I’m picking up steam again, finally, and the end is near! At this rate, the first draft should be complete in the next two weeks or so…
Roger was finally discovering what countless other people around the world had long known: there is little else as exhausting as doing nothing all day at work. Watching the clock, spinning out the time, unable to leave even though there’s no reason to stay.
Especially when there was something so exciting going on in front of him, around him…At least he could walk around the sidelines, talk to the other players, shout encouragement. But still. All he could do now was watch Antoine Phoenix’s sterling performance. If Phoenix kept doing really well out there, if he stretched their lead out by another TD to make it a three-score game, Roger might get a few plays to relieve him at the end of the fourth quarter. Maybe.
“Ants,” Royal said, bringing Roger’s stare back from a thousand yards to a hundred.
Roger laughed, turned and smiled at the wide receiver. Yeah, he definitely had ants in his pants. Royal Jackson had become his friend, one of the few guys on the team he’d connected with on a personal level – and the only one who knew his secret.
“How come you don’t pray?” he’d asked Roger one day after a team meeting.
Shit, Roger thought. He’d bowed his head with the others at the end of the team prayer, but never said “amen.” Royal noticed, because, like a quarterback, a wide receiver’s job was to notice everything going on everywhere all at once.
Then it occurred to Roger. “Why don’t you?” he asked Royal.
Royal broke into a grin. “My daddy’s a preacher. You want to talk about something that’ll put you off religion, that’ll do it.”
“My dad’s a professor of history. Religion’s a historical force but, that’s it.”
Roger was unnerved to realize that the secret of his gayness wasn’t so secret when Royal told him about the jokes one night in a hotel bar, where they were drinking club soda in a quiet corner. The gay jokes…about Roger.
Royal saw the look on his face and put a hand on his shoulder. “Don’t worry. That’s SOP in a locker room. You don’t have a girlfriend, you don’t fuck strippers, and you don’t pray. Therefore, you’re gay.”
Roger laughed. “What if I was?” he dared to ask. It was September, the season was on, and he was already tired. Tired of hiding, tired of being alone, without Brian, without his college friends, without anyone. It wasn’t right, wasn’t natural, and what celibacy was to Brian, this isolation was to Roger, a strain on his nature he could barely stand.
Royal shrugged. “My brother’s gay. And exiled from the family for it. I spend Thanksgiving with him instead of them. Serves ‘em right.” He looked at Roger. “How long you known?”
Roger thought back to Jayce, to a bedroom in a house thousands of miles, and what seemed like thousands of years, away. “Pretty much forever.”
“Well, your secret’s safe with me. You gotta watch out for promophobia is all.”
“Professional athlete homophobia. You know. What happens when a bunch of guys spend so much naked time together, share hotel rooms, lots of body contact on the field.”
“So they’re always saying ‘no homo’ because it’s all pretty gay.”
“Roger that, Roger.”
He shot the shit with Royal on the sidelines, knowing that it was okay to laugh and smile, because the team was winning, so if the camera landed on him, no worries. He had to think about things like that all the time, now that the camera was everywhere.
“You want to get a bite tonight?” Royal asked him.
“I got plans. Brian’s in town,” he whispered.
“Ahh, ‘mos before bros.”
If only he could get in and play! If only he could think about something other than tonight, feel something other than the burning anticipation he was feeling right now. Brian had been having a phenomenal summer in AAA ball, and at last the stars had aligned to put him in the same town as Roger for a night. He could taste Brian, remember the flavor of his crotch, the saltiness of his cum, the scent of his healthy sweat. Pacing the sideline was not a distraction from these thoughts, wasn’t enough to burn off the frustration.
They won the game, and Roger never got to go in, Phoenix being the consummate ball hog. He showered and changed and raced back to his hotel, where Brian was waiting, already checked into his own room, a room they’d both have to leave before ten that night for their respective curfews.
Brian opened the door and Roger hardly had the door shut behind him before he was in his arms, kissing him passionately, Brian responding eagerly, pulling his shirt over his head, tearing off his own.
But Roger could sense something different, something…mechanical about Brian’s response. The moves were all there, but the abandonment he’d expected had… No, never mind. It’s just been a long time, we’re both awkward right now. It’ll pass.
But then, naked, he flung himself onto the bed, grinning impishly at Brian as he raised his legs, inviting him to ravish his lover. And Brian frowned, hesitated, sat down on the edge of the bed, looking away from him.
