Warning: This chapter contains sexual content that is explicit and graphic. Reader discretion is advised.
“Fucking middle of the night, fucking Brooklyn, fucking top floor of a fucking five-floor walkup,” Erik muttered to himself as he reached the landing at the top of the stairs. He took a second to catch his breath before knocking and noticed jangling and thudding sounds coming from the other side of the door.
He banged loudly, and the sounds stopped. A moment later, the locks clicked and the door opened to reveal a half-naked, sweaty, out-of-breath Ryan with his hair all in a mess.
Erik smirked. “Did I interrupt something?”
Ryan stepped back and gestured to the black punching bag swinging in the corner.
“Ah, boxing.” Erik accepted Ryan’s unspoken invitation into his home. “How’d you get your landlord to approve that?”
Ryan grinned and shrugged. “What he doesn’t know…”
“Right.” Erik chuckled. Ryan seemed a lot less freaked out than he did on the phone.
“Sorry, let me just grab a shirt,” Ryan said as he tugged fingerless gloves off his hands.
Erik surveyed Ryan’s naked torso: all sinewy muscle, trim and lean, glistening under a layer of sweat. Without the gloves, all he was wearing was a flow-y pair of black pants that rode low on his hips and clinched at his ankles. Erik narrowed his eyes at Ryan’s lower back; those pants rode really low, and there was no sign of any waistband underneath. He would bet money that Ryan was going commando.
“Oh, don’t on my account.” Erik couldn’t help but tease.
The expression on Ryan’s face as he turned back was priceless: a little shocked, a little nervous, a little defensive. But it only lasted a split second before that infuriating grin was back, and then he shrugged.
The shirt he put on didn’t cover up much; it was an oversized, white tank top, cut low around the collar and sleeves. Erik could still see practically everything through the thin material.
“You didn’t have to bring anything over.”
“Huh?” Erik glanced down at the six pack of beer in his hand. “Oh, right. Well, I figured if we’re going to do a late-night gab-a-thon, we might as well have alcohol.”
“You want something chilled already? I’ve got beer in the fridge.”
“Yeah, sure, thanks.”
Ryan disappeared through a doorway with the new beer to chill, and Erik took the chance to survey the apartment. It wasn’t what he was expecting.
Other than the black punching bag in the corner, there was a platform bed pushed lengthwise against the wall, piled high with colorful pillows. In front of it sat a low coffee table made of driftwood polished to a shine. The other wall held shelves full of books—rows and rows of books. No TV in sight. And that was it. All very minimalist, if Erik had to put a name to it.
He jumped as an orange-and-white-striped cat wound its way between Erik’s feet and rubbed its body against his leg.
“You have a cat.” It came out more accusatory that Erik had intended.
“Yeah. Sorry, are you allergic?” Ryan came back holding two cold bottles of beer and handed one to Erik.
“No, no, I’m not. I just… you don’t seem like a cat person.”
Ryan bent over, scooped up the offending pet and held him up against his chest. The cat meowed again and licked at Ryan’s bare skin. “Caesar, don’t do that,” Ryan gently admonished.
Erik couldn’t quite digest what he saw. Ryan’s expression completely changed as he spoke with his pet. Gone was the quiet reserve and the practiced grin and shrug; instead, his smile was genuinely happy, no façade, no mask. Ryan looked lighter.
And that cat was still licking at Ryan. Despite his unconvincing scold, Ryan didn't seem to care that he’d become an ice cream cone for Caesar. It reminded Erik of what Ryan’s skin tasted like, the saltiness of a fresh layer of sweat. Erik coughed and took a large gulp of his beer.
The sound brought Ryan back to the present, and his mask slipped quickly back into place. “Sorry,” he murmured as he dropped Caesar to the floor. Erik wasn’t sure whom the apology was meant for.
“I don’t have much furniture, but you can have a seat on the… couch, bed thing,” Ryan gestured to the neatly tucked white sheets and artfully arranged pillows. Wooden coasters suddenly appeared on the coffee table. “So you wanted to talk.”
Erik sighed and took the seat Ryan indicated. “Yeah, um… I just… I just want to understand why you don’t want to do another scene. You were phenomenal. You should read the comments we’re getting; people can’t get enough of it. We’re at 100,000 views, and it’s only been online for less than a week!”
