Yep. I'm going to hell, for sure.
Cause it's mostly illusion
In flesh and bone
An image, a look, a song or a book
That we all claim for our own
But even in the best of us
There lies beneath the skin
The tragic flaw in nature's law
That's bound to do us in.
--Styx, Fallen Angel
Long flight. Bad traffic. Noisy as hell, air pollution, too hot, wrong coast -
"How was the trip?"
One of the local brokers was trying to get his attention, make small talk. Steve Augeri roused himself enough to lie. "Great, no complaints." He swirled his scotch on the rocks, thinking it needed to be more scotch and less rocks.
"Great," Steve said again. "Very, uh...different."
The other broker - Steve couldn't remember what his name was - laughed like he understood. It was a hey I'm one of the boys laugh, the type that guys in suits found themselves forcing at small gatherings for the sake of politeness. The other broker was more shitfaced than Steve was. He wanted to get out of there, back to his hotel room, back to New York. He hated these goddamn things, and it didn't matter that it meant he was a candidate for the next rung on the ladder.
Not that he wasn't ready for that. Trading on the floor was brutal, took the life out of you after a few years. But it also made you comfortable, if you were smart and careful. He'd toiled for years in the back offices of Ayers and Associates as a stocks analyst, working his way to the floor, trading alongside guys who were getting too old to do it. They lived on antacids and booze, and sooner or later dropped out and either retired or went to some executive position. But the real money was made there, on the floor.
He wasn't the best; mid-range, certainly. But he got things done. The fact that he was out in LA, dicking around, schmoozing the locals at the opening of an apurtanent firm said as much. He still hated the social aspect of it, though. He'd reached his forties without managing to change that.
"Different," the other broker said. "Yeah. Well, you won't see the kind of stuff they got here on the streets of New York, not this time of year."
If the guy meant winter in general, he was probably right. Steve had been propositioned three times since landing at LAX that afternoon. Twice in the airport itself and once on the street getting a cab. Only two had been female. It was too cold for the junkies and whores in New York; they'd probably gone south for the winter or whatever it was whores did. It didn't mean the street life had vanished. It was seamless with the city itself, that was all. LA was more like a batch of puzzle pieces from several different puzzles.
He didn't want to talk about it. Not now. And he didn't want to think about what had crossed his mind when the third proposition - the guy in his twenties - had occurred. That was jet lag talking. Jet lag and a failing marriage and fucking midlife crisis.
What a joke.
"...suck a bowling ball through a garden hose," the broker was saying.
Steve laughed a little at the mental image even though he hadn't been listening. "Yeah, okay," he said automatically. "Listen, I've gotta call it a night."
"Still early," the broker said, glancing at another knot of partiers, most of whom were female.
"Yeah, well, I gotta catch an early flight back out," Steve said, lying again. "No rest for the wicked, right?" He tossed back the rest of his drink and put the glass down on the nearest table. "Keep that garden hose wound up, huh?"
Another I'm one of the boys laugh. Steve nodded and walked away. He made his way through the crowd, most of whom were at least one drink over their limit, saying his farewells and congratulations. Looking forward to working with you. You have my card. Let's do this again. All bullshit, all keywords of the trade. The one of the boys trade. Maybe having his own office and running his own brokers wouldn't be such a bad idea. He needed out of this.
He called a cab, realizing he'd had more to drink than he'd thought. He was too tired, but too wound up to sleep, and it was early yet - only 11. He should just go back to -
the airport and see if he could find the twenty-something
- the hotel and sleep until his flight the next afternoon. Jesus, what was wrong with him? He hadn't had the thought for a long time. It came up when his defenses were down, when he'd thought he'd had enough of a lot of things. He'd always put it down to some sort of phantom impulse, an aberration that lived independently of the rest of his sanity. He'd never do anything like that. He wasn't abnormal for having the thought. It was just...Jesus, he was tired.
A block from his hotel, just off the airport, he asked the cabbie to pull over and let him walk the rest of the way. He was pretty sure he could find it, drunk or not. He'd walk a little and clear his head, then sleep everything off. It was in the 60's despite being the week of Christmas, and he walked quickly without trying to look like a tourist. Like a stranger. Like an easy target.
Traffic hadn't let up at all. He'd thought New York was the city that never slept, but LA was on meth. It was as if the line between day and night didn't matter, it was just a change in environment. The clock went on spinning around and commerce went with it. There were others on the sidewalk with him, talking, laughing, arguing. Lounging in the doorways. All cities were the same, full of the same people. Only the faces changed. And sometimes not even then.
