Sometimes the need to make painful choices are thrust upon us, sometimes even against our will. Is the choice we ultimately make always right or wrong? Do we always become either the villain or the hero? Or sometimes, are we just making our mistakes, celebrating our little victories, agonizing over our defeats, loving, crying, living, doing the best we know how to do?
While hurrying along the UCSF corridor toward my final class of the week I felt my phone vibrating in my pocket and paused long enough in my headlong rush to view the text that had just arrived.
Your next engagement is tonight. Details are as follows:
Contact - Reynaldo
Contact Status - Premier/Repeat.
Contact Location - Four Embarcadero Center, San Francisco, 45th floor Executive Suite.
Time - 12:30 AM.
Contact Access Instructions - Swipe agency ID badge at the Clay St. entrance. Upon admittance display badge to guard.
Engagement Instructions - Please review your contact’s details and any other pertinent details concerning preparation for this engagement on your private agency page.
I sighed as I slipped the phone back into my hip pocket and entered Professor Hughes lecture theater. As the professor lectured my mind wandered, preoccupied with worry over the turn my life had taken. It would be easy enough to simply turn my back on it all and walk away. No one would put me down for doing so but there were important reasons why that was a nonstarter at the outset. There were reasons why I had made the decisions that I’d made, and I'd thought that the path that I had chosen would be getting easier by now but it was not. Rather, it was becoming progressively more difficult. I was having more and more trouble compartmentalizing this part of my life, keeping it all boxed up and separate from what I considered to be my “real” life.
For the first time ever I briefly entertained the idea of suicide as a solution but immediately rejected the notion out of hand. I still loved life too much to take that drastic step. It WOULD get better. How, I didn’t know but I knew it would. It had to.
It wasn’t what I was doing or even why I was doing it that bothered me so much, though that most certainly must be contributing to my unease. No, the thing that really got to me was not that, but rather it was the deception, the lies, the sneaking around that brought the pain, and the shame, and the guilt. Always the guilt.
Perhaps if I’d known back when I chose this course that it would impact me the way that it had I’d have made a much different decision, and in reality I suddenly realized that I SHOULD have known. Maybe I’d even ignored my own misgivings and fears, but that’s the funny thing about life, sometimes it’s the fear that causes us to make choices we normally wouldn’t make. Whatever the case I felt trapped. I felt as if the life was being squeezed from me by a monster. This monster wasn’t an external monster. No, he’d taken up residence within me, reaching out his ice cold, unsympathetic hand to squeeze the life painfully out of my heart, out of my emotions, out of my love. The monster was taking over my life and it was difficult to know what hurt more, the emotional havoc he wrought or the shame he induced. The horrifying part was that I felt as if the monster was me.
I sighed again, deciding life must go on whether or not I wanted it to.
The clock on the wall behind the bar at the club where I worked read midnight as I nodded to my replacement, turned the till over to him, and headed out into the night. Twenty minutes later I passed my ID in front of the security scanner at the foot of the looming office tower and entered when the door slid open. The guard waved off the my badge with a wink and a smirk, directing me to the express elevator. I found his demeanor offensive but ignored the impulse to react negatively, instead pushing the call button for the elevator and when it arrived I rode it to the top of the tower.
Later, indeed much later, while lingering still in that place between awareness and slumber the reality of where I was, who I was with, and what I was actually here doing crashed into my consciousness forcing me instantly awake to once again face the reality of this world that I was coming to hate. Lying on my side in the bed, painfully aware of the sleeping presence behind me holding me to his chest, I looked blankly through the 45th floor windows at the 180 degree panoramic, night time view of the city, the Transamerica Pyramid looming large just a few blocks to the west.
As appealing and exciting as the view should have been, I found it rather appalling, or perhaps it was I who was appalling. I’d been here before doing the things I was doing now, and if not here then in another place, in fact many other places not unlike this one, doing these same things I had just done, or things similar in nature. In the end it all seemed to be one abhorrent act.
