Sam and his Gang of Four

By Richard Natale

“ONE LARGE VEGGIE, loaded, and one large sausage and mushroom,” the voice on the other end of the line repeats.

“How long?” Sam asks.

“We’re kinda backed up right now.  An hour.  Maybe a little less.”

“An hour’s fine.”

Actually, an hour’s perfect.  The gang should start arriving over the next twenty minutes and that should leave ample time for a couple of beers, some chips, and guacamole. Sam checks the fridge for white wine.  Just in case.  And Diet Coke.  For Cameron.  In the meantime, he’ll throw together a salad.  He opens the crisper: Red lettuce.  Cuke.  Scallions.

Sam had intended to cook a full meal but the office today was in a collective brain freeze.  Nearly every editor was late handing in his work and Sam almost missed the layout deadline.  He hopes the guys won’t be disappointed.  They look forward to his home cooking.  None of them is handy in the kitchen, subsisting mostly on restaurant fare and take-out.  They’re not terribly picky eaters, either.  Last time, Sam grilled some marinated chicken breasts served with asparagus vinaigrette and they reacted as if he’d just invented fire.

As he rinses the lettuce and places it in the spinner, the front door creaks open.

“Me,” Randy calls out.  He is always the first to arrive and has his own key.

Sam and Randy have been close since they roomed together at Stanford, sharing a run-down Victorian off-campus with six others.  They met the remaining members of the group – Cameron, Jerrod and Stuart – in San Francisco, where they all now live.  It was the usual route to friendship: Sam tricked with Stuart, Randy with Cameron and Jerrod, and they eventually settled into blissful companionhood.

Sam and the gang are a bloc: They party together, vacation together and speak every day without fail (except for the rare falling out).  During one of their standing weekly Sunday brunches at Zuni (aka “The Church of the Bloody Mary”) they came up with a name for their klatsch, the Crepes, a queer variant on the Crips.  Who doesn’t look good in blue?

Outsiders sometimes mistakenly assume that Sam and his friends all sleep together in some ongoing daisy chain.  Not true, though if they’re wasted enough they’ll kiss and dry hump on the dance floor.  And they’re comfortable being naked around each other even with erections.  Morning woodies on vacation – nothing they haven’t seen before.  On a couple of occasions, evenings when it’s been too cold or rainy to go out and cruise, they’ve streamed porn and beat off.

A few weeks ago they gathered at Stuart’s loft on Potrero Hill to watch a Netflix DVD of “The Bourne Identity” but the disc was damaged.  There was nothing on TV that met with everyone’s satisfaction so after a few drinks and a couple of tokes they stumbled into one of their rare serious conversations about relationships.  Normally, they make a concerted effort to keep reality at bay or at least couch it in humor and hyperbole.

In the fifteen years since they started hanging out together, none has held on to a boyfriend for more than six months.  And while even in gay years they are nowhere near their shelf date, to varying degrees they’ve all become touchy about the subject.  They tiptoe around each other’s birthdays, careful to celebrate but not make too big a deal of them.  They no longer buy birthday cards with numerals, not since Stuart foolishly handed Cameron that pop-up card for his 30th.  When it sprang open, Cameron began to wheeze and clutch his chest.  Jerrod asked the waiter if the restaurant had a defibrillator handy.

SAM DICES THE SCALLIONS and slivers the cucumber practicing a wrist snap he appropriated from Gordon Ramsay.

“How was your day, dear?” Sam says in a deliberate monotone.

“Okay, I guess,” Randy mumbles, pinching Sam’s behind and grazing his cheek as he opens the fridge.  He pulls out a Corona, the only beer he drinks.  Sam orders it by the case though personally he prefers Amstel, or rather Amstel Light since his waistline jumped from twenty-nine to thirty-two.

Sam’s cell tinkles and skids along the surface of the granite counter.  Randy saves it from going over the edge and notes Max Davis’ photo and name on the screen.

Sam blushes.  “Let it ring through,” he says to his shoes.  “I phoned him in a moment of weakness a while back and now he won’t stop calling.”

“When?”

Sam fumbled for an answer.  “About a month ago.  I swear.”

“Why did you do that?”

“I was considering giving him another try,” Sam adds with a wince.

Randy starts to say something then stops himself.  He shoves the open bottle into his gullet and greedily sucks it down while Max’s puss glares up at him from the cell phone.  “I still don’t get what you saw in him.  He isn’t attractive.  He’s not bright.  He has no sense of humor.  And he kinda smells like brackish water.”

Right on all counts.  Sam nods.  Still, he continued to date Max for four months on the not entirely paranoid fear that it might be his last chance at landing a partner, the same reason he’d dragged out his affairs with Joe, Dirk, Eli, and Juan.  None of the relationships ended disastrously, if you didn’t count Dirk who dumped him to go back to his lover, which Sam had seen coming but chose to ignore.  No, they mostly deflated like a balloon slowly losing air.

