During the six months after they bought the cabin my parents and I drove up to Dahlonega or Helen on several buying trips to furnish it. None of the furniture matched, but that didn't matter. For the small eating area we had picked up a drop-leaf table and six chairs. The guy who built the place only had shelves built above the kitchenette area and that turned out to be just fine. The walls of the cabin were 2x8 rough-sawn cedar boards, and you could still smell that awesome outdoorsy aroma emanating from them. One big feat was installing a hot tub on the rear deck. We had to dismantle the railing and provide some additional piers beneath the deck for support.
The downstairs was basically one big room with a separate bathroom off to the side, and we put in a queen size bed in front of the picture window that overlooked the rear covered deck. Near the staircase we also had a daybed. Privacy wasn't king in this humble abode. A couple of small easy chairs finished out the downstairs furnishings, along with some bookcases filled with board games, books, and other things to relax with. Upstairs was also one long room, from the front to the back of the cabin, and the ceiling was actually the roof which sloped down to three feet tall pony walls. Up here we set up two queen size beds, one under each set of windows at either end of the space, a couple of cedar chests to store linens, some side tables and a couple of chairs. Since the place was up in the mountains the days didn't get quite so hot and a few floor fans spaced throughout the cabin were all that we really needed to keep it cool. I went ahead and bought an old window fan, like from the time when I was a little kid in New York, to use when I'd go up there. In total the cabin could sleep seven comfortably in beds, and a few more people in sleeping bags on the floor.
Because my surgery was scheduled for the week after finals I was limited to staying at the cabin the weekend in between. Matt surprised us and was on leave again for four weeks so I invited him, Glen, Don and Alan to come up to the cabin with me. My parents let me take the Caprice up there and two hours wasn't that bad of a drive, even when you considered having five grown college guys piled in the car. Matt insisted on riding shotgun because he didn't want to sit too close to any guys. Seriously. This was the most ridiculous thing I'd ever heard and we all were merciless in bugging him about it on the way up. But it gave him room to set his guitar on the floor between him and me. There were too many bags in the trunk for it to fit, even in that fat-ass car.
Poor Glen looked funny sandwiched between Don and Alan, although to their credit they both leaned more against the doors of the car to give him a little bit of shoulder room. Now that football had been over for six months or so Alan's body had sort of plateaued. But I had no doubt that he would continue to develop once training began again at the end of July. Don had been playing baseball wherever he could. He'd even considered moving back to North Carolina to try out for the minor league there but decided against it. To keep himself busy and in shape he started taking kick boxing and tae kwon do. He also took a job as a bouncer at a club in Buckhead, which is in northern Atlanta. I'll admit that it was hard to take my eyes off the mirror with those two in the back seat.
When we got to the cabin five guys piled out of the car and stretched their legs and arms. The air was filled with the sounds of grunts and groans, and we all breathed deeply of the fresh mountain air. This far north there are a lot more hardwood trees than you'll see in the Georgia Piedmont, which is where Atlanta and its environs lie. The air is cooler and even on the hottest summer day you'll find the temperatures bearable under the canopies of the huge hardwoods. The forest floors are also much less cluttered than the neighboring Piedmont region to the south, where kudzu grows wild in and over the piney woods, and briar patches and thickets abound.
I unlocked the cabin and went in to open all of the windows so it could air out a little bit. We unloaded the car in about five minutes then I gave them all the three-second tour. Alan and Glen sat on the deck railing and started talking about school and what it was like for Alan to play for the Bulldogs. Matt had crashed on the daybed near the stairs and Don offered to ride with me to the local general store to get some ice and a couple of other food items that we'd forgotten. Once we got back we found Matt still on the daybed sawin' logs, and Glen and Alan had moved to the glider and a chair on the deck talking about who-knows-what.
"Hey man, wanna show me the rest of the property?" Don asked me.
"Yeah. Let me bust up this ice...." and I dropped the few bags that we'd bought on the floor "and cover the drinks in the cooler.... There. Ready?"
"Ready Freddy," he said.
