Chapter 1.22: Canceling Out
Book One — The Hereafter
NOTE: This chapter is available in audiobook format on the TLHOC Podcast.
Access previous chapters of the book on the Table of Contents page.
With the porch lights off, the water in the hot tub looked like fresh espresso. The inky water was a stark contrast against the snow that had piled up right to the edge. The steam rose into the frosty night air, catching the scant light of the stars and the slanted rays of the upstairs window.
The ski town of Park City was just thirty miles from Salt Lake. It was a former mining town that had blossomed into a skier’s paradise in the 70s, with insane property values and what Richard thought of as the very worst of the rich and privileged classes. But as fate had chosen, it was in a rustic wooden hot tub in Park City that Keith Woo and Richard Pratt fell in love.
It all started with an invitation from Cindy Morgan, the bibliographer at the University library who specialized in classics and linguistics. Over the years, she and Richard had worked together on more classes than he could count, and right from the beginning, they had hit it off as friends. Besides the shared professional interests, they were also politically and culturally aligned. Cindy called herself “a big ol’ dyke,” and shared Richard’s passion in the same progressive causes; from the wealth divide in the country to the rampant racism that was invading every aspect of American life. They were just as likely to talk about how the rich were robbing the country blind as they were about how and when the Romance languages took on their special character.
Cindy was young, fresh faced, and enthusiastic about everything from academics to politics. She was blessed with an endless supply of both passion and energy. In contrast, her girlfriend Kate was a dozen years her senior, and much more sedate—working as (of all things) an auto mechanic. And she didn’t share any of her girlfriend’s passion for either academics or politics.
To Richard, Cindy and Kate were a fascinating couple. He was especially interested in their age difference and asked them about it often. They insisted they didn’t think much about it, and there was certainly no imbalance of power in their relationship. Kate was no “sugar momma,” since she made less money than Cindy. But there was still an unspoken dynamic between them that Richard found fascinating. Kate may not have been a “sugar momma,” but there was still definitely a “mommy” vibe going on between them. It was a dynamic that Richard had seen in the gay community very often, and especially among his circle. “Daddy bear and cub” was a pretty common relationship configuration among his friends.
Richard’s interest was more than academic.
His own tendency to fall in love with young men had caused him no end of both joy and heartache. But ever since Justin, he’d been afraid to let himself get close to another young man, the way he had back then. The hurt was still too fresh, even a dozen years later.
Richard had been invited to parties at Cindy and Kate’s house several times, but he was especially surprised when Cindy told him, over a Christmas break, that she had won a condo weekend rental in Park City, as part of a charity raffle the library had been running. They told him it was a three-bedroom condo, and he should come up and spend the week skiing with them. “It’s three bedrooms!” Cindy said with glee. “I have another friend from the library that is going to come with us, but you can have a bedroom to yourself. You can even bring a date!”
So Richard had gone that weekend and had even found a date. He was a guy named Seth who he’d met at the LGSU, the gay faculty and student group on campus. Seth was a graduate student in Chemistry, and there had certainly been no lack of chemistry in their sex, which they’d been having off and on for about a month. But like many of Richard’s relationships in the past decade, he didn’t want anything to come of it. The sex was great, but he knew the relationship had almost run its course.
For his part, Keith would later tell Richard that he had not wanted to go at all. Skiing wasn’t his thing, although he’d been a few times. But Cindy had told him she was tired of him being such an introvert, and that if he didn’t get out and meet people and be social, he would be doomed to turn into a dusty old librarian.
At their first meeting at the condo, Richard and Keith were both markedly unimpressed. Or, at least, they would both claim that to be true when they told the story at parties for years after.
Richard thought Keith to be awkward and shallow, and as he described his job in Circulation at the Library, Richard thought it sounded absolutely dull as dishwater. Keith thought Richard was too arrogant and full of himself for his tastes, and the academic conversations he had with Cindy seemed like too much “inside baseball” for anybody else in the group to follow.
And the two couldn’t have been more different physically. At forty-six, Richard was a quarter century older than Keith, and even though Richard had long made peace with the fact that he was attracted to younger men, but after what happened with Justin, he’d made a vow not to date anyone less than half his age.
Physically, Richard was just over six feet, and spent an hour every day at the gym. Even then his beard was prematurely gray, and his hair was cut short in what Keith thought was a stereotypical professor style. And Richard’s horn-rimmed glasses did nothing but reinforce that image.
Keith was just five foot four, with a face almost as round as his belly, and thick, chubby hands. Richard had the angular features of his Croatian and German parents. Keith was half Korean and half Japanese, with a spiky mane of shiny black hair that he had let grow into something that was just short of being labeled a mullet.
Unlike a lot of the gay couples in their acquaintance, they would never be mistaken for brothers, or even father and son.
