Hometown Hearts by M.L. Rhodes
Copyright 2018 by M.L. Rhodes, All Rights Reserved
The words hung in the air between us as I searched his face.
“Well…yeah,” I admitted. “So, I guess the question is, are you? Straight?” I barely dared to breathe, waiting for his answer.
His gaze never faltered from mine, as if he were closely watching for my reaction when he responded. “No. I’m bi.”
I slowly let out a breath I hadn’t even realized I’d been holding. Bi. That explained so many things. But also left me with many new questions.
“How long have you known?” And why didn’t you ever tell me? But I didn’t voice the last part.
He winced slightly as he answered. “That’s a very good question with a somewhat complicated answer.”
It was my own selfishness now, wanting details. There’d been some reason he’d never told me up to this point, and for all I knew, that reason still existed and he wasn’t comfortable talking to me about it. I hated the thought of that, but it wasn’t my place to push. “I didn’t mean to put you on the spot. You don’t have to give me an answer.”
“No, it’s okay. I owe you an explanation. Like, years’ worth of explanations.”
“Jay, you don’t owe me anything. You’re not obligated to share this or anything else with me. Or anyone, for that matter.”
He smiled. “I don’t feel obligated to share it with you. I want to. And to answer your question in the most general sense… In a completely confused and terrified way, I’ve known something was different since we were teenagers. In an ‘Okay, I think I finally have it figured out way,’ only a few years.”
I let his answer sink in for a few moments, trying not to voice what was in my heart, but I couldn’t seem to hold it back.
“If you were confused in high school, why didn’t you ever talk to me about it?” There. It was out. And I couldn’t quite disguise the pang of hurt I felt. I tried, but it was there in my voice. If I could hear it, I was sure he could, too.
“I wanted to.” His tone and heart-wrenchingly sincere expression confirmed it. “You have no idea how much I wanted to talk to you, to ask your advice, and have you help me try to sort out whatever in the hell I was feeling. But I was scared.”
“Of how I’d react?”
“No. No! I knew you’d support me no matter what.”
“Of course I would have.”
“I know. No, it wasn’t you at all. I was afraid of even admitting it to myself.” He sighed. “Because of Russell.”
I’m pretty sure my heart stalled out for a horrified moment before it resumed, pounding so hard it almost hurt. Fucking psychopath Russell.
“Oh my God, Jay.” I turned toward him more fully. Hazel, clearly not liking the change of position, or maybe sensing my upset, jumped off me and took off toward the kitchen. “Did he threaten you or hurt you because of it?”
“Not directly. Not…about that, anyway.”
Shit, I knew it. Maybe not about that, but Jay’s answer told me in so many words that Russell had hurt him over other things.
“But…” Jay continued, his face drawn, “something specific did happen that made me keep my mouth shut tight. To you. To anyone.”
Now he turned on the couch until we were facing one another, our bent knees touching.
My heart pounded again. “What happened?”
“First I should probably give you a little back story. Sometime over the summer before our freshman year of high school, I began to realize that I kinda liked looking at guys as much as I liked looking at girls. I wasn’t ready or mature enough to define what that meant exactly. I just knew that I’d begun to take notice of guys in real life and they also began to make occasional appearances in my fantasies. Which meant that sometimes, when I was doing what young teenage boys inevitably do a whole lot…” He left the sentence hanging and gave me a half smile.
That made me smile, too. “Jacking off obsessively?”
“Mm-hmm. Yeah. Well, sometimes, when I was doing the deed, I chose to do it while thinking about or looking at pictures of men. Unfortunately, I had seriously bad timing and hiding skills, and my mom caught me at it in my room one night while I had a sports magazine open to a picture of a shirtless athlete. I tried to hide what I’d been doing, but she knew instantly. It was horrible enough to be caught in the act when you’re thirteen-almost-fourteen, and a thousand times more so to be caught doing it to a guy when that whole aspect of my sexuality was new to me and I wasn’t even sure how I felt about it. But, the look on her face…” His expression had sobered again, and his eyes radiated pain. “I expected her first reaction to be anger or disgust. But, instead she looked absolutely terrified.”
