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Rated: 13+ · Novella · LGBTQ+ · #2303413
A young history professor finds himself risking everything for the love of a student.
An LGBT Novella by Allen Mitchell

Chapter 1

It was his first year as a history professor at McLean College. Mark Piper had always been a star student and a teacher's pet. Ever since pre-school, he'd been the kid who asked the questions, who talked incessantly and, worst of all, threw off the bell curve. He'd loved history for as long as he could remember. He remembered listening to his grandfather's stories about growing up during the depression, and then serving in the Second World War.

Those stories fueled his imagination and took him on flights of fancy about things that only he would find interesting. His grandfather had served in the Pacific theater and recounted the story of the kamikaze pilots dive bombing the aircraft carrier he was stationed on. He had been what was called a 'ball turret gunner.' The mortality rate for that position was extremely high. The rate was so high that Mark's grandfather told him that no one would make friends with him because he wasn't expected to live much longer. Somehow, miraculously, he'd survived three runs as a gunner. Few men lived to tell that tale. Raymond Piper had been one of the lucky ones. He told young Mark about the kamikazes flying so close and so low, that you could see the whites of their eyes. The image of such a scene sent chills of excitement down Mark's spine.

It was those stories that inspired Mark to pursue history. The goings on of antiquity held little interest for Mark, but how the modern world of today came to be was absolutely fascinating.

After finishing the class work for his PhD, Mark had taken a teaching position at McLean with a three year contract contingent upon him completing his dissertation and receiving his degree. Mark sat in his nice cozy office near the exit of Chamberlayne Hall. Chamberlayne was the liberal arts department. History was on the first floor, English on the second floor, religious studies and philosophy on the third and up in the nosebleed section were modern languages. Mark was happy because he had taken the place of one of the longest sitting professors in the college's history. Since none of the other professors were industrious enough to pack up their books and decor and move it a dozen feet down the hall, Mark got the old professor's giant office. It had all the old original woodwork from when the building was constructed in the 1890's. It still had narrow-slat hardwood floors. No carpenter or contractor made hardwood floors like that and no one could afford them if they did. Mark had spread his oriental rug that he'd bought in Cairo on the floor. It seemed small in this big room. His office was 20 feet by 20 feet which would be tiny for some rooms, but made for a massive office. His desk sat in front of a large window that stood every bit of 8 feet high and looked out over the front lawn of the classroom building. There was another equal-sized window in the corner office that overlooked the courtyard between Chamberlayne Hall and the Masterson Student Center.

His first class of the day was getting close. It was the first day of the semester so Mark wasn't all that excited about it - mostly going over the syllabus and fielding questions about grading. He leafed through the stack of syllabi on his desk to make sure all the pages were facing the same way. He could be a stickler for details sometimes. Other times, the most glaring errors escape his notice. He glanced up at the large grandfather clock that stood by the door.10:50. Class started in 10 minutes. It was a freshman World Civilizations class. Somehow, he'd concocted a syllabus that got them from the fall of the Holy Roman Empire through the present day.

It was a hodge-podge of mish mash as far as he was concerned, but nonetheless, he had to teach it. His true passion in the teaching world was modern America. He loved teaching his classes on the Cold War, Prohibition, presidential history, the world wars, and the Vietnam conflict. He loved learning about those historical periods. He couldn't care less about the Italian renaissance if he tried. Today, he'd try to touch on the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 just so he could say he taught them something besides the fact that their term papers were 25% of their overall grade for the semester. Mark rose from his chair, gathered up his papers, and headed off to class.

He stepped out into the mass of youthful vigor that was also en route to class. At only 28 years old, Mark wasn't much older than the seniors, but having been through a master's degree and then a PhD program, he felt like he'd crashed onto an alien planet and was having to learn all over again. His first semester had gone well and was now excited about the second.

Walking through the already open door of Room 105, he surveyed his domain. The usual assortment of students were there preparing for class. Since this was the second semester, the fresh faces of the new students had lost their nervousness and their fear about their new surroundings. Now they had settled into a rhythm and knew what to expect from their professor.

When Mark walked in, several heads turned. He stood about 5'10, medium build. He'd been a swimmer in college and he still retained the sleek musculature that went along with it. He had jet black, perfectly combed hair and bright hazel eyes that stood out as one of his most remarkable and memorable features.

He hurried to the podium to put his stuff down. He plopped the pile of syllabi on the table and sighed in relief that the burden had been unloaded. The students chattered as they moved towards their chairs and took a seat. He was curious to see who would be the lazy ones, who would be the studious ones, and who would he connect with more than the others.

Chapter 2

This was the second semester of Sam Merchison's sophomore year at McLean. He had been in the army for nearly a decade and had done a lot of things he'd rather forget. He'd seen combat, he'd been on reconnaissance missions where people, including people he considered friends, were killed or maimed for life. In his nine years of that, he'd managed to not get shot or injured. It was a true miracle considering some of the awful things he'd been duty-bound to do. He realized that fighting in foreign lands wasn't his life's ambition and so, after his last tour, he declined to re-enlist. He wanted the typical small college experience and so had enrolled at McLean the previous year. He was a biology major and though he enjoyed the subject, he thought about a minor in history. Thus he was taking the introductory round of classes.

His first class of the day was set to begin shortly. His 11 o'clock World Civilizations Class with Mr. Piper. Who this Mr. Piper was he didn't have a clue, nor did he particularly care. After all, the guy wasn't even a doctor. It was just a professor's name on a class schedule. He walked across the grassy expanse that led up to the entrance to Chamberlayne Hall. It was odd being a 28 year old college student, especially after having seen all he had seen and done all the things he had done in the deserts of the Middle East and the jungles of southeast Asia. He knew that, in maturity and leadership, he was light years ahead of his adolescent peers. That notwithstanding, he was determined to enjoy his time at McLean. He mounted the granite steps up to the main entrance, his backpack slung over his shoulder.

Chamberlayne Hall was over a hundred years old and mostly red brick with granite trim around the windows and the exterior corners. It had been renovated a couple of times and was pretty technologically advanced for a liberal arts building. His first semester World Civilizations class had been here, other than that, he'd never set foot in the place. All his classes were in the Cardasis Science Center, a state-of-the-art building that had just been built two years previously.

Crossing the main atrium, he went to Room 105. He took his seat in the geographic center of the room and arranged his book and his notepad on the desk as a man appeared in the doorway. Dressed in a tie and a suit coat, it must have been Mr. Piper.

         "I look older than him," Sam thought to himself.

He watched as the professor moved to the front of the room. He looked down at the curly-edged paper and reviewed the new professor's name. Mr. Piper seemed pretty at ease in front of a classroom full of strangers. He approached the lectern.

         "Good morning and welcome to the second installment of World Civilizations. I'm sure you're all elated to be here, so let's get started."

He handed out the syllabi and as he passed the middle row, his eye caught sight of someone. This someone was rather tall, muscular and seemed much older than his classmates and wiser than his years. Mark paused slightly to take in the niceness of the new stranger and then snapped back to reality, realizing that he'd just been staring at a student. As class was dismissed, the students filed from the room. The nice guy from the middle row approached his new professor.

          He extended his hand, "Sam Merchison."
         "Mark Piper."
         "Good class. I think you'll be a good teacher." Sam said.
         "Thank you." Mark smiled broadly. This guy was like no student he'd ever encountered.

          "You seem older than the others." Mark observed.
         "I'm 28."
         "That'd be a good reason." Mark replied.

Mark folded his arms and leaned against the table. Sam, too, relaxed a little.

         "Why so long?" Mark asked, more at ease with this student than any other.
         "I spent nine years in the army. From when I was 18 until last year."
         "Wow." Mark was still smiling, he didn't know quite what to say. Mark had spent the previous nine years in places pretty much like where they currently stood.
         "Well, I'd better get going." Sam said as he turned towards the door.
         "Yeah, me too."

Mark was meeting his fianc Laura for lunch at home. They'd moved here together and shared a house only a few blocks away from the campus. Mark walked the few blocks home and Laura greeted him at the door. Mark smiled, gave her a hug and a peck on the cheek, and then walked into the kitchen. Laura telecommuted from her old job in cubicle-ville. Most of what she used were web and cloud based applications, so she was home a lot. She figured that it would give her more time to spend with her children when she and Mark finally got married and had some. He'd asked her to marry him shortly before they moved down here for his work, but they had yet to set a date. It bothered her a little at first how distant Mark could seem. He rarely kissed her. Usually he would greet her with a peck on the cheek and the occasional almost brotherly hug, but that was it. But she'd convinced herself that it was just how he was. Some men weren't into showing emotion, and he was one of them.

She followed him into the kitchen where she had prepared a light soup and sandwich lunch in their modest two bedroom house. Laura had fallen in love with Mark the moment she met him. She had met him on a blind date through a mutual acquaintance. She always did go for intellectuals, but Mark was not only an intellectual, he was beautiful. She always considered herself rather plain. She had dark, shoulder-length hair and brown, almost puppy dog-like eyes. Most people thought of her as mildly attractive. She'd latched on to Mark. He seemed to like her and reciprocated her interest. He said he was old fashioned and wanted to wait until they were married to have full on sex. He said he was afraid of having children out of wedlock. Her love for him blinded her to a truth that others suspected. No one was sure enough to admit it, and Mark had certainly never made mention of it, but some thought that he might be gay.

In his head, Mark feared that he was gay. When Laura expressed interest, he decided to go for it. After all, how many times would a reasonably attractive, pleasantly dispositioned woman land in his lap? But his heart still fluttered at the sight of a beautiful man on the street. He secretly watched Queer As Folk while Laura was away from the house. He watched them for the intricate and engaging plot, of course. He kept the DVD's safely hidden in the attic where the slightly claustrophobic Laura was unlikely to go. He couldn't watch it on any streaming services because she would see it in the queue.

As he sat down at the table, he kept thinking about Sam. Something about Sam jumped out at him. Mark refused to let himself think that it was anything sexual, but he had felt a connection when their hands clasped at the end of class. While he liked Laura, he never felt that same electricity, that same spark. But he could learn to love her. He felt a little guilty because she was beyond being in love with him. She'd bound her soul to his in some cosmic, almost mystical way. That sort of bindery scared Mark because he didn't think he could ever feel that way about her. But at long as she was happy, he could make do.

         "You seem distant." Laura remarked, dabbing her delicate face with a napkin.
         "Sorry. Just thinking about class." Mark said, staring off into space.
         "How did it go?" She prompted him for conversation.
         "Fine. This afternoon, I have my Cold War class." Mark said, turning to face her.
         "That's really good. I know you'll like that." Laura smiled at him.

What she wouldn't give for him to pounce on her and have his beastly way with her. Such thoughts never entered poor Mark's head- at least not regarding a woman.

         "Do you have anything at school tonight?"
         "No. I should be done with class around 4:30, then I've got to work on my dissertation a little more. It's going more slowly than I'd hoped." Mark said.
         "Maybe you could get a student assistant. To help with grading papers and things like that so you could spend more time on your writing so you can finish it."
         "That's a good idea, but I doubt the school would let me though."
         "I'm sure there's a teacher's pet who'd do it for free."
         "We'll see." Mark really hadn't considered that before, "I do have one interesting student, though."
         "Really? Who?"
         "His name is Sam, I think. He's been in the army. He and I are the same age."
         Laura was pleased, "That's really great. Maybe you two could be friends after he finishes with your class." Then her tone shifted to wistful, "We could do with some more friends around here. I get kind of lonely, Mark. I am home all day; I don't have an office with co-workers. You're all I've got in this town."
         "Maybe you could do some volunteer work. That'd be a good way to meet people." Mark suggested, trying to be helpful.
         "I guess so." It was clear that wasn't the answer she had in mind. "Mark, when are we going to get married?"
         He looked tired. This was not their first time having this conversation.

          "When I finish my dissertation. I don't have time to plan a wedding."
         Laura perked up at the loophole, "I'll plan it. You won't have to do a thing but show up."
         "I don't know."
         "You still want to marry me, don't you?" She asked, her jaw slackening a little bit.
         "Of course I do. Why wouldn't I?"
         She looked at her dirty, empty plate where her sandwich had been.
         "I need to go back to my office." Mark rose from the table and left the room.

Laura loved him so much it hurt. Why wouldn't he show her he loved her just as much? Why did he seem so distant all the time? She decided it must be because he was under a lot of pressure to finish his dissertation. He still had two years left after this one to finish, so he shouldn't be too worried about it just yet. She got up from the table and started clearing the dishes. She heard the ding that signaled a new email in her inbox. She went back into her office space and clicked open the browser. She sat down because she had work to do and could put Mark out of her mind for a while.

Mark walked back towards his office. As he was mounting the stairs, he heard a voice.

         "Mr. Piper."
          He turned to see Sam standing behind him.
          Mark smiled, "Call me Mark. Mr. Piper is my dad."
          "Okay," Sam laughed, "I know this might sound odd coming from a student, but would you like to have lunch with me some time?"
         Mark thought about it for a second. It was highly unusual for professors to dine with non-majors, but Mark saw no harm in it. "I would love to."
         "Great. So do you have some time tomorrow?"
         "Yeah, I do. Is noon good for you?"
         "Noon's good. I'll stop by your office then."
         "I'm looking forward to it."

Sam sauntered off to realms unknown and Mark returned to the security of his antique oak woodwork and posh leather office chair. His would-be in-laws had given it to him as a gift because they decided that the budding, young academic needed a respectable chair in his office. It was doubtful, they correctly surmised, that the college would provide him with a chair this nice. Mark unlocked his office and plopped down in his chair. He had about an hour to kill before class, so he clicked into his email.

Chapter 3

Sam went about his business for the afternoon. That evening at 7, he had a group
meeting. Sam had always known he was gay. He told the admissions officer in his interview that he was gay and was interested in LGBTQ+ issues. The officer said that the school valued diversity but no one had stepped forward to start such a group. If accepted, he was perfectly welcome to start a gay advocacy/support group on campus. He was accepted and, true to his word, he founded the Doo-dah Group. He picked the name because it sounded fun and non-threatening. The Doo-Dah group met every Monday night at 7 in the psychology department. The Psych department had a cozy room filled with bean bag chairs and the chair of the department said it was okay for them to use it for their informal gathering.

The birth of the group had been quite easy. He'd gotten permission from Dr. Fry, the head of the Psychology department, to use the beanbag chair room, the BCR for short. Then he picked a time, put up flyers around campus, and kabam, the Doo-Dah Group was born. That had been a month into his freshman year. Now, in its second year, the group had about 20 regular attendees; which was quite a few for a small liberal arts college. The administration was rather surprised there were so many people on campus who were interested in such a program.

Tonight was a regular meeting. They would sometimes read articles or books or something they found online and the group would discuss it. Sometimes, they had fun nights and played games. Other times they planned things. Last semester, they had gone to the state capital to lobby the defeat of constitutional ban on gay marriage in the state. Since the ban had been defeated, they were declared victorious.

Tonight's agenda was whether or not they wanted to become an official campus organization, which meant they could get school funds to use in their projects. But it also meant having to have a faculty advisor. Once that decision had been made, it would be a fun night.

As he was approaching the BCR with his key, which was on loan from Dr. Fry, his mind wandered back to Professor Piper, Mark. He was absolutely adorable. Sam wasn't sure, but he was pretty certain he'd felt a certain energy between them in class that morning.

         Sam chided himself out loud, "Stop that. He's your professor, you nimrod."

         But oh was he nice to look at. Sam was going to enjoy watching him this semester. Sam also looked forward to future classes with the new hottie professor. Sam hoped Mark spent plenty of time writing on and erasing the marker board...while wearing khakis. As he put the key in the lock, it dawned on him. He could ask Mark to be their faculty advisor. That was it- he was going to advocate they ask the new history professor.

         The other students were lined up behind their de facto president. There had never really been elections, since he'd founded the group just last year, no lines of succession had been established and it was just assumed that Sam was in charge.
         "So, to get things underway," Sam started as he flopped his nice little behind onto a bean bag chair and stuck his feet out in front of him, "Should we be an officially recognized organization?"
They debated a bit and decided to do it.
"Who should we ask to be our faculty advisor?"
         A few suggestions were offered. It was actually a girl named Tiffany who suggested Mr. Piper. Apparently, Sam wasn't the only one slightly intrigued by the newest member of the McLean College faculty.
"I think he'd be willing to step up and help." Tiffany said,
         "What makes you think that?" Sam asked. He was fishing to see if Tiffany had the same impression about Piper's true orientation.
         "I dunno. He seems nice? I'm in one of his classes and he seems nice anyway."
         That wasn't really the cogent answer Sam was hoping for. He was hoping she'd say something along the lines of, "Because he's the biggest closet case east of the Mississippi?" or "Because we can host his coming out party?"
But no, the best poor Tiffany could come up with was, "He seems nice."
         "All I can do is ask," Sam said, then cheekily added, "I'm having lunch with him tomorrow anyway, so the timing works out."
Several sets of eyebrows raised at that admission.
"You're what?" A guy named Clark asked.
"I invited him to lunch tomorrow," Sam said, "And he said yes."
Sam tried to get the blush off of his face.
"Well, well," Tiffany said, "You are a fast operator."
"It's not like that. It's just that he and I are the same age and he seems like a nice guy."
"He is that," Clark agreed, "Just be careful. He's still a professor and you are a student."
"I know," Sam said, "I'll be careful."
"I heard he's engaged," Marta, another student, said.
Tiffany shrugged and Clark looked visibly disappointed.
The rest of the evening passed as they played Taboo and Uno.

         When Sam got back to his apartment, his roommate Amanda was sitting at the kitchen table reading some trashy romance novel.
         "What'cha reading?" Sam asked, as he sat his canvas satchel down in the chair and walked over to the counter to get a glass of water.
"Summer Loving"
"What's it about?"
         "Summer Loving. It's pretty self explanatory, genius." She replied with a good natured grin.

It was the nature of their friendship. They'd been introduced the summer before school started and they'd become roommates. They both had a sharp sense of humor, so their banter would scare off most sane people.

         "Can I ask you a question?" Sam asked, turning around and propping on the counter.
         Feigning annoyance at the intrusion, she placed her bookmark and set the book down on the table. "Sure, why not?"
         "Do you know Mark Piper? He's a history professor. I have him for World Civ this semester."

Amanda wasn't a student. She was the same age as Sam and worked at a local bank as a loan officer. She inherited the house they shared from her grandmother. She wasn't connected to the college; she just rented a room to Sam for some extra money.

"Why? What about him?"
"I think he might be gay."
         "You think everyone's gay, Sam. If it was up to you, we'd all be test tube babies and no one would reproduce the old fashioned way."
         "I'm not opposed to straight people, per se, it's just that they're, well, boring. Plus I think their time running the world has run its course." Sam replied, smiling at the barb.
"Okay," Amanda said, "Fair point."

She'd heard this song and dance from her militantly homosexual army veteran roommate before.

         "Besides, it just so happens that a lot of people are, but don't want to admit it." Sam added.
"So what if he is? Why do you care?" Amanda asked, leveling her eyes at him.
"I'm going to ask him to be the Doo-dah's Group's faculty advisor."
"He can be straight and serve as your advisor. Who cares?"
"Well...and you can't tell anyone this...," Sam leaned in conspiratorially even though they were the only two people in the house, "I think he likes me."
Amanda smirked, "Sam, he's your professor."
         "Oh, he'll never act on it. I think he may be married. Or at least engaged. At least that's what I heard through the grapevine."
Amanda sat at the table, smiling at him.
She shook her head, laughing, "You cheap ho."
Sam grinned a little, "What?"
"You know perfectly well what. You've got a crush on this Piper guy, don't you?"
"Don't be ridiculous, Amanda."
Sam tried to deny it but he couldn't help but blush a little.
         "You act like I don't see what's going on. I see that smirk of your's. You've got a crush on your teacher!" Her smirk turned into a wide-mouthed grin.
         "I do not." He quickly left the room and went to his bedroom. Amanda got up out of the chair at the kitchen table and followed him. "So, Mr. Merchison, what're you going to do now? You've got to watch him parade around right in front of you for the next three months. Ha! You get to check him out all the time. You're gonna have a raging hard-on every class period."
         "Shut-up." Sam still had that little smirk curling around the edge of his lips and his face was bright red, thoroughly giving himself away.
She was going to have a field day with this.
"So what's new with you?" Sam asked.
"Don't change the subject," she replied, arching her eyebrows, "So, what are you going to do about it?"
Sam stood there for a moment debating with himself whether or not he should tell Amanda about his plan. "We're going out for lunch."
"Holy shit." She sat down on the bed, "You've got a date with him?"
"It's not a date. We're just going to lunch."
"Uh-huh. What's for dessert?" She burst out laughing.
         "It's not like that. We're the same age, he's intelligent, well-read, an all around good, decent, respectable man."
"Who is straight - didn't you say he was married?"
"He might be, but I'm not sure. He didn't have a wedding ring on."
         "Then there's still time for you to make your move- to work that Merchison magic on your little teacher man."

He sat at his computer and brought up his web browser while Amanda continued to sit on the edge of the bed. A few moments of silence passed between them. She grew bored, realized that the conversation had ended, so got up and went back out to her book in the kitchen. Sam brought up his email but all he could see on the screen was Mark's round yet slightly angular face. He needed to be better at hiding his crush, or infatuation, or whatever this was. If Tiffany and Amanda both picked up on it, he had to be more careful. He couldn't stand the idea of getting Mark in trouble. He had felt a spark between them this morning. But of course neither of them could ever act on it because of their professional relationship.

As he sat there, he heard Amanda coming back towards his room.

         "Are you seriously going to have lunch with him or were you making that up? Because I don't believe you. I think you're a poopy head and a liar."
"Yeah. Tomorrow."
         "So let me get this straight, pun very much intended, the first day of class, you walked up to the professor and said, 'Would you like to go out with me?'"
"No. I ran into him later. He was coming back from lunch."
"Probably lunch at home with the love of his life."
"Probably." Sam admitted.
         Amanda chuckled, "'I ran into him later'...isn't that what most stalkers say to the judge?"
         "I'm not going to stalk him."
         "Good." Amanda said, turning to leave.
         "I don't have to. I know where he'll be tomorrow." Sam laughed.
         "You are such a goof." With that, Amanda rolled her eyes and returned to Summer Loving.
Chapter 4

The next day dawned bright and fair. It was a bit chilly, but sunny. Mark walked up the granite stairs and through the entrance to his office. He was strangely excited about lunch today with Sam. He wanted to talk to Sam about his experiences in the military and what he thought of the state of things in the Middle East today. He wasn't sure if Sam would want to talk to him or would be allowed to if he wanted. He knew plenty of people who refused to talk about their combat experiences. The emotional and psychological traumas those experiences left them with would follow and haunt them all the days of their lives. But maybe Sam would at least be willing to talk about his opinions of the war effort and whether or not we were successful over there.

After his 11:00 class dealing with the first twenty years of the twentieth century, Mark walked quickly back to his office with his satchel on his shoulder. As he expected, there stood Sam, waiting by the door.

         "I hope you haven't been waiting too long." Mark said as he unlocked the door and pushed it open. Sam entered the office behind him for the first of many times.
"Not at all, Mr. Piper."
"Please, when we're being social, call me Mark."
"Just not around other students."
         "Precisely. I have to keep my air of authority after all," Mark said slyly, throwing his satchel onto his desk.
"Understood." Sam mock saluted.
         "At ease." Mark checked his pockets to make sure his keys and wallet were where they should be, "Ready?"
"I've been ready."
"Alright then, let's roll. Where are we going?"
"There's a little bistro off of Montclaire. Mi Madre's." Sam said.
"Sounds good. My fiancelikes to cook, so I don't eat out very often."
         "Well that's safer and cheaper. I usually eat either at home or in the dining hall." Sam thought he covered his disappointment pretty well.
         "You eat in the dining hall?" For some reason, it never occurred to him that Sam ate there. Mark could see trouble ahead because he already was forgetting that Sam was a student. Sam seemed more and more like a friend. Sam was disappointed that Mark had a fianc.
"Your car or mine?"
         "Mine's right here in the faculty lot. I often walk but they were calling for rain this afternoon, so I drove."
"Then your car it is."
"Since you eat in the dining hall, do you also live in the dorms?"
"No. They let me live off campus. My friend Amanda and I live together."
"Is this just a friend or 'friend?'"
"Just a friend. I'm gay, Dr. I mean, Mark."
"Oh, okay. I didn't realize that," Mark nodded.
"Yeah. I actually founded the Doo-dah group on campus. Have you heard of them?"
"Yes. I've seen the flyers, but I don't really know anything about it."
"It's a group for gay people and their straight allies."
"Nice. The college I went to had one."
"Did you go?"
"So? Do you support gay equality and gay rights?"
"Of course I do." Mark sounded slightly taken aback that Sam might think otherwise.
"Then you can be a part of our group."
         Mark pressed the key fob to unlock the car doors. He pulled the handle and started getting in.
"But it's a student group, right?"
         "Well," Sam said, taking his seat in the car next to Mark, "That was part of why I wanted to talk to you."

Mark sat there for a moment waiting anxiously for Sam to continue. Had he been figured out? Had Sam picked up some vibe from him?

