Written for the prompt(s): Your character runs into an old friend.
|Word count: 4,300
At the low, hesitant voice I looked up distractedly from arranging the coffee and donuts for the bi-weekly men’s meeting. “Yes? How may I—” and there I stopped, my mouth dropped open in pure shock. “Oh . . . my God, Jeff Gundersen?”
“Someone’s gotta be,” my old childhood friend said self-deprecatingly, smiling the same crooked, boyish smile twenty years had done little to change. I laughed and put down the box of donuts.
“Holy crow, it’s been so long!”
“Twenty years,” Jeff agreed, glancing down at his shoes for a few moments before removing one of his hands from his pockets and holding it out for shaking. I looked at the hand—large and work-roughened—took it, and shook it—before pulling a very surprised Jeff into a hug. But he went willingly, hugging me back tight. He smelled like sandalwood, old leather, and varnish, three scents that should’ve clashed, but on him were oddly nice . . . comforting, just like his hug.
“It’s been far too long, buddy,” I whispered against his shoulder, laughing again and near tears for some reason. I supposed it was only the shock of seeing one’s only friend throughout high school again for the first time after so long. “It’s been forever.”
“It really has,” Jeff whispered back, his voice gone rough. “And I know we didn’t part under the best of terms. . . .”
“Hey, now, you don’t have to dig that old news up,” I said quickly, remembering myself and letting him go with a manly punch to the arm. I avoided his eyes because I didn’t want to see the pity or whatever there was to see in them. I was blushing fiercely, and never so glad that it wouldn’t show up on my complexion. “I’m just—glad to see you.”
“Me, too,” he said in that rough voice, looking me over and smiling. His gaze was as warm and tangible as sunlight, and I had to fight not to bask, like I’d used to when we were just stupid kids. “God, you haven’t changed a bit since high school!”
I grinned. “Is that your Jeff-way of saying I’m still short, scrawny, and geeky? Because if so, fuck you very much.”
“No, no.” Jeff chuckled, running a hand through close-cropped salt-and-pepper hair. He looked, with his tan skin, aquiline features, and football player’s build, almost exactly like I remember his father looking. “That’s my Jeff-way of saying you still look like jailbait.” His gaze swept over me once more before he met my eyes again. “Time hasn’t touched you.”
“Yes, it has,” I said, still grinning and thinking about all the grey hairs, laugh lines, and crow’s feet. “But that’s sweet of you to say.”
And we stood there, grinning at each other and staring at each other. He looked . . . good. Tall and solid, dressed in blue jeans, a button down shirt, and a distressed leather jacket. On his feet were tan workboots that’d definitely seen work.
“So . . . whatre you doing here?” I asked finally when the silence had stretched out for over a minute. Jeff ran a hand over his hair and his brow furrowed.
“I, uh . . . got kinda sick of things in L.A. . . . figured it was time I come home,” he replied, almost evasively, and I filed that away for later consideration.
“No, I meant what are you doing here? At the LGBTQ Center?” I asked, waving a hand at the slowly filling room. Several people waved back at me and called out to me by name.
“Oh, that here,” Jeff’s smile turned a bit sheepish. “Yeah, I, uh, figured since I’m moving back here, I should try to connect with the community.” He paused, and then added: “With my community.”
Again, my mouth dropped open.
“You mean . . . your people as in . . . your people?” I asked, waving at the room once more. And Jeff turned red and nodded.
“As real as it gets,” he said softly, holding my gaze. “I’m gay, Krish.”
For once I—I—didn’t know what to say. Jeff saved me from having to speak, however, by going on.
“So, uh . . . do you, uh, run this group?”
“Whah? I mean—sort of. I’m a peer facilitator. That means I moderate the group, but answer to the higher ups at the Center.” I shook my head. “Jeez, Jeff. Jeez.”
“Yeah.” Jeff seemed mildly uncomfortable and wasn’t meeting my eyes. I kicked myself, then took his arm and lead him to the ring of seats.
“It’s a pretty easy-going group, very friendly,” I said in an effort to put him at ease and change the subject slightly. “Everyone’ll be your best friend in a matter of minutes, and wanna know all your business immediately.”