“Please don’t tell the guys,” Sam pleads.  “I don’t think they like Max.”

“True ’dat,” Randy affirms.  “Stuart does this killer impression.  You know, the way Max pouts when we’re all together because he feels so threatened?”

“C’mon.  We can be a little intimidating.”  Sam nods as he drizzles olive oil and squeezes a lemon over the salad.  A pinch of salt.  A few pepper mill twists.  One toss.  Two toss.  Three toss.  Done.  “Stuart can be really mean sometimes,” he says, handing Randy the stainless steel salad bowl and pointing to the dining table.

“Which is why he does it behind your back,” Randy says, chewing on a filched lettuce leaf.  “But if he suspects that you’ve weakened…”  The rest of the sentence is swallowed along with another slurp of beer.  “Speaking of mean, Elphaba, you were the one who mocked that guy Phil, the one Cameron was dating… to his face.

“Cameron didn’t even like him.  He was just under some delusion that Phil would support him so he could quit teaching and become a house-husband.”

“Yeah,” Randy concedes, “except sugar daddies like their boys to be quiet and pliable and Cameron is so not the barefoot and pregnant type.”

It wasn’t just Max.  The guys have disapproved of all Sam’s boyfriends.  But then he’s never been crazy about their choices either: He once pummeled the fresh-faced Mormon beauty Randy was dating with snarky questions like “Do you suppose the golden plates were fourteen or eighteen carat?” and “Does your lucky underwear help you get laid?”  They’ve each taken turns accusing the others of sabotaging their relationships, of holding up the men they dated to unrealistic standards.  There is some truth to this claim to be sure, but only some.  It’s hard to assign blame when each is guilty of his own unique dysfunction when it comes to relationships (with some convenient overlap).

Sam, for instance, is a coward.  Rather than face rejection, he will not pursue any man to whom he’s genuinely attracted and consequently ends up connecting only with guys who come onto him forcefully.  A wink, a smile or a sidelong glance are far too subtle for Sam.  He requires the attentions of someone who burrows holes into him with the pitiable gaze of a starving refugee.

“Really? Boyfriend?” Cameron once huffed after being introduced to Sam’s latest.  “I should get you a tee-shirt that says “I ♥ desperation.”  It was close enough to the truth that Sam was stung.  Yet unless he sensed that a man wanted to take him home to murder and dismember him, Sam was flattered by his tenacity.  And he was usually rewarded – at first.  Anyone that determined would work overtime to satisfy him and, at least for the first few weeks, continue to say whatever he thought Sam wanted to hear.  And Sam would pretend to be content with half or even a quarter of a loaf.

The end arrived when the incompatibility issues became too glaring to ignore.  In Max’s case it was the way he fell apart every time he spoke to his mother (on average, four times a week), conversations that usually ended with him bawling, “No, Mummy no, please don’t say that!”  With Joe, it happened during a tender post-coital moment when he casually mentioned that he’d been in love with Sam for ages.  “But we just met a few weeks ago,” Sam reminded him.  To which Joe replied, “I meant in our past lives together.”  Sam jumped out of bed and threw on his clothes.  “Maybe so,” he said over his shoulder as he departed, “but I don’t think it’s going to work out in this lifetime.”

Two days later he went back to Joe and continued dating him for another two months, mainly because of his craving for a boyfriend, any boyfriend, which he believed was the cure for all his lingering insecurities and feelings of low self-worth.

The “boyfriend as panacea” myth was one of the topics that night at Stuart’s.

“Not that it helps,” Stuart began, “but whenever I get blue because I think I’m going to die alone…”

“We all die alone,” Randy interjected.

“Unless it’s a suicide pact,” Cameron added.

“Or the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre,” Jerrod contributed.

Stuart talked right over them in continuous stream as he often does when he’s tweaked.  “…I focus on all the couples I know and how even the happy ones do nothing but complain.  All the time.  Like Arthur of Arthur and Tim, who once told me that the great thing about having a partner is that you always have someone to have sex with.  Then Tim turned to me and whispered, ‘And if you’re lucky it’s not your partner.’  Some guys are too lazy to break up.  Some don’t want to sell the house, divvy up the furniture and downsize; some are waiting until they find a suitable replacement.”

“And the rest sneak around and fuck with one of us,” Jerrod said.  “Half the guys I hook up with are part of a couple.  It’s bee-zarro.  Sometimes I trick with both halves at different times and each makes me swear not to tell the other.”

Stuart raised his voice to drown out Jerrod.  “The more contented couples who have settled into a groove still keep a large can of spackle handy to seal up the cracks.  You know Dieder and John? They’re like the ideal couple, right? All the same tastes in and out of bed.  They’re both into Victoriana, have season tickets to the opera, and between them own more leather than a cattle ranch.  One day at the gym Dieder tells me they’re planning to adopt a kid.  ‘It’s either that or there’s really nowhere else to go with the relationship.’  I can only assume he meant that being parents would help them grow as people.  The alternative makes me shudder, mostly for the child.”