"We want to be an official campus organization."
"Okay? What does that have to do with me?"
         "We need a faculty advisor. We discussed it at our meeting last night and we'd like you to be our advisor."
"What would I need to do?"
         "Not much. We're pretty self-sufficient. So, you can be as involved or as uninvolved as you want. We just need someone official to put their rubber stamp on it."
"Sounds simple enough. But won't people think I'm, you know, gay?"
         "So? That's the sort of stereotyping that we're trying to get rid of. We want to get rid of the stigma of being 'gay' or 'queer' or whatever else you want to call us."
Mark put the car in gear and backed out of his space.
"I don't know. Can I think about it?"
"What's there to think about?"
Mark squirmed a little.
         "Are you worried about your reputation and that people will think that good old Mark Piper is a flaming homo?" Sam teased, then cleared his throat when he realized how wildly inappropriate his teasing had been.
"A little, I guess."
         Sam recognized the awkward teenager under the mantle of professional adult in the pitch of Mark's voice.
         "See, then you have to be our advisor. To show those crusty old bags that it's okay to associate with gay people without being gay yourself. C'mon Mark. Do it. Do it for us. Do it for yourself. You could have a big impact on this campus for gay equality."
"You're very persuasive."
"When I left the army, they tried to get me to stay on as a recruiter."
         "I'm just glad you're on my side. I'd hate to think I had someone like you as an adversary. I'd be in big trouble."
"I like you, Mark, I'm definitely on your side."
"That's nice. So, where is this place?"
         "It's up here on the left." Mark slid his little Toyota Corolla into an angled space on the street in front of a whole line of storefronts. Once inside and seated, conversation resumed.
         "Why'd you join the army in the first place?" Mark asked, perusing his menu.
         "It was my only ticket out of my parents' shadow. I love my parents, but I wanted to get away. My dad spent some time in the army and he said that it was a real maturing experience for him. So, I went down to the recruiter's office and signed up. Then at the ripe old age of 27 when it came time to re-enlist, I said, 'no, thanks and got out."
"Why'd you leave?"
         "I was tired of fighting the war and hiding that I was gay. My time there taught me that my job in life is to fight for gay rights and equality. I know 'don't ask don't tell' is over, but there is still a lot of awkwardness around it and people in the military, especially at the lower ranks, get really weirded out by it."
         "I'm sorry to be asking so many questions, but I'm just curious about you. It's so odd to meet a student like you. Most of the students haven't got a clue about anything and what's worse is that a lot of them don't really want to learn anything, they just want to party and others just want to get a degree so they can make money. But you're wiser about the world than most of the faculty."
         "It's okay. I just know different stuff. I know about guns, close quarter combat, and how to blow stuff up. I don't have a clue about the Hanseatic League."
"You do now. Or at least you'd better." Mark smiled.
         "Okay, okay." Sam just kind of waved his hand in the air and reached for his tea glass and took a slight sip.
"So, why'd you come to McLean?" Mark asked.
         "I wanted to go to a small college. I'm the only member of my immediate family to go to college. While, yes, I got good training in the army and I know a lot about a lot of things, there's still a certain prestige that goes with having a college degree."
"Fair enough."
         "So, Herr Professor, why are you a professor?" Sam asked, batting the question right back.
"I love to teach and I love history."
"Why not teach high school? Why go through the trouble of a doctorate?"
         "There's a certain prestige that goes with having a PhD. I wanted one. Besides, I like teaching at the college level. Actually, in undergrad, I did take some secondary education classes. I decided against it. I wanted to take it to the next level."
The waitress came over and took their orders and left.
"Why McLean?"
         "I wanted a small school where I got to know my students. I guess I succeeded." He clinked his water glass to Sam's.
"I guess you did."
"Why'd you get into history? Seems rather dry." Sam said.
         Mark shook his head vigorously, "History is made out to be dry. It's not. It seems that way because we're removed from it; but history is the story of our very existence. It's life and death, war and intrigue, sex and violence, love and betrayal. History is the ultimate saga."
Sam just nodded and smiled a bit, he'd struck a chord, or a nerve; he wasn't entirely sure.
"So what are you majoring in?" Mark asked, flipping the question around.
"Why biology?"
         Sam smiled for a moment before replying, "It's the stuff of life. It's blood and guts, it's bone and excrement."
It was Mark's turn to nod and smile.
         "Why did you invite me out to lunch?" Mark asked, "I'm happy to be here, I'm just curious."
         "I thought you might be someone interesting to talk to. My classmates are nice, but I'm past pimply adolescence. You're more my speed."
"Just don't forget that I'm your professor."
"I know. My roommate, Amanda, is convinced that this is a date."
"Is it?" Mark asked- the slightest hint of a twinkle in his eye.
"Of course not. You're straight, remember?"
"And don't you forget it." Mark laughed.

For one of the first times Mark could remember, he felt perfectly at ease talking to someone. Sometimes he could seem a little uptight simply because he was uncomfortable and afraid of being 'found out.' He almost had the urge to tell Sam about his doubts, about his fear that he was gay. But he was afraid that Sam would encourage him to come out and that just wasn't in Mark's plan.

As they munched on their respective lunches, the conversation died down a little. Sam was more convinced than ever that Mark was gay. But he knew he couldn't push the issue. He didn't want Mark to shut down because he was uncomfortable. So, he contented himself with idle chit chat for the time being; but, a plan was formulating in the recesses of Sam's brain. Sam was going to covertly smoke out Mark Piper. He was not going to get him in trouble for dating a student, but he was going to see if Mark would come out on his own terms.

Mark was thrilled to meet someone he could connect with. He was still a little ill-at-ease with the whole student/professor thing, but he didn't want to break off their budding friendship. Sam was the first real friend he felt like he'd made since moving here. He wasn't going to let a few misgivings get in the way. Besides, Sam was clearly mature enough to know where the boundaries were and to respect them.

         After lunch, Mark and Sam drove back to the campus and parked in the same spot they'd left less than an hour ago.
         "I thoroughly enjoyed eating lunch with you. We will definitely have to get together sometime soon." Mark said as they exited the car.
"Definitely. See you in class tomorrow, Mark."
"See you there Sam."
         They left in their separate directions. Sam to his 1:00 thermodynamics class and Mark to his office to work on his dissertation a bit before class at 2. He was studying the impact of the Cold War on US immigration policy.
         Sam bounded into class at the last moment and took his seat. He was still beaming from the positively outstanding lunch he'd had with his World Civ professor.
         "Well, well," Dr. Velardi said, noting his demeanor, "Someone must have had a good day so far."
"It's been a great day, Dr. Velardi."
"Good. Hot date?" She joked.
"Not exactly." Sam said, trying to wipe the stupid, toothy grin off his face.
         "Ah." She knew better than to pursue questions you may or may not want to know the answers to. After all, the answer could have been, "banging the lunch lady" for all Dr. Velardi knew. So, she started off into the safety of her lecture on something pertaining to thermodynamics.
Chapter 5

Mark went home at the end of the day and found Laura sitting at her desk on a conference call with who knows who. So, he turned the captions on and muted the TV so he could watch without disturbing her. After about 20 minutes, she emerged from her study.

         "So how was your day?" Laura asked. She sat down on the sofa next to him. He'd forgotten to sit in the other chair. Usually, he sat in the arm chair so she couldn't sit so close. Why did she always have to sit right under his armpit?
"You didn't come home at lunch."
"I'm sorry. I should have called. I had lunch with a colleague."
"Who was it?"
         "Dr. Malveston. He's an English professor upstairs."

It concerned him slightly how easily that little lie came right off his tongue. It wouldn't be the last time he would lie about his activities or whereabouts because of Sam Merchison. He felt a tinge of guilt about lying to her, but he really didn't want to discuss what really transpired at lunch today. He doubted she would understand. Or perhaps she'd read too much into it. Yes, it was much safer not to mention Sam in front of her, he thought silently to himself. They spent a quiet evening on the couch watching some legal drama that Laura was into on TV.

Sam's female living companion, however, was not so easily dissuaded from the topic of a lunchtime rendezvous. Sam was stretched out on his bed reading about the impact of the Franco-Prussian War and World War I on France's war efforts during World War II. He was fishing for essay material for his world civilizations class.

         Amanda appeared in his doorway, "Soooo. How did it go Mr. Stud Muffin? Should I find somewhere else to sleep tonight?" She was standing in the bedroom doorway stirring a strawberry yogurt cup.
         "It was fine, Amanda. We just went to Mi Madres and had lunch. We talked a bit and that's it."
         She eyed him suspiciously, gesturing with her spoon, "What was it you were calling straight people? Oh yes, 'boring.'"
         "What did you think we'd do? Did you think we'd go back to his office and make out? He'd never go for it, plus I had thermodynamics at one."          
         "He might go for it more easily than you'd like to admit. What'd you say to him about the Doo-dah Group?"
"He didn't commit, but seemed interested."
"So when are you two lovebirds going out again?"
"We are not lovebirds..."
"Yet." She said, spooning a big blob of yogurt into her mouth.
"He's straight, engaged...and I don't know when. I guess I'll see him in class tomorrow."
"So, do you think he's still gay?"
         "That man's a flaming queen just waiting to be set free." Sam smiled and shook his head. He'd seen this closet song and dance before.
"Are you going to be his liberator? Will you be the Russian Army to his Berlin?"
Amanda teased.
"Doubtful. But I could get the ball rolling."
"I'll bet you could get his balls to do a lot of things." She snickered.
         "Shut-up." He turned completely red. Actually he almost turned purple. He couldn't help but smile.
         "You're blushing." She taunted. "Made you blush. Good God, you really do have a serious hard-on for this guy."
         "He's one of the nicest guys I've ever met. And we just click. I was so sad we had to leave. I'd have been glad to sit and talk all afternoon."
         Sam's expression was a thousand miles away as he looked toward the window and away from Amanda who was still standing in the doorway.
         "Maybe you should invite him over for dinner." Amanda offered, "You could make him coq au vin with pots de creme for dessert."
Sam turned his attention back to her, "Someone's been watching the Food Network."
"Yes. It was on in the breakroom at work."
         "That may be pushing my luck. I think I'll just lay low for a while. If he agrees to be the faculty advisor for the Doo-Dah Group, nature may take its own course."
"Suit yourself. Chocolate souffle would be good too."
"I need to study," Sam said by way of polite dismissal.
"You could also be less subtle."
         "How would that go? Should I slingshot my boxer briefs through his window?" Sam asked sarcastically.
         "I was thinking oysters and chocolate covered strawberries, but your plan might work too. Just go with the black silk boxer briefs. Very chic."
         With that, Amanda left Sam alone to study.
Chapter 6

Mark was tormented within. He lay awake in bed thinking. Laura had her head resting on his chest. She slept soundly, her heart and her mind uncluttered by the demons that raged within her fianc. She had grown up with the same values of hearth and home as he had and she had convinced herself that she was on the cusp of achieving that American dream. She was going to marry a man she loved more than herself. She was going to have the chance to be truly happy and to have a family and a home. She was going to have a life she could be proud of. None of those things were in her head as she drifted off into the dark void of a dreamless slumber.

Mark lay there, fully awake. Sam had awakened something downright primal within him. Unwittingly, Sam had triggered something in Mark that Mark had tried his whole life to hide, if not eradicate entirely. He wanted the same things as Laura. He wanted a hearth and home. He wanted the picture postcard life. He had a deep and abiding fear that it would not come true. His parents had poured their all into his life. They had spent countless sums of money on his education; they had been to every Little League game, Boy Scout Jamboree, participated in every school fundraiser, chaperoned field trips, the PTA, and pretty much anything asked of them. His parents were amazing and the last thing in the world he wanted to ever do was let them down or disappoint them.

When he went to college, they were so proud. His dad had a college education, but his mother did not. When he told them that he wanted to be a professor, they were so excited. His mother could hardly stand it; she was so proud of her son. Mark had one sister who was married with kids. Mark's mother, Martha, wanted a whole bunch of grandchildren. She had been an elementary school teacher until she retired. She loved being around children and she wanted nothing more than for Mark and Laura to get married and have lots of children and build a life worthy of admiration and respect.

But deep within Mark's chest lay the death of that dream. The death lay in the fact that he didn't love Laura. He liked her, he thought very highly of her, but yet he pitied her a little because she couldn't understand the darkness that lurked in his soul. She had no way of understanding. He was filled with fear and dread. He was afraid of hurting Laura, he was afraid of disappointing his parents who had given him everything. But at the same time, he feared destroying his own soul by lying to protect them and their dreams for his life. He stifled a sob because he didn't want to wake Laura. If she caught him crying in the middle of the night, she might ask questions. Questions he didn't want to answer.

He pondered breaking off the engagement. It would break her heart, but she would survive. She'd probably move back home and he'd be alone. Alone with what? Alone with the foolish dream that he would fall in love with another man? As much as he wanted to be in love, to know what true passionate love feels like, he was afraid of leaving his old life behind. He knew in his heart of hearts that to step out and find true and everlasting love would require hurting Laura, it would require hurting his parents, it would require hurting himself. He wasn't sure that the sacrifices it would require were worth it. It was the doubt that it would really not be worth it to leave that kept him with her this long. It bothered him that he didn't want to be intimate with her. He knew he should. He knew that being with her was the right and proper thing to do. He wanted to want to, but it just wasn't in him.

Sam was fettered with no such doubts. Sam had been around the world with the army and had seen and done things that he would never discuss with anyone. Sam had held a gun to someone's head. Sam had pulled the trigger. He lay awake for nights after that playing and replaying the scenes of the ghastly events in his mind. There were many reasons he left the army. One of the chief reasons was that he didn't want to hurt anyone any more. He was done inflicting pain. He was done killing people. He wanted to get a good classical education, get a good job and settle down with a nice respectable husband. There were to be no guns in his house and there was to be no talk of war in his house. After living through hell for years at a time, from here on out, he only wanted to know peace. He wanted to study war no more.

After having lived his life to this point and seen the things that he had, a few 'should I,' 'shouldn't I's' didn't bother him in the least. The life crisis doubts that Mark was having would seem laughable in the face of genocide, war, disease, famine, and the host of other ills that plagued the world. Dating a cute professor and living in a quaint, small town seemed like a preferable option. In fact, it seemed like a pleasant fate in life.

During his nine years in the army, one of the missions he ran was a humanitarian relief mission in Sudan. He was responsible for safeguarding and securing UN food drops and making sure the food got distributed equitably. In those few weeks he spent in that devastated land, he saw people so emaciated and gaunt that they could barely stand. He saw people so riddled with preventable diseases that their lives were quickly slipping away. The hardest was seeing children like that. No one deserved to die at 5 years old because there was no food to eat or because you got cholera from contaminated water.

Those were the thoughts that kept Sam awake at night, not "I don't want to disappoint mommy and daddy." If his Mommy and Daddy knew half the things he'd done, they'd disown him and never speak to him again.

The weeks started to click by and the semester rolled on. Mark declined the offer of being the Doo-dah Group's faculty advisor on the grounds that it might be too time consuming. Mark and Sam went to lunch a few times, but not often. They were both so busy because the semester was in full swing.

Then it came time to pre-register for fall classes. Sam took the course catalog home and started looking at the history classes. He noticed that Mark was teaching a course titled "Social Revolution: The Turmoil of Mid-Century." He decided to ask him about it. He knew when Mark's office hours were, so he just dropped by.

Mark was leaning back in his comfy leather chair reading a book about the impact of rising poverty rates on the lifestyles of the aristocracy in 17th Century Europe. He had his shoes off and his feet up on his desk. There was a polite knock at the door.

"Come in." He called, immediately putting his feet down on the floor.
Sam poked his head in. "May I talk to you about something?"
"Of course," Mark motioned towards the chair that faced the desk.

Sam slipped into the office and took the designated seat.

"What's going on, Sam?"
         "I wanted to ask you about your Mid-Century class in the fall. I was wondering if I could take it."
"I don't see why not." Mark shook his head. "I think you'd enjoy it."
"I wanted to talk to you about an idea I had for a term paper for that class."
"Wow, you're planning ahead."
"You can probably guess what I want to study."
"The history of the gay rights movement?" Mark replied.
"How'd you know?" Sam smiled.
         "Lucky guess. You're so predictable sometimes," Mark teased his star pupil. Rather than being a slacker and trying to get by by buddying up to the teacher, Sam had gone overboard to impress Mark. He had aced every test and quiz, the rough draft of his term paper was almost publishable.
         "Did you have a specific thesis in mind or just the general area of interest?" Mark sounded professorial when he said that.          
         "I don't have a thesis yet, the paper's not due for another 8 months, so I've got some time."
         "Yes, you do. Also, Sam, while you're here, I was wondering, are you going to be in town this summer?"
"Yeah. You?"
         "Some. I'm going to Washington, DC to do some research at the National Archives for about a month or so, but other than that, I'm going to be right here."
"Why do you ask?" Sam sat back in the surprisingly comfortable chair.
         "Since you're not my student anymore as of the end of the term, I was wondering if you'd like to hang out some over the summer?"
"Sure. That sounds really nice."
         "Great! I don't have that many friends in town and most of my colleagues are old enough to be my parents, so I was hoping you'd say yes."
"Well, I'm glad you asked."
         Mark seemed suddenly uncomfortable in the following silence. He put his hands on the desk and interlocked his fingers.
"Is everything okay Mark?" Sam adjusted his position in the chair and waited.
         "Yeah. Everything's fine. Sorry. Just got a lot stirring up here in this brain of mine. Didn't mean to seem distant."
         "You didn't seem distant. Just like something was bugging you. Is there something you wanted to talk to me about?" Sam explained.

Inside, Mark was screaming. In the elapsed weeks of class and in their occasional lunch outings, Mark had developed real feelings for Sam. Mark found himself romantically and physically attracted to Sam. Sam felt the same for Mark, but wasn't willing to make the first move, given the circumstances. He didn't want to pressure Mark into doing something he would later regret.

Mark wanted to tell Sam how he felt about him. He wanted to tell Sam how much he felt like hugging him, like holding him, how much he wanted to be with him. He knew Sam, of all people he knew, would know how it felt to be with a man. Mark knew that there was something real and tangible between them. He could sense that and he knew that Sam was fully attuned to the bond that existed between them.

He wanted to get the courage together to tell Laura that she would be better off with someone else. He wanted to get the courage to tell Sam that he loved him and that he wanted to be with him. He wanted the courage to face the life he had and turn it down in hopes of the life he had dreamed about.

         But, instead, he said, "No."
         He stood up and so did Sam. Sam walked over and stood beside the desk. He and Mark were inches apart and the sexual tension in the air was unbelievable. It was Sam who spoke.
"I know I'm way overstepping my bounds here, but you can tell me."
"Tell you what?"
         "Is there anything that you think I could help you with or talk through?" Sam asked.
Mark's jaw worked and his mouth moved, but no words came out.
"Like what?" Mark asked, his throat suddenly bone dry and his voice raspy.
"That you're really gay."
"What makes you think I'm gay?" Mark asked, trying not to hyperventilate.
         "It's a sense I get about people. Closeted people often aren't as good as they think they are at being closeted. I can tell. And it's okay. I'm not going to tell anyone. But for your own sake, you need to tell someone. If not me, then somebody." Sam said, with a sense of urgency in his voice.

Mark's legs gave way and he flopped into the chair. The chair rolled a few inches over the plastic guard he had put down to protect the hardwood floor. Sam went back to his chair and sat down. He sat quietly waiting for Mark to speak.

He had been found out. His worst nightmare and his sweetest dream were on the verge of becoming reality in the same watershed event. The words caught in his throat. His throat was parched, his palms sweaty, and the temperature of his office tripled instantly. His heart thundered in his chest. His heart pounded so hard it started to ache. He almost wished his heart would just stop and he would fall over dead right then and there and no longer have to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. But that was not to be.

Sam sat patiently waiting for Mark's response. He knew that Mark's reaction was all he needed to see to know the truth of the matter. Sam could see the pain and torment rush forth in his teacher's eyes. He could see the storm of discontent raging and could sense that Mark was on the cusp of a major breakthrough. Mark was about to begin the long, painful, and sacrificial act of coming out. Sam would do whatever he could to be there for his new friend during the crisis that lay on the horizon.

Mark caught his breath and leaned back in his chair. He stared blankly at the historical tome he'd been reading just minutes before his world imploded before his very eyes.

"Being gay is nothing to be ashamed of." Sam reassured him.
"For me it is. It's okay for other people, but not for me."
         "Why is it okay for me to be gay but not you? Are you too good to be gay?" Sam said, trying to keep the irritation out of his voice.
         "That's ridiculous. It's just that...I don't know. It's just something my parents wouldn't approve of."
"Do you think my parents approved?" Sam arched his eyebrows.
"I don't know. Did they?"
         "Not really, no. In fact they told me that I was going to Hell when I die and that they didn't want to be a part of my life anymore. I respected their wishes. I joined the army. What else is a little fairy supposed to do to become a 'real man?'"
"You joined the army to get over being gay?"
         "Stupid, isn't it? It's idiotic now, but when you're scared, desperate, and 18, it's amazing the idiotic ideas that seem rational."
"But you learned a lot in the army, didn't you?"
         "Yeah. I learned what suffering really is. There is nothing that could happen to you by coming out that could compare with some of the horrors I encountered overseas. I still lay awake some nights thinking about it. I wake up screaming in the middle of the night."
         "I know that to you, what I'm going through seems dumb, but to me it's not."
         Tears started to well up in his troubled eyes. One tear ran down his cheek and he quickly brushed it away with his hand. Sam picked up his chair and moved it beside Mark. He put his hand on Mark's leg and looked up at him. Mark looked at Sam and their eyes met.
         "Mark, I know this hurts. I wouldn't wish your pain on anyone. But it will pass. But it will go away only if you come out. It only goes away if you confront it, admit it, and deal with it."
"I don't want to hurt Laura. She's such a good person."
         "She'll never be really happy with you because you don't really love her. If you care about Laura, tell her the truth. Laura deserves to be happy just like you do; with someone else."
"But I'm afraid." Mark replied, fully aware of how juvenile he sounded.
         "I know. You should be. Your life is about to change drastically and forever. People will see you differently; they'll treat you differently. It'll hurt at first, but trust me, you and Laura will both be better off for it in the end."
         Mark just sat quietly in the chair. He just stared down at Sam's hand gently resting on his leg. He put his hand on Sam's, their palms and fingers residing peacefully atop one another.
"I don't know what to say," Mark said.
"You don't have to say anything."
         "I think I'm falling in love with you." Mark blurted out then looked horror stricken.
         Sam sat silent and motionless. Mark looked at him with worry. He knew he'd gone too far. He knew he'd overstepped his boundaries. He didn't want Sam to leave him. He was too scared and vulnerable to be left alone.
"I wondered." Sam said.
"What do you mean?"
         "I thought you might be developing feelings for me. But Mark, you're still my history professor. You can't be my lover and my mentor."
         "I know. Why does this hurt so much?" Mark asked rhetorically, a tear making its way down Mark's cheek.
"Love is a blessing and a curse. It makes people do stupid things."
"Why are you so wise?"
         "I've seen a lot in my time. The days you spent in your ivory tower of academia I was crawling on my belly out in the desert with a machine gun. All those nights you spent studying, I spent on patrol waiting for the bullet that would end my life."
         "Why are you so content with your life after being through all that and your parents reacting the way they did?"
         "Mark, your life is what it is because it's all you've ever known. It was what you were raised to believe you wanted. My life is what it is because I have seen what a terrible hellhole this world can be and so I'm here at McLean solely by independent choice and sheer force of will."
         Mark didn't know how to reply, so he just sat with another tear forging its path down his cheek. Sam reached up with his other hand to brush it away.
         "Thank you for being here." Mark turned to face him. He wanted so much to kiss Sam, but he knew better.
         "Hey, I just wanted to ask about taking your class in the fall." He smiled and chuckled a little, which broke the tension.
         "Well, nonetheless, thank you for being here for me. I really need a friend right now. It's going to be tough."
"Yes it will. But you'll make it." Sam stood up to leave.

From about halfway to the door, he turned to face Mark.

         "Laura's leaving this afternoon to drive up to visit her sister in Maryland for the weekend. Do you think we could hang out tonight?"
"I don't know if that's such a good idea."
         "It's a terrible idea, I know. But I'm asking anyway, as a friend. Maybe Amanda could come." Mark said.
         "Okay then, let's have dinner tonight. You can come over to our place. I'll cook something nice."
"Thanks again. What time?"
"6:30? Is that good?"
"Perfect- where do you live?"
"1615 Adams Dr. Can you find that?"
"I can manage. It's not far from me."
         "Good, then I'll see you then." With that, Sam quickly slipped through the door and walked off down the corridor to the south exit of Chamberlayne Hall. He wondered how all of this was going to pan out. He pulled his cell phone out of his pocket and called Amanda. Since it was a nice day, he'd walked the mile and a half to school and so struck out for home.
After a few rings, Amanda picked up.
"Are you busy tonight?"
"No. Why? What's going on?"
         "We're having a guest over for dinner. A member of the lonely fag hearts club."
"You didn't!"
"Oh, but I did." Sam replied, "Mark Piper, history professor, is coming for dinner."
         Amanda sputtered, "Holy fucking shit, Sam. Are you insane? Having a professor over to our house for a private dinner- that's seriously playing with fire, dude."
"I know, but he's lonely and scared."          
"Of what?"
"He admitted to me that he's gay."
Amanda was speechless but recovered quickly. "He just blurted it out?"
"Sort of. I kind of pulled it out of him, but he didn't resist much."
"You are so making this up you little shit head."
"No, I'm not. God's honest truth." Sam put his hand up in the air as a testimonial.
"Well, a pox be upon you if you're lying."
         "I'm not. He'll be at our house for dinner at 6:30. You can see for yourself, hag."

With that, they hung up. Once Sam got home, he hopped in his car and went to the grocery store to pick up something to feed his soon to be liberated friend.

Mark was less convinced of the positive aspects of the situation. After Sam left, he sat back down in his chair, his hands shaking uncontrollably, his knees weak.

         "What was I thinking?" Mark said out loud, "I've lost my goddamn mind."

