On Joel’s thirtieth birthday, he chose to stay on land and get drunk.
It was a pitiful way to ring in the third decade of his life, but Joel felt no compulsion to rectify it. He had turned down invitations from friends and family in order to commiserate alone, dry, and in the company of strong liquor.
It had been a shitty year.
Joel’s department at the university underwent budget cuts, and now he was teaching the dreaded European History 101 to freshmen instead of his preferred topic, military history, to graduate students.
Joel’s sister had gotten divorced and called him daily, detailing her struggles through the legal quagmire of retaining sole custody over his two nieces.
His water heater blew up, his refrigerator died, and his house’s old iron pipes rusted open, requiring a complete replacement. All these humdrum home improvements diminished his small savings to nothing.
And although Charlie and he had only dated for ten months prior to his drowning, something had snapped within Joel when Charlie died. It was more than just guilt, although Joel had plenty of that. Charlie borrowed the boat because of him. Charlie ignored the threatening weather because Joel demanded sexual favors. And the Coast Guard saved Joel first. It all added up to a heaping mouthful of guilt that, a year on, Joel still had a hard time keeping down.
But it wasn’t just the guilt. Something else gnawed at him. Something that felt treacherously close to lost love. He had a sinking sensation he would never feel as connected to anyone again.
They didn’t make sense, his feelings.
Joel was a pragmatist. He liked logic and realism, and concepts like soul mates and true love were silly and fictitious.
And Charlie and he had always been opposites. Joel selected documentaries; Charlie preferred science fiction. Joel stayed inside and read; Charlie played basketball and ran marathons for fun. Charlie was sentimental, romantic, and sappy; Joel was reserved in public and hesitant to share deeper feelings.
They disagreed often and had separate groups of friends, but when they first started dating, they found their personalities meshed despite the differences. And the sex buzzed Joel on a completely new level. It was incredibly hot. Hotter than it had ever been for him, who despite a varied history of partners over the years, was rather traditional in the sack. Until he met Charlie, that is.
It was probably this, more than anything, that he missed.
Joel consoled himself, drinking deeply. He leaned over the bar and ordered another whiskey sour. This place was not one of his usual haunts—it was in Pioneer Square, a noisy, bar-packed area of downtown Seattle glutted with drunk frat boys and Starbucks executives. It was clear across the city from his house, and that was by design. He craved anonymity, drunkenness in a place safe from accidental run-ins with well-wishing acquaintances.
The football game played quietly in vivid high definition on a screen consuming half the wall, and he watched absentmindedly. Charlie had loved football. Joel had therefore found himself interested in it by proxy. He enjoyed the strategic elements of the sport. But he hadn’t watched a game in a year.
The bar seemed unusually crowded for a Thursday night, although Joel didn’t know the bar, and so perhaps it was always like this. Then he noticed several well-dressed women wearing feather boas. A novelty dildo on the sticky wooden table confirmed his suspicions that a bachelorette party was under way. It seemed like a strange day to celebrate the unwavering fidelity of love, but maybe he was just bitter.
“Can I buy you a drink?”
Joel turned at the familiar voice. Ginger Carr, assistant professor at the Puget University history department, smiled at him indulgently.
Joel shook his head. “I try to find the one bar where I won’t run into anyone I know, and here you are,” he said.
Ginger laughed. She was clearly inebriated, her eyes lidded, her carefully styled hair starting to frazzle and come undone. She threw her arm over his shoulder, and Joel looked down into a low-cut dress displaying more bosom than was typical for a regular night out at the bar. He raised an eyebrow.
“It’s Lucy’s bachelorette party,” Ginger explained. “That’s my excuse. But I’m surprised to see you here.”
“Just trying to drink alone,” Joel said.
“How healthy,” Ginger commented. “I noticed that. It’s why I’m offering to drink with you. Plus I need for you to help me fool the gals I’m sitting with. They’ve been staring and drooling over you all night, and I just don’t have the heart to tell them you’re queer. So play along, will you?”
Joel obliged her, leaning down to kiss her cheek.
“Does that work?” he whispered.
“Sure,” she said, giggling.
“Although I don’t think anyone actually uses the pick-up line ‘Can I buy you a drink?’ anymore.”
“Really?” Ginger frowned. “I spent the last nine years getting my doctorate, and now I’m surrounded by students I can’t sleep with. I’m completely out of touch.” She smiled at him again, her cheeks dimpling. “Still, I meant it. What can I get you?”
Joel clinked his glass against hers. “Since it’s my birthday, you can buy my next whiskey sour.”
Ginger’s eyes widened. “It’s your birthday? And you’re here by yourself?”
