Aloha! I’m enjoying my last full day in Hawaii with my husband before we return to the real world but I wanted to post part 2 of Jeff’s story before I head home. Just a quick reminder for those who may have missed part 1. This is a backstory to Leaning Into Touch. If you haven’t read Josh and Finn’s story, I would suggest doing so, unless you’re into spoilers! Otherwise, without further adieu, enjoy!
*Btw, I’ll post the final chapter no later than Monday.
Happy Reading! Lane xo
“I’m gay too. But I’m not—” I pursed my lips and furrowed my brow before twisting to face my computer. “We should get going. In my estimation, we have approximately five days worth of work to get through. I unearthed a problem with one of the accounts last night that—”
Lars leaned across the table and grasped my wrist. “Hey. It’s okay. I promise.”
I nodded. “Thanks. I know but…it’s not easy. At least not for me.”
“Hmm.” He moved his hand to cover mine but his gaze didn’t waver. “Does your family know?”
“My ex-wife does but not our children. They’re not exactly kids now but…” I shrugged, unsure how to continue.
“How old are they?”
“My daughters, Jen and Janie are thirty-six and thirty-four and my son, Josh will be thirty-two next month. The girls are married with babies of their own and…I’m old.” That last line sounded painfully pathetic. I grimaced and tried to lighten the awkward mood I’d created with a self-deprecating laugh.
Lars didn’t join in. He squeezed my hand then sat back and folded his arms over his broad chest. “And I was about to say you must have started rather early. You’re not that old, Crypt Keeper.”
“I’m fifty-seven. You?”
“Fifty-two,” he replied quickly before cocking his head thoughtfully. “Now you’re the accountant here, so correct me if my math is off, but were you really a dad at twenty-one?”
“Yep. Kate got pregnant unexpectedly…or maybe not, and Jen was—”
“She tricked you?”
I rolled my eyes. “I had a relatively decent grasp of biology even back then so I wouldn’t say she tricked me. But yes, I was surprised. Or scared shitless. Take your pick, both work.”
“So you married her and played the family man,” he said. “How long did it last?”
Lars widened his eyes comically. “Damn boy. That’s a lifetime!”
I snickered at his expression. “A quarter of a century to be exact.”
“You must have loved her,” he stated matter-of-factly.
“I did and I still do, but—” I pursed my lips before I blurted anything too personal. This wasn’t the time or place for heart-to-heart conversations involving a woman I adored or any of the fucked up crap I’d put her through and vice versa. “Let’s just say, things changed when Josh left for school and— we should get to work.”
I glanced at the screen and tried to make sense of the blurry numbers. They taunted me as I tripped over lies of omission, skirting the truth with an alternative version aimed to keep the peace. I wasn’t sure whose peace I was protecting anymore. I only knew it wasn’t mine.
Lars nudged my chair with his foot. It scooted sideways, turning me toward him so his foot brushed the inside of my thigh. My nostrils flared at the contact. He backed off immediately but it was too late. I was already a tightly wound, hyper-aware mess and he was driving me wild. I bet he didn’t even realize it.
“We aren’t done talking though,” he said with a lopsided grin. “You didn’t ask me any questions. We can’t leave this get-to-know-you session one-sided, now can we?”
I barked a quick laugh as I swiveled to face him again, utterly charmed. “That certainly wouldn’t be right. However, we have to discuss—”
“Have dinner with me.” His sudden intensity threw me off stride.
I frowned and hesitated for a moment before replying. “I’m working for you. That would be highly unprofessional. Unless— oh shoot. You weren’t asking me out, were you? So yeah. Of course, we can go over numbers at dinner. Sure. Why not?”
Lars shook his head. “No numbers, Jeff. You had it right the first time. I’m asking you out. On a date.”
“A date,” I repeated carefully. “I can’t. I want to but…we have unfinished business here.” I gestured at my laptop and the files spread out on the glass table.
Lars let out a defeated sigh. “How many more days will this take?”