The cabin wasn't too far from the front of the property so we headed towards the back and passed the deck where Glen and Alan were hanging out.
"Where're y'all headed?" Alan asked.
"Gonna give him a tour of the place," I said.
"Make sure that's all you give him, Lyons." By now Alan knew that I'd told Glen about the two of us. Or the two of 'us' that used to be.
"In his dreams, Alan," Don said.
"Fuck both'a y'all," I said and Alan snorted out a laugh. I rolled my eyes and headed down towards the creek.
After zig-zagging across the property for a few minutes we approached the creek which flowed from the left side of the property around to the right. It was a pretty active creek and you could even hear it in the distance from the cabin itself. The mountain on the other side of the creek actually bordered the western edge of the property so the cabin was in full shadow by around six o'clock in the evenings in mid-June.
"This really is beautiful," he said.
"I love it up here. We've been up here a few times, only to buy furniture and stuff for the place. This is the first time anyone has ever stayed here since we bought it back in December."
"It's awesome. I could sure stand livin' in a place like this."
"Mmm. Me too."
When we got down to the creek we clambered over some of the bigger boulders to the other side and climbed up the mountain. We couldn't go too far because it was almost a vertical incline.
After sitting down on a rocky ledge I asked him, "Remember the last time we did this? Climbed a mountain?"
He smiled and gazed off in the distance. "God, that was almost three years ago, wasn't it. It seems...." and he left his sentence unfinished.
A few seconds later I chimed in. "Eons ago?"
"It really does. You've changed a lot in those three years, Paul, ya know that?"
I chuckled. "Yeah. I've gotten skinny again."
"Nahh, it's alright. We just gotta fatten you up." I raised my eyebrows at him. "Don't even go there," he laughed.
I held my hands up. "I ain't said a thing."
"Yeah, but you were thinkin' it," he smiled and looked around. "Man, this really is beautiful."
"It is, thanks."
We sat in a comfortable silence for a few minutes. It had been forever, or so it seemed, that he and I had just...hung out...like this. I didn't realize until then how much I'd missed it.
"So how are things at the club?" I asked, referring to his new job.
"It's alright, I guess. It lets me take out any aggressions I might have on a drunken asshole or two," he said, smiling.
"Dude," I laughed, "you're, like, the most even-tempered guy. What aggressions do you have?"
"Oh, I can get pretty crazy," and he widened his eyes then crossed them, making a goofy face at me. I couldn't help but laugh.
"So, you still thinkin' about North Carolina?"
He shook his head slightly. "I dunno. I just....I dunno."
We sat in silence for a bit longer, breathing in the cool air down by the creek. "Can I ask you something, Don?" He turned to look at me.
"This must be serious."
" 'Cause you said 'Don'." He smiled.
I smiled back a bit. "What happened when you were off at school? Why'd you come back?"
He took a breath and let it out. Then he picked up a stone and flung it into the babbling creek. "I never told you, did I." It was more of a statement.
"No. No, you didn't."
He paused long enough that I thought he wasn't even going to talk about it. "You remember Arnie?"
I snorted. "Your roommate? How could I forget him?"
"Well, he and I...we kinda...he wanted to....shit!" he said looking down for another rock.
"He wanted to shit?" I joked.
Don shook his head a bit. "He wanted to 'something.' "
"What? Fuck your brains out? Who could blame him?" and I busted out laughing.
Don just turned to look at me and I saw a mixture of irritation and sadness in his eyes.
"Sorry," I mumbled. But he kept looking at me. "Wait a minute...are you telling me-"
"That's exactly what he wanted to do."
"Woah!" I said. I was still thinking 'who could blame him' but I kept it to myself. "How the frig did that .... come out."
"Oh man, that guy's basically a drunk spaz. At first it was all...jock stuff. Smack on the ass during practice or whatever, nothin' that I hadn't seen or done before."
"You never did it with me," I offered. He cut his eyes over at me. "Sorry. Just kidding."
"I'm serious man," he said with his eyebrows furrowed.
"You're right. I'm sorry. Go ahead."
