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How I Saved My Love

By Jillian Kulp

Smashwords Edition

Copyright 2017 Jillian Kulp

Also By Jillian Kulp on Smashwords:



Imaginary: Kyo



Strange Short Stories and Novellas



Lessons on How to Be A Model Student



The Curl

 

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Matty:

The light of the computer monitor glares in my eyes. It's starting to hurt a bit by now, after staring at it for nearly seven hours straight. But that's the beauty of working from home: you can get to it when you get to it. As long as it gets done. I decided to put it off a few hours later than usual today, hence the late hour as I finish up the last round of deciphering babbled dictation from blokes in white coats with their heads up their arses – surely that's where they must be, their speech is always so obscenely garbled over the recordings.

But I'm a fast one, I am – fast fingers on both versions of keyboards, evidently. One of the people I work for – a female voice over the phone, a typed name on an email, a disembodied entity which I've no proof of any actual existence aside from these easily explained-away instances that could very well be proxies – has commented that I'm one of the most productive workers they've never had the pleasure to meet. Seven hours, and I've no idea how many files I've sent back – but it must be a pretty penny... which I'll never see. I never get to see it in all its papered glory – just numbers on a sheet of paper I don't understand, and a few wads of fivers now and then from a discerning hand.

This is how I live; this is how I work; this is how I bide my time, apart from splattering paint on shoddy easels and biting my nails in nervous anticipation of what the night will bring. It's fairly routine, if a bit nerve-wracking, especially the night-time bit, where I'm not sure if it'll be peaceful and quiet, or riddled with unspoken tension that eventually leads to blinding bouts of cursing and misplaced fury.

Speaking of which...

The clock in the corner of the screen reads 9:45. He'll be home soon. Best start to get dinner ready – has to be fit for eating after his normal winding down habits, yet not too cold to be disgusting once he's made it to the table. My own stomach hurts so much from hunger by this point, I can't stand to think of food, but I force myself to do so after sending off my last correspondence for the day. Normally I'd join him for dinner, but I just can't tonight. Oh, I'll be sitting right beside him – can't stray too far from the norm. But I can't possibly force a morsel down my throat.

I messed up last night, you see, so I wasn't able to relieve those familiar hunger pangs everyone gets when deprived for certain periods of time. By now, I've reached the point where those twinges have become almost debilitating nausea – which will abate soon enough. After I fall asleep, anyway. The kind of stomach issue that never feels righted until hours of unconsciousness have calmed the natural confusion of whether a belly can digest or reject something forced into it.

It's a bit like love, I suppose – starved for so long, the initial reaction to too much is outright rejection. Feeding constantly on small portions can make one feel uncomfortable; binging now and again can bring about the same result. A healthy, regular, steady diet is what helps make one feel stable and strong. And kept away from it for so long... Well, sometimes you're not sure what you're putting in yourself, but when it's pure, untainted, untouched by any poison or rot, it'll settle in you nicely.

Or some such nonsense. I suppose. I don't know. I'm just tired of thinking. I'm tired of everything. Almost too tired to turn the burner off when I see the slop in the pot is boiling ready. The sight of it alone makes me want to vomit – but I'm too tired to do that either.

This is a good thing, though. The weakness will lend to my mental time-out whilst he gets his rocks off or whatever tonight. I won't feel like riding that wave that's been retreating from my shores for the past several months, but I won't feel like stubbornly refusing to please him either; in fact, I won't even feel like pleading pathetically to stop, too overwhelmed by pain – it never does any good anyway, and I'd only be wearing myself out more, whilst earning another night confined to the flat at the same time.

I remember a time when I wasn't always so tired. I think. I think I kind of miss it, really. I could do so much more with a healthy dose of pure energy. Maybe I wouldn't mess up so often then. If only I could get it sorted. But it's a never-ending cycle with me. Caught in this hamster wheel, or like a snake eating itself...

Oh God... Eating... Bloody hell...

I can't think of food; it makes me feel ill. Then not eating makes me tired. Then I don't think of what I'm doing or saying and end up earning another hateful glare. Or worse, if I don't give up and let him have his way – physically or argumentatively. That thoughtless slip leads to another day of punishment. And he'll know if I cheat – he keeps track of what we have in the cupboards. He'll know if I've eaten, or if I've gone out – he knows every scrap we have, every cent in his wallet. Mine only comes to me by his hand. So he knows. But I have to do this right tonight. Except for last night's slip-up, I've been good all week. Earned myself a night out. Well, so long as I'm home at the appropriate time to have supper ready for him.

The only good thing is that he works over an hour away, so it takes him this long to get home. That's why we have dinner so late.

Sometimes... God forgive me... I wish he'd go farther.



Ted:

I groan when I see where my company-appointed guide is dragging me. Trust my boss to set me up with a freak who's convinced I'll "dig jazz" when I mention in passing that I have a severe adoration for music... failing to mention what kind of music, of course. Not that I can't appreciate this particular form of it – it's just not my scene.

"Isn't there an opera house somewhere nearby?"

My hopes are squandered – he just stares back at me dumbly, like I've just asked what's so important about this "football" thing these Brits are always going on about.

"Oh? But it's got loads a' gay blokes in it!"

Yeah... Trust Steven to set me up with this guy... He's done it just to annoy me, I'm sure of it. He knows my tastes; therefore he knows this will aggravate me to no end. Where I'd go for a simple glass of red wine and a stimulating conversation, he's constantly pushing me to take a step further – or, in my mind, skid ten miles down a sixty-degree cliff towards oblivion – into his world. Fuck, going to Jacy’s, one of our favorite clubs back home, is just about my limit anymore; I'm comfortable in my predictability and content in my happiness... which bears a striking resemblance to "boring" to the rest of the world.