He stopped because the more he said, the more uncomfortable Ryan looked. Ryan sat on the edge of the couch/bed, shoulders hunched, and legs bouncing up and down. His focus appeared to be on the bottle in his hand and shredding the wet label into as many pieces as he could manage.
“Hey.” Erik shifted closer and reached for Ryan’s shoulder. “Are you okay?”
He tensed under Erik’s touch, but didn’t pull away.
“I don’t like it,” came the admission, whispered under his breath so quietly that Erik almost didn’t hear.
“Don’t like what?” Erik tried to turn Ryan toward him, to get Ryan to make eye contact. “Doing the scene? You seemed pretty into it; I mean, that’s why everyone loves it so much. Either that or you’re one hell of an amazing actor.”
Ryan jumped from his seat and dislodged Erik’s hand. He paced to the other end of his studio and raked a hand through his tousled hair.
“Is that it? You were acting?” Erik shifted in his seat to watch Ryan pace. He could almost feel Ryan thinking, the churning of thoughts and emotions that he kept so tightly wound inside.
Ryan didn’t like to talk about himself; Erik had discovered that early in their acquaintance. And it didn’t seem like Ryan had any outlet, any person he could confide in. To Erik that just wasn’t a healthy way to live.
“That’s okay, you know, if you were acting. No one said it had to be real or anything; I mean, it’s still porn at the end of the day. And if you were acting, shit, you’re one hell of an actor.”
“I wasn’t acting!” Ryan had paced over to his punching bag and landed a hard blow just as he shouted. He leaned his head against the heavy bag, and his arms held on tight as if that was the only thing holding him up.
The poor guy was falling apart; Erik could figure out that much. What he couldn’t figure out was what, if anything, he could do to fix it.
“I don’t understand.” Erik threw his hands up in the air. “If it was real, then that’s great. It doesn’t really matter one way or the other, because people love it. However you managed to do that, we just need you to do it again.”
“I can’t; it’s too much.”
“What do you mean, it’s too much?”
“It’s too much, and I can’t control it. It’s too… I’m too…”
Then it dawned on Erik. “You’re too exposed.”
Ryan’s head snapped up. Finally, that eye contact, raw and unfiltered—no mask to hide the vulnerability and fear.
“Oh,” was the only thing Erik could say.
“It’s why I don’t like to bottom.” Ryan said this while turning his head away, and Erik didn’t catch the second half of the sentence.
“That’s why you what?”
Ryan was facing away from Erik now, as if he couldn’t bear looking at him. “To bottom.” The words came out through a clenched jaw. “Why I don’t like to bottom.”
Both of Ryan’s hands came up and buried themselves in his hair. The position stretched Ryan’s back muscles, tight and compact, and Erik couldn’t help but notice how hot Ryan looked just then. He scolded himself at the inappropriately-timed thought.
Erik stood and walked over to Ryan, stopping at arm’s length.
“Hey, it’s okay.”
Ryan’s arms dropped, as did his head, and his shoulders slumped.
“Hey.” Erik turned him around by the shoulder. “It’s okay, it really is.”
“No, it’s not.” Ryan’s words were deadpan.
“Yes, it is. It’s not a bad thing for people to see your emotions. We want them to see what we’re feeling. I think it’s called method acting.”
Ryan’s head snapped up, glare at the ready.
Erik smiled. A little fight was exactly what Ryan needed.
“Come on, I’m just teasing.” He gave Ryan’s shoulder a little shake. “So, what does any of this have to do with bottoming?”
Ryan ducked away and shrugged as he went to fetch the beer he’d left on the coffee table. “It’s different with bottoming.”
“I can’t… control it.”
“But you can when you top?”
Ryan shrugged again, flopping back against his pillows, bottle balanced on his flat stomach.
“I guess that makes sense.” He followed Ryan back to the couch and rearranged the pillows on his side to get comfortable. He could get used to this couch/bed thing.
“You’re more exposed when you bottom, more vulnerable. It’s more difficult to maintain that mask when you’ve got someone inside of you.” Erik kept his voice low and even, as if he were talking to a frightened animal that might bolt at too loud a noise.
Ryan tensed and fidgeted as Erik spoke, but he didn’t run away again.
