Summary: at which point you realize life is but a joke, and the laugh's on you.
A/N: This may go into the longer, novel-ish piece I'm planning on writing about Chris and Michael. Or it may not, I haven't decided yet.
if something's yours and you let it go
if it comes back to you it was yours all along
well I let you go along with those lies from you
I wonder what else lies in you
or did the lies just eat it gone
- N.E.R.D., "Maybe"
It's the off-season and things are going slowly when Michael calls you up from Hawaii to tell you that, yeah, he and Maria eloped and yeah, isn't this just the most exciting thing ever , man?
You think: yeah, it's so exciting it makes me want to chop off my arm with a rusty hacksaw.
But you don't say that.
Instead, you say: Wow, Mikey, I'm so happy for you and Marla.
Because you've known her for three months and you've never called her by the right name.
Because you know how much he hates that nickname.
And also, because you know how you're the only one he'll let get away with calling him that.
Michael sighs. You can hear something in the background that sounds like waves crashing against a shore, or perhaps it's a whisper.
Michael says, "I know you're not -- " and he cuts himself short.
"Not what," you ask.
"You're only saying that. I know you don't really mean it." Michael is murmuring now, lips pressed up close to the receiver. "And you know that her name is Maria."
"Yes, I do know. But this is something I have power over," you whisper, feeling miserable and black inside.
"You don't have power over anything else?" Michael whispers back, and you think he's mocking you now but you can't tell for sure, you could never tell with Michael.
"No. My life is shit, Mikey. Baseball is shit to me," you say. "There's nothing like the sweet smell of passive-aggression in the morning."
Michael can't help but laugh. "Oh, c'mon," he says. "You'll find someone."
"I did find someone, but . . . well, you know how that wound up," you say and you're not actually setting out to hurt him, it just ends up that's what happens.
Michael draws in a sharp, quick breath like he's just taken a punch to the stomach. "Don't do this, Chris. Please."
"Do you love her?" you ask. You wonder why you always end up torturing yourself like this; sometimes you think you enjoy being the martyr.
"Yes, I do."
But you persist. "The way you love God and Jesus, or the way you loved me?"
Michael sucks back an exasperated half-laugh, half-groan. "God, Chris, please. Just stop, ok? You don't think this is hard for me too?"
"Not as hard as it is for me , since you actually have someone else," you say, finally letting your anger peak through. "What is it with you, Mikey? You some sort of fucking . . . tease?"
"Look," Michael says, breathless, "I did care about you, but . . . it isn't right. And. And it's not . . . it's not something that's real. Maria is real. I hope you can understand that one day."
You hang up and hope he likes the dial tone more than the venom you had to use all your power to bite back.
Michael McCarty and Maria Benedetti's wedding is the talk of the town, since Michael's a Major League star. The front pages of both major papers are plastered with large, grainy pictures of the happy event. Maria, in a simple white housedress, her long black hair tied back in a knot, and Michael in an oversized Tommy Bahama shirt and white linen slacks and no shoes, his toes sinking into the sand. Michael with his hand pressing against the small of Maria's back, the fucking ring shining so bright that it's almost otherworldly glowing, and Maria with her index finger hooked into Michael's beltloop, an empty champagne glass dangling from thin, feminine fingers. Another fucking ring.
As much as you hate to admit it, they do look like they belong together.
You decide that were you straight, you'd hope to find a girl like Maria one day.
Michael shows up at Spring Training sporting a tan and eighteen extra pounds of muscle. You don't ask him what he did over the off-season; you have your own suspicions (something like Bible Boy discovering the clear and the cream). It's none of your business anymore anyway, since Michael will no longer be pitching to you. He's requested that Alvie Perez become his personal catcher. Nothing against your style or the way you call a game, of course, he just gets along better with Perez because Perez is also a Christian.
A load of bullshit, of course, but you can't be bothered to call him on it. Michael is Alvie's problem now.
You promise Skip that this isn't going to hurt your relationship with Michael, that it won't infect the clubhouse.
"I'm not the one who has a problem with someone else and isn't man enough to confront him on it," you are quick to point out.