“Right.  And they would be the first gay couple to have a child for the same reason some straight people do: because it’s the perfect accessory,” Cameron quipped.  “I entertained the idea myself once for about fifteen minutes, mainly because I imagined people oohing and awing at me as I pushed an expensive stroller through Dolores Park.”

“You do know that you can’t return a child,” Randy said.  “Not even if you keep the receipt.”

“Chillax, Randy.”  Cameron frowned.  “You’ll give yourself a tumor.”

SAM CROUCHES DOWN to grab the salad plates from a low cabinet.  He is on his haunches in front of Randy when Cameron drifts into the kitchen.  “The front door was…  Hey, get your lips away from that nasty thing.”

Sam gets up and dabs the corner of his mouth.  “Not my fault.  Randy begged me.”

“What a good friend you are.  Dinner and a hummer,” Cameron shoots back.

Randy shakes his head and returns to the fridge for a refill.  He frees a Corona and hands Cameron a Diet Coke.

Sam calls Randy his fourth brother – or third sister, depending on his mood.  He’s like family and has become close to his parents and all his siblings.  If Sam goes home to Long Beach by himself at Thanksgiving or Christmas his mother whines, “Why didn’t you bring Randy? We were so looking forward to having him with us for the holiday.”

The folks make no secret that they want Sam to settle down like his straight siblings and his kid sister Sasha and her girlfriend Lucinda who live in couch-potato splendor (Sasha’s words, not his) in Claremont.  They have hinted that they’d like that mate to be Randy.  More than hinted.  “The two of you already say you love each other all the time,” his father mentions.  “We’ve heard you.”

“In a bromance way, Dad.  You do know what a bromance is?”

Though Sam and Randy have always been tight, there was never the slightest heat between them, even back in college on those nights when they were both mad horny and it was late and they were wrecked enough that they could feign amnesia in the morning.  Instead, they’d return to their room, open the porn magazine drawer and take turns in the bathroom.

Sam does love Randy.  How could he not? He’s handsome and smart and even tempered, probably the most uncomplicated person he’s ever known.  The rest of the gang (Sam included) have flaws aplenty, tics and full-on neuroses that sometimes grate.  But like Sara Lee, nobody doesn’t like Randy, who is a mid-level dotcommer.  Even the alpha males in his office want to be his friend.  The other guys in the group sometimes try each other’s patience (not often and never fatally), but the only time they quarrel with Randy is after he has laid some truth on them – candidly and without judgment – and they go on the defensive.

Randy has only one shortcoming.  But it’s a pip.  When it comes to mating, Randy is turned on by the visual – to the exclusion of everything else.  Before they evolved into friends, Jerrod and especially Cameron were dazzling façades who stoked Randy’s lust and, like all the rest, eventually disappointed him, lacking the fiber he demands in a lover.  It was only through Sam and Stuart’s intercession that Cameron and Jerrod remained in the fold after Randy cooled on them, though, to his credit, he gradually caved and is now devoted to them, finding their once maddening inadequacies forgivable, even endearing.

Sam has been blunt with Randy about his skin-deep fixation.  “Even poor, pitiful me knows that a pretty face may be like a melody, but just because the tune gets caught in your head doesn’t mean it’s a good song.  ‘I Kissed a Girl?’ Hello?”

Randy contends that out there somewhere is a beautiful young man who will excite him and also prove to be mature and stable and companionable.

“Yeah,” Sam responded with a slow headshake.  “And when you find him he’ll be riding a unicorn up Market Street.”

Randy has steadfastly rejected the concept of dating someone with passable looks and a good head on his shoulders and gradually developing sexual feelings for him.  “That’s just back-asswards,” he insisted.

Given his own sorry track record, Sam had no proof that the “back-assward” theory was viable.  He knew plenty of heteros and lesbians who coupled in this manner, but not a single one of his gay friends or acquaintances.  “He’s either hot or he’s shot,” as Jerrod once proclaimed to an “amen” chorus.  Nonetheless, Sam refused to concede that gay men have a monopoly on intimacy issues.

“CAN I BORROW a sweater? I have to get out of this Cliff Huxtable outfit ASAP,” Cameron calls out from the bathroom as he fusses with his fluid, honey-colored mop.

“There’s a sweatshirt hanging on the back of the door,” Sam says.  “I don’t want you stretching out my sweaters with those big shoulders.”

Cameron flashes a dimpled smile as he does whenever he’s paid a compliment.  He is the group narcissist – and with good reason.  Sam recalls the throat-gripping envy he experienced when Randy introduced Cameron with the proud grin of a hunter who’d personally felled Adonis with a bow and arrow.  Not that he could have bagged a Cameron.  Men who look like Cameron don’t have to stalk their prey: Merely breathing incites a stampede.  More than once, men have come to blows over him.