"Well just as spring training started, this one night he and I went to some bar and he got fuckin' loaded. Probably drank a whole twelve pack, and then some. I'd only had a few but we still ended up walking home and he's giving me the drunk talk-"
" 'Don, you're my buddy, I love you man' " I mimicked.
"That's it. The drunk talk. Kept throwing his arm around me as we walked and it was funny for a while, until we got back to our room. I let him in then went down to take a piss, and when I came back he was lyin' on his bed in his boxers. No big deal, that's how we both slept. When I went to throw the cover on him he grabbed my hand. I asked him what the hell he was doing and he kept saying 'come'ere Don' and he had this fucked up look in his eyes. Kept pulling me to him. Tryin' to get me to get into the sack with him."
"Bull. Shit! You're fuckin' kiddin' me!" I couldn't believe my ears.
"Hell no, I'm not kidding you! That fucker was tryin' to get me to....I don't know what he had in mind, but I wasn't interested. Then he got pissed when I turned him down, giving me all kind of crap about my little boyfriend at home that he knew I didn't mind givin' it to. Why not let him have a taste."
I had to laugh out loud at that. "Dude, are you sure I'm on the same planet as you? This is friggin' unbelievable." He looked at me again. I stopped laughing pretty quick. "I mean, I believe you, it's just....friggin' crazy."
"Yeah. Try bein' on my end of it."
"Well who did he think that you had back at home? And why'd he think you were gay, with a boyfriend?" I asked incredulously.
"Oh, who the fuck knows. And he was talkin' about you."
He chuckled and nodded. "Yep."
"How the fuck did I get dragged into this episode of psychos-r-us?"
Don laughed out loud. "Paul, I have no clue. I guess he thought since you'd called me so much..."
"Only at first. I stopped when you quit returning my calls."
He looked down and away when I said that.
"I dunno," he continued. "I guess he had the hots for me and thought that I was drunk enough to put out. Anyway, we got into a bit of a scrap and I ended up leaving the room for that night. Well from there on out he was like a bitch spurned. He kept taunting me in front of people, making gay jokes and comments."
"Oh heaven forbid!" I said, again rolling my eyes.
"Hey, a joke's one thing but get serious, Lyons. That kind of thing isn't looked at in the best light in a group of jocks. I mean, I don't give a damn who a person sleeps with but after a while friggin' everyone was on my case. Arnie started the rumor mill sayin' shit like I told him where some glory holes, or whatever the fuck, were."
"Geeze man, I didn't know," I said quietly. "Is that why you ended up leaving?"
He nodded. "Sounds weak, I know."
"Well, sometimes we can only handle so much ridicule before we have to say 'fuck this.' I hate that he fucked up your playing though."
"Yeah. Me too." He was silent for a moment. "All I wanted to do was play ball," he sighed.
I was sad for Don. I knew that was all he wanted to do. And if he lucked out and played for the Braves it would've been better than winning a lottery for him. Plus he'd lost a pretty good chance of at least getting into the minors. All because of some dick head that couldn't take 'no' for an answer. What a fucking bizarro world we live in sometimes.
I patted him on the back. "I really am sorry, man."
He just nodded, looking at the creek.
"I wish you woulda told me," I offered.
"I didn't think that I could," he said.
"Why? I was your friend."
"I figured at that point I had fucked that up too. I wasn't being an asshole, I just...I dunno...got busy with school and whatever-"
"Dude, I'm not complaining. I understand. Believe me. Now I understand." I was referring to mine and Alan's breakup the previous fall, but he couldn't know that.
We sat there for a few more minutes in another comfortable silence.
Then he turned to me and asked: "So what's up with you and Alan?"
Yes, my jaw dropped to my lap. "Uh...uh...say what?"
"You heard me."
In a quick second I tried reading his face but I couldn't. "What are you talking about?" I practically stammered.
Don shook his head and rolled his eyes. "Dumb ass, I think that Matt's the only guy up here who doesn't know that y'all are gay."
"Well...shit...." I kept looking around at the rocks and the creek and the trees "...what makes you think that he and I..."