In the clubhouse, Michael puts a picture of Maria on their honeymoon up in his locker, next to his wooden cross, dried out palm frond and his rosary beads, and a picture of his mother and father. Maria has flowers woven into her hair and her hands are clasped in front of her, her eyes turned heavenward, and you decide then and there that you want to puke but you manage to hold yourself together.
"How was your off-season, Christopher?" Michael asks. He's never called you Christopher before; it's always been Chris until now.
"It was ok, I guess," you reply, avoiding looking at him. You stare at the little bottle of hotel shampoo on your locker shelf like it's the most interesting thing in the world. It's better than the alternative.
Michael pulls up a stool and takes a seat beside you, putting his hand on your knee. His wedding band shines ominously, and you look away. "Chris, are you sure you're ok? Maybe if you accepted Jesus into your life . . ."
"Shut up about the Jesus shit, ok?" You shudder and brush Michael's hand off your knee. "And don't fucking touch me. Got it?"
Michael recoils, drawing his hand back, his lips trembling. "Chris . . ."
"Just fucking don't , ok?" you snap back at him, eyes flashing, giving him a shove in the chest with the flat of your palm. "Don't you fucking come near me."
"Chris, don't push me away," Michael says, evenly, taking a deep breath.
"Aw, c'mon Chris, don't take your frustration out on Michael." Perez ambles over to the two of you, wedging his large body between you and Michael. "Just 'cause Michael wanted a switch in catcher don't mean he don't like you no more. Michael just feel more comfortable with me behind plate, is nothing personal."
Alvie's gold cross catches the glare of the fluorescents, and suddenly, you want to rip it from the chain around his neck.
"That isn't what I'm pissed off about, Perez," you growl, "but thanks for your fucking concern."
Perez shrugs. "What's wrong, then?"
"None of your fucking business what's wrong, Alvie. Fuck off." You try to get away from Perez, but he grabs your arm.
"Chris, your attitude really sucks. What'sa matter with you?"
"Go ask steroid boy," you mutter, lancing Michael with a cold glare.
You've apparently said just the right thing to get Michael going.
"That's a lie!" He jumps to his feet, his eyes flashing, ready to engage you, his hands flying. He latches onto the front of your jersey and knots his fists. "That's a boldfaced lie and you know it!"
"Who gains eighteen fucking pounds of muscle in the off-season from protein shakes, huh, Bible Boy?" you fire back.
Michael sucks back a breath. "At least I'm not a fag." He tightens his grip on the front of your jersey, and you can hear Alvie gasp in shock, caught between you two.
You push Alvie away and tear your jersey off, buttons skittering across the floor. "Fuck this shit. I'm done, I'm out of here. I'm fucking done with this shit team. I'm fucking done with you ." You slam your jersey into the back of your locker and kick over your stool in the process, stubbing your toe. "Fucking shit ."
"Chris . . ." Alvie looks like a deer caught in headlights. His cross is gleaming against his throat and you wonder if you touched it, would it burn your skin like the sinner you are.
"What , Alvie?" you snap, avoiding Michael's pained looks.
"Is what Michael say . . . is what he say true?" Alvie asks.
You glare at Michael over Alvie's head. "Ask him yourself. I'm fucking done ." You push past Alvie and Michael and head for the door. Michael closes his hand around your wrist and squeezes.
"Don't leave. I think we need to talk."
You pause and spin on Michael, shoving him away from you in two short, violent jabs. "I have nothing to fucking say to you, you fucking hypocrite," you sneer, giving him another jab in the chest for good measure. "Maybe I am a fucking faggot, but at least Iplay clean. You have your god to answer to. The only person I have to answer to is myself, and ask myself why I wasted my time with you."
Michael swallows hard, his adam's apple bobbing. "I didn't mean to say that. You have to believe me."
"It doesn't fucking matter anymore, McCarty," you say. "What's done is done. Now I know how you really feel about me. It's kinda like being drunk. We say what we really mean. You said what you really meant and that's ok with me. You've got your perfect fucking life with Maria and your perfect fucking future with Maria and that's fine by me."
"But. But don't leave."
"Nothing you say is going to keep me from walking off this team." You twist out of his grip. Your hands are shaking badly now.
"Chris . . ." Michael pulls you back into his chest. "Don't go."
"I told you, nothing you say -- "
"I love you."
