Now That You're Here - The College Years
David pulled his car into the parking lot of the center and killed the engine. He still didn’t know if going to Aiden was going to be able to help, but he really didn’t have many options, so when Zander suggested he talk to Aiden, he figured this place was as good as any to start. Glancing at his phone, he saw that he still had fifteen minutes until his appointment time, so he sat in the car and thought about his mother. She was a little upset when David wouldn’t show them his apartment after dinner the night before, but he still wasn’t sure what he was going to tell them about Grant. Instead he told his mother that he hadn’t cleaned up the apartment and they would have plenty of time to see it before their flight on Sunday. She gave him a look that said she didn’t believe a word he said, probably because David was a bit of a neat freak, but she didn’t push. Luckily Donald had scheduled a golf game for that afternoon with a business associate of his, so he didn’t have to see them until dinner. It gave him time to speak with Aiden before he was forced to make introductions. They were ordering take out and eating at the apartment.
At 11:25 am, David got out of the car and walked into the center. He wasn’t sure which way to go, but luckily Aiden had heard the door open and greeted him almost immediately.
“Hi David, how are you?”
“I’m good, how are you? Thanks for meeting with me. I’m in a bit of a situation and I’m hoping you might be able to help,” David explained.
“Well come into my office so you can tell me what’s going on. I don’t know how much help I’ll be, but I’ll do what I can.”
David followed Aiden into his office and took a seat. “So, a few weeks ago I had a run in with some hustlers from over on Washington Ave.”
“Really? I was just telling Grayson yesterday that I did, too. I was stopped at a red light and this kid, he couldn’t have been more than sixteen, propositioned me. I was shocked. I gave him whatever cash I had in my wallet, and offered to get him some help, but he refused,” Aiden replied.
“Yeah, well my run in was a bit different.” David explained that Grant was being beaten up by the other kids and he had to scare them away. “I don’t want to think about what would have happened if I hadn’t shown up. They were really laying into him.”
“Scary, isn’t it? I’m glad they ran away. That could have turned out really bad for both of you. Were you able to talk the kid into getting some help?”
“Kind of,” David chuckled. “He’s been living in my spare room.”
“Um…okay. That’s not what I was expecting.”
“Trust me, when I planned to spend my summer in Arizona, taking in a teenage hustler wasn’t exactly what I was expecting, either.” David chuckled. “And now I’m in over my head. He refuses to try reaching out to his father again, like I suggested. He’s never going to let me call Social Services, and if I did it behind his back, I doubt it would do any good. Unless they lock him up in some kind of detention center, which he doesn’t need, he’s just going to run away. He thinks he’s old enough to take care of himself. And I’m only here for the summer. Even if I wanted to keep him with me, what do I do in August? Take him to El Paso with me? That’s not an option. I don’t know what to do. I was hoping that maybe there was some kind of program that you know of that helps boys like this.”
“I wish,” Aiden sighed. “I’ve been trying to build up the center to include a youth shelter since it opened, but most of our funding comes from a nice older couple that I know from my past. They can’t do more than they’ve been doing, which I’m not complaining about. They helped open this place and we’ve done a lot of good here. I just really want to do more. I go to the township every year to try and raise more money, but not everyone is willing to dish out the funds we need for an LGBT center. I’m working on a proposal now, but it won’t bring in the kind of money we need to open up a shelter for teens with nowhere to go. I can talk to some of the volunteers we have here. Maybe one of them would be willing to foster Grant. The authorities would have to get involved, but he wouldn’t have to go to a group home.”
“Well, how much do you need?”
“How much do I need for what?” Aiden asked.
“How much would you have to raise to build some kind of shelter so that kids with nowhere to go have options other than the street?”
“Oh, I don’t even know. More than I can get from the township. Chris did a fundraiser for us a few months back, which definitely increased our budget, but not nearly enough.”
“How does $500,000 sound? Would that get things off the ground?” David’s wheels were turning. “Hang on, I have my checkbook in the car.”
Aiden was speechless as he watched David walk out the door. He didn’t understand what was happening. Why was David going to get his checkbook? He wasn’t…he couldn’t…
David walked back into the office a few minutes later with his checkbook in his hand. He reached for a pen that was sitting on Aiden’s desk and wrote out a check before handing it over to Aiden. “Here you go. Of course this isn’t going to help Grant, so if you can talk to your volunteers, that would be great. I was thinking of trying to get in touch with his father. Do you think that’s a good idea? Aiden?”
Aiden was still staring at the check in his hand when he realized David was calling his name. “I’m sorry, what is this?”
David laughed. “It’s a check. Isn’t that what you needed?”
“David, you can’t just write me a check for 500,000 dollars,” Aiden told him.
“Yes I can. It’s no big deal.”
“It’s no big deal?”
Before David could reply, Zander walked in. “Hey David, what are you doing here?”
“Hey Zan,” David replied as he got up and greeted the older man with a hug. “I came to talk to Aiden about Grant.”
“Oh yeah, you still haven’t found a
solution, huh? I’m glad you took my advice and came to Aiden. He’s probably your
“He mentioned that maybe one of his volunteers could foster him,” David explained.
“Really?” Zander turned his attention to Aiden, who hadn’t said a word since he walked in. “Who were you thinking of asking?”
“Huh?” Aiden hadn’t heard a word Zander said. “David, I really can’t take this?”
“Take what?” Zander asked.
“It’s no big deal.” David sighed. “Aiden said he was trying to raise money to expand, and open a youth shelter, so I made a donation.”
“David, a donation is dropping off a hundred bucks. Maybe two…this is funding the shelter!” Aiden exclaimed. He handed the check to Zander.