"Dude, I'm friends with his brother, remember?"
With my eyes shut I rolled my eyes and shook my head. He was right. I was a dumb ass. I'd completely forgotten that he was friends with Steve.
"So what's the story?" he asked.
"Well, there is no story. Not any more."
"Well homie," I smiled a dour smile, "we broke up right before Thanksgiving."
"He went off to school and couldn't handle the separation," I said simply.
Don put his arm around my shoulders and squeezed me playfully towards him. "Lyons, people going off to school just doesn't work for you, does it." I pulled back and punched him in the arm.
"Fongool tu analfabeta!"
He leaned away, laughing. "What the fuck's that?"
"It's Italian for 'fuck you, asshole!' " I frowned at him.
He chuckled a bit more. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't joke like that."
"No. You're right. You shouldn't."
"But y'all are still friends? Ya still hang out."
"That's....kinda why we broke it off."
"I don't get it," he said after a pause.
I took a breath. "Things were going downhill once he'd gone off to UGA. We didn't talk a lot...it just started getting bad. But we'd always said that we'd end any dating relationship in order to save our friendship because that was more important." Then I smacked him on his arm again. "You see, we at least talked things through, unlike you and I, Donnie boy."
"Hey," he said, nudging me away, "I said I was sorry."
"I know. But what good is a friend that you can't give shit to?"
He smiled and threw another rock into the creek.
We sat there on that ledge shootin' the shit. Around us dusk was settling like a well worn cloak, and the crickets and other nighttime sounds drifted through the evening air. Since it was getting late we headed back across the creek and up to the cabin so I could start dinner. I'm quite the domestic. I cooked spaghetti and sausage with a great ante pasta and some garlic bread. Afterwards Glen and Matt built a campfire and we all sat around having a few beers. Well, they did. I drank a couple of coolers. Rock on!
* * * *
The anesthesiologist explained to me that I'd be getting a shot that would make me really sleepy before I was wheeled into the operating room. Since it was only one lump that was being removed from my neck I was admitted for day surgery. I put on the frilly cotton hospital lingerie and sat in the cold exam room waiting for the nurse to come give me the shot. Finally she came and about ten minutes after she administered it I started to get groggy. I climbed onto the gurney as my mind started to wander into all sorts of cloudy directions. I could hear the sound of my breathing in my head, and the sounds in the hallway seemed a million miles away.
I vaguely remember being wheeled down a hallway towards one of the operating rooms at DeKalb General. The foot end of the gurney went through a pair of doors and the last thing I saw before I went through them was a clock that swam over the doors. It read 7:55. This was better than any drunken experience I'd ever had and I remember smiling to myself. Once I was wheeled into the o.r. a couple of nurses and maybe the anesthesiologist transferred me onto the operating table by lifting the sheet beneath my body. I felt my head lolling back and forth as my body settled down. The o.r. was freezing cold and a nurse took the sheet off of my body and replaced it with one that had come out of a blanket warmer. That was heaven. I smiled and thanked her - it probably came out as mush but she smiled and nodded at me.
The surgeon came into the o.r. and was talking to the rest of the team. His voice sounded oddly familiar, but he wasn't the doctor I thought was supposed to operate on me. I opened my eyes and focused on his face as he was telling me something....I don't know what. I could see a smile in his eyes but it wasn't a pleasant one. It was sinister.
"We'll see ya in a minute, Paul," he said as the anesthesiologist lowered the mask over my face. I finally realized where I knew that voice from and I panicked as I drifted off....
I became aware of everything around me but I couldn't open my eyes or move my body. I remember thinking how easy it had all gone and I'd be glad when the drugs wore off. Suddenly I could hear all of the voices clearer and I felt something cold and liquidy being rubbed onto my neck where the lump was.
"They must be changing the bandage," I thought. Then I heard the voice again.
"Procedure start time, eight-ten a.m."