Getting philosophical, he thought. Always the wrong time and place. Nothing like a disillusioned, middle aged corporate whore stuck in LA near Christmas to warm the heart.
Another jet came in low, banking around for final approach, and he figured getting drunk had been a good idea. The travel office had put him near the airport for convenience, and he'd have to be drunk not to let every plane scare the shit out of him.
It took him a few moments after the jet passed to realize there were footsteps shadowing his own, that someone was a purposeful step behind him.
He stopped suddenly, taking a step to the side and turning a little to either confront or allow the other person to get by. The figure got within inches of him, brushing by, hands up in an excuse me gesture to match the smirk on his face.
A slender young man with shoulder-length dark hair and large dark eyes that were busy mocking him, at the moment. Tight black pants and a fire-engine-red shirt tied at the waist. Black boots. Dressed like that outside, he was either a rock star or a whore. Steve had a feeling that the latter was the case.
"Hey, New York," the young man said. "Easy. Always in a hurry."
"What the fuck do you want?" Steve said. "I'm not buying. Now fuck off."
"Uh huh," the young man said. "'No', with lots of conviction. Seen the look in your eyes a thousand times, New York."
"How the fuck do you know where I'm from?" Steve said, realizing how damn dumb he sounded as he said it.
The smirk again. The eyes weren't just dark, they were hazel, and swept down Steve's form with easy appraisal. "Psychic," he said. "Sort of a dead giveaway when the flight you came in on was from NY."
Steve began walking again, mouth dry, able to see the sign for his hotel from there. He heard the twenty-something fall into step with him again. This one had seen him at the airport earlier, brushing the others off. Great.
"Nobody knows you, here," the young man said.
Steve stopped and turned again. "Business kind of slow for you, tonight?" he snapped. "Under your quota?"
The young man shrugged, smirking again. "Sometimes, you find yourself goin' where you're needed. I got enough to do."
"Not interested," Steve said deliberately, heart hammering. His head was clearing a little, the adrenaline countering the alcohol. "Just leave me the hell alone." He began walking again.
"I won't hurt you," he voice said from alongside, keeping step.
"I'm gonna hurt you if you don't leave me alone," Steve said. Don't look at him, don't encourage him, don't do it. Don't.
"No, I don't think you will," the shadow said. "Come on, get it out of your system. Question answered, everybody moves on. You never see me again, no victim, no crime."
"Like I'd walk into my hotel with you, dressed like that," Steve snapped, sorry for it as soon as he said it. He was dredging excuses up, leaving an opening.
There was an unseen shrug. "Give me your overcoat. Too warm out here for you to be wearing it, anyway. What else can you come up with?"
"God, what do you want?" Steve hissed. "I already told you, I don't-"
"Same thing you do," the young man interrupted.
"What, an easy, expensive fuck with the added bonus of exposure to HIV?" Steve said.
"Somebody to want you bad enough to take the chance," the young man said.
Steve paused again, off guard. Or simply moreso; he'd been off guard all day. This had been coming for years and he was tired of it. A plane came in to land, sounding and looking as if it was mere feet above their heads, and he flinched.
"Still spooked, huh?" the young man said.
"I don't like planes," Steve said.
"No one does, anymore," the young man said. "Just talk to me. Don't have to do nothin' you don't want to."
"I didn't wanna be in LA, but I'm here," Steve said. "Shit." He took his overcoat off and tossed it to the young man, who looked surprised. "Try to stay low profile."
They checked in. It was silent on the elevator while they waited for it to reach the third floor. Steve unlocked the door to his room, switching on the lamp on the dresser before closing the door behind the young man without locking it again. That didn't go unnoticed. He removed his suit jacket and tie, hanging them up while watching the young man remove the overcoat.
Whoever the guy was, he knew how to properly hang an overcoat, something most whores wouldn't know how to do. Not with such practiced motions, anyway. It was something Steve tucked away for later speculation.
"Is it okay if I sit down, or do you want me to keep moving while I talk?" the young man said.
Steve smirked and sat down in the stuffed armchair by the window. It was a spacious room, one of the nicer hotels in the area despite being so close to the airport. "Sit on the edge of the bed," he said, gesturing to the double in the center of the room. "I'm sure you're pretty familiar there anyway."
He got a smirk in return as the young man sat down on the corner of the bed, facing him. Steve took the opportunity to look at him a little. A lot of shine in the hair, clean nails on the hands, no feminine affectation that was showing on the surface. A lot of whores took care of themselves, but few were this well kept. This one wasn't just on the streets, then, although he dressed like he was. And the pants he was wearing were tight enough to show what other attributes he had, as well.
