It was still hard, signing up for the theater club – the guilt, that was what got him. It would mean that he would be spending more and more afternoons after school in the theater, but Mom was adamant.
“You’ve got to have a life, Peter. You’re a senior in high school now, you need to enjoy it. Millie takes good care of me when you’re not here.” Mom smiled. “And don’t take this the wrong way, but sometimes she’s better company than you. She’ll watch Lifetime movies with me.”
Peter laughed, relieved. “Yeah, you and me watching ‘Mother, May I Sleep With Danger’ is not gonna happen, Mom.”
The plays were all inoffensive stuff, revivals of “Brigadoon” or drawing room comedies, but it wasn’t the content that fascinated Peter. It was the production, the big picture, how the whole thing got pulled off. There was so much to be done, and he learned to do it all – sets had to be built, often from scratch, and he even got a little handy with a saw and a paint bucket. He learned how to run the board that controlled the lighting, and, in the process, how and when to use light shifts to subtly enhance the emotional impact of what was happening onstage. Costumes had to be chosen, within a very tight budget, which involved lobbying local thrift and antique shops for gifts and loans in exchange for publicity. Rights to plays and musicals had to be purchased, or public domain works had to be substituted if the school board voted, yet again, to decrease arts funding.
And the actors – talk about having to give the squeaky wheel the grease. Take high-strung teenagers, expose them to legends about great but difficult actors (because you can’t be great, it seemed, without being difficult), impose tight schedules and apply peer pressure, and watch them run off the rails.
A piece of theater was a giant clockwork device that needed tending here, there, everywhere, in all its parts, the physical, the logistical, the human. And Peter became the producer, second only to the teacher, who relied on him more and more as he got better and better at it. Peter was the mechanic, the one who made it run, who fixed what got broken – soothed the anxious ingénue, duct taped a torn backdrop, got on a perilous ladder and, against all school policies and common sense, replaced a spotlight when the facilities crew was long gone for the day.
There was only one thing he didn’t do. Wouldn’t do. And that was get onstage and act. He couldn’t do it, tried to do it, but his stage fright was pathological. Especially after the teacher filmed him attempting a two-person scene – he was trying to show Peter that he was fine, he did well, wouldn’t win an Oscar but wasn’t incompetent. But it backfired. Peter watched the footage with horror, and only saw a scrawny little guy with thin lips and mousy hair, a million miles from what an actor was supposed to look like.
What Jordan looked like, for instance. There’s always one in every troupe – the best-looking guy, the one everyone wants, burns for, the one with “it,” “stage presence,” “charisma.” If you’re lucky, he can act, too, but no matter if not. Jordan had blue eyes, black hair, pale skin, slim waist and strong shoulders, a swimmer’s build. Jordan rolled out of bed every morning ready for the runway, with no effort on his part. Every time Jordan went into Manhattan, a strange men would give him his card and tell him to make an appointment with the “modeling agency” he worked for, and the damn thing was, most of the time it was true.
And for the first time in his life, Peter burned. He’d always known he was gay, as an abstraction, seeing guys on TV, in movies, in school, and nodding to himself, yeah, that’s what I want. But he’d never desired a man until he met Jordan. Jordan was talented, gorgeous, and worst of all, Jordan was a decent guy. Peter had no choice but to fall hopelessly, miserably in love.
Hopelessly, of course. Peter Rabbit, who would have you when he could have anyone? He would squeeze his pillow at night, Jordan o Jordan, but it was just a pillow, wasn’t it. He would chide himself, A pillow is all you get, so get used to it.
The he found the solution for his pain. Jordan was straight, right? Sure, he was, everyone knew he fucked the cheerleaders, plural, he was like, half the squad’s time share lover. Maybe the worst part was that Jordan was always nice to Peter, even though he could, had to, totally see the longing, the desperate hunger, in Peter’s eyes. But there was nothing reflected there other than polite disinterest. Look, it’s not you he’s not interested in, he’s not interested in guys! It’s nothing personal! The sun came out for Peter then, his days got easier, the wild mood swings of adolescence working in his favor for once.
