“May you live in interesting times,” Anya intoned. “Man, I always get that one!”
“In bed,” I reminded her saucily.
“Speaking of which… Josh’s coming over tonight,” she giggled. “Read yours!”
“You are about to embark on a fabulous adventure.” I paused for a beat then added, “In bed.”
“Well, you are going on a trip tomorrow!” Anya squealed excitedly. “And it’s been way too long since you had a man in your bed, mister.”
The reminder that I hadn’t had any dates since Peter left stung a little. “I hardly think that will be a fabulous adventure, little sis,” I scoffed. I still couldn’t believe my editor Kate had assigned me a sports article. I wrote music reviews and covered the local music scene. I had my own column on political activism on campus. I was a journalist. I did not write for the fucking sports section.
“Hmm, something just tells me that this trip is going to be good for you,” she replied. “You know, something different, maybe shake you out of your lonely funk.”
We cleared up together, leaving our fortunes on the table. Maybe.
At five-thirty am the next morning I hoofed it the half-dozen blocks towards campus, messenger bag slung across my shoulders and small overnight bag rolling along behind me, to meet my ride and the subject of my interview. It was too damn early and I couldn’t wait for a cup of coffee. I was really hoping to get there first and have a few minutes of just me and my caffeine before I had to deal with Ethan Doyle, incredible hulk, for the next 36 hours. This was going to be one long-ass weekend.
As I got closer to the Sureshot I was dismayed to realize that Ethan had already arrived. I knew him from the track team group photo that Kate had handed me the day she gave me this assignment. The way he was leaning self-assuredly against the wall outside the front door with his ankles crossed languidly in front of him just reinforced my impression of his cockiness. I bit the inside of my cheek trying to school the scowl building on my face. I stopped in front of him and introduced myself.
“Ethan Doyle, right? I’m Mark Ferris from the UW Daily.” I offered my hand secretly hoping he wouldn’t crush it some caveman grip of dominance. I found a to-go cup in my hand instead.
“Mornin’ bro! I got us some java for the road.” I stared in surprise at the massive man in front of me.
“Americanas. Hope that’s ok. I have a bit of a sweet tooth myself and I tell ya the chai smells fan-fuckin-tastic this morning but I gotta watch the sugar before a meet.” He punctuated the statement with two slaps to his stomach with his free hand.
“Uh… yeah… fine. Um, thanks,” I stuttered. He had clear blue eyes, a mop of curly black hair, and a charming dimple on each side of his enormous grin that was pretty charismatic when it was aimed in my direction. Too bad I sounded like a moron.
Ethan’s empty hand clamped down on my shoulder and he began to guide me down the Ave. “I’m parked just over there,” he said, nodding his head towards an old, though shiny, Chevy SUV. “You know, you look different in your picture,” he announced, squinting at me.
“Wait, what? When did you see a picture of me?”
“In The Daily. You know that little square one next to your column. You don’t wear nerdy glasses in that picture,” he teased.
I stared at him in surprise for the second time in as many minutes. “You read my column?”
“Yeah, man,” he shrugged and left me standing in front of the passenger door of his ride. “Hop in.”
Ten minutes later we had cleared the city and we were cruising south on I-5 towards Portland. I dug through my messenger bag for my mini-recorder, notepad and a pen with one hand while sipping my coffee. Damn, that’s good. I had a few questions already prepared but I also understood the art of observation, of sniffing out the scoop. Glancing covertly at Ethan’s bulky frame I reminded myself to be on the lookout for signs of steroid use. He was enormous but it was obviously all muscle. That would net me a juicy story though I really hated to resort to that kind of angle in my reporting. But what else of interest would an ego-driven jock have to offer that was newsworthy?
Ethan had offered to drive separately from the team so that we could have the two and a half hour drive time to Portland for the interview. I guessed now was as good a time as any to start. Let the boredom begin.
“So, Ethan,” I cleared my throat and pressed the record button on my device. “Why the decathlon?”
Ethan chuckled and scratched his head. “Well,” he started, “I guess you already know that decathlon is ten separate track and field events performed by one athlete over a two-day period.” He glanced over at me and I nodded. “Decathlon is considered the ultimate test for an individual athlete. It requires one person to master their personal potential for power, endurance, strength, agility and speed more than any other sport.”
I rolled my eyes when he wasn’t looking. Here comes the ego; that didn’t take long.
“You’re obviously in amazing physical condition. On the road to Ethan Doyle, World’s Greatest Athlete, I take it?” I nudged his ego and mentioned the title bestowed on Olympic gold medal decathlon champions hoping to bait him. That’s right, I’ve done my research, I smirked.
