit. I’ve returned to Rome now. I just arrived a few hours ago. First, I want to let you know I’m doing all right. I miss Christine, but I promised her I would take this trip—this isn’t an escape as you called it—it’s more like I’m following orders—and it feels like she’s with me. Now, don’t worry. It’s not a bad thing. I’m learning to let go and appreciate what we were lucky to have for so many years.”
Chase stopped reading and leaned back. This was the first time he’d heard this trip was his mother’s idea. Now it made more sense to him. She was one smart woman who knew his father inside out. He grinned as he pictured her insisting he do this—giving him those orders. He expected his father had protested strongly before he gave in. He always gave in to her. Returning to the email, the next line grabbed his attention.
“I couldn’t agree more that we need to talk as a family. I apologize for closing up on you and Cindy. I never knew what to say to give you guys comfort because I was wrapped up in my own misery, and I still feel shame at that. I should have been there, and I see that even more now. It would have helped me too, but we can talk about this when I get home. I hear you about being honest, so I’m not going to tell you I’m perfectly fine. It’s hard, but I’m getting there. Your mother was an incredible woman, and the best partner in life I could have asked for. I hate what she went through, but I can’t wish away those last years, because they were hers, and I’m learning to treasure them as well. I hope that makes sense.”
Chase paused again. “I understand, Dad,” he said aloud. It did make sense. Every minute they had her was precious, and they shouldn’t forget that. His eyes watered, but no tears fell.
“I’m so sorry to hear about you and Hank. He’s a damn good man, and I consider him another son, but things happen in a relationship which can finish it or make it stronger. We can discuss this more when I return, but just know your mother and I made mistakes in the beginning. All strong relationships have ups and downs, so maybe you’ll be able to find each other again one day. Whatever happens, though, I’m so pleased to hear you’re seeing Dr. Chorney again. That was a mature decision on your part, and I’m proud of you.”
Mature decision? Chase mulled that over. Maybe, but most of his initial motivation had been to influence Hank, even manipulate him—and that was not something to be proud of.
“I’m happy you are staying at the condo. To tell you the truth, I hate the new place, and I’m not keen on going back to it, so I want you to do me a favor if you feel comfortable with it. I would like for you to stay there, at least until I get back. I know it’s a selfish request, but it would be nice not to come back to an empty home. It’s your decision, but think about it. Rex is welcome too, but I’m sure you know that already.
“I’m going for a walk now. Rome is a beautiful city—Christine loved it so much—but the food is dangerously rich. I have my appetite back, so I may be waddling by the time I get home. I love you, Chase. I will heed your advice and send Cindy a longer email when I get back to the hotel. Ciao.”
He read the message a few more times before closing the lid. His dad was doing better, and that was a huge relief. He sounded like himself again, which gave Chase hope for his family. Standing up, he looked around at the condo’s interior. Decorated professionally, it was bright, well furnished, and nicely appointed, but it lacked the little touches their old home had. The only sign of Christine was the painting in the spare room—his room for the time being. That was curious. What happened to his father’s collection? He’d have to remember to ask Cindy.
Generic artwork hung over the couch, and Chase was ashamed he hadn’t noticed before. His mother should be in this room, and he was going to rectify that immediately. A minute later, her vibrant portrait of the family replaced the bland ocean scene over the sofa. It was a huge improvement, one he hoped his father would appreciate.
His dad wanted him to stay here? He’d never considered it a possibility before, but if it was important to him, that was reason enough. He called and cancelled his appointment to view apartments the next day, and immediately felt lighter. After a quick change into biking shorts, his favorite running shoes, and a tee shirt, he was out the door, only to return before he’d reached the elevator, realizing he’d forgotten the courtesy email to his ex.
He’d missed this. After stretching for five minutes, he took off at a slow pace. He’d forgotten how running had a way of clearing his mind of crap, allowing his focus to sharpen. It certainly beat being in a gym. He quickly fell into the cadence, and his breathing evened out enough he soon picked up the pace. Thoughts came and went, and he was able to sort through them with clarity, helped by the rhythm of his pumping blood as his feet worked to propel him forward. By the time he reached Hank’s building, his passion for running had reawakened.
