“I’ll be right down.” I hurried downstairs and peeked at a delivery guy who was holding yet another bouquet of flowers. “Hold on a minute,” I said as he thrust the flowers at me. “Will you please read the card to me?” The delivery man gave me a strange look, but obliged my odd request.
“It says, ‘Margaret, I had a good time Friday night. Here’s a token of my appreciation for the best night I’ve had in a some time. Cheers, Ted.’ Look, do you want them or not? It makes no difference to me.”
“I’ll take them,” I said, smiling at the man. He thrust them into my outstretched hands before beating a hasty retreat. I took the fragrant bluebells up to my apartment where I found a nice vase for them. Not the Lucifer one, of course, as that was in the dumpster across the way. I set the bluebells on the coffee table in my living room next to Alan’s orchids, and I felt so pampered. I’d never had one guy send me flowers, let alone three. Well, OK, two guys and the devil. But still! Three bouquets in two days. Not bad.
Taking a deep breath, I checked my messages. As I feared, my mother had called numerous times leaving me increasingly acerbic messages. She couldn’t get over my deceit as she called it in not telling her that Ned was gay. Considering how she reacted, I didn’t think it was so astonishing that I hadn’t wanted to tell her a thing. Besides, she was the one who’d hung up on me, not the other way around. I was tempted to erase her messages and pretend I’d never received them. I knew, however, that the longer I ignored her, the worse it would get. After three successive messages from her, there was one from Wind who didn’t sound at all like her usual self. She wanted to know what happened after she left my apartment, if Lucifer had returned. I vowed not to talk about the Morningstar with Wind until she got over her unseemly crush. I knew she would be embarrassed by it once she came to her senses. In the middle of my rumination, my cell phone rang.
“Hello?” I answered absentmindedly, still thinking about Wind.
“Girl, we so have to talk!” It was Ned, of course. I hadn’t talked to him since he did the town with Ted. “I have so much to tell you about my evening with your paramour. Can you come over here to dish?”
“Why don’t you come here?” I asked, pacing back and forth. I preferred Ned and Wind coming to my place so I didn’t have to come home late at night. Neither of them minded as they both liked to drive, and as I mentioned, neither had to get up before the crack of dawn. Usually.
“I’ll be over in two shakes. Oooh, I’ll bring some sushi. That should be right up your alley.” Before I could verbally smack him, he was off and running. I took the plunge and called my mother. At least Ned and sushi would console me after she put me through the wringer.
“So. You have time for your poor mother now, do you?” The frost in my mother’s voice would be enough to freeze out a penguin. “I think you’re getting in the habit of hanging up on me. Perhaps I should just stop calling.” I shuddered to think of her reaction when she found out I’d been hiding this huge secret from her. Come to think of it, I should probably tell her I was pregnant pretty damn soon. How could I be sure it wasn’t a joke? Should I take a pregnancy test just to make sure? Would it even show up? I might as well tell my mother. If it turned out to be untrue, I could say I had a miscarriage.
“Hi, Mom, what’s up?” I asked casually, as if we hadn’t been fighting the last several times we’d talked. “You called?” There was silence eerily reminiscent of the last time we talked.
“It’s that boy. I can’t believe he’s….” She couldn’t force the word out, no matter how hard she tried.
“Mom, he’s gay—not a murderer. Why is it such a big deal?” Big mistake asking that question. I had violated the number one rule my sisters and I had created when we were little. Never ask my mother a question which would give her the opportunity to rant. I had handed her a golden opportunity to run with it, and she did.
“Why is it such a big deal? Why is it such a big deal?” I knew I was in trouble when she started repeating herself. “It is a sin, for starters. It says so in the Bible!”
“It does not,” I retorted, unable to control myself. I knew better than to get into an argument about the Bible, but I never could resist. “It is talking about being hospitable to guests, not about homosexuality.”
“It’s unnatural,” my mother continued as if she hadn’t heard a word I’d said.
“Not true. There are some animals who have homosexual sex.” I couldn’t name one off the top of my head, but I knew they existed. If forced into a corner, I would Google it later.
“Sex is for procreation.” Ah, yes, that tired old argument.
“If that’s true, then nobody except people trying to conceive should have sex.” I knew that no matter how many logical answers I’d come up with, my mother would continue believing she was right. It didn’t matter that she’d met Ned several times and was half in love with him. “Look, Mom. I have to go. I’ll call you later.” I hung up before she could protest. I didn’t have the patience to deal with her right now, especially as her concerns seemed petty when viewed in relation to, oh, say, the rest of my life. My cell phone rang as I pondered, and I picked it up.
