Trying hard

another Cherry Street story

1. Something's up

"The thing is, Denny, you just don't try hard enough." Joe smirked from his perch on the counter as he watched Denny flub another one.

"I try plenty hard for the level of importance of the activity," Denny answered, picking up the ball of crumpled paper from the floor next to the wastepaper basket. It was his sixth try and his sixth failure to get it in while throwing it over his back, making his aim by watching his reflection in the window.

"That attitude will get you nowhere," Joe said. "Nothing's too trivial to put your heart into."

"That is simply untrue," Denny said. Considering that there were some remarkably un-trivial things that he had decided to keep his heart out of, he was not going to be bullied into feeling like he ought to put his heart into a ridiculous game like this.

"Anyway, I'm hungry," Joe said. "My treat."

"You get a promotion?" Denny asked, scooping up his jacket as he turned briskly towards the door. "This is the third time this week."

"No," Joe said, but he didn't give any other explanation for his recent generosity in taking his friend to dinner.

#

"Okay, something's up," Denny said.

"Why do you say that?" Joe asked, with a mysterious little grin that annoyed Denny tremendously, though he'd have to admit that it was because it was too attractive a smile to deploy in a conversation with a mere friend (without benefits, even).

"You're doing a whole gentleman thing, holding doors open and crap, as if anybody would want you to. And you've brought me to six dinners this month, each one at a fancier restaurant than the last one. I'm surprised that we didn't get thrown out of this one for violating the dress code."

"Dress code is so last century," Joe said. "When was the last time you wore a tie?"

"Three months ago. But dude, I'm dressed for painting the house, which is what I was doing before you invited yourself over and started challenging me to ridiculous sporting contests."

"What? Oh, you mean the backwards wastebasket basketball thing. If you think something's up, what do you think it is?"

Denny frowned as he thought. Nothing came to mind. "If I'd known that, I'd have said that first. So tell me. You're the one who's acting weird."

Joe's gaze wandered a moment. "I was just thinking. We're pretty close friends, right?"

Denny's stomach clenched in a moment of anxiety. "Yes . . ."

"Some people would say closer than friends ought to be." Joe's eyes turned back to Denny.

Denny sighed. Oh well. They had made it six years after Denny's ill-conceived confession. He'd thought they could stay friends forever, but apparently not. He made a mental note not to go into real mourning till he got out of this place.

". . .and," Joe was saying, "I was thinking: you're single, I'm single, we're compatible, and I know you thought of this once before on your own: we should go out."

"What? We're out right now," Denny said, playing for time.

"You know what I mean. Be a couple."

"You know what? Let's not," Denny said. Six years ago, he'd have jumped at the chance. But he knew himself and Joe much better now and he wasn't going to make this particular mistake.

"Why not?" Joe asked. Denny checked: he didn't seem hurt: but he didn't seem to actually believe that Denny was saying no, either. He seemed to think Denny was negotiating.

"Because there's more kinds of compatible, and there's ways we aren't compatible, and I value our friendship and I don't want to wreck it on the shoals of a failed relationship."

Joe's lips were actually moving as he tried to put some meaning on what Denny had said, other than "no." He put up a long finger. "What ways are we not compatible?" he asked. "I like or easily tolerate everything about you and everything you do and like, and the same seems to be the case for you with me, unless you're a very clever liar and you've been fooling me for all these years."

How to say this without actually saying it? Denny thought for long enough that Joe was making meaningful grimaces and trying to catch his eye. Denny caught him twitching and burst out laughing before he could answer the question"

"What?" Joe asked, offended. "Are you going to answer the question."

"You look like a rabbit when you wiggle your nose like that."

"I wasn't wiggling my nose. Answer the question." He picked up his wine glass with a menacing gesture and took a sip, raising his eyebrows to indicate that he was waiting: but not patiently.

Denny could not figure out a euphemous way to say what he wanted to say. "We can't be a couple because we're not sexually compatible," he said in a rush to avoid stammering.

Joe choked on his wine and droplets went flying everywhere. At least it was white wine. "Say what? How on earth do you know we're not sexually compatible when we've never done anything?"

"You talk," Denny said. "I kind of know a lot about what you like and what you don't like."

