Chapter Six: Is He Listening?
Cole suppressed the urge to gather Jake in his arms and hustle him toward the surprise. But one thing he’d learned was to go slow with Jake, to give him the space he needed to process his feelings. So Cole stepped back and waited while the smaller man continued toward the carriage where the smiling driver held out a hand to help him into the rear seat.
Grinning at Jake’s “no way,” Cole breathed a sigh of relief he’d done at least one thing right that day.
The driver bowed and said, “It’s a mite on the chill side tonight. Sure you want the top down, Mr. O’Neil?”
Cole glanced at Jake, vigorously shaking his head no, and replied, “We’re sure, Sam.”
“Fine, sir. You know where the blankets are.”
Cole waited for the driver to walk around the carriage, removing the chocks and checking the harness on the grey mare contentedly licking up the last bit of grain from her feedbag. When they were ready to move out, Cole climbed on board and slid next to Jake who was vibrating with excitement.
Jake said, “I’ve been here in the city coming three years. I always wanted to do this.” He blushed, his ruddy cheeks turning a deeper shade in the diffuse glow of the streetlights. “I don’t know what to say.”
Cole wrapped an arm around Jake’s shoulder and pulled him close, tucking the auburn curls under his chin as the carriage jerked forward and entered the stream of traffic. When they turned onto Center Drive, Cole reached down and pulled the heavy wool blanket from its slot under the seat. Awkwardly he tucked it around the man shivering in his arms. Jake wasn’t helping because he had his hands stuffed in Cole’s coat pockets, the fingers fisted in the deep recesses of the down jacket.
“That better?” Jake umphed something into Cole’s chest. He took that as a yes, then asked, “You hungry, you want the sandwich?” hoping the answer was no because he didn’t want to disturb the closeness, the sensation of complete togetherness they’d established in such a short time.
A wave of unease threatened to highjack his contentment. Cole fought it down, determined to make this night special, to make it one they would both remember … that he would remember.
Jake lifted his head and looked around. There wasn’t much to see on that stretch, other than the fanciful lanterns casting shadows and the occasional glimpse of lights from the skating rink. Their driver, Sam, sat quietly, shoulders hunched, eyes forward. The flaps on his cap were pulled down over his ears, but Cole knew he listened to everything going on around him, keeping tabs on their progress.
They were making an abbreviated loop given the lateness of the hour. As it was, Cole owed Sam more than a thank you for offering to stay late on his behalf. When he’d approached the group just before they headed out for the evening shift, he’d had to endure curious stares and some sly smiles. Apparently someone had seen Jake leave that morning and word had gotten around.
Why he should feel like a kid caught with his hand in the cookie jar escaped Cole, but that was exactly how it felt. So he never had company, so what? That he’d had a stupid grin plastered on his ugly mug for most of the afternoon wasn’t a reason for any of them to put two and two together and come up with the wrong idea.
Not that they were wrong, far from it. Cole had been wracking his brain for hours trying to come up with the perfect plan for the evening. Telling Jake to meet him at the Food Court had popped without conscious thought. From thinking a nice walk on the footpaths in the park to window gazing at the displays to maybe even strapping on ice skates and risking life and limb, he’d run the gamet of all the possibilities, discarding one after the other. None of them felt right, whatever that meant.
It wasn’t until Sam had approached him and asked, “What do you need, son?” that his dismay and inability to make a decision translated into him stuttering out his dilemma and asking men twice his age what the fuck people did on dates.
Someone asked, “Is this the first date?”
“Um, no. It’s the second.”
Sam frowned. “Hmm, that’s too bad.”
Cole’s eyebrows shoot to his hairline. “Too bad? What’s too bad?”
A voice behind him asked, “How’d the first one go?” He didn’t need to turn around and look at the man, he could hear the smirk in his tone of voice.
Cole blushed crimson, the heat flooding his earlobes and cheeks. Sam laughed and said, “That good, huh? Well, seems to me you’re gonna have to come up with a real showstopper to top that, dontcha think, boys?”
The boys all nodded their heads in unison. That’s when they hammered him with questions he had no answers for—what Jake liked, what he wanted to do, was he adventurous or the quiet type…
Cole kept muttering, “I don’t know, I guess, maybe, sure, fuck if I know…” until it boiled down to Sam waving the others off and taking Cole by the arm and leading him into the bowels of the stables.