Cameron was an unnaturally beautiful young man, almost another species.  For Sam and his friends, hanging out with Cameron was like suddenly owning your own built-in pool.   Guys who had previously looked right through them were suddenly their BFFs.  They were not in the least bit coy about their intentions, plying them with drinks and debriefing them about Cameron like CIA agents.

“Hey, I’m not his pimp,” Sam yelled at one tenacious guy.  “If you want to get to know him, go up and talk to him, for all the good it’ll do you.”

Not that Cameron was stand-offish.  He rarely gave shade, carrying his beauty with the same ease as old money handles wealth.  The men he went home with weren’t always the lookers since he felt no need to trade up, to be validated by dating someone who was better looking.  What turned him on was stupefaction.  He enjoyed gobsmacking men, discomposing them, causing them to jumble their words and trip all over themselves.  The sudden surge of power was what put the starch in his shorts.

But a frisson, by its very definition, can’t last.  The worshipfulness eventually became tedious as the conquests predictably threw jealous tantrums if he so much as talked to anyone else.  Afterwards they apologized too much.  They groveled and turned pathetic.  By then Cameron was craving the promise of the next frisson.

Soon after his memorable thirtieth birthday, Cameron peaked.  He is still handsome and takes exquisite care of himself; if he misses a gym workout, he goes into a full-on pet.  The small character lines that have appeared around his mouth and eyes only enhance his high cheekbones and sensuous lips.  But the first blush is gone.  When he goes out dancing, Cameron is outshined by the newer models on the floor, all of whom seem to have that new car smell, not a scratch on them and almost no mileage.  The sudden loss of primacy has addled Cameron.  He is no longer approached with trepidation and awe.  He is still desired but no longer adored.  And the comedown has been a shock to his system.

Having slipped from a solid ten to a seven or eight, still a rarified stratum by any objective standard, Cameron has had to learn the steps of the ritual mating dance and discovered that he suffers from the same loss of nerve that plagues mere mortals.  Which for him is intolerable.

There have been other indignities.  “Last night this twerp had no sooner introduced himself,” he confessed to Sam, “than he started getting all up in my business with presumptuous questions like, ‘Do you think you’d ever get plastic surgery? I mean, not now but someday?’ And with my mouth still hanging open, he then proceeded to ask my age.  Not ‘How old are you?’ which would have been bad enough, but ‘How old are you?’ Big difference.  Of course, I shaved off a couple of years.  And he had the balls to say that I looked good for my age.  And that, Your Honor, is why I killed him and no jury will ever convict me.”

On his last birthday Cameron announced that even though he might still have a few good years left in him, he was retiring from “the game.”  “I’m totally over it.  What do I need a boyfriend for anyway? I have the Crepes for company.  Jerking off takes care of the rest.  And toys.  Face it: Our sex lives begin and end with masturbation.”

His friends believe Cameron’s merely experiencing early midlife crisis (though they would never dare utter the words “midlife” in his presence) so they cut him slack.  He may be shallow (Stuart once joshed that his tombstone will read: Here lies Cameron.  He died of superficial wounds.), but Cameron is also loyal and funny, devoted to his friends in a way that he has never been with his sexual partners.  With the gang he doesn’t need to be the center of attention and is always eager to earn his keep, which is why he has assumed the responsibilities of coordinating their annual vacations.

CAMERON STRIPS OFF his work shirt and corduroy vest and pulls on the sweatshirt.  Randy regards his well defined torso with dismay.  “I will never have abs like that, no matter how many sit-ups I do.”

Cameron taps Randy’s half-empty Corona.  “You can’t have a six pack if you drink a six pack.”

Randy self-consciously sucks in his gut.  “I think a little roll is kind of sexy,” Sam says, jumping to his friend’s defense.

Cameron smirks.  “Define ‘little roll’.”

The cell phone jingles again.  Sam mouths “Jerrod” and picks up.

“Yo! I’m running late,” Jerrod says.  “I’ll try to get there as soon as I can.  What’s on the menu?”

“Pizza and salad.”

“Yum-ee.  I love cold pizza.  Save me a slice.”

“Sausage or veggie?”

“Duh? You know the only meat I eat is live meat.”  In the background, Sam hears someone tittering.  As he clicks off the phone, Cameron says, “Let me guess.  He’s blowing us off to blow someone.”  Sam and Randy nod in unison.

Jerrod is the group’s resident bad boy.  When he was fifteen and a half, his mother, not a particularly religious or moral woman, caught him going down on the boy next door in the garage and kicked him out of the house.  He found his way from Enid, OK to SF by working truck stops.  “I was a true pederast’s dream,” he says with a wink.  “I stuck out everything but my thumb and always got a ride afterwards.”