The guilt, I knew, would haunt me later but now that it was over I refused to linger either in the guilt or in this place. I gently pulled myself away from him while he continued to sleep undisturbed. Why was I still here anyhow? I should never have allowed myself to drift off to sleep in the first place. I stood momentarily before the wide expanse of floor to ceiling window, uncaringly revealing the dim outline of my nakedness to anyone in the adjacent tower who might at that moment chance to look, before slipping into the ensuite where I quickly showered and returned to the bedchamber. Dressing hurriedly I exited the room remembering to pick up the envelope from the bedside table on my way out.
In the front hallway I paused beneath the grand, lighted entryway to slip on my shoes. While doing so I inspected the envelop, my heart convulsing painfully in my chest as I read the inscription “Rentboy” scrawled across the front. “Is this what I've been reduced to?” I wondered. “What about Jason? What about our plans? Our dreams?” The monster with his icy fingers of guilt and shame besieged my thoughts again, and I pushed them away almost violently as the doors of the express elevator hissed closed behind me.
I pressed the appropriate button and the elevator began to move causing me to feel momentarily weightless as it picked up speed taking me away from the embodiment of my desperate choices. During the brief descent I ripped the envelope open withdrew the greenbacks, counted them quickly, and put them in my pocket with a smile of satisfaction, the icy fingers receding at least momentarily as I did so.
Twelve hundred dollars. Combine that with my portion of the twelve hundred that he’d already paid the agency up front and it had been a very good night for me financially. Better than most, but I was used to good nights. Still, he must have been feeling unusually generous tonight, matching the agency’s fee dollar for dollar as my tip. There was no doubt that financially he was a top tier client. His bedside manner may be selfish but thankfully it was benign.
In the executive lobby I nodded to the guard before taking a seat on an out of the way bench, needing a few minutes to refocus before making my way home. The guard winked at me knowingly once again but otherwise said nothing. This time, rather than being offended, my mind idly wondered for a moment what his story was before returning to matters of my own.
The client I’d just left was easily enough managed, even if he was a somewhat of a jerk. Not a week passed that I wasn’t deeply grateful to the agency for their attention to the welfare of their escorts. They protected us from the worst of our dangerous trade and they were very strict, solicitous even, when it came to our health.
Barebacking was prohibited in all cases except where the client had a monthly history of testing clean over a period of at least eighteen months, the most recent test dated within less than 24 hours of the sexual liaison in question, and every one of the tests administered by the agency’s own testing facilities. Violation of agency health standards was grounds for dismissal of the escort and an across-agency blacklisting of the client. Tonight was not my first bareback encounter nor would it be my last. My manager knew that I preferred such clients whenever available, not because it was my thing but because I needed the cash. The price was high for the client and not every client was willing to pay it but enough of them did and for that I was grateful.
Rising at last from the bench I stepped out onto Clay Street, its aging cobbles plainly visible even in the dimness of night. I briefly considered crossing the cobbles into Sue Bierman Park to watch the sunrise but decided, what with twelve hundred dollars in my pocket, that it was an ill-advised plan. It was bad enough just being on the street with that kind of cash in one’s pocket at five in the morning. Instead I made my way to the west end of the block and turning left onto Drumm Street made my way the short distance south to Market Street and waited in the chill half light of the early morning for the Muni which took me on up Market, past the huge, lighted Pride Flag that this time of the morning usually hung limply on its pole, to the stop just below our home overlooking The Castro.
As the sun’s rays peeked above the distant Berkeley Hills I climbed the stairs to the front door of our small home. It was nothing fancy but the view from our front window looking east across the city toward the bay and beyond was spectacular. The place had been a joint graduation gift from his parents and mine and had been chosen for its proximity to the University of California San Francisco where both of us had been accepted to our chosen course of study, he in Epidemiology and me in Clinical Research. Their plan had been that we would share the accommodations while pursuing our graduate and postgraduate degrees and once we’d completed university and gone our separate ways the property could be sold at a healthy profit, giving both of us a financial boost with which to launch as men and as professionals in whatever community each of us eventually chose to put down roots.
That was before the beginning of our sophomore year when they found out about our relationship. Prior to that, in their minds, we had been nothing more than best friends from high school. Now we were lower than the low and had not only been disowned but also cut off financially. Thankfully when they’d purchased the place they’d put the title to the property in our names or we’d have lost it as well but as things were we owned it outright, free and clear.