He lifted his eyes abruptly to find a knowing half-smile on the young man's face, eyes glowing with far too much amusement.
"You wanna hear the rules?"
"Do I have a choice?" Steve said. "Give me the whore spiel and get it over with. It doesn't matter anyway, since I'm not gonna -"
"Two-fifty up front for the night," the young man said. "No pain unless it's yours, no kink, no exchange of bodily fluids."
"Romantic," Steve said.
"Everybody's got rules," the young man said.
"What's your name?" Steve said.
"Steve," the other said easily and immediately.
Steve tipped his head to the side a little. "Right," he said, drawing the word out. "Sure it is."
"That's not a common enough name?" the young man said.
"It's the same as mine," Steve said. "How long have you really been following me around?"
"Ah," the young man said. "Well, you don't have eternal dibs on the name, New York. I didn't spy on you and decide to freak you out by picking the same name. If I was really being coy I could have said 'whatever you want it to be, sugar'."
Steve raised his eyebrows. "Okay," he said.
"If it'll alleviate any of your confusion, so that when you're screaming my name later no one will think you're egotistical, my friends call me 'Fallen'."
"Cute," Steve said. "Why 'Fallen'?"
"As in, once good, now not so," Fallen said.
"As in angel," Steve said, as if hearing the punchline to a dull joke.
"As in demon," Fallen said, face expressionless. "So who's the real whore? The guy who admits what he is, or the one who doesn't?"
Steve looked at him for a moment, too tired to come up with a retort. "How old are you?"
"You want me to pretend I'm underage, it's easy enough," Fallen said.
"No," Steve said. "How old are you?"
"Twenty nine," Fallen said. "What, are you gonna ask me how I got into this? How's a good boy from Hanford become a piece of ass for hire in LA? Don't start the whole fucking 'Pretty Woman' thing with me, New York."
"You're a long way from Julia Roberts," Steve said.
Fallen tipped his head forward a little, looking up at Steve from beneath, through long lashes. "So, I think, are you," he said softly.
The voice, Steve thought. The voice and the eyes. Not amazingly attractive, but the voice and the eyes get you.
Fallen lowered his voice a little further and said, "If you back out now, you'll go on trying, false starts, and not many folks are gonna be calm with you like I am. Sooner or later you're gonna get caught, or you're gonna get shaken down, and then where are you?"
"None of your business," Steve said, but his tone sounded distracted.
"Can't do this at home," Fallen went on. "Gotta go out of your way not to get recognized. There's a thousand just like you walkin' the airport, every day."
A moment of revulsion hit Steve. He didn't want to do this. He hadn't been thinking straight. For all he knew, the guy in the room with him carried who knew how many diseases, and could drug and rob - or kill - him, easily.
"If I was female, you wouldn't be sittin' there worrying," Fallen said, reading his face. "Wouldn't matter. A condom's a condom."
"Are you clean?" Steve said, unable to believe he'd said it.
That grin again. "If I wasn't, could you trust me to say no?" he said. "Jesus, please don't try this at home. You really are green."
Steve shook his head.
"Afraid of what you'll take home to the wife?" Fallen said, watching Steve's gaze snap toward him defensively. "Come on. Like this is new? I don't wanna die anymore than anyone else does. And if I pass shit on, it kills off the clientele. I like repeat customers. So don't worry about it. Are you clean?"
Steve had a feeling there was more to the question than there had been when he asked it. Then he nodded a little. "I'm new at this," he said.
"That's kind of obvious," Fallen said. Then he grinned. "Amature, virgin, newbee, beginner -"
"Begin, nothing," Steve said. "Beginner means I mean to keep doing it."
"You're not 'doing' anything," Fallen said. "You want me to start you off? You shy?"
"It's a lot more than that," Steve said. "I don't know...why you're here."
"Makes two of us," Fallen said.
"You can leave anytime you want," Steve snapped. Jesus, why the hell had he done this?
Fallen shrugged. "What I want's not part of the deal, New York. Your dime, your time. I gotta tell you, though, this is the easiest oral I've ever done." When Steve glanced at him in amazement, he added, "I won't leave any marks on you, either, if you're worried about that. Don't want the wife asking questions later."
"Jesus," Steve whispered. He rubbed at his eyes, realizing how tired he really was, how drunk he still was.
"I have a feeling she knows, though," Fallen said. "Maybe better than you do." Then he rose and came closer, giving Steve enough time to escape if he wanted to. But the man in the chair didn't so much as startle. It was too late.