Until the night he was the last one in the theater, or thought he was anyway, and he walked past the big closet that passed for a dressing room. Out of the corner of his eye he saw movement, so he turned to look, and saw Jordan locked in a hungry, no, ravenous kiss with Scott Brady. Scott, the flirty little queen! Scott, with his little bee-stung lips and too-tight pants. He froze in the hallway, unseen, unable to look away, walk away. Then Jordan raised his arms above his head and Scott pulled Jordan’s shirt off, and Peter saw the unattainable magnificence that was Jordan’s torso, surely the most beautiful body in the world, none could compare… And when Scott went to his knees, and Jordan put his hands behind his head and closed his eyes, then and only then did Peter run away, careful not to sob until he was out of earshot.
Like an eminent Victorian, repressing his sexuality but having to put that all that crazy somewhere, Peter channeled it into work. Even the rigors of the landscaping job were welcome, because he came home exhausted, too tired to pine or sigh or do anything but eat, and lay down on the bed with Mom. He’d come home on a Saturday evening and get on top of the covers, with Mom underneath the pile of blankets. Then they’d watch X Factor or Idol or whatever they’d taped during the week on the old VHS recorder. And that way, when a Jordan type came onscreen, fresh faced and talented, Peter was too beat to get upset.
He would stay with Mom till she fell asleep, before quietly turning off the TV and going to bed. Some nights that was nine o’clock, but most nights it was 11, 12, 1, and Peter was the only one who slept. Mom’s chemotherapy was laden with drugs that wore her out but wired her up, robbed her of the rest she needed to actually get better.
They didn’t talk about her getting better. Peter would ask her, “Are you feeling better today?” Today was the keyword, there was only today.
“Yeah,” she’d say. “It’s a decent day.” Or, some days she’d say, “Might as well make me a shit sandwich for lunch.” Peter had inherited his mother’s cold, clear-eyed view of the world, so of course neither of them said stupid shit like “you’ll be fine, you’ll get better, it’s going to be okay.”
One night they were on the bed, watching TV, and Mom said, out of the blue, “So Millie picked up your emancipation papers today.”
“We need to get those in to the court, so that when I die, you don’t go to foster care, what with you still being underage. She’s got a house, there’s a free-standing garage in the back with an apartment over it, and that’s where you’ll live while you go to college.”
“Don’t argue with me.”
“I can’t afford…”
“Student loans. Community college. There’s a job open at the library at the college. Twenty hours a week. You have bookstore experience, which they agreed is close enough to library experience at your age, so it’s settled.”
Peter smiled. “You just planned my life without asking me, you know.”
“Yep. If you’re going to have a life in the theater, it’s about time I became a stage mother.”
They didn’t speak of it again in the following month. Peter stopped asking her how she felt, too, because every day was a shit sandwich now. Then one night Peter fell asleep on the bed next to her, and woke up in the morning just knowing that Mom was dead, the sudden absence of heat coming from the body next to him.
And he didn’t cry. Made the calls, signed the papers, called Millie to help him get rid of all the medical shit around the house they no longer needed. It was okay, he told himself, because he’d seen the pain ramping up, the pain she wouldn’t medicate as much as she should have, so that they could have this time together, watching TV, storing up memories, just…being a family for the last time. And under that, though he wasn’t old enough to understand it or process it, was the relief, the awful half-compassionate, half-guilty relief of the “survived by,” when the long painful process is over. Or you think it is, anyway.
Grief’s a blur. He moved into the little studio over Millie’s garage, graduated from high school, worked the landscape job through the summer, read a million books, had dinner with Millie and her family around three times a week, turned eighteen. He had no idea how lonely it was to live alone when you never had before. It wasn’t in his nature to want it, to like it. He didn’t even think twice about hugging the pillow tight every night as he went to sleep, to hold something, anything, that resembled a body.
