A/N: Another one not set in the world fo Abundance: it's really quite normal.
The chapters are not short like "I'm With the Band . . ." though.
Skip Ritter's Rules of Disengagement
To prevent romantic failures and messy breakups:
1. Limit relationships. Friendships are fine. But keep friendships simple and unromantic.
Corrolary: no "friends with benefits."
2. Limit sexual contacts to strangers.
3. No repeats.
4. Limit conversation to the minimum necessary.
5. Do not exchange bodily fluids, names or contact information.
6. No drinks of any kind, neither caffeine nor alcohol.
7. No flowers, no presents, no cards.
8. No dates.
9. No sex with men who want more than sex.
10. Definitely no sex with men who arouse the desire for more than sex.
Corollary: if it feels like "love at first sight," run away! Don't look back!
Chapter one: Cherry Street
Skip knew there was something in the air that evening, but at the time he thought it was just acacia pollen. He should have realized that it couldn't be the trees. He'd never had hay fever before in his life.
What he had was closer to cabin fever. All day he kept looking around him as if he was expecting something -- a package, maybe, a message: or a summons. He decided, acacia pollen or no, it was time for a night out. He was single. He was young. He was in an exciting city full of desirable men. And he was going to be single for the foreseeable future. That was in the rules.
"Going out tonight," he mentioned in passing to his friend Patrick (also his boss at the reference desk of little Caltrop Valley branch of the city library). Anything else he might have said was prevented by a loud crash from the direction of the genre paperback carousels and the gentle buzzing in Skip's pocket that meant that the cleanup job was being handed to him.
What he found at the scene was a very embarrassed young mother and her two children standing ankle deep in lurid paperbacks, trapped behind a pair of impossibly intertwined crashed paperback book carousels.
"Hi Joann," he said to the horrified mother, who was clutching her children by the hands. "Hi Frida, Hi Juan," he said to the two sunburned children, whose matching brown eyes were round with apprehension and not-very-deeply-felt remorse.
Skip knew them well. This was not the first time something untoward had happened with these kids. Their mother was an aspiring novelist and spent a lot of time doing research -- reading novels, mostly. She often brought them with her and they nearly as often figured out some kind of havoc to bring into the library. "I'm so, so sorry," she said, tucking her long hair behind her ear. "They were being good and then suddenly they ramped up and the next thing I knew they were on the floor and so were all these books. They wanted to put everything back but I told them they had to wait and ask you if they can help."
Skip tilted his head and thought for a moment. "You can help," he said to the two. "Frida and Juan, wait until I get this one up and then you two can get the lower one up. Then we'll all get the books together. I'll tell you what to do."
Both of the carousels happened to contain romance novels. The policy for these carousels was not to sort them except by genre, so it didn't matter which books went in which of the swiveling shelves. But Skip thought that it would be more helpful in the long run to have the kids work a little harder than that. So he had them put all the ones with whimsical modern lettering on one carousel and all the ones with more old-fashioned lettering on the other, and the ones with human figures at the top and the ones with just flowers or houses on the bottom.
"This is weird," said Frida, at nine the older of the two. "Why not just alphabetical?"
Joann began handing her books, saying, "You know, this is just how I categorize them too. They say you can't judge a book by its cover, but I figure that they make the covers to guide us to read the books we'll like so they'll have happier customers, you know? So these books that have a picture of a bit of a house and a lot of soft-focus flowers and the title is in cursive, they're going to have one kind of story, and the ones with the half-naked man with overdeveloped pectorals will have another kind of story, and the ones with the bouncy letters are going to be funny."
"And your favorites? The sexy ones?" Skip asked, just to wind her up, but she was off and running without him.
"I like the funny ones best because they're less likely to have bad sexual politics. I don't like those overdeveloped pectorals who sweep women off their feet and make love to them against their will because they know the women better than the women do themselves. That's just icky. I like the ones where the woman's got some agency and the man's not a dick. Oops," she said, "Sorry, kids, I just used a word in the wrong place."
"Not a library word," the girl said. She handed her brother a book with a humorous hot-pink silhouette of a woman in high heels swinging an old-fashioned camera. "Modern," she said to her brother. And to Skip, " My mom swears a lot but she says it only matters where you are and who's with you."
"That does matter," Skip said. "So are there other books where the man does the sweeping off the feet thing but the woman puts him down?"
