“I don’t know about this,” I said. It didn’t stop me from standing there, letting Terry fix my tie and hair and everything else he thought was wrong with me. “I’m sorry, I just don’t think this is a good idea. I know you’ve set this up for me, and I know it’s a huge deal for you to give up one of your suitors, but I just don’t know.”
Terry sighed and patted my cheek. “You’re nervous. It’s been a long time since you’ve gone out with anybody.” He gave my face one final squeeze, then went back to straightening my tie. “You need to remember that Carl cheated on you. It’s way past time for you to get back on the horse.”
Yeah, I was already well aware of all that. “Hell of a pep talk there. You want to remind me about prom night too?”
He rolled his eyes. “Oh, come on. Prom night wasn’t that bad.”
I pulled his hands down and looked him right in the eye. “Nancy Wolthorp tried to take you back to a motel room, you came out to her, and she made a huge announcement. I ended up leaving Dave Sands there so I could wash the word ‘fag’ off your ass with turpentine.”
Terry shook his head and went right back to work. “You make it sound like it was so bad. You still got lucky.”
“I don’t think jerking off in your bathroom counts as getting lucky.”
“Well, you can make up for it tonight.” He fastened the top button on my shirt, gave the tie a final jiggle, and apparently I met his standards.
“How exactly is this going to make up for prom night? Do you even remember
how hot Dave Sands was?” I turned around and looked at myself in the mirror hanging from the back of the bathroom door. I would never tell Terry, but I looked damn good. Pressed slacks, polished shoes, white long-sleeved shirt, and black bow tie. Maybe I was a bit overdressed, but the bastard knew what he was doing.
“You make up for it by letting Darren pound your ass so hard you can’t walk in the morning.”
I rolled my eyes. “It’s the first date. Some of us in this room aren’t total sluts.”
“You make it sound like it’s so bad.” He winked at me with those damned blue eyes. They drove everybody crazy in California. No such love for a Montana farm boy like me. My eyes were a perfect match for mud, and nobody ever fantasized about that. I sure never did.
Terry slid between me and the mirror. “Listen to me, Tony. You’ve had nothing but hookups from online ads lately, and those are as soul-crushing as it gets. I know it. I used to be in the same situation. So I say, if Darren wants to sleep with you, jump on him. Repeatedly.”
“Whatever.” No point arguing. I wouldn’t convince Terry of anything anyway. He might have been right too. I definitely could have used the release. But again, no need to let him know any of that. “Where is he taking me, again?”
“Largo. It’s that new Italian place. Just a couple blocks from here.”
“And he just happened to pick Italian?”
Terry shrugged, grinning like he just won the damned lottery. “He made the choice all on his own, of course. I guess it was just meant to be. It’s not like an Italian restaurant is an uncommon
choice for a first date.”
“How many times did you have to mention that I liked Italian food before he made his own choice?”
“Six. So you better bring me back some fucking tiramisu.”
“I will if I can afford it, but you know fucking tiramisu costs extra. And the chocolate gets everywhere.”
“God, just don’t tell any jokes on the date. That’ll be a no for sure.” He slapped me on the butt—way too hard—and pushed me out the door. “Now please, have a good time.”
“That’s the plan.”
“Well, it’s not a good time if you’re back in the p.m. Remember that.”
I shut the door behind me. I knew he’d lock up when he left. For all his faults, he was a good guy. I trusted him, even if I didn’t buy into his “good time” philosophy.
* * * *
Darren was definitely Terry’s type, and Terry had good taste. He wore a proper black tux, just for the first date. I definitely wasn’t overdressed. That was one nice thing about living in a big city like San Francisco—dressing nice actually happened
outside of funerals and weddings. He was almost as skinny and svelte as Terry. A blond with green eyes and the cutest damned butt I’d seen in six months. Totally squeezeworthy. Biteworthy. Up-all-night–worthy.
All right, maybe I did need to get laid. Bad. Darren was definitely an option and definitely sending me signals. At least, I assumed the hand holding and footsie were signals for sex.
I leaned over the table. “So, what do you have going on later? Do you want to go somewhere after or just go home?”
“I think we could go somewhere else after.” He raised my hand to his lips and held it there for a second or two. “Do you live close by?”
I shook my head. Sure, it was a big-ass lie, but I didn’t know Darren that well. He didn’t need to know where I lived. Not right away. “Are you wanting to…you know?”