He went and stood at the window overlooking the front lawn of the building and looked at the fading brown of the end of autumn leaves, he watched the squirrels running up and down the large oak trees. Cars passed languidly, trying not to run over pedestrians. He looked at them, but looked past them too. His poor mind was spinning with the reality that he was going to dinner at a student's house. That had to violate some school policy, he thought. Mark walked over to one of his bookshelves and scanned the titles. He found it- the McLean Policies and Procedures for Professors Handbook. He started leafing through it to find some reason why he shouldn't go to Sam's residence for a meal.

Then his eye caught sight of it, paragraph G-10.0102 reads, "Professors are encouraged to develop meaningful relationships with their students as part of the academic and learning process, however personal relationships are strongly discouraged. Professors may not allow their personal sentiments regarding a particular student to influence the grading process."

It seemed fair. But this was definitely lining up to cross the boundary into a personal relationship. Secretly, Mark rather hoped it would. He'd never met anyone like Sam before and was doubtful he ever would again. He felt things about Sam that he never felt about Laura, or any of the other women he'd met. He felt a strange sensation towards Sam. He tried to put a word to it, but English failed him. He felt like such a nerd, but he had to find a word- just one word that described how he felt about Sam Merchison. How hard could that be? He racked his brain trying to think of something, any term that would help set his heart and mind at ease. His eyes once again scanned his shelves. Hundreds of books lined every wall in the room and his eyes kept patrolling until he spotted the one. He spotted the book that promised him salvation and deliverance at that very troubled moment in life. Roget's Thesaurus stood out like a mighty sentinel sent from divine providence for just such a time as this.

But where was he to begin? To use the thesaurus, you have to have a word to start with. He held the book in his hand and grew a complete blank. He wasn't sure he'd define it as 'love,' at least not yet. 'Pine.' That could work.

         "I pine for thee? God- how medieval." Mark said to his desktop. "What does 'pine' actually mean anyway?" He put the thesaurus down and retrieved the dictionary from its spot next to where the thesaurus had been. As he was flipping through the p's looking for pine, his eye caught a word he'd never heard of before but jumped out at him given the situation. "Physiognomy" "What in the world is that?" His eyes caught the definition, "1) The face or features as revealing character or disposition. 2) the outward look of a thing. 3) The art of reading character by the lineaments of the face or form of the body."

         Mark snorted lightly. "I wouldn't mind studying Sam's physi...physi...whatever that word is." A few pages further over, he found 'pine.'
         "No it's not a coniferous tree. Okay there it is- 'to have great desire or longing.' That sounded reasonable. Hmmm. From the Old English pinian which means 'torment' or Latin poena meaning 'punishment.' Well," Mark thought, "That's appropriate. This budding relationship has 'impending doom' written all over it."

Mark put the books back on the shelves and paced around his office a bit. It was still an hour and a half before his dinner date with Sam and his roommate Amanda. From the stories Sam had told, Amanda was going to be an interesting person to meet. She was someone who spoke her mind and really didn't care what other people thought of her opinions. She rather enjoyed the shock value her ideas and insights sometimes had.

Mark continued to pace back and forth across the Oriental rug he'd bought in Cairo while he was on an archaeological dig during his master's program. Why was he nervous? He wasn't doing anything wrong." Even he had trouble believing that one.

Mark tried convincing himself and rationalizing what he was getting into, "Sam is more of a contemporary; he's been through a lot more in life than I have. He's not some 18 year old fresh off the high school graduation stage. He's way more mature and comfortable with himself than I'll ever be. Laura said we needed to make more friends in town. How can something feel so incredibly right and yet so horribly wrong at the same time? I want Sam. I want to date him. I want to sleep with him. Why shouldn't I? Just because he's a student and I'm engaged- is that really any reason? Yes you stupid dumb ass, what more reason could you possibly need? This whole thing is going to end badly, I can see it now. Mark, you're smart but you're a freakin' idiot. You are a complete and total moronic idiot. This is so stupid. I should call and cancel. Oh crap, I don't have his number. He has mine but I don't have his. Why'd you give him your number? It's on the syllabus genius; all your students have your number."

Mark wouldn't have known why, even if he noticed, he'd started referring to himself in the second person. He was still pacing. He crossed his arms, and then uncrossed them. He sat down then stood right back up again. His heart was racing, his blood pressure was spiking, he was scared, he was confused. He was flirting with the line between nervousness and a panic attack. He suddenly felt like a pilot who had to fly an unfamiliar aircraft. He felt like a foreigner in his own body. And he wasn't even at dinner yet.
Chapter 7

Sam was far less terrified of the events the evening held in store. He wasn't sure if he was trying to seduce Mark or just befriend him. While it was true, he wanted to go out with Mark and maybe even sleep with him; he knew Mark was nowhere near ready to make that leap into oblivion. He pushed his shopping cart up and down the aisle trying to decide on something. He decided to go Asian and so rolled over to the international foods section. He was still a little worried that he was going to get Mark into trouble. He didn't want Mark to get fired or even reprimanded for his actions, but at the same time, he wasn't forcing or coercing Mark into doing something he didn't want to do.

         "So, if he gets into trouble, it's his own fault, right?" Sam asked a box of Pad Thai, "What if he really does have feelings for me? What if he and I fall hopelessly in love, run off together, and live happily ever after? Is that really such a terrible fate?"
         "You're being stupid." Sam said aloud to the Pad Thai box. "There's no way that'll ever happen." He put the box in the cart and rolled it away. An elderly woman gave him a sideways glower as he passed by muttering to himself.
         "But wouldn't that be nice?" Sam's internal monologue continued, "What if Mark told me he loved me, rather than the 'I think I'm falling'? What if...God you're such a freaking girl. I'd love it. I think I may be falling for him. I really think I'm in love with him. I hope he feels the same way. But what about his engagement- would he ever have the balls to break it off? What if Laura found out before he told her?" That last thought sent chills down his spine.
         "If the wrong people found out about us, Mark stands to lose everything. Maybe that's why he is so scared of all this. Being a college professor is his life. He's afraid he'll lose his job and he won't be able to teach anymore if people found out he was sleeping with a male student while he was still engaged to a woman. More the first part than the second, but I can see how people might not like either. Maybe I was too hard on him this afternoon. The guy's worked his ass off for years to get where he is, I don't want him to throw it all away because of me."

Sam had a little more sympathy for Mark and his plight after that last thought. As he waited in the checkout line, he kept thinking that he was doing the right thing. If Mark needed help to face his fears and come out, then Sam had a duty as a gay rights advocate and as his friend to be there for him to help him. Maybe even catch him if he falls flat on his cute little butt.

Sam returned to the house. Amanda was in her room watching TV.
"Is that you?" She called out.
         "No." He replied nonchalantly and walked into the kitchen. It was time to prepare. As he was pouring the water into a pot, Amanda came and stood in the doorway that separated the kitchen and the living room.
         "He's really coming to dinner isn't he?" Her arms were folded across her chest and she leaned against the doorframe.
"Yes." He kept his back to her as he busied himself over the sink.
"I'm not sure that's a good idea."
         Sam didn't reply. He picked up the Pad Thai box and started reading the directions.
         Then he spoke after a few moments, "You aren't as excited as I thought you'd be."
         Amanda replied, "It was more fun when it was just a cute teacher crush. Everyone's had one. But this is different. You're acting on your crush. How many students who have a crush on their teacher actually invite the teacher home for dinner? It just doesn't happen."
         "He accepted the invitation. If he didn't like me back, he'd have said no." There was a slight heat to his voice. "For your information, it was his suggestion that we hang out tonight. It was my idea to include you."
"No shit?"
"Not a speck. He wanted me all to himself."
Amanda stood silently before bursting out laughing, "You are so full of it."
"There was a development in his office. I didn't mention it on the phone."
"You were in his office?" Amanda verified.
         "Yes. Along with telling me he's gay, he also said he thinks he's falling in love with me."
         Amanda's eyebrows almost shot up past her hairline.
         She started shaking her head insistently, "You need to put a stop to this. You are going to get hurt. God only knows how much trouble this guy will be in."
         "I know I should, but I just plain don't want to. He's a great guy and the idea of someone of his caliber being interested in someone like me...well, how many chances am I going to get?"
         "You're thinking with the wrong head." With that, she turned and walked back to her bedroom.

Sam continued to prepare the meal for the man of his dreams, but with a fading smile on his face. He knew Amanda was right, but he was loathed to admit it.
Chapter 8

Mark locked his office door and walked towards the exit of Chamberlayne Hall to walk the half mile home to say goodbye to Laura, wait for her to leave, and change clothes before finding 1615 Adams Dr. What awaited him there he didn't know. He was grateful that Amanda would be there. He'd never met her, but she would be his safety this evening. Who knew what could have happened if he and Sam were left at home alone, unsupervised? His body tingled at the thought. There was a stirring in his pants as he thought of him and Sam alone together. While he and Laura had never had sex sex before, they'd fooled around and Mark had to make a conscious effort to get aroused. Getting an erection for her took effort. As Mark walked home and the thought of Sam popped into his head, his penis did the rest by itself.

Mark hurried up the front steps of his house hoping none of the neighbors saw the unusually large bulge in the front of his slacks. He dashed in and went to the bedroom. Laura was in the bedroom with an open suitcase.          
         "I'm glad you and your sister are going to spend some time together." Mark said, sitting on the edge of the bed.
         "I'll be back late Monday evening. So don't go getting in trouble," she playfully tapped his shoulder.
"Okay. I won't if you won't."
She smiled sweetly, but made no such commitments.

Without another word, he walked out to the kitchen. Most guys would be hugging and kissing his fianc if she was going away for the weekend- but not Mark. Mark was glad because it meant that he could go out with Sam and Amanda and not get caught. He could go wallow in his potentially new lascivious, hedonistic lifestyle without having to face the inquisition or the gallows upon his return. He still didn't have a clue what to expect this evening, but it didn't matter. Really, Mark was most excited about the fact that he was making new friends and that he was getting a good diversion from another lonely night alone on the couch, the only thing in his hand being the remote control. He was tired of this way of living, but he wasn't sure enough of what lay on the other side of the closet door to risk it.

He stood in the kitchen staring at the contents of the refrigerator. Its fluorescent glow protruding into and over taking the dimmer incandescent glow of the main light on the ceiling behind him. He could sense the ghost behind him- the one who wanted to give him her heart if only he'd take it.
         "Are you okay?" She asked. She knew the answer was 'no' but wanted to seem unpresumptuous.
         "I'm fine. Why?" He released the door handle, gravity took over and the door slid silently shut, followed by the faint hiss of the airlock.
"You're distant. Mark, I'm worried about you."
         He smiled his syrupy sweet smile, "You don't have to. I'm just fine. I'm just under a little stress, that's all. It'll pass."

She was unconvinced but non-confrontational. She returned to the bedroom to finish packing. Her head was beginning to hurt because there were so many thoughts tumbling over each other. Mark had always been distant. He was always absorbed in the past. He was always obsessing over understanding things that happened generations ago. While 20th Century US history is still relevant, why couldn't he let his great-grandparents' bygones be bygones? The truth was that studying other people's pasts helped Mark escape his own present. As long as he was wondering about why Carrie Nations used a hatchet to chop up speakeasies during the prohibition era, he wouldn't have the neurological capacity left to wonder why his dick got hard every time Sam came to see him in his office and why he had to fantasize about Orlando Bloom in order to have an erection strong enough to convince Laura that she turned him on. Fortunately, she wasn't a sex addict and so she rarely forced the issue.

Mark's initial fascination had come from his grandfather's stories of the Second World War, but it was sustained because he got the chance to understand what makes people the way they are. He got to theorize about the motives of others in hopes that one day he'd stumble upon a theory that would make his own life in the present make sense. He didn't like psychology because it was too real. Psychology was too present. Psychology was threatening because it might offer a real answer, not just safe, tidy conjecture about why Franz Ferdinand was really targeted that beautiful June day in 1913 in the quiet little city of Sarajevo. Then he wouldn't have to confront the demons that threatened to destroy the life he'd so meticulously built for himself.

Back in the bedroom, Laura quietly wondered about her husband-to-be. When she'd met him at her father's country club cotillion a few years ago, he'd been a dashing, dark-haired man who seemed content with his life. The moment she laid eyes on him as he glided through the open French doors from the balcony overlooking Falls Creek Lake, she was in love. The way his eyes, a bright, lively hazel scanned the room, took her breath away.

He looked like a determined man, a man with a purpose and passion in his life. He was the sort of man who understood the world in a way the usual stuffed shirt, silver spooned occupants of that room never could. He seemed to have something else buried within his heart. He was a man of mystery. He was a man with secrets. Those qualities in a man made her pulse rush. Despite her quiet, mousy exterior and her no-nonsense work habits, and her acute attention to household details, she loved mystery and intrigue. She had all the James Bond movies memorized. She fantasized about a man who would whisk her off to exotic locations, who would make mad passionate love to her on a veranda overlooking the Caribbean, the lace curtains brushing her naked back as they fluttered in the oceanic breezes.

A man who would leave her breathless and panting, her energy sapped and would go to the bar leaving her in the room, sated and content. When the mysterious, handsome stranger strode into that room, her 007 had arrived.

In the intervening time, her wanderlust for Mark had dissipated. She'd always wanted to get married, so when Mark asked her, she instinctively said yes. She was beginning to doubt that decision. Mark was still a handsome, attractive man, but he was no James Bond. If he scuffed himself up a little he might pass as faintly reminiscent of an Indiana Jones figure, but that would be pushing it. Mostly, Mark was a quiet, evasive, history geek who liked to lock himself in his oak paneled office and read books about dead people. James Bond he was not.

Since he was no secret agent man, it was unlikely that he'd discovered her real plot this weekend. She was not going to visit her sister. Her sister knew what was happening and was complicit in the plot on the off chance that Mark called or texted her sister to check on her. After a while, Laura began to realize that Mark saw her as a friend and a helpmate, not a passionate, star-crossed lover. She enjoyed the conversations, the loving supportive friendship; but she needed some passion and romance in her life. Laura was beginning to understand how Joan Cusack's character in In and Out must have felt.

Mark was very supportive of her, he was very kind and generous to her, but he wasn't in love with her. She sensed that he knew that and it was why he'd pulled away from her even more than usual lately. She could sense that the end of their relationship was coming.

Since most of her work involved web-based applications, she spent most of her workday on the internet. Her days were spent in the spare bedroom she had converted into an office surfing the net. She was a desperate housewife of a workaholic who just needed release. She needed a man to take her in his arms, spin her around, and kiss her deeply, endlessly. She would close her eyes and imagine the scenario in her mind.

In the beginning, naturally Mark was the object of her frequent flights of fancy. Lately, it was other men. Men she met online. Most of them were harmless simply because they lived hundreds of miles away in other time zones and frequently in other countries. She'd been offered the position of mistress to many a world traveler. Japanese men had asked for her hand. French men had asked for her hand. They were rich men, lonely men, and desperate men. Men who wanted to reach out and be loved before the weight of their earthly possessions suffocated them once and for all. Most of these men were very old. Some of them were twice her age or more. She refused to be seen as a gold-digging trophy wife. She had more respect for herself than that. Besides, she wanted to be loved more than pampered. However, both 'loved' and 'pampered,' would be ideal.

There had been one such offer. One Argentinian businessman had asked her to come to him. He was absolutely gorgeous. He lived in a massive house in Buenos Aires that he'd inherited from his father who died of a heart attack two years previous. His father started a business of setting up offshore tax shelters for multimillionaires from Europe and North America. He had profited considerably and his son, Roberto Bustamante, had followed in his father's footsteps and lived in his father's coat tails.

It was Mr. Bustamante who had suggested and financed her weekend getaway. Since she was uncomfortable going to his house, they agreed to meet in an exclusive resort in Miami. As soon as she was done packing, she was taking the car and going to the airport for her direct flight. She would be dining at an exclusive, black tie restaurant in Miami, Florida tonight- a universe away from his tiny house with her tiny-minded fianc. If she stayed here, it would be a quiet night watching Desperate Housewives or some made for TV movie with Mark. Or she'd be watching TV while Mark read a book or surfed the net himself.

There would be none of that. It was caviar dreams for her. She hummed lightly as she selected the nicest black dress she owned. The neckline was entirely too low and the hem entirely too high, but she cared not a whit. This was probably going to be a one-time affair, she'd fly back to Dulles, drive back to her dull life with her dull fianc.

She didn't try to justify this to herself because she knew it was wrong. She knew she should never have put that profile online. She knew she should never have answered his personal advertisement. He seemed to be too good to be true. He was gorgeous, rich, tan, muscular, polite, and educated- everything Laura had hoped to find in Mark, but he failed to deliver. That's it- Mark failed her. Now she had her justification for doing this- if she were to need one. She needed what Roberto offered and Mark just wasn't anteing up. This was all Mark's fault. She didn't really believe it herself, but she convinced herself of its deeper truths. She thought Mark might be an international man of mystery, but now she stood over her open suitcase convincing herself that she'd found her man to sweep her away. She hadn't lied to Roberto. He knew about Mark. She told her sister about Roberto. No one was in the dark about what was going on but Mark. Mark seemed merrily oblivious to the firestorm on the horizon; the firestorm that threatened to destroy the life he had so carefully constructed. The lightning bolt that would ignite Mark's own firestorm had already struck, its first embers smoldering in the dark.

Mark leaned back on the sofa and let his imagination flow. He pictured Sam laying next to him in bed, their bodies pressed together, the heat and the energy flowing freely between them. He pictured them having a home, building a life together. Mark knew that realistically it would never happen, but dreaming about it was nice.

"Well, I'm about done." Laura said, standing at the end of the couch.

He stood up as she walked towards the door. He gave her a quick peck on the cheek, told her to drive carefully. He held the door open for her as she walked out onto the porch. Waving, he watched her car crest the hill and disappear from sight. Now his night could begin in earnest.

He looked almost condescending to her as she drove over the hill and out of sight, his hand waving slowly. She even toyed with the idea of not coming back at all. Even if she hated Roberto and sent him packing, she could start over in Miami. She'd call her parents and explain that she and Mark had broken up. They would send her a little money as a condolence and to help her get on her feet again. She could rent an apartment and pick up her telecommuting job without interruption. It would be perfect. It would be easy. Instead of toiling in that spare bedroom in the back of that tiny house, she could put a down payment on a condo overlooking the ocean.

It would be expensive, but she'd figure it out. Thoughts of cantinas and margaritas while sitting on the white sand beaches of South Florida danced in her head as she made her way along the crowded suburban freeway to Tysons Corners and then onto the Leesburg Pike of Northern Virginia that would take her and her little car to freedom. She could drive, she thought to herself. It would be a long drive, but then she'd have her car with her in Miami and she'd never have to set foot in Virginia again, if she so chose.

She fidgeted with the radio dial. While it all seemed so excitingly surreal, there just seemed to be something wrong with it. She couldn't help shake the nagging feeling of guilt at abandoning Mark. 'He doesn't love you,' she kept reminding herself, 'He doesn't love you.' The endless sea of shopping centers, housing developments, malls, car dealerships, and office parks started to give way to a sea of pine trees as she drew further from Maryland and the District borders and closer to Dulles Airport. Dulles- where the airplane that would ferry her to a tropical paradise sat on the tarmac awaiting her arrival. It wasn't a private jet, but it would get her away from here all the same. Roberto Bustamante, the name sounded so exotic. Mark Piper, suddenly the name sounded so ordinary, so droll. Roberto Bustamante, heir to an Argentinian fortune. Mark Piper, history professor. Roberto Bustamante, robust, athletic, golden bronze skin. Mark Piper, white as notebook paper with no clearly defined musculature on his entire body. The dissimilarities between the two men were striking. How could she have fallen for both? She fell for the boring one having met him but she'd fallen for the exotic one without so much as a phone call. She had never heard the sound of Roberto's voice. She decided to put such thoughts out of her mind. There was no turning back now.

This weekend was about creating something memorable and something she would recall with fondness all the days of her life. She would choose not to care about what Mark wanted or thought. She pictured him sitting on the sofa watching a documentary on the Cuban Missile Crisis, with a stack of saltine crackers smothered in generic brand crunchy peanut butter sitting on the saucer on the coffee table. He'd flip to the Weather Channel during the commercial breaks. He was, quite possibly, the only man in the entire mid-Atlantic region who intentionally watched the weather forecast for Winnemucca, Nevada.

She glanced up at the approaching road signs. Long term parking, daily parking, terminal drop-off, terminal pick-up, and baggage claim were the options. The phrase, "Long Term Parking," never sounded so good. She veered off in that direction.

She was actually starting to get a little nervous. "Am I actually going through with this?" She asked the machine that spits out the tickets. It gave no reply, only a ticket. That was an answer in itself she thought.

After she got through security, she walked down the concourse. The endless bombardment of advertisement began. "Mind the cart!" "You get 25,000 bonus miles just for signing up." "What all business travelers need, a night on us!" Amid the ruckus, she found it.

Gate C17, non-stop service to Miami with continuing service to Santo Domingo,
Dominican Republic." 'Santo Domingo' sounded even better than Miami. As she sat down, she heard the familiar jingle of her cell phone. She quickly fished around in her purse. It was an unfamiliar number. It wasn't a local area code but she decided to answer it anyway.

"Hello. Laura?" The caller had a nice but strange accent.
"Who is this?"
"This is Roberto. Bustamante."
The surprise kept her silent for a second.
"Hello? Are you there? Laura?"
"Yes, yes, I'm here. Is everything okay?"
"Yes. I just wanted to make sure you are okay. Is everything going according to plan?"
"I'm waiting at the gate. We'll be boarding in a few minutes."
"Excellent. I'm in Miami. I am in our suite now."
"Is it pretty?"
         "Pretty? It's perfect. We have a view of the ocean. We can sit out on the balcony. I want to kiss you Laura. Hurry. The sun will be setting in a few hours."

She couldn't help but smile. He was romantic to the border of corniness. But she bought his romanticism hook, line, and sinker solely because she so desperately wanted it to be true. Laura decided to dress in a nice, casual, non-tourist way. She wanted to look like someone who routinely went to Miami, perhaps was even from there. She didn't want the big white floppy hat with bug-eyed sunglasses look or the Hawaiian shirt with a camera slung over her shoulder look. She neither wanted to look like a tourist or a celebrity incognito. So, she chose a still new condition pair of jeans, comfortable but dressy flats, and a white top. It covered more than a halter top, but not much. She'd rather look like a celebrity incognito or a tourist than look like an aging prostitute.

         "I want to see you too." She sounded flat.

While she fantasized about such a scenario a million times in her head, now that the reality presented itself, she was lost. She had no idea. She'd never gushed girlishly on the phone a moment in her life. Not even when Bobbie Marek asked her to the prom. He was the guy she'd begged God to get him to ask her. She schemed and plotted to put herself in his path time and again and she'd dreamed about dancing in his arms and being whisked away on his father's yacht off Block Island. When Bobbie finally approached her and asked her the long anticipated question, she said, "That sounds nice." She wasn't playing hard-to-get, it's just that it was the first thing that popped in her head to say.

"Are you okay?"
"I'm fine." He sensed the truth.
"Remember, you said you were unhappy. That's about to change. I'm gonna make
you the sexiest, hottest chica in Argentina." She'd just about sell her own mother to the gypsies to be the sexiest, hottest, chica in Argentina.

         "Ah, I can't wait." She was going to try to be gushier. It's what Roberto would want.
         The announcement came, "We will begin boarding Flight 2431 non-stop service to Miami with continuing service to Santo Domingo at this time through the priority lane."
         "I gotta go, we're boarding." She snapped the phone shut before he could reply.
         "We would like to board our First Class, and World Traveler members at this

time. We will then seat you according to your group number."

The gate agent continued in her well-rehearsed monotone. Laura looked at her ticket. Roberto had booked her First class. Her parents, while relatively wealthy, were frugal and she herself was not rich, so she had never purchased a first class ticket before. She had flown first class a handful of times before, but only because she'd gotten bumped from an earlier flight. Roberto had bought her a First class ticket. Her excited nervousness increased as she handed her ticket proclaiming "FIRST CLASS" in all capitals to the gate agent who slipped it through the scanner and handed it back. Laura could still scarcely believe she was actually doing this. She could still barely comprehend the fact that her sister, Roberto, and herself were the only people on a planet of 7.5 billion humans who knew what she was up to.

         "Mark must never find out about this." She muttered under her breath as she walked towards the door of the plane and the flight attendants' smiling faces.

Airborne, safety instructions completed, diet soda served, she opened the book she brought in her small backpack. It was some novel she'd picked up at Walgreens earlier in the week. She'd bought it just for this event. It was a trashy romance novel, what else? Turning to the first page, she tried to lose herself in the words on the page and forget about what she was probably getting herself into. But her thoughts intruded and she found herself staring at the same page, re-reading the same paragraph over and over again as the plane bounced along. So, she stowed the book back in its place and stared out the window. She could make out what might be a coastal city. That must be Wilmington. Are we far enough over? Maybe that's actually Charleston. Are we that far south? Maybe it's Norfolk. She realized that she sucked at geography and gave up trying to figure out the name of the mass of microbial humanity spread out beneath the plane's underbelly.

Meanwhile, Roberto was preparing for her in his suite in Miami. The mystery woman he'd met on the internet had certainly captured his fancy. She was intriguing because she seemed like a real, ordinary person who didn't understand how beautiful she really was. Most of the women he met online were over-baked, bleach-haired, lipo-sucked, gold digging bitches. Laura Holbrooke was different. He read what she wrote about herself. He found her sheepishness intoxicating. This woman had gotten an education, she worked for a living, she was about to marry a history professor. She was just what a playboy needed to settle him down a bit. At 31, he still retained his youthful, vigorous charm. His father had insisted that he find a nice, kind, decent woman to marry. This was his project. To find a nice, kind, decent woman who his father would approve of. He loved his father, he truly did. Unlike most of his wealthy heir contemporaries who regarded their fathers as a nuisance to be endured because of their status as a world-class meal ticket, Roberto had profound respect for his father whose family had emigrated from northern Italy after WWII. Argentina was a popular relocation spot for Europeans fleeing their war-ravaged continent.

