Working My Way Back
Michael walked through the crowded halls searching for the correct room. It was early enough in the school season that new students were still trying to map out more direct routes to their next lecture hall. The upper classmen were just “moseying” along trying to defy the laws of time and space. College. Michael managed to miss most of his, dropping out for a life in retail. No matter, that was a long time ago and Michael wound up a very successful comic book entrepreneur.
When Michael found the right room, he quietly snuck in and took a seat in the last row. The room was almost filled. He had a good view of the lectern and of the man with sexy wire rimmed glasses perched on his nose, standing next to it. Michael had no idea what the current topic was about and, looking around the room, it appeared to Michael that most of the students didn’t know either, nor did they care. Michael smirked when he realized that the man at the head of the class could be reciting the alphabet and he’d still pack the classroom.
The years had been very kind to Ben. Kinder to Ben than himself, in Michael’s estimation. Ben’s face was relatively unlined, his hair was lush with a touch of grey, making him look very distinguished. His eyes and smile were just as bright as ever. He had obviously continued his daily workout routine over the summer and spent time outside. Not only was Ben very tan but his muscles were straining the seams of his polo shirt.
“They’re going to have to mop up all the drool before the next class,” Michael murmured to himself with a smirk.
“Shhhh!” someone hissed at him.
Michael kept further thoughts to himself.
Michael sighed; their time apart was stressful for Michael. Unfortunately, it showed on Michael’s face, plus he was sporting a bit of a paunch. But with the help of his therapist, Michael was able to focus his energy on positive things like doing for others rather than wallowing in his own self pity. Michael had made a lot progress; somewhere along the way Michael rediscovered Michael Novotny. And this version of Michael wasn’t half bad. He still had some ways to go but Michael could now see his therapist every other week. Which was a good thing, since he spent most of his free time at the Jason Kemp Center and at the Vic Grassi House.
It was this busy schedule that inadvertently kept Michael and Ben apart and missing phone calls. By the time Michael would hear one of Ben’s messages it was too late to return it and vice versa. When Michael checked his calendar, he discovered a totally free afternoon. He took a chance that he’d find Ben on campus so, here was Michael, sitting in a lecture hall surrounded by insanely young people all with designs on Ben’s body.
“That’s it for today, ladies and gentlemen. Pop quiz next time on chapter three,” Ben called out to his class, receiving a collective groan of dismay. “Now go outside and enjoy the day,” Ben dismissed his class.
Michael waited until the hall emptied. He enjoyed watching Ben in his element. Ben was so relaxed, a natural born teacher. Students responded well to him, and not because Ben was drop dead gorgeous, but because he was genuinely interested in his students and would do all he could to make sure they succeeded in his class. Michael slowly made his way down the aisle to the front as Ben was gathering his notes.
“Hi,” Michael gently called out.
“Michael!” Ben replied nearly dropping the papers clutched in his hands. “What are you doing here? I mean, I’m surprised to see you here. I’m mean, shit, I don’t know what I mean.” The papers eventually slipped out of Ben’s hands, fluttering to the floor. As they both bent over to retrieve the wayward pages, they knocked heads then burst out into giggles.
“It’s good to see you,” Ben said softly.
“It’s good to see you too,” Michael said as he handed Ben some pages.
“What made you decide to come to the campus?”
“I figured it was easier to find you here instead of you searching the city for me.”
“Good thinking. Um, do you have time for lunch?” Ben asked.
“Yeah, I do. What time is your next class?”
“I’m done. Today’s my early day.”
“No office hours?”
“Office hours are more like Skype hours and email hours,” Ben explained with a shrug of his shoulders and a roll of his eyes. Michael nodded with understanding. “So where would you like to go?”
“Not the Liberty diner,” Michael blurted out. Even though the clientele had changed over the years, the old gang was legendary and still the subject of gossip. Sometimes it was like living in a fish bowl.
“O-kay,” Ben drawled. “Then where?”
“Uh, the Village diner,” Michael suggested.
“Sure,” Ben agreed. “Meet you there?” Michael nodded. They separated, heading for their cars and to the Village diner.