He winced as he continued. “Yeah. She threw the magazine in the trashcan by my bed. And then she whispered to me in a voice I don’t think I’ll ever forget, this horrible, shaking voice, ‘You can’t ever do this again, Dakota. You can’t even think about looking at boys anywhere, in magazines or in person. Because if he ever found out, if he ever even suspected, he would kill you.’ And the thing is, I was pretty sure she meant it. Not as in metaphorically kill me, but…”
“Holy fuck,” I whispered, my heart pounding.
“I’d never seen her so scared before, Hunt. She implied to me that Russell and some of his friends had done something bad to some gay man or men in the past and she didn’t want that to happen to me. She actually hugged me and cried a little, so I knew she was dead serious, and dead scared. Which scared the hell out of me.”
“My God, of course it did. Your own mom telling you that you needed to fear for your life from the man you were living with…? Fucking hell.”
“I know. It’s still unnerving to think or talk about it even now. You’ve heard the phrase, ‘scared straight?’ Well, that was me. Literally. Russell…he never liked me in the first place. I’m pretty sure I was an inconvenience to him on good days, and an outright thorn in his side most of the rest of the time. He hated having me around, hated that he had to spend any money on someone’s else’s ‘brat.’ I’d already had enough run-ins with him and his temper to know how dangerous he could be.”
“I always wondered,” I said softly. When Jay looked at me, questioning, I said, “You had bruises sometimes…”
He took a hard swallow. “I had more than you probably ever knew about,” he acknowledged.
The thought made me sick to my stomach.
“Needless to say, from that moment on, I forbade myself from looking at boys. I focused on girls. Made sure I talked in front of Russell and my mom about girls I liked. And when we were old enough to date, made sure I had regular plans with girls.
“The thing was, I didn’t really mind. I mean, I liked girls. But there was still a part of me that secretly fantasized about boys in the very back of my mind.” A slow flush spread up his cheeks and his gaze locked with intensity on mine again. “Especially about one in particular.”
It felt as if the world had slowed to a crawl. I could only ascertain one thing from the way he was looking at me. “You fantasized about me?” I whispered.
“Oh yeah. When you came out to me toward the end of sophomore year, I was equal parts thrilled and panic stricken.”
“Because of the temptation your coming out presented. Knowing you liked guys, too, in a way validated my feelings, but it also meant that my secret crush might not have to be just a dream. That maybe, at some point, you might notice me as well. And if that happened, I wasn’t sure I could resist. Which led me to think again, long and hard, about what Russell would do if he found out. And for the first time, I was not as scared for myself as I was for someone else.”
“You were afraid for me?”
“Jesus, yes. I can’t even say how relieved I was that you didn’t tell anyone else but your family and me you were gay, at least not for a long time. After my mom’s words about Russell and his friends…I couldn’t bear the thought of you being on his radar. And I truly believed if I talked to you about how I felt or showed you in any way I was crazy about you, eventually he’d find out. So, I locked my feelings up tighter than ever and did everything in my power to convince the world, even you, that I was straight.”
“You should not have had to go through that,” I said, my voice choked.
“No one should,” he agreed. “But I was in total survival mode at that point, willing to do whatever I had to, to protect both of us.”
“Damn it.” I still could barely speak past the lump in my throat. “I wish I’d known. I mean, I totally get why you didn’t tell me—I would have done the same. I just wish so much that you hadn’t had to deal with it all alone. All that fear…” It broke my heart. “You must have been so relieved to go to college and get the hell away from here.”
“I was. And I wasn’t. I had mixed feelings about it because I hated being so far from you. But I know what you mean. Sadly, though, those years of repression had more of an effect on me than I ever would have guessed. By the time I went to college, where it would have been safe to explore, I was so fucked up. That first semester of art school, I convinced myself I really was straight. And that maybe my attraction to you, my fascination with guys, had been nothing more than a puberty-driven phase.”
“I can see why you might have thought that.”
He gave a half nod. “But that line of thought only lasted until break in December. Because when I saw you again during Christmas, all those emotions crawled back to the surface. When I got back to school in January I really struggled. Was it only you I was attracted to and felt things for, or did I like guys in general? Was I gay and the whole liking girls thing was just a disguise I’d worn for so long I’d convinced myself I liked them when I really didn’t? But a few months later, I started dating a girl because I genuinely liked her. So then I wondered, once again, if I was straight after all. And maybe my fascination with you wasn’t because I was sexually attracted to you, but because we were emotionally close, more like brothers or something. And, for a while, I somehow convinced myself that was the case.”