Jeff laughed a little. “I think they’ll be disappointed. There’s not much to tell.”
“Somehow,” I murmured as Jeff chose a seat and gestured for me to sit next to him, “somehow, I doubt that.”
“So . . . peer facilitator,” Jeff said as we crossed the parking lot behind the Center. He’d stayed afterwards to help me clean and straighten up for the night, when group had ended. “How does one become a peer facilitator at the LGBTQ Center?”
“Angling for a job? Better not be for mine,” I said mildly as I dug my keys out of my pocket.
“Are you kidding? I couldn’t do what you do. I’m not good with . . . people.” Jeff laughed a little before going on. “I was just wondering.”
We reached my Acura and I stopped, Jeff stopping with me. He was smiling a small, earnest smile and watching me steadily. I felt myself blushing once more and looked away. It was like being sixteen all over again.
And it was that feeling that I tried ruthlessly to quash. I’d been sixteen, once, and that was enough. Feeling the feelings Jeff stirred in me had, once upon a time, gotten me nowhere I needed to be. I’d survived it, two years of Hell, after his . . . betrayal. But that didn’t mean I wanted to revisit that place.
I shook my head and pulled out my most practiced smile. “I and a few others advocated and fought like hell to get the Center off the ground. Once it was up and running, of course, I lost interest in the whole being-a-founding-member. I’m one of those queers. Always up for a fight, never resting on laurels won. But when they asked me to run the men’s group as a peer leader, I couldn’t say no. It was exactly the kind of group I could’ve used when I was younger.”
“Yeah,” Jeff said smiling ruefully. “It’s not like you had a friend you could actually trust with your troubles. You just had, well, me. And look at how that turned out.”
“Jeff—the past is past. Let it be,” I said, reaching out and putting a hand on his arm. He flinched and pulled away, and though I hid it, I was stung. But not surprised. Pulling away from me had always been his M.O. “It’s over and done with.”
“No, it’s not,” Jeff sighed, looking down at the ground between us. “What I did to you was nothing less than a betrayal. Judas-scale betrayal.” My eyes widened at hearing my own word for what Jeff had done come out of his mouth. “You trusted me with a secret that I should’ve taken to my grave, if that’s what you wanted. Trusted me with that, and your heart, and . . . I was unworthy of that trust. And of your heart.”
I frowned, wanting to reach out again but wary of another rejection. “Jeff, it was a long time ago—we were just kids—”
“But old enough to know the difference between loyalty and betrayal. Old enough to know what honor was and when we’d lost it.” Jeff looked up at me and I was stunned to see tears standing out in his ice-blue eyes. “You trusted me and I threw you to the wolves, Krishnan. All because I was afraid of my own sexuality and what I felt for you, and what it all meant. I threw you and myself under the bus to be in with the cool crowd for a few brief months till that all went to Hell and they turned on me. And the bitch of it was that I didn’t have a friend in the world, it was all my own fault, and I knew that. I knew it before it even happened that I’d regret rejecting you, regret outing you, and regret never telling you that . . . from the moment I opened my mouth, I was so sorry about what I did. I still am. And I will never stop being sorry for hurting you. For making your last two years in high school a friendless, ostracized nightmare. I am so, so sorry.”
I blinked when he finished speaking and tears ran down my face. I was quick to wipe them away, but more took their place instantly.
“I—I—” I stammered, sniffling and turning to face my car. “I don’t know what to say . . . you didn’t have to—”
“I did, Krish. I really did. What I did was . . . unforgivable.” Jeff’s voice was bitter and broken, and when his hand landed on my right shoulder it was shaking just a little. “All these years I’ve wished I could go back to the afternoon you told me you were gay—and that you had feelings for me. If I could go back, I’d go right back to that moment, when you were standing there, so scared you were practically trembling, but you were so determined! So brave! And you said: Jeff, I’m gay. And I really like you. Like-like you. And I have since junior high. I was wondering if it’s possible that you might like-like me, too.”
