Chapter Eight: Snow Is Glistening
It was odd how easily all Cole’s plans fell by the wayside. He’d planned on spending his last two days in the city wandering around, taking in the sights he’d missed, being a tourist. He’d thought it would make for a nice memory, New York City aglow with lights and window displays, the sidewalks jam-packed with people hustling to find the perfect gift. Maybe there’d be a snowstorm to put icing on that fantasy cake.
He’d gotten the fantasy part right, but not much else. Instead of filling his head with flashes of holiday spirit, he’d hidden in the bowels of the stables, cleaning harness or mucking out stalls while the horses were away. When they returned, he groomed them, one-by-one, checking shoes, topping off water buckets—all the chores that had been re-allocated since he was no longer officially involved with the organization.
Now he was just killing time, or maybe time was killing him. He’d made two runs to the Port Authority bus terminal, sending off most of his clothes and the bits and bobs of trinkets he’d collected during his months interning with the carriage trade. His uncle would pick them up and see that everything got to the farmhouse. That left him light on crap to lug around, but it did little to relieve the burden of regret and sorrow that was eating him alive.
Despite Sam’s good advice, he hadn’t expressed how he really felt, not directly, and no sane person would fault him on that. Had it really been less than a week since his life had spun out of control and he’d lost his heart to the curly-haired kid with a wide smile and eyes so crystal clear, so green, he’d fallen into them and never wanted to escape?
The naysayers, the ones who pontificated that there was no such thing as love at first sight, they would proclaim he and Jake knew very little about each other—certainly none of the small secrets and dreams and fantasies, the make-or-break stuff that took a lifetime to learn and to savor. And yet, in less than a day, Cole had awakened to the fact he didn’t have to face life alone anymore, and that the chance meeting with Jake had blown wide the barricades he’d erected to protect himself.
Now, what amounted to a sea change was him realizing that, while he’d been carefully shielding himself from investing his emotions in another, he’d only managed to create a void in his life. All those years he’d spent trying to figure out how he could make a difference? He’d been going at it the wrong way, turning inward and seeing just the empty shell of loneliness yawning into his future.
When he’d finally had enough, he’d taken the first steps to put his life back on track. His uncle agreeing to the proposal to set up the satellite clinic and hospice for unwanted equines had seemed the answer to his prayers. But fate had intervened with other considerations, other options—none of them clear-cut or easy.
How could he ask Jake to share his life in the middle of nowhere, with just him, the animals and an ancient farmhouse … with no take-out or theater or the heartbeat of a city with endless diversions? What right did he have to even consider putting that question out there?
Jake had a job, he had his own ambitions—the theater, the university, who knew what else? They hadn’t gotten much beyond exploring each other’s bodies, let alone unwrapping the layers of what made each of them tick. At times it had seemed like they’d been a single being, one in ways that defied his ability to express it in words, like they knew the other’s thoughts and feelings without having to say it out loud.
Maybe that had been his mistake—his unwillingness to speak what was in his heart, to say the one word that was the game-changer for both of them.
Cole couldn’t shake the suspicion that the turmoil and sadness he felt was just him being a selfish idiot, wanting more than his due and assuming Jake would be ready and willing to hop on board, give up everything he’d established in his own life and merrily attach his caboose to Cole’s dream train.
How naive, how stupid could he be? It simply didn’t work that way, despite how much he wished it were so.
He had no idea how two people could ever get to that point in their lives where his and mine became ours, how you evaluated separate paths and made the choice—this one, not that one. He ached to ask Jake about that, to explore the possibilities, to see if it was all in his own head. To find out if he’d been hallucinating all along, or was it real, real enough to lay it out and say yes, this … I want this for us. Not me. Not you. For us.
Will you? Do you want to?
The more he thought about it, the more questions he had, questions that only Jake could answer. And although he could wish and hope and pray all he wanted, the truth was those answers might not be what he wanted to hear—the sweet rejection of we can still be friends, it wasn’t meant to be, it was fun while it lasted. Cole wasn’t sure he was ready for that. Perhaps he’d been right all along to keep his mouth shut and not impose an impossible situation on a man who deserved better than a lovesick declaration on the eve of Cole’s departure.