Michael looked for parking close to the diner as he drove through the Village reclamation part of town. He wasn’t a true stranger to this part of town; he visited Danny’s classic book store and lending library often. Danny and the whole neighborhood still missed Joan and her influences. Danny dedicated the second floor reading nook to her name. Many of Hunter’s “kids” took advantage of the quiet bookstore, and weather permitting, the Village garden with all its quiet shady spots for reading. As did a lot of adults who were determined to better themselves or were just seeking a quiet place to escape the chaos of daily life.
Finding a spot near the garden, Michael parked then paused to spy through the garden gates. The leaves on the trees were changing color which made the evergreens look even more green. The gardener had switched out the summer annuals for fall flowers. Bunches of bright orange and yellow mums were showcased in huge pots. The Village had hired gardeners who took their work very seriously. The winding paths were meticulously kept; the solar lamp posts were polished to a high gleam. And in its center stood Justin’s henge. The garden was a colorful oasis in the middle of the city. Before walking to the diner, Michael waved up at the small apartment house that bordered the garden at one end. After a few seconds, a large arm extended out from one of the upper windows and waved back. Michael smiled then hurried along to meet Ben.
As soon as Michael entered the diner, Ben stood. Ben had found a booth for two toward the back of the diner where it was quiet and somewhat private. Michael grinned when he noticed that Ben had ordered him a Pepsi.
“I hope it’s okay that I ordered drinks,” Ben asked. He had a cup of tea.
“That’s fine,” Michael replied as he slid into his seat. “You look good.”
“Um, thanks; so do you,” Ben replied, ignoring some of the more obvious changes in Michael’s appearance. Just then their waiter approached saving Ben from more awkward conversation. They quickly placed their order then slowly sipped at their drinks. Ben appeared nervous, fidgeting with his cutlery while Michael made a startling revelation.
He had no fucking clue what to say to his husband.
“Hello?” a friendly voice called out filling the quiet cottage.
“Porch!” came the terse reply.
Rachel walked through the cottage toward the sun porch. “Am I interrupting something important?”
“Only if you consider me staring at a blank canvas for an hour and a half something important,” snarked Justin as he continued to contemplate the canvas. “No, you’re not interrupting, I’m not being very productive today,” he went on with a sigh, staring for a bit more before actually noticing the woman standing there. “Wow, you look nice. Going someplace special?”
“Yup, and I decided that if you were free, you should join me. Thought you could use a break. You haven’t had lunch, have you?”
“It’s that late?” Justin looked at watch. “I guess it is. No, I haven’t had lunch. Are you going into the city?”
“Nope, Bridgeton,” Rachel grinned.
“Excuse me? Since when do you get this dressed up for the Bridgeton diner?” Rachel was wearing a pretty skirt with a light weight blousy sweater and low heeled pumps.
“Since they opened a new restaurant. I’m meeting my parents and Claire and Steve there. I thought I’d try dragging you away from your art to join me.”
“You don’t have to drag me; I can use the break. Give me a few minutes to wash up and change,” said Justin as he put away his painting supplies then went to his bedroom. “What should I wear?” Justin called out.
“I don’t know, uh, something nice but not too flashy,” Rachel replied.
“Nice but not flashy,” Justin repeated as he searched his closet. “I can do this; I’ve been dressing myself for years,” he mumbled. Somewhere in the back of his mind, Justin heard Brian snort. He giggled; made his selections then quickly got dressed. He slicked back his hair then went to join Rachel.
“Not bad, not bad at all,” Rachel exclaimed as she made Justin slowly turn around. Justin had chosen designer jeans, a soft powder blue Henley and sport coat. “What made you chose this combination?” Rachel had a wicked gleam in her eyes like she knew a secret. Justin blushed.
“I kept thinking, what would Brian wear.”
“Ha! I knew it,” she crowed. “You look perfect. Let’s go before we arrive more than fashionably late.”
Justin left a note for Bree, grabbed his phone, keys and wallet then followed Rachel out the door. They made small talk as Rachel drove them to Bridgeton.
“I don’t mean to be rude but how does a one horse town like Bridgeton rate a fancy restaurant?”
