Friday morning came. It was my last full day in Chicago and I was a mixture of happy and sad all day. One minute, I was near tears thinking about the people I worked with whom I wouldn’t see anymore and, the next minute, I was antsy to get going with my new life. I had spent the last two nights packing and repacking everything I was keeping which was really only my new clothes, some papers and my iPad. Oh, and my supply of shampoos and conditioners. Can’t forget those, Saint Nick would kill me.
Which set off another round of sadness as I realized I would likely never see him again either. Finally found somebody to cut my hair and make me look good, and I was leaving. I hoped I could find someone equally as talented in Denver. I feared I would end up looking like some wild mountain man.
Around four, I was summoned to the break room where everyone was assembled. They had gotten me a white frosted cake and decorated it with “Good Luck, Jack!” emblazoned in purple piping. It was the gayest looking cake but I loved it anyway. There was some good natured back slapping and thank yous all around and then, after everyone had a piece of cake and some coffee, Marcus called it a day and sent everybody home. He didn’t say much then–I was going to dinner at his house later.
I hugged Mary at the door and she held on for a few seconds as if she was trying to absorb the memory of me or something. When she let go and stepped back, her eyes were glistening.
“Now Mary, remember. I will put the title and the bill of sale and the keys to the car in your desk tomorrow morning and leave the car in the lot here. You let Stewart know so he can come pick it up.”
“I got it, Jack. I’ll meet him here tomorrow afternoon, then he’s taking me to dinner. Just him and me. I can hardly wait, Jack. It’s been years. I hope I don’t screw it up.”
“You won’t, Mary. You’ll do fine. Just remember you love him. I’m so happy for you guys. Take care, Mary.”
“You, too, Jack. Bye.” And then she was gone.
I gave Alex my spare apartment key as he was walking out a couple of minutes later. He was all giddy with excitement at being in his new place. I was starting to feel like a squatter in my own apartment. Oh well, it was only for one more night, then I was off to sunshine and paradise.
Dinner that night was to be a family affair–just the Thompsons and me. Marcus had said Laura was fixing my favorite recipe of hers–a Mexican inspired casserole of meats, cheeses and peppers which was out of this world. I had no idea what she called it, but I called it delicious.
I got there about six and Fred greeted me at the door. I hadn’t seen him since I got back from Denver, so he did a double take when he saw me.
“Damn, dude! What did you do to your hair?”
“What? Does it look bad?” I immediately started flailing at it with my hands.
“No, no, dude. It looks great. It’s just a shock. I mean, you took the time to get it done right. Looks amazing on you. Should’ve done it a lot sooner. You look almost human, man. Well come on in. The rents are waitin’ dinner on us.” He led me to the kitchen table.
The aromas in there were divine. In addition to the casserole, Laura had spread the table with fresh tomatoes, chopped onions, jalapeno peppers, cheeses, guacamole, three kinds of salsa and several bowls of chips. It was a feast! We gorged ourselves on great food and lasting memories. Laura told the story of how she helped set up my apartment way back at the beginning and I nearly cried when she looked at me across the table. I think she nearly did too because she jumped up and said, “Damn onions. Excuse me.” She went running off to the bathroom dabbing her eyes with her napkin.
Over the years I had been in Chicago, I had shared many meals with the Thompson family around their table. They had remained true to their word that I would always be welcome in their home. They really were my Chicago family. I wished I had appreciated them even more than I did. It was bittersweet to be leaving them now.
After dinner, Fred and I cleaned up the kitchen so Marcus and Laura could relax a little. She had worked hard to put the meal together. As we did the dishes, Fred was goofing off, snapping his dish towel at my ass and I was laughing hysterically trying to dodge his attempts. He got me once on the thigh and it stung like fire. “Ow, you jerk. That hurt. You wait, I’ll get you back for that.”
He took off running and I ran after him, swinging my own wet dishrag, whooping and hollering like we were six years old. It was a riot. I cornered him in the hallway and popped him a good one before we called for a truce. We were both breathing hard.