"Nevermind," I sigh, resigning myself to the fact that I'll be bombarded with depressing – but not melodramatically wrist-slashing, as I prefer it – music and too much smoke for the next few hours. At least the guy with me isn't completely an embarrassment to be seen with. Even if he is straight. It'll give the impression that I'm taken, so I won't have to worry about finding someone to hook up with. Or, more accurately, I won't have to deal with the pain of being rejected by much younger British gentlemen who have the wrong idea as I wile away the time trying to make conversation...

See, it's not like I'm here for any recreational purposes, no matter how much this company guy who's escorting me insists he's trying to show me a good time in London. I've been sent here by my friend – and I use the term loosely, and prefer to call him my "boss," though that's also very loose – to help get this newly acquired branch of his ad agency up and running in England. A few months, he said at first; then maybe half a year. By the time I got on the plane, he was yammering to me on my cell that if things kept going as they seemed to be heading, I could be there long enough to raise my own little family. (Nevermind that I can't procreate, being gay and all.)

But six months, he said, six months at least. And after many of our friends went off to pursue their own dreams, Steven decided that he wanted to go travel the world. But... there was this little matter of his business to deal with. Since my own small interest in love quickly fizzled out – for the umpteenth time with that specific individual, whom I still love but simply can't be with, in general – and I was caught too many a time moping around my desk while fussing over why the one wasn't a two and the two wasn't a one in the cents column of the agency's account books, Steven came to a decision: the new branch of the agency was getting ready for launch, and I was going to be present and responsible for its success.

Meanwhile, he would live vicariously through me as I, and I quote, "party that old-fart ass off and get a life again."

What else was I going to do? A fully paid and accommodated, extended business trip to another country after living in Philadelphia for too many years than I'd like to count, all on the company's tab? Better yet – on Steven's tab?

A week and a half into this misadventure of mine, I'm beginning to see the flaws in the plan. Steven planned it, after all. He's the one who set up my initial meetings with the overseas managers and executives, as well as some potential clients and such. He's the one who told Ricky here, my studly but strictly unavailable hetero guide, that I would enjoy a bit of the nightlife London had to offer – conveniently "forgetting" to mention that I'm not up to par with Steven’s own idea of "fun." And he's the one who calls me on my cell every few days and asks, "Did you get laid yet or what? Well, get moving, you pathetically dull mope, I told you to get a fucking life!"

Some boss. Sometimes I feel like I should be the one with the leash.

As expected, the club is packed with sweaty groups of... unfairly attractive individuals... and plenty of smoke and booze. Luckily, as I've decided (against Steven’s most heartfelt wishes, of course...) to remain as sex-free as possible while I'm here. I want to concentrate on work, and after the last unhappy ending, I'm more than eager to dive headlong into working late nights at the office, shouting senselessly at virus-riddled computers and trying to force mathematical laws to reinvent themselves to my liking.

But first, Ricky needs to feel like he's actually of some use to me as far as entertainment goes. I feel like telling him the most entertainment he could provide me with is a striptease, but I'm afraid that would just scare the poor boy off. Besides, I couldn't possibly say that to anyone I'm not steadily dating – that's Steven's style, not mine.

I let him buy me (on Steven's tab, of course) a few rounds of drinks, as strong as I can handle, and slink into a comfortable slump in my seat as Ricky yammers on and on in his thick Cockney accent about all the possibilities in front of me for the "pleasure" part of my business/pleasure stay here in England. Somewhere around ten-thirty, his face becomes wobbly and wavy, and I'm smiling stupidly back across the dimly lit table at him, too amused by the fact that he's so sure I'm listening to actually laugh at the jokes he's telling.

But then I hear it. As the live jazz band on the small stage at the back of the club slips out of a tune I think I may have heard here and there throughout my life, the small but lively crowd applauding appreciatively at the effort, there's a pause in the room – surely time and space continue as they're meant to, but for a split second, it's as if the atmosphere in the entire bar gasps (or maybe that's just in my mind; maybe the gasp is only from me, in fact, and that's why I seem to be the only one who hears it), and the once unnoticeable piano which had been playing along to the previous slew of miserable, upbeat, or dance-like songs breaks out suddenly in a dramatic flourish of arpeggios and pounding, breath-taking chords...

I blink several times at the gesturing man in front of me, who doesn't seem to hear the music at all over his own voice, then snap my head sharply to the side, as if the alcohol in my system has delayed my startled reaction, giving my physical actions time to catch up to my mental processing of the melody reaching my ears.

That's when I see him. Sitting at the nearly dilapidated wreck of a piano is a small, hunched lump of a thing – man or boy, I can't quite see from this distance, perhaps even an androgynous woman for all I can tell – nearly being swallowed whole by a plain black sweater and a blue beanie cap over long tresses of black hair that creep down to just under his neckline. The torso sways gently in contrast to the flailing arms, which fly up and down the length of the keyboard, spitting out the sounds as gracefully as the body is moving – even if the hands are nothing but a blur to my drunken eyes... though, knowing my stuff about classical composers and the like, this kid isn't just fooling around, and those hands would still be blurs if I were completely sober.

He's good. He's better than good. He's...

I blink quickly several times, silently cursing the smoke in the bar for making my eyes well up, not wanting to miss a second of this impromptu performance. And as the other musicians on the stage huddle around and mutter to each other, probably discussing what to offer to the crowd next, the pianist ignores them, ignores the rest of the bar, probably ignores the entire world itself while continuing to play. The song is familiar to me, yet isn't – the style is one I know, but the song that originally caught my attention has morphed into something new, something apart from the composition written by someone else, but similar in a way. I can instantly tell the vivid influences as a few measures of one style gives way to several more of a different one. An improvised medley of bits from classical pieces, an amalgam of clearly classically-inspired originals, and finally ending with a humorously minor-chorded, Doomsday rendition of – of all things – Chopsticks.