“Fuck? Yeah.” He said it without any hesitation, but red still tinted his cheeks and ears. “I know it’s pretty fast, but I think we have really good chemistry. And you’ve got this whole rough-and-tumble, hardworking-man thing going that’s just driving me nuts.”
“Well, I’m glad it works for someone.”
“It definitely does.” Again, he kissed my hand. His lips were warm and soft against my knuckles. “I’m pretty glad I got set up with you.”
“So am I.” But no need for me to mention that to Terry. I pulled my hand back. “Are you sure you don’t want to go dutch on this check?” I held up a take-out container. Terry’s tiramisu, sans fucking. “Or at least let me pay for this part?”
“Don’t worry about it. I’m happy to pay for a little thank-you treat for Terry, and I’m sure I’ll be even happier about it in the morning.” He gave my hand one last peck. “I just hope it holds up in my fridge overnight.”
“I think it’ll be fine.” Damn it, I was doing this. Anyone who might have a problem with it could just screw off. Me included. There was nothing inherently wrong with sex. I could always get to know him later. Or not. I wasn’t thinking with my head anymore. Dick all the way. Damned hypocrite, I was.
I scooted my chair closer to him so I could whisper. “Well, I’m ready whenever you are.” It was my turn to blush now. No matter how many times I had to go through the whole “conversation” with guys, it was always, always awkward. “I didn’t bring any condoms. So, if we could just stop by the store on the way back to your place, everything’ll be perfect.”
Darren chuckled. “Come on now. We’re both adults. I know I’m clean. Unless you’re not.”
Of course. Too goddamn good to actually work out. I pushed back from the table. “You might know that you’re clean, but I don’t know that.” Should have known it wouldn’t be that smooth. “I’m not trying to offend you, but I’ve got to be safe about this. AIDS is everywhere nowadays.” Maybe not everywhere, but I was making a point.
“Look, I’ll take you home, and you can look at my papers. I got checked up a couple weeks ago. I promise you I’m clean.”
He reached over, but I stood up. “I’m sorry. No condom, no deal. I just…” I squeezed his hand. “I’m sure you’re great, and I really want to sleep with you. Like, a lot.”
“Well, then what’s the problem?”
I closed my eyes and took a couple of deep breaths before continuing. “I told you I wasn’t comfortable without protection, and you started trying to convince me instead of respecting me enough to try.”
“I just don’t like the way they feel.”
Darren was beginning to lose his appeal, and Terry was beginning to lose his tiramisu.
“Nobody likes the way condoms feel.” I was loud enough that the people at the other tables were looking at me. Which wasn’t good, and it didn’t make me any less red in the face. I sat down and quieted. “Condoms suck. I get that. But they’re important. And if you’re not willing to compromise on that for me, then I’m not willing to compromise my first-date rule for you. I don’t care what your paperwork says.”
“Fine.” Darren slapped his hands down on the table and rose up. “And I changed my mind. We’re definitely going dutch.”
* * * *
With the container of tiramisu under my arm, I headed back to my apartment. I hoped Terry would still be there. I had some choice words with him about this particular jackass. He more or less charged me for not
sleeping with him. Like some reverse whore. It’s not as though I wouldn’t have paid for my part. And his part. Gladly, even. Well, my part for sure. It’s why I ordered light. I never once expected him to go in for the whole bill. But for him to pull that crap after? Because I wouldn’t do bareback? Bullshit.
That’s why he got a glass of wine tossed on that nice black tux. Anyone who heard our “altercation” probably thought I was just a tight-ass or I felt entitled somehow. Well, they could screw off just as much as Darren.
I lowered myself onto a bench on the sidewalk. There were still people out and about. A lot of people. Which was just pathetic. I may not subscribe to Terry’s a.m./p.m. theory of fun, but I damn sure knew that a good date shouldn’t end before eight in the damned night. And a date that ends in sex definitely shouldn’t.
Of course, this date wasn’t ending in sex anymore.
I couldn’t help wondering why I didn’t just move back home. In Montana, I was pretty hot shit. The whole idea of hotness is totally different there. That hardworking-man look isn’t just the kind of thing a few guys like Darren are into there. It’s pretty much the norm.
But then I remembered exactly why I stayed away: working on the ranch to avoid getting thrown out of the house, the sidelong glances from Dad, and the awkward family dinners where I had to endure Great-Aunt Ruth asking why I didn’t have a girlfriend yet, a strapping young God-fearing Christian like me. No matter how much I wanted to, I couldn’t haul off and slap her one across the face, either. She was eighty-eight, for fuck’s sake.