Fallen stood above him and said, "It'll be okay."
"I don't think so," Steve said. "I can't. It's not -"
"Right," Fallen said, straddling Steve's legs, insinuating himself into the other man's personal space. "Which sin scares you the most? Sex outside marriage, solicitation, adultery, or the same-sex thing?"
"Your outfit," Steve said, closing his eyes. "Your outfit scares me the most."
"Then take it off me," Fallen said. When that got no response, he leaned over to brace his hands on the arms of the chair and added, "Or maybe you're afraid of yourself."
Steve opened his eyes again. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he registered the nearness and the fact that he could feel himself hardening. It was frightening and amusing at the same time, but he didn't stop the other man from leaning over him. "You can't goad me into this," he said. "I'm a fucking stockbroker. We're impervious to anything but the sale."
Fallen straightened long enough to strip his own shirt over his head, revealing slender musculature, then leaned down again, face inches from Steve's. "Then make one," he said, leaning in closer and kissing the other man lightly. "You're not running, or saying no."
"You can't -"
The sentence cut off when Fallen bent his knees and slid forward, into the chair with him, into his lap, hands still braced on the arms of the chair.
"Holy shit," Steve breathed, "what are you -"
"It's called a lap dance, dumbass," Fallen said. "Fucking stockbroker? More like stockbroker, minus the fucking." He leaned in again, watching for any sign of resistance, kissing, beginning to grind his hips in a slow, leisurely motion. He got a moan and felt hands at his waist, and he pinned Steve's hands back to the arms of the chair. "Keep your hands down," he whispered, continuing to grind his hips gently.
"Can't," Steve whispered.
"You can," Fallen said aloud. Then he brought his mouth down on Steve's again, taking away any retort he would have come up with while his hand went on unbuttoning Steve's shirt, sliding it off his shoulders. Moving his mouth down to Steve's throat, he said, "Anyone ever fucked you partly clothed before?"
Steve arched against him, nails digging into the padded arms of the chair. Fallen pressed his hands flat against Steve's back, lifting him, sliding them down to his waist, licking his way down Steve's chest while his hands worked at undoing the belt.
"I...can't," Steve whispered again.
"If you say no, I'll stop," Fallen said against the bare skin of his chest, getting the belt undone and the zipper down, straightening enough to bring his face close to Steve's again. "All you have to do is say it, New York." He braced his hands on either side of Steve's head, on the back of the chair, moving his hips in a circular motion.
Steve came with a shudder, arching with the force of it, nearly bucking Fallen loose. He collapsed, boneless, against the chair, breathing hard, seeing stars behind his eyelids. Then his head was being held, and he opened his eyes, dizzy.
"You gonna make it?" Fallen said, grinning. When there was no answer, he kissed Steve again and began sliding out of the chair, hands dropping to Steve's hips and pulling pants and boxers down. Steve unwittingly arched to make it easier, and Fallen said, "Boxers?" He made a tsk sound with his tongue.
"What're you..." Steve began, pausing. His voice was too hoarse, throat too constricted to get the words out.
"Not done with you, greenhorn," Fallen said, pulling Steve's shoes off and tossing them to the side before pulling his pants the rest of the way off and tossing them on the small table near the window. He backed away a little to pull the covers down on the bed, then to lock the door, then to dim the lamp on the dresser to its lowest setting. He pulled several items out of the top of his left boot, tossing them on the nightstand. Condoms. "Let's see, how many of these you think we'll need? Six, eight?"
Steve started to laugh, the sound escaping choked and unintentional. "God," he said.
"Yeah, I'll probably have you seeing him," Fallen said, sitting down on the edge of the bed to remove his boots.
Steve went on laughing, realizing the edge of it was beginning to sound hysterical. "I'm not...twenty anymore," he said, gasping, feeling more light headed all the time. "God, this is..."
"Fucking crazy, I know," Fallen said, tossing his boots aside. "If you want it to be the other way around, get into the bed. I can only do so much with a chair."
That got more laughter. I'm naked in a hotel room in a strange city with a strange guy, and I don't care.
Hands were removing his from the arms of the chair and pulling him up. His shirt was loose on his shoulders and he tried to shrug it off, but the hands stopped him. He opened his eyes.
"Nah," Fallen said softly. "Let's leave the stuffy, uptight, highly pressed shirt on. So I can be reminded of how impervious you are." He backed Steve onto the bed, letting him fall backwards onto it, grinning as he removed the rest of his own clothing. Then he climbed onto the bed with him, registering the moment of uncertainty on his face, the sudden tenseness.