“I’m so glad you asked,” Rachel teased. “Since certain gentlemen who I know and love dearly, make it their mission to disrupt the status quo wherever they go, Bridgeton has gained another horse, so to speak. The town is growing and thriving. Since the town is centrally located between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg, some of the city folk have discovered it. We’re not inundated with people but a lot of young families with school-age children love the wonderful school you guys built. They’ve moved in. Businesses are doing well and a few more have opened up, including a fancy smancy restaurant.”
“Where have I been?”
“Probably stuck behind a canvas. You’ve been busy, Justin. Between Paris, your latest art projects, and last year with your dad, you’ve had stuff to do. And it’s not like Bridgeton is around the corner,” Rachel commented.
“I guess I’m not as civic minded as I thought.”
“Bullshit! You and the guys are the most civic minded people that I know but that doesn’t mean you have to baby sit the local communities either. You’ve made logical suggestions, donated lots of your time not to mention the funding. Now it’s time for the town elders to follow your example and carry things through. Mom and Dad are very pleased. You’ll see when we get to town.” Rachel patted Justin’s arm as she slowed down when they approached the town limits. Justin relaxed back into his seat as his eyes drank in the fall colors.
“Wait, are those new cottages?” Justin asked as he suddenly sat up.
“You’ve got to be kidding me.”
“Yup. This is farm country; most of the houses are very old. And while some are worth renovating most are not very energy efficient.”
“Newly constructed homes are eco-friendly, but the right builder can make them look like they’ve been here forever.”
“Got it in one,” Rachel said. “That brother-in-law of yours is one smart builder.”
“He’s your brother-in-law too,” Justin reminded her.
“Oh yeah. We’ve got great taste in brothers-in-law,” commented Rachel making Justin laugh. “Here we are,” Rachel said as she slowed down to find parking.
“Nice,” Justin commented. “What’s the cuisine?”
“Not sure. Mom said they’re still experimenting, trying to find themselves. Whatever that means. But she and Dad had dinner here a couple of weeks ago and they both enjoyed it. Apparently it was Italian night.”
Rachel found a convenient spot and pulled over. Justin took a moment to look around. All the stores he remembered were still there. Plus a few more, each having that “lived in” look, like they’ve also been there forever.
“Meet with your approval?” said Rachel with a twinkle in her eyes.
“Yeah, they do. The town has the same feel,” Justin noted.
“That’s what my parents say,” said Rachel as they opened the door to the new restaurant. Their senses were immediately assaulted by delightful aromas of Middle Eastern and Asian cuisine. Justin let out three quick sneezes. “Is this going to be a problem for you?” Rachel asked with concern for Justin’s allergies.
“No,” Justin waved it off. “I’ve eaten off of food carts in New York without any problems. Eat that stuff and you can eat anything.” His nose calmed down as they were approached by the maître d’.
“Party of two?”
“No, we’re meeting my parents,” Rachel replied as she scanned the room and found her mom signaling with a napkin. Rachel chuckled. “There they are,” said Rachel with a shake of her head.
“Ah, yes, Dr. and Mrs. Morrison’s party. Please allow me to escort you.”
Rachel looked at Justin as they both rolled their eyes and snickered while the maître d’ showed them to their table then handed Rachel into her chair.
“Behave, you two,” Claire scolded when the snooty man left them. Rachel and Justin giggled like mischievous children.
“Where did we go wrong?” Emily asked as she perused her menu.
“We? You did most of the child rearing,” Dan pointed out. “And I take no responsibility for Justin. We can blame his behavior on Brian,” Dan said nonchalantly as he too examined his menu.
Justin leaned over to Rachel. “I thought you said this was going to be a break.” Rachel shrugged her shoulders and they all laughed. Hugs and kisses were first on the agenda then they all got down to the business of ordering lunch. Justin barely recognized anything on the menu so he decided to play it safe with a chicken salad.
They made small talk, catching up on the latest family news, moaning over how quickly the year was passing, and discussing tentative plans for the upcoming holidays. The waiter brought their orders and freshened their drinks. They were about five minutes into their meals when Justin began coughing. The cough quickly transformed into a wheeze.