When they’d finally found a nook where they could speak privately, Sam said, “I take it you like your young man.”
“Well, yeah, but—”
“No, son, I mean you like him, am I right?”
Cole wavered, not sure he wanted to admit he understood what Sam implied. Instead he countered with, “How do you know it’s a young man?” hoping to divert the conversation away from the risks of admitting he’d already jumped into an emotional sand trap and had no idea how he was going to deal with it.
“Didn’t just fall off the turnip truck, boy. My eyes might be old, but they still see just fine. Seems to me you gots it bad. Am I right?”
Cole ducked his head in defeat. Sam had indeed got it right. But right, wrong or indifferent, he still had to come up with a plan, a setting that would make it possible for him to talk plainly, to tell Jake…
What the hell was he going to tell Jake? The truth? Yeah, that would make for a real cheerful topic and it would show him up to be the selfish asshole he was.
Right. Good plan.
“Seems to me you’re overthinking this thing, son. Tell me, what is it you want to show him tonight? What is it you want to say to your young man?”
Cole knocked his head against the wall and jammed his hands in his pockets in frustration. He had no doubt he was overthinking it, but he’d painted himself into a corner and time was running out.
Sam said, “You like him, right?’ Cole twitched his agreement, “And he likes you.” That wasn’t a question. “Seems easy from where I’m standing, boy. Just tell him. Before it’s too late.”
Too late. Before it’s too late?
Cole straightened. The weight on his shoulders was still there. So was the inevitability of what he’d put in place. It complicated things, made it difficult to see a way out of his dilemma but if he didn’t try, he’d have to live with knowing he’d maybe passed up the one thing he’d been missing for so many years.
And if the answer was no, then he’d deal. He always did.
Sam grinned. “Looks to me you made your decision.” They moved toward the garage doors and the lone horse and carriage, the rest of the crew already making their slow, ambling way toward Central Park and the gaggle of tourists. He pulled Cole to a halt. “If you don’t mind a suggestion?”
“There’s nothing quite like a spin through the park at night to put you in the right frame of mind, know what I mean?”
Sam gazed down at the elf-sized man. The top of his thinning grey head barely reached Cole’s mid-chest, his body wizened and bent over with age and infirmity, but at that moment all Cole saw was compassion and a good heart. He said, “Don’t know how to thank you…”
“Never mind that. You go and call the office and see to a reservation. They’ll take care of everything.” He swung onto the bench seat and picked up the reins, whistled to the mare and tilted his head in Cole’s direction. “See you later.”
Jake was the one who reached down for the bag with the sandwiches. He pulled one out, unwrapped it, then folded the waxed paper to make an envelope around the thick concoction of pastrami, cole slaw, swiss and Russian dressing on rye. Handing it to Cole, he said, “This shit’s to die for.” Cole agreed and took a huge mouthful, chewing with contentment.
When they finished, Cole fished the large container of coffee out and opened the lid, allowing the steam to escape. He took a sip, passed it over and placed his arm around Jake’s shoulders again. He closed his eyes, losing himself to the chill and the motion of the carriage and the feeling he’d found something special, something so damn near perfect he was having a hard time believing this was him, Cole O’Neil, falling…
Not just falling. He’d taken the express elevator to a place he hadn’t even dreamt about because he wasn’t aware such a state existed. Not for him, anyway.
Jake shifted, making himself more comfortable. He said, “Did I tell you we had a couple horses when I was a kid?”
“No, you didn’t.” Cole nuzzled Jake’s forehead, encouraging him to continue.
“We lived … live … in south Jersey, near Cape May. Pretty much country, though if all you’ve seen is the northern part of the state, you might be surprised at how rural it is.” He sipped the coffee, offered it to Cole who shook his head no. “Dad had a hardware store. Mom was a nurse. I was the youngest, the surprise baby.”
“So they had you late in life?”
“Yeah. My two sisters are ten and eight years older than me. They were the ones who were crazy for the horses. Showed them, all the usual shit. But when they left home and got married, the old geldings became mine.”
“Did you ride?”
