Josh Freeman knows his best days are behind him. After his partner of seventeen years has an affair with a younger man, Josh buries himself in takeout boxes, half-smoked joints, and self-pity until his best friend gently kicks him in the ass and encourages him to try out a new job in Washington DC—at least until Thanksgiving.
Though DC has its share of troubles, specifically in the form of a murderer targeting gay men, Josh soon discovers its charms as well. Unlike his old home, DC is crawling with men who want to date him—apparently he’s not as overweight, out of shape, or over the hill as the man he once loved made him believe. In particular, Josh would love a chance with relocation expert Thad Parker, but Josh is sure Thad is seeing someone, so he looks for love elsewhere. He tells himself he and Thad don’t have anything in common anyway.
Then Josh learns Thad really is available. Maybe they can work it out after all. Suddenly the future seems bright again. Of course, Josh doesn’t know he’s the murderer’s next target….
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Top 2 Bottom Reviews says:
A funny, cute and a spellbounding book.”
“A superb and very well written story with multi-dimensional characters combined with an richly detailed portrayal of life as a gay man in the Dupont Circle of Washington DC.”
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“Definitely worth reading.”
Josh Freeman left the Bar Complex well before last call. Except for the hustlers that prowled the streets behind Lexington’s one and only gay bar, nobody noticed him leaving. A rough-looking kid in a tank top and jeans sized him up and walked toward him.
“Looking for some company?”
“No, thanks.” Josh kept walking. The gravel crunching under his Justin Ropers didn’t cover the laughter the boy got from the other hustlers. Josh wasn’t hard up enough to pay for sex. Yet. The cold shoulders at the bar had been bad enough.
He unlocked his red Toyota Celica. Gay life in Lexington, Kentucky, had changed. The bar crowd that evening was nothing like the good old days, when the place overflowed with good-looking, readily available men—before AIDS and the siren call of gay meccas like Atlanta, San Francisco, and New York. That school was out for the summer didn’t help. The class of ’97 had moved on, and the class of 2001 hadn’t yet come to town.
Going to the Bar had been a mistake. Josh hadn’t talked to anyone and nobody had talked to him. He wasn’t surprised. Unless he needed help crossing the street or had fallen and couldn’t get up, the college boys shaking their stuff on the dance floor had no cause to talk to him.
He started the car and headed to Jerry’s Restaurant for a late-night snack, smoking the rest of the joint he’d left in the ashtray. Smoking pot kept him from feeling so lonely. These days, he smoked so much he didn’t really feel anything.
“Table for one?” asked the waitress, chomping her gum and tugging on a severely strained bra strap.
“Table for one” sounded like a life sentence. Absent enough money to justify the sugar daddy label, he had slim to no chance of finding another lover.
“Here ya go, darlin’.” The waitress plunked down a food-stained menu and a glass of water. “Can I get ya some coffee or something to drink?”
“Water is fine, thanks.”
“Ready to order or do ya need a few minutes?”
“I can order. I’d like a J-Boy plate.”
“Sure. I’ll be right back out with that for ya, darlin’.”
A tiny spark of hope still glimmered, enough to get Josh off the couch earlier that evening and into the shower. By ten o’clock, he’d whipped his hair into a look, fingered through some gel, squeezed into his best jeans, and donned a Polo golf shirt for a solo night out on the town.
The waitress returned with his food, interrupting his thoughts. She set the burger, coleslaw, and mountain of crinkle-cut fries down in front of him. “Ya gonna save some room for hot fudge cake?”
Josh was tempted to say yes. He could eat whatever he wanted now. What difference would it make if he got big as a house?
“No, thanks. I’ll be doing good to eat this.”
“Well, just let me know if ya change your mind.” She left the check on the table and headed to the hostess stand to seat a group of punk rockers that had just arrived.
Josh glanced at his watch and noticed it was after one o’clock. The bars had closed, and a line waiting for tables had formed just inside the door. He wolfed down the rest of the burger, finished off the slaw, and made a noticeable dent in the mountain of fries. After leaving two bucks on the table for the waitress, he picked up the check, settled with the cashier, and returned to his car.
