I sat in Dink's, the diner in Chagrin Falls, and called in the end of my appointment with Nick. I had three messages on the cellphone: one from Darren Nye, confirming my 1:00 with Carter Kingman next Monday, one from Raj, who wanted to see me on Wednesday evening, and one from Terry Boncoeur, setting up a session with him and his partner, James Wolfson, for Friday.
Terry and James -- two of the HIV positive guys.
I knew they would call, the only question was when.
There was no avoiding this one. Russell Boyer had asked me if that was deal breaker, maybe even hoping it was a deal breaker, but I'd said no, it wasn't. Now I had to put my moneymaker where my mouth was.
In his message Terry was as he is in person: perky, campy, and enthusiastic, like a queer Doris Day, if that's not redundant. He wanted me to come to their house at 9:00 and be "ready to romp, darling." That meant this wasn't even remotely like a 'date' -- a ruse both Dennis and Nick had sustained to make this whole thing seem okay somehow. Apparently Terry and James, along with Carter Kingman, were made of sterner stuff. They called a trick a trick and didn't bother to mince words.
No problem, I told myself. I can do this.
"Coffee?" The waitress was fortyish and had friendly blue eyes.
"Are you Francine?"
She grinned. "Yes, honey. And who are you?"
"I'm a friend of Nick Santini's. Shea."
She poured coffee into the cup that was already on the table, waiting for the breakfast rush. "What can I get you, Shea, friend of Nick Santini?"
"Wheat toast, with margarine. Thanks."
"That all?" She frowned. "How about I bring you some bacon with that toast, honey?"
"Sure. Bacon would be fine."
She didn't write anything down. "Bacon. Wheat toast. Coffee. You Nick's new boyfriend?"
I tried not to cough. "Does everyone know everyone's business in this town?"
"Just about," she said. "Nick was in here earlier, getting breakfast. He comes in almost every morning. He told me to expect you."
"Oh," I said. "Great." It seemed his sister-in-law wasn't the only person who wanted to see Nick Santini settle down.
"I'll put your order in now, honey."
The cellphone made a purring sound. It was Russ Boyer, checking up on me. I didn't call him back.
But I almost did call Rich. He'd be in his office at Forest City at this time of day, beginning his early office hours. He'd called me a couple of times in the last week, wanting to go to dinner, to the movies, to a concert at the university, to his place just to talk. But I'd been ducking him and I felt guilty about it.
I liked Rich. He'd been a good friend over the past three years, especially when the old man was sick and I was having trouble with Aaron. A very good friend. And that was the real predicament. Rich wanted to be more than a good friend. We both knew it, but somehow I couldn't talk about it with him, so avoiding him was easier.
The truth was that I just wasn't attracted to Rich -- at least not when I was sober. I'd almost slept with him at the MLA when I first met him, but that was certainly one of those rare non-sober times. With Rich I had the same issues I had with Aaron: he was older, more successful, dominating, and always, infuriatingly right. But unlike Aaron, he was also HIV positive. That was the drawn line that had kept us friends and friends only.
Now I was about to cross that HIV line with Terry Boncoeur and James Wolfson. I'd already slept with men I wasn't really attracted to, like Carter Kingman. And I'd sleep with a lot more before my stint with The Club was through.
I won't mince words -- HIV scares the piss out of me. It scared me way back when and it still scares me. I tried to practice the safest sex possible when I was hustling as a teenager, but it was difficult. I blew as many of my tricks as I could, and when I couldn't avoid fucking, I always brought condoms that I'd gotten from the Free Clinic or the anti-AIDS do-gooders who lurked in places were sex workers did their business. If I gave the guy one, he'd most likely make use of it. Even the stupidest of tricks doesn't really want to kill himself for a fuck. I learned to wrap my dick under any circumstance, in any location, and under any untoward influence. Was I always perfect? Hardly, but I managed not to get infected in almost a year on the streets. And that was a fucking gift.
Which is why it made me crazy when Aaron was so blasé about having sex without protection. To him it wasn't an issue. We were in a committed relationship and that was that. Why was I so nervous about it?
Until I found out he was fucking that hideous Lowell.
I have no reason to believe they weren't using a condom, but the thing is that I don't know. I can never really know the truth. And never really trust Aaron. Ever again.
But there was still Rich, HIV positive Rich, looming large.
And, looming even larger, Aaron.
Because I missed Aaron. Missed him intensely.
I still loved fucking, miserable, lying-ass Aaron.
"Here's your bacon and toast, honey." Francine set the plate in front of me. "More coffee?"
"No, thanks. This is fine." She stood there, smiling at me. "How much do I owe you?"
"Nothing," she said. "Nick covered it. You enjoy your breakfast."
I put away the cellphone. It was for business only, after all. I could call Rich when I got home.
My appointment with Raj on Wednesday night felt different from all the other times I'd been with him. Those had been friendly and easy-going -- good sex with no strings attached. Well, no strings on my part.
But this time it was like a business transaction. No, not like one -- it was one. I felt it and I know Raj felt it, too. The whole thing was awkward from the start. He was more formal, even nervous with me. I was sure it wasn't the first time he'd paid for sex, but this situation was so weird, so fraught with all of the emotional baggage I'd originally gone to him to avoid that neither of us could get comfortable.