Zander looked down at the check and smiled. He could understand why Aiden was looking so shell shocked. He looked back at David. “This is very generous of you. Are you sure?”
“Of course I am,” David assured him.
“Well then, on behalf of the Christian Young Center, let me say thank you. A gift like this can do so much for the community. Hey, why don’t you bring Grant by sometime? Maybe he could connect with some of the kids that hang here. Don’t you think, Aid?”
“Um, sure,” Aiden muttered. He was trying to wrap his head around what just happened. “Sorry, yeah. Why don’t you bring Grant by tomorrow morning? We’re having our monthly softball game. There will be people of all ages here. Maybe he could make a friend or two. Plus, my volunteers will be here, too. I have two people in mind who might be willing to help. I’ll speak with them tonight and see what I can do. If either one of them is interested, we can make the introduction at the game.”
“That would be great. Thank you so much. I’ll see you tomorrow.” David reached across the desk to shake Aiden’s hand, and then looked back at Zander. “How’s Chris feeling?”
“He’s almost as good as new. Very cranky though. He’s still not allowed to drive so he feels trapped in the house.”
“I don’t blame him; I’d be cranky too. I only like hanging around the house when it’s my choice. I wouldn’t want to be ordered to stay in,” David said. “Listen, my parents are in town until Sunday but maybe we could get together Sunday night. Grab dinner or something? We haven’t seen Chris since the hospital, and I know Matt has been wanting to stop by.”
“That sounds good. Chris would never object to leaving the house. I could probably take him for a root canal without any objections.” Zander laughed. “You or Matt call me later in the week and we’ll make a plan.”
“Cool,” David gave Zander a hug. “I’ll talk to you soon. Later guys.”
Aiden watched David walk away before turning his attention to Zander. “What just happened here?”
“I believe you just got the funding for your project,” Zander smirked.
“But…he can’t…is this for real?”
“Of course it’s for real. If I were you, I would go deposit the check right now. It’s too large to leave laying around.” Zander could still see the confusion on Aiden’s face. “Why do you look so confused? I believe I once mentioned that David had money. Remember the trip to the supermarket?”
“Zan, spending a couple hundred dollars on food isn’t quite the same as writing a check like this. I didn’t even ask him for a donation. I was just telling him that we didn’t have the funding for a shelter. That’s why we can’t help Grant.”
“That trip to the supermarket cost more than a couple hundred dollars,” Zan assured him. “Look, you didn’t have to ask for a donation. David is one of the nicest people I have ever met, and he’s definitely a do-gooder. He saw a need and wants to help. His family is one of the richest in the country. Writing a $500,000 check to help people in need is really no big deal to him.”
“I just…I don’t even know what to say.”
“You said thank you, well I said thank you for all of us, and you’re going to try helping Grant. That’s all David needs. Trust me, you never get used to knowing someone like David Jackson, but you’ll learn to just go with the flow eventually. Now why don’t you run to the bank? I have an appointment coming in soon and I’m not the slightest bit prepared. I have to say, as much as I hate being away from Chris all day while he’s recovering, I’m really happy to be back,” Zander admitted. “I didn’t know how much I was going to miss everyone while I was gone.”
“Yeah, this place…helping people. It becomes very addictive. Right before we first opened, I had so many days where I didn’t even bother getting out of bed. I was so deep in my depression; I didn’t see the point of getting up. Then suddenly I had somewhere to go, people who needed me. If not for the center, I’d probably still be hiding in bed. This place gave me a purpose when I needed it most. And now, thanks to David, we’re going to be able to help so many more. I hope you’re ready, because this check that was written so easily is going to be very hard work.”
“I’m ready for it,” Zander assured him. “It looks like my selling the store to Steve is happening at the right time.”
“So you talked to him?” Aiden knew he was considering it.
“Yeah, he seemed very touched that I would do this for him and thrilled with the opportunity. I can’t expect him to just run my business for me for the long haul, I can’t juggle both the store and here, and there is no way I’m giving up the center. This place has given me so much in the short time I’ve been working here. I wake up every morning looking forward to my day and end every night feeling blessed that I can make a difference in people’s lives. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to repay you for taking me in and guiding me.”
“Hey, there’s no need to thank me. You’re doing a great job, and Grayson and I really needed the help. You actually did us a favor. And now, with the check David just gave us, we are going to be doing some major expanding. Not only can we open the shelter, but we can also open a day care center for working parents and a food pantry. I have big plans for this place.”
“I can’t wait.” And he couldn’t wait. Zander had so many doubts when he decided to take the leap to the center, but it was the best thing he had ever done. He was truly happy.
Brian walked into the bookstore on Tuesday morning, ready to start his day. He and Justin had gone away from everything and it was exactly what he needed. The stress of Chris’ diagnosis and surgery had him really freaking out. He had refused to start back at the store for the summer until his brother was better, and he had spent the last two weeks hovering and driving Chris crazy. He needed the last couple days to stop thinking and just spend time with his favorite blond. Now that they were back, it was time to get back to work. He walked in with a huge smile on his face.
“Hey buddy, how’s it going? How was your trip?” Steve asked as soon as he saw Brian walk in.
“It was really good. We may have only been a few towns away, but it was nice to get away from everything and forget all the crap that’s been going on,” Brian replied. “What’s been going on with you? I feel like I haven’t seen you in ages. I guess that’ll change now that I’m back to work. I like that you’re running the place these days. It’ll give us more time to hang out.”
“Um…Bri, have you talked to Zander since you got back?”
“No, Justin and I got in really late last night and he was gone when I woke up this morning. Why, what’s up?”