You stop. You blink, lick your lips, unsure as to whether or not you've heard him correctly. "You . . . What ?"
Michael clears his throat. "I love you, ok?"
"Look, if this is your way of fucking with the faggot -- " you begin, but Michael shuts you up by pressing his lips to your own.
"I can't let you leave, Chris," he whispers into your hair, when he comes up for breath, winding his arm around your waist. "I'm not letting you leave."
You press your palms against his chest. "Michael . . . What the hell are you doing?"
"You were right about everything, Chris. I'm sorry no one ever gave you credit for always being right, but you were. You were right about me. I don't love Maria the way I love you."
"Michael," you sigh, pulling back, "it's too late."
"It's not too late, Chris. It's never too late," Michael insists, keeping his gaze locked on you. He doesn't see the way the teammates staring at you like you're a two-headed monster or the creature from the Black Lagoon.
And suddenly, ridiculously enough, you don't think it even matters anymore.
No matter what you and Michael go on to do in your Major League careers, you will be defined by this moment and only this moment. You could hit fifty and drive in 160 RBI and Michael could strike out 400 and win 35 games, but you would always be defined by this moment.
You and Michael will always be the faggot ballplayers.
"It is, Michael." you pull away, brushing your fingertips over your lips, the butterflies in your stomach raising utter hell. "It's too late. No matter what we do for the rest of our careers, this is what people will remember us for. Is this really what you want? Is this really how you want people to remember you?"
He nods; stupid kid, he still believes in the old saying, 'omnia vincit amor.' Michael slides his hands over yours and squeezes. "It doesn't matter to me if it doesn't matter to you."
"I don't believe you," you say, every word punctuated with a deep, ragged, drawn-in breath, so that maybe the fucking kid will get what you're telling him. "I think it does matter. I think you're just afraid of losing me. I think you're just used to having me around."
"I am used to having you around, Chris," he says, and he still doesn't get it. The fucking kid doesn't get it and so you just have to laugh a little bit.
"I'm just a habit, Michael. Start a new habit with Maria." You step back and Michael reaches out, catching the hem of your t-shirt in his hand.
"Just say the word and she's gone," Michael murmurs, low, so that only you can hear.
You shake your head. "No, I can't let you do that. You married her, Michael. You owe it to her to give it a shot."
"I don't love her, Chris. She'll understand," he says, desperately, choking on it. "She'll understand when I explain it to her."
"I don't even think St. Maria would be that forgiving," you reply with a slight smile.
Michael's shoulders flag, the fire and the fight gone out of his eyes. He lowers his head in defeat, and presses his fingertips to his forehead, drags them over his eyes. "You're making a mistake, Chris. I really . . . really do love you."
"And what about your career?" you ask, moving closer, touching the back of his wrist. "The media will be horrible to you. The opposing fans will be even worse. They'll yell things at you . . . Maybe even throw things at you, try to hurt you . . . Is that what you really want? To live your life like that?"
Michael's body tremors, just a slight shiver, and you can see the tension in him; he is using every muscle in his body to keep from crying. "I don't care." He looks up at you, tears spilling down his soft cheeks. A single blond curl falls in front of his eyes and your fingers itch to push it back, but you resist the urge.
"You should." You drop your arms at your sides, unable to do anything but shrug your shoulders at him.
Michael closes his eyes and swipes his tongue over his bottom lip, snagging it on his teeth. "You . . . you think you're so fucking smart," and you're surprised as anybody that God-fearing Michael has used a curse word. "You think you're so goddamn fucking smart, and. And. You're an idiot, Chris. No one but an idiot would turn away true love when it's staring them right in the fucking face."
Michael heaves a sigh and turns away from you. He walks over to his locker, stiff-legged, his back ramrod straight, and grabs his change of clothes. He pulls his Adidas bag out and opens it up, begins tossing his belongings into it, his back to the rest of the teammates, his shoulders shaking.
Prior's leaning against his locker, a slack, blank look gone over his features. "I don't understand," he says, his voice soft and gentle, almost kind but not quite.
"What don't you understand, Luke," you ask, facing him down, your arms bent at the elbows, your hands on your hips.