Kitchen cleaned, Fred and I headed to the basement, our usual hangout. We fired up the Playstation and started a game of Call of Duty. I am not good at video games, which is why Fred always wants to play them with me. He knows he has a better than ninety percent chance of annihilating me in the early rounds. Tonight was no exception. I didn’t care. I liked hanging out with Fred, doing nothing. He made it easy. No pressure.
“So you’re really gonna do this? Move to Denver?” he said as he sat back and threw his controller on the couch next to him.
“Yep. All packed and ready to go. Leaving tomorrow morning.”
“I’m gonna miss you, Jack. You know that don’t you?” He looked a little sad.
“Yeah, I do, Fred. I feel the same way. It’s been great to be here and hang out with you and the other guys on occasion. I’m gonna miss it. I have to start all over out there.” Now I was getting a little sad. Crap! Goodbyes were hard.
Fred leaned forward and looked hard at me sitting in my chair across from him. “Jack, I need to say something to you. Please don’t be mad at me, but I want you to know I hope you find a great guy in Denver who makes you the happiest man on the planet.”
I dropped my controller on the floor and sat there with my mouth hanging open. Anxiety and fear rose up along with a flood of bile and Mexican food. I don’t know how I willed myself not to throw up but I managed it. I was shaking in near panic mode.
“Fred...I don’t know...I mean how did...you know? About me?” I was in shock. My big secret was lying there out in the open. He just said it like we were talking about the weather or something.
He sat up on the edge of his seat. “Relax, Jack. Take it easy. And breathe, man. You’re kinda freaking me out now.” I did as he said and worked really hard to control my breathing. I was getting better at recovery at least. I didn’t know what to say, how to respond. I was floundering mentally and emotionally. How could he know?
“Jack, listen. I’ve known for a long time. Probably while we were still in college, but definitely since you moved to Chicago. It’s no big deal, not to me anyway. It never changed anything.”
“But how...I mean...I was so careful. I never wanted you to know or make you uncomfortable. I mean, geez, Fred, why didn’t you ever say something sooner?”
“It wasn’t my place, Jack. It’s really none of my business. Except I wanted you to be happy and I knew you really weren’t. We’d go out with the guys and they’d be cuttin’ up, talking trash about the ladies, just bein’ guys, and you’d be sittin’ there like you were lost in the woods. To your credit, you hid it really, really well, Jack. Nobody else caught on, not that I know of. Which is surprising, seein’ as how you have never once dated anyone or ever even talked about a girl.” Or a guy, either.
My head was still reeling and I sat there rubbing my hands over and over through my hair. What do I do now? What do I say to him?
“Jack...dude, relax. It’s okay. I didn’t say it to upset you. I’m sorry if it did. Really. I just wanted you to know I get it. I know what it’s like to want to have somebody for yourself and watch everybody around you get it and you’re left out in the cold. I want you to have what you want, Jack. If it’s a hot dude, then go for it, man.”
“Fred, I really don’t know what to say. I’m sorry, I guess. I didn’t mean to deceive you. I was just scared, ya know? I had no idea how anybody would react if they knew. I just expected the worst. And I had no other friends, Fred. Not after college. You and your family are all I have here. I couldn’t take a chance on losing you. And here you knew all the time. Crap, I’m such an idiot.”
“Jack, don’t be so hard on yourself. Yeah, you should have told me. I could have fixed you up with at least three different guys I know from work. One of them is this creative type in the marketing department. Jack, I’m tellin’ ya, if I swung for your side I’d make a run at this guy. He intimidates all the other straight guys at the office. And the ladies flock to him, even though they know he’s gay. It’s like he’s a magnet or something. Lucky fucker.”
“Well, it’s just as well, I guess, since I’m leaving tomorrow.” Another missed opportunity. They were piling up in my wake.
“Tell me something, Jack. I’m curious. But only if you want to, okay?” He was being careful of my feelings now. I think I freaked him out a bit.
“Okay, Fred. What do you want to know?” I was scared to ask, but I felt like I owed him for covering for me all this time.
“What’s it like to be with a guy? I mean, I don’t get it. I don’t see the attraction. I see a naked guy at the gym, I hardly notice.” He really wanted to know. Problem is, so did I.