It was then he realized he no longer had his fob for the underground, having thrown it and the keys through the door’s mail slot when he’d left the apartment for the final time. No way was he calling Hank. It’s was unlikely he would answer anyway. Instead, he waited until a car pulled up to the ramp and opened the big door.
The lockers were through doors lining one wall, and his was in the second section, in front of his old parking space. He was relieved to see Hank’s car was not in his. He had to think a minute before he could remember the combination to their lock.
His bike was dusty, but the tires looked good, with no wear or splitting on the sides. He gave them some air, sprayed the chain, and gave it a quick wipe with a chamois from his car kit before locking the storage locker back up.
Wheeling the bike through the door and out into the garage, Chase’s stomach did a flip at seeing Hank pull into his parking space. Laughter came through the open windows, until Hank turned his head, noticing Chase. Their eyes met before he shifted his gaze to the passenger side. Hank was not alone. Kevin, of all people, was with him. Kevin, who’d been cheated on by his boyfriend, John. Chase hadn’t seen him in months.
Talk about awkward. Chase gave a short wave to the men and straddled his bike. He didn’t need this, and prayed they would stay in the car while he made his getaway. No such luck. He made it as far as the rear of Hank’s car when his door swung open
“What are you doing here, Chase?” Hank asked in a challenging tone, making Chase immediately defensive.
“Isn’t it obvious?”
“The bike, yeah, okay, but why didn’t you tell me you were coming? You can’t just—”
“Check your email.”
“My email? Why would you send me an email? You know I don’t check email on the weekend. You should have called or texted me.”
Chase watched a nervous-looking Kevin open his door and stand up, his hands immediately burying themselves in his pockets. He nodded quickly at his old friend before turning his attention back to Hank. “I didn’t want to bother you.”
“So you just show up out of the blue? Calling me would have been the right thing to do,” he said angrily, making a confused Chase feel even more defensive, so he lashed out.
“Oh, like hiding in the park last night while I picked up my stuff was the right thing to do? For fuck’s sake, what’s the problem? I grabbed my bike and now I’m leaving.”
Hank blanched, apparently unable to respond to either question, and that gave Chase a few seconds of satisfaction… until he began to wonder why both men looked so guilty.
“Cat got your tongue, Hank? Don’t worry, I’ll make sure I text before I pick up the rest. Sorry I ruined your day. Good to see you, Kevin,” he said with full eye contact as he pushed down on his pedal.
Kevin, looking as ashen as Hank, gave him a nod before shifting his gaze down and away. Chase began to pedal in earnest, anxious to leave the underground parking lot, and the weirdness of what had just happened.
“Chase! Wait a minute,” Hank called after him, but he didn’t stop and he didn’t look around. Fortunately, a car was coming down the ramp, and the big, automatic door was open. He had no idea what he’d just witnessed, but the man’s reaction to seeing him there was over the top. Cool-headed Hank had been rattled. What that meant, he didn’t want to think about, but it didn’t stop his brain from dwelling on it.
He rode for two hours nonstop, and by the time he arrived back at his dad’s, he was all cried out. But he couldn’t escape the feeling Hank had already moved on… with one of their best friends.
Kevin was a sweetheart. Attractive, smart, and loyal, and a nicer guy you couldn’t find. A real catch, and his old circle of friends all knew that. When John cheated on him, Kevin had been devastated, and Hank had done his best to console him. Chase had tried to as well, but it was a bad time for him, so he’d relied on Hank to attempt to bring their friend out of the shell he’d retreated into.
It looked like he’d finally succeeded, Chase thought bitterly. Was he being unfair? He had no fucking idea. All he knew was he’d experienced overwhelming jealousy at seeing the pair of them together. In all fairness, Kevin might only be returning the favor, consoling Hank after a breakup—that would be a reasonable assumption—so why wasn’t Chase’s brain settling there? Fuck! He knew guilt only too well, and they’d both looked guilty of something. In his mind, he could picture them comparing him to Kevin’s cheating ex. He could picture other things too, and that brought an ache he couldn’t assuage.
Thanks to Timothy M. for all his support, and thank you to all the readers who have become so engaged. What did you think of this chapter?