Photos of Jerrod as a teenager reveal a boy with the angelic purity of a Viennese choirboy.  Upon closer inspection, however, it would be hard to miss the demonic glint of a serial arsonist in his eyes.  Friendship and work (sporadically as a bartender or a watchman) are Jerrod’s avocations; promiscuity is his career and he proudly wears the mantle of slut.  His philosophy: “Live fast, die young, and leave a pretty corpse,” which he’s repeated so often Cameron once felt compelled to reply, “Oops, too late.”  Jerrod laughed it off.  Despite his fast life, Jerrod can still pass for a teenager and is frequently carded when they go out, which infuriates Cameron.

Jerrod’s fatalism is not merely affectation.  At twenty, he sero-converted, though he barely stopped to take notice.  He quit street hustling after he was hired on as night watchman at a construction site.  (He cinched the job interview by servicing the foreman.)  When he was finally legal he started working in bars and coffee houses where he is virtually guaranteed a rotating carousel of available men.  He faithfully takes his HIV meds every day, is a vegetarian who sneaks a cheeseburger when no one’s looking, and does not overdo (“Unless I’m going to an orgy”) recreational drugs and alcohol.

To his friends, Jerrod’s bottomless libido is as exhausting as it is impressive, allowing them to live the life of a sexual desperado vicariously, a pose Jerrod has cultivated and refined over the years.  His clothes always look dirty even when they’re freshly laundered.  He recently declared a moratorium on tattoos and piercing, but only because he’s too impatient to sit still for the procedures.  Yet for all his experience, Jerrod maintains a beguiling core of innocence.  He is upbeat, impish and completely without malice, which is why his friends look the other way when he wanders away in search of a quickie.

Jerrod’s tastes are catholic:  He enjoys all shapes, sizes and colors, and sexually runs the gamut from vanilla to beyond exotic.  One night Sam looked on as he plastered himself to a clearly overjoyed older man and phoned Jerrod the next morning to express fake outrage.  “What the fuck, Jer?” Sam fumed into his cell as he shuffled papers at his desk.  “The guy you went home with last night had to be seventy if he was a day.”

“He’s seventy-two, actually,” Jerrod said, stifling a yawn.  “Sometimes I get a thing for grandpas.  Thanks to Viagra they can still get it up, they’re in no rush, plus they know all the moves.  He even offered me money, which was sweet.  I took it to make him feel good then left it on the nightstand with a note that said, ‘I should be paying you.’”

“Nice touch,” Sam said, trying to shake the image out of his head.  “I love you, man.  But you are one sick puppy.”

“Tell me about it,” he chortled mischievously.  “I’ll call you later when I get to work.”

THE DOORBELL RINGS.  One hour almost to the minute.  As Sam is paying the delivery guy Stuart appears behind him in the hallway.  “Pizza and beer? Aw, man, we might as well join a bowling league.”

“I love bowling,” Cameron yells from the kitchen.

“You hate bowling.  You love bowling shirts,” Stuart snaps.

“Oh, yeah.  That’s right.”

“I don’t have enough for a tip,” Sam says.  “Give me something.”

Stuart reluctantly takes out his wallet.  “I only have twenties.”

Sam filches one and hands it to the delivery man.  “Keep the change.”

Stuart’s mouth widens in silent horror.

“What?” Sam says as he shuts the door.  “Twenty bucks is pin money for you.”  (Stuart is a trust fund baby.)  “That man probably works three jobs just to pay his rent.”

In the kitchen, Randy and Cameron are doubled over.

“Ha ha,” Stuart says.  “Everybody laugh at the cheap Jew.”

“Don’t even go there,” says Randy.  “You were raised Presbyterian.”

“Sweetheart, your stinginess transcends all ethnic and religious boundaries,” says Cameron as he gives Stuart a generous hug.

Sam can’t resist piling it on.  “Remember, you were the one who said that rich people stay rich by not spending their own money.”

“Exactly,” Stuart says defensively.  “That means no twenty-dollar tips.”

“What he meant was not spending their money on other people,” says Randy.

“I don’t spend money on myself either.  Look at how I dress.  I shop at Kohl’s.”

“What about the million dollar loft?” Cameron says.

“That’s different.  Property is an investment.”

“Oh yeah? Tell that to the people with underwater mortgages,” says Randy.

Though they will use almost any opportunity to rib Stuart about his tightfistedness, they know that it’s merely shtick.  A few years ago, when Jerrod couldn’t afford an exorbitantly priced experimental HIV drug regimen, Stuart quietly picked up the tab until it was approved by the FDA.

Stuart pulls out a joint and waves it in Randy’s face.  “Just for that I’m not sharing.”

Randy snatches the joint and lights it.  He inhales and holds it up to Stuart’s lips before giving Sam a toke.

“Remember, I’m the one who pays for the marijuana prescription and buys pot for us,” Stuart points out.

“What’s your prescription for again?” Cameron asks, feigning dumbness.

“Fallen arches.  It’s very painful,” he says as he peers into the fridge.  “Anything stronger than beer and white wine?”

