On the scale balancing his self-esteem on one side, and the love of his family on the other, Mike has to decide which weighs more. Is Mike being fair to his parents by not giving them the chance to know his real self? When the delicate balance of his life is disrupted, he decides he’s tired of living a lie. Will Wes understand his concerns, or will their fledgling relationship crumble under the strain of Mike’s uncertainty?
Chapter 1: Roommates
Chat up a telemarketer—that was one thing I’d rather do. Or engage in a conversation with someone handing out religious tracts on a street corner. Maybe ask that burly guy with the perpetual frown at the Express Lube to help me out with a little manscaping. I shuddered. No, maybe not that one.
Point being, there were plenty of things I’d rather do than face another roommate interviewee. I missed Amber already. I even missed the side-eyed squint she’d leveled in my direction whenever I’d left the toilet seat up.
I hit PLAY on the iPod attached to the stereo, and Paul Simon’s vocals rang out as he sang “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard.” My head bopped to the beat as I approached the sliding glass balcony door to stare down over the parking lot.
The immortal words of Thomas H. Palmer came to mind. “’Tis a lesson you should heed, try, try again. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” I’d be willing to bet Mr. Palmer had never endured a new roommate search culminating with a guy who didn’t think anything of showing up to the interview stoned out of his mind, or tried to politely extricate himself from a non-stop chatterbox who either couldn’t or wouldn’t pick up on clues it was time to leave. At least the homophobe hadn’t wasted any time clearing out.
This next guy was starting his residency at University Hospital, so probably not a stoner. Bound to be intelligent, and less likely to be a bigot. He’d sounded pleasant enough on the phone.
I wasn’t that far removed from my student housing days, so I didn’t mind sharing my apartment if it was with the right person. I wasn’t asking for much. Friendly and affable would be great, pleasant would be nice, or at least unobtrusive would be acceptable. I knocked on the wood trim around the patio door. Not that I truly believed that would ward off jinxing myself; it was more of a mindless habit.
Taking in a roommate was worth it. I loved living in the city, both for its proximity to my work and for the nightlife. It’s where my friends were. I earned a decent salary now, but even so, rent in Austin was much higher than in the suburbs, and I wanted money left for fun as well as saving for emergencies, the future, or whatever. Supposedly, Benjamin Franklin had first coined the phrase “A penny saved is a penny earned,” and my dad had drilled it into me in my formative years. Besides, there’d been plenty of extra expenses my kickoff year as an official grownup out on my own, furnishing my first apartment.
My hand moved reflexively to my chest when a lavender Volkswagen Beetle pulled into the parking lot below. I’d recognize that car anywhere. Then I shook my head at my own stupidity, because obviously, there was more than one in the country, and the odds were…
I gasped. The odds were better than I’d thought. The owner of the distinctive vehicle from my university days’ name was Wes Shaw. I didn’t know my imminently expected interviewee’s last name, but I did know his first name was Wes. And my Wes had been in pre-med back when I’d known him at Brownsville University in Kansas.
“Known him” was a bit of an exaggeration. Other than a fleeting conversation at my freshman orientation, we’d never spoken. He’d been a sophomore manning an information table for the GSA, and I’d gotten up the nerve to grab a pamphlet.
That was the sum of our interactions. My family had lived—still did—in Brownsville, so I’d resided at home. A penny saved, etcetera. Nowadays, in every other aspect of my life, I was an out and proud gay man. But, as far as my family was concerned, still not so much. Back in my university days I’d been a total closet case.
I’d admired Wes Shaw from afar. He’d been visibly active in organizations promoting LGBT equality, and was friendly but not overbearing. His looks had been average, but I’d been so in awe—and perhaps envious—of his openness, that I’d built him up in my mind as if he’d been my own personal rock star. I’d forgotten about him in recent years, but back then he’d been the man I’d pictured when my hand and I wanted a little extra inspiration at night, and the man my dreams had often featured.
The door to the lavender Beetle opened, and I stepped back into the shadows behind the wall. I held my breath and craned my neck as a tall blond man stepped out of the car. He turned, and I gulped. It was him.
Wes closed the car door and turned in a slow circle, checking out the surroundings. The management company kept the grounds well-maintained, so I wasn’t concerned that he’d be put off by anything he saw. The crape myrtle trees planted around the building’s perimeter were nicely trimmed and full of attractive pink blooms. Beds full of colorful annuals edged the parking lot and walkway.
