Fish or Cut Bait

by James Pavian

Chapter 3

Bruce called first thing the next morning. "Mike? I don't know--you were great! Chuck's--"

"Bruce! Are you okay? What happened? Where were you?"

"I broke my wrist!" he said, proudly.

"You sound like that's a good thing. Wrists are--"

"I broke my wrist punching this asshole with a sign that said, 'God Hates Fags.' Knocked him out!"

"Okay, you win, Bruce. That was worth a busted wrist! Wish I'd seen it! So where are you now?"

"I'm home. Chuck got a concussion! He says he thinks you got him to the hospital."

"No, it was the cops. I just got him to the cops. They--"

"You saved his life, man! His mom said he was loopy as shit! Well, that's more or less what she said."

"He was like he was drunk, but he said he hadn't been drinking. And he wasn't pissed at me, or anything--that was the clincher."

Bruce laughed. "Thanks, Mike. You're…you're a real hero, in my book."

"Aw, shucks folks. I'm speechless," I said, trying to imitate the Cowardly Lion from 'The Wizard of Oz.'

"Bert Lahr," Bruce said. "Good imitation. Seriously, Mike--thank you! You probably really did save Chuck's life."

"And you gave a homophobe what he deserved. We both deserve medals!"

"Love you, man--catch you later."

"Yeah--" The phone went to a dial tone.

"I think you owe us some explanation, Michael," my dad said, as he walked into my bedroom.

"There was a fight, after the dance, Dad. A bunch of us were trying to protect Bruce and Chuck."

"And how did Susan Hagan get your mother's car?"

"I gave her the keys to get her away from the fight. So she wouldn't get hurt!"

"She pulled into the driveway after midnight and woke us up for a ride home!"

"So? Isn't that what--"

"She was your date, Michael. Your responsibility. Susan, not your boyfriends, or whatever they are."

"Dad! I did what I thought was the right thing! Susan's safe, and Bruce is safe, and Chuck's got a concussion, but--"

"Did you know your mother's rear window got cracked? And there's a huge dent--"

"Oh, shit! I didn't know! It must have happened when she was leaving!"

"When you abandoned her, you mean!"

"Dad, that's not fair!"

"It's a man's job to protect his woman, Michael. Not go off with his boy--with his friends!"

"Wow, Dad--you sound like a caveman, or something!"

"Watch your mouth! And you will be paying for your mother's car!"

"She's got insur--"

"With a five-hundred-dollar deductible, and that's coming out of your pocket! And you're not to leave this house!" He slammed the door behind him, and I just sat there, staring into the space where he used to be.

Susan Hagan was next. Her mother called Mom and said I owed her daughter an apology.

I just stared at Mom. "Dad said I wasn't supposed to leave the house!"

"Never mind that," Mom said. "Go see Susan. Take my car. And then your father is going to get it repaired. We'll be on one car for god knows how long, Michael!"

'Jesus,' I thought as I examined Mom's car. It was pretty much like Dad said. And it drove kind of funny, too. Maybe she hit the curb too fast, or something. Great. But she was safe. That's what really mattered. My girl was safe. I thought about getting her some flowers, or something; then I remembered the damn deductible. Bruce said he was going to ask Chuck to go steady last night. I could ask Susan. That ought to set things right.

Susan was sitting in her living room, and she had a bandage on her finger.

"Susie! Are you all right? Did that happen last night?"

She gave me the weirdest look. "Mikey," she said, very, very carefully, "It doesn't matter--I mean, it does, or I wouldn't ask, obviously. It matters more than anything, maybe. I'm sorry this is so…" She rolled her eyes and took a deep breath. "I have to know, Mikey: have you been hiding it from me? Are you a gay person?"

Jesus. "Look, Susie. My best friend in the whole world is a--is gay. I do sort of love him. Straight guys can love guys, too, just without the sex, you know. I'm straight, swear to God."

"But you love Bruce, not me."

"I didn't say that!"

"Yes, you did, Mikey--you said I was just--you were just using me for sex!" And she burst out crying.

"I didn't--that's not what I meant, Susie, I swear! It's like a real intense friendship, that's all. I love you!"

"But we're not best friends?" she sobbed.

"It's different with you!"

"I'm not in love with Bruce, and you are!"

"Susie, please! You've got best friends, too. Marnie what's-her-name, right? She's--"

"I'm not in love with Marnie Berringer!"