“There’s Grey Goose up top.”

“Ooh,” he enthuses.  “Vodka and a doobie.  Then even pizza will taste like a gourmet meal.”

Sam grabs the chilled bottle from Stuart’s hands.  “How do you like it?”

“Like I like my men,” Stuart says.

A preference for heterosexual men is Stuart’s proclivity.  When they first met at an SFMOMA opening, Stuart only hit on Sam because he thought he was straight.  “A perfectly understandable mistake,” he argued.  “You were wearing a suit that was two sizes too big with a butt-ugly tie.”

“A hand-me-down from one of my older brothers,” Sam explained.  “I couldn’t afford to have it taken in.”

Since he’s never had to hold down a job, Stuart can devote huge chunks of his day to pursuing straight – preferably married – men, mostly transients.  San Francisco, one of the country’s top convention destinations, offers an endless selection.  (For a change-up he travels to Vegas several times a year.)  His dream candidates are “virgins” – men with no prior same-sex experience.

Should the need ever arise for him to have a career, Stuart would make an excellent corporate negotiator.  He can adroitly steer conversations in his direction, dropping subliminal sexual hints along the way like bread crumbs on a hiking trail.  It helps that he can hold his liquor and has an uncanny knack for chatting up lonely-in-a-strange-town men who cannot.  He has mastered all the appropriate topics: competitive sports (which, like Randy, he actually follows), golf, and the location of the nearest gentlemen’s club.  He knows how and when to close the deal and also when to cut and run, though he has run afoul of the occasional fist.  He shrugs: “Hazard pay.”

Stuart’s technique has been praised by no less a cockswain than Jerrod, the only one who has ever witnessed him in action.  Though Jerrod has no interest in straight men (“Why go to all the trouble of breaking them in,” he asserts.  “Then there’s the guilt afterwards, which would make me nuts.”), he has accompanied Stuart on one or two “male poon” runs.

“Impressed the shit out of me,” Jerrod reported back to Sam.

The secret of Stuart’s success, he said, was his ability to appear heterosexual and at the same time aggressively gay.  “He grooms himself to look like them only just a little better put together – enough to be attractive but not threatening.  He talks like they talk, in short, clipped sentences, with little nods and phrases like ‘Say no more’ and ‘I hear you.’  He nurses his drinks until the other guy’s snockered.  Then, after they’re done analyzing the Niners game and complaining about the latest baseball trade, he carefully injects sex into the conversation, and how little he’s getting now that he’s been married a few years and has kids…”  (On his forays Stuart wears a gold wedding band and has wallet snaps of his nephews and nieces to pass off as his kids should the need arise.)  “…and how lonely it is to be in a strange city and how fortunate he is to run someone who really gets it.  Next thing you know he’s up in the guy’s room.  Of course it helps that Stuart’s a total bottom.”

As with his friends (Jerrod being the exception), however, the once heady thrill of the chase has become annoyingly routine.  Stuart talks about wanting to settle down and actually came close to doing so a year ago when he began dating one of his conquests.  But he soon became disenchanted: “He turned out to be a total fag.”

“How you gonna keep ’em down on the farm after they’ve seen wee-wee?” Cameron observed.

That night at Stuart’s apartment when they were discussing relationships, he complained “I haven’t got the energy to nurse these guys into bed anymore.  And why do they always expect me to play catch?”

“Your argument would be more convincing if you took down that sling,” said Cameron, pointing to the far corner of the loft.

“And if you weren’t a self-hating homosexual,” Randy tossed in.

Stuart protested.  “I am not.  I have sex with gay men sometimes.  It’s just that straight guys are more of a challenge.”

“Not any more,” Cameron argued.  “Bi is the new straight.  Everybody knows that.”

“Why does it have to be a challenge?” Sam asked.

“Otherwise where’s the sense of accomplishment?” Stuart responded.

“That is so sad,” Randy said.

“Why? If you look at it, we’re not different,” Stuart said.  “My thing is shagging unattainable men and yours is idealized beauty.  Two sides of the same dysfunction.”

“But at least I’m trying to connect.  You’re just playing games.”

“Oh, please.  We’re all playing games.”  Stuart sneered.  “Cameron and Sam are only into sure things, men who tell them how wonderful they are.”

“Hey,” Cameron complained.  “I resemble that.”

“And where do I fit in?” Jerrod asked.

“You’ll sleep with anyone who has a dick,” Stuart scoffed.

“Uh uh.  I’ve been with a few trannies.”

“The real problem is that you can buy sex but you can’t buy a relationship,” Stuart said.

“You could if you weren’t such a tightwad.  There are plenty of gold diggers out there,” Cameron joined in.  “And if any of you bring up Phil, I’m going to smack you.”