The J-Boy plate had filled him up, but left him feeling just as empty as before. Instead of going home where he belonged, Josh headed for the bookstore.
He parked under the trees at the very back of the parking lot, smoking a cigarette and watching guys coming and going through the bookstore’s rear entrance. A steady stream of cars cruised slowly through the parking lot. Now and then the cars paired up, driver’s side to driver’s side, for quick conversations. If the drivers connected, a two-car convoy headed to a secret rendezvous for a hookup. More often, both cars returned to the parade circling the bookstore in search of a hot encounter.
After seventeen years with Ben Dixon, Josh was single. It wasn’t his fault. He’d done everything right. The idea of cheating never even occurred to him. As far as Josh was concerned, once you decided to move in together, death was the only way out.
He thought Ben agreed. In a way, he did. Ben didn’t want the relationship to end, either. Not the relationship with Josh or the relationship Ben had on the side with his coworker, twenty-five-year-old David Hicks. That Josh considered David to be a good friend added insult to injury. In one fell swoop, he’d lost two of the most important people in his life.
Oh well, Ben is history. No more lies. No more worrying about what’s going on behind my back.
But the absence of gnawing paranoia was a small comfort in the face of reality. Josh knew his best chance for finding the love of his life was now behind him. Downhill was the only direction left for a single, middle-aged gay man.
He locked his car and made for the rear door of the bookstore. When he crossed the threshold, the scent of Pine-Sol punched him in the nose. There wasn’t enough cleanser in the world to cover the smell of all the sex that went on in the cubicles making up the dim back half of the store. The brightly lit front of the establishment featured dirty magazines, an eclectic collection of pornographic videos for sale or rent, and a wall of dongs, dildos, and other sex-related paraphernalia.
A dozen small cubicles with coin-operated video players featured an assortment of porn. Scattered throughout the dark maze connecting all the cubicles lurked maybe a dozen horned-up men. Some were married and popped into the booths for the blowjobs their wives refused to deliver. Most of the rest were there to oblige. The way they leered made Josh uncomfortable.
Never a lurker, Josh stepped into a cubicle and dropped some quarters in the slot to watch some gay porn. On the screen, an obviously bored African-American plowed the ass of a homely white dude who tried to act like it hurt. Neither performer was likely to win any acting awards. Josh pushed the button and the scene changed to a blond frat-boy type blowing a hairy, muscular white guy.
Fearing what he might sit in, Josh ignored the wooden bench seat and remained standing. The black plywood walls of the booth were riddled with holes of various sizes, none part of the original construction. Smaller holes allowed for spying on the action in the neighboring cubicle. Larger openings served more illicit purposes. Every few years, the police raided the place and the owner would board up all the holes. New holes reappeared in days.
Watching the action on the little screen gave Josh a hard-on. When a finger appeared through a baseball-sized opening on the right side of the booth, beckoning, he figured what the heck. Getting off was getting off. He went over, lowered his pants to his knees, and stuck his cock through the hole into the warm, wet mouth waiting on the other side.
Josh concentrated on the video, imagining the frat boy sucking his dick instead of one of the leering men he’d seen outside the cubicle. He dropped more quarters in the slot, then focused on the video and the mouth milking him through the glory hole. Soon Josh was pounding the wall with his hips. The sound attracted bystanders to the holes in surrounding cubicles to see what the noise was all about.
Josh felt the beginning of his climax tingling in his balls and groaned. The hot mouth working urgently on his throbbing cock quickly produced the desired result. On still trembling legs, Josh zipped up his pants and headed home to his empty bed.
The doorbell’s steady ding, ding, ding woke Josh from a sound sleep. He stumbled out of bed and tripped over an assortment of pizza boxes, dirty clothes, old newspapers, and empty cans on his way to the front door. He saw his friend Linda Delgado through the peephole and opened the door.
“I’ve been ringing your doorbell forever. You up?”
“Does it look like I’m up?” Squinting from the bright sunlight, Josh looked at his arm and then remembered his watch still sat on his bedside table. “What the hell time is it, anyway?”