I gawk at the back of the figure's head, utterly oblivious to Ricky's continued raving about the various clubs I can check out later, and try to muster some kind of telepathy to make the pianist turn around.

My message seems to reach its goal, and I can't help but blink yet again when I see, even from thirty feet away, a large set of clear blue eyes caught by the light from the stage, glancing furtively out toward the disinterested audience before turning further to catch the attention of the other musicians. There are a few words exchanged that can't be heard, and as the young man with the brightly-lit eyes and striking, pale face nods amicably while turning back to the piano, it strikes me as odd that no one's applauded him for that wondrous display of... well, more talent than the rest of the musicians have showcased so far.

On a whim – probably because I'm so inebriated that I don't think of how stupid I may seem – I thoughtlessly and loudly start clapping my hands, nodding my approval to his seemingly ignored (and now forgotten) in-between solo enthusiastically.

The musicians on the stage look out into the crowd, as the people in that crowd turn their heads this way and that, everyone looking a bit confused, trying to find the source of the apparently misplaced display of appreciation.

I catch Ricky staring at me oddly, and I only grin, nodding more fervently. "D'you hear that? That's some fuckin' music, man!" I slur obnoxiously, my claps increasing in energy and volume. I kick at Ricky under the seat, urging him to follow my lead, and after a few embarrassed casting of his eyes to others nearby for help, he finally relents and joins me. I let out a high whistle and am glad to hear that, gradually, if a bit half-heartedly, some others have picked up on it too and follow suit.

Even the pianist himself looks perplexed, I notice as I fix my gaze on him again; he has a funny look on his face, like he's not sure if he's hearing correctly, and scratches absently at the hair hidden underneath his beanie.

After the slight clapping dies down, one of the other musicians is kind enough to step up to the microphone and blurt out something so garbled that I can't possibly translate it accurately – something about thanking an audience member on the stage, and I realize he means the pianist himself.

So, my half-delusional mind pieces together slowly, the pianist isn't really part of the band, then, huh? Well, he's still damn good...

And, I notice drunkenly when the slight form stands to shift the seat a bit before launching into the next jazz-infested ditty, got a damn fine ass on him, huh...

And that's when I black out.

Damn. Good thing Steven's paying – I can't imagine ever being able to cover that much liquor in one sitting.



Matty:

I've been trying hard for a long time. Trying to make this work in my head and in my general life itself. Can't recall when exactly it became a chore to be in this relationship we've had for so long. It's never been "easy," whether it was external circumstances – or, as now, an internal struggle to mean every sentiment I know he needs me to say. To assure him.

But it's no longer an assurance of my devotion; it's now only come down to an assurance that he won't be left alone. An assurance as strong as the occasional ropes – a promise I wish I'd never made. They're just words, really. But the meaning behind them, which I've washed out so I don't have to feel them every time I say it, is far heavier than anything I can carry.

Maybe he's right. Maybe I am a liar. I don't think I was all the time. Before, it was so overwhelming, all I felt. There wasn't a doubt inside me at all. But it just... went away. After a while, it just went away. Not even after the first time he startled me with the other side of himself I hadn't been prepared for – even after the first several times... I sought any shred of honesty in his pleading; and I believed it all. Hoping was the next stage, when belief began to fade. Before I knew it, even that had vanished. Yet, even when these nights had become the norm, even when these things were no longer surprising, even when this was known, expected, just after letting one thing slip out or making one stupid mistake – still, I remained.

Why?

I still felt it. That was why.

But that... even that was a long time ago. These last few years have been less an attempt to keep together something I so preciously want, rather an inability to move. While I used to just want this to work so badly, to prove to myself, to them, to everyone, that it could work – it wasn't "traditional" or "normal," but I'd so wanted it to work...

I became so adamant about this one point, this vague principle, that I completely ignored the fact that... it was actually destroying us. Even worse, it very nearly destroyed me – literally. Now, I can't remember when it was that I last spoke those words of assurance with a heart-felt emotion. It had all become routine – all of it. Expected. But he still made me do it, still made me assure him. Still made me carry out all the actions, speak all the endearments, feel all the guilt over the hardships we'd overcome to be like this, together – and what for? For me to abandon him? Over what?

Nothing, really.

It wasn't even the pain that began to frighten me. It was the utter lack of anything else. No friends. No money. No life. No worth. No interest. At times, I didn't even feel the pain anymore. That was one of the few things that frightened me, whilst still drowning helplessly in my apathetic despondency.

I'd fallen out of love. And that was years ago. Fallen out of love – and into an exhaustive, numb role of one going through the motions, like washing your hands until they bleed. It's a trap, pure and simple, and I've nowhere to go – and my tunnel vision keeps me from seeing any options.

Basically, he has me right where he wants me – afraid, alone, clinging to him for my life... when all I want to do is run.



Ted:

Tuesday night, I skip stopping at home and head directly to the bar I've discovered is straight across from the building my fully furnished rented room is in. It took me two weeks to notice it there, but that goes to show you where my headspace was. By Monday night, having had enough of Ricky's nagging to go out again since Thursday, I had to come up with some excuse and decided to tell him I'd found a comfortable little bar to hang out in during my off time. While I searched desperately in a phone book for the name of a random place that seemed to be nearby, I lifted my eyes to the window beside me and saw the sign across the street. It was one of those names that so obviously screamed "gay bar." So I told him – and then, hearing the tone in his voice when he said "oh," invited him to come along. He seemed to know the place; he politely declined.

So then I decided on Monday night to live up to my self-proclaimed prophecy and went inside. The bartender – a transsexual named Judy who was quick with her wit and just as fast with her service – was incredibly friendly and noted plainly that she'd never seen me around there before. I told her the circumstances which brought me to London, and as she slid my drink to me, she asked, "Shall we call this `the usual,' then?"