His father arrived in Argentina as a 10-year-old, dirt poor son of immigrant parents. He worked his way through college to get a business degree. At the ripe old age of 22, he got a job as a bank teller, moving then into mortgages, and then found his true passion- investments. For Salvador Bustamante, investments weren't just a job that paid well, they were his life. He pored over financial documents, stock pages, stock analysis and loved every minute of it. At 35, he left the bank to start Investimentos de Integridade, translated: Integrity Investments. Roberto had been 7 when his father started the business where he was now at the helm. At 67, Salvador had died suddenly of heart failure. They found him slumped over the desk that Roberto now sat behind in the office Roberto now occupied. Admittedly, Roberto's late teens and early 20's will never be described as righteous living, but he'd never been arrested, never got into any 'real trouble.' Still, he'd decided at the age of 24 that he was tired of that lifestyle and took a job in the marketing department where he made solid connections with very influential people in the world. Having the company left to him was also a major wake up call that life goes on and we must grow up or get left behind. So, he grew up- fast. He learned quickly and his father's trusted advisors guided him through it. His father had done a good job of placing top quality people around him and Roberto felt comfortable being away for a while to meet this woman that would hopefully become his wife and leave that stuffy professor in a trail of dust behind.

He stood there, in his white khaki pants, and tan button down looking out at the crashing waves and the tiny, well-to-do tourists from up north crowding the beachfront below. Many stories up, he was removed from it. He sat down at the wrought iron-framed, glass-topped table and envisioned the woman in the photographs sitting across from him as they discussed their future; their hopes; their dreams. It would be wonderful to talk to a beautiful woman who also knew things. He was tired of women who only knew the latest gossip about celebrities. Laura was the sort of person who would know something about US foreign policy and have an informed, well-reasoned opinion about it. He folded his arms. He had arranged for a limousine to pick Laura up at the airport. He had told her that he was making arrangements at the hotel and so he would 'send someone' to pick her up. A black limousine awaited her with a uniformed chauffeur carrying a placard bearing her name in calligraphy. He was high class all the way.

Other than the occasional bump due to turbulence, the flight was uneventful
and a few hours after leaving Dulles, she landed at Miami International Airport to meet her international man of mystery. Roberto had told her that he was sending someone and to look in the passenger pick-up area for a man holding a sign that had her name on it. She gasped a little when she saw the crispness of the suit and the grace of the calligraphy bearing her name.

"Miss Holbrooke?" The man spoke with a slight accent that Laura couldn't quite place.
"Yes. Laura Holbrooke."
"Mr. Bustamante sent me to you. I hope you do not mind."
         "I don't." Then thought to herself, "Shoot, I should have said, 'Why, no. I do not mind. That would be lovely.' Think Laura. This guy is the big time."

          "Follow me," he smiled with a professional manner and turned.

He was a very pale man, slightly built, but he had a certain litheness, a lightness of foot. Still, he was not someone who would fare well in a kickboxing match. His obvious European descent was accentuated by the clean blackness of his outfit. She followed closely so as not to be lost in the crowd that pressed from every direction. They stepped down off the curb and he progressed almost effortlessly through the crowd of elderly couples, young families, college students, and business people. This was clearly not his first time picking up someone at this airport. When the limo first came into view, Laura paid no attention, never envisioning that it was their destination. He pulled a key fob out of his coat pocket and pressed the unlock button. Laura flinched in surprise when the lights of the limo flashed. Her driver pulled open the door and waited. She hesitated for a split second before getting into the car as lady-like as she could muster. The air conditioner was on and the interior of the car was pleasantly cool but not frigid. The door shut tightly, her suitcase stowed in the trunk, the transmission in gear, and away they went. Laura peered out of the car's tinted windows at the traffic. She felt a little out of place in the plush leather interior. It was an out of placeness that she was more than willing to overcome. She felt a little conspicuous.

The people in the minivans and Buicks must have figured she was a dignitary of some sort- not a low-life cheating heart going behind her fianc's back. She reminded herself, "This is Marks' fault. If he loved me, I wouldn't be here." She remained unconvinced of her own logic. Or was that something Roberto had said? She couldn't remember. His logic had become her logic. The driver conducted the limo expertly through the streets of Miami, Florida to arrive at a beautiful complex of buildings. She opened her own door, forgetting that she had someone to do that for her. The warm, moist air was offset by the mist from a nearby fountain that kept the heat somewhat at bay. The driver ran to the back to greet her as she put her humbly clad foot on the concrete.

         "This is very nice." She said, trying not to sound awestruck.

She looked up as the first European explorers must have viewed the Egyptian Pyramids. The sweeping arches of the portico, the Jaguar and Mercedes sports cars that zipped by, and the sumptuously dressed women startled her. She felt terribly out of place. She should have worn something nicer. She owned nothing akin to what these women were wearing. It looked like they had just stepped off a Turin runway. She felt like a tourist who had stumbled onto a coronation ceremony by mistake. The driver took her by the arm and ushered her towards the doorway while a bellman retrieved her suitcase from the trunk.

         "Mr. Bustamante is waiting in the suite." He said as he whisked her past the front desk to the bank of elevators. She said nothing, only nodded her understanding. An elevator opened, she moved towards it.
         "No ma'am. We need this elevator." He pointed to the one directly in front of them. She looked up. The sign read, "Express Elevator, Penthouse guests only." They stepped on board, he keyed in a 4 digit number, the door closed, and they took off at a breakneck speed upwards. They kept going up and up. Finally, after leaving her stomach in the sub-basement, the carriage stopped and the doors slid silently open.

Laura stepped out of the elevator and glanced around. They were in a hallway. It
looked like an ordinary hotel hallway. She had always assumed that there was only
one penthouse per hotel. This one penthouse was the luxury box of the rich and famous and took up the entirety of the rooftop. This hotel seemed to have several.

"Are you sure this is it?"
"Yes ma'am. You are this way."

She followed closely behind him. She figured he was being quick and efficient because he had to get back to the airport to pick up his next fare- probably someone like her. The driver stopped in front of Penthouse 2. He slipped a white card out of his jacket pocket and opened the door. This was the most full service limo driver she'd ever heard of.

The door opened to reveal a beautiful marble tile floor with carpet beyond. In the center of the foyer, there was a beautiful black marble topped table with a porcelain statue fruit bowl with actual fruit in it. This view was even more breathtaking than their initial arrival downstairs. She didn't want to know how much this set him back.

"Roberto?" He called out, "She's here." He turned to her, "Wait here."

She'd assumed he'd rented the limo. Perhaps the limo was actually his and this guy was his personal chauffeur. She went to ask his name, but he was half way across the grand room. She dutifully waited by the door for the driver to return or for Roberto to appear. The person who stepped out of a doorway to the right took her breath away. He was every bit as beautiful as his pictures. A feast for the eyes, he certainly did not disappoint her in the look department. He looked at her, smiled broadly. He approached, thought better of it, and stepped back. "Would you like something to drink?"

         "I assume you've met my assistant, Dennert Madsen. He takes care of my affairs here in Miami."

She smiled at the driver now named Dennert. She was curious about the unusual name. Roberto, despite his Latin genetic code, seemed to have a thing for the Caucasians. The only person in the room more white than Laura was Dennert.

"Relax, Laura. We don't bite."
         "I've got some things to do in the office, I'll leave you to get acquainted."

With that, Dennert disappeared into a side room and closed the door.

"Where's he from?"
         "Now don't go falling in love with the help." Roberto said with a pleasant twinkle in his eye. "He's a Germanic Dane. You've got to watch such people." He smiled more to let her know he was only joking, "But he's a good man. His grandfather was a German soldier, his grandmother a fair Danish handmaiden." In that last phrase, Roberto overdramatized Dennert's faint Danish accent.
"So he speaks Danish?"
"And German, and French, and Spanish, and something else but I don't remember."
"English, maybe?"
"What about English?"
"The other language he speaks."
         Roberto laughed, "I guess that would be it. He comes in handy as a translator."

He looked at her approvingly; she had a sense of humor. She followed him out onto the balcony. She took a deep, lingering breath; savoring the salty breeze coming in off the Atlantic Ocean. The bright sun was offset by large umbrellas that created a nice canopy. The sun was almost set and the rays of it were rushing around the sides of the building. Their hotel cast a long shadow over the rolling waves. Too bad they were on the eastern side and couldn't watch the sunset over the water.

She sat down in one of the wrought iron chairs. The one in which Roberto had envisioned her only hours earlier. Like her, he was not disappointed. While Laura was never going to win Miss Universe, she was charming. Rather than the bleached blonde beauty like the others who'd expressed interest in him, she had a simple, old world, chick flick style adorableness. She was the heroine you wanted to win the guy's heart. Laura was someone you could root for not because she might take her clothes off for you but because she deserved to win.

         "I hope you like it. This is my penthouse. I come here usually once or twice a month. Dennert lives here. It's part of his pay. He manages my affairs and so he has a home office set up here."
"How did you find him?"          
         "I wanted someone with business sense to run things. I called the provost's office at the London School of Economics. I explained that I needed someone with the background to manage multi-million and sometimes multi-billion dollar stock portfolios. They gave me his name. I flew him to Buenos Aires for the interview. We flew to Miami and showed him this."
"I'll bet he jumped all over it."
         "No. He was a suspicious little prick. He just knew that I was into something illegal. It took time to convince him that I'm legit. The whole time he was in Miami the first time, he kept waiting for DEA agents to storm the place."
"Did they?" She wasn't so convinced either.
         "No, they didn't. Don't worry. I'm legit. If I can convince that Danish, capitalist, Calvinist in there, then I'm legit. He probably ran my name through Interpol.
"He can do that?"
         "Wouldn't surprise me. What can I get for you?" He stood up and walked to the bar on the edge of the expansive balcony. It was more of a patio than a balcony; but with a view like that, call it whatever you want.
"Do you have a specialty?"
"I am a specialist in all sorts of things."

She smiled, casting her sheepish grin to the floor. He was hooked. She was intrigued.

"I'll make you a white Russian. They're not too strong."
"I'm a lightweight."
         "I'll be generous then," he grinned over his shoulder. She was beginning to feel more at ease in his presence. Surely, the white Russian would help that even more.
"Then," he continued, "I know a place we can go."
"Le Petite Royale. It's a restaurant. Are you hungry?"          

Laura had been so absorbed in her thoughts all day that she realized she never ate dinner. It was almost 8:30. She was starving. "Yes."

"From the name, I guess it's a French restaurant."
         "It is." He sat her drink on the glass topped table. "I bought this rum on my last trip to Aruba. It's from a small-batch distillery."
She sipped it, "It's very nice."
         "Yes it is." He sat down opposite her and intentionally made eye contact.

He wanted to see if she'd meet his gaze. She did. He had nice, dark eyes. She wasn't sure what to ask, she knew most everything basic about him because they'd discussed it in their emails and chat room sessions. She sipped her drink quietly and looked out over the purple haze the horizon had become since the sun's departure. They would soon be in the shadow of the earth, dusk would have fallen.

She had heard that Miami came to life after dark. Evil thrives in darkness. She closed her eyes, feeling the warm breeze brushing across her face. Every once in a while, one of the bigger waves would make enough noise for her to hear it coming ashore all the way up here in the penthouse. She hadn't noticed her hunger pains until Roberto mentioned them. Now the pains were becoming urgent and insistent. She quickly finished her drink.

"What's good at the place we're going?"
"Everything. Seriously. I don't know of anything I've had there that was bad."
"That's good. I would imagine it's pricey."
"It is. But that doesn't matter."

She returned to her reverie overlooking the sea. Her mind wandered to what
Mark must be doing now. Maybe he'd gone for a walk. Maybe he'd fallen asleep on the couch, the voice of a narrator coming from the TV set whose iridescent light cast shadows on the room. For the first time in quite a while, she didn't really care what Mark was doing. He could be choking to death on one of those damned peanut butter smothered crackers he loved more than her. Maybe he was in his office, dying under the weight of a collapsed bookshelf, his ribs broken, his breathing becoming shallow and raspy as little bubbles of blood leaked out of his mouth from his punctured lung. Why did the thought of Mark's untimely and somewhat gruesome death delight her? Mostly because it meant she no longer needed to justify what she was doing. If Mark died, then she would be free to live with this man and be the wife of a multi-millionaire former playboy turned family man.

"Ready?" He asked, snapping her out of her morbid day dream.
"Dinner. I'm hungry. Let's eat."
         "Sounds nice." She got up from her chair, realizing how uncomfortable it actually was, despite its ornateness. They walked back through the grand room back to the main entrance.
She joked, "What? No helicopter?"
"It's in Rio. I've just got the one."

He held the door open for her. She brushed past him as she stepped into the hallway. She felt his hand on her shoulder as she passed. It didn't bother her. In fact, she appreciated the fact that a man was attracted to her. Since being with Mark, she'd forgotten what it felt like to be desired. The fact that she found him irresistible made the touch all the more welcomed. She just hoped and prayed that her talent for seeming cold and non-committal wouldn't come back to haunt her. If he wanted to have sex with her, she didn't want to sound like she didn't care one way or the other. She thought for a second that maybe she needed to rehearse some lines in case he did. That way she could decide if what she was saying seemed too cold or too desperate. She needed to be the Goldilocks of words tonight. She needed to find the ones that were just right.

Roberto had no such misgivings. He'd been able to talk himself into and out of practically every situation known to exist. He also knew how to read people. He was sure that the right moment would come up. Though perhaps not tonight. This rare gem was worth working for. Laura would be worth waiting a few days. With the right words and the right treatment, Laura just might be who he had been looking for.

He could sense that she had never really been treated all that well or all that poorly. He could sense that part of why she was intrigued with the foreign, captivated by his almost 'other worldliness' is because she finds her own life and times uninteresting. She's never been swept off her feet, but she's never been abused. She's had people get angry with her, but she's never been beaten. Her parents gave her stuff, but not the BMW's or Mercedes like some of her friends got for graduation. She grew up in a nice house but not a mansion or a hovel. Her life had been a life of just doing. Hers was a life of routine, of responsibility, of doing things just because you're supposed to do it. She worked not because she enjoyed what she did, but because she had bills to pay. She wanted to get married because she just did. She wanted a family just because she just did. What Laura needed more than anything is for life to be dramatic and dynamic. She needed something unexpected to happen to make her examine her life and her priorities. Of these things, Roberto was certain. Once downstairs, he ushered her towards another car. Not the limo. There's no Dennert waiting.

         "Is Dennert taking us?"
         "No. We rented that limo. You should have seen the temper tantrum he threw when I asked him to pick you up and drive you."
         "Oh. I guess if you've got a prestigious degree, being a driver is a step down. How'd you finally convince him?"
         "He always gives in to me."
         "I take it most people do."
         "Most. But not all."
         "Which one is it?" She asked, looking at a parking lot full of cars that individually cost more than her house, her car, and Mark's car combined. Which, given the neighborhood they lived in and the crappy cars they drove, that wasn't saying too much.
         "That one."
         It was powder blue. She'd been expecting red or at least black.
         "What is it?"
         "1962 Porsche Boxer."
         She just stood, stunned. Even though she was dying to know how much such a car would cost, she was afraid to ask.
         "It's nice."
         "It's very nice. I had it shipped over from England."
         "I thought Porsche's were Italian?"
         "That's where they're made. But I bought this one from a guy in England."
         "Oh." She felt stupid even though there wasn't the slightest hind of condescension in his voice. "Who?"
         "Bond. James Bond." He smiled and started the engine.

She sat back in the seat. It was a plus that he was a smart ass. She liked that in a man.

         "How far is it?"
         "Not far."

He pulled out of the parking lot and whizzed across the street. He shut off the car and handed the keys to the waiting valet. She looked up and read the sign, "Le Petite Royale."

         "You are a smart ass." she chuckled as she opened her car door.
         He took her hand and kissed the back of it with cinematic flare. "Only with people whose company I enjoy, mademoiselle."

She smiled her sheepish smile and looked at the asphalt beneath her He extended her his hand and guided her up out of the car. Arm in arm, they walked into Le Petite Royale, one of the finest restaurants in all of Miami.

*                    *                    *
Meanwhile, 1615 Adams Dr. was easy to find. It was within easy walking distance of both Mark's house and the campus. Mark pulled his blue Corolla up into the concrete driveway of the house. He walked up towards the front porch and the door opened. It was Sam. He beamed a friendly greeting to the kindly professor. Mark climbed the few brick steps up and entered. Sam stood aside to let him in.

"I hope I'm not too early."
         "Just in time. It'll be a minute or two, but you can talk to me in the kitchen."

As they walked through the living room that stood between the front door and the kitchen, Amanda walked down the hall and greeted her guest.

"I'm Amanda."
"Mark. It's nice to meet you. Sam has mentioned you."
"He's mentioned you too," she smiled coyly and turned towards the kitchen.
"So what's on the menu?" Amanda asked.
"Pad Thai and stir fried vegetables."
"Sounds good to me." Mark commented.
         "I hope so. You aren't allergic to peanuts are you? I guess I should have asked." Sam said.
         "I love Pad Thai, it's one of my favorite foods. So, no peanut allergies, and cashews are fine. As far as I know, I don't have any food allergies."
"So, what brings you to this fair town?" Amanda asked.
         "They made me an offer I couldn't refuse." Mark smiled.

Amanda pulled out a chair from the table and sat down. Mark did the same.

"How'd you end up here?" he asked her.
"I've always lived here. I'm a townie. I work at First Citizens Bank."
"That's nice."
         "It's boring but it's home. I met Sam through a mutual friend. An old army buddy of his knew my cousin. One of those sort of small world deals."
"At least Sam doesn't have to live in the dorms."
"I'd die." He never turned around. He was almost afraid to have to make eye contact
with Mark.
"So, how did you meet your fianc?" Amanda continued her interrogation.
         "Her father and my dad knew each other from church and their country club. They decided we'd be a good match, so my parents hosted a barbeque and she 'just so happened to be there.'"
"So it's an arranged marriage? That's so sweet."
"I wouldn't call it 'arranged,' but yeah."
         "So you two are going to get married someday? Have you a big old big steeple church, white dress wedding."
         "That's the plan. Laura's always dreamed of walking down the aisle in a big wedding dress with a long train. She's been planning it since she was 5."
Amanda chuckled slightly, "Has that always been your dream?"
"Big wedding, lots of flowers."
"I've always wanted a family, yeah."
"So do you love her?"
"Amanda!" Sam turned on his heels. "That's none of your business."
         "It's just a question." She snapped back. "He can ask me about my love life if he wants to."
"You don't have a love life." Sam said.
"I do. I do love her." Mark interrupted.
"Really?" Sam asked, trying to keep the disappointment out of his voice.
"What do you mean?" Mark asked.
"It's okay, you can tell me." Amanda said.
"Tell you what?"
         "That you're gay." Amanda said, then slapped her hand over her mouth. She looked horrified. She had no intention of saying that out loud. It just popped out in the moment.
         Mark froze. All the blood drained from his face. He was mad at Sam for telling her. "How could you tell anyone what I told you?"
         "I didn't." He lied. He had told her that Mark was gay but that was it.
"Then how did you know?" He turned back to face Amanda.
         "The whole time you've been sitting here talking to me, you might have glanced at me once. The rest of the time, you have been staring at Sam's ass while he's working at the counter. Now it's a nice ass, I'll admit, I've even seen it bare a couple of times. After all, we live together; you're bound to forget your towel sooner or later."
Mark just sat there, the shock and horror evident on his face.
         "Don't look so scared," Amanda said, "I'm not going to tell anyone. Sam's not going to tell anyone either."
"I just don't want to hurt Laura."
         Amanda looked kindly at Mark, "Cut that girl loose. She deserves to be with someone who loves her back so she'll quit wasting her life with you."
         Mark just sat there. Mercifully, dinner was served. Sam started putting the plates and silverware on the table. Amanda picked up the fruit bowl and sat it on the counter.
         After a few minutes of awkward silence, Sam spoke first. "So, Mark, what are you going to do about Laura?"
         "I don't know." He twirled his rice noodles around with a fork. "I know what I have to do, but God knows I don't want to."
"You'd both be better off." Amanda chimed in.
         "I don't know. Ever since I was a little kid, I wanted to have a wife and kids. But then I always wanted to be with men. I like women as friends but as for love, romance and sex, I want to be with a man."
"You still can, Mark." Amanda said.
         "You can do marriage and adoption or surrogates for having children. You can have it all." Sam could feel his activist zeal coming forward. "Just because you weren't raised that way doesn't mean it's not okay. What's not okay is for them to tell us we can't."
"I know." Mark conceded the point.
         "Then what's holding you back?" Sam asked. "If you know that you can have a full life as a gay man, what the hell are you waiting for?"
"I want someone to go through it with."
"What do you mean?"
"I want to be with someone who'll support me while I come out."
         "There's not a gay man in his right mind who'll go out with a tormented closet case like you," Amanda said.
"Amanda!" Sam scolded.
         Amanda looked annoyed, "I know we just met, but Mark, you are what we girls would call 'a hot mess.' You might be however many years old and you might have a fancy degree and be a college professor, but deep down inside you're a scared, clueless little boy. Now I may not have all the education in the world, but even a dumb ass like me can see that you have got to let go of your current life if you are going to have any chance at happiness."

Mark looked blank and stared at Amanda.

         Sam smiled and said. "This is going to sound stupid, but it's true. It was a story my grandma told me when I was thinking about getting my merit badge in the boy scouts in cooking. I didn't want the other boys to think I was a sissy. She said, 'you can't go through life scared of what other people will think.' She told me a story that her grandmother told her. She said, 'Sam, your life is a seed. If you keep it in your hand or in your pocket, it will always just be a little seed. But if you let go of the seed and plant it in the ground, it will grow into a big plant and bear lots of fruit."
         "Well she got the fruit part right!" Amanda laughed. The others chuckled and sat back in their chairs the tenseness of the moment subsided.
"Have you ever been to a gay club?" Amanda asked.
"God no. I'd have a stroke."
         "Oh please, it's fun," Amanda said. It's full of gay guys so I can dance however I want to and not give a shit because no one's looking at me."
"I don't know."
"How long is Laura gone?"
"She'll be back on Monday. Why?"
"Tomorrow's Friday, right?"
"Yeah, why?"
"That's it. We're taking you out." Amanda announced.
"Out where?"
"What's that?"
         "It's a gay club in DC. That's far enough from here that no one from McLean will spot you. You'll be safe. We'll go and we'll get you hammered and then get you laid. If you ask nicely, I'll bet ole Sammy here'll offer to break you in himself."
Sam blushed- a lot. Both Mark and Amanda noticed.
"Well. I dunno." Mark stared at his plate.
         "Quit being such a pussy foot. You're going. End of discussion. We're going to pick you up at 8 tomorrow. We'll drive into DC and have you home by sunrise."
         "That's right," Sam chimed in, "We won't let anything happen to you. You're quite a catch."
         Mark was clearly uncomfortable with the idea of going to a gay bar, but he knew he needed to get out and see how gay people lived. If he wanted to meet someone before breaking things off with Laura, a bar was about the only place he'd find someone that pathetic and desperate.
"Okay then." He took a deep and increasingly certain breath. "I'll go."
         The rest of the dinner conversation passed pleasantly enough and time came for Mark to leave. He bid his farewell and left their home.
*          *          *
Friday morning, Mark opened his eyes. After leaving Sam and Amanda's the night before, he realized that he needed to step out and see what happened. So, he started off Friday happy and excited. Despite facing the inquisition last night, he was happy he'd gone and now he was on top of the world. He had a certain spring to his step as he walked to work that morning. He was on the verge of something major.

His first class of the day went well. He seemed happier and more cheerful than usual. Of course the students were naturally curious about what was going on and of course Mark couldn't tell them what the real reason was that he was strangely happy and ebullient.

The second class was World Civilizations 2, with Sam. Mark bustled into class and plopped his books down. Over the course of weeks, he'd become accustomed to seeing Sam in class and made a conscious effort not to smile at him or give any indication they had a friendship outside of the classroom.

Sam was sitting in his customary seat in the geographic center of the room with his History of World Civilizations 6th Edition book open to Chapter 24. Mark began his lecture on Count Nikolous Ludwig von Zinzendorf of Dresden, the founder of the Moravian movement in Europe in the 18th Century following the 30 Years' War.

Sam just sat there smiling placidly as his professor started to get animated. He thought it was positively the sexiest thing he'd ever seen. Who knew that you could get turned on by someone who stood in front of you and told you about the consequences of the 30 Years' War on Czech political infrastructure?

Mark noticed him smiling and tried desperately to ignore it, "As early as 1722, the German-speaking survivors of the Unitas Fratrum, residing in northern Moravia, began to seek refuge in Saxony under the leadership of a carpenter named Christian David who was born in 1690."

Mark turned to face the side of the room. The annoying part about where Sam sat in class was that whether he looked at the left side of the room or the right side, he could still see Sam sitting there with that trace of a self-satisfied smile on his face.

         "Zinzendorf's father was a high ranking Saxon official, but died just after Ludwig's birth and he ended up being raised by his grandmother, the Baroness Henrietta Catherine von Gersdorf- a pietistic old biddy."