“That was the point…” he started, but before he could protest, he was dragged by the arm over to a table of women dressed in slick skirts and sleeveless blouses, despite the promise of rain outside. They made room for him and introduced themselves, all speaking at the same time. Joel just sat down and smiled and let them buy more drinks and wallowed in their attentions. It was nice. But then he could have immersed himself in the attention of his real friends too.
The women sandwiched him in the bench seat.
“You look like Cillian Murphy,” the one named Erica commented, reaching across the table to pet his black hair.
“Nah. He looks like a younger Jude Law,” said the other one. She sat awfully close.
Joel glared across the table at Ginger, whose eyes laughed at his uncomfortable squirming.
Ginger bought a round of shots, and Joel joined the ladies, shuddering as the cheap tequila burned on the way down. But the reciprocal flush of warmth and looseness ameliorated the taste.
Despite his intentions to celebrate alone, he remained at the table because the women were funny and good at keeping his mind off more melancholy thoughts. Their conversation never ventured near the topics of true love or the open sea, and for that he was grateful.
Erica finally collapsed in the corner of the bench seat. When the other woman ran off after spotting an old acquaintance, Ginger moved to sit beside him.
“Thanks for the company,” Joel said, squeezing her shoulder. “I didn’t think I wanted any, but you made me feel better.”
Ginger shook her head. “Why are you celebrating your birthday all by yourself anyway?”
“I’m getting over someone.”
“Oh. I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay,” he said, although he certainly didn’t feel it, especially not tonight. Christ, it had been a year. Shouldn’t he be over this by now?
“Did you break up?” Ginger asked.
“Not purposely. He died.”
“Oh, Jesus! I’m so sorry!” Ginger covered her mouth. “When?”
Joel could tell by her expression that this was not an acceptable answer. Clearly she also thought he should be over it by now.
“This is the anniversary of his death,” he clarified.
“He died on your birthday? How terrible!”
“Yeah. Pretty much takes the wind out of my sails.” Joel winced at the expression. He had grown to distrust lots of things in the last year, like water and boats and people who liked water or boats. Now he was going to have to stay away from them in metaphor as well?
“What was he like?” Ginger asked kindly. She rubbed his arm. There was nothing sexual about it, she was just being a friend, and Joel felt relieved.
“He was…difficult.” Joel smiled at the memories. “We fought a lot. Had great make-up sex. He was moody. But he was also romantic, a fantastic lover, and very put together. Organized, you know. Had his own business and everything. And he had a great smile. It was so honest and sweet, and it reached his eyes.”
“Yeah?” Ginger looked dreamily off toward the corner of the bar. “What did he look like?”
“He looked like…” Joel followed her glance and stared at the corner of the bar. “Actually, he looked a lot like that guy over there.”
“Who? The tall guy with the messy brown hair? The one in the leather coat?”
“Yeah.” Joel narrowed his eyes. “Charlie looked exactly like him.”
Joel put his drink down and stared openly at the group of people in the corner by the pool table. There was a middle-aged Asian woman with expensive glasses and a guy with long hair who appeared to be barely twenty-one. They chatted with a man who looked just like Charlie. Same height, same stance, same hair color. Same pale face, same blue eyes. It was Charlie’s spitting image.
Strike that. It was Charlie.
Joel pushed away from the table. Ginger stood as well, looking concerned.
“That’s him!” Joel jostled his way across the crowded bar. The closer he got, the more he recognized Charlie’s features. The length of his lashes. The small scar on his chin. The gold loop earring in his right earlobe.
Charlie turned, and they made eye contact.
Joel’s throat felt tight, closed.
Charlie’s eyes seemed to flicker in recognition, but then he frowned and turned back to his two companions without saying a word.
Joel felt like he’d been slapped.
“Hey!” Joel grabbed Charlie’s arm and spun him around.
Their eyes met again. Something was different—cold blue water seemed to reflect back at Joel. It startled him badly. He released his hold on Charlie’s jacket and stepped back.
For a moment, he grew frightened. What if Charlie did
drown in the ocean? What if this was some sort of sea ghost? This man’s eyes were as frigid as that night had been in the swells.
Joel shook his head. He was being ridiculous. Seven whiskey sours will do that to a man.
“What do you want?” Charlie asked. There was no malice in his tone, but no warmth either.
“Charlie. It’s me.” This was so surreal, Joel’s brain was having a hard time keeping up with the visuals. He stepped forward. “It’s me. Joel.”
Charlie’s expression remained blank. “Sorry, don’t know you.” He turned back to his friends, who watched Joel carefully. The woman smiled nervously, but the young man glared.