"Yes," she said, her eyes lighting up as she warmed to her subject. "A lot of the time there are alternative lovers. There's the suitable one and the unsuitable one. The unsuitable lover either drops the heroine or better, she drops him because he's a d -- jerk. But the unsuitable lover can come in different forms. He can be the sweeping-off-the-feet kind, or the cold kind, or he could be shy but it turns out he's shy because he really doesn't want her and he feels trapped. Or he can be a playboy, or a stuffed shirt. Sometimes the suitable lover comes off as kind of brash, but in the good ones it turns out to be a misunderstanding and he has his moment of contrition before the happily ever after."
"You really know your subject," Skip said. "A genre expert."
"I hope so," she said.
"What kind of lettering will your novel have?"
"Definitely bouncy!" She actually wrinkled her nose as she said this, and the children joined her giggling. Apparently she had answered this question this same way before.
The job was finished. "Well," Skip said, "Good luck with your writing. And your reading."
"So you're going out tonight?" Patrick asked him at his return. There was a knowing smirk on his elegant features. "Cherry Street?"
"Where else? You want to come with me?" Skip asked, smirking right back.
"No thank you," Patrick said. "The baths don't have what I'm looking for."
"Mr. Right, I know," Skip said. "But you never know, you might get lucky."
"Correction: you might get lucky. All you're looking for is Mr. Right Now."
"You bet I am. But one of my Mr. Right Nows might be one of your Mr. Rights."
Patrick visibly shuddered. "Spare me. Go have fun your way. I'll have fun my way." He meant: he was going to a book club. After a day at the reference desk at the library, a book club. At least, Skip thought, it was a book club for gay men, and they didn't take themselves too seriously.
Skip knew exactly what he was looking for at Cherry Street. He had some simple rules, all of which added up to: don't get entangled. He had a propensity for falling in love with men he had sex with, at least for the moment. But he kept his life simple by never seeing them again. The baths were good for that.
Each time he waited to go out until he felt like a fourteen-year-old, finding arousal in anything vertical or rounded and creased: asparagus or peaches, or at work, the little bell on the reference desk that Patrick used to get him to come out of the stacks. Then he would go to the baths and find someone to blow off steam with. That's all. Nothing more.
He had a couple of outfits he saved for this kind of thing, clothes that expressed his singlemindedness without locking him into a single simpleminded role. That is to say, trousers that showed off all of what he proposed to use without being overtly slutty, a shirt that would be easy to take off, and shoes that would take some work, just in case the one he found might like that. Not a costume, exactly. He'd be willing to play a role for the right guy, but the right guy wouldn't be looking for someone who was already playing that role before he got there.
He was only going to spend a few hours with whoever it turned out to be, and never be with him again, so he wanted it to be the best few hours he could imagine. Tourists were especially good, because he could pretty much count on never seeing them again.
One of the good things about living in the city was that he had no need for a car.to get out at night. He didn't drink. He just didn't relish looking for parking or driving home after a long night seeking and giving pleasure. His destination was a fifteen-minute walk or a twenty-minute bus ride. If he was in a hurry, he would walk: if he was tired, he would take the bus.
Tonight, he was in a hurry.
Also impervious to acacia pollen, but feeling something in the air, was Marcus Hand. The difference was, he knew what was in the air: pressure. Pressure from his friends, at this moment surrounding him at their Cherry Street hangout, the much more respectable Leaping Lox restaurant. "You've got to do it," tow-headed Gabe said, "You know he's right."
"What would you know about it? You've got Dwayne," Marcus growled, pushing his fork around with his long fine fingers.
"Exactly. And I know I'd be a basket case if I didn't have him. So. You need a Dwayne too."
Marcus rolled his eyes. He could just see himself with a man like Dwayne. The man was so intense and moody, he gave solid competition to the neurotics he always ended up dating. The fact that he always ended up dating neurotics was the reason he was single and grumpy right now.
"Don't put so much freight on it," easy-going, urbane Parris said, winking a brown eye. "Look, I know you're an incurable romantic and you just want to settle down with the One True One, but right now you're practically spitting brass washers. You've got to have a little fun, kiddo. Don't worry about finding that guy tonight -- just go with the flow and get some relief."
"You promised you would," Gabe said.
"I know, I must have been crazy. Yes, yes, I'm going. I will walk in the door at the baths. Okay? I don't promise anything more."
"Let's go then," Parris said. "Coming, Gabe?"
"No," Gabe said. "I'm going home and waiting for Dwayne."