“Way past time for your sorry ass to still be in bed. You were supposed to meet me at the pool two hours ago.”
He rubbed his eyes. “You could have called.”
Linda put her hands on her hips and glared. “I did. Three times.”
Josh looked over and saw the red blinking light on his answering machine. “Oh. Sorry.” He ran his hands up over his eyes and through his hair, pulling the bangs back, then letting go and shaking his head. “Guess I was sleeping pretty heavy. I went downtown last night and was a little late getting home.”
“Late getting home? Did you get lucky? Is he still here?”
Josh decided not to mention the anonymous blowjob to his one and only friend. Women really didn’t understand about casual, anonymous sex. “No, I didn’t get lucky. Nobody even looked at me twice, much less talked to me.”
“Poor Joshy. Everyone probably thought you were too busy enjoying your little pity party to bother with anyone else.”
Josh shook his head. “Linda, sometimes you’re a real bitch.”
“As your best friend, it’s my job. If I don’t tell your hunky ass the truth, who will?” She looked past him. “Are we just going to stand here on the porch all day and talk?”
Josh yawned and stepped back, opening the door wider so Linda could come in. “Sorry. I’m still about half asleep.”
Linda pushed her way past Josh into the condo. She took three steps, then turned back to Josh. “Jesus Christ! What the hell is that smell?”
Josh sniffed the air. “What smell? I don’t smell anything.”
“It smells like a crack house in here, or maybe a dumpster.” She covered her mouth and nose with her hand and talked between her fingers. “Damn, Josh! When was the last time you took out the trash?”
“Uh. I dunno. Sometime before Ben moved out.”
“That was more than three weeks ago. Can’t you smell it?”
Josh sniffed again and shrugged. “Not really. Maybe a little when I first come in. You get used to it.”
Pinching her nose and holding her hand over her mouth as she kicked through trash and clutter, Linda made her way into the living room. On the coffee table, empty cans and glasses surrounded an ashtray overflowing with cigarette butts and the tail ends of an uncountable number of joints. Linda kicked a bunch of dirty clothes and old newspapers off the sofa and onto the floor to clear a place to sit.
She looked slowly around the living room, her eyes jumping from mess to bigger mess as she took it all in. “So this is what three weeks of wallowing in self-pity looks like.”
Josh cleared himself a spot on the sofa, knocking over a half empty glass of what might have been milk as he sat down. “I guess so.” He picked a small pipe from the table. “You mind if I catch a little buzz before we hit the pool?”
Linda sighed. “Sure. Why not?” She glanced around the room again. “I may even have to join you.”
He was more than a little surprised. Since divorcing a guy with a deep affection for cocaine who everyone thought could easily have passed for Josh’s brother, Linda rarely got high. Josh retrieved the jewelry chest his mother had given him for his twelfth birthday, and after knocking a bunch of cans to the floor, cleared a spot for it on the coffee table. He opened the chest and took out a nearly empty bag of pot to replenish his pipe.
“Guess I’ve been smoking a lot since Ben left.”
Linda glanced around at the filthy, cluttered condo. “No shit. Too bad getting high doesn’t inspire you to go on a cleaning binge.”
“Ben usually did all the cleaning.” Josh filled the pipe and offered it to Linda.
Linda hesitated. “When in a frat house, do as the frat boys do.” She took the pipe, fired it up, inhaled deeply, and held her breath before returning it to Josh. “Are you going to tell me about your night downtown?”
Josh took a big hit and then exhaled. “There’s really nothing to tell. I had a couple of drinks, took in the drag show for a while, then watched a bunch of people I don’t care to know dancing to music I’d never heard before. It was a good time.”
He looked at Linda. Two years younger than Josh, she was still beautiful, with short raven hair, olive skin that quickly tanned a dark brown, and dazzling blue eyes. Their mothers had been best friends. They’d grown up together, and Josh could tell she knew there was more to his story. She looked at him and cocked her head. “Did you run into Benjie and David?”
Josh shook his head. “No. They weren’t there.” He relit the bowl and took another hit.