Even so, our dreams of attending university together had been shattered but we were determined to make a go of it together. Love was enough. It would have to be because other than our home love was pretty much all we had between us. In the end we agreed that I would complete my education first and he would work full time, taking classes as he could in order to maintain his credits, then when I’d graduated he would return to school full time while I worked and completed my postgraduate degree part time. Maybe times would be a little sketchy for us but we’d be together and we’d be okay.
Unfortunately we found ourselves, as millions of other young men and women around the world did, in the midst of a global recession and Jason couldn’t have bought a job let alone find one. Hell, there were graduate PHD’s who were flipping burgers at McDonalds just to keep themselves fed. Finally, out of desperation we agreed that he’d join the US Marine Corps for a two year stint and we’d see how things went from there.
We saw little of each other over the next twelve months but when he came home on leave at the end of that first year we were able to spend a glorious two weeks together. Although we couldn’t do it legally, Proposition 8 having been passed by California voters a couple of years previously, he became my husband and I his as we committed our love to each other for life.
When his leave was over we parted with tears and heavy hearts. He spent the next few weeks in intensive training at Camp Pendleton and was then deployed. He left, a normal and energetic red-blooded American boy and returned three months later a shattered shell, having lost his legs and his manhood to a roadside bomb in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan.
We were both devastated, of course, but even so our love remained undiminished. His courage and determination were heroic and an inspiration to me. He more than managed most of the time, but the PTSD, the injuries, and the emotional devastation of his emasculation had their impact on his life, and on ours.
The thing is, I truly did love him still, desperately, but his medical needs and the resulting bills were staggering. Yes, the VA covered a lot but he needed more than they could provide in a timely manner and in some cases would provide at all. To our way of thinking his care should never have been a matter of question but for some reason it was. We were in litigation, the law firm we had engaged was willing to work on contingency, but it would take years with no guarantee we would win the case and he needed help now. If we were ever going to make a life together I needed to complete my education and he had every intention of completing his. Right now I needed to work, and Jason’s medical expenses needed to be met. I was still enrolled at UCSF in my senior year and was working part time but my wages and bartending tips, good as they were, even when combined with his disability pension did not begin to cover our needs.
I keyed the lock to the front door of our home praying that Jason’s night had been restful. Most of the time they were but I worried about him when I couldn’t be there. He was still somewhat fragile and far too often his world would turn unexpectedly upside down. A simple vehicle backfire or some other sudden sound would trigger his PTSD, or sometimes the phantom pains in his missing legs would escalate to near unbearable levels.
“That you, Justin?” I heard his energetic voice calling from down the hall as I opened the door and entered. It seemed that he’d had a good night and I was immediately grateful.
“Yea, Jason, it’s me!” I called back trying to show at least some enthusiasm in spite of my physical and emotional exhaustion. I did the sign of the cross and blessed my patron saint that it was a Saturday.
Jason rolled into the front room, a smile on his face that lit up our home. His muscular upper body easily manhandled the chair through the hallway and around the furniture as he rolled his way toward me. When he stopped in front of me he eagerly reached up pulling me to him, greeting me with an affectionate hug and a loving kiss that I was only too willing to accommodate. He held on to me, stroking his hands through my hair, massaging my scalp, whispering endearments in my ear.
We’d fallen hopelessly for each other in September of our junior year of high school in far off Brattleboro, Vermont, and his love had never lessened. In fact it was exponentially stronger as was mine for him. This morning however there seemed to be something extra in his greeting. I could sense it. It at once thrilled me and reminded me of my own despicable guilt. Inwardly I cringed knowing what it was I’d been doing such a short time before.
“I Wasn’t sure whether it was you or the PT aide,” he said, “You’re later than usual this morning. Did you have to pull extra duty after a late party at the club last night?”
“Yeah, something like that. You know how Friday nights can be at that place,” I replied with a sigh, slipping heavily onto the end of the couch in exhaustion as he rolled up beside me taking one of my hands in his own.
“Oh, before I forget,” he said reaching into the fanny pack he always kept around his waist and handing me my cellphone, “You left it here when you went to work last evening.”
For some reason his words left me cold, the guilt wrapping its monstrous icy fingers around my heart.