"Nothing gonna happen you don't agree to," Fallen said softly, huskily. "You don't know what you want, though. So relax." He darted his eyes to the other man's crotch and added, "Well, not all the way," he leered.
Steve flushed with embarrassment, beginning to sit up, feeling exposed and vulnerable, realizing he shouldn't have done any of this, hoping he could stop it before it went any further. But God, he was aroused...
Fallen pulled the covers up to Steve's waist, covering them both with a grin. "Too late for shy, New York," he said, lying back and rolling onto his side, propping his head up on one hand as he gazed at Steve. "Come on. Lie here, and maybe something happens, or it doesn't."
Steve paused a moment longer. It would be easy to shoot out of bed, grab his clothing, and walk out. Easy had gotten so tiresome, though, and he could feel the warmth of the other man that close.
He lay down, facing Fallen, tense, heart racing.
Fallen scooted closer, making full body contact, and Steve didn't flinch. He gasped at the feeling of skin on skin, though. Fallen ducked his head beneath Steve's, pressing, forcing Steve to keep his balance by placing a hand against the bed on Fallen's other side. Pulling him down by lacing his arms around Steve's neck, Fallen drew him in for a long kiss that grew rough as it went on. Instinct took over where uncertainty had been, hands roaming, bodies warming to each other.
When it broke for a moment, Fallen whispered, "You need this."
There was no more talking after that, beyond monosyllabic pleas or exclamations.
* * *
Steve awoke the next morning to a faint headache, a dry mouth, and an empty bed.
He sat up a little, pulling the sheet with him, looking around muzzily. It took several minutes for the whole of it to come home to him. He remembered it all in a rush of shock, embarrassment and desire.
"Holy shit," he said softly to the empty room. He had. He'd done it. And no going back.
The bathroom door was open, and there was no sign that anyone had been or was still lurking in it. His own clothes were carefully hung up. Fallen and his peculiar outfit were gone, leaving no trace, as if he'd never been.
Out of habit, to his own shame, the first thing he did when he stumbled out of bed was to find his wallet, tucked into his pants, hanging in the closet. Nothing was missing, or even moved.
"Did you even exist?" he said aloud. Then he noticed the stain on the pants, the result of the lapdance. "Oh yeah," he sighed. "You were." But what did you really want?
* * *
After showering and shaving and getting into his other suit, he headed to the airport. But he didn't board his flight when it was called.
* * *
Sometime around 2pm, he headed back to the firm.
I can't go home. Not yet. Not like this.
At worst, he'd have them schedule him another flight and try and keep his mind busy while he waited. At best he'd get a few tips about what was available in the area. He'd move out here, start over, begin a new life. The madness was brief, but intense.
He checked in at the front desk and asked if Jeff Takemura was around. The one guy he'd been able to have a decent financial conversation with the night before, before the alcohol had taken over. The owner. He hung around in the lobby, blinking out into the daylight assaulting him through the windows. He barely waited a minute before Takemura came out.
"Steve," he said, reaching forward to shake his hand. "I'm glad you came back in, there were things we didn't get to last night. Thought you'd be out of here, by now."
"I uh...missed my flight," he said. "Slept in. Thought I'd come by and look at things in a slightly more sober light."
Takemura grinned. "Good. It's kind of hard to really get things done in a party atmosphere, isn't it? Come on into the back, I'll make sure you meet everyone this time. Then I'll have the travel department reschedule you for another flight."
"Thanks," Steve said. He was getting away with everything too easy. Sooner or later, the other shoe had to drop.
He met most of the analysts, part of the accounting department. It wasn't until they reached one of the back offices that he really paid attention.
"Steve," Takemura said, "this is Steve Perry. He prescreens the majority of our mutual funds."
He looked up. And felt his stomach drop in panic.
He knew the face. Hell, he knew the body, too. Only he was dressed in a suit now and his hair was tied back.
"Hey," Perry said, reaching forward to shake Steve's hand, his face full of startled warning. "Good to see you again, we met last night. Let me show you a couple of things I'm working on. Come on. Thanks, Jeff, let me grab him."
They walked down a corridor to a back office, where Perry closed the door and said, "What the hell are you doing here?"
"What the hell are you doing here?" Steve shot back. "God, you just...I mean..."
Perry drew a bottle of water from a small refrigerator in the corner. "Here," he said, handing Steve the water. "Put yourself back together, New York, before someone asks why you look so scared."