After gazing out over the dance floor, which was spaciously separated from the bar area, and taking in all the familiar aspects of the place that I could liken to Jacy’s or Hardy’s, including all those muscled, inevitably full-of-themselves, unreachable guys making out blatantly and unapologetically in front of others such as myself who were clearly alone and desperate for a partner, I knew I was home.

Just for old time's sake, I went up to five separate guys who didn't exactly spark my interest, but whose superficial images made my dick give a little hopeful cheer (it still hasn't learned), and was not disappointed with their flat-out, undisguised reproach at the mere thought of standing within half a foot of me.

I retreated to the bar area after the final rejection with a huge grin on my face and said to Judy, "'Nother usual, please..."

I'd found my home.

So Tuesday night, I was almost eager to get out of work to go treat myself to more mind-numbing torture. I must be a masochist – things just aren't right when people fail to cringe or look away, pretending they didn't hear me.

My God – is my sarcasm eating me alive or what?

But Judy was a big pull for me – she was one who didn't cringe; but then, she no longer had a cock either, so even if she threw herself at me, I wouldn't be able to make the "attraction" connection in either of my heads.

So I sit at the bar, my back to the crowd of dancers and lovers, and I smirk at my own misfortune – even in another country, I think to myself morbidly, I can't get a date. I almost can't wait for Steven to call again so I can brag to him that my strike-out record has now spread to a second continent.

Well, as I said, I'm not here for that. I can do without it. I've gone for longer periods without sex. Hell, I've been through rehab – it's fucking forbidden until you've cleaned yourself up for more than a year. I think I've actually reached a type of nirvana where the libido can be activated by a manual switch. I'm quite proud of it, really. It's an accomplishment – for a man, anyway.

But from out of nowhere, after sitting there for nearly an hour, on my second "usual," I lift my head and my eyes fall on a certain figure crouched over a table in the corner of the bar area – the corner closest to the actual bar I'm sitting at, no less. And when I take notice of the familiar beanie, I do a double-take... and then I'm practically turning around on the stool before I realize just how conspicuous I'm being and whirl back.

The head raises faintly as I study the reflection in the mirror behind the bar; the eyes remain cast low, and I crane my neck to make out what's so interesting on the tabletop. I realize he's holding a pencil in his hand, very obviously sketching some unknown form into a notebook.

I can't believe I've been sitting here all this time and I didn't notice him! What the fuck have I done since I came in? Oh, hopefully nothing too embarrassing... Oh, why am I even worrying about it? So the boy's a cutie, so what? As if he'd even notice me... But then, he is sitting alone, in a bar, on a Tuesday night, practically surrounded by dozens of hot, sweaty, horny gay men... and he's... drawing in a notebook...

I clear my throat and wave to get Judy's attention. When she comes to ask if she can fetch me a third, I shake my head, then gesture curiously to the reflection of the pianist in the mirror.

"Hey, Jude, you see that guy there?"

She follows my gaze, then redirects it to the actual man sitting only a few feet behind me. "Who, him? Yeah, what about 'im?"

I lean in closer, trying to be confidential and wishing Judy's voice was a bit higher and softer... like a real woman's... (God, when will those hormones fucking kick in?)

"Do you know who that is?" I ask, my voice barely above a whisper.

She asks me to repeat it, and when I do, only a touch louder, it takes her a moment to process my voice. Finally, realizing I'm trying to be subtle, she huddles in closer and lowers her own voice (thank you), "Oi, yeah, I seen 'im 'round. 'E's in 'ere once or twice every coupla weeks or so."

"Do you know who he is?"

She shrugs nonchalantly. "Dunno 'is name. 'E's the red wine an' sometimes voddy. Thassall I know 'bout 'im, mate. Oh, an' 'e always sits there in 'at same booth, scribblin' 'way at 'is book."

I nod slowly as I take this in, glancing furtively to the reflection again before coughing slightly and asking, "Do you know if... um... he's... y'know..."

She smiles broadly and snickers, "'E's in here, ain't 'e? I'd say it's pretty safe to assume 'e's queer..."

I wince, feeling like smacking myself in the face, then cover for that by feigning exasperation: "No, obviously I knew that... I meant... You know... Do you know if he's, um... attached?"

She snorts and waves at me. "I said I dunno 'im. I ain't never seen 'im wif no one, but he's gotten calls 'ere sometimes from a bloke. Guessin' he may be."

I give her an odd look. "If you don't know his name, how does he get calls here?"

She shrugs. "Guy on the line just asks for the little bloke in the blue hat. I asked what name I should call 'im, but the guy on the line just gives a description an' 'at's it. I dunno, some couples're weird, y'know?"

I nod again, feeling myself deflating a bit. "Thanks, Jude."

She grins again, a twisted, knowing grin, and smacks me with her wipe-down cloth. "Anytime, mate – now don't go gettin' shagged wifout settlin' the bill, though, eh?"

I roll my eyes and down the rest of my drink in one go, gathering my courage. I don't care – straight or gay, single or taken, there's at least one thing I know I have to do right now. I just need to find the guts to do it – and honestly, despite my age, let alone my offensively long history of rejection, I still feel a bit nervous as I slide off the stool and force one foot in front of the other – the whole three steps away – until I'm standing at the head of his table.

He's so absorbed in his drawing that he doesn't even seem to register my shadow over the table. I hesitate for a moment, suddenly wondering if he'll mind me coming up to him like this, and for a moment I'm sure I'll turn and take those three gaping steps back to my own stool.

But my mouth seems to have grown a mind of its own, and it wants to speak up about whatever it's thinking...

"Um... e-excuse me?"