It certainly wasn’t love at first sight. But Keith warmed up to Richard as the weekend passed. They spent two days getting competitive on the slopes, then later, shared some long conversations about literature at the condo. Richard’s date acted bored by the whole thing, and spent way too much of his time on Facebook, or working on his thesis on his laptop. Richard seemed to barely recognize that he’d brought a date.
And then, on their last night before going home, all five of them found themselves naked in the hot tub outside their condo. It was a beautiful night, but the cold was bitter and the snow was deep, even just two steps from the hot tub. The steam was rising around the five of them as they talked about their day on the slopes, how sore they were, and who had made the best ski run, or had the most dramatic wipe out. Cindy was a black-diamond-level skier and had been pushing herself hard the entire weekend. Kate was massaging her shoulders, and it became obvious quickly that they were more interested in the physical intimacy than the hot tub conversation. By 11pm, the two women had called it a night and gone into the condo. Obviously trying to drop a hint, Seth yawned and said he should turn in too. Richard and Keith said goodnight to him, but Richard made no promises to follow. He was pretty sure Seth was waiting for one and looked a bit hurt when he didn’t get it.
Richard and Keith talked quietly in the hot tub, side by side, as the snow fell. Between the dark and the steam, neither of them could really see the other. But then Keith’s fingers brushed once against Richard’s thigh. Five minutes later, it brushed again, and lingered.
If you hadn’t known how Keith’s hand rested lightly on Richard’s thigh underneath the water, you would have been forgiven for thinking that there was no spark between these two. They talked about their lives, but avoided anything personal at first, even to a degree that meant dancing around some questions they each asked. But it was a complicated dance they were doing, with two steps forward and then one step back.
Slowly, the lights went out in the condo. The last one was the light in Richard and Seth’s room, which was one floor up, and looking directly over the patio with the hot tub. When he looked up, Richard saw that his date was standing in the window, looking down at them. Richard was grateful that it was too dark to see his expression.
“Don’t look now,” Richard laughed, “but I think my date is glaring down at us.”
Keith laughed too, but didn’t look up. “Maybe you’d better go in.”
Richard thought about it for a moment, and then said, “No, I don’t think so. Seth’s turned out the light. He’s going to bed. I think I’m happier here.” There was a pause, and then Richard’s hand was on top of Keith’s. “In fact, talking to you, I think I’m happier and more relaxed than I’ve been in quite a while.”
With no light spilling from the condo, it was very dark now in the hot tub. Richard could not tell how Keith reacted to his words, but he was surprised that it didn’t matter. It really was true. Holding this young man’s hand in the hot tub had taken away all his cares and anxieties. He hadn’t felt this way, he realized, since Justin. Since before… what had happened. In fact, he’d been so careful not to let himself fall for anyone at all in the past decade, that he almost forgot what the spark felt like. And here he was, holding the hand of a boy not much older than Justin was at that time.
What could I possibly be thinking?
But, to his surprise, he didn’t care. He squeezed Keith’s hand and let his head fall back, hoping to pick out stars in the night sky. But the mist was obscuring everything.
Keith finally spoke in the darkness.
“So, Richard Pratt. We’ve been talking about everything this weekend from books to politics. But you haven’t told me much about you.” He paused, but Richard didn’t speak. “I don’t assume that the guy in the dark bedroom upstairs is the love of your life.”
Richard just sighed. “No, not hardly.”
“So? Is there anyone special?”
The pause probably went on too long before Richard finally said, “No, I’m afraid not. I don’t date much. And I haven’t been in a relationship for… a long time.”
“Oh, so there was somebody, once?”
Again, the pause. “And, I’m guessing you don’t want to talk about it. That’s okay. You don’t have to.”
Richard was surprised that he actually did want to talk to this young man about Justin. He hadn’t talked to anybody about that part of his life, ever. Even his friends didn’t know what happened that year. Justin’s death had made the papers, but nobody knew they were dating. So the condolences he got from colleagues were just those for a professor who had lost a student. He would love to tell Keith that entire story, but he didn’t know if he could ever find the words.
“Well, let’s just say that yes, there was a guy. A boy, really. Not even as old as you. But that was twelve years ago, and I handled it… badly. To say the least. And I hurt him terribly.”
Such an understatement, Richard thought.
“Let’s just say… it’s a tough memory.”
He expected Keith to apologize for asking, or at least try to change the subject. But he didn’t. In fact, he said nothing for a long time. But Richard became aware that the hand holding his in the water was squeezing it much more tightly now. The intimacy and caring in that touch was almost more than he could bear, and he was grateful for the dark and the mist that was hiding what might have been tears on his face.
“So, yeah, I’m kind of messed up in the romance department. How about you? Anyone special?”