“And I’d say, yes, Krish, I do like you. Like-like you. More than just about anything. I always will. You’re my favorite person in the world . . . and then I’d kiss you. And you’d kiss me back. And the past twenty years—”
I moaned, jamming my keys back in my pocket and burying my face in my hands, just as Jeff’s left hand landed on my left shoulder and he turned me around. “Oh, God, Jeff—”
“—the past twenty years would’ve, I think, been a lot different,” he finished softly, sadly. And that just—did me in. I started weeping in earnest, there in the parking lot behind the Center, where anyone could see us. Jeff, for his part, pulled me into his arms and held me close, one hand soothing up and down my back, the other settled against the small. He rested his chin on the top of my head and laughed, still somewhat ruefully.
“I didn’t picture it like this, you know? The Grand Apology.” He sighed again. “In my fantasy you were a lot angrier.”
“I got over being angry a long time ago, Jeff,” I sniffled into his shoulder. He smelled really good, which for some reason only made me tear-up more. “I knew you weren’t trying to hurt me, even though you did.”
“I was trying so hard to be straight. To fit in. To be what everyone thought I should be. You were just a casualty of the war between the two halves of myself. Or at least that’s what I told myself when I couldn’t sleep nights for thinking about you and missing you so much it felt like my heart’d just up and seize in my chest.”
“God, don’t—don’t say that, Jeff. Don’t—” make me dig up feelings I thought I’d buried deep twenty years ago.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry, Krish. I didn’t mean to—” Jeff leaned back to look at me, his eyes still shiny and more remorseful than any eyes I’ve ever seen. “I told myself that I’d just apologize—try to make amends for the way I’d treated you. That I wouldn’t ask for anything: not forgiveness, not a second chance, nothing. That this wasn’t about me, but about you.” A bitter snort. “Looks like that’s going according to plan.”
I wiped my face as Jeff shook his head—more of that self-recrimination, so startling and worrying in one so naturally stoic and staid—and tried to smile. “You have no idea how much what you’ve said means to me, Jeff. No idea. I’m not crying because you’ve hurt me more, but because you’ve given me catharsis I didn’t even know I needed.” A laugh escaped me on a breath that felt freer than any I’d ever taken. “Besides which, I kinda got back something I’d lost a long time ago and never thought I’d have again: my best friend.”
Jeff searched my eyes and finally, after long moments had passed, smiled just a little. “Ain’t no kinda about it, Krish. I’m yours, if you want me. However you want me.”
My laugh cut off at the strange, rough note in his voice and my brow furrowed in confusion. “However I want you? Jeff—Jesus, Jeff, what does that even mean?” I asked, and Jeff blushed—actually blushed, and that was all the answer I needed.
“It means whatever you want it to mean, Krish,” he said evasively, once more, and started to look away. To turn away, but I stopped him with one hand on his shoulder and the other coming up to cup his face and turn it back toward mine. He wouldn’t meet my eyes and that made me suddenly angrier and sadder than I’d been in a long time.
“Tell me what you mean, Jeff! For once in your life, be honest with me while it might still do us some good!” I whispered, half-angrily, half-desperately. And Jeff finally met my eyes, his own desperate, too, and determined. Then he was leaning close to me, his arms sliding back around my waist to pull me even closer, till all I could see was the ice-blue of his eyes.
“I—” he started when our faces were barely an inch apart. Then my eyes were slipping shut as his lips brushed mine so timidly. Making a noise in my throat that may have been a stifled laugh, I surged up into the kiss, wrapping my arms around Jeff’s neck to do so. He mmphed and held me tighter, pulling me flush against him and taking command of the kiss.
“You’re . . . awfully good at this,” I panted on his lips when he let me up for air some time later. Jeff chuckled, nuzzling my cheek.
“Thanks. You’re not too bad, yourself,” he breathed, then laughed outright. “Hell, you’re amazing. And not just because I’ve been wanting to do that since I was twelve.”
I looked up into his eyes and smiled. “Twelve, huh? I’ve got you beat by a year at least. On my eleventh birthday, when I blew out my candles, I wished that you’d be my boyfriend when we grew up.”