There's a slight pause, the scribbling hand freezing instantly when he registers a voice so close to him. But he doesn't lift his head.

"Um... C-Could I, uh... bother you for a second?"

There's another pause, then his head slowly raises, and in an instant, I'm caught straight in the line of fire of his startlingly wide blue eyes. And for a second, I can't speak – the kid's even more striking up close: high, sharp cheekbones and small, red lips, a long, slim neck craned out of the collar of a shirt that seems three sizes too big for him. His expression isn't exactly the typical glare I get from people who are disgusted by my presence, but it's not completely open and kind as Judy's is either. There's something sweetly innocent, yet vaguely guarded to his alert, clear gaze.

I feel downright uncomfortable in my own skin when I realize I've been standing there for almost half a minute without saying a word, just staring down at him stupidly and trying to figure out what the hell it was I meant to say...

Finally, catching my breath, I blink quickly and regain myself, going on in my typical stuttering, choppy fashion, "Um, hi there, uh... I don't mean to disturb you, or, uh, distract you from... whatever it is you're, uh, trying to do there... Your drawing, I suppose it is... But, uh, I promise I won't take long, I just..." My mouth is rapidly losing its moisture the longer I go on; the more he continues to just sit there staring back at me, unflinching and unblinking, the more unnerving I notice that stare is...

"I saw you sitting here, right, and, um, I couldn't help but, um... Well, you see, I-I don't want to give the wrong impression or anything," I add hastily, realizing how I must seem to him – a desperate older man who's just spotted a very fresh green lunch. "I mean, I know it's a bar and I'm sure you'd much rather be approached by, er..." My gaze flickers momentarily out to the dancing crowd before landing back on him. "Well, by someone else, but, uh... um... I-I really don't do this very often," I admit honestly, deciding that it's best to just come clean. "I swear, I really don't even like to – well, it's not that I don't do it, or never have done it, though I'm sure you probably think I haven't, with how well it's going... I just – not that that's what I wanted to do anyway, truthfully, it's not what you think, believe me..."

I hesitate again, amazed by how his face hasn't shifted a millimeter since he first looked at me. That steadiness is uncanny... and a bit creepy, too. Still, I find I'm unable to look away .

"Though, if I had the guts like I had when I was... well, your age, I guess, I still tried even when I knew I'd get shot down, but no, I'm not here to, like, do that. So, um, you don't have to worry about me doing that. But I couldn't help noticing you, and I really feel like I need to say something, despite the fact that normally I wouldn't – not that you're someone not to approach, you know, but, like... um..."

He waits patiently as I struggle blindly towards something akin to a "point" – his easy silence is commendable, but then, he's probably just eager for me to get to that point, too.

Won't he be disappointed?

"I'm sorry," I chuckle lightly, rubbing the back of my neck self-consciously. "I'm messing this all up already." I sigh and let my arms fall back to my sides, continuing, "It's just that, well, I've seen you before. Not in here, obviously, 'cos, well, it's only the second time I've been in here and I didn't see you the first time. And, well, I would've remembered if I'd seen you here before – but I mean, that's not why I wanted to come, uh, talk to you..."

Warily, his eyes shifting for a second before meeting mine again, he asks in a voice so quiet that I have to lean over slightly to hear him, "D-Do I... Do I know you?"

"No!" I blurt out quickly, shaking my head vigorously. "No, no, don't worry, we haven't met or anything like that, but I... I wanted to. Not to, uh... come off as an ass – as I'm sure I am," I toss in with a snicker. "But no, really – it's just that... I'd ask if it was you, but I don't need to because I know it's you, but I don't really know of any other way to approach someone, especially in bars like this, without seeming like I'm trying to, uh, get something out of you, like, well, um... What people usually come to bars for, you know..."

He eyes me up thoroughly before gesturing to his empty glass, offering, "Drinking?"

"No," I assure him – then have another thought fight that one out. "Well, yeah, okay, there's that. But, no, I didn't mean that. I mean, like, um..." I sigh again, already getting tired of myself. "I'm not trying to pick you up, is all I'm saying, so you don't have to worry, though I'm sure you're not someone who gets passed over a lot," I couldn't help throwing in.

His eyelids flicker slightly at this, but he makes no other perceptible move.

"But I just... I just don't want you to get the wrong idea of my intention by asking you if it's you."

He purses his lips, then squints his eyes at me. "Um...who?"

I gasp when I realize that everything I've just let tumble out probably made no sense whatsoever to this poor guy.

"Oh! I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I don't think I – did I? No, I didn't – I'm so sorry, I thought I did but my brain's a little, um, on overdrive right now, so I thought I did but I didn't – I... I just mean I've seen you before – you played the piano at this club a few miles from here last week – right? I mean, I know I'm right, I knew it was you, but that's where I saw you before, and now that you're right here in front of me..." I laugh out loud, shaking my head to indicate my ultimate all-time low, my stuttering's gotten so bad. "Well, I guess my urge was just to come make sure it was you, even if I was already sure it was – but... Oh, I'm making a jerk of myself, when all I really wanted to say was that I really enjoyed your playing... At the club... Last week."

As I trail off uncertainly, he tilts his head to the side. "Uh... Th-Thanks?"

"No, see, for me, that's a big thing, because you see, um... Not that I'm an expert, but I have my specific tastes, and generally the kind of stuff you were playing wasn't what I'd call my taste in music – I'm not much of a rock or blues man myself. But I absolutely adore opera and classical, and I noticed how you'd improvised some Rachmaninov and Chopin into the music you guys were playing, and I was really incredibly impressed. You're a very talented player - "

"You know Rachmaninov?" he cuts me off suddenly, his tone full of awe and wonder.

I do another double take, startled by his question. "Err... What? Y-Yeah, yeah! Oh God, yeah, I love his work. And your playing was just amazing, the influence there was obvious, but clever as well..."