The class quickly drew to a close and the students filed out of the room. Sam sat at his desk purposefully continuing to pretend to write notes in his notebook until the other students had left the room. Mark was at the front table gathering up his things. He noticed Sam walking towards him.

         "May I help you, Mr. Merchison?" Mark said, smiling broadly showing every tooth in his head.
Sam looked around to make sure they were alone, "Are you ready?"
"No. But I'm excited about it."
         "You should be. This is a big day for you." Sam said tapping him on his shoulder, "You're being initiated into fairyland."
Mark pursed his lips. "So, 8?"
"Yes. See you then."

The day went by in relatively short order and Mark was walking home, trying to decide what to wear. He'd never set foot in gay establishment. But they said it was a bar. So, it must not be too formal. He had a tux if he needed it. He'd bought it for attending fundraisers, Christmas black tie balls, and other formal occasions. With rental prices the way they are, it paid for itself in a short time frame.

Mark walked into his bedroom and swung open the closet door. Still not sure what to wear, he started going through his wardrobe. He still had a couple of hours to decide on an outfit, so he went out to the kitchen to make himself a sandwich.

         "Mark, what are you getting yourself into?" He said aloud to the jar of mayonnaise on the counter. "Have you lost your confounded mind? What if Laura finds out about this?" He preferred specifically not to think about that one. The truth of the matter was, he secretly hoped she'd find out on her own and save him the trouble of having to tell her himself. If she did the dirty work herself, then he'd be free to say, "Yes, you're right. I'd rather have sex with Sam than with you." The thought of sex with Sam brought that funny stirring down in his groin again. After he'd eaten his meager dinner, he went back to the bedroom to resume the task of picking out an outfit to wear.

He picked the most classic outfit he could, a white button down shirt and black slacks. He stood looking at himself in Laura's full length mirror. He figured someone out there would be dumb or desperate enough to find him attractive. 7:55, Professor Piper sat in his living room watching a M.A.S.H. rerun when he heard a car drive up outside. Amanda and Sam emerged from within and approached his house. As they walked across the floor of his porch, he opened the door and greeted them with a nervous smile. He had been somewhat nervous about this outing all day, but now that it was real and Sam and Amanda were on his front porch ready to go, he felt an almost dizzy spell coming on. It had all been a fun, 'oh won't this be fun' sort of a thing, but here they were. Sam was wearing a black shirt with barbed wire stitched on it, dark jeans and leather shoes and Amanda was wearing a black dress that barely came down to her navel and black leather boots that came up past her knees. She wore an elaborate, multilayered silver necklace with dark red glass pieces. She looked stunning, even to Mark.

         "You're wearing that?" Amanda asked. Not even trying to hide the incredulity in her voice. "We need to get you something else."
"What's wrong with this?"
"You don't look like a gay man looking to get busy."
"What do I look like?"
"A Mormon missionary." Amanda replied.
"In that case, this outfit could work." Sam said with a smirk.
         Amanda cut her eyes at him. "I'm going to call Enrique."
Sam looked questioning. "Why?"
         "They're about the same size. We're getting this boy outfitted for this."
Mark looked hesitant.
         "We're going to do a makeover. Things don't get going at the club until 11 anyway, so we've got shit loads of time," Amanda said, then into the phone, "Hey 'Rique. Yeah this is Amanda. I'm good. Say listen, I have a friend who needs some help with clothes for a club tonight. Yeah. Do you think you could hook him up? Awesome, we're on our way. Yeah we'll be there before you leave."

Mark clicked off the living room light and closed the door behind him. Amanda volunteered to let Mark ride shotgun so she crawled in the back. Sam and Mark smiled at each other. Then both blushed. Amanda sat in the back watching the fledgling romance take flight. While she could be a little bitter at times because love left her in the ditch for dead so many times, she still couldn't help but smile when she saw two people in love. Plus, Sam and Mark made such a cute couple.

"Who is this Enrique person we're going to see?" Mark asked.
         "He's a friend of mine from high school. He lives in DC. He's going out too, but he's going somewhere else."
"Oh. Is he gay too?"
         "I've never met a fashion conscious man named Enrique in my life who wasn't." Sam muttered.
         From the backseat, Amanda piped up, "And precisely how many fashion conscious guys named Enrique do you know?"
"Fair point," Sam admitted.

Mark smiled and watched the street lamps pass by. He was starting to get a little nervous. What if someone recognized him? What if he came all this way and couldn't go through with it? He'd be so embarrassed to have them turn around and not go to the bar after all this trouble. He sat quietly as Sam guided the car through the maze of traffic and lights to arrive at Enrique's apartment in DC. Enrique's apartment was about half way up the side of a glass tower. Mark had always lived in small towns with oak lined streets, Victorian homes, and children, and dogs, and so forth. This concrete and steel world was foreign and not a place he felt comfortable. Sam drove around the block a couple of times before giving up and entering a parking garage.

After the interminable elevator ride, the inevitable final bell dinged and they stepped off. Amanda guided them down what might as well have been the hallway of a hotel. She turned corners and Mark was convinced their trail doubled back on itself a couple of times and he wasn't entirely convinced that Amanda knew where she was going. Just as Mark was about to ask about their serpentine path, she stopped in front of Apartment 2106. She rang the doorbell.

They were greeted by a Hispanic man that sure enough was about Mark's size. He was dressed in a shimmering camouflage. Mark just stood and gawked for a moment. Then a smile slowly crept across his face. Enrique noticed the change, but Mark wasn't his type. Mark wasn't smiling because he thought Enrique was attractive. He was smiling because he had a hard time believing that Enrique was about to go out in public dressed in shimmering camouflage. Then a disturbing thought flitted across his mind. What sort of God awful outfit were they going to put him in for this going out to a gay bar escapade?

Enrique's apartment was microscopic to say the least. When the door opened, Mark could see the entire place. The kitchen was immediately to his right, the bathroom next to it with an open space that led to the bedroom door. Mark was convinced that federal prisoners had more spacious living quarters.

"Hi. Come in." Enrique said with a polite smile.

Amanda and Sam nonchalantly crossed the threshold into the apartment. Mark stood in the doorway.

"Enrique, this is our friend Mark Piper, Mark, this is Enrique Montoya."
         "Nice to meet you." They said simultaneously, extending their hands towards one another and shaking.
         "Do you have anything that will work?" Amanda asked. "Mark's never been to a gay bar before."
"You've never been? How old are you?"
"Closet case?"
"Yes." Amanda answered.
"That's too bad. You'd be hot."
         "Now don't be going and getting any ideas," Enrique teased, "You're not my type. I like beefy black rappers with gold chains and grilles."
         "Not unless I have a very unexpected reincarnation experience would I ever get to be a beefy black rapper." Mark laughed nervously.
Not being up on his world religions, it took Enrique a moment to catch on.
         "Do you have anything that might show off, his, you know... package?" Sam asked, half hopefully.
         "Package? Please. This is a white boy from the suburbs. You can dress up a Cessna but that doesn't make it a Gulfstream."
"We can try." Sam smiled.
         "So, Mr. Piper," Enrique turned to Mark, "What do you do for a living?" He guided the youthful man into his bedroom. Sam and Amanda stood in the doorway silently watching Enrique transform the mousy history teacher into a lust-inspiring gay heart throb. The first thing Mark noticed was the leopard print bedspread.
"I'm a history professor. You?"
"Construction foreman."
Mark looked incredulous.
         "I'm a software development analyst for a public policy task force under the State Department."
         Enrique slid open his closet door. His eyes darted back and forth from Mark's rather slight Caucasian form to his array of clothing. The closet was almost as big as the room and Enrique had a little rack next to the closet door that served as a secondary closet.
"What's your type?"
"My what?"
"I know you know what that means. What type of guys are you attracted to?"
"I don't know."
         "Okay, let's start out simple. If you had to choose between someone who looked like me and someone who looked like Sam, who'd you pick?"
"Sam." He answered a little too quickly.
Enrique nodded knowingly, "Okay. That's a start."
"So you like white guys?"
"I guess so."
"Okay. Well, then the baggy Timberlands are out. Do you like leather?"
"Like a jacket?"
"Or pants. But yeah, let's start with a jacket."
"It's okay, I guess. I've never worn leather pants."
"What size are you?"
"32, 30"
"Hmmm. Try these on."
"Should I go to the bathroom to change?"
         "We're going to be trying a lot of stuff. Just change here. I won't do anything. I can't promise anything about Sam though. He's been eyeing your goodie basket the whole time."
"Really?" Mark asked, failing to keep the hope out of his voice.
         "Why are you going through all this trouble to go to a gay bar and pick someone up if you've got someone you like who likes you sitting in the next room?" Enrique asked.
"I can't date Sam." Mark replied.
"Is he seeing someone else?"
"Then what's the problem?"
         "Twofold. I'm technically engaged, but I'm going to break it off. And, secondly, Sam is a student of mine. He's in one of my classes at McLean."
Enrique had clearly not been expecting either of those pieces of information.
         "That's a lot of information to spring on a random stranger," Enrique said after a few moments spent processing what Mark had said, "But...if you are breaking off the engagement, and I assume Sam will eventually finish your class, it brings me back to my original question."
"I like Sam, but he's..."
"He's what? You just said you'd pick him over me." Enrique pointed out.
"I'm not, well, I mean look at me. Sam can do so much better."
         "Yeah? So. Just because you aren't a certain way doesn't mean that others won't like what you've got to offer. If you're going to attract a mate, you can't get in your own head."
         "Thank you." Mark replied.
"Well, I hope your ex-fiancee will be fine. I'm sure he'll find someone else too."
"My fiancee is actually a she."
"Well, Mark Piper, aren't you just a little onion layered with surprises." Enrique laughed.
"I have a lot to work through."
         Enrique nodded, "Yes. I haven't known Sam all that long, but Amanda is a harsh judge of character, so if she puts up with him, he must be a good guy."
"I think so too. Sam's the best," Mark couldn't help but smile.
"Then she brought you here."
"What does that mean?"
"She likes you too."
"I don't know if that's reassuring or terrifying." Mark said.
"Smart man," Enrique laughed.

It took about an hour and a half for Mark to try on what seemed like every article of clothing Enrique owned before he got a unanimous seal of approval from the Fashionista Tribunal. He was wearing dark denim jeans, a silver button up shirt with nothing underneath, and black leather shoes.

         "So can we go to this place now?" Mark asked. He was tired of trying on clothes and really wanted to go home, watch the National Geographic channel, and go to bed. But it was not to be.
"Let's go." Amanda said, heading towards the door.
"I hope we didn't make you too late for your plans."
"I wouldn't have let that happen." Enrique assured them.
"Thanks." Mark said, "I hope this works."
         "The clothes are only half. You've got to be hottttttt. You'll have guys clinging to you like Saran wrap. You'll be giving and getting from every direction." Enrique smiled and ushered them out of his door and out of his evening.

Once back in the car, Mark was slowly starting to warm up to the idea. Admittedly, he was very self-conscious about the outfit; but, now that he'd been wearing it a few minutes, he actually kind of liked it. It showed off his body in a way he didn't know it could. It hid the fact that he had no arm muscles. It was a solid outfit fit for a night at a gay bar.

Mark had watched Queer as Folk and was expecting the bar to be someplace like Babylon. They stood in line outside the bar waiting to be admitted.

"If we hadn't taken so long to get him dressed, we'd be in already." Sam complained.
"Sorry," Amanda replied, "Miracles take time."
"IDs." The intimidating and uninterested guy at the door said.
         He took their driver's licenses and inspected them thoroughly. "Go in."

They shuffled past the guard and into the madding throng inside. Mark froze. The guys in here ranged from drop dead gorgeous, to shouldn't leave the house without a paper bag over their heads. The paper bag guys were few and Mark was astonished at what he saw. The sea of humanity that spread out before him left him terrified and exhilarated. His heart skipped a beat while simultaneously falling into the pit of his stomach and rising up his throat, nearly strangling him.

"Now what?" Mark leaned over to Sam.
         "We get a drink." Amanda said, sliding in the minute gaps between people as they mingled and chatted with the presupposition that they'd find some total stranger to go home and have sex with. Mark tried to follow her but ended up making his own path through the throng in the same general direction as Amanda. Amanda saddled up to the bar and tried to make eye contact with the bartender. Mark stood behind her.
         "Yes up here, wuss." She said, noticing him behind her. Mark came and stood right by her left elbow.
"What do you want to drink?" Amanda asked.
"I don't care. A white Russian?" Mark replied, with more of a question than a statement.
         "God you're so gay. Two vodka martinis, dirty, extra olive with a twist." The bartender made the order and, seemingly instantly, the two martinis appeared. Amanda handed one to Mark. "This'll make you feel better."
         She looked around and spotted Sam further down the bar, with his customary Malibu rum and diet soda. They made their way down to Sam.
"Seen anything good?" He asked Mark.
"A few." Mark said, trying to act blasabout the whole thing.
         "Please. There's probably 100 people here who'd love to take you out back and pound you." Amanda said.

Her answer startled Mark. It never occurred to him that someone in this crowd would notice an impish geek. Enrique was right, you can dress up a Cessna, but it's still just a Cessna with little hope of Gulfstream-hood. They sat at a table that overlooked the dance floor. There was the usual assortment of hot, shirtless men showing off the goods. Mark was still self-conscious, but the vodka martini was starting to take the edge off his uneasiness.

Maybe it was his classiness, maybe it was his closetedness, but it bothered Mark a little that people pick people up in bars. Mark wanted hearth and home. He didn't want a one-night stand whose name he wouldn't remember even if he knew it to begin with. He looked around the crowded building realizing that the world of these men was a foreign territory whose language, culture, and customs were a mystery to this novice. He wasn't even a novice. He was an illegal alien, a trespasser. His fairyland passport was still at the customs office. His friends, who had passports to this world, had dressed him up, smuggled him across the border, and passed an imposter off as a citizen.

Without warning, his chest grew tight and a lump formed in his throat. What if this is all there is to gay life- hot men gyrating in bars? It wasn't Mark's world. What if he wasn't meant to be gay? This wasn't his world, this wasn't a place he felt comfortable being. What if being gay destined him to a life of loneliness; a life of wandering from one relationship to another; a life of relationships that lasted a few years and then ended bitterly and angrily? That wasn't the life he wanted for himself. He still wanted to be sleeping next to the same person fifty years after they met, not breaking up fifty days after they met. The tightness in his chest became an almost panic attack as these thoughts came crashing down.
"I think I need to go." Mark stood up.
         "We just got here. Sit down. Give it a while." Amanda instructed. The rush of the alcohol in his system made him slightly woozy on his feet. He swayed back a second before he sat back down in his chair.
"Are you okay?" Sam asked, noticing the change in Mark's complexion.
"Just a little lightheaded is all."
         "You're a cheap date." Amanda remarked. "If I buy you another one, will you have sex with Sam?"
         Mark thought about it for a second. Throwing caution and common sense to the wind, he said, "Sure. Why not?"

Sam sat dumbfounded. His history professor just agreed to have sex with him. How does one respond to that when you want to but know you really, really shouldn't? Sam had laid awake at night dreaming of it. The images of what Mark must look like naked fluttered through his brain every time he sat in class. He imagined a tent in the front of Mark's dress slacks. He had to change his mental subject every now and then to avoid getting a rise in his own cargo shorts he often wore to class.

As Sam's throat went dry at the thought of Mark, a guy walked up. Sam frequently got hit on in these places. Usually, after a while, someone would come knocking on the barn door. For Sam, being a muscular, attractive guy, getting people interested in him in these places wasn't difficult. Most of the queens in this place would love to take a ride on a piece of military-grade equipment. Sam straightened his back a little bit as he noticed the guy approaching. The guy was smiling and seemed like a nice person. He was dark tan with thick wavy black hair cut perfectly and parted crisply. He wore a tight black T-shirt over designer jeans, cute wire frame glasses, and black leather shoes.

Sam was excited that someone who looked genuinely nice and was genuinely attractive was approaching him. Sam got the sense that this guy was also in the market for something long and meaningful. He had that 'nester' look about him. Sam's mouth was even drier, his palms slightly clammy, and his knees started to bounce a little in anticipation. The guy saddled up to the bar next to him- and turned to face Mark.

"Hi. My name is Aaron." putting his hand out for a handshake.
"Nice to meet you Mark. How are you?" They cordially shook hands.
"I'm fine. Do you come here often?"
         "Not really. Do you mind if I sit here?" He asked Sam, as he dragged an abandoned barstool up to the six inch space between Mark and Sam. Sam was a little taken aback. His first time out and Mark gets a bite. Sam scooted back and gave Aaron room. Amanda watched from a few feet away. She was impressed too that Mark was already attracting quality attention.
"So. Do you come here often?" Aaron asked.
"Never been here before. These are my friends Amanda and Sam."

Aaron shook their hands in turn and turned his focus immediately back to Mark. Amanda took note of the dismissal and went out to the dance floor. Sam stayed right where he was, feeling so jealous he thought he might actually turn green.

"You have nice friends. How did you meet?"
"Sam and I are at the same college. Amanda is his roommate."
         "Nice. I graduated college a couple of years ago. I wanted to go into the Air Force. But my eyesight's not good enough."
"That's too bad."
         "Yeah. So, I finished my degree in mechanical engineering and I just finished my master's in aerospace engineering."
         "Nice. I'm finishing up my PhD in history. What do you do with your degree?"
         "I work for a research and development firm that's working on fuel cell technology for aircraft."
"Very nice. But I'm no good at math."
"I'm no good at history."
         "Then I guess we're even." Mark smiled and Aaron smiled right back.

They were gazing into each other's eyes like star crossed lovers. Mark felt a pressure and realized that Aaron had put his hand on his thigh. Mark made no effort to relieve the pressure. Sam just sat in bewilderment watching the spectacle taking place before him. Mark had never been to a gay bar, was so far in the closet it was painful, yet a gorgeous, aerospace engineer with the complexion of fresh caramel was all over him and ogling him. Sam sat and scanned the room, trying to ignore what was going on next to him. He had failed to make eye contact with anyone. Since it was a gay bar, Amanda was on the dance floor spinning, gyrating, and generally giving the boys a glimpse of what they were missing out on.

Whatever self-consciousness and inhibitions Mark had come in here with, they were gone now. Amanda wondered what sort of beast she and Sam had unleashed on the greater Washington, DC gay community. Mark was entranced by the new stranger. Obviously, nothing even remotely similar to this had ever happened to him before. The idea that an attractive, educated, and articulate person was taking noticeable interest in him sent electric thrills down his spine. When Aaron put his hand over Mark's on the table, Mark realized instantly how the new sensations coursing through his nervous system had made him hypersensitive to the slightest touch.

Aaron was intrigued by Mark. When he saw him from across the room, there was an almost magnetic energy that drew him over. Honestly, Aaron was surprising himself. He was usually very self-conscious and would practically never approach someone in a public setting like this. But when he saw Mark, he couldn't help it. Something in Mark reached out to him and Aaron realized that there was no one else. Mark was the one. Aaron never believed in love at first sight until this moment. Love at first sight was something that only happened in movies, not something that ever came to pass in real life. Yet, here it was- in real life. The flesh and bones reality was talking to him.

Sam was less than enthralled. He had no claim over Mark, but yet he felt a certain protective instinct towards him. Plus he wanted Mark to himself and didn't want any interloper coming along. What he and Mark had was comfortable. Yes, Sam would like to add sex to their relationship, but even without it, they were still good friends. This unexpected turn of events threatened to create a distance between them- a distance that Sam wasn't willing to accept.

The flip side was that Sam was slightly jealous of Mark that such an attractive person was interested in Mark rather than him. Secretly, he wanted someone to come along and scoop him up because he knew Mark wasn't ready for that and he knew that he was. But he tried to be happy for his friend. He knew he should be happy for Mark that his first outing had been such a successful one. He knew that would bolster Mark's confidence and encourage him to come out and let Laura go back home and get on with her life. But Sam was still a human being with complex yet simple emotions.

As their conversation continued, they agreed to call and go out again in the upcoming week. How Mark was going to slip this past Laura, he wasn't sure. But he absolutely had to see Aaron again.

Aaron was typing Mark's number into his phone. "What's your last name?"
"Piper. What's yours?"
"Duran. Ich heisse Aaron Duran."
"Sprichte Sie Deutsche?"
"Eine Beissen."
Sam watched as the nerds continued. They were two of the cutest nerds he'd ever laid eyes on, which was annoying in its own way.

Amanda was getting bored after she finished dancing and sat a few stools down the bar from Aaron and Mark. Since she wasn't one of the participants, watching the Aaron and Mark Get Their Groove on Show was getting old. The evening was getting late. In fact, 2:00 was fast approaching and the bar was starting to close down for the evening. Sam knew of an after hours club not too far away, but he figured those two would have their own after hours party- a party that involved latex and lube. Then a strangely erotic thought crossed his mind: chances were pretty good that Mark had never had sex before. At least he probably had never had gay sex before. Sam found himself rather aroused by the idea that Mark was a virgin.

"We'd better get going." Amanda said. "I'm getting sleepy."
"Me too." Sam yawned and stretched. "You stayin' or goin'?"
"I guess I'd better go too."
         "I know this great after hours club we can go to." Aaron suggested. He didn't want to let Mark go because he figured he'd never see him again if he did. Aaron had never met anyone as enchanting and easy to talk to as Mark. He didn't want the greatest man he'd ever met to leave him because his friend's roommate was sleepy.
         "Thanks; but, I've got some stuff I need to do at home tomorrow. Call me and we'll go out to dinner or something."
         "I will." Aaron quickly agreed, although the disappointment was evident in his voice. He really, really, really liked Mark and wanted Mark to stay. The trio got up from their table for the first time since they arrived hours before. Aaron followed them out to the car. He still was talking to Mark as Mark got in the backseat of Sam's car. Sam pulled out of the parking garage, leaving Aaron standing on the pavement.

*          *          *

Aaron walked to his car which was only a few spaces away from Sam's. He sat behind the wheel and couldn't suppress a smile. It was the most incredible time he'd ever had at a bar. Just when he was on the verge of giving up, thinking there really were no good ones left, he found someone. Finally, after long last, his ship had come in. He would call Mark tomorrow. They would go out. They would have a grand, high church wedding in a collonaded, Episcopal Cathedral. They would live happily ever after. In one nanosecond, Aaron Duran had envisioned the rest of his life to include Mark Piper, his soul mate. Aaron had a history of jumping to conclusions.

Back in Sam's car, Mark was both ecstatic and pensive. He was thrilled that he'd met Aaron. He really wanted to go out with Aaron but he knew how dangerous that could be. At least if he and Sam got into a relationship, Sam knew about Laura and Sam knew the limitations their relationship would have as a result. He wasn't sure how Aaron would react if he found out that Mark was engaged to be married to a woman. It probably wouldn't be an affirmative reaction.

As they pulled up in front of Mark's house, he asked, "Sam, can I talk to you for a bit?"
"Sure. Amanda can drive home and then I'll walk. Do you mind?"
"Sure. That's cool." Amanda said.

The guys got out of the car, Amanda took the wheel and drove off into the night.

"What's the matter?" Sam asked.
Mark turned and walked up onto the porch. He unlocked the door and went in.
"Do you want something to drink?"
"What'cha got?"
"Soda, water, that's about it."
"Water's good. Keeps the hangover at bay."

Mark silently got a glass out of the cabinet and put it under the water dispenser in the refrigerator door. Sam sat down at the kitchen table. Mark sat the two glasses of water down and sat across from Sam.

         "Why are you so quiet all of a sudden? You never shut up the whole time we were at the bar." Sam said playfully.
"What'd you think of Aaron?"
"He was nice enough. Why?"
"I don't know. I kinda want to see him again but I don't."
"I want to see him again, but what about Laura?"
         "When are you going to tell her that you're gay? Just say, 'Laura, I can't marry you because I am big, fat, flaming, queer, fag.'"
"I'd die. I would die if she ever found out."

Sam just sat there, the frustration rising in his throat. He didn't want Mark to see Aaron again. All he wanted was for Mark to look at him and never give that Aaron Duran guy another thought, or Laura for that matter.

         "Something tells me that Aaron wasn't what you wanted to talk to me about," Sam stated, half dying to know half dreading the answer.
"I guess not. Do you want to watch TV?"
"Okay." Sam agreed.

Sam slid his chair back from the table, picked up his glass and followed Mark into the living room. Sam sat down at the end of the couch up against the arm. He thought that Mark would take his place on the opposite end. Mark proceeded to sit down right next to him. Sam was conflicted deep within himself because he really wanted to be with Mark; but, he knew there was no way on account of their professional relationship. While Mark felt the similarly, he was apparently more willing to cross that line.

"So, are you going to call Aaron tomorrow?" Sam asked.
"I don't know. Maybe he'll call me."
"Maybe. If he doesn't, will you?"
"Probably. I liked him." Mark repositioned himself slightly sideways on the

couch so that he could look at Sam more directly. Sam noticed.
"You know that it's safer to date Aaron than me."
"I know. I know I can't do anything with you without losing my job- but if no one

finds out. No harm, no foul, right?"
"I don't know. I really, really like you Mark. If I wasn't in college, I would."

Mark looked at the floor. He knew he was completely in the wrong to even be pursuing this line of discussion; but something within himself compelled him to keep going. Sam's resolve to not do anything with Mark was waning. Despite his knowing it was wrong, he felt the desire increasing and his resolve diminishing. Whatever else Sam may have been during daylight hours, right now he was a horny gay man on a Friday night sitting alone on a couch with a very attractive gay man who was all but propositioning him.

"Mark, you're sure no one will find out?" He looked Mark dead in the eyes.
"I will never tell. I have too much to lose. You won't tell?"
"I don't want you to get hurt. Mark, I think I have feelings for you."
"I think I'm falling in love with you too."