Keith’s voice was quiet, and Richard had to strain to hear. “No. Not really.” He sounded so shy and vulnerable, that Richard had to suppress a desire to turn in the water and pull the boy into his arms. Instead he asked, “So, you’ve never been in love?”
“Oh, I didn’t say that,” Keith answered with a bit more energy to his voice. “I actually have been. Twice. And for one, I guess I still am. It’s one of those ‘things you can’t have’ situations.” There was another squeeze to his hand, and then, “Maybe I’ll tell you about him. Someday.”
Richard laughed out loud. “It looks like we both have some secrets.”
The conversation fell into silence, and after a while, Richard thought to himself, damn, I ruined it. There was something here. And I think I scared him off. But then Keith spoke unexpectedly.
“Okay, how about if I tell you about just one of them. My grand high school romance.”
“I’m intrigued!” Richard said, and he truly was. “Go on.”
Keith began to tell the story slowly, but soon he had momentum behind him, as if it was a story he had longed to tell.
“It was in high school. Ben was the Bishop’s son. He was a devout Mormon boy who was obsessed with writing short stories about dragons and mythical lands full of elves and warriors. He was tall and thin and just six months younger than me. At first, I think I was more of a mentor than a friend, but I fell for him hard my senior year.”
“Was it ever sexual?”
“Well, it was physical, but never sexual. I knew I was gay, but I wasn’t out to anybody then but my friend Michelle. The desire was there on my part, but Ben was far too naïve to even consider that what was happening to us was romantic. But it was so intense it was scary, for both of us. And it started to exclude everyone else around us.” Keith actually laughed a little, remembering.
“We did this thing we called ‘canceling out.’ Whenever things got stressful or noisy or awkward, we would lock eyes, smile, and then reach out to touch a single finger together.” Keith reached his hand into the air, pointing finger extended, and Richard could see it hovering like a shadow in front of the boy’s face. “We would make this clicking sound when our fingers touched, and to us, that meant that from that moment on, nobody in the world existed but the two of us. No other friends, no teachers, no TV. Until we ‘canceled back in,’ we were the only two people in the universe.”
Richard wanted to tell him how lovely that sounded, but Keith was lost in his thoughts now. He thought it best to just listen.
“Looking back, I wonder how the rest of the school didn’t know something was going on. Of course, they probably did. But it was kind of a hick town. They probably didn’t know what to make of it any more than we did.
“Anyway, near the end of my senior year, with graduation around the corner for both of us, I got really terrified about losing Ben. I was so desperately in love with him, that I couldn’t imagine a world where we would be apart on a daily basis. I even considered trying to follow Ben wherever he might find to go to College.
“By this time I had finally come out in my journal and there were hundreds of pages of love letters to Ben, written with a four color pen in cheap notebooks that I carried everywhere.” Richard had noticed that Keith had carried a notebook and that kind of pen this weekend. “I knew I could never let Ben see them. But I also knew I would have to come clean with how I felt before graduation day, if I had any hope that the two of us would remain close.
“When the day came for me to finally say the words, I was absolutely terrified. My family had sold our home that spring and moved into a place closer to town. But the old house was still there, and I still had a key. I took Ben there on a drizzly Saturday morning in May. I had just turned eighteen, earlier that spring. Ben would be eighteen before the summer was out. And there, in that empty house, without a stick of furniture and destined for the bulldozer in a week, I sat side-by-side with Ben, holding hands. And I couldn’t find any words. I was there in the bedroom where I had grown up, and laid awake at night, dreaming of the words I would one day say to a man that I loved, and now I couldn’t make the words come out.”
When the silence dragged on, Richard finally asked, “And did you say them? Eventually?”
“I did. I told him I was gay, and I told him I was in love with him.” Keith’s voice was choked with emotion. “In my heart, I probably knew that Ben was not ready to hear, or respond, to what I told him. But I also knew that he had to know, or at least suspect, the truth. There was no way he could not realize that what we had together was something… unusual. There had been too many nights lying together under the tricky bars at the grade school, Ben’s head on my shoulder as we made up new constellations together. There had been too many late night school bus rides, coming home from drama meets, where we held hands under a coat the whole trip. There had been too many nights atop the baled hay in Ben’s horse barn, wishing the night wouldn’t end, and that we could stay atop that hay forever.
“But I had finally given what we were feeling a name. I’d said the words. And that made everything different. Those words shattered the illusion that we had both so carefully maintained for the past year.”
“The illusion you were just friends?”
“Exactly. And once they were out, Ben dropped his eyes, and let go of my hand.
“I told him he had to know, and he told me that yes, he did. But he couldn’t look up. He couldn’t meet my eyes. And I knew what we had together was gone. I’d killed it. It had just dissipated in that instant like one or both of us had died.”