His eyes grow even larger as he hunches over a bit more, as if trying to get closer to me. "You heard it? Um... W-Wow... I-I guess I just never thought... well, people usually don't even notice the similarities – if they listen at all, that is. But you did..."

"Oh, well, yeah – brilliant musician, if you ask me. I'm not exactly a music connoisseur, but I love listening to those pieces... Anyway, I just felt the need to – I had to tell you that, well... you're really..."

I trail off again, too bemused by what I'm about to say for all its inherent cheesiness, but force myself to say it anyway: "I'm sure you get this all the time, but you're really a very gifted pianist. And, um... Well, that's all I wanted to say really. But I just had to say it, officially, from me – not that that really counts for much, but um... I've said it, so, that's what I wanted to say, and I'll leave you to your... um..." I gesture to his notebook and nod knowingly. "...your own devices now..."

Just as I'm turning away, stuck in a ravine of endless self-torture and automatic rejections – like I could just stick a quarter in one of those bubble machines and one's bound to come out – he suddenly stops me with a soft voice that just barely reaches my ears:

"D-D'you... wanna sit down?"

Not believing what I hear, especially after that perfectly jumbled fiasco, I slowly turn to face him again. "Sorry?"

He gives me a sheepish smile and glances down at his notebook, which he's just stopped scribbling in. "Um... No, I am..."

Now it's my turn to be surprised. "Er..."

"I'm sorry," he clarifies. "I'm not very good with people, really," he admits with a staggered chuckle. "Kinda... not used to being approached... at all... So I'm sorry if I came off a bit too cold... Not very good with, er, talking, but... Well, if you're alone... y'know... on your own... If you wanted to sit..."

I realize that he's asking me to sit with him... and I swear I hear a choir of angels in the background – but I refuse to let myself become too lost in the hallucination.

"Oh... Sure, sure..." I easily slide into the booth across the table from him, biting my lip and trying to think of what else to say...

I give him a weary smile. "Thanks. I'm still a bit rusty going up to people myself, y'know," I confess, letting my embarrassment shine through openly. "Spent a lot of time, uh... away from the social scene."

"Yeah," he agrees quietly. "Me too."

I allow a beat to pass before moving onto something else. "Um... Do you mind if I ask you something?"

He raises his eyebrows in question, but doesn't say a word.

"Well," I go on, assuming that to mean Ask away, "how long have you had to train to get that good?"

He looks perplexed. "Train? Um... I'm not trained, really."

That announcement... well, it floors me, and it's all I can do to keep my eyeballs in my sockets and my mouth from hanging against my chest.

"You... You're not!?"

A bit put off by my dramatic flair, he stammers uncertainly. "Um... no..."

"You're kidding me!" I exclaim, clearly in awe of him – not even bothering to try holding it back to look cool and collected.

He shrugs again, a bit of discomfort on his face, now a touch pinker than before. "N-No... I don't know how to read music. I'm quite stupid about it, really. We couldn't afford lessons when I was young... I didn't know about lessons for a long time, actually. There was just this old piano of my mother's still sitting around... We had it at the house... Um, I just messed about on that as a kid back home. When I came here, we got another one – a bit better, still old, but at least it's in tune this time..."

I sit back, exhaling noisily and absently scratching at my head. "Wow... So you're, like, completely self-taught? Play by ear? That sorta thing?"

His head bobs about in a non-committal fashion, though his words are clear: "Y-Yeah, basically... Like I said, `lessons' just weren't an option – but I didn't think I'd need them just to play."

"That's... That's really amazing, you know?"

He narrows his eyes at me, but then must get a sense of how much I mean it, because they grow wider, until he's practically gawking at me. "...Is it?"

"Well, yeah!" I cry, insistent that he grasps the weight of his proclamation. "A kid being inspired enough to do something on his own, in his own way, not even registering that there might be a certain way to do it – you were just a natural self-starter, huh?"

"I... guess. Don't most kids do that, though?" He's asking me this in earnest. "Find what they like and just keep doing it?"

"Well, maybe," I reason, "but not so specific or so, um... passionate, I guess is the word. And not usually about playing the piano."

"Oh..." He stares down at his hands, which lie limply on top of the notebook, covering the sketch he was working on before. "I just... never thought there was anything else to do. At least nothing that made me feel like that did."

We lock eyes again and I refuse to let him leave the gaze this time, a tiny hint of a smile on my lips.

"You really don't know, do you?" I ask rhetorically.

"Um... Know what?" he replies, answering my question even if he doesn't realize it.

"How rare that is – finding that love and ability so easily?"

Again, he's skeptical. "Um... Is it?"

"Well, yeah – not just anyone can teach themselves to play Rachmaninov by ear. If that's not classical training, then that's just... Well, probably a combination of a natural gift and a lot of devotion and discipline – which kids generally just don't have, unless their folks are strict."

"Mmm..." His head tilts back slightly, eyes rolling up to study the ceiling. "I, uh... I guess so?..." He giggles shyly and shakes his head, lowering his attention to his notebook again. "Never really thought about it that way..."

"Were your folks heavily into that?" I press curiously. "Pushing you into things?"

The glinting wonderment and vague sense of reluctant pride instantly begin to abate, and I find myself looking into the face of a much more sorrowful version of the same pianist I'd just made blush with my kind words.

"Mmm... N-No... Not exactly strict so much as, erm... Well, he was more like, just..." He hesitates, eyeing me up momentarily before saying simply, "He's pretty apathetic, really." A sad, empty laugh escapes him, and he shifts uncomfortably in his seat. Just these few slight movements tell me that he's not nearly ready to talk about his family – at least, not to me. Fair enough, I understand – so I decide to change the subject.

"So, where do you normally play? Like, performance-wise?"