“I remember you were dating a girl between freshman and sophomore years of college,” I said. “You went to see her a couple of times that summer.”
“We were together about a year and a half. And during that time, I truly believed I’d beaten the anxiety over my sexual orientation. I forced myself to stay fully focused on her and, much like I’d done in high school, I didn’t allow myself to look at or think about men. But, after she and I broke up, it started all over again. Because…junior year, I met a guy. He was in one of my art classes, and I quickly realized I was most definitely attracted to him. That was my first sexual experience with a man and…” I could tell from his expression what he was about to say.
“And you liked it?”
“I did. I really did. Which only stirred up all my confusion again. I think a part of me was hoping I wouldn’t like it because that would magically clear up everything for me. I could say, ‘Yep, I tried sex with a man and it wasn’t my thing, so I’m definitely straight.’ But instead I had to admit to myself that I liked it a lot. So, I went back to thinking maybe I was gay and I’d just been lying to myself about liking women. Until…I thought I wasn’t again. And so on and so forth for the next few years.”
He shook his head and I could see on his face how troubling the time had been for him. Damn it, I hated that he’d been so alone and confused.
“The best way I can describe it is that it was like a constant pinball game in my head, with me being the ball hitting one bumper, then bouncing into the next and the next and the next. I had no idea what I was doing, I didn’t trust what I was feeling, and I had no clue where I fit in. Being bi wasn’t really on my radar as a viable thing yet because all I knew about being bi was based on negative or, of course I now know, completely false stories. Like…there’s not really any such thing as being bisexual, it’s only a justification for experimenting until someone figures out they’re really gay. Or, bi people are promiscuous or want threesomes or they’re greedy.
“None of the bisexual people I’ve known over the years have ever fit those so-called ‘stereotypes.’”
“None of it fit me either. Which is why I didn’t think the term “bi”applied to me. But at any given time, neither did straight or gay, at least I didn’t think so. Hence my complete craziness over how to define whatever I was. It made it difficult to date at all. I didn’t know if I should go to the local gay bars to meet guys because I was actually gay, or if should be asking out some of the women I knew because I was actually straight. And when I would meet someone of either sex who I thought maybe I’d like to date, it seemed as if once they found out I’d slept with both women and men, more often than not they’d cut and run, as if the fact I’d been with both suddenly made me a sleaze or, best case scenario, a wishy-washy jerk who couldn’t commit.
“I just had no idea how to cope with that. I started to believe there was something fundamentally wrong with me. It felt like I inevitably picked the wrong people, who always ended up dumping me just as things were starting to get serious, or else I got friend-zoned because I wasn’t someone’s ‘type’ for a romantic relationship. So, I went back to hiding. Whoever I was interested in at any given time, I wouldn’t tell them the truth. But it felt wrong not to talk about it, like all I’d been doing for years was hiding. Like I was going to have to spend the rest of my life hiding part of myself.”
“God, Jay, I’m so sorry.”
“It wasn’t the most awesome time of my life, for sure. Eventually, I hit a real low point about three and a half years ago that I couldn’t seem to bounce back from. An older woman I worked with—she was super easygoing and progressive and actually kind of reminded me of your mom—didn’t really know what was going on specifically, but I think she recognized how lost I was. She suggested I see a therapist. Even got me a name and number. So, I did. And it was the best decision ever.
“I told the therapist the whole story from the beginning, including about Russell. And this therapist, David, was the first person who made me realize being bisexual was a legitimate thing. He had me keep a journal, where I wrote down every thought or interaction with people I had even a passing attraction to, and what type of attraction it was. Like…if it was sexual, emotional, intellectual, or whatever. And what I discovered, somewhat surprisingly, was that while I was attracted to people of all genders, I was most comfortable with my attraction to men.”
“Most comfortable in what way?” I asked, genuinely curious.
“It was interesting, actually. David asked me a whole slew of questions after I’d been keeping the journal for a while, like, which gender or genders did I feel most at ease hanging out with casually, having ‘hot sex’ with, discussing intellectual or emotional topics, who did I most often imagine taking a romantic vacation with. That kind of thing. It was open-ended, which was cool. I didn’t have to limit my responses to only women and men, nor was I limited to only giving one response.