“And that’s it. He just left?”
“To be honest, I can’t remember much about the rest of that night. The only memory I still have is of the two of us at the door of the empty house, as we were preparing to walk out into the rain. Ben paused in the doorway, looking out, his hands on either side, staring into the downpour. I stood behind him for a minute, and then I said, ‘You can either walk out into the rain, or you can turn around and let me hold you.’
“And for a second, I thought he might actually turn around. That he might actually meet my eyes again and come into my arms. In that moment, I imagined what it would be like to kiss him for the first time. I imagined hearing Ben say, ‘I love you too.’”
Richard was choked up now too. “Obviously, that wasn’t how it ended.”
“No, it wasn’t. After a few seconds, Ben took in a deep breath, let it out, and stepped out into the rain. I followed, and we got into my car, and I drove Ben home for the last time.”
When Richard didn’t say anything, he sensed Keith turning his head toward him in the darkness. He still held his hand fast under the water. “End of story,” Keith said.
“Did you ever hear from him again?”
“Oh, yeah. I went to the University, and I always assumed he left on a mission. But I was surprised to learn later that he didn’t, and I had to wonder if what happened between us was part of the reason. Anyway, we ran into each other last year. It was actually less awkward than you might think. I was surprised that not only did he not go on his mission, but he also didn’t go to College. He told me he had a job at Olive Garden waiting tables. He said he didn’t write anymore, and that he was dating a woman who ran a day care.”
“It sounds like you learned quite a bit about him.”
“Not that much, really. We traded e-mails for a month or so, but there was always so much unspoken tension, that I imagine he was as relieved as I was when we stopped writing. It had taken me a long time to feel… human again, is the right word, I guess, after he and I parted. Talking to him again was more painful than it was healing, so I gave it up.”
Knowing that was the end of the story, Richard was flummoxed, and not sure what he could say. So instead of saying anything, he slid closer to Keith. He let go of his hand, and wrapped one arm around Keith’s lower back, which felt warm and flushed under the water. Keith leaned into Richard and let his head fall onto the older man’s shoulder.
The silence suddenly became comfortable, rather than awkward, and they both let it go on for a very long time. So long, that Richard began to wonder if the younger man had fallen asleep there in the hot tub. And if that had been the case, Richard would have counted that as one of the most content moments of his life. Somehow, just holding this young man he barely knew made everything in the world fall into place. Like suddenly his world was balanced and right, in a way it never had been before. He was so taken with the euphoria that he was a bit startled when Keith finally spoke again.
“Now, I think you need to tell me the whole story of you and the boy you hurt. What was his name?”
Richard sighed. “His name was Justin. And I will, I promise. But not tonight.”
Keith said, “Oh, does this mean there is going to be a next time? Like a date?”
Richard laughed and said, “Yes. Like a date.” He touched the boy’s cheek with his right hand, and felt how smooth he was, how his skin felt like silk under his wrinkled fingers. “I’d like that very much.”
“I would too.”
“But there is a problem,” Richard said with a snicker.
“And what would that be?” Keith’s hand had moved to Richard’s chest.
“If we date, people would think we’re an aging rock guitarist.”
Keith pulled back, and looked into Richard’s face, now close enough that they could see each other through the mist. “I have no idea what you mean,” Keith said, and the confusion was clear on his face.
“Uh, ‘Keith Richards’? You don’t know who Keith Richards is?”
“Richard Pratt, I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Keith said. And Richard realized how much of a difference those twenty-five years between them could really mean. Was this wise? How big of a fool could he be? Why was he here with this twenty-something kid? What if he hurt him the way he hurt Justin?
No, he thought to himself, No, I won’t let that happen. I can’t.
“Never mind, Baby Bear,” Richard said, coining a nickname for Keith on the spot. “I’ll explain it to you later.”
It was well past one o’clock in the morning. The silence and the stillness of the night had become intoxicating and comforting. Richard buried his face in Keith’s thick black hair and inhaled deeply. There was a scent there that reminded him of sandalwood and honey.
And then Keith kissed him. Or perhaps he kissed Keith. Neither of them were sure later who had made that first move. All they knew was that in an instant, they were face to face in each other’s arms. The kiss was long, slow, and gentle. Not at all hungry. Just tender and searching and yearning. Keith allowed himself to be supported in the warm water by Richard’s arms, and the mist caressed their faces and shoulders like scarves of silk. Under the water, their hands searched and explored, probed and squeezed, as they melted further into each other.
The hot tub clicked off on its timer. All the windows of the house were dark, but as the mist slowly dissipated in the frosty night air, the stars were brilliant.
The Last Handful of Clover is a supernatural thriller by Wess Mongo Jolley. Thanks for reading! If you are enjoying this story, please consider supporting the author on Patreon.
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