“What’s wrong?” Roger asked.
Brian had postponed this moment, this thought, but there it was. You’re a piece of shit. Yeah, he replied to his father’s voice in his head. I am.
Had he used a rubber with that chick? He couldn’t remember. Adderall and vodka was a powerful combo. Shit, what if he’d gotten her pregnant? The world was full of women who’d love to get some baby batter out of a pro ball player.
Or, thinking of what prevented him now from taking Roger as he had so many times before, what if he had an STD? Why hadn’t he been tested? Because he was fucking busy, because he’d been on the road and where was he going to get tested, how was he supposed to go back for results?
“I haven’t…” he started.
Roger knew. He could fill in the rest of the sentence for himself. I haven’t been faithful to you.
He sat up, put his arms around Brian. “It’s okay.” What else could he say? Hadn’t he given Brian permission? Of course he’d hoped Brian wouldn’t take the license he’d been given, but come on, how likely was that?
“No,” Brian said, “it’s not. I could have fucking VD or something.”
Roger was stunned. “You didn’t use a condom?”
“I…think I did.”
“You don’t know?”
“There was a lot of booze involved, a couple times.”
Roger took the dagger to his heart quietly. A couple times…a couple times when booze wasn’t involved, as well? How many times? he wanted to ask, didn’t dare ask. Didn’t want to know.
“I gave you permission. I know you, Brian. It’s okay.”
“No, it’s not. I told you I wasn’t going to take you up on it. I promised you a lot of things I shouldn’t have.”
You’re on drugs, Roger thought, feeling Brian’s heart hammering. Was it the DMAA again?
He’d felt this before. When his father had told him about Jayce. That feeling like the ground beneath you ceased to exist, and you were falling.
“I can’t believe it,” Brian said. “I should have waited. For this. Now I can’t even fuck you. The one fucking in the world that…that was just pure pleasure with no strings attached, no hangover, no bad guilt, no bad feelings. That was just…good.”
“Come here,” Roger said, pulling Brian back, down, turning him over, cradling his lover’s head on his chest. There was no question of sex tonight, but this, this was better, to have Brian here, with him, his weight on him. To be together.
But it didn’t feel as if they were together. He could feel Brian’s stiffness, his discomfort – his guilt, his shame like a wall between them.
“Look,” Roger said at last. “It’s okay. Get tested. Use condoms. When you’re clear again, everything will be back to normal.” He sighed. “This is our life, Brian. We aren’t together, we can’t be together for a while. Given the circumstances, this is the best it gets.”
“It would be better if I could keep my dick in my pants.”
“Yeah,” Roger admitted. “But if you weren’t you, would I love you?”
A shudder went through Brian, a suppressed sob. “You shouldn’t love me.”
“But I do,” Roger said. “Get used to it.”
Brian laughed at last. “I’m sorry.”
“I know you are.” And it was true, he did. Brian loved him too, wasn’t going to risk giving him a STD, even if it meant confessing everything. “Are you on drugs, too?”
“Adderall. I get it from Jeremy.”
A surge of rage went through Roger. Fucking Jeremy! He’d always been a bad influence on Brian, who was so easily turned one way or the other depending on who he was with.
“Can you stop?”
“Have you seen my numbers this season?”
Roger sighed silently. They both knew that Brian would be called up to the majors any day now, given his end-of-season shot on the Loggers, based on his .500+ average in the minors. That wouldn’t translate to the same kind of numbers in the bigs, but still. They’d want to take a look at him on the main stage, see how he measured up against the best in the league.
“What if you get caught?”
“Jeremy has ways of getting around piss tests.”
“I bet he does,” Roger said, his bitterness and anger having a safe target now.
Brian said nothing, taking the rage, the anger, as his due. He tried to get up but Roger grasped him hard.
“No,” Roger said, steel in his voice. “You’re not getting away that easily.”
“I’m bad for you.”
“Yeah,” Roger agreed, shocking them both. “You are. Love is bad for me right now. It’s a distraction, it’s an inconvenience, it’s a danger to my career. But so what? What the fuck is my life without it? Without you?” He could feel Brian’s tears, the splat on his chest like the first raindrop in a storm.
Brian wanted to speak, didn’t dare, didn’t want to commit to something he couldn’t do. Didn’t want to lie. I’ll just do it, he thought. I’ll change, and I won’t say anything until I’ve changed. And then everything will be right.