“Fred, I would tell you, honestly, but the truth is, I don’t know yet. I’ve never actually...had sex...with a guy.” I can’t believe I told him I was a virgin. But what did I have to lose now?
“Seriously? You’re like twenty-four and you’ve never gotten laid? Not even with a girl?”
“Ewwww. No. Never. I feel about girls the same way you feel about guys. A naked woman does nothing for me. Not interested. Now, I see a naked guy in a locker room and I’m gonna be trying desperately not to pop a boner. High school gym class was a nightmare.”
He was smiling at me. “Really? I bet that would be tough. Plus I’m sure there were plenty of assholes ready to pound you if it happened, right?”
“Probably. Which is why I made sure it never happened. I took multiple music classes so I could get out of gym class to avoid it altogether.”
He laughed. “So, if you aren’t having sex with anybody, how do you...uh...well, you know...get relief?” He was serious. I laughed.
“The same way you do, dickhead. I jack off. A lot!” We both burst out laughing.
“Yeah, I hear ya, Jack. Some nights my hand aches a little. The thing is, I don’t just want to get laid anymore for the sake of it. I want the real deal. Would it shock you if I told you I’m thinkin’ of calling Allison to see if she’ll go out with me again? I heard she was back in the area.”
I sat up straighter. “Fred, are you kidding me? That would be awesome. I never understood why you two didn’t get married right after college. You obviously loved her.”
“Yeah, I did. But I screwed it up. I started pressuring her for sex. And she really wanted to wait. I got so frustrated I gave up on her. Really, really stupid. I hurt her pretty bad. I only hope I can somehow convince her I’ve changed and I’m willing to wait as long as it takes.”
“Wow, Fred. That’s a big step. I hope it works out for you. You two would be great together.”
“So Jack, last question,” he said with a mischievous grin. “How come you never made a pass at me? Am I not sexy enough for you?” Crap! I knew this question was coming. It’s just how he is.
“Fred, you are plenty hot for a guy, I promise. And if I didn’t know you and I wasn’t scared of my own shadow and I met you somewhere, I would at least try to flirt with you. If you were open to it, maybe–and it’s a big maybe–then I might be willing to explore further. I never have yet, but yeah, Fred, you’re hot enough. The thing is, Fred, once I know a guy, and I know he’s straight, he ceases to be an option for me. I’m not interested in making them uncomfortable. You are as straight as they come and I’ve known it since I met you. So it was never an issue between us. We’re friends. Period.”
“Okay, that’s cool. I get it. And we are friends, Jack. I hope forever. Of all the guys I met in college and even at work, I trust you the most. You’re the guy I know I can talk to about anything. And I may be wrong, but I think you’d be there for me if I needed you. I know I would do the same for you.”
“Fred, thank you. And yes, I’ve got your back. No matter where I am. So let’s try real hard to keep in touch, okay? I know we might not, but I hope we do.”
We stood up. Everything needing to be said had been said. We hugged it out like brothers and then I went upstairs to say goodbye to his parents.
Marcus and Laura walked me to the foyer. She handed me a container of leftover Mexican casserole, and ordinarily I would have jumped at it. But I had no place to put it now. I couldn’t take it on the plane with me. Then I remembered Alex. He would probably appreciate it, so I took the dish from her outstretched hand.
We hugged one another and there were a few tears, even from Marcus. These were such special people to me. I may have been leaving Chicago, but I was determined to not leave their lives for good. They were too important to throw away.
I got out of there feeling emotionally wrung out and exhausted. Fred’s revelation that he had known for some time I was gay had rocked me. I was filled with regret for having hidden behind the mask for so long. What had I missed out on? Would I be leaving Chicago if I had instead chosen to live as the gay man I am out in the open? No way to know, but I decided right then and there, no matter how hard it might’ve been, I was not going to make the same mistake in Denver. I probably wouldn’t be dancing on table tops, belting out show tunes in a feather boa, but I was going to be me–my version of a gay man. I hoped I could pull it off. Do it afraid, Jack. Do it afraid.