He kicked a loose stone on the pavement and turned his face to the cloudless sky. His eyes closed and his chest lifted as if taking in a deep cleansing breath. He blew it out, rolled his shoulders, and walked toward the door.
I got the distinct impression he’d needed to psych himself up for this interview. Perhaps, like me, this wasn’t his first, and his luck hadn’t been any better than mine.
Less than a minute—that’s how much time I had to figure out how to handle this. I’d made a point of telling previous applicants that I was gay, but only to weed out potential homophobic assholes. In a perfect world, the subject wouldn’t need to come up.
I knew that wouldn’t be an issue with Wes, but neither did I want to come off like some stalker by blurting out I remembered him from university even though we’d never truly interacted, and by the way, I’m gay, too. That kind of intro had “hint, hint” written all over it.
But would it be truly stalker-ish if I didn’t? I drummed my fingers on my hip as my stomach flip-flopped. Maybe it would be—if I planned to try to seduce the man. Did I? No, I had friends with benefits for when I was between relationships. Convenient as it would be, I didn’t need to pursue him. Although, I’d certainly be open to the idea if—
I jumped when he knocked, and wiped my palms on my jeans. Plastering what I hoped was a friendly smile on my face, I opened the door.
His sandy blond hair and those hazel eyes with their brown ring around the pupil, and a muted light-colored olive outside of that, edged by a darker shade of that olive green, were just like I’d remembered, and I was momentarily caught off guard despite my advanced warning. I coughed nervously before finding my voice. “Uh, hi. I’m Mike Evans. You must be Wes.”
“That’s right.” He held out his hand. “Wes Shaw. Pleased to meet you, Mike.”
I stepped back to usher him in. The door opened directly into the living room. Wes glanced briefly around, then back at me. His brows knit, but not in a concerned manner—more of a “you look familiar but I can’t quite put my finger on it” way. That surprised me, because I was rather nondescript and average looking. Brown hair, brown eyes. Nothing bad about my features, but nothing that would be memorable, either. Besides, it had been what…four years since Wes had received his undergraduate degree? And both my first and last names, at least separately, were common.
He didn’t say anything about it, though, so I launched into my spiel. “We already talked about price on the phone. The bedroom is furnished, but if you have your own furniture, I can put that stuff in my storage unit in the basement. I don’t have anything but a few boxes of holiday stuff down there.”
“No, furnished is great.” Wes grinned. “I’ve been living in student housing, so I don’t have any furniture of my own yet.”
“Great.” That was easier. I motioned with my arm. “As you can see, this is the living room. I like that the kitchen and eating area separate it from the bedrooms. It’s a bit of a buffer for noise in case one of us is sleeping while the other is up watching TV or whatever.”
“That’s good. I don’t know what my schedule will be yet, but it’s guaranteed to include irregular hours.” Wes took a more thorough look around the room. It was decent-sized with blah-painted walls, but my furniture and accessories were all vibrantly colored. Blue and yellow throw pillows accented a red couch. The vivid blue recliner seemed tame compared to the crazy-patterned, overstuffed chair, although its primary colors tied the furnishings in the room together. The entertainment center was basic black, but I’d painted my large bookcase a bright canary yellow. Wes’s eyes widened slightly as he took it all in, but if it fazed or bothered him, he didn’t say.
Empty space was evident on the entertainment center and bookcase where Amber’s stuff had been. “Let me know if you need more space on the shelves. We can rearrange and condense my things if necessary.”
“I’ve got a lot of books so I might want to take you up on that.”
Proceeding toward the kitchen, I said, “If we have the same tastes, we could work out a food budget and just share everything instead of each keeping separate food stores. That worked out well with my last roommate.”
That was another thing I already missed about Amber. That woman could work wonders with a pound of hamburger. I’d begged copies of her recipes off her, but I hadn’t tried them myself yet. She’d made a mean pot of chili, and her tater tot casserole looked easy enough. The Bierocks seemed complicated, but would be worth the effort.
“Cool, I wondered how we’d handle that. I’m not picky, but I gotta warn you, I don’t have much in the way of cooking experience. I’ll try, though.”
