It's Saturday. I got a call from Dan last night, making sure I was still okay with the idea of coming over and cooking. I could hear Alex in the background, having Dan ask me questions about how I liked my salads. I didn't know there were too many different ways to make a salad, but I didn't let Dan know I could hear his friend talking.
To be honest, I'm a little nervous about the idea of hanging around Alex again. I can only assume Dan told him about the two of us sleeping together, and I'm worried about what Alex thinks of me after that. He seems to be one of the most important people in Dan's life, and because of that, I can't help feeling as though it's crucial that he likes me. If he doesn't, what's to say Dan will even want to be around me any longer?
My anxiety isn't based solely on Alex's opinion, though. I'm glad Dan and I slept together, and I wouldn't take it back, but it seems to have kicked my fear and guilt up several notches. I've made great strides in accepting myself over the years, and reconciling my genuine belief in God with my sexuality. But the more I think about it, the more I wonder if who I am now is who I actually am, or if it's who I became because of the situation I was in.
I don't mean in terms of my sexuality, itself - I've known I was bisexual for a long time - but more the things I enjoy. Did I take up shooting because I liked it, or was it subtly forced upon me by my father? Do I enjoy driving my truck, or is it some form of overcompensation on my part? I know this is all just a matter of me overthinking, like I always do, and I'm trying to keep myself from falling into the trap of these thoughts, but it's difficult.
I'm supposed to be at Dan's in about ten minutes. I go to my hall closet - which is, and has always been, doorless, from the day I moved in, leftover neuroses from my teen years, I guess - and pull on a black jacket. It has been raining all day, and the wind and thunder are really kicking up now. Dan's place is barely thirty steps away, but I'd prefer not to be drenched to the skin when I get there.
I catch sight of myself in the reflection of one of the photos on my walls - a black and white shot of a bunch of trees that I took at random a couple years ago - and remember that I still have my dog tag necklace on. I was wearing it the night we slept together, and I have yet to remove it, even in the shower. I briefly consider taking it off, then decide against it, and leave the house, locking the door behind me.
When I arrive at Dan and Alex's, I'm surprised to see that the front door is open, but neither of them are in my line of sight. There are towels pressed up against the door frame, to keep water from getting inside.
"Hey, guys," I call out, "why's your door open?"
"Alex likes storms." Dan comes out of the kitchen, a smile on his face. He walks towards me, leans forward, and kisses me on the lips. "Hey," he says when he pulls away, still smiling.
"Hi," I respond, and smile back. His mouth tastes sharply minty, like toothpaste, or maybe strong mouthwash.
"Stop making out and help me!" I hear Alex call from the kitchen.
I take off my jacket and Dan puts it into their hall closet - which does have a door, go figure - then I follow him into the kitchen.
To my surprise, Alex is wearing an apron. It's plain white, but it's still an apron. "Hush," he tells me before I can say anything, then he turns and looks at Dan. "And just so I don't have to say it again, you hush, too." I hold up both hands - a signal to Alex that I'm not going to comment.
The lights in the kitchen flicker. I look up, wondering if one of their bulbs is going bad, but notice then that the lights in the living room flicker at the same time.
"That's been happening all day," says Dan. "I think the power might go out soon."
"You guys have flashlights?" I ask.
"Yup," Alex answers, then taps one of the drawers beside him. "In here."
"How's the salad coming?" Dan asks his friend, and I take note of the bowl on the counter.
"Fine," he responds distractedly. To me, he says, "Bear, I looked up the ingredients for chicken parm and got them for you, if you're still interested in making it."
"Thanks," I say as I move to the counter. Really, though, between my anxiety surrounding sleeping with Dan and coming over here again, I actually forgot I was supposed to be cooking, even with last night's phone call. Thank God Alex shopped for me. But I'm not about to tell he or Dan that.
"So what do we do first?" asks Dan.