“What the fuck do you mean, you don’t know me?” Joel’s hand involuntarily formed a fist. “Charlie, where the hell have you been? Are you even aware that we had a funeral
“My name’s not Charlie.” He glanced at Joel briefly, eyes traveling down Joel’s body. Arousal sparked in Charlie’s eyes, but no recognition.
There was no way this was someone else. Granted, the old Charlie would never dress like this, black shirt, black leather coat, jeans, and black boots. But even if it was some unknown, long-lost twin, they wouldn’t have shared the same crescent-shaped scar on the chin. Or the slight crooked bend in the nose.
Joel leaned forward and whispered, “Are you in trouble? Why didn’t you call me or—”
“Is there a problem here?”
A burly, bald man appeared, carrying two beers. He handed one to Charlie and glared at Joel with open hostility. “Who are you?”
Joel fought to control his temper. He turned back to Charlie, his heart hammering in his chest. “Just… Look, can I talk to you alone for a minute? Please?” He stared hard.
The bald man flicked Joel on the shoulder as if he were a fly. “Fuck off. We’re busy.”
“Fuck. You.” Joel squared his shoulders. He knew he was screwed if the guy actually hit him; he was wasted, and he was a terrible fighter. But Charlie’s cold expression hurt him more than he could bear at the moment, and if the choice was either crying or getting the shit beat out of him, he chose the beating.
The bald man carefully placed his beer on the edge of the pool table. He swooped in and grabbed a fistful of Joel’s shirt. Then he shoved Joel against the wall of the bar. Patrons nearby went silent.
“I told you to fuck off,” the man said. “I don’t like your kind so close.”
Joel inhaled slowly. He always suspected the day would come when he would be beaten for being gay. He just didn’t expect it in Seattle. Or in this neighborhood.
He pried at the man’s hand, trying to break free. The man swung his fist back. Before he could strike, however, Charlie reached up and grabbed the man’s fist.
“That’s enough, Ray,” Charlie said. His voice was low and mean. He stepped between them. “Give my drink to Yez,” he told the bald man, and then he grabbed Joel by the coat sleeve and yanked him toward the back exit.
Joel stumbled and followed, frightened by Charlie’s menacing presence. He used to be so playful. Charlie had walked with a lazy swagger unless he was running at full speed along trails. Now he stalked toward the door like a hunter. He shouldered open the emergency exit and shoved Joel into the alley, pushing him against the gritty brick wall of the bar.
“Don’t come back here,” Charlie said. His voice was the same. The exact same. There was no way this could be anyone else. And yet the way he spoke sounded wrong. He had a different cadence; his stresses fell on odd syllables. It was almost as if English were his second language.
Joel glared at him. “What the fuck is going on? First I watch you drown; then you disappear for a year, and now here you are, alive
, and you won’t even acknowledge me or—”
Charlie’s lips crushed against Joel’s own. He pressed himself against Joel’s body. Joel could feel Charlie’s hard-on pressing into his thigh.
Joel shoved him in the chest. Charlie stumbled back. For a moment, a real emotion fluttered across his face—confusion—but then it was gone so fast, it could have been nothing more than a twitch of the eye.
“No!” Joel said, his voice shaking in his rage. “You can’t kiss me until you explain yourself!”
Charlie’s blue eyes were dilated in the dimly lit alley, and his cheeks were flushed with his arousal. A light mist of rain fell over them both, but he didn’t seem to notice.
He swallowed and then turned away. He didn’t look back. He opened the door to reenter the bar.
Joel lunged and yanked Charlie back. “What the hell happened to you?” Joel asked. “Is it those people in there?” Joel moved closer. “Are they threatening you? Are you in trouble?”
“So you choose to hang around fucking homophobes now?”
Charlie blinked. “What?” He shook his head. “Look, just get out of here.”
“Stop calling me that. I’m not Charlie.” His expression was devoid of all emotion. He looked like a stranger. “If you know what’s good for you, you’ll go home.” Charlie went back inside the bar without another word.
Joel leaned against the bricks and adjusted his jeans. Well. That was wonderful.
Happy birthday, asshole.
Exhaustion washed over him, and he considered going home and crashing. Depression tugged his eyes closed. He straightened his appearance and walked back into the bar, just in time to catch Charlie and his friends departing out the front entrance.
Joel hurried through the bar, dodging several dancing women draped in boas. At the entrance, he couldn’t tell which way Charlie and his companions had headed.
“Damn it!” He slapped his palm against the edge of the door.
“They went south.” Ginger appeared at his side, grinning. “I saw them leave just a minute ago.”
Joel leaned down and kissed her cheek. “Thank you. Thanks for listening too.”
Ginger hugged him. “Happy birthday. Now hurry if you want to catch him. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Joel turned right to pursue Charlie and his rough gang of friends.