“No worries.” I liked his easy-going nature and blew out a sigh of relief. “I’m no master chef, but I do all right. I have trouble staying motivated when I’m cooking only for myself. I end up getting too much takeout and delivery, so I’d be happy just sharing the grocery bill.”
The song changed to “Wishful Thinking” by the Ditty Bops. Wes’s grin spread, but I wasn’t sure if it was due to what I’d said about the cooking, or if he was amused by my taste in music. I did like his choice of words—I’ll try, though—as if he hoped this was a done deal.
We proceeded down the hallway and I pointed to the left. “I’ve got a washer and dryer behind these doors, and that next door is the bathroom. There’s only the one, but it’s got two doors, this entrance from the hall, and another direct to my bedroom.”
Wes nodded and peered into the bathroom without comment. He wasn’t a windbag, that was for sure. Gesturing toward the door on the other side of the hallway, he asked, “Is that the bedroom I’d be using?”
“Yes.” I opened the door and we stepped inside. The room was furnished with a bedside table, a dresser, an old wooden desk with a built-in hutch, and a double bed with a headboard that doubled as a small bookcase with a couple shelves. I’d found that desk at an estate auction, and I’d bought the rest of it off Amber when she’d left so I’d be able to advertise the room as furnished, and so when I eventually earned enough to no longer need a roommate, I’d have a guest room.
My penchant for intense colors showed here, too. The bed was covered in a bright green, yellow, and red checkerboard cotton bedspread. A red-based lamp on the bedside table coordinated with the desk lamp.
He peered into the closet, and sat on the bed, testing the mattress with a little bounce. “Nice room. Can I use this bedding, too? I only have twin, but I can buy some full-sized if you’d prefer I provide my own.”
“You can use this. There’s a spare set plus extra blankets in the linen closet if you want them. Bath towels would help, if you’ve got them, though.”
“Yeah, I do.” Wes pulled some folded papers out of his pocket. “Personal references.”
My chest tightened as I stared at the papers in his outstretched hand, and I couldn’t bring myself to take them. It would feel like too much of a lie. When I lifted my gaze to his face, he was biting his lip, but his eyes projected confusion. “You’re not interested, then?” he asked, and shook his head. “I had the impression you were.”
“No—that’s not it.” I cleared my throat. “I don’t really need them. I grew up in Brownsville, and went to the university there. You were a year ahead of me, but I remember you.”
“Oh!” He retracted his outstretched hand. “I thought I’d seen you somewhere. We didn’t have any classes together, did we?”
“Nah. I just remember seeing you around enough that I’m not worried about your character or anything like that.”
He released a huge breath, and a slow smile spread across his face. “Okay, cool.”
“I’ve got papers for you, though, if you want to move forward with an agreement.”
My only concerns beyond personality and character compatibility were drug use or smoking—it gave me a headache—and ability to pay. His eyes were clear, his answers coherent, and let’s face it, I’d be able to smell it on him if he were a smoker. I knew he had a good job starting, so I had no issues.
The music changed again, and the Soggy Bottom Boys started singing “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow.” Wes’s lips parted and his eyes glazed over. He blinked a few times and said, “Great, yeah, I’d like that.” So apparently, it wasn’t a deal-breaker.
“I’ve got references, too, if you want them.”
“No. Thanks for offering, but it won’t be necessary.”
As out as Wes had been, eventually becoming president of the school’s GSA and frequently wearing pride-themed T-shirts, Wes had to realize I knew he was gay. My own sexuality shouldn’t matter, and I decided to treat this situation like a little perfect-world microcosm, since it kind of was. I saw no reason to point out I was gay, and in fact, it would have felt awkward to do so.
We sat at my little dining table with the short roommate agreement I’d found on a legal website.
He took a few minutes to look over the form. “This looks reasonable. How soon can I move in? I’m set up in temporary quarters at a motel right now.”
“Anytime is fine. I’m working tomorrow, so if you want help we can do it this afternoon.” I was a structural engineer—which Wes knew since the topic of our respective jobs had come up during our pre-interview phone call—so I worked regular business hours, plus the occasional Saturday.
“If you don’t mind, yeah, that’d be great. I don’t have much stuff to move, but enough to appreciate the offer. Boxes of books, my clothes, some linens, computer stuff.”
Wes signed the bottom of the agreement with a flourish.