“Nah, not really. Just hopped on them bareback, rode around the pasture. We mostly just kept each other company. It helped…” Jake paused and chewed on his lower lip. Cole had already figured out it was a nervous habit. His voice dropping so low, Cole had to lean in to catch the words, Jake said, “The horses were there for me during high school. My sisters knew and supported me, but you know how it is. Small school, smaller minds.” He shrugged.
Cole squeezed his shoulder. “I think we’ve all been through that at one time or another. Doesn’t make it any easier, though.” Jake had only mentioned his sisters, so he asked, “What about your parents?”
“Mom knew I think. Dad didn’t have a clue, but he was so busy keeping the store going, I doubt anything much registered other than his inventory. When he died of a heart attack, Mom passed within about six months.”
“How old were you?”
“Nineteen. Dad always assumed I’d take over the store. He left it to me and the girls, but I was the only one who tried to keep it going.”
Jake pulled away, his spine rigid, chin tucked into his wool coat. His mouth in a grim line, Jake spat out, “As usual, I fucked up. I’m no good with numbers. I suck at details, counting beans, and managing people. My sisters finally decided to take matters in their own hands. Trish and her family moved back to the house and her husband took over the store.” Jake stared down at the floorboards of the carriage for a long time.
Finally Cole asked, “What about you, what did you do?”
Jake huffed a breath into the frigid air. “I followed a dream.” Before Cole could press him, he answered the unspoken question. “I fancied being on the stage. I had no experience—it was just a fly-by-night asinine idea that got stuck in my head. It refused to let go so I decided, why the hell not, so I packed my bags, ended up here. That was nearly three years ago.”
Cole knew he was stepping on thin ice, but he went ahead and asked, “Do you always follow your dreams?”
“If that one time counts, then yeah, I guess I do.”
The space between them yawned like a canyon. Cole wasn’t sure what to do with what Jake had shared. He felt like a priest in a confessional, but unlike that cleric, he didn’t have a handy recipe for soothing a damaged soul or removing residual guilt.
One thing he wasn’t good at was connecting the dots unless he had almost all the pieces of the puzzle, so he asked a question that sounded, even to his own ears like it came out of the blue. “Do you like it here?” He motioned with his hand in the direction of the approaching line of brightly lit store fronts.
Jake shrugged. “Yeah, I guess. It’s okay.”
Encouraged and not sure why, Cole said, “Same for me. But I grew up on a farm. I’ve only been here a few months, but the city makes me antsy, you know?”
“Yeah, yeah, I do know. It’s like you can’t breathe, like everything is coming at you all at once. And…” The words stalled in Jake’s mouth once again, although, this time, he rested his hand on the seat while he still stared off into the distance.
Cole wanted to pull Jake back into his embrace, but he sensed the time wasn’t right, so instead he simply wrapped his left hand around Jake’s and left it there, hoping the weight of the contact was enough. They sat in awkward silence as the carriage wound its way through lightening traffic back toward the garage and stalls on 38th.
Say it before it’s too late…
Clearing his throat, Cole squeezed Jake’s hand and took the first step. “What’s been hardest for me is dealing with how lonely you can be surrounded by…” he paused and waved his right hand in the air for emphasis, “…all this. Mobs of people. None of them giving a shit about you. And even when you want to be alone, it’s like you can’t get away from them. Ever. It’s… It’s like you’re—”
“Like you’re suffocating?”
“Exactly like that.”
Jake finally turned toward Cole, his mouth trembling as he asked, “Do you ever feel like you’re dying here?”
Before he could respond, the carriage pulled to the curb and stopped. Sam jumped out and held the door open. He made eye contact with Cole and nodded just once. To Jake he said, “The best to you, son,” then turned away to take care of the old mare.
Cole led Jake to his loft, took the coats and hung them on the hooks, then guided him into the bedroom. They stripped, their backs to each other, the sudden bout of mutual shyness so palpable Cole could taste it. By the time Cole had set aside his clothing on the folding chair, Jake had crawled into bed and pulled the sheets to his chin. As he had in the carriage, he stared at a spot in the distance, his body sharing Cole’s space but his mind a million miles away.
Mimicking what Jake had said the night before, the night when magic had happened and Cole had lost his heart and soul, he said, “We don’t have to, if you don’t want to.”
“Yes, we do, Cole. Say what you need. I’ll listen. I promise.”