“Five. Give or take. I think we can wrap it up by Friday.” I bit my lower lip and nodded decisively before adding, “I’m free Saturday night.”
He smiled in response and then angled his head. “Sounds like we have a date.”
I couldn’t keep the goofy grin off my mug if I tried. A date. Me. With Lars. That was… wow. Just wow.
The following few days went by in a blur. I worked long hours to ensure the project would be completed by the end of the week. The bulk of that time was spent with the new CFO Lars hired but we still held a daily briefing. Just the two of us. We’d share a cup of plain ol’ coffee and chat about anything from current events to our favorite bands from the 80s.
“I was a wannabe punk,” Lars told me Friday morning. “Billy Idol was my hero. I loved the bad boy sneer and those leather pants. I owned a couple of pairs myself back in the day. Believe it or not, I was skinny as a rail once upon a time. I couldn’t fit my right calf into those things now.”
I chuckled when he patted his belly and silently commended my restraint because I wanted nothing more than to unbutton his shirt and run my hand over his stomach. I wondered if he was hairy all over. Like a real bear. I shocked myself sometimes. I had no idea I had a type. A robust, muscular daddy type no less.
A vision of a leather man sucking on a fat cigar popped in my head. I remembered walking through the Castro with Josh recently and feeling lightheaded at the sight of two burly men holding hands. My poor son probably thought I was uncomfortable with the public display but that was nowhere close to the truth. I was mesmerized. I wanted to follow them home, hide in the shadows and watch those strangers undress each other and—
“What about chaps?” I asked out of the blue.
Lars raised his thick brow and smirked. “What about ’em?”
“Do you have any?”
“I did. I might still have them somewhere in the back of my closet.”
I gulped. “Oh my—What were you into? You came of age during the AIDS crises in San Francisco, for Christ sake. You must have seen things, done things and—what was it like?”
“That’s a wide variety of topics, Jeff,” he huffed in amusement.
“Yeah, sorry. I just… I missed so much. Don’t get me wrong. I wouldn’t change where I’ve been. I love my family and I can’t imagine a life without them. In fact, the thought makes me nauseous. But I’m so curious. I’ve always wondered what it was like. I went from feeling jealous as hell of those gorgeous young men having raunchy sex whenever and wherever to feeling scared as hell for them when HIV came into the picture. But I was a sideline observer. A husband and father, living in suburbia. I wished I could help but I didn’t know how to without giving myself away.” I winced as I reached for my coffee cup. “That didn’t sound good. I’m sorry.”
“You apologize for some weird shit, Sheehan,” he chided. “Curiosity is what makes the world go round. Don’t stop asking questions. Ever.”
“True. But I’m not sure if I have a place in your world.”
“My gay world, you mean?”
“Yeah. I’m a fraud. A pretender. I’m not who I claim to be and… I should shut up. I’m sorry.”
“You did it again,” he singsonged. “Listen, the past is by definition over and gone. You said you aren’t sorry about the choices you made. Good. Own that. You’re a gay man who’s dipping his toes into the rainbow pool for the first time. I don’t believe there’s an age limit for that. You’re a good man, Jeff and you’ve lead a good life.”
“But not an honest one.”
Lars considered me for a moment before responding. “It’s never to late for a new start.”
His simple statement might have brought me to my knees if I wasn’t already sitting. Those words spoken in that patient, kind tone brought tears to my eyes. Literally. I grasped his hand without thinking and laced my fingers through his.
“Thank you,” I whispered.
Lars brought our joined hands to his lips and placed a kiss on my knuckles. “You’re welcome.”
I wiped at the corner of my eye with my free hand and chuckled at myself. “You must think I’m a loon. You sure you still want that date tomorrow night.”
Lars leaned in, so close I could smell his cologne and see the golden flecks in his blue eyes.
As strange as it seems, I felt his voice. His low tone moved through me, creating a very real connection between us. I hardly knew Lars but I had a feeling he was extraordinary. Maybe even the kind of man who might change my life.