A cold whisper went through Roger’s mind. He’ll never change. This is what you bought into.
“We’ll make it. I know it. What’s love without difficulties?” he asked Brian. “It’s not a vending machine, where you put your money in and get exactly what you want at the press of a button.”
“No,” Brian laughed. “It’s the kind where you push the button and your chips get stuck on the coils and you have to whack the machine, trying to get your fucking Fritos out.”
Roger laughed, too, the painful moment passed. Brian uncoiled, relaxed in his arms. Just give me this, at least, Roger asked the universe, the closest he’d get to a prayer. Just this, Brian in my arms every now and then. At least this.
Even on the bench, Roger could feel it. The astonished, agonized cry of tens of thousands of fans. The gasp of the team. The frantic action as the trainers and medical personnel ran onto the field. He jumped up, followed the action onto the field, where players were fighting now. Instinctively he got in the middle of it, trying to break it up, trying to keep the peace, if only to avoid half-the-distance penalties and O-line-crushing suspensions.
Antoine Phoenix was on the ground, his face contorted in pain, and Roger knew it was bad, a hard hit – a fair hit, or close enough for the refs, no penalty, but even the guy who’d dished it out had a look of concern now. Everyone knew how tenuous their careers were, how easily it could all be over in a second. The team instinctively made a ring around the injured man to hide his agony from the cameras. The crowd was hushed now, hoping, praying that Antoine would get up, hobble off the field, walk it off.
Not gonna happen, Roger thought. He could just tell, somehow. Adrenaline surged in him, instincts leaping.
“Ehrens,” Coach DaMarcus said. “Get ready.”
Roger nodded. The show must go on. He started tossing balls on the sideline, narrowing his focus, blotting out everything around him, getting his “quarterback eyes,” seeing and hearing only what mattered, everything that mattered, but nothing else.
He even blotted out the fact that this was Brian’s first day in the majors, the Portland Loggers having called him up the day before. He’d been thinking about that on and off all day, but now it was gone. No more good wishes to send his way – Brian was on his own now.
They took Phoenix off on a stretcher. Roger heard the crowd roar and knew he’d given them the thumbs up – the sign that he wasn’t paralyzed, if nothing else.
He ran onto the field to scattered, hesitant applause. It was go time.
Go time, Brian thought at the plate. The coach had warned him in advance, “Your first time at bat in the majors, you’ll probably strike out. Nerves. Don’t worry about it.”
Brian had thanked him without enthusiasm. If only Coach Blaine would leave Lessing College and become a pro coach! Why was it so goddamned hard to find someone who’d encourage him, support him, pay attention to him?
But then, as he sat there disconsolate in front of his locker, thinking about his imminent failure, something good had happened. Joe Marks had approached him – “Working Joe” Marks, the legend, forty years old and still playing hard, holder of the record for the third most consecutive games played (after Cal Ripken and Lou Gehrig), one of Brian’s boyhood heroes.
“Hey, Brian,” Joe said, and Brian stood up instinctively.
“Mister Marks,” Brian blurted.
Joe smiled, the skin crinkling around his kind blue eyes. “It’s Joe, Brian. Listen.” He laid a hand on Brian’s shoulder. “Don’t listen to him. Expect the best from yourself. I’ve been following your career. You’ll do fine.”
At last, some part of Brian cried out. If only for today, if only once before he went back to the minors, back to being nobody, he had this moment, with Joe Fucking Marks telling him he’d been following his career!
“Thanks, Joe.” How cool was that! Brian thought. Calling him Joe!
NOW BATTING ING ING ING….BRIAN…RAUCH CH CH… The announcer’s voice echoed in the stadium, the voice every young man imitated in their back yards, filling their own name in as the future star, followed by the hard sigh that imitated the roar of the crowd. Only this was real. This was now. Now batting, me. Two men on, first and third. Two outs. The Loggers’ catcher started putting his gear back on now, ready for Brian to get the third out.
He squared up, dialed in. Watched the pitcher’s face twitch as he shook off a couple signals from the catcher. A batter and a pitcher who’d never faced each other before. Anything can happen…
Whoosh. Brian saw the ball curving, tried to adjust his swing, too late. Strike one.
Whoosh. It took more energy to hold himself still than to move, betting that the ball was going wide of the plate. Sure enough. Ball one.