"You have the advantage of me there, because you don't," Joe said, in an accusing voice. "So tell me how we're so incompatible. Maybe we could work it out. You never know until you try, right?"

"I'm pretty sure we couldn't work this one out," Denny said. "We going to have dessert or not?"

"What? You're into necrophilia? Funny, I never took you for a serial murderer."

It was Denny's turn to choke. "No," he said.

"Then what?"

"Then nothing. Just because you talk about all the icky details of your sex life doesn't mean I have to."

Joe shook his head, exasperated. "My sex life is not icky! It's completely normal. And if you're going to reject me because we're not sexually compatible, I think you ought to give me a clue about what you mean."

"No." Denny put up his hand to catch the waitress. "I'm going home."

"Okay," Joe said, putting up his hands. "We don't have to talk about your non-existent sex life."

It was not a good time to protest that his sex life was not non-existent, because that would only give Joe permission to ask about it again. And telling Joe, of all people, was not a possibility.

Not when Joe was the only person whose respect he actually cared about.

##

Denny made it home in one piece, took his evening pill, and had disturbing dreams anyway. Of course, he thought in the morning, that was a conversation that would induce disturbing dreams in a normal person: so naturally, he could expect nothing else.

Fortunately, he didn't remember the details. So it wasn't all that bad, and he was well enough rested to slouch through a day of work at the loading dock. On his way home he saw a text on his phone: Joe, of course. He read it: it didn't mention the annoying conversation of the night before. It was just an invitation to meet up at the Leaping Lox and then head for the Highpocket. Denny was of two minds. On the one hand, he'd been out the night before, and with Joe: on the other hand, it was Friday night, and he could sleep in the next day. And it would be good to get back into the groove with Joe. He wouldn't make any more awkward gestures, would he? It was just billiards. Nobody talked about dating their friends over billiards, did they?

And anyway . . . he could outlast Joe, and after Joe called it a night, he could head over to the Baths. He would already be on Cherry Street anyway. He could have a little fun, his way, and forget that Joe had ever said anything.

It was a good thing Joe hadn't thought this way back when Denny was thinking about it. Before Denny knew enough to know how disastrous it would have been for Joe to accept Denny's proposition back then. And hopefully, he'd drop it now, since Denny had been so clear.

Because if Joe pushed it, Denny was not sure he could resist for long, and that way lay definite disaster.

So billiards it was. And Denny would resist any tendency for Joe to get sentimental.

The Lox was crowded, of course, since it was a Friday evening. But Denny found Joe, and they both found a table, and they had an unremarkable "quick" dinner that took an hour and a half to prepare, which meant that Denny had to work very hard to keep all that time filled up with conversation that was not about whether or not old friends who spent all their time together should become lovers, Denny talked about movies - old ones, and new ones. He talked about books, and the fact that he hadn't read one for a few months and that was embarrassing. And he talked about the cuts in service on the bus line, and he talked about the weather, and city politics, and the etymology of neighborhood names in the Lower Hundred district of the city. Dinner arrived when he was speculating on why there was an Upper Salsipuedes, and an Inner Salsipuedes, and a South Salsipuedes, but no Lower, Outer, or North. Then they could eat in silence and that was okay. It was even comfortable, and Denny forgot to worry about Joe's intentions for a while. And then they were talking about going on over to Highpocket, and who might be there, and whether it would be a long wait for a table, and whether Joe was going to dust the floor with Denny when it came to billiards.

Of course Joe did dust the floor with Denny when it came to billiards. He always did. Joe was a smaller guy, but his arms were wiry and long and his hands were steady, and he took himself seriously and took his time. Denny was slower, shakier, but also more impetuous when it came to games: having stared at the shot for a while, he just went after it anyhow, despairing of getting it right.

"See, that's the thing," Joe said, "You're just not trying hard enough."

"Sure," Denny agreed in an affable tone - somewhat distracted because that hot guy in the corner was giving him a look. Not just any look. He was staring, and then tilting his head toward the bathroom, and making a weird little pursed-mouth gesture with a tiny flick of the tongue. As if he wanted the opposite of what he really wanted, Denny thought. He knew what that was - for the past few years, he knew what they all wanted, and they all knew what he wanted, with almost complete accuracy. He didn't know how they found him - he was so plain looking: maybe there was a network of them, telling each other who to look out for? In any case, he was going to try to get this one, even though Joe was here. had he ever done this while Joe was present?

