It’s getting hot in here, ladies and gents…loosen your collars…
Roger pulled Brian aside. “No, man. I could get in a lot of trouble.”
“For what?” Brian said, wide-eyed and innocent. “I didn’t use your name. You didn’t use your name.”
Roger laughed despite himself. “You’re too damn crafty, Brian. It’s going to get you in trouble some day.”
“This…is not that day!” Brian replied theatrically, quoting Aragorn in “Return of the King.”
Roger rolled his eyes. “Fine.” He was too damn tired to argue, and Brian knew it.
And that’s how they ended up rolling out of the rent-a-car lot on Thanksgiving Eve in a 2009 Cadillac CTS for the price of a Ford Escort. It was a long drive from Berkeley to Santa Vera, just outside San Diego, and Brian had no intention of putting two big guys in an economy car if he didn’t have to. All it had taken was for Brian to insist that Roger come inside with him. The guy at the counter (Brian had made sure they’d get the guy and not the girl by letting someone go ahead of them) had done a double-take at the sight of Roger Ehrens, who was on the cover of SI this week staring at the camera, his wide blue eyes, his clean handsome face boosting newsstand sales by 20%.
Brian couldn’t resist tooling around Berkeley in the Caddie that night, windows down, playing some bass-thumping rap album that gave Roger a mild headache. “Hey, ladies,” Brian said to a gaggle of girls at a stoplight on Telegraph Avenue, in his suavest douchebag voice, nodding his head knowingly.
They cackled and rolled their eyes, but giggled a bit too, and looked back after they crossed the street to see if he was still looking, and then giggled some more. Roger had his Chargers cap worn down low, brim flattened out, wraparound sunglasses completing the “two tools on the town” vibe Brian was creating. Nobody would ever know, ever think, it was him. It would be like seeing Tim Tebow throwing Satanic hand signs.
“Are you hating this?” Brian yelled over the music.
“No,” Roger said, surprising himself. “It’s kind of nice. Kind of funny. Everyone scowling at me, all disapproving.”
“You could just be more of an asshole and accomplish the same thing!”
Roger’s freedom was short-lived. Coach had given them from Wednesday night to Friday morning to have Thanksgiving with family and friends. Then it was back to work for the game against UCLA on Saturday. Roger never wished ill on anyone, but was relieved that UCLA was having such a terrible year, otherwise he wouldn’t have been given even this short holiday, just before the second-to-last game of the season.
Brian’s alarm blew him out of bed at 3:30 a.m. Thursday morning. Good thing his roommate was already gone home for the holiday, he thought. He had to pick Roger up at 4 for the seven hour drive.
He was looking forward to this, endless drive or not. He had a picture in his head, glowing brighter each day as the holiday approached – he and Roger and Professor Ehrens sitting at the table, a big-ass bird in front of them, Norman fucking Rockwell. Thanksgiving at his parents’ house would be a cacophony of clashing TVs, screeching brats, the results of multiple unplanned pregnancies attributable to his older brother, his younger brother skulking in his room, blasting Bauhaus to drown out the screaming and smoking a bong till his eyes crossed, his dad hollering at everyone about everything…
No. He hadn’t even called them about coming home. And they hadn’t noticed, he supposed, hadn’t even called him to ask if he was coming. It hurt, or would have hurt, if he hadn’t been offered a better plan.
“Long drive,” he said out loud, measuring the DMAA into his coffee. It had only been a few weeks, but he could feel his tolerance creeping up. Damn, this was a big bag, I thought I could never make a dent in it, but I might have to get another soon. He slugged a big splash of milk into it and lots of sugar to mask the taste of the powder, and to cool it off enough that he could just knock it back and get going.
By the time he was out of the shower, it hit him, tuning his inner piano, the strings tight, singing prettily. Yeah! Let’s go! He rolled up outside Roger’s dorm in the Caddy, the radio silent now. Roger was waiting for him outside in the dark, duffel bag in hand.
“It’s only one night, you know. You got your beauty kit in there or something?”
“It’s Barbarian swag, for my dad.”
“Ah. Got it.”
Once they were on I-5, Brian opened the Caddy up. It was still pitch black, and would be for hours, and the road was nearly deserted. He got the speed up to 85, knowing he could shave at least an hour off the drive time. Stupid Google Maps, he thought with a smirk, tells you how long it takes driving the speed limit. Where’s the box where you type in your real speed and get the real ETA?