The community college had a decent theater program, even had a real theater, not a “multipurpose room.” He made friends, but that was it. There were all kinds of young gay men in school with him, expressing their gayness about as expressively as they could, he thought with a smile. College was across the Iron Curtain from high school, another world beyond the oppressive idiocracy of K-12. They had left behind their worst tormentors, the most lunkheaded lunks, none of whom were going to be doin’ more schoolin’ than the law could make them do. But it wasn’t the great sexual awakening for Peter that it was for them – he kept a low profile, kept his head down, had coffee with his new friends and went to their parties and went to movies when it was just a bunch of kids, not a date thing.
Then one late September night, a Tuesday around eight, he was walking outside the student union and saw a young man standing around, smoking a cigarette, near a group of adults much older than himself. A guy who made Jordan look like a humpback whale. Dark hair cut in the latest style, buzzed on the sides and longer on top, crisply folded with gel to hang just so over his forehead. Huge eyes, deep and dark, a strong nose, but flattened like a boxer’s, brutally sensuous lips, a body, oh shit, a body in a tight white t-shirt that was thick with muscle, but so lean, so athletic.
Peter was about twenty yards out, had to walk past the guy to get to the door and meet his study group, and he stared at the young god, couldn’t stop staring. But then like an animal the guy sensed it, looked up, locked his eyes on Peter. And it was like the eagle’s eyes on the rabbit’s, hypnotizing it, the rabbit not even able to make a little squeak of terror as the predator swept down and grabbed him in his talons.
Peter looked away because he had to, a lifetime of fear of being “caught looking” breaking the hold. Not the old fashioned fear that he’d be caught being gay, so much as fear that…what? That he’ll laugh at you, you miserable little prick, for daring to even think that…
“Hey,” he said as Peter passed, forcing him to stop, look again. The street lamp outside showed his features to best effect, his sharp right cheekbone casting a faint shadow on the smooth perfect skin of his cheek, the angle of his jawline just off balance above the long graceful cords in his neck. “You gotta light?”
Peter had to laugh at the absurdity. “You’ve got a lit cigarette.”
He shrugged, eyes down, eyebrow up, lips turned. “I tried.”
“To hit on you.”
Peter laughed again, nervously this time. “I wasn’t…”
He wiped a fleck of tobacco from his mouth with the back of his hand, unnecessarily, knowing how he looked doing it, his eyes still locked on Peter. “Yeah you were. Why you gotta hide it?”
“I…” Peter was baffled. This was some kind of joke.
He flicked his cigarette away with thumb and forefinger. “Let’s go.”
“You gotta place?”
“Aren’t you…” He looked at the group filing back inside. “Aren’t you on break from class?”
“Heh,” he laughed at a private joke. “Yeah, on break from class. They won’t miss me.” He walked away and Peter had no choice, did he, but to follow?
“I don’t even know your name…”
“Cody,” he said, without looking back. Peter waited, but Cody didn’t ask him for his name.
Cody had a motorcycle – of course he did. And a spare helmet. Peter had to smile, wondering how often this guy got laid if he was always carrying a spare helmet around. Oh my god I’m going to get laid, I’m going to lose my virginity to this incredibly hot guy, he suddenly thought with a thrill, getting on the back of the bike, putting his hands on the back of the seat. Cody turned around, saw where Peter was holding on, grabbed Peter’s hand and put it on his waist. “The other one, too,” Cody commanded brusquely, in a tone that brooked no objection.
Peter put his hands gingerly on Cody’s hips, but as the bike peeled out of the lot, he found himself holding on for dear life, his arms wrapped around Cody’s exquisite torso. A surge of delight blew away all the cobwebs in his mind. This is the way it’s supposed to be, I’m alive, I’m young, I’m getting lucky.
The bike roared up past Millie’s house, down the driveway to the garage. Cody slammed on the brakes and Peter jumped off, nearly pushed off by Cody as he threw a leg over only half a second after stopping.