“Right, too fucking right, O’Neil.” The words popped out, the sound echoing hollowly in the nearly empty stable. He mumbled, “Crap, get a grip,” and breathed a sigh of relief that no one was there to witness his meltdown.
The right thing was for him to suck it up and make their last night together something special, not a drama queen sob fest that would only embarrass both of them and make it that much easier for Jake to say goodbye.
The problem was, he sucked at saying goodbye…
To make matters worse, Jake had been forced to return to his own place to change and get ready for work. It shouldn’t have been that way, not at all. In a perfect world, Jake would have brought clothes over to share the few hooks on the wall and a dresser drawer. He’d have added his toothbrush and shaving supplies to the narrow lip on the porcelain sink. They’d have played bumper cars with their hips, jostling for a spot in front of the mirror. Perfection would have had them taking turns, showering quickly to conserve the hot water, or maybe shower together and find another way to drive each other insane.
But they hadn’t done any of that, making the pending farewell, have a nice life, keep in touch easier to bear, for both of them.
He climbed the steps to the loft he’d called home for nearly nine months. That evening it was stripped bare of everything that was Cole O’Neil, scrubbed down to pristine and ready to welcome the next inhabitant.
Cole showered and shaved, taking care about his appearance, then donned his only sport coat and hefted the backpack onto his shoulder. With a final look around, he headed out to meet Jake at the store and then take him to dinner to celebrate his birthday.
He’d entertained getting flowers or candy—some birthday token—but that seemed too romantic and needy, though he knew in his heart Jake would have loved the gesture. Maybe in another time or another place…
Gabe met him at the back door. They exchanged nods and smiles, Gabe’s not quite touching his eyes, the man’s expression assessing and not altogether friendly. He said, “He’ll be out in a minute.”
They both stared up at the flakes falling lazily from the dark maw barely discernible between the looming buildings. Cole shivered and mumbled, “Looks like snow.”
Gabe hummed, “Uh-huh.” He fidgeted on the step for a few seconds, then asked, “Going out?”
Cole swallowed back his discomfort, unsure how to react to the interrogation and the assessment that had him not measuring up. He could guess why but all he said was the obvious, “Dinner,” and followed it up with, “Maria’s?” He felt and sounded like an idiot.
Gabe pursed his lips and reluctantly said, “Nice place. He’ll like that.” Then the man pierced him with a look that cut Cole to the quick. “He deserves nice…”
Before Cole could bolt and put them all out of their misery, Jake appeared, the smile on his handsome face bright enough to light a room. Gabe leaned down and whispered something in his ear—Cole imagined it was something along the lines of say the word and he’s a dead man—but Jake just smiled and joined Cole in the alley. It wasn’t until he and Jake had turned the corner and joined the evening crowd that Cole noticed Jake’s eyes were puffy, and his normally ruddy complexion seemed even more so in the wash of streetlights and store displays.
They held hands, striding comfortably together as flakes drifted lazily and reflected off the glare of headlights, softening and muting the background melody of a city switching gears as it headed into an alternate dimension of relaxation and predation. At the restaurant, Cole guided Jake down the steps and through the rustic door into a quaint Italian setting, the interior walls rough brick with pine flooring and waiters ramrod straight sporting brilliant white cloths over their forearms.
The maître d eased Jake’s jacket off and hung it on the rack. Someone held a chair for Cole. He sat, his eyes never leaving Jake’s face—the sharp cheekbones accenting the slant to his impossibly beautiful eyes, lips quirked at the edges, flirting with a smile that never quite emerged.
Jake murmured, “This is nice,” and glanced away to take in his surroundings, giving Cole a chance to memorize the shape of Jake’s head, how his finely-corded neck stretched thin and temptingly sensual, almost close enough for him to taste and savor.
Gabe’s words haunted him. He deserves nice…
After they had placed their order and the Pinot Grigio had been decanted, Cole held up his glass and said, “Happy twenty-fifth birthday, Jake.”
Jake took a sip and nodded his appreciation. With a smirk, he said, “I guess you’re going to have to stop calling me ‘kid’ now.”
“I like calling you ‘kid’ … kid.” Scooting his chair closer to Jake, Cole whispered, “When we’re done here, I’m taking you someplace where you can give me a reason to call you something else.”
With feigned innocence, Jake asked, “What did you have in mind?”