"Wait. Start time? Aren't we finished yet? What the fuck-"
"Wait! Wait! I'm still awake!!" But I was screaming inside my head. I tried with all of my might to move a finger, a toe, open my eyes. Anything. I tried screaming but couldn't. What followed was the most horrific thing that had ever happened to me. I felt a tugging at my neck followed by a flashing pain. My mind went ballistic and I was seeing flashing lights in my brain as the pain ricocheted through my neck.
"I'm awake!!! Oh my GOD. I'M AWAKE!!!! STOP....FUCKIN'.....CUTTING!!!!! PLEEEEEASE!!!!!"
The pain was indescribable and I couldn't hear what they were saying for the screaming in my head. I felt every tug and cut that they made. And the voice. My God, the fuckin' voice! Suddenly my eyes were opened by two fingers. The doctor was staring into my eyes and his eyes were wild. He was saying something about dying. I was in so much pain I couldn't even focus on his words. He held up something the size and shape of an almond. All around it were little spines that were wiggling and moving like a sea anemone. The fucking thing was alive!
The surgeon said five words to me: "You are going to die." He ripped off his face mask and I saw that it wasn't a surgeon. It was Neal-!
"FUCK!!!!!" I hollered sitting up in bed. I clutched at my neck feeling for blood and attempted to stand up but fell off of the side instead. I was in a panic and had forgotten where I was. The nightstand clattered as I tried to pull myself up. I turned to run and wound up running into Alan. I was breathing fast as though I'd run a marathon, and still clutched at my neck.
"Paul! God, are you alright?"
"My neck. My neck," I repeated. It was stiff and sore which probably caused my nightmare in the first place.
"Y'all alright?" someone hollered from down below. I think it was Matt.
Alan turned on the light and looked at my neck. "Yeah," he responded to whoever called up. "Looks like Paul's just had a nightmare or somethin'." To me he said, "Man, there's nothing there. Dude, you scared the shit out of me," he said.
"Sorry." My breathing was getting back to normal. "That was bad."
"I guess so," he chuckled. You could tell that he was a bit shaken up. "What happened?"
"Fuck. I dreamed that they cut the lump out of my neck, but that I was still awake and I could feel everything, but I couldn't tell them because I was paralyzed."
I tried to laugh a bit. "That was freaky as shit!"
"About scared the piss out of me. I was deep asleep and then I heard you holler out."
I laughed and sat back down on the bed. "It's cool now. Shit," I muttered.
Alan stood there and looked at me for a second. "You gonna be okay?"
I nodded. He stood there a second longer then leaned down and kissed me on the forehead. "I'm over here if you need anything, Paul," he said, going back to the other bed across the room from mine.
"Thanks. If I need anything I'll just throw something at ya." I tried making a joke.
Alan nodded. "Well, get some sleep, man. We have a long day tomorrow."
"We do?" I asked, confused.
"Yeah," he smiled. "A long day of nothing."
I smiled a little bit back at him. I'd wanted to invite him into the bed with me. I knew I'd feel safe if he was right there but I'd have to settle for him being fifteen feet away. Downstairs, Don and Glen had both piled into the queen sized bed and Matt took the daybed. After a while I could barely hear the once familiar sound of Alan's breathing as he slept. All I could think about were how evil Neal's eyes looked as he reveled in telling me that I was going to die. That was a hard image to get rid of. I eventually drifted off to sleep at the first signs of morning.
* * * *
The next day we drove over to Helen, the local "Bavarian" hell designed to look like a village in that part of Germany. Something always seemed so damned phony about the place to me and I never cared for it. But there were several good restaurants and we ate at a deli before heading over to Anna Ruby Falls. None of the other guys had been there before and they all seemed to enjoy it. We took lots of pictures; the goofy kind with one guy "pushing" another guy into the pool below the falls, or one of us holding one hand above the other with the falls in the distance so that it looks like you're actually holding the falls between your palms. Just dopey shit. For me the trip was a nice break from the rigors of school, and a nice separation from the surgery the following week.
The rest of the afternoon found us back at the cabin listening to the radio and playing a board game or two. At one time or another during the day myself and another guy or two would check out the property. All of them loved the creek with the mountain on the other side acting as a backdrop.