"You should come with us," Parris said. "Do wonders for your relationship."
"Yeah, right," Marcus said. "Leave the guy alone, okay? Bad enough you're hauling me off to the baths."
Skip thought the crowd was disappointing. Not that the men weren't attractive. But it was a weeknight, and there weren't so many of them, and the first few people who came to his notice were ones he'd done before, and he didn't even want to go there. Then there were two or three really attractive men who didn't seem interested in him. And then there was the man who made Skip think of his old lover Simon. That was reason enough to get up and walk out the door immediately, if the man wasn't between him and the door at the moment.
He didn't look all that much like Simon. This man had darker skin and hair, more gracile features, and fuller lips. But he had that composure, that serious air with the sensuality and humor just sitting at the edge of his lips. When Skip met his eyes, it was like going six years back in time, back to the day he'd lost his way in the art department and lost his heart to Simon.
Yeah, well, that was enough of that. Skip wasn't looking to do that again. He turned away from the guy. That potted plant was really interesting. It didn't have dark quirked eyebrows and a mouth that Skip could taste from across the room.
"I don't know. I thought it looked like a ficus from over there, but it has those weird shaped leaves," said someone behind him. Someone with a rich voice, not too deep or sonorous, with just a little rasp to it. Not quite a commanding voice, but a compelling one, especially considering the state that Skip was in. And what madman comes to a meat market like the Cherry Street Cafe and starts talking about the plants?
Skip turned around. It was the guy who was too much like Simon. How he crossed the room so quickly Skip didn't know.
I'm going to regret this, he thought, smiling brilliantly, and answering aloud, "It's a ficus, but not that benjamina that lurks in every office. It's a real fig, like in fig newtons."
The guy sat down at Skip's little duet table, Skip's eyes following him the whole way. Up close he was breathtaking. Literally. Like Skip would never breathe easy again until he was breathing this guy. Skip didn't know why. The guy was goodlooking, but not that goodlooking. Pheremones?
But if the guy was coming on to him, Skip couldn't prove it. "You know houseplants?" he asked.
Skip shook his head. "I was just reading an article about figs the other day. They have interesting sex lives. "
"You read a lot about fruit?" The guy's facetious little smile was devastating.
"I just read whatever I bump into at work," Skip said, realizing the double entendre too late to say something suggestive back.
"My name is Marcus," he said. "What do you bump into at work?"
"All kinds of things," Skip said, not reciprocating with his name. "There's always books and journals to poke your nose into. You never know what might be interesting."
"I think you're pretty interesting," Marcus said. "What do you at work?"
Skip's head was spinning. This Marcus was definitely flirting, but he also seemed to be settling in for a cozy little get-to-know-you conversation, which was against Skip's rules. Tonight he wanted to be nothing but a body. An instrument of somebody's fucking pleasure. Not a person to talk to and understand.
"Anything anybody asks me to. If they ask me nicely." Well, it would have been rude not to answer at all.
"Are you a student?" Marcus asked. Way too interested in him as a person, Skip decided. The last thing Skip needed. He already had friends. Well, some, anyway. Enough to get by. But. He could revise his plans for the evening and just not have sex with him, and then he wouldn't be breaking the rules. But that would entail finding someone else to do later or going without. He could go without. That would be all right. He had gone without before.
But Skip found himself answering, "No. You want to go next door?" Where the rooms were. Like little treatment rooms in an acupuncturist's office. Small, not exactly dark, almost comfortable, smelling of cleaner and something rather like incense. Belatedly, Skip justified his answer. If he got this guy into a room right away, he wouldn't have any more chances to break the rules.
Marcus touched Skip's hand. "In a while," he said. "Unless you're in a hurry? There's hours yet. What else do you know about figs?"
Apparenty Skip was going to break his rules tonight after all. He was surely going to suffer for it tomorrow. Okay. He'd done that before. Afterwards he'd remember why he had the rules. Regrets, pining, all that. But right now: he wanted this guy tonight, and he was going to do anything Marcus wanted him to do. Including engaging in the pre-sex conversation he always avoided. He was going to end up hearing more about the guy than he wanted to, which would give his imagination fuel to work with when it harrassed him over the next few weeks about how nice it might have been to get really close. He wouldn't fall for it though. His imagination could harrass him and punish him, but it couldn't change his survival tactics.
Especially not with a guy who made him feel like Simon did.