“I thought I’d lost it somewhere at school yesterday…” I drifted off into frantic thought, fighting down panic as I spoke hoping it didn’t show. I dared not ask the question that was now central in my mind.
“Someone called,” he said conversationally, “I picked it up. I don’t know why.” He answered my unspoken question. The icy fingers began to squeeze. I tried to fight them down to no avail.
He pressed his hand more firmly around my own, his thumb rubbing across my knuckles. It had always been an act of tenderness on his part. At the moment however it seemed incongruously wrong. I wanted to withdraw from his touch but could not, would not. In spite of everything, I loved him more than life.
The icy fingers waited, neither warming nor cooling, neither strengthening nor loosening their grip.
“Oh?” I couldn’t bear to ask more. My eyes closed involuntarily seeking refuge from contact with his own.
“Yeah,” he replied flatly, “I wish that I hadn’t.”
The silence crashed about in the room as it lengthened, seemingly interminably.
“Justin?” he asked after what seemed an eternity.
I couldn’t speak, my vocal chords frozen into immobility. I started to tremble. The Icy fingers of the monster squeezed. My heart was breaking, bits of it flaking off in frozen little pieces
“Justin? Please…? Please, just look at me?”
My eyes opened seeking to look anywhere but into his, yet drawn inexorably to the one place where I’d always found safety, knowing that this time the safety they sought would elude me.
Our eyes met. His were overflowing with tears.
Seeing those tears destroyed me. The icy fingers completed their work in one final, painful squeeze. My heart froze solid breaking into arctic chunks, my blood now chilled, refused to flow through my veins.
My shame complete, I could only mumble, “Oh, Jason... I... I don’t know what to say.”
His eyes, though filled with obvious emotional pain, continued looking into mine, never wavering in spite of his tears. His thumb continued to stroke my knuckles in that loving gesture he'd never shown anyone but me.
My eyes were now overflowing with my own tears. I could no longer look into his so I looked down watching his thumb as it worked. I tried to withdraw my hand from his but he held on, refusing to relinquish me to the grief that was filling my being.
He spoke quietly, his voice unexpectedly reassuring.
“I’ve known for awhile now, Justin. Do you understand me? I’ve known, okay? It doesn’t change things.”
I heard what he was saying. Unbelievingly I heard him and I couldn’t take it. How could it NOT change things? I was a monster, a betrayer, a cheater, a fraud. Wresting my hands forcefully from his I stood abruptly and strode to the window where the risen sun was chasing the gloom from every nook and cranny of the city.
Undeterred he continued to speak, rolling his chair up behind me slowly as he did so. I refused to turn at his approach fearing, I suppose, that If I did so he would see the reality of the monster I knew myself to be.
“I know why you’re doing what you’re doing,” he continued as if I’d not interrupted his speech. “Do you think that I’m blind? I see the medical bills. I see your pay stub from the club. I see your college expenses. I know what it costs to live in this city. You’ve never tried to hide these things from me.”
I stared silently out the window, refusing to acknowledge his words or his presence. I was angry. More angry than I’d ever been in our relationship and I didn’t know why. Eventually I turned and stepped around him. Never meeting his eyes I headed down the hall. Opening the door to our bedroom I entered, and closing it behind me I crossed to sit on the made up bed.
I knew I had no right to be angry but I was and I didn’t know why. He’d done nothing. In fact, although I hadn’t given him the grace of hearing him out, it appeared as if he had already forgiven me, a fact which I found appalling given what I’d done, and suddenly it dawned on me that I wanted him to be angry at me. It was what I deserved, that and being kicked to the curb, but he wasn’t doing that and… and I was angry because he wasn’t and I didn’t know how to handle it.
I looked around the room. On the dresser was a picture of us taken at our Junior Prom. To keep the various sets of parents in the dark about their offspring we’d double dated with a couple of girls who were also partners, but once at the prom we’d paired off appropriately and had a great time.
Leaning up in a corner of the room were a pair walking sticks that we’d carved from driftwood that we’d picked up on the beach the summer after our high school graduation. We’d taken two weeks that summer when we’d first moved west to San Francisco and camped out on a remote stretch of beach that had required quite a hike just to reach. We’d carried all our food and gear in on our backs and spent the entire time camping, hiking, fishing, sunbathing, and making love, never seeing another soul for the entirety of our time there. It had been glorious.