“That’s why you’ve always topped in the past, right? I don’t remember seeing any scenes with you bottoming.”
Ryan’s nod was a small jerky movement; his body still strained with whatever intensity of emotion he was feeling, eyes studying the blankness of his ceiling.
“Do you bottom in real life?” Erik felt like a therapist, trying to draw a client out of his shell and dive into the deep, dark secrets of his psyche. Maybe he should have majored in psychology instead of art.
“Sometimes,” Ryan whispered. “If it’s the right person.”
“That makes sense, totally.” Erik paused. “But you prefer to top?”
Ryan opened his mouth but hesitated.
“No?” He couldn’t help but grin. “You prefer to bottom, don’t you?”
Ryan shot him some cut-eye, but Erik could tell there was no malice in it.
“Sorry, sorry, I don’t mean to make fun.” He shifted around until he was also on his back, head angled toward Ryan, staring at the ceiling. “I get it. You prefer to bottom, but it’s scary. You’re kind of putting yourself at the mercy of the other person, opening yourself to him in the most literal way possible.
“I don’t really like to bottom, but I’ve tried it a few times, and I totally understand where you’re coming from. It can be fucking scary.
“But you know what?” Erik propped himself up on the shoulder and gazed down at Ryan. “You’re an amazing bottom. Honestly, I’m not just saying that. Hands down, one of the best I’ve had, in scenes and otherwise. And, well,” he copied Ryan’s grin and shrug, “I’ve had a lot of bottoms.”
That earned him another half-hearted cut-eye from Ryan.
“Oh, come on.” He nudged at Ryan’s shoulder. “Teasing, teasing.”
He paused. From this angle, he had a close-up view of Ryan’s eyelashes, unbelievably long and fanned out in a perfect semicircle. They framed a set of chocolate-brown eyes that were almost always smoldering, churning with emotion and deep pools of thought. They were what had captured Erik’s imagination the first few times they’d met—the mystery of those chocolate eyes.
“You know what?” A thought suddenly occurred to him. “What if… what if you bottomed from the top?”
Ryan glanced over with a question in his eyes, and for a second Erik completely lost his train of thought.
Ryan raised an eyebrow, waiting for an explanation.
“Um… oh, right. I was thinking, what if you bottom from the top? You set the pace, the depth, the tone. You can control all of it.” The more he thought about it, the more the idea grew on him.
Ryan didn’t look so convinced, though.
“I really think it could work.” he pushed himself up to sitting. “Hear me out. I know you don’t want to bottom, especially on camera. But honestly, you’re so good, and people love it. We’re breaking records with the first scene, and if we can replicate that with a couple more, we’re going make history. Yeah, okay, gay porn history, but still… You’ll be a legend.”
“I don’t really want to be a legend.”
Erik ignored him and continued. “But I get the whole exposed and vulnerable thing; it’s a totally legit concern. So what if we find a compromise? Some sort of middle ground? If you’re on top, you still maintain control of the situation. You can’t afford to get too lost in the sex because you’re the one doing the fucking, essentially. I can be the passive one, and you do all the work. Actually, doesn’t sound like a bad idea.”
Erik knew he had his silly stupid grin on, but he really thought the idea could work. If only Ryan would agree to it. “Think about it, okay? Don’t just write it off right away.”
Ryan scrubbed his face with a hand and sighed. No outright rejection; Erik could work with that.
Abruptly, Ryan stood up. “I need a shower,” he announced.
“Uh…” Erik frowned. “You want me to go?”
“No, stay. I’ll just be a minute.” He disappeared behind a door, and Erik heard the water being turned on.
Weird. He drained the rest of his beer and picked up Ryan’s empty bottle to take to the kitchen. More of the same minimalism, with bare countertops decorated with a single, expensive-looking espresso machine. In the corner sat a round, white table flanked by two curvy designer chairs. A bare light bulb hung like a pendant directly overhead.
Inside the fridge were several different types of beer and takeout containers. So Ryan was into design but wasn’t a cook. Interesting.
With a new bottle in hand, Erik wandered to the bookshelves to snoop.
Statistical modeling in psychology. Seminar on social and personality psychology. Behavioral neuroscience. Advanced seminar on relationships.
He moved onto the next shelf of books.