Steve took the water in shaking hands. "What the -"
"Shh," Perry said. "I never lied to you, not really. I just made things...convenient. I was meeting someone else from the party at the airport, got to watch you a little. Don't know what caught my attention. But I was close enough to see the look on your face when you were fending the one guy off. I'm all the way on the other coast, you're not gonna run into me."
"Were you...at the party?" Steve said.
"Yeah," Perry said. "You never noticed me."
"How'd you..." Steve blew out a nervous breath. "Shit."
"Hey," Perry said. "You're fine. I got caught up with you, that's all. I don't usually do stuff like this. You wanna sit down?"
"No," Steve said. "No. How the hell...what'd you do, follow me?"
"I was standing right there when you called the cab," Perry said, smirk resurfacing. "I knew where you were going. I took off, changed clothes, and waited around close to the hotel. I barely beat you there."
"This's..." Steve stammered.
"Kind of scary," Perry said, dropping his voice. "And you're thinking about what I've got on you now, and what a mess it is. It's not. It didn't happen. I'm not gonna blackmail you, dumbass. I was just letting us both out for a night."
Steve swallowed, hard. "It did happen," he said, voice shallow with emotion. "God, it did. I should have been on a flight home already, but I was out looking for you."
Perry's eyes widened perceptibly.
"The...the folks, um...working the airport had never heard of you," Steve said.
Perry closed his eyes tightly and put a hand to his forehead as if suddenly stricken with a bad headache. "I don't fuckin' believe this," he murmured.
"A couple of them told me it was a cheesy name for a whore," Steve said.
"Yeah, it was the best I could come up with at the time, since I'm not," Perry said, dropping his hand. "You could've been arrested for soliciting, or gotten yourself rolled, or...." He paused. "There's no way you've been living in New York. I can't believe you!"
Steve started to laugh, quietly, trying to cover it by coughing into a fist.
"This is unreal," Perry said. Then he started to laugh, too, looking at the ceiling. "I finally pick somebody, and it's gotta be a bumpkin in city clothing."
"Finally," Steve echoed, the humor dying.
"Never done this before," Perry said. "Been with a guy before, yeah, but never done anything like this . Never just gone after somebody or gone to this kind of trouble. Something kind of...clicked, I guess."
They stared at each other for a long moment.
"I want you to get out of here," Perry said finally. "Because I could go on looking at you, and develop a thing for you, and it's not gonna work. We're bicoastal in addition to bisexual, and it's gonna hurt."
"Jesus," Steve said.
"Let it be what it was," Perry said.
"What was it?" Steve said, realizing he was still shaking.
"A crush," Perry said softly. "Me, screwing us both up by paying too much attention to the way you move and the way you were handling other people. You think you're so tough, but you're so goddamn vulnerable. You like how I made you feel, but that doesn't mean you like me. You have no idea who I am."
"I could say the same for you," Steve snapped.
"No, New York," Perry said, smiling a little. "I know you, how you are. Or I wouldn't've come anywhere near you."
Steve felt like a fool. It went beyond embarrassment; he'd been chasing something elusive, that didn't even really exist. Something he shouldn't have been chasing at all.
"Maybe I'm wrong," Perry said. "Maybe I wouldn't like you if I had to hang around you, maybe you can't really stand me. So can't you leave it the way it is? Some amazing, mysterious thing that cleared your head and let you get on with stuff without always wishing you'd gone for it. You pissed, you feel guilty?"
"No," Steve said.
"You should," Perry said. "Do you realize, our last names rhyme?"
Steve shook his head, not in negation but because he couldn't believe the turn things had taken.
"I turned your world over," Perry said softly. "I want you to get out of here, tip it back up, and go on with it."
"Then it's just an accident that I came back here, without a clue, and here you are," Steve said.
"You found me when you stopped looking," Perry said. "Now quit thinking with your dick and go home."
Steve pinched the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger, struggling for patience. Just this once. "You said you don't do this kind of thing," he said. "You lying, like you were about everything else?"
"It was just an excuse to live out a fantasy," Perry said. "It worked, didn't it? Not going to, unless you let it stand."
"Can I say what I've been thinking?" Steve said.
"I really wish you wouldn't," Perry said.
"I've fallen and I can't get up," Steve said.
"You can't do any better than that?" Perry said.
Steve shrugged. "Um...I got a flight to catch, I think," he sighed.
"What did you show up here for?" Perry said.
"Not sure," Steve said. "Retracing my steps, maybe. Wondering if I'd fit out here."
Perry stared at him for a long, tense moment. Then Perry nodded. "Yeah. I could say, if you're ever out this way again, look me up. But you won't be. Can't afford each other in the ways that count."