I think for a second, going over what I remember of the directions in my head. It doesn't come to me at first, but soon flows easily enough.
"Well first, we need a skillet," I say.
Dan kneels down and takes a big skillet from one of the cupboards. He sets it on the stove, then moves to heat the oven.
"How high should I set it?" he questions.
"Medium." I pick up the olive oil Alex left sitting among the ingredients he got for me, open it, and pour it into the pan. While I wait for it to heat, I get a knife, and move to start cutting up an onion, but Dan stops me.
"I can do that," he says. I hand him the knife, and go to get a couple eggs from the fridge.
As we work, the three of us make small talk. It takes just over an hour to finish cooking, and just under twenty minutes to eat it all. That is one of the reasons I could never really get into cooking - it takes such a long time to create it, and such a short time to devour it. It's never seemed worth all the work to me.
I'm helping Dan and Alex do the dishes, when the power goes out, just as Dan thought it would. I'm thrown into darkness, and the idea that I don't exactly know my way around their house makes me feel anxious.
"Great," says Alex with a groan. "One sec."
I hear him moving around. At one point, he bumps into me, and apologizes. Then a thudding noise echoes in my ears, and Alex lets out a curse, "Shit!"
"You okay, Al?" Dan asks from beside me, on the left.
"Yeah." His voice is strained with pain. "Just banged my shin against one of the chairs. Hold on."
I hear a drawer open, a single clicking sound, and suddenly, I can see again. Alex hands Dan the flashlight, then takes a second one for himself, and turns it on, as well. Dan moves to the kitchen window.
"Looks like the power's out all over the neighborhood," he says.
Alex's next words shock me.
"You can stay the night if you want, Bear." I wish I could see Dan's face, to gauge his reaction to this idea, but I can't. "The rain's really coming down out there. Good thing we finished dinner when we did."
"Okay," I say carefully. "Thank you. I'll crash on your couch."
Dan cuts in quickly.
"Don't be silly," he says, "that couch will kill your back if you lie on it all night. You can sleep with me."
I'm sure that doesn't mean what it sounds like it does, but heat shoots through my body at Dan's words, anyway. Unsure of what else to say, I just repeat "okay".
Alex locks the front door as Dan leads me to his room.
"'Night," he says from behind us.
When Dan shuts his door, I'm hit by a mix of both panic and arousal - a combination I am, unfortunately, more than familiar with. This is my first time in his room. Through the glow of the flashlight, I see that his keyboard is against one wall, a book of sheet music in its stand. The title of the piece is at the top of the page, in bold lettering, but anxiety is causing my dyslexia to kick in, the words as meaningless to me as they would be if they were written in Chinese.
The clover I got him is on a mostly-empty shelf, holding up a couple books. Maybe he went back to the storage unit and got some. There is a picture of he and Alex tacked to the wall, likely a few years younger, since Dan's head is shaved. Alex is looking away from the camera and whomever is taking the photo, and from the side, I can see a half smile on his face, but Dan is looking directly at their photographer, an arm around his friend's neck from behind. I'd assume such a position would have been painful, if not for Alex's upturned lips.
The comforter on Dan's bed is somewhat generic - a simple, blue and white pattern, with pillowcases to match.
"You can sit down," he says, not looking me in the eyes as he speaks. He sets the still-lit flashlight on his nightstand beside the bed, the light pointing to the ceiling, then goes to his closet - which, again, actually has a door - and tosses me a pair of pajama pants over his shoulder as I sit.
We both change as quickly as we can, not wanting to make things awkward, but after making sure his back is still to me, I sneak a peek at him, anyway, biting my lip at the sight of his uncovered skin. I think again of us sleeping together, but push the memory back. Cotton pajama pants don't leave much to the imagination.
"You want me near the wall, or the door?" I ask, and hear him suck in a breath through his nose. Once more, this doesn't mean what it sounds as though it does, but I half regret saying it, anyway.