The room, our room, was immaculate, most of which was his doing in spite of his injuries and struggles. Every inch of it reminded me of him, of us. It even smelled of him. I picked up his pillow, holding it to my face. As I breathed him in I wept at the enormity of my failure and my betrayal.
I’m not sure how long I sat there stewing but eventually I came to the realization that he loved me. Inexplicably he loved me. Still. In spite of everything he loved me, and I knew that if I wanted to save our relationship I had to do the adult thing and talk to him. Heaven only knew if we could weather this storm but I owed it to myself, to us, to try.
He was sitting almost exactly where I’d left him, perhaps a foot or two closer to the window but there, nonetheless, his shoulders slumped in apparent discouragement. Wondering if my intended overture was coming too late I simply stood at his left side gazing with him out the window across the city waiting for one of us to say something.
Eventually the time seemed right for me to speak and reaching out I placed my right hand on his left shoulder seeking that familiar touch that I knew instinctively we both craved. At my touch he tilted his head, rubbing his neck against the back of my hand as it rested on his shoulder. My heart leapt yet faltered, unable to believe that things could ever be the same between us.
“How long have you known?” I asked quietly, my gaze still focused somewhere out there in the city.
His response was subdued, almost whispered at least for the first few words but gained in strength as he spoke, “I think I’ve known since the day you made the decision.”
“Something changed. I can’t really say what. It just changed. At first I figured you’d decided to leave me and were just waiting for the best time to throw me away, but you never left.”
“Why didn’t you say something?”
I felt rather than saw him turn to look at me. I didn’t turn toward him and he turned his gaze back toward the window.
“What was there to say? Should I have accused you of something? What good would that have done? And while we’re asking questions, why couldn’t you have talked to me instead of sneaking around behind my back fucking everyone and god knows what else?” His voice rose in pitch and intensity as he spoke, ending in a near shout.
I withdrew my hand at the intensity of his anger, my heart plummeting as the icy hand of the monster once again squeezed unmercifully.
“Do you hate me, Jason? I can’t blame you if you do. I just… I didn’t know what to do. You needed more than I could provide for you. I… I didn’t know what to do…”
I couldn’t continue, my body slumped to the loveseat, wracked with sobs. All the tension, all the stress, all the shame and self loathing, all my love for this man sitting here in the room with me, all of it and I was no longer able to cope. I’d done all I could, the best way I knew how and it had all been wrong.
He rolled his chair to face me and once again reached out taking my hand, caressing my knuckle in that familiar, soothing gesture I’d come to know as a symbol of our security. I looked up then, into his beautiful, love filled, blue eyes.
“Oh, my dear, beautiful Justin. No, I don’t hate you. I could never hate you. I… I love you. I hope you know that. I’m sorry I yelled. I was wrong to do that. I just wish that you’d trusted me enough to talk to me about things, you know? It may not have changed anything but at least we’d have been communicating. Don’t you think honesty is more important than whatever it is that we’ve been doing? Perhaps I’m as at fault in this as you are. I knew and I said nothing…”
My heart swelled in hope, and in love for the man sitting before me. So brave. So strong. Stronger and braver than I could ever hope to be. My rock. The one thing that always kept me sane and able to love.
“I know I already asked this, Jason, and I hesitate to ask again, but I need to know. How did you know? How did you find out?”
He looked at me then down at our entwined hands as he continued stroking his thumb across my knuckle before looking into my eyes once more. “Well, like I said, things changed between us. It may have been subtle but it was there. I also noticed that I was finally getting the services I needed. The PT aide, the increased frequency of the various therapy appointments, the meds that the VA said I didn’t need and the university doctors said that I did. All of it added up, then one morning you came in and probably thinking I was asleep you hid a bunch of cash in your nightstand. From there I just kind of figured it out.”
I dropped my eyes, first to our hands, then to the floor beside his chair as my gut started to crawl once again from the guilt I still felt. On the one hand I knew we’d be okay as a couple but I also knew that we still had some work to do to ensure that reality and I was determined that I would do what it took to get there.