"And I'm not in love with Bruce!"

Her voice turned deadly. "You just said you were, Michael, so which is it? Do you love him, or not?"

"Are you trying not to understand me? Is that what this is about? Are--are you breaking up with me?"

Susan Hagan stared at me with her mouth hanging open.

"Because I don't want to break up with you, Susie, but if you're trying to make me choose between you and Bruce--" I stopped dead. What the hell was I saying--or almost saying? Bruce is in love with Chuck Chamberlain, not me! And all of a sudden, that made me feel really, really--what? Not angry, I couldn't be angry at Bruce. Sad? Supersad? Bottom dropping out from under me sad? I suddenly realized I was standing there with my mouth opened, too. And I started to laugh. And cry, at the same time.

"Oh my god, Michael--you are a gay person! You're in love with Bruce McNerny!" Susan Hagan stood up and started backing away from me like I was going to blow up, or something, and I couldn't say anything except "Susie. Susan. Susan, please help me!"

Why in the world would I say something like that?

"I can't," she said. And she ran out of the room, crying.

I left the Hagan house and drove home in a daze, trying to retrace it all: Susan and I went to the Prom. Bruce and Chuck went to the Prom. We danced, and ate cookies, and I snuck a little vodka from Miguel in the restroom. And the brawl and getting Chuck to the cop, and Zahi's voice and Polly. It was all there, like a black and white movie, or something, like the 'Wizard of Oz' before Dorothy's house comes down in Munchkinland. And then I came home, and went to bed and Dad--oh yeah, I gave the keys to Susan. What did I say to her? 'Get out of here,' maybe? Did she think I was blowing her off, or something? And then she wrecked the car and that was my fault for not protecting her--but I did protect her. And Chuck, and Bruce. I protected them all! I did right, I know I did! But my dad was pissed and now, out of left field, Susan was breaking up with me! It was insane. She was insane. I was insane, or the whole world didn't make sense.

It didn't make sense without Bruce McNerny.

I lay in bed, staring at this line across the ceiling that wasn't quite a crack that you could only see at night if my shade was up and the streetlight hit it just right. Was it like that? That I could only love Bruce if the light was just right, or something? Or was I gay, after all? I mean Bruce could have given me a blow job, if I would have asked. Of course, I'd have to blow him, which didn't seem like the end of the world after Polly Winslow did it to me. I don't know about the ass thing, though. I couldn't do that, could I, put my cock into Bruce's butt? I couldn't have taken his up my butt. His cock was big--fat, not long, but fat, like I almost couldn't get all my fingers around it at the same time. I studied my hand, and tried to remember what it felt like and if I could do it now, if my hands had gotten bigger--

What the hell was I thinking? About Bruce's chest heaving when I stopped jacking him so he couldn't shoot, just to tease him. About the two of us in a tent in his back yard, stifling hot and both of us naked and all sweaty from playing catch--Bruce wasn't very good at catching, but if he got the ball he could throw it pretty far. We broke one of his window panes, once. We thought we were going to have to run away, we were so scared of his dad. Instead, we got to help him repair it, go to the hardware store and watch while they cut the glass, and then put the glass in and the glazier's points and the putty and three days later we painted it.

And all of a sudden, I remembered how I dared Bruce to kiss my dick, and he did and then he said I had to kiss his and I didn't want to but fair's fair, after all. And it was just a kiss.

I wasn't gay, dammit! I never kissed anyone else's cock! And nobody else ever kissed mine! And we all hid our hard-ons in the shower after track meets, we must have! I did, and I never saw anyone else's, except for Miguel's that one time when he just sort of poked it at me and smiled.

And this little tiny hole sort of opened in my gut and I rolled over and buried my face in my pillow, because it didn't matter if I was gay or not. Either way, I was in love with Bruce McNerny, and I had been since maybe the third grade and I was going to be a senior next year and I'd only just figured it out. And Bruce McNerny was in love with Chuck Chamberlain and I was too fucking late!

I finished my Junior year like everyone else, except I was on autopilot. The Track team went to State and placed, except for me. Coach Spolinak just stared at me when I walked off the field. And then I took finals and passed everything. Then I had to find a job to pay for Mom's car because throwing a shot put wasn't a career. But I was strong, and Strother Brothers Landscaping was looking for strong. You didn't need brains to lay sod, or build retaining walls or spread gravel. Some days, I imagined I was on a chain gang, or something, working off my debt to society. The whole crew looked like that, some days, with little streams of sweat cutting through the dirt on our backs and chests, and the sun bouncing off bare skins like Christmas tree lights and throwing shadows that made a sprinkling of body hair look like a forest.