But Stuart was on a roll and Cameron’s comment barely registered.  “Seriously, with modern technology you would think I’d be able to shop for the perfect mate on Amazon.  One time I typed ‘soulmate’ into the search box and all I came up with was some stupid self-help books and a couple of Lifetime movies.”

“Listen to you guys,” Randy said.  “You’re all so spoiled.  And I include myself in that.  The reason we can’t find boyfriends is because why put in the work, when it’s so easy to pick up someone at a bar, café, club, bathhouse, chat room, on Skype, on Grind’r….”

“Testify preacher man,” Sam yelled showing Randy the flat of his palm.  “Just wait until the next time some beautiful brainless boy makes your eyes bug out.”

“Yeah,” Cameron said.  “For all your talk, you’re going to wind up alone like the rest of us.”

Jerrod shrugged.  “I don’t care.  I like my life just as it is.  And if you get rid of the sling, I’ll take it.”

“Where would you put it?” Stuart said.  “It’s bigger than your apartment.”

“I’ll get rid of my bed.  It can double as a hammock.”

“Twisted,” Cameron said, laughing in spite of himself.

“We don’t have to worry about ending up alone,” Randy said, striking a conciliatory tone.  “We’ve got each other.  Cameron’s already given up on sex.  Eventually we all will.  Then we’ll just pair off and grow old together.”

“Speak for yourself,” Jerrod huffed.  “I intend to die with my boots on.”

“Well, then the rest of us,” said Randy.  “And just for the record, I call Sam.”

“Sweet,” Sam said in mock gratitude.

“Then I get Jerrod,” Cameron insisted.  “Come on, be a pal.  You can have your own room and bring home as much trash you want.  I’ll even buy you a sling.”

“I’ll think about it,” Jerrod said magnanimously.

“Hey,” Stuart cried in outrage.

“Ruh roh,” said Jerrod, doing his best Scooby Doo.

“Wait. I know,” said Randy.  “Joint custody.”

“Awwww,” the others said in unison.  And Stuart pondered the proposal as if Randy had been serious.

JERROD ARRIVES AT SAM’S around ten, just as the others are leaving.  “Take a whiff,” he says.

Sam inhales.  “What?”

“My favorite scent: Après Nookie.”  He scarfs down the leftover pizza then announces, “Gotta run.  Late date.”

“You’re going to wear that thing out,” Sam warns him.

“I will not.  Jeez.  It ain’t soap,” Jerrod replies.

Sam walks him to the elevator and dumps the pizza boxes down the garbage chute.  He locks the door and puts on the latch.  As he’s wiping down the kitchen counter, the dishwasher churning behind him, the front door opens with a thwack.

“Why is the chain on?” Randy calls from outside.

“You said you had an early meeting,” Sam says as he lets him in.

Randy playfully pins Sam to the wall and lays on a big, sloppy kiss.  “I have a surprise for you!”

A few weeks earlier, following the relationship discussion at Stuart’s loft, Randy invited himself to spend the night at Sam’s.  He’d stayed over before – when he was too wasted to drive or fighting the blues or just needed to bend an ear – so Sam didn’t make too much of it.

He slipped into bed naked, which Sam thought odd since Randy usually wore at least a tee-shirt and there was a fall chill in the air.

Randy punched the pillow three times and pressed his body against Sam’s.  He was unmistakably sporting wood.  “Do you think it would be okay if I hit on you?” he said, using the wistful tone he usually reserved for seducing handsome young men.

“Darling, this is so sudden,” Sam said.

“What I meant was, would it be okay if I hit on you and you didn’t make a joke about it,” Randy replied with a slight edge, and the wood went away.

Sam turned.  “What is going on?”

“It’s something I’ve been thinking about.  Then tonight when we were talking, I was looking around and I realized I’d slept with most of the guys in the room but not my best friend.”

“That’s because you slept with them and then became friends.  Otherwise it would be like you said: bass-ackwards.”

“And you said that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing,” Randy said, punching every word.

“Yeah, ’cause I’m the expert.  Anyway, I didn’t mean you and me.  You’re forgetting one crucial thing.  Attraction.”

“What? We both still have our looks.  We’re in shape.  We know what turns the other person on….”

“That’s just it.  We know too much about each other.  It would get in the way.”

“So I should continue to chase pretty boys who I want to kick out as soon as I come, while you get weak in the knees for charity cases who suck the life out of you? Maybe it is time for Plan B.”

“Plan B? Isn’t that romantic?”  Sam enjoyed sparring with Randy.  They’d been doing it since college and it was almost second nature.

“What do either one of us know about romance?” Randy said.  “The thing we do know is that we love each other more than anyone else, more than any of our other friends.  They all know that.  I meant it tonight when I called dibs on you.

“At the very least it would be awkward.”

“Why? We’ve jerked off in front of each other.”

“Watching porn.  With others present.”

“We’ve made out on the dance floor.”

“We were on E.”

Randy groaned.  “Then you would never consider doing it with me?”