Journal of Sex Research. Journal of Adolescent Health. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. Journal of Sexual Aggression. Teens and sexting. Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity. Striptease Culture: Sex, media, and the democratization of desire. Pornified: How pornography is transforming our lives, our relationships, and our families.
Stopping, he realized that these must be materials from Ryan’s PhD studies. Wait, does that mean he researched porn?
A sudden yawn hit Erik, which he belatedly covered with the back of his hand. The water was still running in the bathroom.
Settling himself back on the couch, he gazed up at the ceiling and discovered micro-cracks in the painted plaster. So Ryan was researching porn… He’s a porn researcher. It was almost too ironic to be true.
Another yawn stretched Erik’s jaw wide, and he found it difficult to keep his eyes open. Just a couple of minutes; just until Ryan got out of the shower, then he would say goodbye and head home.
Erik awoke with a jerk sometime later to find that the lights had been turned off and he was covered in a blanket. Next to him was Ryan, propped up against the pillows reading a thick book by the light of a nearby lamp, with Caesar on his lap.
“Oh, god. I fell asleep; I’m so sorry.” He stretched to get his blood flowing again.
“What time is it?”
“Almost five o’clock in the morning.”
“Did you not sleep?”
Ryan grinned and shrugged.
“Ugh, you’re one of those people who doesn’t need to sleep, aren’t you?”
Ryan grinned and shrugged.
“Why is it so difficult to get two words out of you?” Erik asked as he pushed himself up to a sitting position. “Don’t answer that.”
Ryan’s grin grew.
“I guess I should head home. Sorry about commandeering your bed.”
Ryan shrugged. “Um… actually, I was thinking; maybe you’d like to stay and catch the sunrise. Should be about an hour. I made coffee.”
Erik’s nose suddenly registered the fragrant aroma; that must have been what had wakened him up. He really should go home and try to get some sleep. He was due to TA a class that afternoon.
But the grin on Ryan’s face and the hopeful, puppy-dog look in his eyes made him impossible to resist.
Erik sighed. “Okay, sure. Where do we watch the sunrise?”
The grin broke out into a full-on smile. “On the roof.”
Ryan gave Caesar a quick kiss before placing him on the floor. He pulled a jacket on top of the hoodie that he must have changed into after his shower. Out of nowhere appeared a thermos and a blanket. “Grab that blanket you’re using and a couple of the big pillows there.”
That must be more words that Ryan voluntarily uttered in their entire acquaintance. Erik jumped to follow his orders.
Armed with a hot beverage and warm textiles, Ryan led the way up the remaining flight of stairs to a heavy metal door. With a shove, the door opened and they were greeted with a blast of cold autumn air.
“Shit,” Erik muttered under his breath. It really was getting cold in New York.
Ryan made his way toward the eastern side of the roof where they’d have a good view of the rising sun.
“You can throw the pillows down here.” Ryan pointed to the ground in front of a section of floor that protruded up and formed a platform.
Obliging, he immediately settled himself on one and spread the blanket over his knees. Ryan joined him on the other pillow, close enough that their shoulders bumped, and wrapped himself with the other blanket. He handed the thermos to Erik, who popped the top and took a quick sip. Hot, slightly bitter, perfect.
Despite the hot coffee, the warm blanket, and Ryan’s heat against his shoulder, Erik couldn’t help but shiver against the cold early morning air. He pulled his knees up to curl his six-foot frame into as tight a ball as he could manage.
He was greeted with a chuckle from Ryan. “Are you cold?”
“Yes,” Erik mumbled grumpily into his blanket.
“Your body temperature drops when you’re tired.”
And right on cue, Erik was hit by another big yawn.
“Come here.” Ryan pulled their blankets away, much to Erik’s chagrin, and tugged Erik closer until his back lay half on top of Ryan’s chest. Ryan rearranged their blankets and wrapped his arms around Erik’s shoulders.
Ryan smelled good, like sandalwood: warm, woodsy, soothing. Erik couldn’t help but snuggle in closer, smiling when he felt Ryan’s arms tighten in response.
“So you were a psychology major,” Erik whispered, the dark twilight too serene for normal talking volume.
Ryan didn’t respond right away, and Erik moved up and down in time with Ryan’s breathing.
That at least elicited a small chuckle from Ryan. Erik felt the rumble under his ear more than he heard it.