That night Don and Matt cooked hamburgers and hot dogs while Glen and I got another campfire going. After dinner Don kept trying to get me to sing. I was too damn embarrassed to do it but the son of a bitch knew how to get me to change my mind: liquor. As we sat around talking and drinking (not drinking to get smashed, just hanging out) Matt would pick out a song or two that he'd learned and I found that he was really quite good at the guitar. I was still refusing Don's requests and didn't understand why in the hell he was so damned insistent.
"Come on Lyons, I've heard you sing before, what the hell are you being bashful about?"
"Because, douche bag, that was like three years ago and I was drunk. I don't sing," I insisted. That comment was met with "Yeah right," "bullshit," and "give me a fuckin' break" from the other guys. Okay, so I sang all the damn time. But never seriously! Just being goofy, or in the shower, or in the car, or as I threaded up movies in the projection booth...
The final encouragement came from Glen. "Come on man, you can do it. You know you want to, dick head," he laughed.
"Matt?" I asked. He looked up and while the other guys talked he and I figured out a song.
"How about a standard, Matt," Glen said. That was only fitting considering that they were both in the jazz band for years and would know songs like that.
"Alright, y'all. Just remember, you asked for it," I pointed at them.
"Like it's gonna kill you," Don said.
"Oh shut the fuck up," I chuckled. I was nervous as shit. Hell yes, these guys were my friends and all, but drinking or not I was still nervous as shit!
I sat next to Matt, the other three guys spaced around the fire on logs or chairs. I wasn't quite sure what to do and Matt started by strumming a few chords. Finally we found a good key for my voice. I couldn't believe I was about to do this. After some cool licks on the strings I started to sing but I had to do it with my eyes closed so I could concentrate.
"Oh will you never let me be?
Oh will you never set me free?
The chains that bind us are all around us,
There's nothing left that I can see.
Those little things remain,
That bring me happiness, or pain.
A cigarette that bears a lipstick's traces,
An airline ticket to romantic places,
And still my heart has wings,
These foolish things, remind me of you.
(At this point I couldn't help it and I opened my eyes to look at Alan)
A tinkling piano in the next apartment,
Those stumbling words that told you what my heart meant,
A fairground's painted swings,
These foolish things, remind me of you.
You came. You saw. You conquered me.
When you did that to me,
I knew somehow it had to be.
The winds of March that made my heart a dancer,
A telephone that rings, but who's to answer?
Oh how the ghost of you clings,
These foolish things,
I didn't stare at Alan as I sang it but I made eye contact with him a lot. It was easy to do because he was sitting right across from me. I got a nice little smattering of applause from my friends but I know I was red from embarrassment. No matter what they said, I hated the sound of my own voice. But God how I loved to sing!
They got me to sing one more, this time "Honeysuckle Rose" which is much more upbeat. After that we all started singing "You Don't Have To Call Me Darlin' " by David Allen Coe, which is the quintessential drinking song. The five of us had a blast, which helped melt away some of the anxieties that I was having about the surgery.
* * * *
As can sometimes be the case in Atlanta in June, the night was beautiful. I was standing in line beneath the brightly lit marquee of the Fox Theater, for what show I don't know. Across Peachtree Street the once magnificent yet abandoned Georgian Terrace Hotel sat like a hulking dowager awaiting a face lift. The night breeze fluttered the leaves in the huge trees that still stood proudly, like sentinels in their own line across the hotel's front lawn.
The sound of gunfire shattered the calmness of the night as the other people standing in line scattered in all directions. I was near the old box office and stood motionless watching the flashes of light coming from the lobby of the old hotel. I couldn't move; for the first time I was frozen with fear. People were still running about madly when the hotel doors were blasted open from inside and a man wearing a woolen ski cap and a long, filthy trench coat emerged, a revolver in each hand. He was firing the guns in all directions and was coming across the street towards the theater. Towards me.