“Yeah, uh, not so much. I’m not in it for a title, man,” he disagreed. “You’ll see when you meet the decathlon guys from the other schools. There are so few of us we go pretty much unnoticed most of the time. It doesn’t really feel like we’re competing against each other, you know? Despite being from different schools, it’s kinda like we’re all on the same team, just guys trying to improve ourselves, to beat our own records.” He looked across at me, gauging my reaction.
His face was open with honesty and I wasn’t sure what to think about his answer. It didn’t seem to be rehearsed or a bullshit answer intended to make a good quote for the paper. In fact, it sounded pretty damn close to the philosophy I applied to my writing: I edited and polished each piece until it was the best I could get it and with each assignment I strove to be a better writer than before. My curiosity was piqued. I shifted in my seat to get a better look at his face while he spoke.
He must have noticed the slight shift in my body language because I saw the hint of a smirk appear on his own face. “So, Mark,” he cleared his throat, mimicking me. “You noticed my amazing physical condition, did you?”
“Don’t be an ass!” I shot back, sounding as affronted as I felt.
“Now you wanna talk about my ass?” he chortled.
I huffed in frustration, muttering and calling him childish under my breath, just loudly enough to be sure that he could hear me. The smirk stayed on his face so I turned on the radio hoping to distract him from further innuendo about my sexuality.
It fucking figures. I scowled out the window remembering the ridicule and bullying I experienced at the hands of Bobby Patterson, captain of my high school’s football team. Fucking Bobby.
I was pissed now. Maybe I’d find my angle after all. I pictured Decathlon Athlete Homophobic in big letters across the top of the sports page. I was trying to think of a clever way to lead that line of questioning when Ethan spoke up first.
“Relax Mark, please. It was just a joke.” He cleared his throat again though this time he seemed nervous rather than smug. “I just get, um, a little nervous when people talk about what a big guy I am. Like I’m just this body, you know? I just wanted to blow off your comment with a little humor. I didn’t intend for you to take it personally.” If his admission to me was unexpected, I was equally unprepared when he reached over to squeeze my shoulder. His touch lasted a beat longer than seemed appropriate for a simple friendly gesture and when his fingers brushed gently across my arm, I felt a pinprick of heat in my cheeks.
“It’s fine, whatever.” I turned away to stare out the window again wondering why my traitor body had responded to the touch of his hand on my arm. I wasn’t into the whole macho muscle-man bear scene. Peter’s figure had resembled my own, tall, slim, in shape but not overly muscled and certainly no brainless jock. I fell somewhere between stud and twink on the gay spectrum and so did most of the men that I found attractive. I didn’t understand why that brief touch was taking up so much space in my brain and there was something I needed to know right the hell now.
“So what is your stance on homosexuality in athletics?” I challenged.
“What the hell does someone’s sexuality have to do with their participation in a sport?” Ethan asked incredulously in return.
I paused, staring him down.
“Nothing in my mind, but not everyone would agree with that statement. Especially in the…” I shook my head with a grimace. My mind flashed painfully back to high school again, thinking over the many indignities I’d both witnessed and suffered.
“In the what…?” he prompted.
“Locker rooms,” I bit out tersely.
Ethan’s head whipped around in my direction and he spent a moment studying my face before answering. I was frowning at him but I met his gaze fiercely. I don’t know what he saw when he looked at me but I saw confusion then understanding cross his features. He took a breath, considering his response.
“A good coach makes sure an athlete learns that everyone deserves respectful treatment, on and off the field.” A little more vehemently he continued, “Being an athlete, being physically strong, is no excuse for being a goddamn bully. A good coach nips that shit in the bud.”
I didn’t know what to say to that at first. With chagrin I realized how limiting my assumptions of him had been, perhaps were still. That wasn’t the kind of reporter I wanted to be.
And it’s damn sure not the kind of person I want to be, either.
Finally I settled on something to say. “I think you’d make a good coach, Ethan.” His eyes twinkled as he flashed a huge grin in my direction, the air between us clear.
We drove for a while without much to say, just listening to the radio. I felt grateful that Ethan and I could agree on road music, settling on a Seattle-based alternative rock station. At the ad break I turned the volume down and began digging into Ethan’s background.
He told me about growing up in Tennessee, what he liked about living in the Northwest since coming to UW, and how good the hiking and rock-climbing were both here and at home. He regaled me with stories about going to car shows with his dad, praised his mom’s home-cooking and joked about goofing off with his kid sister Cassie. The stories he shared reeled me in little by little and eventually I realized that for each memory he recounted he had somehow lured me into sharing something of myself as well. I’d never done so much of the talking during an interview before.
Ethan was an open book and even though he was ostensibly the subject of the interview, and therefore the conversation, I couldn’t help but observe how unassuming and self-effacing he was. Just as he was admitting how much he missed his sister since leaving home, he changed subjects abruptly.