“Well, we’re grown up, now.” Jeff leaned in and stole another kiss—a brief sizzler that left my knees even weaker than they had been. “And at the risk of being too forward, too fast, if you don’t have a boyfriend . . . I’d like to volunteer.”
My heart skipped successive beats, even as the bottom dropped out of my stomach. “Jeff—”
“Please don’t tell me you have a boyfriend,” he whispered, in a rush, kissing me again, as if storing the sensation against never being able to do it again. I felt a sudden flush of guilt—though no regret. “Please don’t.”
“I . . . I have a husband,” I whispered back and sighed as Jeff made a choked sound. “We’re separated—have been for nearly six months. He . . . made some poor personal choices and I’ve been trying to get past them, to very limited success. We’ve been in counseling trying to resolve our issues, but . . . it’s not going as well as either of us had hoped.” I stepped back, out of Jeff’s arms, and he let me go, though reluctantly. The look on his face was as lost and hurt as any I’ve ever seen.
“Do you—do you still want your marriage to work?” he asked, his own brow furrowing, now. I looked away, searching for an answer that’d eluded me for six months.
“I . . . don’t know.” I took a deep breath and looked Jeff in the eyes again. “I know that I promised him for better or worse, and I sincerely meant it. That given time, the broken trust between us could be repaired and we could maybe even be happy again. The problem is . . . I don’t know that I want to hold to that vow. Part of me is so angry. It’s insisting that since he broke a vow—fidelity—then I can break one, too: constancy. I don’t know if that’s a self-destructive desire for vengeance speaking or if I really and truly fell out of love with him when he finally came clean to me. About fucking, of all people, his best man at our wedding.”
“Jesus, Krish.” Jeff ran a hand over his hair and I wrapped my arms around myself, suddenly chilly for the lack of his arms around me. In the distance a car alarm went off, startling us both. “Jesus,” Jeff said again after the alarm cut off.
I shrugged defensively. “They were screwing around even before we got married. I don’t even know why he bothered saying ‘I do.’”
“Because he loved you,” Jeff said softly. “Because he couldn’t imagine the rest of his life without you.”
I snorted. “If that’s the case, then why cheat?”
“Because he’s a man, and men, in case you haven’t realized it yet, can be remarkably stupid, and self-destructive, like you said.” Jeff barked a short, bitter laugh.
“But . . . how could he so completely betray me and still claim to love me?” I demanded, unwillingly thinking of my erstwhile husband, as he’d looked when he’d confessed to me, two years after the affair was over, looking haggard and unhappy. Harried by his own secrets.
“Speaking as someone who once betrayed you, I can honestly say it’s a matter of getting priorities screwed up, for whatever reason,” Jeff said plainly, and I was the one to flinch, this time. “Something came along—in his case, the best man—that seemed like a good idea, something to be desired as much as he desired a life with you. And he gave in. And it was the worst mistake of his life, I guarantee you that. In telling you, he probably hoped that he could wipe the slate clean. Be honest and start over with no lies between you. That the two of you could finally have the life you always should have.”
I blinked, more tears falling from my eyes. Angry ones.
“I wish he’d kept his mouth shut,” fell from my lips, unbidden, and Jeff reached out and brushed my tears away. This time, they stayed gone. “I wish he’d just suffered in silence.”
“Unfortunately, that only works for so long,” Jeff said wryly. “If it goes unaddressed it can poison every relationship you have. Believe me: it’s for the best that he came clean. And better sooner rather than later.”
I didn’t know whether or not I agreed with that, and we stood there in silence for several minutes. Finally, Jeff spoke, hesitant and low.
“If and when you ever need someone to talk to about anything,” he said, digging in his pocket with his other hand. He came out with a fancy black business card, which I took when he offered it to me. It had his name, phone number, address, and email in silvery Copperplate, as well as: Jeff A. Gundersen, Consultant. “Or if you ever wanna be wined and dined and entertained . . . gimme a call or just stop by. I can promise that unless I’m dealing with an absolute catastrophe, I’ll always be glad to put whatever it is on the backburner for you.”