Cars had screeched to a halt at the intersection of Peachtree and Ponce De Leon when the other bystanders and ticket buyers ran into the street in their attempt to get away from the mad man. As he started firing his guns again I suddenly decided to play dead and dropped to the tiled sidewalk next to the box office. I kept my breathing as shallow as possible. His footsteps were deafening to me as he stepped up onto the curb. My face was down to the ground at an angle and I could just make out his shoes beneath the end of my hair. My eyelashes blurred my vision somewhat but I figured he might think that I was dead if I kept perfectly still.
His shoes were inches from my head and all of the screaming around me sounded like it was on some other warped planet light years away. I heard the hammer click on one of the guns and then the shooter spoke: "Hey Paul. It's your fuck buddy...."
My last thought in the instant after I heard the gun explode three feet from my head was, "Being shot in the head doesn't hurt that bad. It just feels warm from the top of my head, down my neck......"
But then I sat up and shouted "Neal!"
I couldn't get my breath and I looked around to see where I was. Alan was walking toward me from his side of the room. I looked up and down, all around to make sure that I was alive. He was saying something to me but I wasn't really hearing him. Instantly I realized that I'd had a nightmare as I watched, propped up on the bed on my hands, Alan as he sat down a few feet away from me on the bed. Lightning flashed periodically and the thunder rolled across the hills, the rain falling steadily on the tin roof.
"Everything alright up here?" It was Don. He'd stuck his head over the top of the stairs.
"I don't know," Alan replied. "Paul, you okay?"
I took a deep breath and shakily blew it out. "Yeah....yeah. Fuckin' nightmare," I mumbled.
"Christ, Lyons, no more alcohol for you," Don joked and headed back downstairs.
Alan held onto one of my shoulders as he sat there. "You okay?" he asked again.
I laughed a bit and said that I was okay, repeating that it was a nightmare.
"Wanna tell me about it?" he asked. I told him about the dream as vividly as I could remember. "Who's Neal?"
I went silent at that point, then I said, "Man, what is it with these friggin' dreams...." I put my hands to my head and crashed backwards onto my pillow. Alan sat there for a moment watching me before he crawled up and lay down next to me. I closed my eyes and absorbed the strength I could feel in his shoulders as they touched mine. "I guess I'm more worried about this surgery than I thought."
Alan turned onto his side to face me and propped his head onto one hand. "Paul, are you okay? I mean...shit, are you worried?"
"Oh hell yeah. I guess it looks like I am," I chuckled.
He blew out through his nose loudly. "Can you take anything serious?"
"Sorry." I lay there for a minute listening to the rain on the roof and the fans making their white noise. "Honestly Alan, I never really had that much time to think about all of this, what with school and all. And I go to the hospital in a few days...my imagination just must be running wild, I guess."
After a few more moments of silence he asked me again: "Who's Neal?"
Oh fuck! How in the hell was I going to explain that? My heart started to pick up its pace a little bit, and I shook my head in response. "I don't think you wanna know," I said and rolled away from him. I couldn't take him looking at me. I felt so god damned guilty. "Just some guy," I muttered.
"What?" The rain was making it a little hard to hear so I rolled back towards him.
Taking another deep breath I repeated, "Just some guy."
"Someone you like? If that's the case why would he show up in a nightmare?"
"How would you know that?" I asked, looking at him.
"Well," he spoke quietly, "you hollered out his name last night and then again tonight."
"Shit," I muttered again. I lay there considering if I should tell him; how I should tell him. "Man...I feel like I cheated on you, but I never really did..."
"What do you mean?" he looked concerned.
My mouth kept opening and closing trying to find the right words. "This isn't gonna be easy," I said.
"For me or you?"
"Good question." What the fuck. Alan was my friend; I could tell him anything, right? "A couple of months ago I uh....met this guy..."
"Yeah?" By his response I couldn't tell if it was a curious "yeah" or an accusitory "yeah".
"I hate to sound like I'm making excuses, Alan, but....."
He lay there, watching me.
"I pulled a...uh...one-nighter with some guy." There I said it. Fuck!
His jaw fell. "You?" he asked. Then he laughed. Not a funny laugh but more of a "you've gotta be fuckin' kidding me" laugh. "You??" he said again.