The conversation ranged from figs to politics to literature to how nice it was to live in such a congenial city with such nice weather. They both complained of the acacias blooming lewdly on almost every street. Inside Skip was roiling. He wanted next door, now, not later. But he couldn't budge the guy without this long conversation. Skip had to admit that the conversation was pleasant. They agreed on the important points. The things they disagreed on were interesting. Skip thought the guy would make a much better best friend than one-night stand. But he had a best friend, Patrick, who laughed at him when he needed it and had almost given up on nagging him to "have a life." And he'd met this guy at the Cherry Street Cafe, where Skip preferred to remain a stranger. And also: if this guy was here, he wasn't really looking for more than Skip was. He apparently liked to pretend he was, though.
Skip wrestled with himself and finally got control. He said, "Well, it's getting late, I guess -- almost time to go home." It wasn't late and he didn't have to get up early in the morning, since it was his day off. But it was an excuse to get the hell away from this before he got caught.
Just when Skip thought he wasn't going to break his rules after all, Marcus leaned forward and said, staring deeply into Skip's hazel eyes, "I think we should get started, don't you?"
"Yes," Skip breathed. He nearly came just from the sudden switch into sex mode. He knew he would pay for this. He should start thinking about other ways to get away clean.
Skip made sure to pay for the room himself. His first foray here, three years earlier, he had let the other guy pay, and that had been a slow-motion disaster. Some of these guys, if they paid for the room, they thought they bought the guy. Though the worst of it, Skip thought, was when they had buyer's remorse, and became offended when they discovered that the merchandise was not what they thought it ought to be. Marcus started to object, then offered to split, but shook his head with amusement and did not argue anymore when Skip insisted.
Marcus noticed that his date had sidestepped every invitation to share his name. That was all right. The guy was just shy, or being careful about the possibility of deranged strangers. The connection between them was obvious. Marcus had already "got his number:" he'd have his name and phone number by the time the Cherry Street Baths closed. The guy was as smitten as he was, he could tell. You couldn't fake that enthusiasm. Or the pheremones that flooded off the guy. The guy smelled like sex in a field of flowers and herbs. Yes, Marcus was that far gone already.
He had argued and refused and finally given in when his friends had forced him to come here. "Six months is enough," they said. "You have to get over it. Go out for some mindless fun. That will get you ready for serious dating."
His plan had been to go along for the ride, chat up a couple of pleasant guys, and then declare the night a success. The thought of having sex with some guy he'd never see again was as unappealing as yesterday's dishes.
When he'd caught the eye of the guy at the little table by the plant he'd adjusted his plans. To hell with starting slow. The guy looked like he was already saying "I do." Marcus followed the first half of his original strategy -- a nice, wide-ranging conversation with the odd innuendo -- but instead of letting go and slipping away, he took hold. Or gave in, or something.
Later, he remembered that the conversation was way too much like the one that had started his unfortunate affair with the man his friends had taken to calling "Manic Mario." But at the time all he noticed was how much he wanted the unnamed stranger, and how clearly the stranger wanted him, though he made no moves.
His revised plans involved staying at the baths until the two o'clock closing time, having this guy as many times and ways as the interval would allow, and starting the last affair he'd ever need. This was going to be his guy. It wasn't love yet, but it would be by the end of the weekend.
It was not like Marcus to be precipitate, but he did know what he wanted. And he wanted this man.
He let him pay for the room -- another sign, he thought, that he had the man. He had hardly closed the door before his date was naked and adoring Marcus's own body. He had a farmer's tan, but the untanned bits were not white, but ochreish, where they weren't flushed bright with desire. Marcus laid his barely darker hand on the other's flank, letting his eyes roam over and over him.
"Tell me what you want," Skip said, dropping to his knees and looking up over Marcus's erection, locking eyes with him.
"You," Marcus said. "all of you."
"Do you want this?" Skip asked, running his tongue over Marcus's balls and up the underside of his penis. This asking is what Skip always did. It was a universal strategy. It satisfied the ones who wanted to feel like they were in control by giving them the feeling that he was getting their orders and their permission. The ones who wanted to feel like he was in control of them felt that he was making them tell him what they wanted. What he got out of it was something else. His senses and his intuitions might be persuasive, but hearing the words was the only sure thing.
"Yes," Marcus said, amazed that he couldn't hear a tremor in his own voice.
"Do you want --"
"Condom," Marcus said. He thought he was clean, he had to go back for more tests in a couple of weeks before he could be sure. He wasn't trusting anything Mario had told him anymore. And he wasn't trusting anybody else too far too soon, no matter how adorable they were. Condoms all the way, now, even without penetration.