He winds up nearest to the wall, while I, of course, am nearest to the door. We're both under the covers, and it is silent for a while, before Dan rolls over to face me, grabs me by the dog tag necklace I'm still wearing, and catches my lips with his. The high little moans that escape his mouth as we kiss tries to spark a fire inside me, but again, I push it down. I'm good at repression - maybe too good.
Dan falls asleep before me. We didn't have sex, mostly because I wasn't all that fond of the idea of Alex hearing us. Dan said his friend wouldn't mind, but I didn't want to risk it.
Incredibly, Dustin stayed out of my head this time, and I was able to focus all my attention solely on Dan. Sure, we were just messing around, rather than sleeping together, but the thought of Dustin not coming up even once was a relief. Especially after the dreams I'd be having. Finally, I fell asleep, as well, feeling safe in the idea that the ever-present guilt was giving me a break.
Of course, this didn't last. I wake up in the middle of the night, breathing hard, forgetting, for a moment, where I am. Something's wrong - I can feel it. I try to take in my surroundings, to ground myself, but it is too dark to see anything. I'm going to start hyperventilating if I don't find a way to slow my breathing soon. But it's no use - the panic won't ease.
I feel movement beside me. I hear a voice come at me from far away.
"Bear," it says, "are you okay?" I can't respond. My hands are starting to go numb.
Dan sits up and touches my shoulder.
"Hey. Hey," he repeats, closer to my ear. "Breathe. I need you to breathe, alright?" I do as he says, but the hyperventilation begins before I can gain control of myself.
"Slower," he orders in a whisper. He starts rubbing my back, and eventually, I am able to bring myself back to reality.
After a long while, Dan speaks.
"So," he says, still slowly rubbing my back, "I'm guessing that was a panic attack?"
"Yeah," I sigh, embarrassed.
"What happened? You seemed fine when we fell asleep."
That's the issue, isn't it? I always seem fine.
"I'm such a mess," I say before I can stop myself.
Dan leans over me and turns on the flashlight. I guess the power is still off. We're both bathed in a dim glow.
He touches my face, and a part of me feels like flinching, but instead, I relax into him.
"What's going on?" he asks. "Where did the freak-out come from?"
I can't help but smile at his less-than-technical terminology.
I shut my eyes tightly. I don't want to look at him when I say this.
"I have a problem," I say finally. "I've had it for a long time, I guess. Some people might call it repression."
Dan doesn't speak, just waits for me to continue. I open my eyes again.
"I suppose it started when I was a teenager. Everything with Dustin just made it worse. I went to a therapist once, and she called it "religious guilt", but I don't really think that's it. Not completely, anyway."
I try to keep myself breathing, and he watches me intently.
"I was having a nightmare, about Dustin."
"That's the guy that screwed you over, right?" His way of putting it almost makes me smile again. Almost, but not quite. "Your first?"
I'm not sure how I feel about him calling Dustin my "first", despite the fact that he's right.
"Yeah, pretty much. I try not to think about him - about the things we got up to - but that's getting harder and harder these days."
I see a frown start on Dan's face. He goes silent for a bit, then asks in a sad tone that breaks my heart to hear,
"Is that because of me? Do I make you feel worse? Do I make you feel bad about yourself, like Dustin did?"
"No," I say sharply, and I come to realize just how true this is as I'm speaking. "You're the opposite. When you're around, you kind of. . . calm me down. Even me out, maybe. I don't know why, but you do."
His frown becomes a smile, small as it is. Eventually, I hear his voice once more.
"I'm sorry Dustin hurt you like he did. Maybe he didn't mean to, maybe he did. But either way, you don't deserve it. I promise, you don't deserve it."
I can feel something building in my chest - a need to respond. I want to tell him "I love you, I love you, I love you" over and over again. I want to scream it loud enough for Alex to hear, for the neighbors to hear, for Dustin to hear, wherever he is. But I hold my tongue, and keep it inside.
Just like always.