“It turned out men made more of an appearance in my answers than anyone else. We had talked quite a bit at that point about me being bi, or maybe even pansexual, and what those terms meant, but after responding to all the questions it was pretty obvious that I was mainly drawn to men, and to a lesser extent women. That’s when it finally began to sink in for me that being bi doesn’t mean you have to have an equal attraction to more than one gender, or even the same type of attraction. I am still attracted to women, I’ve enjoyed my time with the women I’ve dated and been intimate with, and I could, conceivably, be completely comfortable in a long-term relationship with a woman. But now that I’m not constantly second-guessing my every thought and pressuring myself to conform one way or the other, I find myself more often looking at men.”
“I guess I hadn’t really thought about it in depth before,” I said, pondering everything he’d just mentioned. “It makes a lot of sense, though, that the attraction doesn’t necessarily have to be equal. And that just because it’s not equal doesn’t change the fact you’re still bi.”
“Exactly. I’ve heard some people say they hate labels, but in my case, being able to label what I’d been experiencing and feeling most of my life made a huge difference for me. It was good to realize I wasn’t alone, that there are lots of other people who’ve struggled with similar confusion and doubt.”
“It’s always comforting to know you belong to a community, that you fit in somewhere,” I said, totally understanding what he meant.
“It is,” he agreed. “Anyway…damn, that was a reallllly long explanation. But that’s what I meant by it’s complicated. I’m still a work in progress. I don’t pretend to have all the answers, and I’ve still had to deal with people who don’t get me, who don’t have any interest in being with someone bi. And I’ve still been dumped because in the end I wasn’t a hundred percent gay. My last relationship ended because the guy claimed he worried about my loyalty. Although, to be fair, I don’t know how much of it was that or if he just used it as an excuse because he wanted to get back together with his previous boyfriend.”
I couldn’t miss the pain on his face as he spoke of it, and irrational anger rolled over me because Jay was the most loyal person I’d ever known. I hated that someone had treated him like that.
“But,” he continued, “at least I know myself now, which is much better than stumbling around, feeling like there’s something wrong with me. And, for what its worth at this late date, I really am sorry I never told you, Hunter. There were so many times I wanted to, wished I had, but always in the back of my mind was the galvanizing fear, at least when we were younger, that Russell would find out. And in our twenties, I was such a mess I didn’t know how to talk about it. By the time I finally started to get it all sorted out and was more comfortable with myself, and Russell was no longer in the picture, you and I had pretty much lost contact with one another. I could have asked your parents or Kevin or Maddy to find out how to get in touch with you, but, God, talk about awkward. I hadn’t spoken to you in years, and it just felt weirdly inappropriate to suddenly reach out to you and say, ‘Hey, so, just thought you might be interested in knowing I like guys.’” He grimaced. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t apologize any more. For anything,” I said. “You did what you needed to, what you had to do for your safety and wellbeing. Fucking hell, when I think about Russell having that kind of control over you, making you feel so utterly trapped and afraid, and then that it carried over into your adult life… God, it makes me feel like I’m going to be sick. Why your mom ever—” I cut myself off before I said something I couldn’t take back about his mother
As if he could read my mind, though, Jay said, “I’ve asked myself that question hundreds of times over the years…why she stayed with him. Why she married him in the first place. Believe me, it’s a shitty feeling to hate your own mother, but there are times I really do. The only time she ever stood up for me against him was giving me that warning. I owe her for that, because it might very well have saved my life. But it also made me scared of my own identity, and it took far too damn long to put all those pieces back together. Mostly, now, I’m just glad they’re gone and I don’t have to see them anymore.”
“Do you have any idea where they are…or if they’re even still together?”
“Nope.” Jay’s face had hardened as he stared into the dying coals in the fireplace. “And I don’t want to know. I just hope the hell they stay away from here. That’s why I only ran Grandpa’s obituary in the local weekly paper. That’s what he wanted, because it wouldn’t be online anywhere that way. He didn’t want her to find out and come back here and cause me any problems about his estate. That’s also why I no longer have any social media accounts. I don’t want to make it easy for her to see where I am or what’s going on in my life. That’s what’s been holding me back from putting up my paintings on a website as well.”