Sliding between the sheets, Cole propped himself on an elbow and began his own story, of growing up in upstate New York, on a farm with his brother and sister, of him struggling to come to grips with who and what he was. How he’d floundered his way through life, never quite fitting in. He spoke of the intervention with his father’s brother who was gay.
“Uncle Ray took me in, gave me the tough love my parents couldn’t.” When Jake went wide-eyed at that, Cole hastened to add, “It’s not their fault. I was being a total shithead and they had enough on their plates with trying to keep food on the table without dealing with a juvie feeling sorry for himself and blaming everything that went wrong on them and everybody else.”
“So what did he do?”
“Uncle Ray’s a veterinarian. He got me in the community college vet tech program. He paid the tuition. And he beat the living crap out of me when I ducked classes and acted out.”
Jake snorted. “What is he, Godzilla, he could take you on?”
“Not hardly. He’s five-eight, strong as an ox.” Cole smiled, remembering how much the thought of his uncle intimidated him even today. “He had a favorite saying… ‘It’s not how much dog’s in the fight, it’s how much fight’s in the dog.’ I’ve had a few occasions to think on that over the years.”
“He sounds like somebody I’d like to meet.”
Cole’s heart skipped a beat, but he had yet to get to the bad parts, the make-or-break shit, so he steeled himself for the coming storm and said, “My parents passed. Uncle Ray and Sis didn’t want the farm so it went to me. Thing was, I wasn’t ready. I needed to find myself, to learn about who I was. Maybe see if there was somebody worth living with inside all the bluster and the insecurity. I read about the carriage horses on a journalist’s blog, decided to come see for myself what it was about. Ended up here. That was nearly eight months ago.”
Jake’s arms curled around his knees. He asked, hesitantly, as if he wasn’t sure he wanted to know the answer, “So what did you learn?”
Cole took a deep breath, then another and another. Finally he said, “It’s in my blood, the farm. And the horses. Being a vet tech, working with animals—all of them, large, small, it doesn’t much matter.”
“So what are you going to do about it?”
That was the million dollar question, and the answer was one that Cole had worked on for months. Just over twenty-four hours ago, he’d been clear on his decision. Now? Now, he wasn’t so sure.
“I put a proposition to Uncle Ray. He’s going to help me set up a satellite clinic at the farm. I’m also planning to turn it into a retirement home for working horses. If the city decides to shut them down here, I don’t want those horses going to slaughter or to strange homes with people who don’t know shit about how to care for them.” Gritting his teeth, Cole barked, “They’ve worked hard, they deserve some dignity. I plan on finding a way to provide that.”
Cole turned his head to find Jake staring at him, his expression unreadable. After a while he asked, “When do you leave?”
Swallowing back the disappointment, the regret, the feeling he was saying goodbye to the one person who could help him make all his wishes and dreams a reality, he whispered, “Wednesday,” and counted out the heartbeats echoing in his empty chest.
“Can I ask you something?”
Cole blinked, unable to form words, his throat so choked he feared he was drowning in sorrow. Eventually he managed to say, “Sure,” but there was nothing sure in his life at that moment.
“Will you go to St. Pat’s with me tomorrow?” Since that came out of nowhere, Cole was sure his face registered surprise, so Jake quickly explained, “I’ve always wanted to attend mass during the holidays, but I never had anyone to go with me.” He brushed at the corner of his eye with the heel of his hand. “I know it’s not exactly Christmas, but…”
Cole stopped him by tracing a finger along Jake’s chin. “Are you asking me on a date?”
“Um, no… yes. I dunno, sort of?”
Cole gathered his young man into his arms and nuzzled the silken hair.
My young man…
With wandering fingers, he continued the sensual exploration he’d only begun the night before. And this time, he was going slow and easy.
Jake straddled him, his eyes bright and lips in a pout. “You know what I want, O’Neil?”
Cole blinked, processing the possibilities, slow and easy taking a back seat to others that immediately popped.
“What I want…” His voice dropped a sultry octave as he leaned in and tongued Cole’s ear. “What I want is a sin worth taking to confession.”
Cole broke into a sweat and groaned, “Oh, fuck me.”
Jake smirked. “We’ll start there, then I’ll tell you what else I have in mind…”