Peter raced up the stairs, Cody right behind him, unlocked the door with shaking hands. “Do you want a glass of…”
Those were the only words he managed before Cody put a hand over his mouth. “Shut the fuck up,” he growled, and Peter should have been afraid, should have been offended, but then the pieces fell into place as Cody shoved him to his knees, it made perfect sense, relief swept over him, of course, he’s just here to use you, that’s all you are, a piece of easy meat, you’re lucky you were in the right place at the right time…
Cody had read him, all right, had seen his insecurity and his need and his willingness to do anything, anything for a man as cruelly beautiful, as darkly sexual, as Cody. Peter didn’t have to impress him, didn’t have to be good looking or clever or talented…he just had to be willing to give himself, all of himself…
Then they were on the bed, still dressed, but both of them with their pants down. “Faggot,” Cody hissed, pressing Peter face down into his bed, his arm wrapped around Peter’s throat. Then the searing pain, the unbelievable agony of his ass being opened up. “Fucking faggot,” Cody muttered, and Peter could tell it excited him, and beyond the pain Peter found something else, a beast inside him that was nodding, wagging its black tail, this is what you get, this is what you deserve. And he gave in, accepted it, relished it. Yes, take me, I’m so lucky you chose me…
Then a shout, wild, animal, as Cody came inside him, and it was over, the whole thing took five minutes or less. Cody was up and off him, his belt buckle clattering as he zipped up and was halfway out the door before Peter could even catch his breath.
Wordless, Peter rolled over and watched him, aching for him, burning for him to come back. He opened his mouth to say…
And some part of him, half shame and half pride, folded its arms and said, what are you going to say, ‘call me’? ‘Thanks, let’s do this again?’ Make a fool of yourself?
Cody went to the door, put a hand on the knob, then stopped, as it occurred to him that this had never happened, nobody had ever let him go without saying something. You bastard, you asshole, or come back, don’t go. Something. Peter must have passed out, why else would he be silent.
But he turned, looked back, saw Peter looking after him, biting his lip, wanting so desperately to ask, a stubborn pride that…that Cody wanted to break, to smash. He should have been in pieces already, the little bitch, the way I fucking took that ass.
He smirked. “I’ll see you next Tuesday, then, outside of…class. Don’t be late.” And he was gone.
Peter sighed with relief. I’ll see him again! He wants to see me again! It had begun, the way the mind sets the table for that kind of relationship. Cody had submitted him, used his arms to pin Peter’s own and keep him from struggling…no, he held me, he held me tight… Cody had taken no care for Peter’s pleasure, no care for his safety…no, he likes it rough and I do too, I do, it was exciting… Cody had put his arm around Peter’s throat, nearly choking him…and the skin on his arm was so warm and soft, his body’s so strong, oh god, the weight of a man on top of me, a moment in my bed with a man, a moment where I wasn’t alone at last…
Embarking on an obsessive relationship is like adopting a new religion – there’s a whole new calendar to live by, feast and famine days, lots of new rituals, and, occasionally, sudden head scratching as to why one’s new God was so capricious and cruel, followed in short order by acceptance of His Mysterious Ways.
Peter’s God was Cody now. The next Tuesday, Peter stood outside of school, waiting, shaking with fear and excitement, for Cody’s class to take its break.
“I can’t stay,” Peter told his study buddies. “I have a date.”
“Oooh, girl! Get out! Miss Cynthia Celibate has a may-un!”
Peter blushed, grinned. He did, didn’t he? Cody was his man…
“So what class are you taking?” Peter asked Cody that next week, chasing him across the parking lot again. He’d noticed the group of adults scowling at Cody, presumably disapproving of someone who left halfway through class two weeks in a row.
Cody chuckled. “It’s not a class.” And said no more. And the song was the same, that night, as it had been the previous Tuesday.