Mostly, though, I remembered what I had here. I wasn’t rich at all. If I took a couple of sick days, I’d feel it at the end of the week. In the ten years since moving to San Fran, I’d had twice as many jobs, and they all paid about the same: crap. But it was my money. I got paid for the work I did, and I could use it to keep myself alive. If anything else came my way—or I got a couple hours of overtime—that was mine to spend how I wanted to, and none of it had to go in the plate at church.
I smelled the air, felt its warmth in my lungs, in my nose. Fresh-cut grass from the park a few blocks away and hot tar where they’d fixed the road that morning. No horseshit or hay anywhere even close. Not scents I missed.
I sat there, just a block or so away from home, and I watched. The people wandering by in my neighborhood still fascinated me. The diversity of it all. A pair of goths passing, dropping a few coins in a homeless wino’s cup. A woman in an evening gown, her heels in her hands and a cigarette hanging from her lips.
I fit in here because everyone fit in here.
I smiled as I rose and looked straight up. Bright signs and streetlights washed out any brightness that might have come from the night sky, leaving nothing but a veil of black. The darkness hid all the imperfections of the buildings too. In the daylight, you could see how dirty, broken, and cheap a lot of the neighborhood looked. At night? It all vanished. I normally didn’t take enough time to notice it. After living in San Francisco for ten years, the magic of it had sort of worn off. That would probably happen anywhere. But the beauty of that dark, starry sky seemed so obvious in the moment, and it only made my smile wider.
I could go home now. The home I paid for with my own money. I could even find it in me to let Terry have his tiramisu, despite his pivotal role in this particular round of humiliation. Maybe. This was just one more bad blind date and one more asshole who refused to wear a rubber. Calmed down, I could see that. It sucked, but it was okay.
I took one step toward home, and then I heard it. A horrible, tearing sound I never liked. It was a horse and not a very happy horse, either. It was in trouble. Bad trouble. I did my best to ignore it, but that only lasted about half a second before eighteen years of training kicked in. I turned around and hauled ass. I couldn’t let the poor thing suffer.
Each step away from my apartment brought me closer, made the crying louder. So loud. I’d never, in all that time on a horse ranch, heard one crying like this. Not for broken legs, branding, or birth. I couldn’t even fathom what could be causing this kind of pain or terror.
I heard hooves and I turned. Down an alley, I caught the flash of a tail. I darted across and followed. Surrounded by walls, every sound was even louder. The clopping of hooves, the snorting, and the keening moans. There was no other way to describe that sort of wail of distress.
I came around the corner and froze. There it was, obviously upset. Someone else was there, but he didn’t seem to be hurting the horse. He was doubled over, clutching his middle. Didn’t even look like he noticed the horse at all.
But I couldn’t move. I knew a fair bit about horses. Not everything, by far, but I knew enough to recognize breeds. This wasn’t like anything I’d ever seen. He was a stallion, a beautiful steel-gray but with a metallic coat like an Akhal-Teke. His fur caught the light and gleamed silver. His mane and tail were sleek and long, the same color as his coat.
Mostly, he was huge. I had to guess somewhere around nineteen hands at the shoulder. If I went over there to try and help him, he could trample me by accident. Upset and huge weren’t a good combination.
He cried out again, rearing back on his hind legs. That’s when I saw it. The horn. A good foot and a half long, it stuck out of his skull, sharp and silver like a sword blade. Just in case he wasn’t scary enough before.
Then the horn came down. It stabbed right through the guy’s arm and chest and back and came out slick with blood. The stallion pulled back, showering droplets of red across the walls and pavement, and then galloped away.
Warmth flowed down my leg, and I ran up to the guy. To the body? The victim? I didn’t know what to think or what to call him. I felt like an idiot, checking his pulse. What blood was there left in his body? It had to all be on the ground. There couldn’t be any more than that. It pooled around him, around my shoes, the dirt from the pavement floating in jagged, erratic patterns on top of the red.
I didn’t find a pulse. He wasn’t breathing. I had to hold back the urge to vomit long enough to make a call. My hands shook so badly that I had to brace against a wall just to call the cops. The stink of iron, blood, piss, and garbage filled my lungs now. I would have taken horseshit and hay.
Raven de Hart