Mark froze. He hadn't meant to say that. Sam sensed Mark move imperceptibly closer. What happened next surprised and pleased them both. Mark shifted his weight and moved perceptibly closer to Sam. He was so close; Sam could feel the breath from Mark's nostrils rushing across his face.

*          *          *

Mark awoke early the next morning. The light streamed bright and beautiful across his face. Its rays lightened the soft hues of his female-decorated bedroom, twinkling off the brass lamp on the nightstand, reflecting in the dresser mirror. He languidly opened his eyes to face a beautiful Saturday morning in his quiet little hamlet. The memories of the previous night flowed back into his mind and a broad smile spread across his face. He remembered sitting at the bar with Aaron, feeling completely smitten with this vibrant stranger. He was beginning to realize that he was standing on a precipice and things were about to change dramatically for him. His conversation with Aaron had renewed his energy but more importantly, he realized that he could have a full and happy life as a gay man. That was a startling revelation for him. It was okay for others, but he'd never thought it could happen for him. He'd always assumed that he was doomed to a life of hiding and wishing he was someone else; but, the few brief moments spent talking to Aaron revolutionized his way of thinking.

He felt movement that wasn't his. He looked down and saw the sandy blonde top
of Sam's head laying on his bare chest. Sam made a slight, contented sighing sound. He was happy. He'd gotten out of the military because he wanted to be free. He wanted to find someone to have and to hold and, lo and behold, he found him. It was a little awkward given the nature of their relationship, but nonetheless, Sam was convinced that Mark was the one. He would tell Laura himself if Mark didn't have the guts. But that was a discussion for another day. Today, it was to be just the two of them- newly minted lovers spending Saturday together. Sam awoke further when he felt Mark shift his weight beneath his resting head.

         "Are you awake yet?" Mark smiled down.

"Uh-hmmm." Sam's mouth opened in a broad and unapologetic yawn.
"What do you want to eat?"
"What do you have?"
"Whatever you want."
"Is that so?" A hint of a devious smile played at the corners of his mouth.
"I'm glad I met you." Mark said.

Sam thought that was a rather odd comment at this juncture in the universe.

"I'm glad I met you too." Sam agreed, not sure what else to say. "Why are you?"
"You make me happy."

Sam didn't say anything. It's not that Mark didn't make him happy, it just seemed fake to parrot what Mark just said. Mark assumed silence was consent. They lay motionless in the bed that Mark shared with Laura the other nights. The images of their transgressions ran through their minds like tantalizing fire- dangerous and mesmerizing. What Mark and Sam did had awakened passions in Mark he didn't know he was even capable of. He was a little sore, his nerves a little tired, a little bewildered, but more alive than ever before.

They begrudgingly got up- their stomachs' pains inspiring them to leave their warm, cozy nest. Padding out to the kitchen, Sam asked, "Mark, have you given any more thought to being the Doo-dah Group's advisor?"

         Mark furrowed his brow and stared at the cabinet of bowls. "Huh?"
"A couple of months ago, I asked and you said you'd give it some thought."
         "Oh." Given their present condition, the question was so out of context that Mark was confused. "I don't know. Probably not."
"Why not? It'd help you come out."
"Come out?" Mark sat at the table and started to pour himself a bowl of cereal.
"You know what I mean. You can't live like this."
"Why not? I made it this far."
         Sam knew when not to pick a fight, so he dropped it. "What are you planning on doing today?"
"Nothing. I should go over to my office, but I'm lazy. You?"
"Watching TV. I should study for World Civ, but I'm lazy."

Mark smiled and rolled his eyes. He didn't want to be reminded that he'd just had a night of unbridled sex and passion with a student. They munched quietly on their corn flakes for a few moments. Mark looked up at the black plastic clock on the wall. 10:15. Not bad considering how little actual sleep happened.

As breakfast continued, Sam got a little restless. He needed to think things over and decide if he wanted to push Mark to come out and end this tiresome charade or leave well enough alone and let Mark run, and ultimately ruin, his own life.

"I think I'd better go." Sam said, sliding his chair back from the table.
"Why? We can watch TV together."
"I need some 'me' time."
         "Oh." Mark was clearly disappointed, but not willing to balk. He sat back in his chair and looked up at Sam's standing figure.
         "I gotta go."

He was half way through the living room before Mark could stand up. He stood in the door between the kitchen and the hallway that led to the living room and the front door. He watched Sam's retreating figure as the door closed behind him.

         "What the hell was that?" Mark thought to himself. "Humph." He turned back toward the table to clear it of the breakfast dishes and accouterments. As he was rinsing his cereal bowl out in the sink, he heard his cell phone ringing on the nightstand by the bed.

         "Hello?" It was a number not in his phonebook. He rarely answered unidentified people, but something in his gut said to answer this one.
         "Hi. Is this Mark?"
         "Yeah. Aaron?"
         "Oh, hi! How are you?" Mark tried to make his cheeriness not sound contrived.
         "I'm good. you?"          

         "I'll make it. I'm a little tired. I didn't sleep much." Mark said. He didn't feel the need to elaborate as to why he didn't.
         "Me neither. I'm glad I ran into you last night."

"I had fun." Mark said.
"So did I. I was wondering if you wanted to get together this afternoon?" Aaron asked.
         "What did you want to do?"
         "Um...well...we could have dinner?" Aaron was even more nervous now than before he called. He'd scripted the call, but forgot that he was a tongue-tied idiot when under pressure.
         "That sounds good." Mark agreed, "What do you like to eat?"
         "Um...well...I like Chinese food."
         "I was thinking nicer. Indian?"
         Mark thought to himself, "What is he really wanting? Why did he call me?"

         Aaron thought to himself, "He's annoyed. I shouldn't have called. Dammit, you're blowing it Aaron. Get it together."
         "Where do you want to go?" Mark asked, to prevent the pause from becoming awkward.
         "What's near you? I don't mind driving." Aaron was determined to see Mark again regardless of what it took.

         "If you don't mind, I'd rather come into the city."
         "Sounds great!" Aaron replied, "There's this little place called Kalima Cuisine. Or something like that."
         "Okay. Sounds nice."
         "It's my treat." Mark said.
         "What time?"
         "Good." Aaron concurred.
         "So, I'll see you then?" Mark confirmed.
         "Yeah. It's a date." Aaron said excitedly.

Mark cringed slightly at calling it a date.

         "It's a date." He said, cheerfully trying to hide the hesitancy in his voice.

Aaron hung up the phone a little dismayed at Mark's apparent lack of enthusiasm about their upcoming date. He was excited to say the least. He'd laid awake the night before, mentally preparing for that phone call. He'd imagined what he'd say and then what Mark's reply would be. He had it all worked out- right down to how he would go about proposing to Mark. It was over the top and involved a string quartet on a white sandy beach, but a boy can dream can't he? The nice thing about being an engineer is that he was well paid and was still young.

Mark was less than enthusiastic for a wide array of reasons, not the least of which was that he'd had the night of his life with Sam mere hours before. Mark didn't know there were names for the things Sam managed to do to him. He couldn't wait until the opportunity arose for Sam to do them again. He also had to realize that chances were pretty good that his interlude with Sam was a one time event. After all, Sam seemed pretty eager to leave. Mark was as disappointed by Sam's hasty retreat as Aaron was about Mark's lukewarm acceptance of a dinner date.
The afternoon progressed in its usual fashion until the hour came to leave for his date with Aaron. He was curious to see if he still felt as entranced and captivated by him on the second meeting. He had to remind himself that in their initial and thus far only encounter in the bar that night, they'd had no physical contact except a hand on his leg and a peck on his cheek. There had been nothing further than that. Last night, he had a trainer, a fashion consultant, and a cheerleader who kept him moving forward rather than scurrying back to his books and lecture notes. Mark still felt he could use a little more practice. He didn't want to appear foolish or inept in front of Aaron. Sadly, there wasn't much time and he didn't think that asking Sam for a tutorial on what to do on his date with someone else would be appropriate. So, he figured he'd have to wing it. Still, he was nervous that Aaron would laugh at him. Aaron had probably been on countless dates with guys and had probably had countless sexual encounters and so he knew what to do and what not to do.

Mark wondered about his house when his mind wandered to Laura. Why she popped into his head at this particular juncture in time remained a mystery, but he picked up the phone. He debated with himself whether or not he should call. Laura hadn't told him that she'd call upon her arrival but she usually did. He punched in the speed dial numbers and listened to the message.

         "You have reached the mobile voice mailbox of Laura Holbrooke, Position Management Executive with Exper-media Solutions. Please leave your message after the tone."
"Hi, Laura, this is Mark. I just wanted to make sure you got to your sister's house okay. Call me. I miss you."

He wasn't sure why he said the last sentence, it just sort of popped out. As Mark was leaving that message, Laura was over a thousand miles away in a penthouse suite with an Argentinian millionaire cover boy. She had her phone turned off. Being unsuccessful, Mark pressed another series of numbers.

"Hi, Marcia, this is Mark."
         "Oh hi Mark." She sounded cheerful but not cheerful enough to make Mark suspicious that what she was about to tell him was untrue in any way.
"Is Laura there?"
         "Um..." she faltered slightly. She'd prepared for Mark's call but now that he was on the line and asking a direct question, she hoped she didn't choke and give away too much information. She never was very good at lying. "She's here."
"Okay. I left her a voicemail."
"Yeah. She's gone to the store."
"The store?"
"Yes. She went to the store. Um...to pick up a few things she forgot."
"Women's things?"
"Yes. Uhh, She forgot to pack enough."
         Marcia thought to herself, "Please God let the inquisition end. I can't take much more pressure."
"Oh. Well, have her call me when she gets back."
"I will." Marcia, Laura's sister, assured him.
"Bye." He hung up and placed the portable phone back on its holster.
         Marcia never put her phone down. She immediately called Laura's cell and heard the same message.

         "Laura, this is Marcia. You should call Mark. I told him you were at the store. I don't want him to get suspicious and drive up here to see you and you be...well...not here. Stay safe, Laura. You don't know what this man is capable of. Just be careful. Bye." With that said, she pressed the off button to end the call.

She was worried about her sister. Laura never seemed the one to make rash decisions or take excessive, unnecessary risks. This choice to fly down to Miami to see a man she met off the internet seemed completely out of character. She must be desperate to get out of her relationship with Mark.

Mark decided that since Laura was safe and sound at her sister's house and unlikely to return to find him missing, or worse, in bed with a man, Mark returned to his thoughts of his upcoming date with Aaron. What Aaron had in store, he hadn't a clue, but he was determined that he was going to enjoy himself. Mark got in his car and motored his way towards the district. He felt his phone vibrate in his pocket. His blood pressure spiked fearing it might be Laura. It was Aaron.

"Hi Aaron! It's Mark." Mark answered.
"I hope so."
"Unless you're answering someone else's phone." Aaron laughed.
"Oh, yeah. I guess I'm just excited."
"Good. You didn't sound so excited when I talked to you before."
"Sorry. Just stressed is all."
"Why's that?"
"Just work and life stuff. I'll tell you over dinner."
"Okay. I just wanted to make sure you were on your way."
"I am. I'm coming up on the GW turnoff."
"What are we doing tonight?"
"I was feeling old fashioned, so I was thinking about dinner and then a walk in the park."
"Can we walk in the park after dark?"
         "It's lit until 10. People walk their dogs out there. So, we can walk around and talk." Aaron suggested.
"That sounds good. We talked a lot at the bar." Mark said.
         "I'd like to talk some more."
         Aaron furrowed his brow. Mark was acting odd again. He wasn't sure why.
"Me too." Mark said.
"We could also go to a movie if you'd rather."
"No, no. Walking in the park sounds nice."
"Do you need directions?"

Aaron proceeded to give directions while Mark tried to jot them down in the midst of navigating Saturday afternoon traffic into Washington, DC. Fortunately traffic was pretty light as Mark's modest little blue sedan sped across the Key Bridge over the Potomac and into the District.

Aaron was getting ready to leave his apartment to meet Mark at Kalima Cuisine of India restaurant just down the street from his apartment. That way, they could go walking in the park, which was across the street from the restaurant, and then retire to his apartment for 'after dinner treats.' He hoped Mark would be up for an 'after dinner treat.' Aaron hadn't had sexual contact with another human being in over a year. He'd had offers, but he was saving himself for someone special. He had a strong sense that Mark was the one.

Mark wasn't sure where he stood on the subject of sex with Aaron. If it felt anything like what Sam did the previous night, he wouldn't mind. He was beginning to gain his confidence a little. He knew that Aaron was very strongly attracted to him, and so would probably forgive a host of sins including ineptitude, but willingness to learn in the bedroom would hopefully get him a long way. He felt a slight stirring in his groin, but he tried to ignore it in hopes it would go away. He needed to pay attention to the traffic.

As Aaron walked down the street, he saw a little blue car pull into a metered space up ahead. A familiar jet black haired head poked up out of it.

"Hi! Mark." Aaron called out from behind him.
Mark looked around, a bit confused but assuming it was Aaron.
         "I'm glad I didn't get lost." Mark remarked, pressing the lock button on his key fob. They embraced for several seconds. Mark broke their prolonged embrace and turned to take care of the mundane task of paying the parking meter.
         "Shall we?" He asked, motioning towards the Kalima Cuisine of India sign across the street.
         "I would love to." Aaron grinned and stepped to Mark's side. They walked shoulder to shoulder so that the backs of their hands brushed each other with each step. Despite the liberalness of the area, they weren't quite comfortable holding hands. Mark approached the door and held it open for his date. Aaron appreciatively walked through. He was happy to be on a date with an actual gentleman.
         "Table for two please," Mark informed the waitress. His nervousness had dissipated and he suddenly felt more at ease in Aaron's company. The slim, Indian hostess ushered them over to a nice table in the corner. She must have sensed they were on a date since she put them in the section with a lot of other couples. They were not the only gay couple dining there that evening.
         "This looks nice," Mark commented, scanning the elaborate and intricate decor of the room. It was decorated with the typical Indian decor of tapestries, drapery, and other flowing bits of brightly colored fabrics.
"I come here every now and then." Aaron said.
"Is this where you bring a lot of first dates?"
"Sometimes. I haven't had that many dates actually."
"I got a 4.0 in my engineering program by not having a social life."
"You're making up for lost time?"
"I guess. Do you date much?"
"Not really."
"Do you live alone?"
         Mark hesitated a moment. Then he spoke the lie that he feared would be his undoing. "I live with my sister. Her name is Laura."
"My brother's fianc's name is Laura."
"Do they live around here?"
"No. They live back home in Racine. They'll probably live there until they die."
"So you're from Wisconsin, I assume."
"Yeah. We'll, sort of. I grew up there."
"Where do you consider yourself from, if not Wisconsin?"
         "As you could probably tell, I'm not white." Aaron unleashed one of his 1,000 watt smiles on Mark.
"I did notice, I suppose. I think you are unbelievably gorgeous." Mark said.
         Aaron blushed, "Thank you. I was born in Afghanistan. There was a young US army private named Chris Walker who was on patrol and found a little two or three year old boy on the street. No one knows if I'm an orphan, was abandoned, or just got lost. No one knows when my birthday is or exactly how old I am. No one will likely ever know. They tried to find my family, but couldn't. One thing led to another and I ended up being adopted by Chris's sister, Emily Duran of Racine, Wisconsin. They had no way to know what my birth name was, so they just picked Aaron. Thus, some random street urchin from the hill country of Afghanistan ended up being raised in Wisconsin, with the whitest name possible, then turned out gay, and is now sitting with you enjoying himself immensely."
         Mark's jaw slipped progressively lower as Aaron's story unfolded.
         "That's...just...wow." Mark was completely bowled over, "I don't know what to say to that."
         "You don't have to say anything about it. We're just getting to know each other. What about you?" Aaron asked.
"Well, for starters, I've never been to Wisconsin. I'm from Delaware originally."
"Sounds exotic."
"About as exotic as Racine."
         "Point one for you." Aaron said, licking his index finger and making an imaginary one in the air. "You're not missing much in Wisconsin, but it is a pretty state. I like it better now that I don't live there."
         "Virginia is a lot like Delaware, so I don't notice much of a difference. But I did my course work up in Massachusetts."
"Course work?"
"For my PhD."
"That's right. How's the dissertation coming?"
         "Not as fast as my advisor wants it. But my defense won't be until next fall. So, I've got time."
"Don't let it slip up on you."
"I won't," he smiled. It'd been a while since he'd received study advice.
         "Sorry for giving the professor study tips. I didn't have to write papers and such much other than for general ed courses."
"I guess a lot of math, like you said the other night."
         "Yes. I know as much about calculus as you probably know about presidential history."
"That's not that much."
         "I bet you know more than you're letting on." Aaron smiled slyly, leaning forward. He was dying for Mark to lay his hand on the table so he could lay his hand palm down on top of it. Mark kept his hands close to his chest. There was what Mark guessed was the Indian equivalent to light rock playing in the background as the bejeweled waitress took their order.

Mark's conscience started to bother him about telling Aaron that Laura was his sister. But if Aaron found out the truth, he'd probably bolt from the room. Honestly, if he did, Mark could neither blame him nor stop him. He searched his brain for a justification for what he was doing. This was pretty much the very definition of cheating on Laura. After all, he thought, she'd never cheat on him. But after that lie was told, he had to keep it going. He really, really liked Aaron and he was a more viable dating prospect than Sam because they didn't have the professional relationship complicating matters. He would wait until Laura got home; he'd tell her the truth about himself and then break off the engagement. That was not going to be easy but Aaron never needed to know.

         "Is everything okay?" Aaron asked, searching Mark's eyes with concern. "It looked like your mind wandered off."
         "Sorry. I do know a good bit about presidential history. Mostly about Reagan because of his involvement in the later years of the Cold War and the Star Wars missile defense program." Phew, Mark could once again dodge his own contemporary problems by focusing his attention on the world of yesteryear.
         "I guessed so." Aaron said, leaning back, more relaxed now that Mark had snapped out of his reverie to return to the present.
"I think that you are so adorable when you talk about history." Aaron said.
         "You light up. The whole time we were talking about family and where we're from, you were okay but then the subject turned to history and snap- you were awake."
         Mark smiled, looking at the condensation droplet gliding down the side of his water glass. "Thanks. Tell me about calculus then. I want to light you up."
"Calculus doesn't light me up. I just know a lot about it."          
"What lights you up then?"
Aaron pondered the question momentarily, "I don't know."
"Designing things doesn't?"
"Some. It's okay. I guess so."
         "Maybe you haven't found your passion." Mark sat up in his seat. He'd just switched from history junkie to inspirational speaker.
"I lit up earlier when I thought about seeing you again."
"So your passion is dating?"
"Ice fishing?"
"Hell no."

Mark chuckled at his reaction. "I remember one winter when I was in college driving to a conference in Chicago. My friends had decided to make a road trip out of it. There was this house with a big backyard. I saw a guy sitting on a chair in the middle of his backyard with a cooler and a fishing pole. Then I realized he was fishing in a hole in a pond. It wasn't a yard at all."

"He was ice fishing." Aaron said.
"Yep. I'd never seen it."
         "It's pretty cool, I guess, if you've never done it before. But I HATE cold weather. It's part of the reason I moved down here."
"The winters here can get pretty cold."
         "Not like that. The lakes freeze over about mid-November and then they don't thaw until April."
"Six months?"
         "Six months of freezing ass cold- with a month of getting cold and a month of slush on each end. No thank you."
"Only four months of decent weather?"
"That's about it, yep."
"Sounds horrible."
"It is."

The thought of such atrocious weather made Mark shiver. His mind went to what Laura must be doing now. She'd never called him back. Oh well, who cared what she was doing? Little did he know that she was walking arm in arm with Roberto Bustamante along the white sand beaches of Florida, a world away from the District of Columbia, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, or Wisconsin. She'd barely given any of those places a single fleeting thought all day.

After dinner, Aaron picked up the tab and they departed. Mark had offered, but Aaron was faster.
Stepping out onto the curb, Mark asked, "So where's this park?"          
"Right there." Aaron said, pointing.
         Sure enough, just across the street was the park. Mark parked right in front of it in his metered space and hadn't even noticed.
"I'd better put some more money in before they haul me off." Mark said.
"Yeah. We know what happens to guys like us in prison." Aaron grinned.
"It'd have to be a slow news night for the cops to haul me off for this."
"You've sure got a pretty mouth, boy," Aaron laughed, "But it's after 6. They're free."
         "I like the sound of that," Mark said.

Mark returned the quarters to his pants pocket. They walked along the sidewalk, bordered on one side by a row of parked cars and on the other with a wrought iron fence that guarded the green grass and trees of the park in the midst of this concrete, urban jungle. Aaron walked quickly; it was obvious to Mark that Aaron knew where he was going. He'd taken this route before.

         "I come here sometimes to think." Aaron said, "My apartment's only a couple of blocks from here."
"This seems like a pretty safe part of town."
"Yeah. I guess so. I've never had any problems."
         They mounted the ancient cement steps that had been broken up by the encroaching roots of a nearby oak tree.
"There's a park near the campus I go walking around sometimes."
"Sounds pretty. You'll have to take me sometime."
"I will. Do you have a car?"
"No. Since I live in the city, I don't need one."
"Oh. I guess I could come pick you up."
"Don't worry about it, they have buses."
         "I can take the E train to Rosslyn and catch the bus that takes you to McLean. The campus isn't far from the bus stop according to the website."
"You've researched how to get to me?"
         "Without a car, you have to. If it was a pain in the ass to get to you, I wouldn't have called."
"Why's that?"
"It's not fair for you to do all the driving."
"Thanks to my sister, you provide the place, I'll provide the wheels."
"Deal. I want to meet your sister."
         "We'll see. She has a terrible social anxiety problem." The lies about Laura were coming more and more easily. If this relationship worked, eventually Aaron would have to meet someone named "Laura." She was his sister, so he couldn't just say she died. Aaron would want to go to the funeral. He would eventually meet Mark's parents who would have no recollection of having a daughter named Laura. He couldn't tell him he broke up with her, for obvious reasons. How on earth was he going to get himself out of this mess of his own making? Mark tried to focus. He needed to focus on the beautiful face and sparkling personality of Aaron Duran.
"How does she work?" Aaron asked.
         "She telecommutes from home. So, she hardly ever leaves the house. We'd have no privacy."
Aaron arched his eyebrows, "My place it is then."
Chapter 9

"This is so nice," Laura said, looking at the posh surroundings of La Petite Royale.
         "You didn't think I'd take you to a dump, did you?" Roberto teased.

Laura just smiled, smoothed out her dress and was seated at their table by a beautiful waiter clad in white tie level dress.

"Have you ever been to Miami?" Roberto asked, trying to read her mood.
"This is Miami Beach. South Beach."
"South Beach? I don't remember seeing any gay people around."
"They're here. Here gay is the norm. Did you see our waiter?"
"Sweetheart, you aren't very good at spotting gay guys are you?"
"I thought our waiter was very nice. He was very gentle."
         "Yeah. He's gentle. Until after hours at some punk bar...then..." Roberto smiled. Laura couldn't help but wonder what would make Robert think of something like that.
         She leaned forward so as not to be heard at neighboring tables. "You think our waiter is gay?"
"I bet he is."
"How can you tell?"
         "You just do. No, he's not wearing a pink boa, but you can still tell."
         She seemed a bit incredulous. The same waiter came back to take their drink order. "My name is Markus, I'll be serving you tonight. May I start you off with something to drink?"
"I'd like a Bourbon and coke. You?" Roberto said.
Laura scanned the menu. "I'd like a glass of Chablis."
"Excellent selection. I will have those right out to you."
"So," Roberto turned his attention back to his date, "You don't think our waiter is gay?"
"I can't tell."
Roberto smiled rather coyly. "Want me to prove it?"

Laura didn't know quite what to make of that. She thought it would be amusing but at the same time, maybe Robert was looking for an excuse to be a little gay in front of her so she'd see him as a fun guy and not just a stuffy financier.

"That's okay," she replied after a moment of deliberation.
He smiled at her and leaned back in his seat. "Not much experience with gay men?"
"Not really."
"Ah. I have a brother who is, that's how I know."

She looked down at the empty bread plate and thought back to Mark. That would explain his lack of sexual interest in her. If he was, then perhaps this was the best thing for both of them. She and Mark could both go about their lives separately with little to no hard feelings between them.

"You look thoughtful. Is everything okay?"
         She looked up at him, realizing that she had checked out momentarily. "Yes. Everything is fine."
"I'm unconvinced."
"It's just that you comment about our waiter."
"I'm sorry if I offended you."
         "That's not it. It's just that it occurred to me that I think my fianc might be gay. I don't know. It would explain some things."
Roberto smiled at her. "What makes you think that?"
"Hmm. The only thing I have to go on is that he isn't physically interested in me."
"Nothing else?"
"Not really. He doesn't have any stereotypical 'gay' tendencies."
"So he doesn't dress up in high heels and flit around like a fairy princess."
She laughed "No. Not that I've ever seen anyway."
She pictured that in her mind's eye "It would be funny though."
"What does your fianc look like?"
"Medium height, medium build, black hair, and hazel eyes."
"Sounds like quite a catch."
         Through her smirk she replied, "He actually is cute. He's definitely a white guy- can't keep a tan. His skin is so soft because he uses a lot of nice lotions. He's a good cook. Good housekeeper. My parents adore him."
"It sounds to me like you're making the gay case for me."
         "Maybe. It never even crossed my mind that he might be until just a few minutes ago. I just assumed he didn't love me and that was it."
         "He might not. At least not in the way a fianc or husband should love you. I only met you a little while ago and I can already tell you are a classy woman and you deserve to be loved by someone."
"Thank you."
"I don't mean that as a come-on, I really think that you are and you do."