“Hello?” I knew it wasn’t my mother, so I wasn’t wary. At the sound of Wind’s eager voice, I knew I better be.
“So, what happened? Did Lucifer come back after I left?” The rawness in her tone made me wince. That damned Lucifer had cast some sort of spell on her. How the hell was I going to break it? The only person I knew who could was the person who needed it broken.
“Wind, this is not a good time to talk. I’ll call you back later, OK?” I knew it was a shitty thing to do, but I didn’t want to hear about Lucifer, either. I’d had enough of God, Lucifer, and both their respective gangs. What I wanted most was to be a normal person for once. Was that too much to ask? The buzzer rang as if in answer to my question. It was Ned, and I let him up.
“Thank you, thank you, thank you,” Ned gushed, grabbing me in a monstrous hug as soon as I opened the door. Boy worked out religiously and didn’t know his own strength; I was lucky not to have a broken rib by the time he was done with me.
“What’d I do?” I liked doing something right for a change, but I had no idea what I was being thanked for.
“These are for you.” Ned thrust a bouquet of deep red roses at me, the fragrance nearly overwhelming me. To his chagrin—and mine—I burst into hysterical laughter. “What? I thought they were a nice gesture.” I could hear the hurt in his voice, but I couldn’t stop laughing. I motioned him in and for him to wait a minute. He waited not so patiently, the roses still outstretched until my laughing fit subsided.
“Sorry, Ned,” I said as soon as I could talk again. “They’re beautiful.” I took them from him and walked to the kitchen, Ned trailing behind me. He had take-out sushi in his other hand, and it smelled wonderful.
“Gonna tell me what that was all about?” Ned asked, his voice concerned.
As briefly as I could, I filled him in on the happenings of the last few days—including the seemingly endless supply of flowers I’d received. Ned oohed and aahed in the appropriate places, especially when I described what happened when Wind and I tried to close the portal. I didn’t mention Lucifer’s little visit post-portal-closing attempt because it still spooked me. Ned made himself useful getting plates and chopsticks as I arranged the flowers. We were like an old couple the way we could read each other’s minds. Ned and I went into the living room where he set down the food, and I set down the roses next to the other vases. We sat on the couch as I finished telling him my tale, including the fabulous date with Ted. We both inhaled the sushi as if there was no tomorrow. The minute I mentioned Ted’s name, Ned’s face lit up, and he was hugging me again. I was just glad I had finished the piece of sushi I was eating because I would have choked, otherwise.
“Girl, Teddy told me you’re the one who asked him to call me, but I already knew that. That was the best thing you could have ever done for me.” Ned beamed at me, his enthusiasm practically spilling over. Suddenly, I wasn’t so sure I wanted to hear what he was going to tell me.
“You didn’t discover Ted was a closet case, did you?” That had happened once before with an ex of mine. Bob hadn’t realized he was gay until he got an accidental glimpse of Ned naked. Long story, best left unmentioned.
“No! I wouldn’t consider that good news,” Ned said indignantly. “What kind of friend do you think I am?” The kind who loved whomever he wanted, I thought but didn’t say. Ned wouldn’t purposely hurt me by taking a lover from me, but he sometimes couldn’t contain his passions. I accepted that about him and made sure not to introduce him to a potential suitor until I was sure said suitor wasn’t gay. Or bi.
“So, tell!” I said, shaking Ned’s arm. “I know you’re dying to.” Ned beamed at me once more before telling me his tale.
He and Ted had gone to the Nineties. It was the first time Ted had been there, but he was comfortable enough in his sexuality not to be disturbed by going. To be sure, he was taken by surprise when one of the male dancers shook his barely-covered cock in his face, but he just shrugged it off and moved on. These days, the Nineties was a potent mix of queers and straights, not necessarily to the best results. There were more fights at the Nineties than there ever had been, and it was mostly because the straights refused to respect the unwritten rules.