"Um... Nowhere."

I nearly choke on my own saliva; coughing furiously, ignoring the concern in his face, I repeat, "Nowhere?"

"Uh... No – not really. Well, like last week at the club, sometimes the guys there will let me get up and jam with 'em. But only 'cos I go there on nights when I'm..." He comes to an abrupt halt, eyes searching the air in front of him for the correct word. He finally settles on, "Well, when I'm free."

Having gotten over my dramatized version of shock, I shake my head in wonder. "You... You have that kind of talent and you're only using it as an occasional hobby?"

He bites his lip, shrugging helplessly. "There's no way for me to do it for real, is there?"

"Oh, I'm sure you could."

"No... I don't think--"

"I'm serous!" I insist vehemently. "Believe me, it might sound crazy to you, but I swear, you could truly do something more with that talent."

"Um..." He's still not buying it. "You really think so?"

"Yeah!" I scoff. "Of course! Look – I love opera, right? Well, I never thought I'd ever be able to do anything with it – I love to sing, but me? An opera singer? I'm a fucking accountant! So, okay, I never landed on a real stage, but I did get to work as a singing waiter for a time."

He suddenly sputters over a high-pitched giggle, slapping a hand over his mouth and his eyes bugging out. I make a face at him and taunt, "Oh, c'mon, I know you wanna laugh--"

Remarkably, he pulls himself together and shakes it off, asking instead (though still in a slightly shaky voice), "Really?"

"Yes!" I hiss, waving off his bemusement easily. "I know, okay? It sounds funny. But it was actually incredibly fun. I made decent money, I got to sing, I entertained people – something, believe me, I never thought I would be able to do in a million years – and I'm sure I was much older than you are now when I did it. So someone with your talent, at your age- to not use that gift would be... well, it'd be a sin."

These specific words seem to strike a chord in him, and his smile fades significantly as he ponders my words. "Um..."

I grimace when I realize how long I've been going on. "Aw, man," I groan, already disgusted with myself. "I'm sorry, I'm gushing, I know. It must be incredibly embarrassing."

He gives a half-shrug, eyes shifting wildly around as he sets his head slightly to the side. "I just..."

"But it's true," I reiterate, my tone low and meaningful.

He can't look at me now for some reason. In fact, he even winces, as if in pain. "I'm just not... used to..."

I hold my hands out helplessly. "What?"

"This," he answers, gesturing to me and himself. "Just... Whatever's going on here, I guess."

I smirk. "You mean being complimented?"

He grimaces, planting a palm on his face to keep his head up. "Being seen. At all..." He exhales gently and dares to catch my gaze again, telling me timidly, "Look... You said before something about how I must get it all the time – both the compliments and the, uh... propositions... But, um... I don't, actually."

I raise my eyebrows at him in disbelief. "You?"

"Uh-uh."

"You don't get approached when you're out in public?"

A mere shake of his head is his answer.

I laugh, running a hand through my short hair. "You don't leave the house much, do you?" I cackle. "That's the only explanation I can think of..."

His smile is uneasy, and hard to draw out of him. "Um... No, actually. I don't... But even when I do..."

I nudge his leg underneath the table, startling him a bit, and probably even more so when he catches my sneaky smile.

"You get invited up onstage to play with the band."

He stops cold again: he's never thought about that before, how he'd gotten up there in the first place. "Oh... Uh... Y-Yeah, okay..."

"See," I explain to him, "if you did that more, believe me, you wouldn't get so tongue-tied when a schlepp like me tells you you've got incredible talent. You'd be rolling in offers for..." I cut myself off as well, rethinking my crude words... "Well, ah, probably a lot more than just to play piano for a scruffy jazz band on a random Thursday night."

He's still unsure of my "gifted" accusation. "Um... I dunno..."

"No," I state matter-of-factly. "I may not be the best-looking guy or the most ingenious person around, but I'm a bit older than you and I've been around – I've had my so-called wild times. So you can trust me when I tell you – if you did get out more, no one would want you to go back in. Whether they'd want you to play music, or just, um..."

My eyes travel, unchecked, down to what I can see of his upper body above the tabletop. Then slowly back up to the sweet and sharply chiseled thin face. His gaunt features only accentuate the allure of his large eyes and the delicate shape of his small bones. Comparing him to most of the other patrons, he looks downright... dainty. There's no doubt in my mind, he'd be the perfect target for one bent solely on pure domination...

"Just to... y'know... play."

Everything I say seems to put the poor kid on edge – and that hint certainly doesn't help matters. He scratches his ear, obviously a nervous habit, and mumbles a few more incoherent words.

Feeling bad for putting him on the spot like this, I immediately jump in with, "I'm sorry – was that too direct? I'm not usually like this, I mean it – but seeing as I've already told you I'm not trying to hit on you, I think it's safe to say that... Well, you wouldn't have to worry about any kind of rejection from anyone – you'd need to find a way to get out of a bar like this alive... if you crawled out of your solitary corner, that is."

He avoids my attention purposefully, and at his silence, I smirk confidentially.

"Unless, of course, you prefer your corner."

This tugs at his lips a bit more, despite a mere, "Um... Dunno..."

"Oh – nevermind," I sigh, waving it off finally. "You don't seem to be comfortable talking about how amazing you are, even just superficially speaking..."

Up close, I can study his slender hands more thoroughly – and I do so discreetly, watching the long, bony, fidgety fingers toy with the pencil still being clutched and worried at.

The guy startles me again with a hushed, "Well... you don't really know me, is all I'm saying... I could be completely different to how you think I am – or hope I am. Whether that's some sort of brainiac genius or just a stupid wind-up doll. And to be honest, I can't clearly answer that question legitimately – I'm biased against myself, I suppose, though I guess I must have some good qualities... I'm assuming..."