“He’s selling me the store,” Steve replied. He wasn’t exactly sure how his friend was going to feel about the sale. Brian didn’t seem to want to take over the business. He wanted to stay in school and get his degree, but he was family. He didn’t want his friend to think he should have been considered first. He’d been working for Zan since he was fourteen.
“Really? That’s amazing!” Brian explained.
“It is? Are you sure?” Steve asked. “I didn’t know if you’d be upset. I mean…did he tell you he was going to make an offer? Oh, did he ask you first and you refused?”
“Why would he ask me first? Steve, I know Zan loves me like a brother, but he’s not going to give me his business…his baby, out of some kind of obligation. I have no desire to run this place and I never will. I wouldn’t even know how. If he’s ready to sell, you’re the best choice.”
“Thanks,” Steve smiled. “I’m so excited! I’m still planning on staying in school until I get getting my degree, but I finally feel like I have a career, you know? A future. I’ll have a way to support a family.”
“Do you have a particular family in mind?” Brian teased. He knew his friend was falling head over heels for the single mom he was dating, and he couldn’t be happier for his friend.”
“Oh shut up, you!” Steve shoved Brian playfully.
Brian laughed. “So, I guess this really makes you my boss now.”
“Yeah, I guess it does. You don’t have an issue with that, do you? I wouldn’t take it personally if you wanted to give notice and look for something else.”
“Why would I do that? I’ve been working here for five years, more to help Zan than for the desire to have a job,” Brian laughed. “Now I’ll stay on to help you. I know I do a good job so I can’t see why our friendship would interfere in anything. It’s not like I’m going to slack off because you’re my boss.”
“No, that’s not in your nature.”
“So we’re good,” Brian assured him. “Now what’s first on the agenda for today, Boss?”
“Actually, we got a huge delivery in the back so we’re going to be very busy today.”
“Ugh, I was afraid you were going to say that.” Brian made a face as he headed towards the back. He still hated working on delivery days.
Eric sat down opposite Zander and took a deep breath. When he had spoken to the older man the day before and set up a time to stop by the center to talk, he was ready to start baring his soul, but now that he was there, he was having second thoughts
“Thanks for coming to my office. I guess this technically isn’t a work situation. I agreed to talk to you as a favor to you and your brother, not in an official capacity, but I figured we’d be more comfortable here. And besides, you’ve been to my house. There’s not a lot of privacy there,” Zan chuckled.
“No there’s not,” Eric agreed with a smile. “I don’t know. Now that I’m here, I’m wondering if this is the right thing for me.”
“Look Eric, I get it. A lot of people have issues with therapy. They don’t want to talk to strangers, or they don’t want to seem like they’re whining. Sometimes they think they can handle things on their own. The thing is, talking about what’s going on in your head really does help. Sometimes you just need to know someone is listening. Sometimes it’s just a matter of talking out loud and hearing your thoughts played back to you. How about if you just start telling me what’s been going on and we’ll see what happens. If, at the end of our hour, you feel like you don’t need to come back, great. It’ll be a one and done. Okay?”
“Yeah, okay. I think I know that I need to be here. I just don’t really like talking about my past. It was pretty rough for a while and I’m kind of ashamed that I let myself get into the position I was in,” Eric admitted.
“What position is that?”
Eric hesitated before responding. “I was in an abusive relationship.”
“I see. You know, Eric, even though it’s a little rarer, there are plenty of men who are being abused by their wives or girlfriends. It’s nothing to be ashamed of,” Zan assured him. He had actually done a paper on the effects of men being abused by women in relationships while he was in college. Most men believe they are the dominate sex in the relationship so being abused by a female makes them feel ashamed and weak.
“I wasn’t being abused by my girlfriend. I was being abused by my boyfriend. I was involved with another man,” Eric admitted.
Zander stared at Eric for a moment, unable to respond. Eric was gay? “Oh, okay. I’m sorry, I just assumed. Did I miss something? I don’t think…did I know you were gay?”
Eric laughed. “I’m not…or I wasn’t. I don’t know. I was never attracted to a man before I met Cooper. Never. He was a bartender in a restaurant. I went in there looking for a job, and wow. It was like I was hit with a ton of bricks. I was so blown away by him. It kind of scared me at first, you know? Obviously, I have absolutely no issues with people being gay, you know that. But suddenly here was this guy causing me to feel things I’ve never felt before when looking at another man. It was really confusing.”
Zan offered a sympathetic look. “I’m sure it was. What did you do?”
“I freaked out,” Eric chuckled. “I spent two weeks thinking I was losing my mind. I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep. I would wake up in the middle of the night in a sweat, thinking about his amazing blue eyes and perfect body. It was just so overwhelming. Then one night after my shift, I decided to sit at the bar and have a few drinks. It was Cooper’s night off, so I thought I was safe. He showed up once I was three drinks in and I don’t know. He sat down next to me and ordered a drink for himself and one for me. I guess he sensed that something was wrong with me, but he didn’t push. He just sat with me while I drank way too much. I got so drunk that he had to help me home. One thing led to another and suddenly we were living together and playing house. It all happened so fast.”
“How did you feel about it?” Zan asked. “I mean, I’m sure you were happy, otherwise you wouldn’t have moved in with him. But how did you feel being with a man. Did you ever have any doubts? Was there any hesitation when it came to being with him intimately?”
Eric smiled. “You’d think, wouldn’t you? But no, I had no hesitation whatsoever. Our sex life was hot and heavy from day one. Coop actually asked me about it once. We had been together for about two weeks at that point, and he asked me if I had any doubts. He was openly bi-sexual and seemed intrigued by the fact that I was never attracted to a man before him. I think he was worried that my attraction to him was a novelty. Like I was bi-curious, but after a few weeks of being with him, I was going to want to go back to women. I did my best to assure him that I was falling for him, and our sex life was very satisfying to me. I didn’t feel like I was missing anything by not being with a woman. I remember being confused by his questions because I could have said the same thing to him. Before me, he was with a woman for several years. I never questioned his decision on choosing me over a woman. He eventually dropped the subject, but I don’t think he ever fully believed me.”