Ned was wearing short-shorts and a sequined shirt. Ted was more casual in a white t-shirt and black jeans. Still, his clothing accented his assets, and he got grabbed more than once by people of all genders. The scene was wild—and strangely arousing. Ned screamed to this person and that, introducing Ted to a steady stream of men. They all eyed Ted in appreciation until Ned pronounced Ted hopelessly straight. Then, most of them lost interest, though the information whetted the appetites of a few guys who liked to turn straight men. One of the latter neatly sectioned Ted off by himself, trying to convince Ted to let him—Freddie—suck his dick. No matter how many times Ted politely refused, Freddie kept asking. He was being really pushy about it, too, trying to grab said dick. Just when Ted thought he was going to have to get physical, Ned told Freddie to fuck off, and Freddie flitted away.
“Do you see that guy over there?” Ned shouted into Ted’s ear, pointing at a good-looking black man with muscular arms and an engaging smile. He seemed to be on the dance floor by himself, but it didn’t make him the least uncomfortable.
“Yeah, what about him?” Ted yelled back, eyeing the black man with interest.
“This is the third or fourth time I’ve seen him. I wish I had the nerve to talk to him.” Ned danced languidly, always keeping an eye on his prey.
“You? Shy?” Ted was astonished by this revelation. “You have more balls than anybody I know.”
“Usually,” Ned said, peeking around Ted to see his mark once again. “This time, though, I don’t know. There’s something about him that makes me go weak in the knees.”
The black man was dancing with his eyes closed, his bald head gleaming in the fluorescent lights. A couple guys danced around him, but he didn’t even notice. A drag queen with really bad hair dared to pinch the black guy’s ass, but the he didn’t respond to that, either. One by one, the men streamed by the lone dancer. One by one, they were ignored. There was something about the man dancing that exuded appeal. One, the fact that he could dance alone, supreme in his confidence. Second, that he wasn’t macking anybody. In a club which prided itself on being a meat market, this was rare, indeed.
“Besides, look at him refusing everybody. I don’t want to look silly.” Ned said uncertainly, not sounding like his normal confident self. Ted looked at Ned for a long minute before marching over to the dancing man. Ted whispered something in the man’s ear that made his eyes fly open. The man looked right at Ned before nodding his head. He closed his eyes again as Ted returned to Ned.
“OK. Go dance with him,” Ted said, nodding at Ned.
“Oh, my God! What did you say to him?” Ned squealed, clutching Ted’s arm. “Oh, my God. I’m going to faint.” He hyperventilated for a few seconds before getting his breathing under control.
“Go before he changes his mind,” Ted hissed, pushing Ned in the right direction. Ned got a hold of himself and marched over to the dancing man, matching movements. Soon, the two of them were in a groove, ignoring the rest of the world. Hours later, Ned left with him—Alonzo—with Ted’s blessing.
“What did Ted say to Alonzo?” I asked, curious beyond belief.
“I don’t know,” Ned said, his smile widening. “Neither would tell me, but I don’t care. I got what I want.” The smirk on his face let me know what it was he’d wanted.
“I can’t believe you left poor Ted at the Nineties by himself!” I said next, my indignation on Ted’s behalf spilling over. “You know, that’s one thing wrong with you fags. You let your dick overcome reason.”
“He understood,” Ned protested, slapping me on the arm. “He’s a guy. He knows what it’s like to have to get laid.”
We dished the dirt some more, talking about every aspect of our respective wild nights, eating the rest of the sushi while we gabbed. Ned couldn’t believe I hadn’t bagged Ted already, but I wasn’t a gay man. Neither was Ted, though he was a man. I believed we’d probably have sex the next time we went out, which was soon enough for me. Perhaps I should hold out for the third date. Ned scoffed at me for being silly. I didn’t think it silly to want to get to know someone before having sex. Ned countered that the best way to get to know somebody was by having sex with him. I disagreed. Once I had sex with someone, everything changed. It became about the sex, rather than the person. Besides, there was something in anticipation—knowing that the exquisite agony wasn’t going to end quite yet. Ned wouldn’t know anything about that as he was never one to delay his gratification.
“So, you think Wind’s got a little crush on the devil?” Ned asked, idly stroking my knee. I jerked away because it’s disconcerting to feel something sexual for a gay man.
“Yes, I do,” I said glumly.
“I wish I could meet him,” Ned said with a theatrical sigh.
“You do not,” I retorted, irritated by his reply. It was like women who said they wished they had anorexia for a month—anybody who’d been through such a horrific disease would never joke such a stupid thing. “He’s evil, remember?”
“That doesn’t stop you from being attracted to him, does it?” Ned asked archly, fluttering his fingers at me. I didn’t bother dignifying his question with a response as I was struggling to put a lid on my temper. Instead, I told him I’d outed him to my mother. He was outraged until I told him why. Then he was devastated that she would be so narrow-minded about it. I knew it hurt because he considered my mother almost a second mother to him.