"Why you would keep something like this from me . . ." Prior says, trailing off, unable to finish his sentence, his eyes growing hard and cold. "I'm your best friend on this team -- hell, Murray, we've known each other since fucking t-ball -- and you couldn't even fucking tell me ?"
"You know why I couldn't tell you, Luke," you fire back. "I couldn't tell anyone!"
"That's not the point, Chris!" Prior marches over to you and you can see bodies straighten up on their stools, as he stabs his index finger into your chest once, twice. "I treated you like a fucking brother, you know everything about me, and here I come to find out that you're fucking holding out on me?"
"I couldn't tell anyone," you whisper.
"You didn't trust me, Chris. I'm your best friend and you didn't trust me enough to tell me," he says, dropping his hand. "What's that say about our fucking friendship?"
"You don't understand," you say.
Prior nods, something cold washing over his eyes, straightening his limbs, his back, shutting him off, closing him off to you. "Guess not. Guess I never understood at all."
Alvie is touching his fucking cross again, and his lips are moving in silent prayer.
You turn to him. "You got something to say, Perez?" you ask, nodding at him, your neck stiff, eyes and words hard.
Alvie looks up at you, letting his hand flutter down, coming to rest over the 'C' stitched onto the front of his jersey. "I think it is good for the team if you left now," he says, his voice sounding small and tight, his expression unreadable.
You glance around the clubhouse quickly, craning your neck. Some of the teammates are looking at you with their heads shaking, like they feel sorry for you. Others are looking at you with disgust; they're the ones who join Alvie and Michael for pre-game Bible readings. Some of them are looking at you like you're an escaped mental patient, a poor unfortunate creature in need of mental assistance. The rest of the teammates just look bored, feet shuffling, fingers tapping on knees, ankles, wrists, impatient for you to leave.
You're not a part of this lockerroom anymore; you've already been shut out.
"If that's the way you guys want it." You swallow hard. The team's slogan for this upcoming season is 'Twenty-Five Men. Twenty-Five Brothers.' For some ungodly reason, it flashes in your mind in lights, and you have to laugh.
The teammates who were looking on you like you were an escaped mental patient are now looking on you with even more alarm than before.
You go to get your stuff and no one speaks up, no one says anything.
And so you just leave .
And just like that, you're gone.
A few weeks later, a team calls you up, looking for a backup catcher who can mentor their wild stallion of a phenom down in Double-A, some fireballing freak of nature in goggles named Chase, some fireballing freak of nature in goggles who has a tattoo of a topless woman sunning herself on the hood of a red Corvette spanning his shoulders.
Some fireballing freak of nature in goggles who most likely does not like homosexuals.
You sign on the dotted line the very next day.
This Chase kid, this kid with the magic arm, is nothing like at all like Michael. And for this you are supremely thankful. It's almost enough to make you start believing in God.
He probably doesn't have "Jesus" or God" or "Bible" anywhere in his dictionary. He has probably never even heard of the word dictionary before, probably would not even know where to look in the library to find it. He has an unruly mass of blond curls, the only part of him that resembles Michael in any way, massive forearms ("I can bench press Roseanne.") and the thickest thighs you've ever seen on a pitcher.
"Good for you. What do you throw?" you ask, shifting your gear out from under your arm, dropping it to the ground with a heavy thunk.
"Um . . . Fastball. And . . . Well, that's about it." Chase grins at you, and you can tell that he's going to have one hell of a bumpy ride, once he makes it past Double-A. He probably would not have much trouble blowing guys away down in Alabama, but once he made it to Triple-A and, eventually, to the MLB, he would start to falter.
"Well . . . Have your pitching coach and manager talked with you about coming up with offspeed stuff?" you ask, toeing your gear.
"Uh . . . Not really. They say my fastball's better than Randy Johnson's," says the kid, chest puffing out with pride.
"Anyone can hit a fastball. Even Johnson's. Look what happened to him his first year in New York," you remind him.
"Not my fastball," says the kid, jabbing his thumb into his chest, proudly. "Coach says I got the best fastball in Double-A. No one can hit it."
"Sure, no one in Double-A can hit your fastball. But Major Leaguers can and will ." You flip a ball from one hand to the other, absently. "Just tell me you've thrown a breaking ball before."