Chapter 2: Settling In
One trip was all it took using both our cars. “I need to introduce you to the concept of e-books,” I huffed as I lugged the last of five boxes of books up the stairs.
With a laugh that was half snort, Wes admitted, “I’ve got more than I want to admit of those, too.”
“Geez, when did you study?”
“A lot of them are textbooks.”
In the apartment, I left the box in the living room, showed Wes which would be his drawer in the bathroom, then reversed the entropy that had occurred in the medicine cabinet since Amber’s desertion so he’d have a couple shelves in that, too.
I glanced into the open doorway of Wes’s bedroom. A dresser drawer stood ajar, suitcases lay open on the bed, and he was busy hanging clothes in the closet. “Hey, I’ll rework the bookcase in the living room after I get something in the oven for dinner.”
“Thanks.” He gestured toward the bookcase built into the bed. “This’ll help, but I wouldn’t mind a couple shelves out there, too.”
In the kitchen, I went through the recipes Amber had printed out for me and decided on the mozzarella baked spaghetti since I hadn’t thought ahead to thaw the meat, and I had all the ingredients on hand.
With that safely in the oven, I tackled the bookcase. I’d kept quite a few textbooks myself, and despite my earlier commentary, I often bought copies of my favorite novels in print. Those would have to stay, but I rounded up all the framed photos and stacked them on the coffee table. I could buy Command Strips and put up a display on a wall.
My books and knick-knacks condensed to three shelves, leaving three for Wes. By the time I had a salad tossed together, Wes emerged.
“That smells great,” he said. “Italian?”
“Yeah, my ex-roommate was a wiz with one-dish meals and all things ground beef. She left me with instructions for my favorites.”
“Cool. Well, I got my clothes and personal things put away. I’ll deal with books tomorrow while you’re at work so we won’t have to trip over boxes for long.”
“When does your residency start?”
“A week from tomorrow.” He grinned widely. “I’ve got butterflies in my stomach. I’ve never been so scared to death and yet excited at the same time.”
“I can imagine. I kind of felt that way when I started working last year, but I’m sure that’s nothing compared to knowing people’s lives might be on the line, right then, while decisions are being made.”
Wes leaned against the counter and nodded solemnly. “One year? So, you’ve got what…a master’s then?”
The timer dinged and I pulled the baking dish out of the oven. “Right. That took two years.”
“What can I do to help?” He glanced around the kitchen.
I nodded toward one of the cabinets. “Grab a couple plates?”
As we sat with our laden dishes, Wes asked, “What do you usually do in your free time? I don’t want to mess up your routine.”
“Friday and Saturday nights I often do something with friends. Weeknights after work I just relax. Fix dinner, read, or watch a movie or TV. Maybe screw around on the Internet. The operative word is ‘relax,’ otherwise I’m flexible.”
“That sounds like me, except now my days off might vary week-to-week. I’ll probably end up catching sleep instead of going out.”
“No worries. I’ll keep the noise down when I know you’re home sleeping.”
“Damn this is good.” Wes sat back and patted his belly. “So much better than the cafeteria stuff I’m used to.”
I chuckled and waggled my eyebrows, but couldn’t help but hold my chin high, taking a bit of vain pleasure in the compliment. “I’m a regular June Cleaver.” Which was bullshit, of course, as attested to by the amount of dust I’d had to wipe up when I’d rearranged that bookcase. I was reasonably tidy, and kept the bathroom and kitchen mostly clean—probably due to memories of my mother’s reproaches when I’d been grubby back home—but chores like dusting often went by the wayside. Besides, I was no experimental chef. I relied heavily on recipes.
“I appreciate it. Thank you for all your help today.” He grinned broadly. “I’ll clean up since you fixed the meal.”
Awesome. I wasn’t going to argue, even though I probably should have offered to at least help. I used the time to take a shower instead. My original intention was for it to be a cool shower, because damn, my good intentions regarding not putting moves on my roommate were going to be more of a challenge than I’d thought, but then I figured a quick wank in a hot shower would have the same effect, and be more satisfying at the same time.
When I reemerged, wearing my sleep pants and a thin ratty T-shirt, Wes stood in the living room, sifting through my selection of movies on DVD and Blue Ray.
“My newer stuff’s digital,” I said.
Wes jumped and turned to me, apparently not hearing my approach.