Laura blushed under the gaze of this beautiful man who took her breath away in a way that Mark never did. Her heart fluttered as her facial blood vessels dilated. Her palms got sweaty and her hands shook slightly as she took a sip of water to cool down. Roberto continued to just smile quietly as he watched her adjust to a compliment. He got the impression that Laura was unaccustomed to being complimented. The waiter returned and the pair ordered their extremely expensive entrs.
         As the waiter was walking away, Laura turned to Roberto, "Maybe he is."
"I'm sure of it."
"The waiter or my fianc?"
"Both or either, the choice is yours."
She just smiled, but didn't reply.
"So, Miss Holbrooke, where do you want to go after we finish eating?"
"I wouldn't mind going back to the room and looking at the view."
"Really? You do move fast."
She looked quizzical for a moment before blushing even deeper than before.
"I meant the view from the balcony- you know...over the Atlantic."
         "Of course." He knew what she meant, he was just toying with her, trying to get her to relax in his company.
Chapter 10

Back in the District, Mark was walking with Aaron down a quiet back street. Aaron was giving Mark directions to his apartment.

"I'm not sure about this area. Are you sure we're safe? The park seemed fine."
"I hope so." Aaron sounded noncommittal.
"That doesn't inspire much confidence."
         "I've lived here three years and I've never had a problem, but you always hear of stuff happening. I hope tonight isn't the night I get into trouble."
"I don't know. At least maybe we won't get mugged."
"So, Mark, have you ever done anything like this before?"
"'This' being what, exactly? Gone home with someone?"          
         "Sure." He wasn't about to admit this was his first time. Mark didn't want to seem like a pity case to Aaron.
"Okay. I wasn't sure, so I didn't want to make you uncomfortable."
         "It's cool if this is a first for you. It's not something I really do either. It's just that I really, really like you." Aaron said.
"Okay." Mark replied, hoping that was sufficient for the moment.
"Here," Aaron said.

They arrived in front of a classic DC townhouse, red brick with granite-trimmed windows. Both men stood in nervous silence looking up at the amber glow of the streetlights reflected in the darkened residential windows. The row of townhouses had been converted into a single apartment block with a main entrance which then went down various hallways to the doors of the apartments within. Aaron turned to face Mark.

"This is it."
"I guessed as much," Mark smiled.
"Do you still want to?"
Mark sat in pensive silence for a moment before inhaling deeply. "Yes."
Aaron leaned over. "Make me believe you."
Mark looked curious, "What do you mean?"

They were standing so close, Mark could feel the heat radiating from Aaron's body. Aaron was a furnace of sexual energy bound up in the body of a good looking engineer. His dark, kindly eyes blazed with desire for his new friend, the history professor. Aaron's gaze never faltered, never wandered away from Mark's eyes.

"You are so beautiful," Aaron blurted out, then looked away, embarrassed.
"I...I." Mark seemed stuck on the singular first person personal pronoun.
"You don't have to say anything, just kiss me. That's all I want."
"Just a kiss?"
         "To start, we'll see where it goes."
         "We can go upstairs if you'd be more comfortable than out here."
         "I want to do that."
         Aaron took him by the arm and ushered him through the front door.
         The doorman greeted them, "Mr. Duran, a successful outing I see."
         "The best, Mr. Davenport."
         Aaron pressed for the elevator. They all heard the jerky rumble of the gears, motors, and cables of an ancient elevator as they sprung into action.
         "Who are you?" Mark asked as though it mattered.
         "I'm Fred Davenport, the night doorman here at Chez Henri."
         "Ah. Nice to meet you." Mark said.
         "Excellent," Fred replied.
         "Mr. Duran, shall I put your nice gentleman caller on your approved guests list?"
         "Yes, please, Mr. Davenport. Dr. Mark Piper."
         "A Doctor? Good for you, you've been aiming higher, just like I suggested."
         "I'm actually a college professor," Mark said.
         "He's finishing up his Ph.D." Aaron added.
         "That's good. An intellectual mind to keep Mr. Duran on his toes." Fred smiled kindly.
         The elevator arrived with a sharp "ding" onomatopoeia. Aaron and Mark disappeared from Mr. Davenport's view.
         "You're close with your doorman."
         "His marriage ended recently. He gets lonely and so he compensates by getting involved in the tenants' lives."

Upon entering Aaron's apartment, Mark was amazed. It was meticulous. The white walls were offset by large, black leather wingback armchairs and glass topped tables. A colossal TV hung on one wall with a fireplace along the adjacent wall. The kitchen was tiny, but clean. Aaron ushered Mark over to a large sofa. They sat down together. Aaron had multiple pieces of black pottery that looked southwestern, but complemented the dark leather furniture. It was a similar floor plan to Enrique's, but far less garish.

         "Can I get you a drink?" Aaron asked.
         "That would be nice." Mark replied, swallowing hard.

Aaron got up and went to a cherry wood sideboard. He rustled around and got out a shaker and some glasses.

         "What do you like?"
         "I don't know cocktails all that well." Mark admitted.
         "What else do you like?"
         "A cocktail is good. I just don't know much about them."
         "Then I'll surprise you."
         "You have an amazing apartment."
         "Thank you. I'll make you a Vieux Carre. It's a prohibition era drink popular in New Orleans."
         "Don't tell the temperance union."
         "I won't if you won't. I don't think Carrie Nation could get all the way here anyway." Aaron said.
         "You know about her?" Mark was surprised.
         "I'm not just a pretty face."
         "Good to know."
         "I think I would do well dating a history professor. I've always loved the subject. It's just that engineering pays a hell of a lot more."
         "I suspect that's true."

Mark sat listening to the quiet sounds of Aaron mixing his drink. As he heard liquid pouring and ice cubes clinking, Mark was getting nervous bordering on panicked. Aaron returned with their drinks and sat very close to Mark. Mark wanted to scoot away, but didn't. His conscience was killing him.

         "Aaron, before we go too far, there's something I need to tell you." Mark cleared his throat.
         "Okay." Aaron shifted his weight uncomfortably on the leather cushion, squeaking as he did so. He was unsure what the problem was, but he doubted it would end the way he'd imagined earlier.
         "I like you a lot and I respect you too much not to be honest."
Aaron sat, patiently waiting for either shoe to drop.
         "I am gay."
The faint traces of a smile and a chuckle played at the edges of Aaron's mouth.
         "Given the circumstances, I hope so."
         "No, I mean."
         Aaron filled in the blank. "You are married."
         "No!" Mark replied, too emphatic for Aaron's comfort.
         "Then, what is the matter? You're gay, you like me, I like you, I made you a top shelf Vieux Carre...I pride myself on being a smart guy, but I'm not getting it."
         "I'm engaged."
         Aaron sat back. "To a woman?"
         "Yes, her name is Laura."
         Aaron's eyes started to mist.
         "Do you love her?" He asked, his voice cracking a bit.
         Mark was flummoxed, which gave Aaron his answer.
         "I need to break things off with her. I know it's the honorable thing to do, but every time I think about it, I want to throw up."
         "Do you want to talk about it?" Aaron offered.
         "I should go. I think I've embarrassed myself enough for one night."
         "No, stay. Is Laura expecting you home?"
         "No, she is visiting her sister. She'll be back tomorrow."
         "Then stay. We can just talk and you can stay in the guest room if you are more comfortable."
         "How are you single? You are literally the whole package. You're good looking, intelligent, successful, and kind."
         "People have been asking me that since I came out 12 years ago."
         "I can't imagine. Any of it." Mark marveled.
         "I've wanted to be in a relationship the whole time. I've been on probably forty first dates, probably a quarter of those led to second dates. I even dated a groomsman I met at my sister's wedding. Six months is the longest I've ever been with anyone. That was my brother-in-law's best friend from high school. He was a complete jackass and I was still the one who got dumped. Pretty pathetic, huh?"
         "I don't know what to think. I know I'm gay and I am a college history professor focusing on 20th Century history. Aaron, those are literally the only two facts about myself that I'm sure of. Everything else in my world is suspect. Is that weird?"
         "It isn't. It means you are reevaluating your life and what will fulfill you."
         "You are good."
         "My mother is a marriage counselor and my Dad is a Presbyterian minister."
         "I can believe that. You have a kindness and gentleness I've never seen before."
         "That's not always good."
         "When could that ever be bad?"
         "I'm easily taken advantage of. I'm easily abused by stronger personalities. Believe me, there are downsides to being a nice guy."
         "But at least you know those things about yourself. I feel like I'm just starting to explore a person I just met. That's idiotic, I'm nearly 30. How am I still a mystery to myself?"
         "I guess you have a tough conversation ahead of you when Laura gets home."
         "I guess you're right."
         "Do you think she might suspect?" Aaron asked, swirling the ice in his glass.
         "I don't know. I kind of hope so." Mark said, a guilty expression in his face.
         "Would that make it easier?"

Mark considered the question. He slowly spun the ice in his nearly empty glass. He felt better that he'd confessed to Aaron and that Aaron hadn't thrown him out instantly. Maybe he hadn't screwed up this budding relationship too much.

         Mark swallowed a bit of his drink and said, "I think it would. Maybe it wouldn't hurt her as bad. It would be worse if she thought I was in love with another woman or if I lost interest in her. If she suspects that I'm gay, then she may even feel relieved that it's all done and over with."
         "That's probably aiming a little high, but I like your optimism. Care for a refill?"
         Mark didn't hesitate, "Yes."
         "I think you'd like a Manhattan."
         "I trust your judgment."
         Aaron flashed a coy smile, "Don't you know that preacher's kids are the wildest of all?"
         "I didn't, but one day I'd like a demonstration."
         "As thou hast spake, so it shall be done." Aaron laughed as he departed for the kitchen.
         Mark felt as if the world had brightened. He was giddy, and it was not just the cocktail or the bartender.

Chapter 11

Laura and Roberto walked shoeless in the gentle surf of the warm Atlantic. The lights of Miami Beach twinkled on the shore, with the lights from the highrises of Miami rising above the low lying, beachfront buildings. They splashed through the white foam, arm in arm. Laura had a loose-knit white sweater draped over her shoulders. After dinner, they had retired to their hotel, then decided to go for a romantic, moonlit walk on the beach. So far, it had been a perfect evening, marred only by the latent, nagging suspicion that Roberto had awakened in her. Perhaps she'd wondered, but never let herself truly consider that Mark might be gay. When he proposed, she didn't think much about it. He obviously wasn't, but...she just couldn't shake the feeling tonight.

Laura walked along in what a third party might mistake for contentment. She looked up at the stars and listened to the crunch and swoosh of the waves as they broke and swept over her feet. She felt the sand erode beneath her feet, making little indentations that disappeared just as she stepped out of them and the current continued.

         "What are you thinking?" Roberto asked, noticing Laura's faraway look in her eye.
         "You still love him, don't you?"
         "Yes. I like you and I love being here with you, but I'm torn. I do love Mark. I didn't realize how much until today. Maybe meeting you was what needed to happen for me to realize that. But I also want to run off and start a new life with you."
         "I'm sorry for what I said earlier. About Mark."
         "It's okay. I know you were only teasing."
         "Do you want to go back to Mark?
         "I know I can't have my cake and eat it too."
         "What does that mean?"
         "It's an expression that means you can't have it both ways."
         "I know what the expression means, but what does it mean for us?"
         They lapsed into silence as an elderly couple passed by on the sand going the opposite direction. Once the potentially prying ears had passed up the beach, they resumed.
         "I know you don't want to be with me unless I dump Mark."
         "I do, but I can't. That's just not who I am."
         "Roberto, I can't do this."
         "I don't understand."
         "I love Mark."

Roberto stepped back and regarded Laura. He wasn't sure he'd heard her correctly.

         "But...what about us?"
         "It kills me to say it; but, it's true. I want to be with him. You are amazing and wonderful and I never imagined anything like this could ever happen to me." She was starting to gush.
Roberto's face fell as the realization dawned that she was serious.
         "I understand. I don't like it, but if he's the one, then I guess you have to go."

A tear formed at the corner of Laura's eye. She stepped back, the sound of the ocean as ceaseless and rhythmic as geologic epochs. The waves swept forward over their bare feet and retreated to parts unknown.

Chapter 12

Mark paced. His mind roiled. He knew Laura would be home any moment. The moment of truth was soon to be upon him. Judgement Day was at hand. He was sure he had cleaned up everything in the kitchen and the bedroom. He would die of a heart attack if Laura found a pair of men's boxer briefs that weren't his, or a used condom in the trash can. He heard footsteps approaching the doorway. Rather than the customary jingling of keys, the doorbell rang. Mark hurried to the door. He swung it open. Sam stood before him, literally hat in hand.

         "I need to talk to you." Sam said, fiddling with the brim of a baseball cap in his hand.
         "Now is not a good time, Sam, Laura is on her way back from her sister's house right now."
         "I have a minute and I need to take it before I fall apart." Sam said, the emotion brimming over in his eyes.
         "Let's go sit on the couch," Mark suggested.

Sam nodded and made his way over to the sofa in the living room.

         After a few pensive moments, Sam broke the silence that hovered over them, "Mark, when I went into the military, I didn't know who I was. Like a lot of boys from bad situations, the army was the only way out. Soon, I realized that I was gay and I felt trapped. I was so scared I could barely breathe, but I made a choice to set that part of myself aside so I could continue to serve my country. It was what I knew and it was all I felt I was worthy of doing. Years went by. I signed up for tour after tour so that I would not have to face life as a civilian gay man."

Mark almost interrupted, but then thought better of it and leaned back on the sofa.

         "Then I left the army and came here to McLean. I didn't have a plan, I didn't know what to do. I wanted to fight for gay rights so that others wouldn't need to. Despite all my bravado, my biggest fear in the civilian world is being unwanted and unloved. My parents never wanted me and I don't think they loved me. I was an inconvenience for them. I figured I would do my school work and my extra stuff, but these young guys would be too immature for me and I'd be too elderly for them. So, I once again felt abandoned by love, destined to be alone and unloved. Then whatever the secular version of a miracle is called, happened. I met you. Mark, you have changed my life. Given how lonely I've been feeling lately, you probably saved my life. I love you. I think you love me."
         "I do love you, Sam." Mark blurted out.
         "Then marry me," Sam slipped off the sofa onto one knee in front of Mark. He pulled a small box from his pocket and opened it. There were two matching etched tungsten wedding bands inside. He looked up into Mark's misty eyes, "Mark Piper, will you be my husband and let me be yours?"
         The words caught in Mark's throat, "I..."
         Sam's expression shifted from hopeful to alarmed to horrified.
         "You said you love me," Sam said, an air of disbelief in his voice. The open ring box in midair in Sam's hand.
         "I do. I do love you Sam. I'm just not ready to get married. To you or anyone. I have to talk to Laura. You're my student. There are just so many reasons I'm not ready to marry anyone."

Tears welled up in both their eyes. Mark hated himself for causing so much pain. He just devastated one life and he was about to devastate a second when Laura got home.

         "Please Mark. Don't let what we have get away. Neither of us thought something like this could happen for us, and it has. Please don't let that go."

They did not hear the front door quietly swing open. Laura stood there, mouth agape, her suitcase slipped from her hand and clattered to the floor. Sam and Mark jumped at the unexpected intrusion. Her eyes surveyed the scene. She didn't have to be Sherlock Holmes. Her husband was sitting on the sofa with another man down on one knee with a ring box in his hand. They were both on the verge of tears.

         "Laura," Mark began, "I...I."
Sam snapped the ring box closed and squirreled it back into his jacket pocket.
         She waved him off, "How could you?"
She picked up her suitcase and swung it at Sam. He deftly sidestepped it as it catapulted across the room.
         "Whore!" she yelled.
         "I'm not a whore," Sam replied.
         "What the fuck are you doing in my house proposing to my fiancee? What would you call yourself?"

Mark still remained seated on the couch looking up at both Laura and Sam. Sam was shocked into silence.

         "Mark, aren't you going to say anything?" Laura asked.

Mark cleared his throat and wanted desperately to say something to bring this conversation to a speedy end, but Laura kept going.

         "Is this Sam?" Laura asked.
         "How did she?" Sam asked.
         Mark opened his mouth then closed it. A moment passed and it reopened, "Do you want something to eat? Maybe a sandwich? Then we can talk this out."
         "No, I don't want a sandwich," she said disgustedly, "And there is nothing to talk about. I'm calling the dean tomorrow. I'm sure he'd be very interested in finding out you are having an affair with a student."
         "No, please, Laura, don't please don't do that to me."
         "You just destroyed my life, why shouldn't I destroy yours? You just thank God he's over 18. Then it'd be the cops."
Laura walked into the kitchen.
         Mark stood, "Where are you going?"
         "The kitchen, I changed my mind about that sandwich."
Mark and Sam followed Laura into the kitchen.
         "If it matters," Sam said, "Mark turned me down."
         "It does help a little," Laura admitted, "At least he didn't jump into bed with the first, whatever the term is for a boy bimbo, that came along."

Mark looked startled.

         Laura's eyes got big, "You slept with him? Here?"

She got a brick of cheese out of the refrigerator and a knife from the drawer.

         "Mark, I can't believe you would ever cheat on me. Let alone with a student. A male student. You've screwed up a half a dozen different ways."

A tear made a wet trail down Mark's face.

         "Ms..." Sam began.
         "Ms Holbrooke, I am so sorry."
         "You knew about me, right?"
         "You knew that Mark and I were engaged to be married."
It was a statement, not a question.
         "And yet, I find you here with him. I'm guessing you had sex in my bed. Probably more than once. Which is more than I can say for myself." She seemed most put out about the last part.
Sam looked down at his shoes, "Yes. And I have no defense. There is nothing I can say that will make this alright. Mark and I..."

Sam's military training failed him when Laura shoved him against the wall with a cheese-flecked knife pulling against the skin of his neck. It was only then he noticed that the knife she'd been slicing the cheese with was a steak knife.

         "Mark and I?" She said with disdain, "I like gay people in general, but you are a tramp, a homewrecker, and bastard and I want you out of this house."

         "I understand," Sam said, "I am so sorry I screwed up."
         "Do you have any idea what I gave up to be here?" Laura hissed.

Sam and Mark looked confused. Laura's mouth slowly draped open as realization of her gaff dawned.

         "Laura, what do you mean?" Mark asked.
         "Never mind me." She said.
         "Did you cheat on me? Is that what you were doing this weekend when you were supposed to be visiting your sister?"
         "I um," She swallowed hard.
         "Now is not the time to lie, Laura, if you've got something to tell us, then say it."
         "Could you get the knife off my throat, Ms. Holbrooke?"
Laura removed the knife from Sam's throat.
         "What happened, Laura? I'm in no position to judge you." Mark said, "Clearly."
Laura gave Mark a 'you're right about that' glance before turning pensive.
         "His name is Roberto Bustamante."
         "Where is he from?" Mark asked.
         "He's a successful business man from Argentina."
         "How did you meet him?"
         "We met online."
         "Do you like him?" Mark asked, uncomfortably fidgeting with the corner of a paper towel.
         She flushed, "Yes, I do."
         "Do you love him?"
         "I don't know. We emailed back and forth a lot, but we only spent one weekend together."
         "But you'd like to find out." Mark said.
         "I can't."
         "Why not?"
         "I left him. I said I wanted to be with you."
         "You ended the affair for me?"
         "Yes. Then I walk into this." She said, sweeping her hand around the room.
         "Maybe you should explain it to him."
         "What? I can't do that."
         "Yes, you can. You deserve to be happy and to be loved in a way I can't be for you."
         "Do you mean it?" she asked, her eyes brimming with hopeful tears.
         "I'm gay and you just pulled a knife on me and another person, so I think you and I are done."
         She smiled and pulled her phone from her pocket.
         "But you need to leave." Laura said.
         "What?" Mark asked.
         "You don't live here anymore. This is my house. My name is on the lease, not yours. So, leave or the call I'm about to make will be to the police to report you for trespassing." Her tone brooked no argument.
         "I need to pack."
         "Your stuff will be in a storage unit tomorrow." Laura said, pointing at the door with the knife.
         "I can do it." Mark squeaked.
         "Get the hell out," she said, pointing the knife at both of them.

Mark and Sam both put their hands up and slowly backed out of the kitchen. Laura waited for the door to close. She watched from the window as Mark and Sam got into Sam's car and drove away.

         "What am I going to do?" Mark asked.
         "I don't know." Sam said, "Tonight you're staying with me. Then tomorrow we'll figure out what to do."
         "Just take me to campus. I'll sleep in my office."
         "If that's what you want, but you'll be more comfortable on the couch."
         "Mark, I proposed to marry you fifteen minutes ago and you turned me down. What do you want from me? If you'd rather sleep on the floor of your office, go ahead."

Sam turned the car around and dropped Mark off at the side entrance to Chamberlayne Hall. Mark knew the after hours code so he was able to get in. Sam didn't wait to see if he made it in, he just floored the car and took off.

         Chapter 13

Sam crashed through the front door of his house. Amanda was on the couch in her penguin pajamas watching the original Halloween movie. She had taken her contacts out so she had giant black plastic frame glasses on and her hair up in a wild, unruly approximation of a bun with a pair of chopsticks holding it in place. She had a bowl of microwave popcorn propped on her knees. She looked up.

         "Oh fuck," she said and turned off the television.

Sam collapsed in tears and flopped onto the couch next to Amanda.

         "I'm so sorry Sam," Amanda said.

He curled up in a fetal position next to her and she gently stroked his hair as though he was a cat. He sniffled loudly.

         "I'm sorry." he said.
         "Don't be. Want some popcorn?" She offered.
         He shook his head.
         "What did he say?"
         "He said he wasn't ready. Then his fiancee walked in and pulled a knife on us."
         Amanda's eyebrows shot up. She clearly was not expecting the second plot point in Sam's story.
         "For real? Where is Mark now?"
         "Who cares?" Sam groused, "Well, I dropped him off on campus, he's going to stay in his office tonight."
         "I told him he could sleep on the couch here. He seemed a bit offended. Then I said that I just asked him to marry me and he said no. What the hell did he expect? He's not getting laid tonight."
         Amanda laughed, "At least you have some boundaries."
         "You can keep watching the movie if you want."
         "I think a horror gorefest would be appropriate. Better than The Proposal."
         "Shut-up," he said, a trace of a giggle escaping.
         "See. Plus, I will point out that, according to your story, he didn't say 'no.' He said he wasn't ready. There's a difference there."
         Sam sat up. "It feels the same. I want Mark Piper, dammit. I want him in my bed and in my life and I want to marry that stupid, geeky, putz. "
         "Maybe you will."
         "Shit. I have World Civ tomorrow."
         "What are you going to do?" Amanda asked.
         "I'm going to show up. I'm going to ace that class and tell him he can kiss my 'A.'"
         "I suspect he'd do a lot more than kiss it if you asked." Amanda said.
         "I know he would. He's a bit of a horn dog." Sam smiled.
         "See, it's not so bad. He needs to sort things out with his female fianc before he jumps in with you. Then there's the matter of him being your teacher, but that too will resolve itself in time."
         "I guess." Sam said, feeling a bit guilty about dumping Mark off on campus.
         "You're very smart," Sam said.
         "I know."
         "I don't know why you're still single," Sam said, "Boys really are the worst aren't we?"
         "Well, I guess I just prefer my own company to theirs. Besides, all the cute ones are busy chasing other guys."
         "There is that," Sam laughed.
         "I suspect," Amanda continued, "That once you're no longer a student and he's been broken up with his fianc for a while, then you two can see. You're only 28. It's not like you need to make a pact that if you're both 50 and you haven't found anyone you'll marry each other."
         "I'm taking another of his classes next semester. I'm looking forward to it. I'll get to study the history of the gay rights movement."
         "Then maybe after that." Amanda said.
         "He'll meet someone else by then."
         "That hot mess basket case? Who'd be willing to deal with more of his dumbass-ness than you?"
         "That guy at the bar."
         "The engineer?"
         "Yes. He'd be better for Mark than me anyway."
         "Don't be ridiculous." Amanda said, "You are a catch, Sam Merchison. If Mark Piper can't see that, then he's a loser and you're the one who'd be better off with someone else."
         "Like who?"
         "You know I don't know. Do I look like a psychic to you?"
         "Maybe," he said cheekily.
         He sat up.
         "Do you want to watch the movie or something else? I don't care."
         "The movie is fine."
         "You're on your own for popcorn," She replied.
         "Fair," he got up and went to the kitchen to make his own bag of microwave popcorn.

Mark let himself into his office. Thankfully he somehow had his keys in his pocket from earlier. He had no idea what was about to happen. He could scarcely believe that such a wonderful person like Sam would want to marry him. Then Aaron hadn't thrown him out. He hadn't called either, but that was probably for the best at the moment. He sat at his desk. He'd left the lights off to avoid drawing attention since his office windows overlooked large portions of the quad.

He powered up his laptop. He had to do something to keep his mind off his life completely blowing up, but he could also see glimpses of a bright future. Laura had no legal ties to him, so there was no divorce or division of assets. His assets included his clothes, a small savings account and some books. He felt really pathetic at that moment. He was nearly 30 and that was the extent of his financial empire. Laura made the money. He realized he'd been her roommate more than her fiance. They were basically Sam and Amanda.

He turned his chair around and looked out onto the grassy quad of the McLean College campus. There were a few students milling around. It was getting late and it was dark out, so soon even they would be safely ensconced in their rooms, apartments, and other spots that college kids go to at night.