My back ached, my legs ached, my neck ached when I got home, and Mom very gently said I shouldn't use so much hot water in the shower. And I got up in the morning and did it again. By the middle of the summer, it got to feeling a little like the Track team, all of us horsing around and telling dirty jokes and challenging each other to lift heavier shit, even though the boss warned us about hernias every week. And every week I signed my check over to Dad. Chain gang.

The older guys on the crew bought beer for me, and I hid it in the basement. Three of us went to see the fireworks at the county fairgrounds and got sick drunk and made it home by the grace of God. It was like having big brothers. The crew chief, Nate--we called him Big Nate, like the comic strip--dropped me off, most nights, on the way back to the nursery, where the rest of the guys parked. But every once in a while, Big Nate needed us all at the nursery to unload stuff, or load it for the next job, and Big Nate would give me a ride home in his pickup truck. "What's with you, Winchell?" he said, one night.

"Why? What do you mean?"

"You're different. It's like half the time you're a robot, thinking about something else, or not thinking, or something. Girl trouble, maybe?"

"No. Not girls."

Big Nate glanced at me and then put his eyes back on the road. "You gay? It's cool, if you are."

I didn't answer him. I sure as hell wasn't going to tell him I didn't know.

"That what's bugging you? Getting a Jones for one of the guys?"

"No. It's not…" Oh, hell! "There's this guy at school I sort of fell for, but he's with somebody else. So I don't know what to do, I guess."

"Move on. I mean, maybe it's different for gays, but with me it was, okay, move on to the next one. 'Cept now I've been with Jennie for almost three years. I don't think she wants to get married, though. Too much together, you know?"

"So…like a good buddy, but with sex?"

"I guess, in a way. She's fun, and we like the same movies. I met her at Shannon's--this pub near her place."

"She Irish?"

"Nope. Slovak. I'm the Irish one, sort of. On me dad's side," he said, putting on an Irish accent. We pulled up in front of my house. "Well, me advice, laddie, when someone's outta reach, ya move on."

I opened the door and started to get out of the truck.

"Mike?" he said, and I stopped with one foot on the driveway. "Unless, you know, they're not really out of reach. See you tomorrow."

'But Bruce is out of reach,' I told myself as I trudged up the walk. He must have been. I hadn't heard a peep from him all summer. 'Which doesn't necessarily mean he got married, or some shit.'

I couldn't sleep. I realized that's what was bugging me: I didn't know for sure. It was like somebody cut the movie short, or turned off the TV before the show ended, like Dad did when I was a kid and it was bedtime. I decided to call Bruce. Tomorrow.

Or maybe this weekend.

At least before school starts.

"I been thinking I should call Bruce," I said to Big Nate, while we waited for a train to go past.

"He's your guy?"

"That's it. I don't know. I don't think so. I think he's all bundled up with Ch--this other guy. But I don't know. I don't actually--"

"Call him, Winchell. Worst he can do is tell you to go to hell and hang up on you." The train cleared the road, and the gate went up. "And if he's a jerk like that, he didn't deserve you in the first place."

I looked at Big Nate, but his eyes were on the road. "You're straight, right?"

"Yep. Straight but not narrow, like they say. My little brother's gay. Three big butch brothers and one beautiful delicate flower. Changes the way you look at things--the way you look at everything. Maybe I should introduce you."

"I'll let you know. I gotta make a call, first."

Big Nate pulled to the curb in front of my house, and I opened the door. "Mike!"

"Yeah?"

"I'm going to hold you to that, okay?"

I looked into Big Nate's eyes and a shiver ran down my spine, and I nodded my head. I got out of the truck and closed the door and watched it drive away. Then I turned and headed up the steps from the city sidewalk to the house walk, and up the steps to the porch and across the porch to the front door and opened the screen and by the time I'd climbed all the way to my bedroom, I knew that if I didn't make the goddamn call right then, I'd be too damn scared to make it, ever.

"McNerny."

"Hi. Is Bruce around?"

"Hang on." I heard the scraping sound that means someone's put their hand over the mouthpiece, and a muted "Bruce! Phone!" I squeezed my phone until my knuckles were white, then I heard the click of a second receiver being lifted.