His guy reached for the bowl which sat prominently in the room, and pulled out three different packets, which he held up for Marcus to choose. Good choices, Marcus thought, noticing that he hadn't picked any of the kinds that Marcus didn't like. Marcus chose.
"Do you want me to put it on you, or do you want to --"
He did it with his mouth. Slowly. Trembling slightly, and always stroking Marcus at the base of his penis as if it were a treasure he had never expected to receive.
Skip pulled back. "Like this?" he asked.
Marcus curled his fingers into Skip's sun-bleached hair, urging, not pushing. "Yeah," he breathed. Skip looked up almost worshipfully and dived on to him again.
Marcus watched him at work. Sex tinges the vision, but he thought that the golden-colored man curled up down there was the prettiest, sweetest thing he'd ever seen. He didn't even close his eyes when he came. Which was the reason he was able to catch the guy as he backed off and started groping for his clothes.
"What are you doing?" he asked, gripping him by the nearest part, which happened to be his hair. He released that immediately, and caught his arm. "You're not leaving?"
"It's getting late . . ." the guy was walleyed like a spooked horse, but he stilled as Marcus bent forward and kissed him on the mouth.
"It's not that late. You didn't come."
"It's okay," the man whimpered under Marcus's kiss. "I don't need --"
"I need. Come here." Marcus tugged him lightly by his penis and he did come, grunting. Before he could start going for his clothes again, Marcus pulled him into a full embrace, stroking the shaking man, murmuring nonsense. Almost nonsense: "Just stay a little longer," he said, in among other things neither of them would remember.
"A little while. If you want," Skip said. "You want me to --"
"All of it," Marcus said. Marcus wanted it all, every which way, now, and all night and tomorrow too. He wasn't used to such short latencies, and he damned well had never done it this many times in one evening. The room seemed to be thrumming like a beehive, moving and golden. He found himself slapping a condom on the stranger's cock and climbing right on to it. He kept his eyes open and watched the man as he rode him. Whose golden skin was mottled with red. Whose eyes rolled back, whose head fell back, and he hissed like water bouncing off a griddle, and again when Marcus climbed off and when he climbed on again, this time with a new condom, going deep inside his golden flesh.
When the man opened his hazel eyes, Marcus stared into them: what he saw was complicated, open, almost wounded. Marcus drew him into his arms as they rested, kissing his forehead, feeling as if in a strange way he were consoling the guy -- for some past hurt? The man burrowed his face into Marcus's shoulder, and Marcus stroked him for a long quiet moment. Maybe they slept, there in the blood-warm room, foggy with their own sweat. Marcus nearly jumped when the lights flickered, indicating that the baths were going to close in fifteen minutes. Marcus's man rolled away, feeling for his clothes, his eyes on the door.
Marcus got up and fumbled through his pockets. Yes, he had his little book and his pencil. He tore out a page and wrote all his particulars on it. "Here," he said, handing over the book, the loose page, and the pencil. "I never got your name. Give me your number. Your email. We can talk tomorrow --"
The man stared at the things and did not take them. His eyes travelled up to Marcus's face. He suddenly had no expression at all. He shook his head. "I think," he said, slowly, "we both got what we came for."
He turned away and didn't look back at Marcus while he dressed. Marcus put his things away, seething. The guy had been playing him. He'd picked up that Marcus wanted more than a fuck, and had carefully walked that line -- behaving as if there was more of a connection, but never saying so. And having gotten what he wanted, he was gone. And those earlier times he'd started to leave? Marcus couldn't help thinking that at least the first one was a ploy to make Marcus make the first substantive move. The man was another neurotic, a needy, manipulative crazy unwilling to give as good as he got.
This was the last time he was going to let his friends talk him into coming down to Cherry Street. The conversation had been wonderful, the sex had been paradaisical -- but they just weren't worth the disappointment.
Skip came out of the baths fifteen minutes before the bus would come by. The bus stop was well-lighted and there were three other people waiting. He didn't need to be in a hurry. He could take the bus home if he wanted.
He walked past the bus stop and then broke into a run.
It wasn't the streets that scared him.
Skip spent the rest of the night and most of the next day drawing. His sketchpad filled up with pictures of Marcus. Marcus fully clothed, talking, listening. Marcus undressing. Marcus watching Skip undress. Marcus with his eyes half closed. Marcus coming -- that last one mostly from his imagination: he had not been in a position to see that detail.