“What makes you say that?”
“There were times when we would be out in public, and he would point out different women and ask me what I thought about them. He’d ask if I thought they had a hot ass or a nice rack. His questions always made me feel uncomfortable. It was like he wanted me to say yes so he could prove that I felt I was missing out by being with him.”
Zander jotted down some notes as he listened to Eric talk. “And did you ever feel like you were missing out? Was there ever a time where you felt like maybe you wanted a woman in your life? Anything that he might have picked up on?”
“No, never. I’m telling you Zander, from the moment I laid eyes on Cooper, he was all I ever wanted,” Eric assured him.
“Okay, so when did things start to change? I’m guessing the abuse didn’t start at the beginning so how long had you been together before you first saw his violent side.”
Eric tried to think back. “It was probably about six months after we moved in together. He had taken a day off to take his mother to some doctor appointments. She was starting to have some health issues and he was worried about her. I was working the lunch shift that day, but my replacement was running late so I couldn’t leave on time. I was going to send Coop a text, but I was so busy trying to change the kitchen over from lunch to dinner that I didn’t get a chance. I got home around 6:00 and found him sitting alone in the dark. When I turned on the light, I saw this angry look in his eyes. Then he started speaking to me in an icy tone, telling me that he knew I didn’t love him, and I just proved it. I remember thinking that his behavior was so crazy that it had to be a joke. I think I chuckled or something, I don’t remember, and he suddenly backhanded me across the face so hard I tasted blood.”
Zander could see the pain in Eric’s eyes and gave him a moment. “What did you do?”
“I know what you’re thinking. Why didn’t I hit him back? I could have put an end to it right then and there if I had defended myself.”
“No Eric, that’s not what I’m thinking. There’s no judgment here. I’m just trying to understand what was going on in your head at that time.”
“It’s what I’m thinking,” Eric exhaled. “If I had fought back that first time, maybe he wouldn’t have thought he could get away with hurting me over and over again. Cooper was my size. I could have easily fought back, but I didn’t. I couldn’t.”
“Why couldn’t you?”
“Gracie,” Eric whispered.
“Gracie? Who’s Gracie?”
“Gracie is his daughter, our daughter, actually. From the very beginning she had started calling me Daddy Eric. That first time, I remember looking at Cooper in complete shock and feeling like I was looking into the eyes of a stranger and then Gracie came out of her room and ran over to greet me. She was oblivious to what was going on and she was so happy to see me. What could I do? I picked her up and blew raspberries on her belly before agreeing to play with her. Anything that had been going on between Cooper and me stopped because Gracie came first.”
“What happened after that? Did Cooper seem apologetic?”
“Of course. We both pretended like nothing had happened until after Gracie went to bed. I had just finished tucking her in and walked back out to the living room and suddenly Cooper was there. He pulled me into his arms and kept whispering in my ear how much he loved me and how sorry he was that he hurt me. He blamed it on being worried about his mother being sick and promised that it would never happen again. I could hear the pain in his voice as he cried on my shoulder and like an idiot, I believed him. I honestly believed it would never happen again.”
Zander could see how hard it was for Eric to relive his memories and felt for the man. “How long did he keep his promise?”
“The first time…probably about a month, six weeks. I’m not really sure. The second time was just like the first, a backhand to the face. That time it was because I stayed after my shift to have a drink with a friend of mine. I sent him a text and let him know I’d be late, but he didn’t want to hear it apparently. Once again, Gracie came to the rescue and stopped things before they could get out of hand and once again, he was so sorry afterwards.” Eric sighed. “Looking back now, I still can’t believe that I let it happen. And after the second time, it started happening more frequently. Only Cooper got smart. He knew that Gracie was going to keep interrupting us, so he started waiting until after she was in bed. He would come home, and I could tell he was upset, but he wouldn’t tell me why. Then once Gracie was asleep, he would rip into me for whatever transgression he thought I committed. Usually it was just a backhand or two. On a few occasions, he’d used his fists. It rarely got too out of hand.”
“I remember this one time when we took a weekend off together so we could go away for a couple days. We left Gracie with her grandmother so we could have a little time alone. We only went a few towns over, but I was looking forward to spending a little time with him just the two of us. We had gone to this really great restaurant and had a nice dinner. I really thought that we were connecting again, you know? I had no idea that Cooper thought I was being too friendly with our waiter. He accused me of hitting on him the minute we walked into our hotel room. I remember laughing because he couldn’t be serious. I had told him a million times before that he was the only man I was ever attracted to. He thought I was laughing at him, and he hit me so hard, I thought he broke my jaw. And then he…he kept hitting me over and over again. It was like he was possessed. I begged him to stop, but I don’t think he even heard me. Finally there was a knock at the door. It was security. Someone had heard the commotion and called down to the front desk.”
“What happened? Did they call the police?” Zan asked.
“No,” Eric said softly. He wiped his eyes, briefly wondering when the tears had started. “The security guard helped me to my feet and offered to call the cops, but when I looked at Cooper’s face, I could see the panic in his eyes, and I felt bad for him. Can you believe it? I was covered in bruises, and I felt bad for him. I assured the guard that it was a misunderstanding and that everything was okay. I could see the shock in his eyes and knew he didn’t believe me, but I finally got him to leave us alone after we agreed to keep the noise down. The interruption gave Cooper time to calm down and see what he had done. He grabbed me, pulled me into his arms and started sobbing. He promised that he never meant to hurt me, that he loved me more than life itself and he would never lay a hand on me again. By this point I didn’t believe him, but what was I going to do? I couldn’t leave Gracie. She was my entire world. It’s funny, I don’t know why he suddenly started getting so jealous of everyone. He had absolutely no reason to worry. I was so hopelessly in love with him, that no one else mattered. I didn’t realize at the time that he was using drugs on a daily basis. And things just got worse from there up until last November when one of our fights sent me to the hospital. I knew that I had to leave. That I couldn’t stay with him any longer.”