"Hello?"

"Bruce? It…it's Mike."

One receiver hung up, and I waited.

"Hello?"

"Hi, Bruce. It's--

"Hi, Mike! Where you been?"

"Working. Where've you been?"

"Same. I'm working at that Game Swap store over on Kennedy."

"I'm working for Strother Brothers. The landscaping guys?"

"Must be hot."

"You better believe it."

"Game Swap's air conditioned. Some days when I come to work it's like walking into a freezer."

I waited until the silence was worse than the question, then asked it. "How's Chuck?"

"Don't know."

"You aren't--"

"He met someone. At the hospital."

"Wow."

"We went around about it for a while and then I said 'Fuck it,' you know?"

"Must have been rough."

"The roughest part was just before I told him to get lost."

"You told Chuck to--"

"Yeah, Mike. Or no, not exactly. I told him I thought he'd be happier with Chen."

"Chen? Like Chinese?"

"Japanese, actually. Turns out Chuck's really turned on to Japanese boys."

"Wow!"

There was another pause, and Bruce cleared his throat. "How're you and Susan--"

"We're not. She told me she knew I was in love with you, Bruce, and dammit, she was right! It just took--"

"What?" Bruce gasped.

"I'm in--no, I love you. Have since…maybe third grade, and I was too damn stupid to realize it."

"You're gay?"

"I don't know. I only know the guy I love is gay, and that's okay by me."

It was Bruce's turn to say "wow."

"You wanna--" I started.

"We should get--" Bruce said, at the same time.

"How about a movie, say? Friday?"

"Yes! Yes, Mike--I miss you!"

"I don't know what's playing, but--"

"It doesn't matter. I'll watch old cartoons with you if you want, Mike! Or sunsets, or empty lots, or anything!"

"I want to touch you! I want to touch you so bad, Bruce--"

"Fuck the movie. C'mon over!"

"Your folks?"

"I'll send them to the goddamn movies!"

"I gotta get cleaned up and try to convince Mom to let me use her car."

"Whatever. Be here in an hour, maybe?"

"Yeah. Yes! Yes, Bruce, yes!"

It took me forty minutes, and I pushed the doorbell button, and the door flew open and Bruce dragged me inside and wrapped himself around me and we both bawled like sissies. Then we went upstairs.

"We gotta wait a little. My folks are going out to dinner. They should be leaving pretty quick, though."

I don't remember what we talked about. We kept interrupting ourselves every time we heard a noise downstairs, anyway.

"Bruce, honey? We're leaving! Be back by--" I heard some indistinct mumbling, then Bruce's mom spoke again. "We won't be back before ten. The doors are locked, honey."

"Thanks Mom! I love you! Both of you!!"

We just looked at each other until we heard the car drive away, and then Bruce reached for my shirt and started to unbutton it, and I did the same to his, and it was like unwrapping Christmas presents when you want to just rip the paper off but at the same time you want the mystery to last just a tiny bit longer.

"You're hot!" Bruce said.

"And you're beautiful," I answered, and we fell onto the bed and made absolute fools of ourselves. We both came, rubbing our bodies together, before either of us intended to.

"That was fun," Bruce laughed. "Now, let's do it again, slower. I want to lick your chest, first. Just lie there and close your eyes."

I did, and felt his tongue like electricity slide across my chest from my neck down, back and forth. He poked his tongue into my bellybutton, real deep, and I actually squealed. He pulled away, and I opened my eyes. "Your turn," he whispered.

"Can I kiss you? With tongues and everyth--"

And his lips were pressed against mine and our tongues tangled together and kissing Susan Hagan was nothing like this: no getting lost, or anything. Just being here--one hundred percent here. This was right. I knew exactly what to do and I nibbled his ears and worked my way around his neck while he sort of rolled around underneath me. "God! I want to cum again! Can I--"

"No," he whispered, and we just kept touching each other everywhere and he sucked on my toes and I shrieked with laughter, but so what? His folks were gone, and it was none of the neighbors' business. And then he lay on top of me with his feet in my face and I licked to tops of his feet and rolled to the side and licked my way up his legs and he did the same until we were facing each other's dicks and I sucked him in and he sucked me in and then I started choking and he pulled away and taught me how to do it right.

And it went on like that until we both fell asleep and we woke up in the morning with our clothes and sheets and blankets and pillows all over the bedroom. And we both started crying with happy.

And since then it just keeps getting better.

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