And then he started talking about his wife.
"Sita is so involved in all of these committees," he complained. "At the hospital, at our club, at my daughter's school -- and she wants me to be involved, too. But I have no time for such nonsense! That is what a wife is for, is it not? To handle these domestic complications?"
"I guess," I shrugged. I didn't point out that with Aaron I was the one who was, more often than not, left to handle those annoying domestic complications.
"Now she is pressing me to invite my mother to come and stay with us for a few months. One of the reasons I left India was to get away from my mother and her unreasonable expectations! The last thing I wish is for her to come here and begin to question everything I do!"
"But what would your mother possibly have to question?" I couldn't picture Raj's mother bitching at him for staying out all night or sitting around the house in his underwear. He was a distinguished doctor at the Cleveland Clinic, rich, well-connected, you name it -- by any calculation Raj Kumar was a runaway success.
"She wants to know when Sita and I are going to have a son," said Raj. "And she doesn't think Cleveland is an important place. She wants to know why I am not in New York or Los Angeles or London. Whenever we go to India, she and Sita always have their heads together, whispering. It drives me to distraction! I never should have let her talk me into another marriage!"
That brought me up short. "Another marriage?"
"Yes. Sita is my second wife. My first died years ago, when Priya was a young child. I married her before I left India to study. My father insisted. He thought I might never return if I did not marry. We only lived together for brief periods of time. She preferred to remain at home while I traveled and studied. Priya was conceived on one of my visits. Then when Laksmi died my mother raised my daughter. But when she became older Mammaji insisted that I bring my daughter to America to live with me. But what did I know about raising a child? Nothing! So my mother found a wife for me. Sita was from a good family and she was educated, so I agreed."
"You mean your mother arranged your second marriage?" I'd heard about things like this, but couldn't imagine it. It seemed so... so Jane Austen!
"Oh, Mammaji arranged my first marriage as well," Raj said off-handedly. "When did I have the time -- or the inclination -- to look for a wife? It was better to leave the details to her. And she made two good choices. It is unfortunate that Laksmi died -- she was quite beautiful. Sita is not a beauty, but she is a good mother to Priya. I suppose I shall have to give in and try for a son with her. My brother has two sons, but that is not enough for my mother! I am the eldest and she believes I have a family duty to perform."
"But what about..." I hesitated. "What about... being gay? Doesn't that make it... difficult?"
"Who says I am gay?" Raj blew out smoke from one of the French cigarettes he always smoked after sex.
"My ass, for one," I commented.
"I enjoy fucking beautiful boys. That part of my life has nothing to do with my mother, my wife, my daughter, or my familial responsibilities."
That floored me. "But... but what about The Club? And the Gay Men's Professional Association?"
"What about them?" I could hear the annoyance in Raj's voice. I was obviously asking too many nosy questions.
"Doesn't your wife... wonder about you belonging to something like that?"
"What organizations I belong to is not a concern of my wife." He sat up and stubbed out the cigarette in the ashtray next to the bed. "Nor is it a concern of yours. I conduct my affairs in a way that suits me. No one has a right to question them." It was as if Raj was rehearsing things he was going to say to someone else -- like his mother.
"Sorry. I didn't mean to pry."
He only grunted in reply.
There is was -- a chill between us. Everything had changed. Everything.
I got up and started to get dressed. I only wanted to get the hell out of there and go home. And Raj didn't ask me to stay.
I was putting on my leather jacket and getting out my car keys -- unlike the other times I'd driven to Raj's condo by the river -- when he came out in his silk robe.
"Tell me, Shea, are you... well?" he asked.
I didn't understand the question. "Well?"
"Is this going well? This... arrangement?"
"Sure," I said. Now he asks me how everything is, as I'm heading out the door. I was pissed. "It's great. The perfect solution. I'm grateful you thought of it. I'm also grateful not to be out in Las Vegas being paraded in front of a line of dirty old men wearing nothing but Saran Wrap."
Raj winced. "It is still not too late to accept my offer, Shea." His voice had changed again, softer, regretful. "Not too late..."
"No thanks," I cut him off. "I'm having too much fun. This whole enterprise is bringing out my inner slut. You should have seen how fast old Carter Kingman came for me -- little purple pills notwithstanding. There's nothing more satisfying than a job well done, I always say. And Nick Santini was incredible. He's not a huge guy, but he's got a great body and a piece of Italian sausage that won't quit. Man, he pounded my ass but good! And I'm scheduled for fun and games with Terry and James on Friday night. I'll make sure to bring extra condoms -- just to be on the safe side. Why would I want to give all that up, Raj?" I gave him a quick, dry kiss on the cheek. "Ciao, adios, whatever the hell. Call me the next time you need to get off. And give yourself a discount as a finder's fee."
It was late and the Cuyahoga smelled of oil and dead fish. I could hear rock music drifting over from the bars on the other side of the river.
I was glad I was wearing my leather jacket. There was a warning chill in the early autumn air.