He waggled his fingers, finally splint-free. He’d been able to do some light fielding, no hitting yet. But able to take the wheel for a long drive, for sure. He turned to see if Roger was going to protest the illegality of his high speed, which you couldn’t even hear or feel inside the gliding Caddy.
Roger’s eyes were closed, his head lolling against the window, mouth slightly open. Dead to the world. He’d been grateful when Brian offered to do all the driving. Roger wasn’t much of a swearer, but the team joke had caught on, and he rolled with it. Everyone was imitating Kim Jong Il from “Team America,” always looking at each other and quoting the movie: “Do you have any idea how fucking busy I am?”
Some strange warm fuzzy feeling came over Brian, a wave of affection for his friend. He was so glad he could do this for him, get him home and back. He missed Roger, missed their times together, and just…having him there in the car, with him, felt good.
That’s gay, he said to himself with a suppressed laugh, not wanting to wake his friend. You’re gay for Roger.
Jeremy had already raised an eyebrow at the news of his trip. “Going home to meet the parents, huh? Must be serious.”
“What the fuck are you talking about?”
Jeremy shrugged. “I see the way he looks at you.”
“I repeat. What the fuck are you talking about.”
“He’s gay for you. He wants your cock inside his tight round football player ass.”
“Fuck you. He’s my friend. My best friend, asshole. You’re the one who’s got the picture of his ass in your head.”
“I’m wounded. I don’t give a shit man, like I told you, I’ve put my cock in a guy, it’s no biggie. But, you know, maybe you’re leading him on. Always wanting to hang out with him, when you could be hanging out with the team, going home early so you can spend fifteen minutes with him before his curfew. And you get a pass on that, man, nobody says anything because he’s the fucking QB of the best team this place has had in decades, and whatever he wants, he gets.”
Brian went to say something, closed his mouth.
Jeremy went on. “I’m not gonna say anything. If the dude likes dick, he likes dick. He’s a fucking rock star on the field. Why the fuck would I do anything to ruin the Barbarians’ chance at the Rose Bowl, right? Hell, I’d suck his dick if I knew it would get us to the Rose Bowl.”
Brian laughed. “Whatever.”
The drive took six hours, Roger fast asleep the whole time. Brian knew because he kept checking. Kept looking. Mother hen, he told himself. That’s all it is.
Jacob greeted them with hugs, and a glass of champagne, which even Roger was more than ready for. “Nice car. You must be making a fine living, Brian.”
“It was a free upgrade, Professor Ehrens.”
“You’re not going to call me that the whole day, are you?”
“No, prof, I ain’t.”
“Ha, funny. Well, ‘prof’ is better, I guess.”
The day was everything Brian had dreamed of in a holiday – everything the Hallmark commercials had ever promised him “normal” looked like. The bowl of nuts, the three of them in the living room, shouting at the lopsided games on TV, the turkey (a turkey breast, well within Jacob’s culinary capacities), Brian helping make the stuffing, Roger slicing the cranberry sauce out of the can, all of them taking turns with the potato masher, and three hands held around the table.
Brian could feel it, the current of love, of acceptance, the two Ehrens men each with a hand on his. Jacob cleared his throat.
“We’re not religious, Brian, but if you are and want to say grace…”
“No, not me.”
“Well, when we have Thanksgiving dinner, it’s our tradition to say what we’re thankful for this year. I’m thankful for good health, good friends, and a great season for the Cal State Berkeley Barbarians.”
“Hear hear,” Brian said. Roger looked at him across the table and smiled, beaming at him. Jeremy’s right, some part of him said.
Don’t be an idiot, he said in return. When he gets his gay on, it’ll be with someone a lot better than me. The thought surprised him. Shouldn’t he be thinking “no homo” instead of ranking himself on the list of desirable candidates?
Roger’s turn. “I’m thankful to have my talent, my great dad, and my awesome friend Brian.”
Brian welled up. I’m gonna cry! Fuck! I hate crying! “Um…” he choked, looking up. They could see it, the tears of gratitude in his eyes, shit, they looked like they’d cry too!
“I never had a family holiday like this. Never had a family like this. And I’m thankful that you guys have let me come here and visit yours.”
Jacob shook his head. “You’re not visiting, Brian. You’re family now.”
Dammit, he thought as a tear slipped out of his right eye, officially giving away the game. “Thanks. I really…” He let go of their hands to reach for his napkin. He looked at Roger, at the boundless affection there, at Jacob’s warm, kind face. “I need a refill on that champagne or I’m gonna blubber.”