“I’ve got an Apple TV and a Roku hooked up. Some of my movies are on iTunes, and some on Amazon Digital.”
“Oh. Cool.” He clutched a movie case as if it were his defense against…well, I didn’t know what. I wasn’t threatening, but his ears turned red, and he returned his gaze to the movie and cleared his throat. “This sounds good. The Matrix. I haven’t watched that in years.”
“Sure. I haven’t seen that one in a while, either.” I hoped he didn’t think I had a problem with him flipping through the movies—they were on display where anyone could see them, unlike the porn I had hidden under my mattress as if I still lived at home, terrified my parents would discover my collection.
I spotted a glass of water on the table next to the recliner, so I lay on the couch and stretched out with my hands locked behind my head, propped on a stack of throw pillows.
While he sifted through the basket of remotes on the coffee table, I decided I should go ahead and fetch a glass of water for myself, too. “You want popcorn or anything to snack on?”
“No, thanks.” He focused on the task of figuring out my entertainment system with a pointed concentration. It was hardly rocket science, so I left him to it.
I grabbed a bag of pretzels and my drink and returned to the living room. Wes was working the remote to get the movie started. I lay again on the couch. As I’d said, “relax” was the operative word for evenings.
Wes snagged the throw pillow from the armchair and reclaimed his seat in the recliner, casting a quick peek in my direction. The red on his ears spread, infusing his cheeks with a rosy blush. He stared at the screen, clutching the pillow on his lap.
What was that all about? I peered at my body to make sure nothing was amiss. I’d put on the same kind of thing that I always wore to bed. I was covered. Well, maybe a bit of my abdomen showed since I was stretched out, but they were the same garments I’d worn around my family without thinking twice about it, and even around Amber without her commenting. And she would have said something.
Technically, yes, it was sleepwear, but I was as covered as if I were wearing a track suit. If I were completely honest, I supposed that this set was a bit timeworn and frayed, but still, I wouldn’t have considered it indecent.
As long as I was being honest with myself, I had to admit that if it were Wes wearing it, as opposed to, say, my brother, then I’d probably be a little turned on. Or a lot. I stared at the TV screen but conjured up an image of a sleep-tousled Wes rather than a confused Neo, and thanked my lucky stars I’d just taken care of business in the shower, otherwise I’d be transferring a pillow to my own lap.
Was Wes attracted to me? I blinked a few times, trying to wrap my head around the idea. It shouldn’t throw me, because I knew there wasn’t anything out of the ordinary about my looks, but it tended to catch me off guard when someone initiated things with me, rather than the other way around. My skin tingled at the thought of my old university crush getting hot at the sight of me in my jammies.
Was he suffering over there, thinking I was straight, and trying not to be pervy? Should I put him out of his misery? Let him know I was gay, too, and plenty interested? A slow smile crept over my face.
I sat up, put my feet on the coffee table, and grabbed the snacks. I couldn’t put on much of a show with pretzel sticks and a glass of water, or maybe I just lacked the imagination, but I did my best, making a point of leaving the little rod hanging out of my mouth and manipulating it with my tongue as I slowly sucked it in, nibble by nibble.
I repeated the process, alternating it with leisurely sips of water, then got up to saunter to the kitchen for a refill. I resisted the reflexive urge to pull down the shirt that had ridden up, and grabbed an open bag of Cheetos for good measure. Once sitting, I offered the bag to Wes.
He shook his head and gave a fleeting smile, keeping his eyes locked briefly on mine before returning his gaze to the TV. The trouble with cheese puffs was they left a heck of a mess on one’s fingers. With nary a napkin in sight, I had no choice but to lick them. Slowly. One finger at a time.
Eventually, I gave up. It was a work night, after all. Wes busted out a couple yawns, and I got the feeling he wanted to go to bed, too, but maybe I’d been successful and he wasn’t able to remove that pillow, let alone stand, until I left the room.
I stretched and rubbed my eyes. “I’m gonna call it a night.”
“Goodnight. What time do you get up?”
“Around six.” I stood and gathered the debris field I’d created. “Don’t worry, I’ll be quiet.”
I’d no sooner slipped between my cool, sea-green sheets, than Wes entered the bathroom. When the shower turned on, I grinned and closed my eyes. It was probably wrong of me to drift off to sleep with images of what he might be doing in there running through my head.