“Jason,” I said lifting my eyes back to his face, “I hope you understand that I love you more than my own life. I know my actions say otherwise and I can’t help but wonder how you can possibly love me after what I’ve done…”
Looking in my eyes he smiled before loosening his grip on my hands and turning in his chair once more facing the window and the now bright, sunny morning that had warmed the city.
“Do you remember, Justin, how it felt when our parents rejected our love, and us? Do you remember the devastation we felt even though we were expecting some sort of negative outcome if they ever found out?”
I rose from the loveseat and pulling the ottoman up beside him sat on it looking with him through the window, noting that the giant pride flag at Market and Castro, some distance below, was now waving lazily in the morning breeze.
“Yes, I do remember. Even though we knew it was a likely eventuality, it still hurt like hell. They were our family. They were supposed to love us because that’s what family is and does, and when they didn’t it was devastating.”
Turning to look at me he nodded before looking once more out the window. “Yes, that’s exactly right. It’s what family is and does. You asked how it is that I can love you. Well, it’s because even though I know where that money comes from, what you do to make it happen, I could still see how much you loved me. You can't hide it. I see it in your eyes every day. I feel it in the way you touch me and the way you hold me when I’m having a bad day. I can’t miss the way you kiss and caress me or how you comfort me. I see the pain my condition causes you, and still you love me. Any other gay, twenty-one-year-old would have been gone long ago but you're not. Even though you were doing what you were doing you were also here, devoted to this broken, messed up, emasculated shell of a man day after day and I love you for it. I always will. Like I said, I understand. In my very bones I understand, Okay? I know that what you did you did because you felt you had to, for me, and honestly, I’m at peace with that.”
Our eyes met. I remember well that day in the quad at Brattleboro Union High School when we fell in love. I’ll never forget how as we looked into each other’s eyes. It seemed that we could get lost in that look just communicating to each other the depth of our feelings through those pools within our eyes. That’s how the current look affected us. It was like swimming in our mutual love. I was incredulous that this man who I felt like I had betrayed was big enough and understanding enough that he was capable of looking beyond the act to see the driving emotion behind it, the desperation, the love.
“Come here!” he said rolling over in his chair to the other side of the room and parking it in front of the couch, “Sit!”
I walked over and sat.
Rolling up close in front of me he took one of my hands in each of his and spoke, “I know you feel like you’ve sold your soul to the devil. I know you’ve got a lot of shame and guilt that you’re carrying but I’m here to tell you right now, don’t! Please don’t! Both of us were wounded on that god forsaken road in Afghanistan. I lost my legs and my manhood. You feel like you’ve lost your way but you haven’t. Not by a far shot. You’re doing what you're doing out of love. I know that, do you hear? I understand… And I love you for it.”
Using his muscular arms and upper body he launched himself into my lap where he threw his arms around me kissing me anywhere he could find to kiss me. Our tears mixed together as we cried and held onto each other.
When I was able once more to speak I whispered into his shaggy brown hair that I had always thought looked so cute on him, “I’m so sorry, Jason. I’m sorry that I didn’t trust you with this burden. We should have talked. I should have talked to you. I didn’t… and I’m sorry. No, it may not have changed the outcome but at least we’d have been on the same page without the sneaking and the secrets. You deserved so much more and I’m so incredibly sorry. I love you for your understanding and your forgiveness.”
I was crying again. Tears of sorrow, relief, pain, and most of all of love. They streamed down my cheeks as he held me all the while shedding tears of his own.
“You’ve been so strong for me for so long, Justin. Let me be strong for you too. You don’t need to do this alone. We’ll make it through this together in spite of everything. I know we will because we still have our love.”
I could only nod my head as he held it to his own. We made love that morning, sitting there on our couch, kissing, caressing, whispering endearments. He rested his forehead against mine as we lost ourselves in one another’s eyes. For the first time in many months my burden was lifted. The icy fingers had at last loosened their grip on my heart and had vanished. My heart marveled at being with this incredible man I had been with for so long and with whom I shared so much mutual love and contentment and peace. I know some people look all their lives for that kind of relationship, and maybe we were fortunate but if so, that fortune was not to be found in luck or in chance but in the commitment it takes to weather the storms that life had sent our way.