“That’s good.” She reached across and pulled his chin around so she could see his eyes. “You know you’re going to run into them sooner or later, don’t you?”
Josh returned his attention to the pipe. “Not if I can help it. David knows Ben has trouble keeping it zipped. The Bar is the last place they’d be.”
He loaded the bowl again and handed it to Linda. Having outgrown the youthful crowd of regulars, he and Ben had long ago quit going to the Bar Complex. In truth, the decision to avoid the place had been less about the young crowd than Ben’s wandering eye.
Linda snorted. “If David was that smart, you and Ben would still be together.”
“Yeah, and if I was smart, we would never have hooked up.” In hindsight, Josh should have seen it coming. Ben had left his previous lover to be with Josh. If they’d do it for you, it was only a matter of time before they’d do it to you.
“Do you miss him?”
Josh looked at her. “I don’t know, maybe. Part of me is glad he’s gone. It’s like a big weight has been lifted from my shoulders.” He shrugged and looked at the floor. “Maybe I should become a monk. Then I could put all this celibacy to good use.”
Linda laughed. “You’re not really the celibate type.” When he didn’t laugh, she slid closer to him and wrapped an arm around his waist. “Thought any more about that job offer?”
Josh draped his arm across her shoulder and rested his chin on her head. “Not really.”
Walker, Cochran, and Lowe, the law firm where he worked, had offered him a promotion to national director of communications. The catch was he’d have to transfer to the Washington, DC, branch of the firm. Ben had been opposed to the move, but what he thought didn’t matter anymore.
Linda leaned her head into his neck. “Why not go? It’s a great opportunity for you, and there’s no better time than now to get the hell out of Dodge.” She sat up, pushing him away. “You should go.”
Josh looked into her eyes. He couldn’t remember a time when she hadn’t been part of his life, and he loved her like the sister he never had. More than her words, the concern for his well-being he saw on her face told him she was serious.
But he couldn’t imagine life without her, especially now that his love life was over. If he couldn’t have a lover, at least he had Linda. Being single without her to keep him company was just unimaginable. He set the pipe in the ashtray and stood up.
“Come on. It’s a beautiful day outside. Let’s not waste it in here chitchatting about work.”
Linda laughed and shook her head. “If you insist.”
“I do. Let me jump into some trunks.”
Josh returned a few minutes later in navy-blue swim trunks, a white T-shirt, and flip-flops. “Ready?”
“I was ready two hours ago,” Linda smirked.
Bright sun beamed down from a cloudless sky. Linda and Josh rubbed sunscreen onto each other’s backs. With the sun behind him, Josh stood at the foot of his lounge chair, shifting it to the left until his shadow fell in the middle of the vinyl slats. Linda shifted her chair to line up with Josh’s.
A group of high school kids played volleyball in the pool. The team in the shallow end had a definite advantage. After handily winning the game, they moved to the deep end for a rematch.
Josh enjoyed the smell of the chlorine and the sun’s warmth on his skin. He closed his eyes and the volleyball game faded to white noise. He could taste salty perspiration when he licked his lips and felt cool splashes on his legs from the action in the pool.
His mind drifted, as always, to the breakup. Maybe he’d focused too much on work. The effort had certainly paid off, for both him and Ben. Walker, Cochran, and Lowe had promoted Josh several times, with pay increases allowing the two of them to do more or less whatever they wanted. Nice vacations every year, the newest electronic gadgets, a fancy condo with all the amenities—all possible because of Josh’s steady rise from graphic designer to communications director.
Now Ben slept on a futon in David’s studio apartment and ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Josh smiled. Yes, Ben’s reduced standard of living did somewhat soften the blow.
Josh sensed Linda looking at him, opened his eyes, and met her gaze. The intensity of her blue eyes never ceased to impress him, especially when she was this tan. “What’s up, beautiful?”
“You really should go to DC.”
“I’m lonely enough here, where I grew up and went to school. How lonely would I be hundreds of miles from here in a big city where I don’t know a soul?” He looked away and hoped she wouldn’t see how upset and afraid he really was.
“Josh, you can do this. DC isn’t Lexington. The change of scenery would be good for you. I won’t bail on you like I did when you first came out and I couldn’t stand the sight of you.”