“Damn, the oil light is on again.”
I glanced out the window for what seemed like the first time in ages. We’d been driving for a while and seemed to be in a pretty rural stretch of I-5 which meant we were likely about half-way to Portland. I pointed out a sign for Food & Gas at the next exit. We parked at a gas station and looked at the engine. There was some oil seeping out from the gaskets.
“I just replaced these things again last month!”
“Do we have time to let the engine cool down before you check the oil?” I asked him.
Ethan checked his watch. “Yeah. Wanna get something to eat?” He nodded his head in the direction of a diner.
“Sure.” I grabbed my stuff from the front seat and Ethan locked up.
I listened as Ethan relayed the recurring oil leak trouble he’d been having with his SUV while we made our way to the diner and found a booth. He’d bought it used and did most of his own maintenance.
I made a humming sound as I thought it over. “I used to work on cars with my dad. If the engine keeps blowing gaskets then it probably means the crankcase valve is jammed.”
Ethan eyed me appreciatively. “You know how to fix one of those?”
“They’re not too hard to replace.” I shrugged and bit into the burger that had just arrived. Three bites in, a big blob of ketchup dripped right onto the front of my favorite black button-up shirt, the one with the pearl snap buttons.
“Fuck!” I muttered and excused myself, heading to the washroom. I took off my shirt and stepped up to the sink to rinse out the ketchup, grateful for the v-neck undershirt I was wearing. The white shirt was thin and fitted my torso closely but it was better than wearing a wet shirt for the next few hours. I didn’t usually wear such tight tees but my arms were toned and my abs flat so it looked good on me. I used the facilities and after washing my hands I dried them under the blower. Then I tried drying the wet spot on my shirt under the hot air too. It helped a little.
My glasses were starting to give me a headache so I traded them for my contacts. There was a crease on the bridge of my nose and I tried to rub it away with my finger.
I stalked back to the table and dropped into my seat with a huff, slouching as I ate my fries, without ketchup. It felt significantly colder where we were sitting without my long sleeves. I had goose bumps forming on my arms and my nipples tightened from the cold air blasting down on me from a vent above my head.
I looked up to see Ethan staring at me intently.
“What?” I bit out, a bit more sharply than I intended. It wasn’t his fault I dripped ketchup on my shirt like a clumsy fool.
His eyes snapped to mine and the look on his face made the muscles in my belly tighten. Huh. That was… unexpected.
“Nothin’, man,” he croaked strangely before clearing his throat. “Uh, you gonna finish that burger?” I thought his cheeks were slightly pink.
“Nah, I don’t know why I ordered this for breakfast. It’s too much fucking food for this early in the morning.” I pushed my plate at him, seeing that his was already empty.
The cloud cover was breaking up when we made it back to Ethan’s SUV and popped the hood once again. He checked the oil and saw that the engine needed a least a quart added. He grabbed one from the case he kept in the trunk and poured it in while I pointed out the crankcase valve. We didn’t have the tools or the time I’d need to fix it so we settled on just feeding the leaky beast for now. Ethan had pushed the sleeves of his shirt up past his elbows to keep it clean but that didn’t stop him from getting streaks of dirt and grime all over his hands and forearms. I watched him check the oil level again. His hands were strong and deft, large but handsome. I wondered if the smattering of black hair on his forearms would be soft or wiry under my fingers.
Where the hell did that come from?
I snorted at myself for ogling and looked down at the smudges of grease on my own hands. There were only a few but I wanted to wash up before we got back on the road.
Ethan was leaning against the brick wall next to the gas station washroom, waiting his turn, when I finished and stepped out. He had that same nonchalant pose as when I first met him this morning outside the Sureshot. Looking at him now I didn’t see the smug arrogance I had assumed less than two hours ago. Instead I saw a man at ease, a man who respected and valued others as he did himself, a man comfortable in his own skin. I met Ethan’s eyes intending to let him know that the washroom was free but the look on his face stopped me in my tracks.
My feet were frozen in place, I was mute, and my breath hitched in my throat. I nodded my head in the direction of the door in lieu of speaking. Ethan pushed himself off the wall and walked toward me silently, his eyes locked on mine up until the moment he passed me. His shoulder brushed mine lightly as he passed and suddenly I was in motion again. My foot released the door and I took off for the truck.
Holy Bedroom Eyes, Batman!
I suppressed a shiver and took a few deep calming breaths, intent on regaining a shred of the objective distance I needed as a reporter.
Back on the road, with the radio on lightly in the background, we returned to our easy conversation. If I worried the atmosphere would be tense between us after that… moment or whatever the hell it was, Ethan’s jovial chatter put it out of my mind. I started my mini-recorder again and began a new round of questioning.