“Justin?” Rachel cried. Justin was gasping for air. “Justin! Dad,” Rachel screamed as Justin paled then began turning blue.
Steve and Rachel grabbed Justin before he slumped over then slid him to the floor while Dr. Dan examined Justin’s mouth and throat to determine if he was choking on a bit of food. Finding nothing obvious, Dan tried rescue breathing but found a lot of resistance.
“Call 911,” Dan barked.
“Done. The squad should be here in a few minutes,” said Claire who had already called the minute she saw what was happening.
“We may not have a few minutes,” Dan muttered. “I need a sharp knife and a tube or a straw.”
Realizing what Dan was planning Steve handed Dan his pocketknife while Emily grabbed a clean straw. Dan made a quick slit into Justin’s throat then inserted the straw. He then blew into the straw several times. Fortunately, there was no resistance and Justin’s coloring became a little better. But Justin made no signs of waking up. Then they noticed a red rash forming on all exposed skin. When the rescue squad arrived, Dan apprised them of the situations and that Justin was allergic to most medication. They placed Justin on a stretcher, hooked up IV fluids, oxygen, and a heart monitor. For the moment Justin was stable but still unconscious.
“We need to get him to the hospital,” Rachel stated with impatience.
“I know, sweetheart, but we have to decide which one. Harrisburg may be slightly closer but all of Justin’s records are in Pittsburgh,” Dan was reasoning things out in his head. “Besides, if this is a food allergy like I suspect, Allegheny General has the best allergists in the area.”
While they were determining the best course of action, the rescue squad wheeled Justin into the ambulance to hook him up to all sorts of gadgets. Claire was on the phone again.
“Bring him to that large field just outside of town at the crossroad before the highway,” Claire demanded as she thrust her phone into Dan’s hand. Dan looked perplexed.
“Hello?” Dan said into the phone. “Alex? What? Are you sure? Okay, okay. Understood. Hold on, I’ll pass you over.” Dan handed the phone to one of the first responders.
“Yes, doctor. Yes. Yes. Understood. We can be there in five minutes and we’ll have all lights blazing.” The man handed the phone back to Dan then returned to the ambulance. He quickly updated his crew and they got going, heading for the field in question. Dan had decided to ride with them. Everyone else quickly followed in their cars.
It took less than five minutes to make it to the designated spot. The ambulance was ablaze with every blinking and strobing light they had.
“Dad, what are we waiting for?” Rachel asked when her father climbed out of the back of ambulance.
“A helicopter,” Dan replied.
“You’re kidding,” Steve asked.
“No, I’m not. That brilliant wife of yours called Alex Wilder; he got on the phone with the president of Allegheny General. They have an air rescue chopper on the way,” Dan explained.
“Did anyone call Brian?” Emily ventured. They all got a look of panic on their faces, all but Claire.
“I called John,” Claire calmly stated. “They’re both working in Pittsburgh today. John will handle Brian.”
“I don’t envy him,” Steve said. They all made sounds of agreement.
“Sweetheart,” Claire began as she turned toward Rachel. “I also called Bobby. He asked if you could hold down the fort for a while. He’s in court today so he can’t leave just yet.”
“Of course, I can,” Rachel said with a soft smile. “As soon as Justin’s on his way I’ll go home. I guess I should tell Debbie and Carl,” Rachel said with a pained expression.
“She’ll either scream the banshees awake or cook enough lasagna for the next month and a half. Or both,” Steve said. He received nods of agreement.
Just then the air seemed to vibrate with noise. They all looked skyward as one of the first responders pointed up toward the west. The helicopter landed as close as safety would allow. Justin was quickly transferred from the ambulance to the chopper.
“I’m going with him,” Dr. Dan stated loudly over the noise. “At the very least to describe what happened at lunch. I wish I thought to take a sample of what he ate to be analyzed,” Dan commented. Emily shoved a “to go” bag into his hands. Dan kissed his own brilliant wife then was helped into the helicopter. He mouthed the words, “I’ll call you,” as they all stepped back to watch the chopper lift off. They all thanked the rescue squad before they drove off.