The fury in Marcus's eyes when Skip rejected his phone number. Marcus probably thought Skip hadn't seen it, but he had. He had seen that look before. He ought to be immune to it by now. But he wasn't, and that was the reason he never exchanged numbers or carried on pre-sex conversations. Because he knew if he got close at all, he'd have to see that look, sooner or later. The fury in the wake of betrayal. Somehow, sometime, he'd screw up, he'd hurt the person he loved, and he'd earn that look, and he'd fall right apart. Again. He wasn't so maudlin as to think he wouldn't be able to put himself together again, but he didn't want to do that. It wasn't unreasonable to want to hold on to a reasonably pleasant life, was it?
Friday he went to the arboretum, as usual. Four years ago he'd made a temporary home in the depths of the plantings there, and ever since, he'd worked off his debt of gratitude to the place and the plants and the people in it. He brought his other sketchbook along as well -- the one with the pictures for public consumption, all drawings of plants. He told his friend Angel, who was on the staff there: "If it's okay with you, I'm going over to the far end and I'm going to spend the day digging up broom seedlings. I need something really fierce to do today."
"Okay. Go whack invasives. Show me what you've got when you're done."
What he had when he was done, was a long hand truck full of tough, thorned young bushes, sprouting the most cheerful yellow peablossoms. His arms were scratched and his clothes were stained with green.
He was tired, but not tired enough to forget Marcus's smell, Marcus's taste, Marcus's wit and smile and Marcus's final disappointment as Skip fled.
Marcus woke up in a mood. He dawdled at work in his uncle's art gallery, distracted and dissatisfied. He knew what he was distracted by. Two things. One, his application for a design contest in connection with some new low-income housing -- he was a newly qualified architect. The other thing was the Cherry Street guy. He would have been happily irritated if all he could remember was getting blown off at the end, but instead he kept remembering the wide-ranging, intelligent conversation at the beginning, and the intense, satisfying sex in the middle. He had a date for lunch at the Leaping Lox again, with the same cadre of friends who had bullied him into going to the baths the night before. Gabe was the first to pick up on his mood. "Uh-oh," he said. "Looks like our Marcus didn't get laid last night after all."
Marcus glared at him. "Better if I didn't," he said, stabbing his omelette viciously.
Gabe and Parris exchanged glances. "What's the matter?" Parris asked. "Bad time?"
Marcus considered not answering. "Not until the last minute. Before that, it was good. Too good."
Parris laughed in surprise. "How can a good time be too good?"
Instead of answering, Marcus took a long, slow, vicious drink of his French roast black. Gabe and Parris again exchanged glances as the same surmise came to them both.
"What happened at the last minute?" Gabe asked.
"Not a damned thing," Marcus said. "Not a damned thing."
Parris scowled. "You mean you didn't get his number."
Gabe said, "You liked him?"
"Okay," Marcus said, pushing his plate away. "This is it. I let you guys talk me into going to the baths. First mistake. I didn't really want to go, so I went to the cafe first. Right after I got there I saw him. Cute, not too cute, and he was looking right at me. I thought he was going to flirt but he looked away. But I liked him and I went to talk to him. I should have left him there. But we had a great conversation and I thought, cool, I can tell my so-called friends I did what they said and I don't have to fuck a stranger, we'll just talk all night."
"Oh come on," Parris said. "Don't tell me you weren't horny. That's why we made you go. You were pumping out frustration hormones enough to knock out a radio station."
"What?" Marcus and Gabe asked simultaneously. Gabe shook his head. "Anyway, did you talk all night? I thought you said you got laid."
"Yeah. We talked for a couple of hours and then we went next door and went at it till closing. I thought we had a connection. He certainly seemed like he was into me, anyway. But when I tried to get his name and number, he left. Said we'd both got what we came for."
"He was that good, huh?" Parris asked. "Do you think he's a regular? I wonder if I've ever seen him."
"How would I know?" Marcus said sourly. "It's not my stomping grounds. And it's not going to be in the future, so you can just keep your nagging to yourself."
Gabe glared at Parris. "See, I was afraid of this. Marcus just isn't the casual-sex type. It didn't make him feel better after all."
"You were just as enthusiastic as I was, boy, don't you try to put the blame on me. Anyway I think this is better. Our Marcus is now pissed off at a stranger instead of pining for old Manic Mario." Parris waggled his eyebrows.