“How did he take the news?”
“I think he knew I couldn’t stay any longer, too. I told him that he had a drug problem and that he needed to get help. He told me that drugs weren’t his problem, I was. And then he told me to go. I will never forget how I felt that day. The mixture of happiness because it was finally over and pain because the man I loved chose drugs over me. I moved out the next day and never saw him again until the day we laid him to rest about three weeks ago.”
“Oh Eric, I’m so sorry,” Zander offered. “Do I even need to ask how he died?”
“A drug overdose, of course.” Eric got up from his chair and walked over to the windows behind Zander’s desk, needing a moment to pull himself together. “I don’t want to feel bad for him. Gracie’s mother died from a drug overdose right in front of Cooper when Gracie was just two months old. How could he not know he was killing himself? How could he leave his mother and his daughter like that? I don’t get it.”
“I think that’s the big mystery when it comes to drug addicts. They know the dangers, yet they can’t seem to stop themselves. It’s a very sad disease,” Zander replied. “But I think feeling bad because he lost a battle he wasn’t strong enough to win is a normal response. What else do you feel for him?”
“You mean am I still in love with him? No, I’m not,” Eric said with certainty. “I think I’ll always love him. He was a very important part of my life, and without him I wouldn’t have Gracie, but I’m moving on. I actually started seeing someone.”
“Well that sounds promising. You had mentioned that up until Cooper, you never had an attraction to a man before. Does that mean you started seeing a woman?”
“No, up until Cooper I was never attracted to a man before. But now…well I found myself falling for another one.” Eric chuckled. “Dane and I are seeing each other.”
“Dane?” Zander asked incredulously. “Dane Sommers?”
“I know what you’re thinking,” Eric said. “He’s so young and one of Steve’s best friends. I don’t know what happened. He was helping Steve and I move into the condo one night and suddenly it just hit me, you know? I just found myself drawn to him. Hell, he was still seeing that creep Michael at the time. I tried to fight it; I really did. For five months I kept telling myself that I’m not the right guy for him. That he needed to find someone his own age, someone with a lot less baggage. But then one night, I knew I couldn’t stay away any longer. I made a move on him, and he didn’t push me away. We hooked up the night before Cooper died. He was there when I got the call and came to Flagstaff with me. While we were gone, we had a long talk about what that night meant, and we agreed that we would see where things go. Now here we are.”
“I don’t know what to say,” Zan admitted. “Does anyone know you’re together?”
“Steve does, only because he walked in
on Dane and me in a somewhat compromising position a few days ago. I was just so
confused by what happened with Cooper, that when I moved back, I didn’t tell
anyone what was going on. Dane and Steve just assumed that I was involved with
Gracie’s mother, and I didn’t correct them. I was still seriously thinking that
maybe I wasn’t gay. Maybe it was only Cooper. How is it that I never knew I was
into men? I don’t understand. But then I started wanting Dane and I was even
more confused. And now…truthfully? After being with Cooper and Dane, I don’t
even know if I could go back to being with women. There is such a huge
difference being with men. The sex…the intimacy…it’s more animalistic. More raw,
more need and passion. I don’t know that I could be satisfied with a woman
“Well you obviously don’t have to sell me on gay sex,” Zander grinned. “Look, first of all I don’t really have a problem with you and Dane being together. I am a little surprised, and a little concerned though. Dane has had a rough past and I don’t want to see him get hurt while you’re trying to figure out if you're gay, bi-sexual or just selective.”
“Zan, you don’t have anything to worry about. I would never do anything to hurt him. In fact, if anyone gets hurt in this relationship, it’ll probably be me.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Because I’m in love with him,” Eric admitted with a small laugh. “I don’t even know how it happened. It was so gradual that I wasn’t even aware of it until we got back from Flagstaff. He stayed with me and helped me through one of the worst weeks of my life and when we got home, I spent that first night wondering if he would be better off if I just walked away. I mean, at that point all we had was one drunken night. I figured it wouldn’t hurt as much to just tell him that we would be better off as friends.”
When Eric didn’t continue, Zander pushed. “But…”
“But I can’t do it. Damn it, I don’t know how it happened, but I can’t imagine my life without him! I have spent the last three weeks trying to keep some distance between us. At first, I told him it was because Steve didn’t know, and I wasn’t ready to tell him. I really thought that was why I was so worried, but now Steve knows and I’m still fighting it. We work together four to five nights a week. If we start spending our days together too…if we tell everyone what’s going on…what happens when…”
“When he leaves you?” Zander finished for him.
“I don’t understand how I got to this point?” Eric stood up again and began pacing the small office. “I never felt like this before. Back in high school and college, I always had a girl on my arm, and I never worried what was going to happen next. I never even considered that they would leave me, and I would be left heartbroken.”
“No, but you didn’t really love them. And up to that point you never experienced real heartbreak. Eric, what happened between you and Copper changed you. How could it not? You finally found someone that you could give your whole heart to, and he hurt you. And in his case, he hurt you over and over again. Every altercation with him broke your heart because every slap and every fist was a betrayal, a promise that was broken. He took what you were offering him and threw it back in your face over and over again. And then, when you finally got the courage to leave him, he didn’t stop you. You knew deep down inside that you couldn’t stay, but you wanted him to want you to. Telling him you were leaving was your way of asking him to prove that he really loved you and he didn’t do it. And the sad thing is, he probably loved you as much as he was capable of loving you. His letting you go was his way of protecting you. Unfortunately, it was too late. The damage had already been done.”