Damn his mother, not only for bringing Russell into his life, but for still causing him grief even though she didn’t live here anymore.
It felt like the most natural thing in the world to pull him into a hug, needing to not just say the words, but to show him I really was here for him. His arms wrapped around me with no hesitation, and for the first time in all the years we’d known each other, touching him didn’t feel awkward or inappropriate, like something I had to apologize for. We’d hugged occasionally over the years, like yesterday when we’d met on the street. But not like this. We’d never touched in any way that could be construed as anything but purely platonic because I’d always wanted more and knew it couldn’t happen, so I’d never allowed myself to even be tempted. Little did I know that Jay had been avoiding the same thing. But, God, it made my heart ache that he’d had to go through everything he had in order to find some serenity in his life.
Right now, all I wanted was to help ease that pain a little for him, even if I was late doing it.
When we finally eased apart, Jay said, “Let’s make a pact.”
“Okay.” Jay and I had been making pacts about one thing or another since we’d first met. Whatever it was this time, I’d go along with it.
“Two pacts, actually.”
“All right. Are you going to tell me what they’re for?”
“The first one is that we will not lose contact with each other ever again.”
“Yes. I’m so on board with that. I hated not talking to you, not having you in my life.”
“Me, too. I don’t want to go another six years before we see each other again. I don’t even want to go six months.”
I didn’t want to go six hours, but I wasn’t quite sure how to tell him that, or if I even should, given my circumstances. “I don’t either,” I said aloud.
“And second…let’s promise not to keep any secrets from one another. I know I’m the one who’s done it up to now, not you, but I just don’t want to have to hide anything else from you, and I don’t want you to ever think you need to hide anything from me. I laid a lot of crap on you tonight, about how being around you made me feel when we were younger. But I don’t want you to think you can’t be honest with me that you didn’t reciprocate those feelings.”
“Um…” My mouth went dry. “In the interest of full disclosure and honoring pact number two, there’s something you should know, then,” I said quietly.
His brows drew together in a worried frown. “What?”
“All those years? You weren’t the only one having feelings.”
“What do you m…?” His voice trailed off and his brows rose. “Oh.”
“Yeah. There’s a reason I never bothered coming out to anyone but you and my family in high school. The only guy I was interested in and wanted to be with, was you. Since you were off limits, I never needed to say anything to anyone else.”
“You never did date anyone in high school,” he said softly, reminiscing. “I never knew why exactly. I just assumed you weren’t ready to be out publicly.”
“I would have been fine being out in public…for the right person.”
“I had no idea it was because…”He shook his head, still looking slightly stunned.
I smiled. “Because you existed? Yeah. There was no one who could remotely compare to you. And that holiday break, our freshman year of college? I was lost when I went back to school, too. You have no idea how close I came to telling you how I really felt about you that Christmas. But I thought you were straight, and realized that even if I did tell you the truth, nothing could come of it. Nothing except potentially destroying our friendship, which I didn’t ever want to happen. So, I kept my mouth shut.”
“Crap,” he whispered. His hand moved up to restlessly stroke his beard, then he ducked his head and smiled. “The whole time?”
“If we’re being completely honest, I’ve sometimes wondered if part of the reason I let our friendship slip was because…”
“It made it easier to fight the attraction if we weren’t around each other?” This time he finished my sentence.
“That sounds horrible, doesn’t it?”
“No. It sounds smart. I was a fucking mess, and you had no clue what was really going on with me. You did what you had to, to protect your heart. And, to be honest, I suspect I might have been doing the same, since I didn’t exactly go out of my way to keep in touch with you.” He shook his head. “Damn. I really made a mess of things, didn’t I?”
“You didn’t do anything, Jay. This is all on Russell. If it hadn’t been for him, I’d like to think you would have talked to me about it, if not before, then when I came out to you. Then you would have had at least one person to support you, and maybe wouldn’t have had to hide or repress anything.”
“Maybe. It’s hard to look back in retrospect and guess about what might or might not have been. But I think the real question now is, where do we go from here? Or do we? Because I can’t deny that I still have feelings for you, Hunter. I didn’t realize it until I saw you yesterday, but…well…”
“Same. I just never, in a million years, expected to discover you reciprocated those feelings.”