“I’ll have the dinner salad, please. Balsamic vinaigrette on the side. Thank you.” I handed the plastic menu to the waitress with a smile before glancing across the table at my dear friend, who also happened to be my ex-wife.
Kate gave me a funny look before placing her order. She twirled the straw in her iced tea languidly and waited until we were alone in our favorite booth at the local diner we’d frequented since our children were small. This was our spot. A tired greasy spoon with sticky table tops that served the best damned chicken wings in San Leandro. We all thought so. I had fond memories of corralling three active kids covered in sauce as they jumped around like popcorn on a hot skillet.
I looked across the restaurant at the young family sitting in our old booth. A mom, dad, a baby in a high chair and two little ones stuffing their cherubic cheeks with French fries and chicken nuggets. Everything was just beginning for them, I mused. The nostalgic ache wasn’t new to me but I wouldn’t let it pull me under today. No chance.
“That used to be us,” I said with a laugh, hooking my thumb meaningfully toward the family.
Kate shot a cursory glance at them before sipping her tea. She pushed her glass aside then and tapped her nails on the table. “What’s up with you?”
I frowned and shook my head, but I couldn’t keep the shit-eating grin from taking over my face. Unbelievably, I didn’t mega-vomit my news immediately. I pursed my lips and shrugged nonchalantly.
“You ordered a salad. You never order a salad.”
“Sure I do,” I insisted.
“Not by itself. You order the Blitz burger with cheddar cheese, hold the pickle, Thousand Island dressing on the side, a basket of fries with extra ketchup. And if you’re feeling a little guilty about the impressive amount of calories you’re about to consume, you order a salad. And you tell the waitress to make sure it’s a very small portion because you don’t want to waste any food.” She narrowed her gaze thoughtfully and gave me her signature quirky smile. The same one I fell in love with fifty years ago.
“You know me well.” I chuckled.
Kate and I had been divorced for eleven years but we were best friends. Or at least… very good friends who still cared about each other. I adored her. She was a devoted mother and grandmother, a fierce advocate for education and the arts and the only woman I’d ever thought I could be happy with. She was tall and lean with long brown hair streaked with gray. She draped her thick mane over her pink cardigan then pushed it over her shoulder in a maneuver that reminded me of the teenager I once knew or one of our daughters.
“I do, so spit it out. Why are you on a hunger strike?”
I squeezed her hand affectionately then took a deep breath. “I’m going on a date tonight.”
Kate smiled. “Good for you. Anyone I know?”
“No.” I let go of her hand and sat back against the faux leather.
I’d weighed the wisdom of telling her everything before asking her out for lunch. Our history was so complex and interwoven as evidenced by the fact she knew my usual burger order to a tee. She knew other things too. Things she didn’t like to talk about. Those lies of omission had been the cornerstone of our marriage. However, they had no place in our friendship. I went over the lines I’d rehearsed earlier one more time, wincing when she kicked me under the table.
“Out with it, Sheehan. Who is it?”
Not she or he… it. Funny pronoun avoidance, I thought as I squirmed on my squeaky seat.
“His name is Lars. I’m going out with a man. On a date,” I blurted.
Blood drained from her face suddenly, leaving her with a ghostly pallor and a sick expression. Okay. Not the reaction I expected. Or maybe it was and I’d willfully hoped she’d respond with a high five and a “that-a-boy”. No such luck.
“Kate?” This time when I reached for her hand, she pulled away and looked out the window.
I followed her lead, fixating on a beat-up minivan with a plush pair of dice hanging from the rearview mirror. My brain was buzzing with a million thoughts at once. The dice are tacky and I sort of like them. The van looks like the one our neighbors used to have. And I wonder what kind of car Lars drives. What I didn’t want to think about was hurting Kate. It was unbearable. The worst part was that I seemed to do it all the fucking time.
I glanced up when she let out a ragged rush of air. “First date?”
I inclined my head, loving her all over again for trying. “Yeah. It’s no big deal but—”
“Bullshit,” she said without heat. “It must be a big deal. You’ve never told me about your previous dates before.”