Cole reached under the table and ran his thumb the length of Jake’s erection and whispered, “Nothing good…
Cole and Jake left the hotel suite with awkward, shuffling steps, both of them half-ashamed by what they’d done in the wee hours of the morning, both of them walking sore and bone-weary and heartbreakingly sensitive inside and out.
Unlike the night before, when they’d meandered the streets like lovers, the icy fog and urgency of Cole’s imminent departure had them dog trotting the nearly empty sidewalks as they cut their way from the Sheraton to 8th Avenue and the ten long blocks to the bus station.
When they arrived at their destination, the Port Authority Bus Terminal was packed with commuters disgorging for their humpday love/hate affair with the Big Apple. Jake followed Cole down the escalator to the lower level, both of them sweating and breathing hard from the frantic pace they’d set. There were only a half dozen people in line, the hour achingly early. Cole settled the backpack on his left shoulder and pulled Jake in close. They stood apart from the others in line, ignoring their stares and the occasional sneer. There wasn’t much to say. They had let their bodies, their passion and lust and every emotion that remained unnamed, speak for them that night.
When the line moved, Cole backed away and fished in his jacket pocket. He pulled out an envelope and held it out.
Jake asked, “What’s this?” and reached for it warily.
“Don’t open it now. Wait until…” Cole paused, wanting to say it’s nothing, but that wasn’t right because it truly was everything. He said a silent prayer that Jake would understand what he was trying to say when he looked at the contents.
Silently he palmed Jake’s cheek, then joined the other passengers shuffling through the door. He found a seat near the front and slid to the window, hoping for one last glimpse of the man he loved. Jake had moved to the glass divider and placed his palm on the window, his eyes darting frantically up and down the length of the bus.
Cole mirrored him, though he was certain Jake wouldn’t see him through the darkened window. He stayed that way for a long time, not caring about the tears leaving a trail of misery and despair down his cheeks. The sensation he’d died inside but his body had yet to grasp that fundamental truth nearly consumed him.
It wasn’t until the Greyhound bus hit I-80 and began the seven hour journey back to his home and to the future he’d once looked forward to, that he realized how little any of it mattered. Leaning back in the seat, Cole closed his eyes and tried to block out all the reasons why he’d gotten it wrong—completely, abso-fucking-lutely wrong.
He wondered if he’d be able to cope with a one year expiration date…
Jake leaned on his elbows, weary to the core and his veins pumping ice as he contemplated the piece of white paper resting on the glass-topped counter. They were in the dinner hour lull, and instead of tidying up and refolding the mountain of scarves and gloves that were his bailiwick, he’d shoved them aside in order to give the inevitable bad news pride of place.
“What’s that?” Gabe tapped the envelope. “Is that our Christmas bonus?”
Jake barked, “Don’t,” and reached for the envelope, only to have Gabe pull it closer to his edge of the counter. He growled, “It’s nothing.”
“Doesn’t look like nothing to me, girlfriend.” Gabe shoved it toward Jake and asked, “You going to open it?”
“No, yes… I don’t know.”
Gabe’s teasing expression morphed into concern. “It’s from him, isn’t it?” Jake nodded. Gabe made a rude sound and huffed, “Well, no rush then.”
Jake’s curiosity overrode his gut’s churning anticipation of the ultimate brush-off. He said, “No time like the present. Might as well get it over with.” He ripped a strip off the end, tipped it over and shook it until a piece of paper fluttered to the counter.
Gabe tilted his head and said, “What the hell?” He picked it up, turned it over a few times and set it down.
Jake nearly gagged on the question, “What is it?”
Gabe held it up to the fluorescent light and sneered. “It’s a bus ticket. To Watertown? Who the fuck wants to go to Watertown?” He turned it over and stared at the back and muttered, “One way, a one way bus ticket.” He looked up and asked, “Where the hell is Watertown, anyway?”
Jake’s brain had nearly shut down, but he managed to answer Gabe. “It’s upstate New York.”
“So, what’s in upstate New York worth going to?”
Jake grinned. “Not what, dipshit. Who.”
Gabe’s eyes bugged out. “No, no way, sweetie. Are you saying what I think you’re saying?”
Removing the ticket from Gabe’s hand, Jake tucked it back in the envelope, then put the offer in his shirt pocket—the one next to his heart.