“Depends.”  Sam peeked under the covers.  “You’re kinda cute from the neck down.”

“So I’d have to be decapitated?” Randy fumed.

“No.  I could put a paper bag over your head.”

“Wow.  And I thought I was the one who was obsessed with looks.”

“I was kidding,” said Sam.  “I just meant I couldn’t do it if I knew it was you.  I’d be self-conscious.”

“When was the last time you had sex, even with yourself?”

“Uh, Sunday night after I got home.”

“So would you say you’re a little horny or a lot?”

“More than a little.  Maybe a lot.”

“Good.  Me too.  Can we at least try? We’ll find out pretty quick if it’s a bust.  There’s no way to fake that.”

“I don’t know.  Why did you have to bring this up? It’s weird.”  Sam flopped onto his back and placed his hands behind his head.  They both studied the ceiling, and neither spoke for a few minutes.

Then Randy quietly slipped a hand into Sam’s shorts and when he sensed movement closed in.  “Okay, but no talking,” Sam warned, shutting his eyes.

After a few initial fumbles – mostly wayward elbows – the sex was unforced and pleasantly familiar, as if they’d done it before and knew where all the buttons and levers were.  They particularly enjoyed hanging on to each other afterwards and waking up the following morning still intertwined.

They agreed to try again the next night to see if they could do it when they weren’t especially horny.  And then again two nights later.  Always more than satisfactory.  Not heady or mind-blowing, but there were compensating factors: playfulness, genuine affection, and enough trust to ask for what they wanted.

“I JUST SAID I had an early meeting as an excuse so I could go home and freshen up,” Randy coos as he cups Sam.  “You asked if we could flip sometime and I thought…”

Sam excitedly undoes Randy’s belt, yanks down his jeans and takes him right there in the entryway.

Later, they are coiled around each other in bed and about to drift off when Sam says, “I kind of freaked when Cameron almost saw us tonight.

Earlier in the evening, when he was crouching down to pull out the plates Sam had nuzzled Randy’s groin, and Cameron almost caught him in the act.  Randy turned to the refrigerator to conceal his discomposure and Sam covered with a joke.

“Me too.  And I just missed Jerrod coming out of the building.”

“Oh my god, this is so ‘Harry Met Sally’.”

“I hate Billy Crystal,” says Randy.

“Worse.  It’s a bad episode of ‘Friends’.”

“Please say we’re Ross and Rachel and not Monica and Chandler,” Randy pleads.  “I didn’t get them at all.  Zero heat.”

“We’re more like Joey and Chandler.  That’s where the real heat was.”

“I thought we didn’t have heat.”

“Apparently we do.  Or at least warmth,” Sam concedes.

“I’m sorry, but tonight there was heat,” Randy insists.

“Definitely,” Sam agrees.  “I had no idea you could be so nasty.”

Randy blushes. “Aw shucks.”

“I wonder what would have happened if back in college we’d—”

“Don’t.  Neither one of us was mature enough then.”

“Right.  We’re so much older and wiser now.”

“It happened when it was supposed to happen,” Randy says and plants a kiss on Sam’s shoulder.  Let’s leave it at that.”

“What do you think the guys will say if they find out?”

“I don’t think they’ll be all that surprised.  Still, they’ll probably feel threatened and try to talk us out of it.  Then, hopefully, they’ll get over themselves.  But your parents will be pleased.  They loooove me.”

“You really know how to kill an afterglow,” Sam says, scrunching his mouth.  “I’m just not ready to handle all the questions.  Too much pressure.  Besides, right now it’s just sex and we could get bored with each other like we have with everyone else.”

“It was already more than that when we started,” Randy says, and Sam gnashes his teeth.

Long silence.

“Have you noticed that we used to say ‘I love you’ every time we talked and in the past two weeks we haven’t said it once?” Sam asks.

“Yes.  I’ve been afraid to say it because it would mean something different.  And if you didn’t say it back, I might fall apart.”

“We should stop before we’re not friends anymore.”

“You mean like right now?”

“Well, not right now.  But soon.  Very soon.”

“I’m not really worried about the friendship,” Randy tries to reassure him.  “The guys wouldn’t stand for it.  We hold everything together.  They’d force us to lick our wounds and gradually we’d go back to the way it was, or at least close to it.  Though I would miss that sweet ass.”

“And that goes double for me.”

“The thing is, how do you know when you’ve moved from loving someone to being in love with him?”

“Beats the hell out of me.  Okay, no more.  Let’s just enjoy tonight.  I had so much fun.”

“Me too,” Randy says, blushing again.  “But it’s strange. You’re usually the one who gets all clingy and asks for guarantees.”

“I said enough,” Sam barks as he clicks off the light.  “Now good night.”  Sam leans in and gives Randy a kiss before resting his head on his chest.  “Shit. I’m not going to be able to sleep.”

“Me neither.”

But gradually they drift off.  Together.

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