I gazed up into Jeff’s eyes and he smiled—more of a grimace, really—as I tucked the card into my left shirt pocket.
“Why’re you being so kind to me?” I asked him, confused and feeling guilty once more. Here, I’d—sort of—lead him on, only to drop the H-bomb on him, and all my stupid marriage woes, and he was offering me a shoulder to cry on. Or anything I wanted, really. “And don’t say it’s just you making amends for twenty years ago, ‘cause I’m not buying that.”
Jeff smiled for real, this time. “I’m being so kind because you deserve kindness. You deserve more than that. And because even though I haven’t seen you in eighteen years, I still love you like I just saw you yesterday. I always have, and I probably always will.”
Flushed enough that it probably did show up on my complexion, I looked down at the ground between our feet.
“Do you still love your husband?” Jeff asked gently, and I shrugged, like a sullen teenager. I could see Steven’s face on the backs of my eyelids every time I blinked. See him smile or laugh, or the silly faces he pulled just to make me smile or laugh. . . .
I could see the defeated slump of his shoulders that’d only been there since he told me about the affair. The way he accepted every recrimination and insult I hurled at him—and accepted it in stoic silence, as if he didn’t deserve any better.
And maybe he didn’t.
I didn’t even know anymore.
But what I did know was that I was tired of being miserable and making him suffer because of it. I was tired of keeping him dangling by the hope of reconciliation and using that hope to hurt him. Because doing so never made me feel any better, only worse.
Jeff sighed and I looked up at him. He was smiling wryly once more, and staring at the spot over my left shoulder. “I take it that’s a yes.”
“It’s . . . an I don’t know,” I admitted lowly, trying to catch his eyes. I gave it up as a bad job after nearly a minute. “I don’t know what I feel anymore. But I know I don’t want to hurt you.”
Laughing a little, Jeff finally met my eyes. “Maybe—and I can’t believe I’m saying this—but maybe it’s time you had a talk with your husband. A real talk—no marriage counselor, just the two of you, being honest with each other.”
“I don’t know that I can do that, anymore, Jeff.” I shook my head and spread my hands. “I don’t know that I can trust him enough to let my guard down.”
“Maybe you should try, anyway,” Jeff said simply. “If only so you’re not in Purgatory, getting eaten alive by bitterness and regret. Don’t do what I did and let pride throw away the life you could have with him, if that’s what you want.” He searched my eyes again. “Don’t let pride and fear and bloody-mindedness cost you another moment of happiness, or you’ll only have yourself to blame. And that blame makes a cold companion most nights.”
I blinked, and tears ran down my face. Jeff reached out to wipe them away but I took a step back and wiped my own eyes. Then I turned away from Jeff, fumbling in my pocket for my keys. “I have to go, now,” I mumbled, my face heating, and Jeff grunted.
“I thought you might.”
It was ten o’clock, and I’d been sitting in my car, across the street from Steven’s apartment building for the past two hours, waiting for my head to clear. For what I wanted to become clear.
It still hadn’t, when, chilly and cramped, I got out of the car and approached the building like Doc Holliday walking toward his final showdown.
It was a three-floor walk-up, and Steven had been renting an apartment on the second floor. The stairs were on the outside of the building and I climbed slowly, the fall breeze ruffling my hair and my windbreaker. When I got to the third floor, I went to number 2D and, taking a deep breath, my mind utterly blank, I knocked.
A minute later, the door opened and there stood Steven, looking pretty gobsmacked. In that moment, I noticed for the first time that he looked, superficially, like Jeff. A shorter, less built, softer-featured, less well-dressed version of Jeff.
“Krish,” he said, smiling his tentative, hopeful smile and leaning on the door. This smile was nothing like the big, bright ones he used to bestow on me, back before his confession, when we were happy because I lived in ignorant bliss. “God—what’re you doing here?”
I opened my mouth, uncertain of what would come out, and found myself smiling a little. I was, cautiously, glad to see Steven. It felt as if I hadn’t seen him in months, really.
I supposed, when all was said and done, I hadn’t.
“We need to talk,” I replied and Steven blinked and nodded, and stepped aside, inviting me in.