"I was not pining for that piece of work," Marcus said. "I do not pine for people who mess me over just to make me part of their crazytown scenario. Especially not married ones! Now, I humored you guys. Can we please leave my urges alone for a while? I think I can adjust to celibacy quite nicely, thank you."
"Celibacy is kind of an extreme reaction," Parris said. "You could end up regretting that. You know, use it or lose it."
"I'm sure it's not like that. Marcus, you're an attractive guy. There's a guy out there for you," Gabe said.
"Easy for you to say. You're still with the guy you met in high school." Marcus pulled his plate back and picked up the parsley. "You think everybody has a soul mate somewhere."
"Maybe not everybody," Gabe said. "There's always Parris. His soul mate would have to have, let's see, a hundred different bodies and personalities every year."
Marcus opened his mouth, but Parris laughed. "No, I don't think so. I like to screw around, but I don't need that much novelty. I've had the same friends-with-benefits for a few years. But Gabe's right about you. You're the epitome of husband material. All you need is a suitable lover, and you'll be set for life."
"Yeah, right, the right lover is just lying around everywhere you look, too."
"If you know what to look for," Gabe said.
Marcus scowled. "What's so difficult? It's not like I want something exotic. Just a regular guy, with something going -- something to talk about -- and sane. That's all."
"There's a lot of guys like that," Gabe said, at the same time as Parris said, "That's a tall order."
"You guys figure it out for yourselves," Marcus said. "I'm on my way to work."
Skip slipped into the library half an hour before he was supposed to and marched straight to the bowels of the preservation room. Technically, he was supposed to check with the reference librarians first to see if they had anything special for him to do, but he wasn't in the mood to talk to anyone. And anyway, Patrick would buzz him if he needed him. He threw himself into the most complicated project he could find. It was hours before he had to talk to anyone. Patrick, naturally. Patrick was not just Skip's boss: he was Skip's best friend. Maybe Skip's only friend, depending on how strictly one defined the word "friend:" he never really socialized with Angel outside the arboretum, though Skip owed a great deal to him.
"Your tuneup didn't work out?" Patrick asked, easing into the desk chair next to the table where Skip had himself stationed. "I expected to see your sunny smile all over the reference desk this morning. Or has the effect already faded? Not good enough to last two days?"
"It was okay. I'm tired, is all. I've been drawing a lot. Used up my big sketchpad. I'll have to remember to get a new one."
"What were you drawing?"
Skip knew better than to answer. Patrick knew what Skip drew, and what it meant when he drew pictures of people instead of plants.
"That bad, huh? What, was the place filled up with only yesterdays' papers?"
Skip winced. "You know I don't think about them like that. I'm sure most of them are perfectly nice guys. It's just self-preservation not to get involved with someone you meet at the baths. Not a good way to start a relationship."
"And a good way to start a relationship is . . .?"
Patrick knew he was on to something because Skip chewed his upper lip and drummed his fingers on the table top.
"Not with me," Skip finally said, as he had said so many times before, but this time he didn't grin: he almost shouted it. "What the hell is a guy like that doing on Cherry Street at all? And what gives him the idea that he's going to meet a lover at the baths? And where does he get off insisting on hours of conversation before he gets a room? And then he wants my goddamned number. Where the hell does he think he is? A matchmakers retreat?"
Patrick nodded. "You do realize that you're complaining that you had a good date?"
"It was not a good date. A good date is refreshing. This was disturbing."
"Maybe you need to be disturbed."
"Don't you have to go take care of some patrons?"
Patrick patted Skip's head as he stood up. "Well, it's a good thing somebody finally got to you. You'll be rejoining the living any day now."
Patrick turned around at the door. "You know that playboy pose has never suited you," he said. "So you got his number?"
"Whose number? No, of course not. Just because he got me to break the no conversation rule doesn't mean I'm going to break them all. And I'm not a playboy, I'm just prudent."
Minutes before the library was scheduled to close, a patron arrived at the reference desk. Patrick had seen him in the library before, usually reading quite independently through the art encyclopedias. This time he came straight to Patrick with an unexpected question: he wanted a good introduction to evolutionary biology. "Cladistics, maybe? Is that the onewhere you count mutations on the DNA of different species?"
Patrick stared for a moment before saying, "Well, let's see --"
"It's just that I was talking to this guy the other night -- it was hilarious. So now I want to read about it just to get his jokes better."