Steve nodded, mirroring the motion. Things were getting more awkward by the moment, and suddenly the room was too close. "Don't know how to do this," he said.
"Haven't known how to do any of it, from the beginning," Perry said, spreading his hands. "You expected different now? Goodbye, New York."
Steve nodded again, then backed toward the door, letting himself out and closing it behind.
* * *
He dozed or daydreamt through most of the trip home, feeling like a stranger to himself. Maybe it was the lack of sleep, or the residue of a hangover, but he felt irrevocably changed. There was nothing marvelous or, conversely, frightening about it; there was simply something different. Something he could never again ignore or face. Opportunities and ideas opened up that had never come to the light of his attention before, and he turned them over carefully in his mind on that long trip home.
The same problems that had existed prior to the trip still existed when he landed, but the way he looked at them had changed. The marriage, the job, the everyday stresses, they didn't have the same impact any longer.
One of his coworkers, after another long day on the exchange floor, asked him what the hell was up. He remembered his answer clearly, and the laugh that went with it.
I'm having a midlife crisis, and I've been waiting for it all my life.
He never discussed what had happened, with his wife; she didn't need to know, and he couldn't imagine the words coming out of his own mouth. That would have ended the marriage before he was ready to do it. Part of him felt like a bastard, and part was relieved that he'd finally done something that could free him of the whole thing. It was all about excuses.
Unfaithful. He'd already been unfaithful for years, ever since he'd married his job.
He decided he enjoyed being a sinner.
Things came to a close four months later, just after Easter. It was painless compared to the discomfort of the close quarters of people who didn't love each other any longer; even Daniel, his son, was relieved. At 13, he'd known it was coming and had grown exasperated with the way the adults in his life had drawn things out. They would each keep equal custody, they would go on being friends, now that they were apart.
When the final papers were signed that July, Steve took a deep breath and quit his job. He had nothing else lined up, and it didn't matter. He knew what he wanted to do, and the capitol to do it wouldn't be hard to come by. He already had the contacts from trading on the floor so long, and investors would come from the same sources. He'd take some time for himself first and get things lined up. He'd had it plotted out for so long that the execution itself would be a cakewalk.
When his firm opened just before Christmas, there was a kickoff celebration like there had been in LA the year before. Some of the same faces were present, but the majority consisted of the investors, the brokers he was trying to steal from other firms, and close friends.
He'd left a voicemail invite on a machine somewhere in LA that he never expected an RSVP from. It didn't matter. He was leaving the door open for things to come full circle. He tried to tell himself that was all, but he'd given up lying some time back.
He spent the evening searching the crowd for a face even though he'd warned himself not to.
Things wound to a close just after 1 am, and he made certain he was the last to leave. When he finally locked up and headed to his car, footsteps shadowed his across the mercury-lit parking lot, unheard. A shadow mingled with his briefly before hands spun him.
Startled, the first thing he did was try to duck away, but he was held in place with a chuckle by hands that were stronger than he remembered.
"Hello, New York," Perry said softly, wrapping a hand in Steve's hair. "Slumming?"
The same smirk, the same warm mouth, the same hazel eyes full of equal parts scorn and humor. For a long moment there was nothing but a kiss that neither was in a hurry to break. When they came up for air, Steve said, "Yeah."
"I didn't think you would show," Steve said, heart still pounding. It was cold out there, a classic New York City winter, in the low 20's. But he didn't feel it.
"Ye of little faith," Perry said without removing the hand from Steve's hair, without backing off. "I still like watching you. You were more yourself tonight than you were the first time I saw you."
"Things have changed," Steve said. "For one, you're dressed better."
Perry grinned. "Hey, I didn't keep much from the 70's."
"Still got a crush on me?" Steve said. He wanted to be kidding, didn't want how much it meant to show on his face. He hadn't thought he would react so strongly to just seeing the guy again, but...
Perry backed off a step, looking Steve up and down as if appraising him. Then he shrugged. "I don't know," he said softly. "You still wearing boxers?"
"You're gonna have to figure that out for yourself," Steve said.
"You have changed," Perry said. "You flirting with me?"
"Where are you staying?" Steve said without answering him.
"I hadn't decided yet," Perry said.
"Presumptuous," Steve said.
"Not really," Perry said. "Divorce in the ranks is pretty common, but that doesn't stop everyone from passing the rumor around. I know you're alone." He stepped closer again, close enough so that the only thing they could see were each other's eyes. Perry's were lit by the streetlight over Steve's shoulder, and the washed out light put molten blacks and silvers in place of the warm hazel colors Steve remembered. "Do you want to be?"