Then, to Peter’s delight, the Friday of that same week Cody showed up at his door, unannounced. Peter’s smile faded almost instantly when Cody walked in, grabbed his wrist in a fearsome grip, and yanked him over to the bed.
And so it went every time, only each time, Cody pushed Peter’s limits a little further, at least, that’s how Peter saw it. They had a kinky relationship and Cody wanted to try new things, right? But in actuality, Cody was seeing how far Peter would go for him, how low he would go. They were all things that would be, could be kinky in a “normally bizarre” sexual relationship, but it wasn’t the kink that got Cody off. It was the look of fear and dismay on Peter’s face, followed by the sheepish acceptance that whatever Cody wanted, Cody got.
Cody even laughed at him when he ordered Peter to lick the dirt off his motorcycle boots – and he fucking did it! He looked down disbelievingly at Peter on his knees, his adoring eyes as his tongue touched who knows what on Cody’s boot.
“Jesus Christ, faggot, you’ll do anything I tell you to, won’t you?”
Peter nodded enthusiastically, and Cody got so hard, he wrenched Peter up and over and onto the bed and fucking nailed that little bitch…
On the way out the door, it occurred to Cody to try something. “I need some money.”
“How much do you need?” Peter asked instantly.
“How much have you got?”
Cody smirked. “Well, that’s what I need.” Stupid little bitch! Man, this is fucking great!
One night he came out of the bathroom and Cody was using his smartphone. “What are you…” he began, but then Cody’s gimlet eyes looked at him as if to say, how dare you ask?
“My battery died,” Cody said, casually dropping Peter’s phone on the table. “You ready to take my cock?”
“Yeah…” Peter whispered, as always.
“Heh. That’s a good little butt boy.”
He called me good, Peter smiled inside. He called me good.
Peter’s friends wanted to meet his new boyfriend, but he put them off. And off. And off. Much, much later, it would occur to him that this was because they would have seen the true nature of the relationship, confronted him with it, ruined everything.
Cody came over one Tuesday evening, unannounced as always, and casually let slip what he’d been doing at school those other Tuesdays. “Finally,” he said, putting his cigarette out in one of Peter’s dishes, “I don’t have to do that fucking court-ordered bullshit anymore.”
“That twelve step crap I had to do. Get a paper signed every fucking week proving I went.” He shook his head. “What a racket. Oh yeah, I need fifty bucks to make my fucking restitution payment.”
Six months in, Peter had lost weight he couldn’t afford to lose. He gave Cody his disposable income, all of it, and lived on Top Ramen and his friends’ charity and dinners at Millie’s – Millie, who one night made sure to be outside when Cody roared up on his bike.
She was standing on her back porch. He took off his helmet. Their eyes met.
“That boy is bad news,” she told Peter the next day. “You can do better than that.”
“Cody? Cody’s great, Millie. If you just got to know him…”
“I know him,” she said, cutting him off rudely for the first time ever. “I know him. I don’t want him around here.”
“Well, then,” Peter said in the same tone. “Guess it’s time for me to move out.”
She shook her head. “No, no. You can’t. You don’t have any money, Peter. I know you give it all to him.”
“Do you think you’re the only person to ever be in an abusive relationship?”
Peter laughed nervously. “A what?”
“He’s preying on you.”
Peter fumed. “Do you think so, do you think I’m…some weak sister?”
“No,” Millie said sadly. “I think you’re strong, Peter. So strong. And that’s what fascinates him. He wants to see how strong you are. How much you’ll take. How much you’ll give before you shatter. And when you do, he’ll be gone.”
He turned and walked away, fuming.
But from then on he was screwed, because he was awake. He’d avoided it this long, but now it was apparent, it was true, he was pathetic, he was so desperate for a man’s touch that he’d do anything, anything…
Cody sensed it the next time they were together, saw the sad resignation on Peter’s face as he knelt and closed his eyes and got ready for Cody to spit in his face, slap him around, call him names.
He shook his head. “That fat old bitch got to you, didn’t she.”