“I’ve never been on a real date before.”
“Are you telling me you haven’t had sex in the ten years we’ve been divorced?” she huffed humorlessly.
“First of all, we’ve been divorced for almost twelve years and secondly… do you really want to know about my sex life?”
She held eye contact for a moment then shook her head. “Yes and no. I want to know that you haven’t been with another woman. If you have, please lie to me.”
“Katie girl, you’re the only one. You know that.” I waited for her to nod in agreement but when a tear streaked down her cheek, I motioned for her to join me on my side of the table.
She snorted a laugh and shook her head. “No, I’m not doing that, you goofball. I’m fine. I’m—”
“Don’t make me start counting,” I warned in my best “Dad” voice. It was an old joke. I was a softy and everyone in my family knew it. I wasn’t a complete pushover when it came to discipline, however the “counting” trick never worked. But it still made my kids and my best friend laugh so I never missed an opportunity to bring it out.
Kate chuckled in earnest when I raised my forefinger and then my middle finger. I glowered playfully before flashing the third digit and then wordlessly patting the vacant spot beside me. She rolled her eyes but obeyed me with put-upon sigh. She scooted beside me then rested her head on my shoulder.
“I’m sorry, Jeff. I hate myself sometimes. And I wish…”
“What do you wish?” I prodded, pressing a kiss to her brow.
“I wish I had a dick.”
I busted up laughing and pushed her slightly until she sat up and turned to me with a wink.
“What? It’s true. Okay fine. It’s not one hundred percent true. I’d miss my tits and I barely know what to do with a penis as it is. I definitely wouldn’t want one attached to me twenty-four seven.” She nudged my arm when I guffawed and then laid her head against me again. “But I wish I could have given you what you needed.”
“Don’t do that, Kate. It’s been a long time. We tried but—”
“But it was never going to work and that’s a hard pill to swallow. Even after all these years, it still… hurts. I love you, Jeff. Maybe if you were a real asshole this would all be easier but you’re too fucking good. You’re a great man, an amazing dad and the best buddy I ever had. You deserve to be happy.”
“Thank you, but the same goes for you.”
“This Lars fucker better make you happy,” she grumbled.
“Ha! This is our first date. Don’t get excited. He didn’t propose.”
“Mmm. But this is the first time you’ve told me about a date. You’ve mentioned “seeing someone” which I understood as code for “sex hook-up” but you always tend to look jumpy and unhappy. This is different. Why?”
I pondered the question for a moment. “Because he seems like he might get me… just the way I am.”
“Does he make your heart race?” she asked with a smile.
“Like crazy,” I admitted.
“Good. I might like him after all. Are you, um… are you going to say anything to the kids?”
“I wasn’t planning on it. Why?”
“No reason. But if things get serious… I think you should tell Josh first. In fact, let’s make it a code. You don’t have to tell me anything more about Lars unless you want to, but if you think he’s the “one”, don’t tell me. I mean, don’t use those words. Just say… “I have something to tell Josh” and I’ll understand. No discussion necessary. Is that okay?”
I studied the lines at her eyes and the freckle above her lip. No one did passive aggressive quite like Kate. I wasn’t sure it was “okay” but this was how she communicated. Signals and codes. And when the signals went haywire and the codes made no sense, she baked.
“Okay. Only if you promise not to make ten dozen cookies,” I replied.
“What about brownies or lemon bars?”
“Nope. They’re out too. Deal?” I twisted to face her and offered my hand.
We shook hands like old buddies then hugged. It was a heartfelt sort of connection that acknowledged no matter what happened, we’d always be there for each other. We’d made a series of life-altering decisions many years ago. Some good, some bad. But we’d come out in tact, even though our marriage hadn’t.
I sniffed her hair and held her tightly. Love came in many forms. When I was younger, I didn’t understand how I could love her but not want her. That hadn’t changed but for the first time, I wasn’t confused or confounded, I was just grateful for her friendship and the gift of a second chance with someone new.
*To be continued…