“So now what?” Eric asked as he dropped back down in his chair. He took the box of tissues Zander offered him. Why was he having a hard time controlling his tears? Before Cooper, he only ever cried at those stupid animal cruelty commercials. “Are Dane and I doomed because now I’m going to be incapable of trusting anyone? Will I always be some crazed lunatic who can’t be in a normal relationship because I’m too afraid to be in one?”
“No, you’re not doomed. I would normally suggest to someone like you to steer clear of relationships for a while, but in your case it’s obviously too late for that. How much does Dane know about your history with Cooper?”
“He knows I was slapped around a bit. He doesn’t know how bad it was. Nobody knows how bad it was.”
“Well, as much as I hate to say this, I think you need to tell him. He needs to know what you’ve been through to understand why you’re hesitant and holding back. Dane’s a pretty smart guy and very in tune with people’s feelings. I imagine he already feels your hesitancy.”
“He does. From what Steve told me, he thinks I’m losing interest. How’s that for irony? He thinks I don’t care when in reality I care too much?”
“Well, if I didn’t care so much, maybe I wouldn’t be so screwed up and so afraid of what our future holds,” Eric explained. “After things ended with Cooper and I got the phone call from my buddy about running his kitchen, I told myself that I was going to move back home, take some time and try to get my head together. I didn’t want to date men or women. Then what happens? I see Dane for the first time in years and suddenly I can’t get him out of my head. You have no idea how many times I tried to stop thinking about him. I kept telling myself that maybe it was all superficial. I mean, he grew up to be hot as hell. Maybe I was just looking to get laid. But man, he’s just this funny, sweet, caring person wrapped up in the body of a Greek God!”
“Um…Eric, I really want to help you out but please don’t refer to Dane as a Greek God while you’re here. He basically grew up in my house and dated both Brian and Justin. To me he’s still a kid,” Zan laughed as he made a face.
“Sorry,” Eric snickered. “Oh Zan, I really don’t know what to do. I don’t want my insecurities to affect him. He doesn’t deserve that.”
“No, what he doesn’t deserve is to have someone intentionally hurt him. He deserves someone who will love him and be there for him and I think he could do a lot worse than you. But again, you need to talk to him. Really sit down and talk to him. Let him know what you’re dealing with, and he’ll be patient with you until you’re ready for more.”
“Yeah, I guess you’re right. And I really don’t have much of a choice. Letting him go isn’t an option.”
“Can I suggest one thing though? You know everything you’ve told me here today is confidential, so I would never tell anyone what we’ve discussed, but I think you should allow Dane to tell his friends that you guys are together. Hiding a relationship causes a person to shut down and avoid seeing people. Dane has his own issues that he is constantly dealing with. He needs to be with his friends and he’s not going to do that if he is too afraid to let secrets slip.”
Eric thought about that for a minute. “Huh, I guess I never thought about that. I know he was just saying that he hadn’t talked to Brian in a while. And until Steve found out, they barely spoke to each other. I don’t want to cause him any more problems. I’m going to see him as soon as I leave here. I’ll talk to him and work something out. I’m just not sure how much he’s ready to hear. I don’t want to say the “L” word and scare him away.”
“Eric, I’ve known Dane for a long time. From the sound of things, he really likes you. You’re not going to scare him away, but if you’re not ready to share that information with him, that’s fine. Just let him know that you care. That’s all that he’ll need to know right now.”
“Thanks, Zander. Seriously. I didn’t realize how much I needed to talk until I started talking,” Eric told him.
“I’m glad I could help,” Zander assured him. “Same time next week?”
“Yeah,” Eric sighed. “I’ll be here.
Zander watched Eric walk away and shook his head. “Eric and Dane…that should be interesting,” he said to the empty room.
Aiden was exhausted. The last couple weeks had been tough while he and Grayson covered for Zander so he could be with Chris. He obviously didn’t mind helping out. He and Zander had grown close in the last several months and he knew that Zander’s place had to be by his partner’s side. That didn’t mean that all the extra hours didn’t wear him out. All he wanted to do was take a shower, drop into bed, and sleep for a week. Unfortunately that wasn’t an option. The most he could do is sleep for about five hours. He had a mountain of paperwork that he brought home to work on and he had to be at the center bright and early in the morning to get ready for their monthly softball game. On top of that, he needed to reach out to David. He found someone who was willing to meet with Grant and possibly foster him. He parked his car, grabbed his bag, and started heading towards his apartment building when he heard Derek calling his name. Damn, he had forgotten they had made plans to go out to dinner. He spun around just as Derek reached him.
“I’m so sorry, I completely forgot. How late am I?”
Derek laughed. “Only an hour this time. Babe, I’ve been calling you for the last thirty minutes. Don’t you ever check your phone?”
“My phone? Shit,” Aiden exclaimed as he went back to his car. “I’m sorry. I left it on the front seat of my car this morning when I went into work and never made it out to get it. I guess it’s on silent from last night’s group.”
“Babe, is everything okay? You have been really distracted lately.”
“Yeah, there’s just a lot going on at the center and with Zander being out the last two weeks, I had to pick up a lot of extra work. And he’s probably going to be out a lot in another couple weeks while he takes his partner to his radiation treatments. I’m just exhausted. I guess this was a bad time to try starting a relationship, huh.”
“Uh oh, is this your way of wanting to let me down gently?” Derek asked softly.