Standing silent in the field, it took a few moments to absorb what had happened and decide what to do next.
“Now what?” Steve asked.
“I don’t know about you but I need coffee before I go home,” Rachel replied. “And maybe a donut,” she added.
“The sweet shop?” Emily suggested.
“Yes!” they all replied, then caravanned back into town toward Bridgeton’s version of a donut shop that had been in the neighborhood for a good forty years.
“How’s your salad?” Ben asked for about the third time. After all these years, Ben had no clue how to start off a meaningful conversation with the man he had lived with for over twenty years.
“It’s good. And yours?” Michael asked in return.
More silence. ‘This doesn’t make any sense,’ Michael thought to himself.
“No, it doesn’t,” said Ben.
Michael got that deer in the headlights look. “I said that out loud?”
“Mumbled. But at least I remembered how to translate your mumbles. And I agree. This makes no sense at all. We’ve had a lot of good times together, made wonderful memories, but right now I can’t think of anything to say to you,” Ben said.
“I know. I had this speech prepared but it flew right out of my head,” commented Michael.
“Are you done?” Ben asked, meaning their lunch.
“Yeah, I think I am,” said Michael as he pushed away his almost empty dish.
“Why don’t we get some coffee to go and sit in the park? It’s nice and sunny out. And it won’t stay this nice for too much longer,” Ben suggested.
“That’s a good idea,” said Michael.
Ben flagged down their waiter.
“It’s nice out here,” Michael said as they found a spot close to the henge and sat on a nearby bench. The exposed metal of the sculpture was rusting, giving the sculpture a more rustic look.
“Yes, it is,” Ben said as he looked up at the blue cloudless sky. “Michael, I didn’t sleep with Armand,” Ben confessed. “To be honest, I wanted to, but gratuitous sex is so not me. And after spending some time on the lane, I found myself wishing that it was you there with me, not Armand. But I didn’t realize that until I came back to Pittsburgh.”
“Where are you staying?” Michael seemingly ignored Ben’s confession. But Michael was trying to put what he learned from his therapist into use. He didn’t want to jump to conclusions so he was buying a little time to formulate his thoughts.
“At Brian’s loft.”
“That’s good; at least you’ll be comfortable and surrounded by friends,” Michael stated logically and with sincerity.
“Yeah, and it’s not too far from campus.”
The awkward silence was back but not as bad as it was earlier.
“Michael, are you still in love with me?”
“I think so. For as long as I can remember, I felt that I had to prove something, that we had the best life, the best marriage. Then I blamed everyone and everything for breaking us up. I blamed you for not wanting to help me prove to our friends that we had the real thing. And I was angry that no matter what I did, instead of proving how great we were, I was only proving that what some other couples had was better than us.”
“You never had to prove anything.” Ben stood to face Michael.
“I know that now. And I also know that if we get back together it’s because we are in love and we respect each other. I know I’ve done some stupid things.” Ben shook his head. “Ben, I did some stupid things and it’s okay for me to admit it. I still have lots of stuff to talk about with my therapist. But he says I’m making progress,” Michael said with a bit of a smile.
Ben smiled; his blue eyes sparkled in the sun. “Maybe it’s time for gratuitous sex?” Ben asked with a grin.
Michael smiled brightly then sighed. “As much as I’d love to make love with you, the timing’s not right,” Michael replied. “Can I have a rain-check?”
“Of course, you can,” Ben said. “May I take you to dinner? Maybe to Emmett’s or Pappagano's?”
“I’d like that a lot,” Michael replied softly. They were standing closely together.
“May I kiss you?” Ben asked. Michael nodded. As they leaned in closer, a loud noise disrupted their interlude and a dark shadow quickly passed over them.
“What was that?” Michael asked. They both looked up.
“It looks like Allegheny General’s air rescue,” Ben surmised. “I hope it’s no one we know.”
“I’m sure it’s not.”
Ben gently took Michael’s chin then leaned in to bestow a chaste kiss on Michael’s lips.
“I hope that’s the first of many,” Ben said with anticipation.
“I hope so too,” Michael affirmed.
Then they parted ways.
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