“The effects of watching porn on adolescent psychological development.”
“And what is the effect?”
“Not a good one.”
“Yet here you are, making porn.”
“The irony is not lost on me.”
“How far into your program did you get?”
A pause from Ryan, this one long enough for Erik to shift himself around so he could peek up at the other man. Ryan squeezed him again when he got settled.
“I got through the first four years and finished all the compulsory requirements, so I just had my research left.”
“What happened? Why didn’t you finish it?”
“I couldn’t do it.” Ryan’s voice was soft and sad. “It was hard to get my hands on data, and the data I had wasn’t giving me anything useful. I couldn’t come up with any conclusions that hadn’t already been published. It was frustrating, but the more frustrated I got, the less clearly I was able to see what direction to take.
“I started having nightmares—dreams of my advisor standing over my shoulder as I worked, waiting for me to divine some revelation from the mess of data I had. I lost weight, lost my appetite, had panic attacks on the train whenever I was headed to campus.”
Ryan grew quiet, his arms still tight around Erik.
“So, I ended up taking a year off,” Ryan said with sigh. “And then I never went back.”
When Ryan didn’t elaborate, Erik prompted, “Why not?”
Ryan shrugged. “Every time I thought about it, I would start panicking again. I tried scrapping everything and considered new areas of research. But just the process of doing literature reviews would make me hyperventilate.”
“But you still kept all your books.”
Ryan gave him a wry grin. “Self-torture?” He chuckled without any amusement. “I don’t know. A reminder of where I’d been, my one last connection to who I was before.”
Erik let that sink in for a minute before continuing. “And how did you end up a porn actor?”
Another chuckle from Ryan. “I had contacted a couple of production companies over the years to try to expand my research. I met with a bunch of producers, directors, even actors, exploring their side of the industry and trying to see if there was anything there that could inform my research and give it some direction. I never found anything, but one director kept suggesting that I get into the industry myself. When I told him I was gay, he just shrugged it off and said he did some gay work, too, so it wouldn’t be a problem.
“I was taking time off. The bar where I worked at the time wasn’t doing so well; my hours were shortened, so cash was tight. I figured, what the hell. I gave the guy a call to see if that was something I could do. Started with behind-the-scenes stuff and gradually moved in front of the camera. The rest is history.”
“That wasn’t Gary, was it?” Erik asked. “He never mentioned that you were researching this stuff.”
“No, I didn’t end up with Gary until a little while later.”
“Do you miss it?” Erik asked after another moment of silence. “Academia.”
Ryan glanced down, their faces just inches apart. “Sometimes,” he whispered. “Sometimes I feel like I’m not making the most of my brain—or at least my education. Working at the bar and doing porn is pretty mindless.”
“You need a challenge,” Erik said.
“But at the same time, academia can be so suffocating. It’s a little bubble filled with ideology and out of touch with the real world. There’s so much pressure to be brilliant and publish groundbreaking research. It can be exciting, I guess; I’m just not sure I’m cut out for it anymore.”
“I know what you mean,” Erik agreed.
A look passed between them, a look of mutual understanding. Erik felt like he saw the real Ryan in that moment, untainted by the throes of sexual pleasure, without a carefully crafted mask in place—just the real Ryan: insecure, a little damaged, an imperfect person trying to make his way in a tough and unforgiving world. An imperfect person, just like everyone, just like Erik himself.
They sat like that, cuddled together under warm blankets as the sky performed for them. The magical color show transformed the horizon: hints of pale blue and purple, and then finally an orange sun peeked out over the roofs of Brooklyn to say good morning. They sat like that until the sun had stretched and settled itself along its daily path and the city below awoke with sounds of honking horns, giggling children, and barking dogs.
Erik felt content. He was generally a happy guy. He liked to stay positive, knew he was quite privileged and had no real complaints in life. But this was nice, and he felt at peace, something that he didn’t remember feeling in a long time.
What do you think about Erik's "solution" to Ryan's reluctance to do another scene? Any thoughts about Ryan's history and how he choose to deal with it? All opinions are welcome at the discussion thread: here.
I also came across a picture of a model who made me think immediately of Ryan. That can also be found on the discussion thread: here. Let me know if that's what Ryan looks like to you.