I looked down towards my feet, then I nodded.
"Wow," Alan whispered. Then, "why?"
I shook my head, saying, "You know, I've asked myself that a million friggin' times. No excuses. I was horny and the opportunity sort of...presented itself."
"Jeeze," he rolled onto his back and rubbed his face with his hand. "I...don't know what to say."
"That I'm a cheap, lame-ass bastard would be a good start."
He shook his head 'no'.
"I slipped," I said. "I fucked up. That is just not the kind of thing that I do, but-"
"That's exactly what I was thinking," he interrupted.
"Well, I could say that I missed you and did it but that'd be a lie. I mean, yeah I missed you but to put it on that would be saying that all you and I had was sex, and that isn't true." He kept rubbing his face periodically. "I have no good reason. There is none. And Christ Almighty I swear I felt like I'd cheated on you."
"When was this?" he asked.
"Back in February."
He looked back at me. "We had already...stopped seeing each other. You didn't cheat."
"I know, but shit, it' not like you left my heart that soon or that quickly. We had two years, man, and that just doesn't....fade away. So yeah, I felt like I'd fucked around on you. God I felt so fuckin' miserable. All I could think of was 'man, what if Alan could've seen me. He wouldn't have been proud.' Fuck," I mumbled.
"So what happened?" he asked.
"What, you want details?"
"Oh no. Hell no," he chuckled. "God, I dunno," still rubbing his face. "Why'd you tell me?"
"Because I felt fuckin' guilty, man. I just....hope that you don't think less of me, that's all. Again I don't mean to sound like I'm making excuses, but I was in a bad place for a good while and I just didn't think clearly. You know I'm not the kind of guy to nail anything that moves-"
"I know," he chuckled again, "that's what makes this so....fuckin' bizarre."
We lay there silently for a few more minutes, and I spoke up. "I'm sorry, Alan."
"It's okay. You didn't...I know what you mean and it's okay." Then he turned back to me. "But will you just use your fuckin' noggin next time something like this 'presents itself'?" Looking back at the ceiling he said, "I hate you feeling badly about something." Then he yawned. "Just chalk it up to a bad experience. A stupid choice, whatever. Nobody's perfect."
This time I yawned, and we lay there with our arms touching, listening to the rain. The lightning had gone.
* * * *
Matt, Don and Glen had gone outside to take a last look around the property and Alan was helping me straighten things up. We'd gone upstairs and I was making the bed when I felt his arms go around my waist. I stood up and he started nuzzling my neck.
"Alan, we can't do this," I laughed.
"Oh come on, Paulie, sure we can. The other guys are down by the creek. They won't hear your moans."
I died laughing at that and he started unsnapping my shorts. He was serious. So was I. I still loved the guy but I wasn't gonna be a fuck toy. "Alan, stop, please."
"Stop, please," he mocked. What the hell was this? He turned me around to face him and I could see anger in his eyes. "What are you gonna do? Go fuck somebody else?"
I opened my eyes and held my breath. It was still dark outside and raining. I looked over and Alan was still lying asleep beside me. I was beginning to hate sleep, and I slid over until my back was against his side. In his sleep he rolled over and put his chest to my back, spooning me, and put his arm over mine to pull me closer to him. I closed my eyes. Now this is how I need to go to sleep. And please....no more bad dreams, I begged to myself....
* * * * * *
This time when the nurses wheeled my gurney into the operating room there was no crazy Neal cutting my throat. The surgery went well and I slowly started to gain consciousness in recovery and smiled when I saw my parents by my bedside. I could feel the tape from the bandage on my neck just below my jawline when I'd go to turn my head. It was over. The surgery was successful and we would know in a few days from an oncologist named Dr. Kahn what the results of the biopsy would be. One thing that I could look forward to was George coming back in town and the bunch of us going down to Panama City to celebrate his graduating from whichever training school he was in at the time. After that initial surgery I was still sort of naive to the ways of the world.
And I was only a tiny bit scared when they lowered the mask over my face before I fell asleep in the o.r.