He trails off, as if trying to find a way out of this self-imposed speech he hadn't meant to begin.

When I see his regret over taking some kind of a stand, I decide to show some mercy and pick up the conversation.

"Oh, don't tell me you've actually got a substantial brain in there to boot!" I laugh heartily, causing that nervous smile to appear again. "Someone like you – it's been my experience that a lot of attractive guys don't know the meaning of `humility.'"

He just shrugs and averts his eyes. "If I knew 'em, I'd ask if they did."

Once again, I halt, puzzled by his odd choice of words. I blink at him in vague surprise. "Know who?"

"Um... Y'know... Like you said... The guys everyone wants."

"What d'you mean?"

"Y'know – the humility bit. The hot but shallow blokes... Not that I know many – well, I don't know many people at all, really..."

I shake my head, taken aback that he didn't catch it: "You... I-I was referring to you."

He seems just as shocked. "M-Me?"

"Yeah – you know."

He mimics my previous head movement, proving that statement wrong – he doesn't know, apparently, that he's fucking gorgeous.

"These guys you just – okay," I correct myself, "the guys I just stand there and stare at enviously – the ones you either wish you could be, or wish you could have..." I clear my throat poignantly. "Well, you know..."

The faint smile is back, and I find it's nice to see it. "Guys you wanna shag, you mean?"

"Yeah, that's it."

He glances over his shoulder, peering into the massive crowd in the other part of the bar. "What, like, that one there?" he asks, pointing out some random muscular hunk. "Think he's got brains?"

"Him?" I scoff. "Nah, and who cares, really? I don't."

"You don't think he's hot?"

"Eh... They all are to me, but like I have a chance - these guys would rather I get blown back to my own country than have to acknowledge I exist at all. And quite honestly, at this point I couldn't give a shit about them either. It's rare anymore for me to be impressed by someone, even just judging by appearance. I've been here for a little over two weeks, a completely different country than the one I've lived my entire life in – and my eyes have only been caught by one person so far – though I think it's a pretty big accomplishment, since that one person's managed to, well... blow anyone else outta the water as far as I'm concerned. If I were of a weaker will, I'd be caught to the point of surpassing `Wow, he's hot,' now arriving at 'Fuck, he's perfect.'"

A chortle from him, as if making fun of my oh-so-precious feelings – and then he's inexplicably back to peering at the crowd again. "So... Okay, which one is it, then? Oi? Who'd you fancy? Anyone in there? You said they're from here, right? I'm sure there's someone..."

I stare straight at him with a heated gaze as he cluelessly searches over his shoulder for someone he thinks I may be "into." I can't help myself; a silly laugh bubbles out of me and I can only hang my head in my hands.

Turning back, he looks utterly bewildered. "What?"

I lift my now red-tinged face again to him and demand, "You really don't see it, do you?"

"See... what?"

Shaking my head, I repeat myself, "Like I said, there is one, but I get the feeling he wouldn't believe me even if I said it straight. I have a hunch he's as self-deprecating as I am. Besides, I'm not here to meet someone special. I gave that dream up years ago. I'm just out to get drunk and maybe make a friend out of someone I would've died to sleep with fifteen years ago. I'm too cynical to have a lover these days, so any opportunity would just be a waste for your talents – especially with fingers that fast."

More confusion arises in his eyes as he asks, "Um... What are you talking about?"

"You know – how you play piano..."

And then that puzzlement morphs into a shocked, unbelieving stare. "Wait – what? D'you mean me?"

"Well..."

Scoffing, he scratches at his head with a wry, twisted grin. "Oi, mate, you could throw a dart in here and find someone better to shag, believe me!"

"Yeah," I assure myself aloud. "Like I thought – doesn't see his own reflection."

He toys absently with the pencil some more, anxiety surely growing over my overtly flattering remarks. "Um... wish that were true."

"Well, I guess I can't nickname you Narcissus. That just makes it harder to stick with my no-strings rule, though. Nice to meet a hot guy with no ego for once."

By now, the poor kid looks so damn tense that I swear he could pop right out of his too-tight skin.

Seeing this, I decide it's probably best, especially if I want to stay on his good side, if I let go of complimenting his looks so bluntly. It's really too bad he's having a hard time taking kindly to it, though – I could get more graphic if I had enough booze in me and let my mouth run – regularly pausing to sop up the drool, of course.

"But anyway... It's not important. Really. So c'mon: talk to me more about Rachmaninov."

"Eh?"

"Well, like, how'd you hear of him? How'd you teach yourself those pieces? And how the fuck did a brain that can do that end up in that body?"

So much for cutting back on the come-ons.

Luckily, he seems to have come to grips with the fact that I dig him, but am not about to make a move – that I just like saying these things, or just say them by accident, because they're right there on the tip of my tongue and I can't stop them...

He laughs good-naturedly, shaking his head and patting my arm across the table. "Oh blimey, how much've you had to drink!? I think someone needs to flag you--"

"No, seriously," I insist, "like I said before – you wouldn't have to worry about sleeping alone ever again if you weren't as shy as you obviously are."

Forcing that first impression further, he starts wriggling again. "Erm..."

And I can't seem to be able to give this kid room to breathe – peering at him with a totally unselfconscious and lustful gaze, I murmur, "But then again... maybe that's part of your charm..."

He eyes me up suspiciously. "Charm?"

"Yeah," I answer absently, not even paying attention to what I'm saying anymore. "Well, anyway – like I said before, it's not like I'm seriously coming on to you – I'm just being honest. Believe me, I don't expect you to sleep with me or anything. I swore to myself that I wouldn't get distracted by sex on this trip, so you can relax – I'm not after anything. It's just that you are the first person to impress me in a very... very long time – and you just happen to be... really damn attractive."


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