Peter got up. “I don’t feel so good. Maybe we better call it a night.”
Cody grabbed Peter by the hair, pulled him into his chest, his voice slithering into Peter’s ear. “I say when we call it a night.”
“Let GO!” Peter shouted, and tore himself away, losing some hair in the process, facing Cody now, fuming.
Cody raised his hand, but Peter didn’t flinch. Go on, Peter thought. Then it’s not a game anymore, is it? Go on and hit me because then I’m…then I’m free. His eyes widened and Cody saw it, read it.
And Cody wasn’t really going to hit the little baby. Because he knew, what the limits were. Knew how the world worked. Anything less than physical violence was…a turbulent relationship, a passionate affair. The minute you hit ‘em, the law came in, Not Even Once and all that shit. Cody didn’t have to hit a woman, or a man for that matter, with his hands. He knew how to hit ‘em where it hurt.
So this was over, or close enough. It wasn’t fun when they started to get cocky, started to complain and bitch and whine. It was nice to get his rocks off on demand, and of course free money, fuck yeah! But he’d met this lady schoolteacher a week ago, typical of his good luck, and what do you know, she’d do anything for a young stud like him…
Besides, he thought, he had his little insurance policy in place now, right on the stupid faggot’s phone. If Peter started texting his friends how much he missed Cody, Cody would know. If his bank balance got a little boost, Cody would know. You think you’re free, Cody laughed. You’re mine, bitch.
“Your loss,” Cody said and made for the door. Peter had one more chance to stop him, to cry WAIT! and start the dance all over again. But Cody knew he wouldn’t take it. This game was over. For now.
Cody didn’t even shut the door behind him. And Peter collapsed on the floor, sobbing, great heaving gusts of loss and loneliness and relief and fear, it’s finally over, oh god what do I do now, it hurts, it all hurts so much, Mom I miss you so much I’m so alone…
And he’d been alone since then. Until Matt. Matt, who in bed had been strong, and dominant and aggressive but…gentle, careful, probing, watching, seeing him, Peter, a real person. Matt who had made him see that there was a way to go to those dark places inside him, a way to feel pain as pleasure, to do crazy pervy shit, but in a way they explored, together…
He had a date with Matt for Friday night. And then, he’d have to tell him about the lottery, about the…TWO HUNDRED MILLION DOLLARS. An amount of money that screamed, that deafened him, that made him want to clamp his hands over his ears and run away. Two hundred AND TWENTY million, he remembered, and he had to laugh, sure, round off that mere twenty million, forget about it, chump change!
That Friday at lunch time, he was walking down Madison Avenue and suddenly stopped in his tracks. “Fuck, asshole, watch it!” a lady shouted at him as she ran into him.
“Sorry,” he replied, moving out of the swarm, the stream of people racing to do their errands, gobble their lunch, hurry hurry hurry before whoever stood over them, frowning at a watch, could get them in trouble for coming back five minutes late – none of which had anything to do with Peter, now, nor would it, ever again.
What had frozen him in his tracks, made him dizzy, sick to his stomach, was a picture of his mom in her bed, sick, dying, and Peter and Millie always on the phone fighting, fighting, to get her in to see the doctors, the good ones, who could help her, having to beg their gatekeepers for an appointment, sullen harpies all, their tone always going from cool to cold when they heard the word Medicaid, who knew how little it reimbursed doctors versus what insurance companies paid for the same services, these hateful battleaxes who acted like it was their own money and not the doctor’s, and we’ll call you if there’s an opening but we all know there won’t be, don’t we so stop calling and die already.
If I’d been rich then she’d be alive now.
That was when he knew he was going to do something with the money. Something great. Something wonderful. He didn’t know what, yet. But it would help people.
The money stopped screaming then, and transformed from gold to paper, its weight a burden he could carry now. He smiled. He had a plan. He was going to slow down now and do this right. And doing it right would mean telling Matt, telling Matt everything.