That broke the spell, and they all laughed as Jacob filled Brian’s glass to the rim.
They went to bed at 9, another early rising ahead of them to get Roger back in time for a light but mandatory Friday afternoon practice. The domesticity of the scene in the kitchen, Jacob cleaning dishes, Brian drying them, Roger putting them away…it was better than drugs, this feeling, a warmth even better, to Brian’s shock, than the one the Percocets had given him.
It was kind of weird in the hallway upstairs, as he and Roger said their goodnights outside their respective rooms. “So, I’ll see you in the morning,” Roger said, eyes cast down.
Brian could see into his friend’s room, could see the posters and trophies and ribbons. He wanted to ask to come in, wanted to hear all the stories of glory and triumph and near misses that the room promised to tell. But he could feel that there was some…line here, that crossing into Roger’s bedroom would be…yeah, that.
Roger could see Brian’s eyes traveling over his shoulder, checking out the room. If I ask him in, he’ll think I’m making a pass at him. And to be honest, I don’t think I could resist doing it. It would be like Jayce all over again, he thought, it would be all over his face, the worst poker face in the history of everyone ever. Then Brian would freak out and run for the hills.
“Yeah, okay,” Brian said, masking his disappointment. “I’ll see you early in the early, man.”
“Yeah, right? I’ll see you then.” Roger smiled, barely able to hold it in place.
Roger shut the door and leaned on the back of it, his heart racing. Brian’s presence was so…big. Not just the height and size of him, but just his being, his self, his…
Say it. His sexuality. His wild young animal power.
Yeah that, Roger said, undressing and climbing into bed. But it was more than that. It was Brian’s giant heart, his vast capacity for love, the tears he’d shed at dinner at the idea of being accepted, being part of a family. The guy Roger had seen coaching the younger men, using his humor to paste over what might have been an awkward regression for one of them to have to do in front of the others. The guy who had a shit ton of research on his desk, doing the work on their project that Roger didn’t have time for. The guy who drove all this way and would drive all the way back the next day, so Roger could rest up.
He had a raging hardon, wanted to stroke it, to revert to adolescence, to the nights he’d stared at the posters on the wall, dreaming about Peyton Manning wrapping his big body around Roger, enfolding him, taking him…
You can’t. Brian is family, he needs family, you can’t ruin that for him by driving him away with your lust.
At that, his erection subsided. Roger the straight arrow, the good guy, was stronger than Roger the achingly lonely and horny young man who was…
Say it! In love! In love with the guy on the other side of the wall, in the next room. In bed, probably naked, twenty feet away…the cock has its reasons, and Roger’s cock wasn’t interested in his brain’s arguments, and started growing again.
Shit. Roger turned and thrashed in the bed, trying to think about ugly things to make it go away – oil spills, tire fires, Mitch McConnell. No use. This wasn’t going to be easy…
In the next room, Brian wasn’t able to sleep, either. The DMAA still had him buzzing, despite the champagne and the turkey and all the carbs. But that wasn’t all, was it? The look on Roger’s face outside his bedroom, the…
Brian took the extra pillow, rolled on his side, hugged it tight. God, he’d fucked a lot of girls. And slept with a few, but more out of exhaustion and an inability in either or both of them to get up and go. But there was never any…warmth.
You can go a long time, a very long time, without love. The mind adapts. The body accepts. You get a dog, or a cat. But. If love ever shows up, or even the promise of it, you’re fucked. You haven’t really accepted the lack of it. You’ve stored the lack, like a black hole, and the possibility of it being filled…sucks you in with its gravity. That’s why they call it falling in love. It’s scary, it’s a long way down, the fall could kill you.
Am I gay? If I want to hold Roger? Just…hold him?
But that wouldn’t be fair, would it? Roger would want more, Brian’s big man body would set him off, and then what? What do you do, back off and say “No Homo”?
He tossed and turned, wrestling with the pillow, with himself, until finally exhaustion took him around midnight.
The next morning, everything was “normal.” None of them were morning people, so the coffee and toast the three of them shared glumly at 5 am made nervous, awkward moments impossible.
Until they were outside, Jacob in his bathrobe leaning in the driver’s side window, shaking Brian’s hand. “We’ll see you at Christmas,” he said, declaring it as a fact.
Brian nodded. “Yeah. Thank you. Yeah, definitely.”
And having that, having family, he thought as he pulled out of the driveway, Roger already preparing to go back to sleep, was worth anything. Everything.