“Forget her,” I counseled him, knowing it was easier said than done. “She’s the one who’ll lose out if she doesn’t talk to you any more, not you.”
“It’s like losing a third parent,” Ned mourned, a tear streaking down his cheek. “I can’t believe this is happening.”
“Think of Alonzo,” I urged, hoping that it’d been more than a one-night stand. Apparently it had because he brightened at the mention of his beloved. “Think of what I’m going through. Doesn’t that put your problems in perspective?”
“I guess,” Ned sighed, standing up as he did. “I should go. Let you get your beauty sleep.” It wasn’t even nine, but I appreciated the gesture. I hugged him, thanked him for the roses and the sushi and walked him to the front door. I watched him fondly as he put his shoes on, glad that he was in my life. I tried to forget that he would soon be on the road, but the thought lingered after he left.
I went into the kitchen to grab myself a glass of water before returning to the living room to finish the last bits of sushi. Even though I was full, there was no way I was throwing away sushi. It wouldn’t last in the fridge, especially not the smoked eel, so I had to eat it. At least that’s what I told my protesting stomach as I forced down the last three pieces. I washed them down with a healthy swig of water, patting my bulging stomach when I was through. After a few minutes, I stood up and brought the debris to the kitchen. I wanted nothing more than to take a nice, long bath before reading a few chapters in the mystery book I was reading, then go to bed. I didn’t want any unexpected visitors tonight, and I sent a little prayer to God beseeching Him as such. OK, to be truthful, it was more of an edict than a request, but I was sure He wouldn’t be offended as He knew me pretty well by now.
I dragged my CD player into the bathroom and hooked me up some Rihanna. Old girl was crazy, but, man, she sure could sing. I turned the music on low so it wouldn’t bother me, then I lit a dozen candles after strategically placing them around the room. They didn’t have any smell as I was allergic to most scents. I poured milk bubble bath into the tub and heated it up. Dropping my clothes, I slipped into the tub with a contented sigh. I closed my eyes as the water lapped at my body and soothed my soul. I even forgot about the holy war that had been raging in my apartment as I let the music and the water do their dirty work. For once, I wasn’t disturbed. It might have been the calm before the storm, but I appreciated it.
“Hi, it’s me, Ted. Just calling to see if you’d like to go out this weekend. Maybe we could go bowling or something like that. Give me a call.” Damn. He’d left a message on my cell while I had been teaching my first class Wednesday morning. It was noon, and I was eating my lunch in my room because I was a bit behind. Did I call him back now and risk looking too eager, or did I wait until I got home tonight? I’d never been one to put on an act, so I called him back.
“Theodore Lai. How may I help you?” His professional voice made me giggle, but I smothered it before it got out of hand.
“Yes, I’d like to know what’s the best stock to buy if one is looking for a good time this weekend?” I made my voice high and fluttery, suddenly overcome by a desire to do mischief.
“Tamara, is that you? I told you not to call me. Why do you keep trying?” Impatience laced his voice, and I knew he was about to hang up. I was stunned, however, that the girl I’d met Friday night would be so blatant. “Look, for the last time, I’m not interested. Can’t you take a hint?”
“Ted, it’s me, Margaret,” I finally said in my normal voice. “Is she still giving you trouble?”
“Margaret! Good to hear from you.” Ted’s voice was suddenly infused with warmth. “Sorry about that, but that girl will not take her claws out.” Hearing him describe her thusly made me much more cheerful. After all, he couldn’t help what that dingbat did.
“First of all, thanks for the bluebells. They’re just gorgeous. Second, I’m calling to take you up on your offer to go out this weekend. How about Saturday this time? Though I’m not much of a bowler, I have to tell you. By the way, thanks also for taking Ned out and setting him up with Alonzo. Going to the Nineties was above and beyond the call of duty. You have to tell me what you said to Alonzo to make him dance with Ned.”
“I had a good time,” Ted said cheerfully. “I got hit on four more times before I left for the night. I’m quite the desirable guy in the gay world.” I had the impulse to tell him why, but I refrained. There were actually two reasons. One, the rice queens. White guys who loooved them some Asians. The second was what he’d experienced earlier—the guys who wanted to turn a straight guy. Then again, Ted was fucking hot. That was enough reason in and of itself. “As far as what I said to Alonzo, well, I’m keeping that to myself for now.” I cajoled him, but he wouldn’t budge. In fact, he quickly changed the subject. “I have a better idea than my bowling one. How about I make dinner for you, then we can go to a movie if you want.”