"Not really," Steve whispered. "But we're bicoastal, if I remember correctly."
Perry leaned forward a little further and slid their faces together so that his lips were close to Steve's ear. Steve shivered but kept still otherwise. "Not right now, we aren't," Perry whispered, sliding his hands down Steve's sides, letting one hand stray further, between them. "Does this feel bicoastal to you, New York?"
Steve only lived about 10 minutes away, but it was a long drive. There was no small talk; they were beyond it, and didn't need to fill the space. The common social graces seemed inappropriate, and an attempt at them would have been uncomfortable. The radio covered for it.
At first Steve couldn't get the key to his condo to work; shaking hands made a mess of things, betraying his urgency. He fumbled at it until hands took the keys away from him and did it for him with muffled laughter.
"Maybe you should have had something to drink tonight, rather than acting like the perfect host," Perry said, swinging the door open and shoving Steve inside. He closed and locked the door behind, pausing long enough to look around the shadowy interior. "Nice," he said, kicking his shoes off.
"Can I get you anything?" Steve said.
"Don't get all mannerly with me," Perry said. "Later, maybe. Right now, we need to attend to a few things. Like the boxers question."
Steve didn't respond, unable to. A couple of minutes later, the question got answered, just prior to what happened in the shower. A trail of water on the hardwood floor of the hallway made their path between the bathroom and bedroom easy to follow, and neither of them gave a damn. Steve remembered little more than the exhilaration and damp warmth of his current company, water trailing across chest and shoulders, smoothed and kneaded away. A tangle of trembling limbs, hands gripping the sheets in desperation, skin tasting of sweet and salt. The damp of water was replaced with the damp of sweat. Rough, unintelligible whispers were spoken against the flat of an abdomen, the curve of a throat, the small of a back. No games, just the sharing of two impossible lives, a glimpse of could have been.
Time passed, more than either thought, and night became a morning, and then an afternoon, and it was unimportant. Steve spent a long, drowsy time watching the other man sleep and tried to let go of the whole thing. After awhile, Perry stretched beneath his gaze, opening half-lidded eyes to stare back.
"Something tells me you east coast folks think a lot," he said.
"You gonna vanish again, without saying a goddamn thing?" Steve said breathlessly.
"No," Perry said. "That why you're staring at me, you waiting for me to pull the disappearing act again?" There was no answer, and Perry breathed a slow sigh. "We still don't work, you know. We can't."
"I didn't ask you if you had anything with you," Steve said. "Bags, or anything."
"I didn't mention it," Perry said. "So who's really at fault, here?"
"I assume you've got a rental car back at the firm," Steve said. "I'll take you back to get it."
"You in a hurry?" Perry said.
"No," Steve said after a moment. "I'm not."
"Because you're not going to see me again, when I leave this time," Perry said. "You know that."
Steve nodded. "Knew it back in the parking lot."
"I ain't moving out here, and you ain't moving out west," Perry continued softly, drawing patterns across Steve's ribs with a forefinger. "Sooner or later the cover gets blown, the ex uses it to keep custody of your boy, and it all gets emotional. You're not willing to pay the price."
"Are you?" Steve said.
The hazel eyes raised to meet his, finger stilled. "Never meant to be," Perry whispered.
Their gazes remained locked for a long moment. Then Perry raised the same finger to place it across Steve's lips. It was the end of the talking. Awhile after that, Perry got up, showered and dressed, and called a cab. There was no prolonged farewell, or promise to get together some other time. There wouldn't be another time. If they crossed paths again, it would be an accident. So it was no surprise that Perry walked out of his life the same way he'd come in: with a smirk.
Two years later, Steve was married again, to someone willing to put up with him and his dedication to his work. Daniel was 15 and spent more time out with his friends than with either of his parents. Steve had everything he wanted and nothing of what he imagined; time passed with an alarming ease. He never made inquiries to the other coast, but he still had the sense of being watched. He let himself wonder about the might have beens during lulls in his workload, and as the years passed the whole thing drifted and took on the quality of something that had happened to someone else. Distance blurred detail and feeling into pastel shades, smearing the blaring colors of passion.
If later newspaper accounts of a familiar face and name being arrested for insider trading bothered him or stirred anything beyond memories, he was careful to keep it tucked away. If the unsigned note he later received startled him, he was careful not to let it show. But he kept the note, and pulled it out every so often and wondered at the single, carefully scrawled line that ran across the center of the page.
I wasn't worthy of you. No victim, no crime.
* * *