Chase nods. "Yeah . . . Little League."
You sigh. This kid is going to be a lot of work.
But hey, at least he's not Michael.
"Ok, now take the ball and go like this." You pick up the baseball in your right hand, Chase's pitching hand, and make a circle with your index finger and thumb, turning your wrist so that Chase can look at it from all angles.
He mimics your grip, tongue poking out from between his lips. "Ok. What's it do?"
"It's a circle change. The purpose of it is to keep the batter off balance. And you can use it to set up the hard fastball that you seem to love so much." You walk back to home plate and drop into your crouch. "Ok, now throw it to me, Chase. Like I showed you."
Chase gets into his delivery, his tongue still poking out, before hurling the ball the sixty feet and six inches to your glove. It bounces three feet in front of home plate and rolls to the backstop. "Fuck!" He rips off his hat and stomps his feet in the dirt.
"That wasn't . . ." Very good . "Bad. Try it again." You retrieve the ball and run it back to Chase, giving him a reassuring pat on the ass with your glove. "Keep trying it until you begin to get a feel for it, until you can do it with your eyes closed."
Chase steps onto the rubber and fiddles with the ball before fitting it into his hand. He punches the ball a few times into his glove before hunching down, staring into home, his goggles making him appear especially intimidating. He straightens up into his delivery and blazes it into your glove so hard, dust rises, curling up like smoke.
Shaking out your hand, you get up and toss it back to him. "That was better, but try to keep it, like, under ninety?"
"Why?" Chase whines, pulling off his hat again and shaking out his curls.
"Because you have to learn how to mix your speeds." You motion to him to throw it again. "This time, take something off of it."
Chase stands there blinking. "How?"
"Slow your delivery, but don't change it too much from your fastball delivery." You wag your hand at him again. "Throw it again, but slower."
Chase sighs and gets back on the rubber, sweat rolling off his forehead in beads. "Ok, ok." He pushes the ball into his glove and flaps it, searching for the changeup grip, and you make another mental note. He fires the pitch and it drops in like the hand of god itself had delivered that ball.
"How was that?" asks Chase, obviously not enthused about the changeup. "Can I throw my fastball now? You gotta see my fastball. It's really fast."
"If you fall in love with that fastball, every other schmuck out there is going to fall in love with it too," you reply, pointing to the outfield.
Chase turns. "I don't see anybody," he says.
"Oh, for Christ's s -- " you begin, but stop yourself, jumping up and bringing the ball back to him. You tap your index finger against his glove. "Nevermind. Mix it up. And when you get ready to deliver the pitch, don't waggle your glove. That's what's known as tipping your pitches."
"But what about my fas -- but goddamn, this is so confusing! How'd you go from the MLB to Double-A anyway, huh?" asks Chase, as you hover over him, fitting the ball in the center of his glove and then fitting his fingers around it in the right places.
"I decided I missed traveling on buses," you reply with a smirk, stepping back. "Now do what I just did without waggling your glove."
Chase bites down on his bottom lip, furrowing his brow in deep concentration. "Who knew baseball'd be this hard?" he says, fitting the ball in his hand with relative ease. "How's that?"
"Good. Now, when you throw it again, use the arm slot and motion that you use for the fastball," you say, taking his wrist between your thumb and forefinger.
"What's that gonna do," he asks, continuing to let you touch his wrist.
"It'll fool the batter into thinking you're throwing a fastball, but you'll drop the changeup on him and he won't be able to pull the trigger," you say.
Chase nods, licking his bottom lip, finally getting it. Or, at least that's what you hope. "Ah, ok."
You look up at him and smile. "So, kid, how 'bout that fastball?"
Standing in front of you with the sunlight filtering through his blond curls, lighting him up from the inside, his head tilted to one side, he almost looks like Michael. You move your hand from his wrist, your heart in your throat, your stomach clenched like a fist.
You blink, and then Michael is gone, Chase back in his place.
"Are you ok?" Chase asks, holding onto your elbow, his fingers digging into fabric of your sleeve.
You pull away and give him a pat on the thigh with your glove, unable to hold back a relieved laugh. "I'm. I'm fine. For a second . . . for a second there, I just thought you were somebody else."