“No…I mean, I don’t want it to be. I just don’t know how much time I’m going to have in the next couple of months. If you don’t want to be bothered with someone who has an overly demanding job and very little time for a social life, I would completely understand.”
“You’re not getting rid of me that easy, McAvoy,” Derek laughed. “I really admire what you do and what your plans are for the future of the center. I wish my town had a center like that when I came out to my parents and got thrown out. Living in my car and eating out of garbage cans was not the greatest way to spend my junior and senior year of high school. I don’t mind taking a back seat to your career.”
“Your junior and senior yeah of high school? How old were you?” Aiden asked in horror.
“I was sixteen when I was kicked out. Too young to be able to sign a lease on an apartment, even if I could afford the rent, which of course I couldn’t.”
Aiden was shocked. He and Derek had been dating for about three weeks, but with his crazy schedule, they didn’t get to spend a lot of time together and most of the time they did have was spent in bed. He felt bad that he hadn’t taken more time to get to know the guy he was seeing. He needed to rectify the situation immediately. “Hey, what do you say we skip the restaurant and order in. Then we can sit and talk.”
“Aid, I’m 28 years old. I don’t need saving anymore,” Derek pointed out.
“I know. I just realized that I’ve been so busy lately that I haven’t taken the time to get to know anything about you and I’m ashamed of that.”
“Don’t be. You will never hear me complain that we spend most of our time in bed. I happen to enjoy having you inside me. Really, really enjoy it.”
Aiden blushed. “Don’t worry, we’ll get to that after our talk. Just let me put my work bag back in my car. Anything I planned on doing can wait until tomorrow. So, what’s it going to be, Italian, Mexican, Chinese or Thai?”
"Are you sure?"
“Absolutely,” Aiden assured him as he went back to his car and dropped his bag. He didn’t know how he was going to catch up, but he knew that if he wanted to make a relationship work with Derek, he needed to make time for him.
It took about twenty minutes for the two men to get inside, decide on Thai and place their order, but once that was done, they were able to sit down and talk.
“So tell me what happened when you came out to your parents?” Aiden asked.
“It was your typical after school special. My mother walked into my bedroom without knocking and found me making out with Bobby Hernandez. She started screaming like a crazy person. I would have thought it was funny if it wasn’t happening to me, you know? The look on Bobby’s face was priceless as he ran out of there. After he left, my mother looked at me with disgust and told me to stay in my room until my father came home.” Derek paused for a moment as he thought back to that fateful day. “As soon as my father got home, my mother told him what happened. He came upstairs and with no emotion whatsoever, he told me that I was dead to them and that I had one hour to pack my things and get out. They were going out and I was to be gone before they returned.”
“Oh Derek, I’m so sorry. That must have been awful. What did you do?”
“I packed up what I couldn’t live without and left. I spent the next two years couch surfing. I would stay with friends when I could, and when I couldn’t, I would sleep in my car. I took full advantage of the locker rooms at school and showered there. No one asked any questions and I never offered up any information. I also started working as a stock boy at a supermarket the next town over, so I didn’t run into my parents. It was easy money and helped me afford essentials. I was also able to get first crack at any of the prepared food they were writing off and throwing out. I managed to save a little money each week and by the time I turned eighteen, I was able to afford a security deposit on a run-down apartment and that was that.”
“That’s so sad,” Aiden said. “Thank God you were able to work things out. Washington Avenue is filled with boys selling their ass to support themselves.”
“Yeah, I didn’t want to go down that road. As hard as it was to live out of a car, I managed to save my ass for the men I liked,” Derek chuckled. “That’s why I will never have an issue with your job. Do I wish we had more time together, of course I do. But what you’re doing at the center, that’s what’s important. Not having someone to go out to dinner with.”
“You’re right, my work is important, but so are you. I’ll try to manage my time better so I’m not working late every night,” Aiden replied.
“Okay, as long as you know that I’m not going anywhere, regardless of how many dinners you miss. I really like you, Aiden.”
“I really like you, too. Oh, and I didn’t get the chance to tell you what happened yesterday. Have you ever heard of Jackson Technologies…” Aiden spent the next hour telling Derek about David’s donation and his plans for the money. He was really glad he decided to put his personal life before his work. It was time he finally started to live his life instead of just going through the motions.
Chris was a little surprised when the doorbell rang. It was unusual for someone to show up unannounced on a weekday. He went to the door and was even more surprised to see Trent standing there. “Hey buddy, what’s going on?”
“Hey Chris, I’m sorry to stop by unannounced. I was just driving by and decided to see if you could spare a few minutes to talk.”
“Spare a few minutes? Trent, I’m stuck in the house recovering from surgery and bored out of my freakin' mind. Get in her,” Chris laughed as he stepped aside to let the younger man pass. “What’s on your mind?”
“I don’t know. This is probably going to sound weird, but I’m really confused about my future and when I realized that I needed someone to talk to, you’re the first person that came to mind,” Trent explained. “My parents are wonderful, but they’re always trying to push their own agenda, you know? I know they want what’s best for me, but I need someone that’s going to be objective. Not someone who has their hearts set on me becoming a doctor. I’m pretty sure that ship has sailed.”
“Well, technically you could do it if you wanted to, but I’m guessing that’s not what you want to hear. I have to say, I’m honored that you thought of me. How about if I pour us some fresh brewed iced tea and we go sit by the pool and talk?”
“Thanks Chris, I really appreciate this.”