Josh remembered all too well. Before he had any inkling he was gay, he and his lifelong friend had been high school sweethearts. Josh had believed with all his heart that he and Linda would marry, have a passel of children, and live happily ever after. Having witnessed firsthand the impact of his father’s infidelity, cheating was the farthest thing from Josh’s mind. And yet, that was exactly what he had done on a drunken camping trip with the guys his junior year in college.
Linda had been hurt when he told her what he had done and discovered about himself. Her tears had ripped his heart in two. When her hurt finally turned to anger, he was grateful. For months she wouldn’t have a thing to do with him, refusing to return his calls, ignoring letter after letter of apology.
Linda’s voice broke through his thoughts. “We can talk every day, if you like.”
The walls fell and Josh’s fears escaped. “I don’t know, Linda. What if I don’t like it? What if I don’t make new friends? What if I just sit in an apartment and wish I’d never left Lexington?”
Linda stood up, crossed her arms, and let go with her own fears. “What if you do like it? What if you make a hundred new friends and get too busy for your old pal here in Lexington?” She took his hand and waited for him to look her in the eye before continuing. “It’s a risk for me too, but one I’m willing to take because I can’t stand to see you this way.”
He dropped her hand and looked at his feet. “What way is that?”
“Where do you want me to start? Staying stoned, eating junk food, trashing your condo, spending too much time by yourself. Need I go on?”
Josh shook his head. Struck by a sudden desire for something to do with his hands, he reached for his cigarettes and lighter.
She made him move over so she could sit next to him on the edge of the lounge chair. “Josh, you are an amazing man. You’re not over the hill by any stretch of the imagination. If you were straight, every woman I know would love to have a crack at you. You’re smart, kindhearted, compassionate, and drop-dead gorgeous.”
He shook his head. “I’m gay and almost forty. That’s the same as being sixty in the straight world. I am over the hill. Spent. Done.”
“Do you hear yourself? You’ve been totally worthless ever since you kicked Ben out. Being single is not the end of the world. And even if it was, at least you were happy with Ben for a while. Do you know how long it’s been since I’ve even been on a date?”
Josh felt like a heel. Despite her beauty and vivacious personality, Linda rarely if ever dated. After her short-lived marriage went south, she said she’d had enough of men and vowed to stay forever single. He never understood how she could be so content without someone special in her life. Josh could barely function.
He leaned over and put his head on her shoulder. “I’m sorry.”
Linda pushed him away. “Oh, shut up with the sorry already. You are the neediest, most codependent person I know. I feel at least partially responsible. I was more of a security blanket for you than a lover. Half my anger when you told me about your little camping tryst was at myself for letting things go on as long as I did.”
Josh didn’t know what to say. He knew she was right. Though he hadn’t been aware of it, he had always been gay.
Linda took his hand and looked into his eyes. “Josh, I love you and I always will. I know you love me too. That’s not going to change whether you stay in Lexington, go to DC, or move halfway around the world.
“You’ve outgrown this town. It’s time to move on. This isn’t about us, it’s about you. Give DC a chance—until Thanksgiving. If it doesn’t work out, you can come back. You’ve got to do something because I can’t stand to watch what you’re doing to yourself now.”
Neither of them noticed the volleyball game had ended and the boys had left the pool area. They were alone. The prolonged silence was deafening.
She was right. Except for Linda and her mother, there was nothing left for him in Lexington. Maybe it really was time to move on. The more he thought about it, the more the idea appealed to him. He certainly didn’t have anything to lose.
Josh felt a flock of butterflies in his stomach leap into flight as the idea of maybe moving became the decision to move. He turned to Linda, took a deep breath, and said, “Okay. I’ll go, but you’ll have to come and visit.”
Linda nodded. “Say the word and I’ll be there. Have Honda, will travel.”
And with that, it was decided. Josh laughed, then stood up and leaped into the pool. Linda jumped in behind him and the pair engaged in a splashing battle reminiscent of the wars fought in the aboveground pool in Linda’s backyard when they were still in grade school.