Whoosh. High and inside. Ball two. Brian barely flinched. The ball wasn’t close enough to his face to be dangerous, just enough to psych out a hitter. A hitter more easily spooked than Brian. Fuck you, his eyes said to the pitcher. Fuck you too, rookie, was the telegraphed response.
Whoosh. Right where he wanted it. His bat connected, but the sound told him he hadn’t hit the sweet spot. The ball sailed into the stands, a kid held his glove up in triumph, the crowd applauded. Always bring your glove to the game. Strike two.
“Come on, Brian!” Joe shouted from the dugout, clapping hard. “Nail it!”
Brian smiled. Joe Marks believed in him. He looked at the pitcher again. Come on, bitch.
Whoosh. Time, dilating, the athlete’s nirvana, the complete absence of the world from his mind, thought suspended, only the endless second of a ball in transit.
C R A C K. Right…there. As he’d done a thousand times before, Brian hung loose, watched the ball rise, dropped the bat, made his home run circuit. Only this time he didn’t do the fist pump, didn’t grin or show off the way he had in the minors. Instead he ran the bases like Joe did, head down, brisk pace, no grandstanding.
And there was Joe at the front of the crowd in the dugout, clapping hard. “Nice job,” he said, and Brian knew all of what he meant.
“Thanks, Joe,” he said, running the gauntlet of high fives from the rest of the team, high as a kite on something even better than drugs.
And then, when he sat down on the bench, just another guy on the team, he thought, I can’t wait to tell Roger about this.
They hated him, the D-line. It was their job to hate him, to smash their way through and crush him. That didn’t make it feel any better when one of them sacked him for a five yard loss on his first play.
He got up, pulled up by his center, shook it off. Next play, a handoff, but they were ready, no gain. Third and fifteen.
I am NOT going three and out, Roger said. No. Fucking. Way.
The ball was snapped, the play in motion, Roger’s receivers trying to break free of coverage. But then, a miracle, the parting of the line, a good twenty yards ahead of him clear if you were the kind of QB who wasn’t afraid to run straight ahead, fast enough to get the yards you needed. He was. Slide, as soon as you get the first down, don’t give them license to break you.
First down on his own thirty. The clock ticking away the last minute of the first half. Seventy yards for a TD, at least forty for a field goal attempt. A “Fail Goal,” he smiled, remembering Coach Orson’s name for it. The points you took because you failed to get a touchdown. The consolation prize. Gold star, nice effort. Screw that.
He stepped back, scanned the field, saw Royal breaking away downfield. He hucked it a second before he was tackled, fell as only a QB can fall, eyes still on the target even as he hit the ground. The roar of the crowd told him he’d connected.
First and goal from the nine. Twenty seconds on the clock. A failed run play. Burn one of the two remaining timeouts. Sixteen seconds. Throw it wide before you’re sacked. Eleven seconds, third down. Now or never.
The ball was snapped high. Roger’s hands rocketed up, snatched it, recovered. The pocket held, he looked, looked, nobody open. Clock ticking, no time left for a field goal anyway. No choice but to run straight into the melee. He held the ball tight in his big hand, leapt over the mass of tangled men, made it halfway over them, extended the ball as far as he could.
Touchdown. His first pro score. The screams of the crowd. Mobbed by his teammates. Clapped on the back by everyone on the sideline. Even amid the celebrations, Roger held on to the ball for dear life, a souvenir he’d never part with. Brian, he thought with a grin. I can’t wait till you see this!
It was worth it, he thought on the sideline, feeling the surge of happy brain chemicals that come with tremendous accomplishment. It was worth the hiding, the lying, the hurt. To be here, now, to do this. And to do it again, and again, as long as he could.
Each of them knew what the other had done before Brian’s phone rang. “Congratulations, my man!” Brian whooped.
“Back at you!” Roger shouted. “What a day, huh!”
“Dude. Working Joe Marks said ‘Good job.’ Working Joe!”
“I know! Fuck, dude, that was a ballsy play. You could have thrown it away, got the FG.”
“Oh fuck that, right?”
“Ha yeah, fuck that!”
They chatted like what they were, old friends. Like what they were, two successful young men who could admire the others’ accomplishment.
Even afterwards, Roger was smiling. If nothing else, this – our friendship, forever. Nothing could, I will let nothing, fuck that up.
Even afterwards, Brian was smiling. Whatever else I am, whatever else I can do or be, I’ll always be his bestie. I’ll always be worthy of that, at least. No matter what.