He looked at his phone. Sam or Aaron. He marveled that he, Mark Piper, history professor, certified geek, and the least sexy person he knew had two wonderful men chasing him. Well, for Aaron, chasing might have been a stretch, but nonetheless Aaron had definitely expressed interest.

Aaron had a kindliness about him. He'd been plucked from the direst of circumstances in Afghanistan and placed in Wisconsin. He'd become an engineer, had incredible emotional intelligence, and was one of the most beautiful guys Mark had ever laid eyes on. Then there was Sam. Tough as nails, smart as a whip, and ready to conquer the world. He was cute in a rougher way and muscular and determined.

Mark had to remind himself that he'd blown it with Sam. Even if he changed his mind, Sam was too good for him. Aaron was way too good for him too.

         "Mark Piper, you are such a stupid, moronic, asshole," Mark derided himself, "You should have said 'yes' to Sam. You ruined everything. You broke his heart tonight. He's a good man and deserves to be happy. You could have been a part of that, but you're a screwup and a loser. You're not good enough for Laura, Sam, or Aaron. You got what you deserved sitting here alone in the dark."

The tears came, unbidden. Mark turned his chair back around and put his head on his desk and cried. He sat up, realizing that he'd fallen asleep on a stack of ungraded midterms. He decided if he was useless in love, he might as well do something useful. He turned on his desk lamp and started grading. When he got to Sam's, he read his response to the essay question.

         The prompt was, "How did the Protestant Reformation alter the paradigm of religion in European society?"
         Sam had written, "Prior to the advent of the Protestant Reformation, the Catholic religion in Europe was seen as the primary source of authority, and conformity was mandated with little to no exceptions. No one, even kings, had standing to question it or defy it. There was little thought given to the individual. Individuals only had value insofar as they contributed tithes to the church and tribute to their overlords and masters. With the coming of the protest reformation, people began to be seen as individuals. They had a voice. It was not always expressed in a way that we today would see as acceptable, but their opinions mattered. What they wanted and needed could influence ecclesiastical doctrine, local politics and other facets of their lives. Until Protestantism became entrenched and subject to the same political ambition as any king, realm, or even bishopric, people were seen for who they were. That paradigm shift has continued to influence Western society through to the present day. Once the members of a society achieved that agency, they were rarely willing to ever surrender it. Individual rights and individual needs are taken into account in creating public policy in the political realm along with many choices being available in the theosophic sphere so that each person can get their needs met while still being part of society and part of a larger collective known as humanity."
         "Damn I fucked up, didn't I Sam? You are smart, and amazing, and that was perfect. I really want to call you and apologize but I know I hurt you and I would not expect you to ever forgive me," Mark said to the A+ he'd put at the top of Sam's midterm exam.
         Mark kept grading.


Mark watched the gathering dawn as the light grew over the quad outside his window. He left Chamberlayne Hall and walked toward his old house to get his car. He needed to go get some toiletries so he could shave and freshen up so the students would have no idea what a mess he was. He felt his phone buzz in his pocket. He needed to find out from Laura where his stuff was going to be placed. Not that he had anywhere to put it anyway.

         "Hi!" Aaron's text read, "How are you?"
         "Not great," Mark said, "Laura and I are no longer together."
         "I'm both sorry and not." Aaron replied with a smiley face emoji at the end.
         "You wouldn't happen to have an ulterior motive for not being sorry, would you?"
         "As a matter of fact, I do. I really like you Mark. If you are not ready to date anyone, I am willing to simply be friends. I just want you in my life in whatever form you are willing to be. I hope you want to."
         "Very much. I want to be a part of your life."
         "Well, then, let's not rush. Lunch on Saturday?"
         "Sounds good." Mark said, "I'm looking forward to it."
         "Can I come to McLean?"
         "If you want, sure."

He slipped his phone back into his pocket and put his head down. He didn't notice Sam walking toward him with his backpack on and his thumbs hooked under the straps.

         "Mark!" Sam called out.

Mark was startled but it was way too late to get out of it without being rude.

         "Mark, I just wanted to apologize."
         "You have nothing to apologize for," Mark replied.
         "Yes, yes I do - I absolutely do. I know things are complicated for you right now with Laura, and being closeted, and I just sprung that on you. A marriage proposal after one night together? What was I thinking? I got carried away and I made a mess of things." Sam was almost to the point of babbling, "I just hope you can find a way to forgive me so we can still be friends and maybe even more than friends. I don't know if you'll ever want to talk to me again."
         "I, um." Mark stammered.
         "I should go." Sam said, "I just...I royally screwed up, Mark."
         With that, Sam took off down the street in the direction of campus. Mark turned and hurried after him.
         "Sam, I'm the one who screwed up. I should have ended things with Laura ages ago and independent of you. I shouldn't have...spent the night with you. That was a mistake."
         "A mistake?" Sam turned, he was hurt, his eyes sparkled with unfallen tears in the soft morning light, "I'm sorry you think so little of me that being with me was a mistake."
         Mark was about to start crying again, "That's not what I meant."
         "Then what did you mean?" Sam asked, on the verge of tears.
         "I am just so confused. Being with you was wonderful, but it really muddied things for me."
         "How so? If anything, it helped me. It made me realize that I love you, Mark, I still do and any time you want to spend time with me, I will be there. I will do anything you want just to be near you. Plus, it ended things with Laura so you didn't have to put yourself through that Hell anymore. Explain to me how you being with me was a mistake that muddied things for you?"
         Sam was starting to shift from sad to angry.
         "I, well, I."
         "What?" Sam demanded, "How do you feel about me? Let's start with that. If you don't love me back, then there's nothing for us to discuss. We go back to being professor and student and nothing more."
         "Sam, I." Mark's brain just wouldn't decide.
         "That's a no," Sam said, and let out a sob, "You don't love me."
         "I do, Sam. I do love you. It's just that it's complicated."
         "No, it isn't. I'm an adult and so are you. There is nothing wrong with what we are doing. It isn't ideal, I'll grant you that, but the student/professor thing will pass and we can spend the rest of our lives together. You can have the life you want, a life of love and kids and home and family with me. I want those things too, don't you see? If you love me and I love you, then nevermind what anyone else thinks." Sam made his impassioned plea for Mark's affections.
         "The guy we met the other day."
         "What about him?" Sam asked cautiously.
         "I went out with him. He's coming here for lunch on Saturday." Mark confessed.
         "Dump him." Sam said matter of factly.
         "He's a nice guy." Mark countered weakly.
         "You are the only person on earth that I have ever had sex with." Mark said.
         "I know. That's part of what makes this awesome. How many people actually save themselves for someone they love? The fact that you've only ever been with me makes it hotter, don't you see that?" Sam said.
         "I think so."
         "Do you want to have sex with other guys?" Sam asked.

Mark knew that the answer was no, but he kind of did.

         "No. You were outstanding."
         "Good." A smirk grew across his face, "To quote Betty White, 'once you've had the best, who needs the rest?'"
         Mark nodded. He really did like Sam, a lot. He felt a little boxed in.
         "So, you and Aaron have not had sex," Sam clarified.
         "But you'd like to?"
         "I don't know. I know I'm not supposed to."
         "Who said that?"
         "You did."
         "You should listen to me." Sam said with a smile.

Sam leaned in and Mark matched him. Sam put his lips together and pressed them to Mark. Mark reciprocated and leaned even farther forward. They had a long, sultry kiss right on the sidewalk.

         "I've got to get to class." Sam said, "Biochemistry waits for no one. Plus you've got to get cleaned up. You look like you slept under a bridge."
         "I'm just thankful I had toothpaste in my desk drawer."
         "You keep toothpaste in your desk drawer?"
         "Yes. In case I need to freshen my breath before class."
         "Well, that kiss was minty fresh and top notch. You are an excellent kisser. With some practice, you'll be a pro," Sam said and sauntered down the sidewalk, victorious and swimming in the soup of pheromones coursing through his system. That Aaron guy could take a hike, Mark was his.

         Chapter 14

Class was over. Mark managed to make it through a lecture on Montesquieu's Spirit of Laws. The students filed out, Sam among them. Sam waited for a few moments outside the door so that Mark would, seemingly incidentally, come up behind him.

         "I hope I didn't mess things up more today," Sam said quietly as they began walking back to Mark's office.
         "No, you made some excellent points," Mark tried to sound professional so passersby would think that this was just a chat between professor and student and not two star crossed lovers trying to figure things out.
         "Good. If you want to talk to Aaron, I won't stand in your way."
         "Okay. That's good."
         "Is it?" Sam asked, clearly not anticipating that answer.
         "Can we talk in my office?" Mark asked.
         "Of course."
         They were intercepted.
         "Mr. Piper." An imperious older gentleman said.

He wore a tweed jacket, freshly ironed dockers, and brown Rockport loafers with tassels. He had faint traces of sweet pipe tobacco scent on him like it was his signature cologne. Mark stopped dead in his tracks. Sam took a few more steps, not expecting to break stride, before stopping and turning

         "Dean Bradley." Mark said, sounding surprised, "How are you?"
         "I am doing well. And you?"
         "I am as well. Is there something I can do for you?" Mark asked.
         "Yes," he replied and then turning to Sam, "Run along to class young man, this doesn't concern you."
         Sam nodded and hurried off down the corridor.
         "A student of yours I take it?" Dean Bradley asked.
         "Yes, sir. He's one of my top students this semester."
         "Good to hear. What is his name?"
         "Sam Merchison."
         "Then perhaps I spoke too soon."
         "About this not concerning him."
         "Okay." Mark said, careful to neither confirm nor deny anything. The last thing he needed was to get caught in a lie with the dean.
         "I think we should speak in your office," Dean Bradley said.
         "Of course, sir."
         They seated themselves with Mark behind the desk and the dean in one of the guest chairs. The dean adjusted his lapels signaling he was ready to speak.
         "We received an anonymous, well, 'tip' seems like a poor choice of words, but I don't know what to call it, this morning."
         "What was the tip?"
         Dean Bradley pulled a folded piece of paper from his jacket pocket.
         "About you having an inappropriate relationship with a student. Sam Merchison, no less. The boy with whom you were just cheek to cheek talking in the hallway."
         "What claims did they make?" Mark asked, clearing his throat nervously.
         "That the two of you have been spending a lot of time together, outside the classroom. Then they say they saw you two, um," the dean cleared his throat, clearly uncomfortable with the topic, "kissing."
         "Now, tell me there is nothing to this. Parents of students get very itchy about these things."
         "I assure you no parents will be involved."
         "Then you did kiss him, 'passionately like a couple of teenagers,'" he said, reading from the piece of paper.
         Mark's shoulders slumped, "Yes."
         "Is this just a fling or are you two...involved?"
         "I assure you, sir, that any relationship I have with him will not in any way impact my treatment of him as a student. Anyone may check my grading of his work at any time."
         "And they will. I will. Personally."
         "I understand."
         "You are a bright young man, but we can't have professors kissing students. They are young and impressionable."
         "Sam is different."
         "They all are." Dean Bradley nodded sagely.
         "That is not what I mean. He is three weeks older than me. He spent nine years in the army, mostly stationed in Afghanistan and Iraq. He is not some pimply faced teenager right off the high school graduation stage. His parents are not in the picture. If anything, I'm the young impressionable one."
         The dean nodded, "That does make this slightly less horrifying."
         "I'm glad."
         "Now, you did not answer my previous question. Does this have the makings of a serious relationship or is this just a fling?"
         "He proposed to marry me."
         Dean Bradley was visibly surprised, "Did he now?"
         "You aren't a fool, you know exactly what I'm asking. I'm a nosey old man, if you haven't noticed."
         "That I'm not ready to marry anyone."
         "I see. Well, that's your choice of course, but the fact remains that he is a student. Before coming to any other conclusions, we would be having this same exact conversation if "Sam" was short for Samantha. If anything, it would be more fraught if it was a female student."
         "I'm sorry I put you in this position," Mark said, "I know I am in the wrong."
         "That is true," Dean Bradley continued, "But I understand the context better now, and he is an adult student, second career, so to speak. Given that, I am willing to review your grading now and at the end of the term to ensure proper grading practices. Assuming everything is above board, no more need be said about it."
         "Thank you!" Mark said, relief flooding his body.
         "Two more things."
         Mark listened intently.
         "Keep it under wraps while he's a student. It's just bad form. If we get additional complaints, we will need to revisit the situation. Second, please invite my wife and I to the wedding, should you change your mind. We would love to celebrate with you."
         "I will definitely do that. I cannot tell you how much I appreciate what you are doing for me. I understand that you are going out on a limb to protect me."
         "So, you said that Mr. Merchison is one of your brightest students this semester?"
         "Yes." Mark rifled around on his desk and showed the dean the short essay from the mid-term on the Protestant Reformation.
         The dean read it, "This is well reasoned and well written."
         Mark handed him a draft of Sam's research paper on the rise of capitalism in the 17th century Netherlands. The dean had similar comments about its quality.
         "I have other examples of his writing. I wanted to show you these because Sam does not have an A in my class because of our relationship. He has an A because his work is excellent."
         Dean Bradley smiled, "Good to know. I'll still do a more thorough review just in case the issue comes up again, but I do not expect anything else."
         "I'm relieved to hear that," Mark said, breathing for almost the first time since he saw the dean in the hallway.
         The dean stood, "I'm just happy that this was not a big deal. I was afraid it was worse - all I knew was that you were kissing a student in the street. Now I know better what was really happening."
         "Thank you, sir. I will be more careful."
         The dean left Mark's office and Mark was tempted to check his pants to make sure he hadn't wet himself. He'd never been so terrified. He tried to get his breathing back under control. That was too close. Yes, the dean was sympathetic, but if he got caught again they would have to 'revisit the issue.' Mark did not like the sound of that.

         Chapter 15
         Mark was sitting in his car after work wondering where to go. He was technically homeless on top of everything else. He watched the throngs of students, faculty, and staff going about their late afternoon activities.
         His phone buzzed in his pocket. He slid it out. It was a text from Aaron.
         It read, "I really miss you Mark. I don't want to wait until Saturday."
         "I can drive into the city. It's a bit late, but I could make it back at a reasonable hour," he responded.
         The phone rang. It was Aaron calling. Mark answered.
         "I had a better idea," came Aaron's response.
         "What's that?" Mark asked.
         "I hope this doesn't sound weird. I went back and forth and even asked my sister if it was okay."
         "What?" Mark asked, intrigued.
         "I'm at your office door. Chamberlayne Hall. You said you were a professor here. I borrowed a friend's car, drove to the campus, and asked a random stranger where your office was."
         "Are you serious?"
         "I hope that was okay. I know it was a bit forward." Aaron sounded unsure of himself.
         "A bit."
         "But, when I see something I want, I go for it. All the way."
         "You want me?" Mark said.
         "Yes. You are who I want, Mark Piper. Ever since I saw you in the bar, I knew you were special. I haven't been able to think about anything but you ever since. I tried to play it cool and wait until Saturday. Then yesterday I asked myself why I was torturing myself like that."
         "I'll be right there."
         "Where are you now?"

Mark ended the call without having answered the question. He sprinted from his car across the quad toward the front of Chamberlayne Hall. He bounded up the steps and went inside. Aaron was waiting by his office door. He stopped in his tracks. He was blown away that someone that good looking and intelligent and kind would be interested in him. Aaron was dressed in a simple black henley and jeans.

         "How have you been?" Aaron asked.
         "It's been busy. The semester speeds up as it gets towards the end. How's the world of aerospace engineering?"
         "It's fine. I've got some designs I've been working on." Aaron said, gently taking Mark's hand in his own.
         Mark looked down at his hand clasped in Aaron's. He looked up and smiled. The door at the end of the hallway opened. Sam came in and stopped. At first they didn't notice him. Then movement caught their eyes.
         "Sam?" Mark said, surprised, pulling away from Aaron.
         "From the bar, yes, I remember you," Aaron said, "Mark said you were at the same college."
         "Nevermind." Sam said, his heart sinking, fighting tears.
         "What's wrong?" Aaron asked, approaching Sam slowly, "You're upset about something."
         Sam looked angry.
         "I feel like I'm missing something," Aaron said, "Do you two need a moment? I can wait outside."
         "No." Sam replied flatly, "You want him, he's all yours."
         "Sam," Mark began but Sam turned and shoved the door open so hard it banged against the exterior doorstop.
         "Why is your friend so mad at you?" Aaron asked, "Is there more to your relationship than you let on? I thought you were just friends and colleagues."
         "We should talk," Mark said, fishing keys out of his pocket and unlocking his office door.
         "Uh-oh. That's never good."
         "In this case, I just need to confess and you can decide where we go from here."
         "Okay," Aaron agreed, "Now I'm more curious than scared."
         "You sit here," Mark said, motioning to his big leather desk chair while Mark took the guest chair.
         Aaron sat, looking as dashing as ever with the high backed leather chair and 6 foot tall window overlooking the grassy, tree-lined quad.
         "God, you're beautiful." Mark said, just marveling at the vision in front of him.
         Aaron smiled, "Not much of a confession, but I'll take it."
         Mark shook his head, "That's not it."
         "Are you and Sam an item?"
         "No. But we were."
         "An office romance," Aaron said, "Sounds nice and a bit dangerous."
         "The thing is," Mark drummed his fingers on the arm of the chair, "Sam is not a colleague, he's a student."
         Aaron was visibly surprised.
         "It's not like that, he's the same age as me. We started out as teacher/student then moved to friends and then we became involved. The dean was not happy when he found out, but he didn't blow a gasket. In fact, he asked to be invited to the wedding."
         "There isn't going to be one."
         "But there was?"
         "No. Sam proposed and I turned him down."
         "Whoa," Aaron said sitting back in the big office chair, "That's a lot."
         "I know. First things with Laura ended, then Sam, and now I have no idea what I'm doing. Sam's roommate, Amanda, called me a 'hot mess' straight to my face and she was 100% correct."
         "Why'd you turn him down?"
         "Aaron, I really like you." Mark let the comment hang in the air for a moment until Aaron caught on.
         "You turned him down because of me?" Aaron said, clearly shocked.
         Mark swallowed hard, "Yes. I think you and I could be very happy together."
         "I agree," Aaron said, a smile slowly spreading across his face. He looked celestial with the golden glow of sunset backlighting him through the window.
         "So, that's my confession. I broke up with my female fianc, got a marriage proposal from a male student, but I want you. If you'll have me."
         "Yes." Aaron replied without hesitation.
         Mark sighed a visible sigh of relief. Aaron leaned forward in the chair and put his hands on the desk, "So, it may be a while before I pop the question, but yes, I think I've made my intentions about you clear. They remain unchanged."
         "I am so glad!" Mark was suddenly giddy. There were no complications. Aaron was neither female nor a student. They could do whatever they wanted with each other and to each other. Mark's phone buzzed.
         "Do you need to get that?" Aaron asked, "It's okay if you do."
         Mark slid the phone out of his pocket.
         "It's a text from Laura."
         "She threw me out. The text was telling me which storage unit she put my stuff in."
         "Ouch. That's cold."
         "She's running off with some dumbass from Argentina, so who cares?" Mark said, putting his phone back in his pocket.
         "Amanda told me to cut Laura loose."
         "Wow. This Amanda person is very perceptive." Aaron laughed, "Is she the woman I met the same night as you? She was in a slinky black dress."
         "Yes, that's her. They took me to a friend of theirs in DC and he did a queer eye for the gay guy, I guess. I don't normally dress like that."
         "I like how you dressed on our date and how you are dressed now." Aaron said.
         Mark looked down at himself. He was wearing a white polo and khaki slacks, his normal teaching attire.
         "Thanks. I know I'm gay, but I'm not stylish at all." Mark commented.
         "You don't have to be anything but yourself around me," Aaron said, "I want to get to know the real Mark Piper."
         "I'm glad," Mark replied, "I'm looking forward to learning more about you. You fascinated me, Aaron Duran."
         "So, I have a suggestion." Aaron said, "How about this? Let's go out and get a bite to eat, my treat, swing by the storage place to pick up a few things and then we can go back to my place. We can spend the evening doing whatever we want. If you need to talk things out, good, if you want me to make you a few more top shelf cocktails and see where the evening takes us, even better."
         "Thank you."
         "You've had a rough time lately. Let me make it better for you." Aaron said.
         Mark fought tears of joy.

Chapter 16

Meanwhile, Sam stomped home fighting tears of a very different sort. He was hurt and angry and scared. He really, truly, hopelessly, desperately loved Mark Piper. It shredded him that Mark chose some random guy from a bar over him. After all they'd been through, this was what he got. He sat on the front steps of his home. He knew Amanda would be home from work soon. He didn't want to talk to anyone. He briefly considered the fact that there were train tracks nearby. He could go park on them, wait, and let the laws of physics do the rest. He decided against it. He'd put his heart, his soul, and his body out there for Mark in every way he knew how and he just wasn't good enough.

         Amanda drove up and saw him on the stoop.
         "Oh shit," she said, getting out of her car. She didn't even have to ask. She knew it was bad.
         Sam didn't say anything. She sat down next to her best friend and roommate. He put his head on her shoulder and the tears streamed down the navy blue professional pants suit she was wearing for her job as a loan officer at a bank.
         "I take it your apology didn't work."
         "I thought it had," Sam said, sniffling.
         "What do you mean?"
         "I went to him this morning and apologized. We kissed. He kissed me, Amanda; He made me think everything was going to be okay with us, but then I went to his office this evening to invite him to stay with me and I found him with that guy from the bar."
         "The middle eastern guy?"
         "Yeah. Aaron something or other."
         "Fuckin' hell." Amanda breathed.
         "I tried so hard. I worked so hard in his class to impress him. I took him out. I was his friend. I had sex with him. I wanted to marry him. After all that, I still wasn't good enough."
         "That's bullshit," Amanda said, pushing Sam off her shoulder. She grabbed his shoulders and turned him to face her directly, "Sam, listen to me. You are the most incredible, amazing human being I have ever met in my entire life. If you were straight, I don't want to think about the disreputable things I would do to you."
         "Thanks? I think?"
         "Shut-up and let me finish. Mark is a small minded idiot. If he didn't say yes and leap into your arms, then he is not good enough for you, not the other way around. You, Sam Merchison, deserve the best love story in the world and if Mark isn't the guy to give you that, then to hell with him."
         Amanda was so worked up her voice was quivering with emotional energy.
         "Ugh," Sam said.
         "What?" Amanda asked.
         "I just."
         "It'll take a while to get over him. I know that. But, you will. You will finish the class and never have to deal with that scrawny, pasty-faced bastard ever again. Besides, he was cheating on his fianc with you and then cheating on you with some guy he picked up in a bar. Seriously, Sam, you've got rose colored glasses on. This guy's a liar, a cheat, and a scuzzball. You're better off without him."
         Sam slumped, defeated.
         "C'mon," Amanda said, "Let's get you inside. I mean really, Sam, you are so much hotter than Mark. You could have your pick."
         "You're just saying that," Sam said.
         "Yes, but that doesn't make it untrue."
         "I guess."
         "You can't see it now because the wound is too fresh, but one day Mark will be a teeny, tiny dot in the rearview mirror of your amazing life. When you are standing at the altar across from the man of your dreams, you'll realize that Mark did you a favor and you dodged a bullet today."
         "You're pretty good and cheering up gay dudes."
         "It's a skill." she said.
         She chuckled.
         "What?" Sam asked.
         "What about me?"
         "You try to be all mister, I'm Sam, I was in the army, I'm a militantly homosexual activist but, at the end of the day, you're the fluffiest, gooiest girl I know."
         "I think Mark sensed that."
         "What do you mean?"
         "Can I tell you something?"
         "I guess."
         "When we had sex, there was something about him. He was determined to be on top. It was like I was some sort of mountain he was trying to climb and conquer."
         Amanda laughed, "You're edging into TMI territory."
         Sam stood up to go inside.
         "Well?" Amanda asked.
         "Well, what?" Sam asked.
         "Did he succeed? Did he...summit the mountain?"
         "Several times." Sam said with a grin.
         Amanda almost choked, "Well, I guess I misjudged him."
         "He may be a small minded idiot, but he's a surprisingly great lay." Sam said, "And thank you. I do feel a little better."
         As they walked into the home they shared, Amanda added, "Mark's a dom top. Who would have seen that? I guess it really is the quiet ones who are the real freaks. And I thought our bank getting robbed would be the most shocking part of my day."
         "What?" Sam said, "You were robbed?"
         She tossed her purse on the kitchen table, "Yeah. I'm a little late getting home because I had to give my statement to the police."
         "Geez. Amanda, how about we go somewhere tonight. I don't think either of us is up to cooking dinner or dealing with life right now."
         "Where'd you have in mind?"
         "I don't care. Let's just get in my car and drive away. We can be in Virginia Beach in two hours. Call in sick to work tomorrow, I'll ditch classes and we can spend the day at the beach."
         "Oh my God, Sam, that sounds great. There's this great bar there we can go to. You need to get your mind off of Mark."
         "I could go for a pretty distraction." Sam admitted.
         "Well, it turns out, you would be their pretty distraction."
         "Ha-ha," Sam said.
         Their good-natured bantering continued and Sam felt better already.

         Aaron was humming as they walked out of Chamberlayne Hall.
         "What song is that?" Mark asked, "It sounds familiar."
         "Don't Let the Light Go Out."
         "I think I've heard of it."
         Aaron started singing quietly, "Who's driving me home tonight? Who's gonna argue 'til they win the fight? You're the only one that knows how to operate my heavy machinery."
         "Heavy machinery, huh?" Mark said playfully hip checking Aaron.
         "See," Aaron said, "I'm putting a smile on your face already and we aren't even in the car yet."
         Mark was surprised. He was smiling already. Maybe the storm clouds were passing. He had a clear shot here and he wasn't going to waste it.

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