“You cook? That’s great.” I liked a man who cooked as I didn’t. “It sounds like a plan to me.” I knew that I was courting trouble by going to his place, but I didn’t care. Suddenly, I wondered why I’d objected to having sex on the first or second date to begin with. It wasn’t like we were in high school and needed to be careful about our parents any more. I didn’t think sex was sacred in the Christian sense, though it was a very powerful thing. We chatted for a few more minutes before getting off the phone. I had a dreamy look on my face when a soft rap on the door interrupted my decidedly lascivious thoughts. I wiped off the grin as I called out for the person to enter.
It was Hakim, one of my favorite students. In the beginning of the semester, he refused to speak in class, but he always watched what went on. He had been ordered to our school because he had been missing regular classes. Turned out he was taking care of his sister because his father was alcoholic and his mother was dead. Once Social Services got that all straightened out, it was determined he’d do better in an alternative setting. Now, he would talk a mile a minute if I let him. I often had to cut him off to allow less forthright students the chance to talk, but he never held it against me.
“What’s up, Hakim? What can I do for you?” I smiled at one of the boys who made all the suffering of the job worthwhile. I got a kick out of watching kids blossom in unexpected ways. When Hakim wrote a five-page essays on the sensibilities of early Victorians in accordance with Shakespeare’s work, well, I got teary-eyed.
“Ms. Wang, I won’t be in class this afternoon.” Hakim was ashen-faced, his dark skin several shades lighter. I’d never seen the boy without some kind of smile on his face, so I knew it was serious.
“What is it, Hakim? What’s wrong?” I prayed that it wasn’t catastrophic as he’d been through enough in his fifteen years to last him a lifetime. His mother had died in childbirth with his younger sister, and his father was an unrepentant alcoholic with no intention of quitting. The only stability in his life besides coming to school and his faith was seeing his Auntie Florence several times a week. She was his mother’s sister, and she’d taken her sister’s children under her wing.
“It’s Auntie Florence,” Hakim said, choking back sobs. My heart sank as I realized it was the grimmest of all grim news. “She, she, she…”
“Take your time, Hakim,” I said, standing up and walking slowly towards him. I patted his back as I looked at him with concern. “Do you need some water?”
“No.” Hakim jerked his head back and forth. He was still standing in the middle of the room, his hands dangling by his side. He took a few deep breaths as I continued patting him on the back. I wished I could hug him, but that wasn’t advisable in these litigious days. He took one more breath before blurting it out in one sentence. “Auntie Florence was coming home from the Mall of America about an hour ago when two gangs started shooting at each other she got caught in the middle and was shot my dad just called me and he’s falling apart so I have to go be with my sister.”
“Hakim, that’s horrible,” I said helplessly as the tears began flowing down Hakim’s cheeks. I knew that he, himself, had gotten jumped more than a few times for refusing to join up in this gang or that. He was a devout Muslim who had little time for such nonsense. “How is your aunt? Is she…dead?” I hesitated a brief second before uttering the last word, but I knew it was imperative that I confront the situation head on.
“She’s in surgery right now, but the docs don’t think she’ll make it. I have to go be with my sister. What am I going to do?” The plaintive wail of his voice ripped my heart apart. I said a quick prayer, hoping my inroads with God would garner me one more favor.
“Hakim, you’re going to do what you have to do,” I said firmly, patting his back again. “School is the least of your worries right now.” I felt a pang of guilt because I knew his other teachers might not feel that way, but I didn’t care. “I’ll put together your lessons for the next week or so if you want to have them, but don’t feel obliged to do them. It might help take your mind off your auntie, though. If you can’t pick them up, I’ll find a way to get them to you. Understand?” Hakim nodded and tried to speak, but he was too choked-up to do so. “I’ll be praying for you and your auntie, Hakim,” I said, giving him a quick hug.
“Thank you, Ms. Wang.” That was all Hakim said, but the look in his eyes thanked me more than his words. His shoulders were a millimeter straighter as he left than they had been when he entered. I only hoped they were strong enough to bear the burden he now had to face. I shook my head and turned back to my papers, my good mood at talking to Ted completely erased. That was one of the hazards in doing the work I did. I wondered if it might be time to change jobs.