Right, that time at the outdoor festival - but it would be stretching things to say Joe was present - he'd been awfully plastered and half-asleep on the blanket they were sharing with friends, when Denny had wandered off with that wiry little thing with the ponytail and soulful eyes. He hadn't even stirred by the time Denny got back. This was different. Joe was awake and aware and mostly sober and the bathroom was only a few meters away from their table.

The hot guy was talking to another person at his table: a large gender-ambiguous person who somehow seemed waifish despite the large stature and fleshy face. Oh well, Denny thought, his excitement subsiding. Can't catch them all.

The hot guy's ambiguous companion had walked over to their table. Oh good! - she: Denny was pretty sure it was a she - was challenging Joe to a game. Joe would have a hard time backing away from a challenge. Joe was tenacious, he was competitive, and he was saying yes. Then Joe turned a surprisingly concerned look to Denny.

"Sure, go ahead," Denny said. "I have to go to the bathroom anyway."

He did, didn't he? And yet he almost blushed when Joe's billiards partner caught his eye and smirked.

He watched Joe and the new person - whose name, he gathered, was Bobby - saunter up to the billiards table. Denny made his way to the bathroom, outwardly nonchalant, and stood at the mirror examining his mouth until the hot guy from across the room came in.

"Nice mouth," the guy said. Denny acknowledged him with a nod.

"Don't use it much for talking, do you?"

Denny shook his head. Actually, when he was in the mood, and with his friends, he could be pretty talkative. But he wasn't here to talk.

"Okay. I figure you know what you want."

Denny nodded, and let himself carefully down - the floor was pretty clean for a bathroom, otherwise he wouldn't have considered it, but it was still a bathroom floor - and went to work on the guy's pants. He made it all pretty quick. He wasn't interested in the guy's story, he wasn't interested in cuddling, he wasn't interested in anything but getting the guy off as quickly and simply as possible. He had his always-handy "boy scout" condom with him, and he had it slipped on the guy's penis so fast that he gave a little grunt of surprise, followed by an entirely different grunt as Denny swallowed him down. Fortunately for Denny, the other guy also had someone who might come looking for him, so there was none of that holding back, making it last crap. It was minutes only, and then the guy was panting, and his fingers were scrabbling in Denny's hair, and he stilled, and Denny felt a little bulge in the condom where he had come. Denny stood up, letting the other guy take care of the condom disposal while he checked to see how mussed he was. "Geeze," he said. You've got a grip like one of Harlow's monkeys."

"What? Hey, you want me to -"

"No," Denny said. "Got what I wanted. See you around, maybe." He turned to the door just in time to see Joe open it.

"Right," said Joe, taking in the scene with unfortunate accuracy."

The other guy faded away, leaving Denny to confront Joe alone. Just as well. The guy probably thought Joe was Denny's boyfriend anyway. In which case why had he been so fast to give Denny the eye?

"So," Joe said.

"What?" Denny said, taking the offensive for once. Joe didn't have a right to get huffy about what Denny did.

Joe wasn't huffy. He was, if anything, sad, which disturbed Denny even more. "So - the thing about us not being sexually compatible? It was this?"

"More or less, yes," Denny said, wincing.

"So what - you get off on the unsanitary surroundings, or the impersonal thing, or the threat of getting caught? What?"

Joe wasn't making any more fuss than Denny would have expected, but it suddenly occurred to Denny that he really didn't think it mattered what Joe thought of it.

"I'm not going to explain myself," he said. "I do what I do. I told you that you wouldn't like it."

Joe rubbed his eyes and turned away. "Of course not," he said. He stood for a moment while Denny wondered if he was ever going to get out of the bathroom. He turned back and gave Denny a bleak look. "I think I'm going to head home. See you later, okay?"

"Sure," Denny said. He followed Joe out of the bathroom, his hands in his pockets, wondering if he had just gotten off easy or if he'd lost his best friend.