“And yet, the timing completely sucks.”
I swallowed hard. Yeah, it really did.
“Tell me what you’re thinking,” Jay said softly, his gaze focused on me. “And, please, be honest, whatever it is.”
I held out my hand to him, palm up, on my lap, and he reached for it. Our fingers wound together, and the touch set off the warm, fluttery feeling in my stomach.
I smiled. “The part of me that’s never forgotten how I felt all those years ago, how I’ve never stopped feeling, and that rejoiced at the sight of you yesterday and hasn’t stopped rejoicing since, wants to start right now, this instant, making up for lost time.”
He squeezed my hand and smiled back. “I know the feeling. But…?”
“But…” I sighed. “The practical part of me knows, whether I like it or not, I have a nasty mess to clean up back in New York. It’s going to get ugly before it gets better and I…” I shook my head, hating the knot that had quickly replaced the flutter, as it surged back to life just from thinking of having to deal with Shane.
“I know,” Jay said. “I know you have a lot to deal with. Which is why I’ve been kicking myself in the ass every time I’ve said something I shouldn’t have the last couple of days. You don’t need any extra pressure right now. You have a lot of things to sort out and, believe me, as someone who took forever to sift through the crap of my life, I understand better than most the time and energy it takes. Plus…your life is in New York. Whatever happens with you and your partner—”
“Ex partner,” I interjected. “His name’s Shane, by the way. Shane-Fucking-Harris.”
“Okay. Well, whatever happens between you and Shane, your firm is there, your clients, your reputation, your friends, the life you’ve spent the past several years building. You worked hard in law school and probably even harder over the past few years so you could have the life you dreamed of. That’s important. And, as for me, I’m only now getting settled here.”
“After making a major life change that required you to move to a different state, to reevaluate your career, and take over your grandfather’s business. I know. The last thing you want or should have to do is think about going through it all again, and I would never ask you to.”
“I guess we both understand what all this means,” Jay said, a pained expression on his face, but his tone resigned.
“Like you said, the timing sucks. Starting something right now would be so damned unfair to you in particular. Because in spite of the fact I could happily never see Shane again, I don’t have that luxury. My life is completely tangled up with his still, and it will be for a while. You deserve so much more than that, Jay. You deserve to have someone who can give you their full attention, who’s not two thousand miles away juggling a pile of baggage from an ex he still has to play nice with because of a multi-million-dollar law firm.”
Damn it, I hated this so much, and I fully blamed Shane for fucking things up for me in yet another way. Now, when I’d unexpectedly discovered the man I’d been crazy about for almost twenty years might actually feel the same way about me, my life with Shane stood in the way like a giant stone wall, oozing with lies and betrayal. “Fucking bastard,” I whispered.
Jay seemed to know I wasn’t referring to him because he squeezed my hand again, offering support.
“Listen, I meant what I said earlier, Hunter. I don’t want us to lose touch again. Our friendship’s lasted a hell of a long time. Nothing’s going to change that. Not even this.”
“You have no idea how grateful I am for you,” I said. “I’ve missed you.”
“I’ve missed you, too. And I’m grateful you’re here now, even if it is only for a while. The way I see it, I have my best friend back. And that’s far more than I would have thought possible even a few days ago. It feels good.”
“Yeah. It does.”
“And besides,” he said with a shrug and a smile, “you never know what the future might bring.”
No. No we didn’t. But while he was trying to look at it positively, all I could think about was that while I was cleaning up my mess with Shane, however long that took, Jay would be here—gorgeous, kind, and talented Jay—where anyone with eyes would be foolish not to snap him up and keep him forever. I would never ask him to wait for me, nor would I expect him to do it voluntarily. As I’d told him, he deserved so much more.
If Shane put up a fight, dissolving the firm, divvying up clients, all while trying to keep our reputation intact, could take months or even years. I dreaded it already. But the only other option was to try to find a way to stay in business together while remaining civil and professional with one another. Could I do that? Yeah, probably. But I didn’t want to. I wanted to be done with Shane in every way.
Sadly, that was going to take some time. And the longer it took, the less likely there’d ever be a chance for Jay and me to have something more.