Once Chris and Trent were settled by the pool, Trent started talking. “I know I need to figure out what I want to do career-wise, but it’s hard. I love Kaleb and I wouldn’t change how things played out for the world but trying to juggle college, med school and a full-time job is not going to leave me any time with my son. And if I take a lighter class load, it’ll take me 20 years to get my degree. I don’t have that kind of time frame. I don’t know what to do. My parents have been talking about me being a doctor for years. It’s one of the reasons they didn’t give me a hard time when I took a year off. They figured I deserved it before I jumped into 12 years of schooling.”
“That’s tough. Raising a child is hard work on its own. That’s one of the reasons why people wait until after their careers are established before having kids. What exactly do you want to do with your future? Do you have any ideas?”
“Not really. I always thought that I would be a doctor, so I never really gave anything else any thought. And before you even suggest it, I don’t want to be a nurse. The schooling may be less, but nurses work long hours. I remember my mother having to work late and cancel things at the last minute when I was young because someone didn’t show up and she had to stay and work a double. It wasn’t a problem for us because my dad was around, but I’m all Kaleb has. I need a career that allows me to work a set schedule and be there when my son needs me,” Trent said.
“Okay, but before we try to figure out what you want to do, are you sure you’re not going to end up resenting the change in your plans? I know you have Kaleb to think about, but it wouldn’t be fair to alter your dreams if you’re going to end up resenting him in the end.”
“No, I’m good. I’m not even sure how much of me wanted to be a doctor, or how much of it was my parents. Especially my mom. Looking back, I think she was trying so hard to keep me from feeling different from the rest of the family that she took the encouraging a little too far. I remember her always telling me how smart I was, how good looking I was, how I could do anything I wanted to do in life. I think she thought I needed to hear that because being the black kid in the house…hell, in the neighborhood was hard sometimes. And don’t get me wrong, there was a time when I really thought I’d end up being a doctor. But not now. I want more out of life than that. I know I’m facing having to work for a living for the next 50 years, I just want to make sure I can enjoy my life while I do that. Poor Zenaida, she was 25 years old when she passed away. And in those 25 years, she had very little fun. She had to quit school and start working when she was ten years old to help feed her family. Can you imagine that? And then, at 15 she was raped by a group of military men that were in her town to “help”. That’s how she ended up with Kaleb. And she loved him so much and he made her happy, but her life was even more of a struggle from the time he was born until she passed away. There were times when she had to sell herself just to feed him. That’s how she ended up sick. I promised her that I was make a good life for him, but I also promised her that he would be happy and have fun. That he’d get to be a child. I love him so much. I don’t care what I do with my life, as long as I get to spend time with him.”
“That’s such a sad story,” Chris replied. “Okay, so doctor and nurse are out. What else are you interested in? Teacher? Psychologist? Social Worker?”
“No, as much as I love helping people, I think I’d rather do it on my own time. Not because I have to,” Trent replied.
“How about computers? Are you any good working with computers?” Chris suggested.
“Well, I do love them. And I’ve always been pretty quick to pick things up. I guess that’s an option.”
“That’s a good start. You could probably take online classes for most if not all of your degree making it easier to spend time with Kaleb. Then, depending on what happens after graduation, you might be able to find a work from home job or something that has very flexible schedules depending on what exactly you’re doing.”
“I don’t know why I didn’t think about this before,” Trent said. “I knew coming to you was a good idea.”
“Have you considered talking to David? He might be able to give you some guidance on what you need to know so you can decide what direction to go towards a degree,” Chris advised.
“David? You mean the guy Matt is dating? I barely know him. I was away when he first came around and since he and Matt live in El Paso, I think I’ve seen him twice since I’ve been back. We pretty much say hello and that’s it. I’m guessing he has some computer experience?”
“Wow, you really have been out of the loop, haven’t you?” Chris laughed. “David is David Jackson of Jackson Technologies. Have you ever heard of them?”
“Heard of them? Are you kidding? Jackson Tech is the biggest computer company in the world! I was just reading about how they are now servicing something like 57 different countries! He’s that David? Holy crap, Matt landed himself a millionaire!”
Chris smiled. “Yes he did, but the money means nothing to Matt. He really fell hard. David is one of the nicest people you could ever meet. I’m sure he would sit down with you and tell you everything you need to know. I have an idea. How about if we have a barbeque this weekend? I know Zan is working on Saturday, but we’re free Sunday. I’m feeling much better and I’m going to start radiation in another week or two. Then I’ll probably be back to feeling like shit again. I’ll have Brian invite everyone over and then you and David can sit down and talk.”
“Dude, I don’t want to put you out.”
“It’s no big deal. I feel bad because Brian, Justin, and Jason have pretty much put their lives on hold to take care of me and help with Sophia and the house. It’s their summer break. They should be seeing their friends and having fun. I think this is just what everybody needs, and it will help you out, too. And actually, I know that Kaleb is in school for another couple hours. Do you want to drive me to the store and help me get what we need? Zan is working late every day this week to try and catch up on what he missed while he was out with me and that jackass surgeon won’t let me drive yet.”
“The nerve of that doctor wanting to make sure you heal properly,” Trent teased. “Sure, let’s go. I have nothing to do until Kaleb gets out of school. Maybe we can go shopping and then swing by and pick him and Sophia up, so they don’t have to take the bus. I know Kaleb has been whining lately about not seeing Sophia. It’s cute the way they’ve become friends. I guess they both have something in common. They’ve had tough childhoods and lost their mothers at a young age.”
“Yeah, it’s kind of sad. But at least they have us now. And I’m glad they became friends. Sophia really hasn’t bonded much with the other girls around here. I hate to say this, but I think my little pumpkin is becoming a tomboy. She’d much rather play in the dirt than wear a dress.”
“Well Kaleb is really happy with that,” Trent chuckled. “Alright, let’s get you out of this house.”
“I’m ready.” Chris assured him as he headed towards the door.
End of part 30
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