"You met a guy who was making jokes about cladistics?" Patrick had this wild surmise -- but no, the world was just not that coincidental. "One of those genome fellows, I suppose. Anyway, we've got someone here who's better equipped than I am to help you with this. He's in the back. I'll buzz him in."
Skip didn't respond to the summons. Patrick frowned. "I guess I'll go check."
Skip had been coopted by the front desk to help with the last-minute checkout rush. "Just have him leave his email and his question, and I'll get back to him," he said.
"Maybe you could just talk to him for a minute before he goes," Patrick said. This ought to be interesting.
"Nah, man, I'm busy and I'm not in any mood to talk to people," Skip said. "Just get the info and I'll get back to him. Please, Patrick? Reva's going to be pissed if we get any more backed up here."
Patrick had the man write it all down for Skip. Something about the email address tugged at his memory. "Ihangal. Is that an abbreviation?" He asked.
"Yes," the man said. "The Eye Hand gallery. I work there. Sheer nepotism: my uncle's the owner. But I earn my living, anyway."
"So, you're into art," Patrick said, grimacing at the awkward lead-in. "Maybe you'd enjoy our event next week. Four of us employees are having a show and reception in the meeting room upstairs. Here's the flyer. Not all of it is gallery quality, but I think you might enjoy it anyway. It's all on a library theme. The reception's next Sunday."
Marcus took the paper. It was nicely designed -- someone on the library staff knew what they were doing. The four employees apparently did very different work. There was Patrick Juo, photographing members of "the library community:" Reva Garcia and her collage meditations on the classics and society: Jinny Smith and her dolls -- those sounded interesting, they were made of odd materials: and Skip Ritter's "literary herbarium."
"Yes, I'll come," Marcus said. "You're right, this does sound like fun. I'll stop by before that, too, see if I can catch your expert."
"Try coming in the morning, if you can. He's less likely to have been stolen by another department earlier in the day. He'll probably have a lot to say to you. He's an interesting guy. A well-rounded autodidact. Also interested in art."
Patrick came home with Skip for dinner and a movie. Patrick brought the movie, an arch romantic comedy with sardonic moments and a downer ending. "Just for you," Patrick said. "Because you don't believe in happy endings."
"I do too," Skip said. "I'm living my happy ending right now."
"Bullshit. Hand me that popcorn, you're going to choke on it, you liar."
"Are you saying that a fun job, a fulfilling hobby, community service and your friendship are not a happy life?"
"Necessary but not sufficient. Anyway, your job is fun only because I'm your boss. It's not going anywhere. You don't even get full benefits. You should at least get a degree if you want to stay with the library."
"I had enough schooling to satisfy me. And if I did want to get the master's like you have, I'd never get in because I have no grade point average at all." It was true. His last quarter his grade point average had dropped from a comfortable 3.2 to a failing 1.9. He left so abruptly that he'd simply failed all his classes. He'd been carrying extra units, and he had an incomplete from the quarter before. He had finished all the work and was about to hand it in for the grade when he left, haunted by Simon's hurt and disappointment.
And now he couldn't think about school without thinking about Simon and Simon's friends.
Patrick didn't know the whole story, but he knew enough that he could see the change in Skip's mood when he pushed him. He ought to have mercy on him, but he thought that a man owed his friends honesty, even -- or especially -- when it made them uncomfortable. In the guise of changing the subject, he continued to push. "So, show me what you drew on your days off."
Skip pretended not to hear. "I'm going to start the movie," he said.
"So your drawings were maudlin studies in sex? All sad eyes and big cocks?"
Skip rolled his eyes and put down the remote. "Okay, you're not going to leave me alone till you see them, right?"
"Right. So show them."
Skip reluctantly brought out his biggest sketchbook and handed it over to Patrick. He went into the kitchen and poked at the meatloaf he was reheating for them. He didn't know why he let Patrick at his drawings, since the results invariably bugged him. Or why he didn't just grow a callus over the part of him that didn't like references to college or portraiture.
When he came back in the room, Patrick was studying a page where Skip had wreathed a central picture of Marcus as Skip had first seen him, smiling and teasing, with smaller head-studies showing the range of expressions Marcus had displayed through the night. Not omitting that last one. Patrick had a calculating expression on his face.
"What?" Skip asked, handing Patrick cheap but good red wine in a juice glass.
Patrick glanced from the page to Skip and back again. "Nothing," he said, closing the sketchbook. "Let's watch the movie."