I learned that of the ten decathlon events Ethan’s favorite was pole vaulting and that his proudest moment on the field was the first time he scored over 5 meters in that event. When I quizzed Ethan on nerves before a meet, worst event, and biggest goof up he answered me with candor. He admitted to pre-meet jitters that ran the gamut from the shakes to puking. He told me that he was rubbish at throwing the javelin because his aim sucked. He shared that his biggest goof up was tripping over thin air on a long jump approach once, landing flat on his face and giving himself a black eye.
He thought he was showing me the worst side of himself. I found myself appreciating him more by the minute. He was honest and imperfect and thoughtful and fucking real.
There was one question left on my list and honestly, the more I learned about Ethan Doyle, the decathlon athlete with the handsome hands, bedroom eyes and a heart of gold, the more I dreaded asking it.
“Love interest?” I kept my head down and eyes focused on my notepad as if the answer to the question was no more interesting to me than the number of hours he spent in the gym.
“I’m interested in love, love just doesn’t seem to be interested in me,” he deadpanned.
“No significant other? No better half?” I quipped.
He looked at me for a moment as if he wanted to say something but couldn’t make up his mind.
“Let’s just say there’s… someone out there with potential and leave it at that for now, ok?” He smirked and his eyes glittered with mischief. This was the first question he had evaded.
What juicy little secret are you hiding Mr. Doyle?
Ethan was still holding my gaze. I was starting to feel strangely and unbearably tense. I wanted to look away and I didn’t want to look away. Finally he broke the connection to concentrate on the road once more.
I looked to the road as well and noticed that our surroundings were getting progressively less rural as we approached the state line. In just minutes we would cross the Columbia River into Oregon and drop right into the suburban sprawl of Portland. I spied the bridge ahead and wondered if it were possible that Ethan was gay or if he was just a very progressive straight man. Then my pervy brain went right into the gutter as I mentally calculated all the most enjoyable ways to find out.
Mount Hood rose in the distance to the east as we crossed the bridge. We entered Portland proper and it didn’t take us long to navigate our way to the rec field behind the Portland State University athletics center. Ethan found the UW team bus and parked. His eyes seemed lit from within and I caught onto his rising sense of excitement, matching him grin for grin.
We exited the truck and Ethan pointed out the sidelines and stands where I could sit to watch. He was headed to the locker rooms to find his teammates and prepare for the meet but he left me the keys to the Chevy in case I needed a place to keep my things. I appreciated the trusting gesture. There was time to kill before the meet began and I intended to spend it observing my surroundings with a reporter’s eye.
Which apparently includes checking out Ethan’s ass as he walks away.
Just as I was making peace with my new-found ogling tendency around Ethan I saw him greet a young woman dressed-out for the track in UW colors. I heard Ethan say, “Hey baby doll!” as he pulled her into a big bear hug. He lifted her off her feet easily. She planted a kiss on his cheek and I watched covertly as they conversed in whispers, their heads bent intimately together.
There’s one checkmark in the straight column. But the bedroom eyes he flashed me at the gas station definitely puts a checkmark in the gay column. The verdict is still out…
I checked my bag to make sure I had everything I needed: notepad, pen, mini-recorder, contacts case, glasses, music player and ear buds, loose change, gum. That looks about right. Sheesh, I guess Anya has a point when she calls this thing my man-purse.
On my way over to the sidelines, I stopped by a small “press” table and snagged a program that listed the events by time and the participants by name and tag number. I ran my finger down the page looking for 144. That was the number that had been pinned to the chest and back of the blonde athlete I had seen Ethan greet with such enthusiasm. Rachel Harris. Now I had a name to put with the face of my competition.
Whoa, what? I shook off the stirrings of jealousy with chagrin. Had I really flipped a complete 180 in my view of Ethan Doyle in less than four hours? The idea left me feeling uncertain and off-kilter. And Anya thought this would be good for me?
While I was waiting I scratched out some notes on the pre-meet atmosphere and the weather, stubbing out a couple of paragraphs for my article. Ethan’s first event was the 100 meter sprint. Athletes began to appear from the rec building and clumped in groups of like colors as they warmed and stretched their muscles. They looked like herds of antelope distinguished by their markings.
I saw Ethan in the crowd and when I caught his eye from my spot in the stands I nodded and flicked him a thumbs-up. His answering grin resurrected my own. A sense of anticipation built inside my chest as I saw him line up along the painted lines with several other runners. Each racer crouched, waiting for the gun. I focused on Ethan’s form while keeping some awareness on the remaining competitors with my peripheral vision.
The gun sounded. Ethan was not first off the mark and I guessed that would cost him. The sprint was, by nature, over quickly. A mere 10.33 seconds passed before the first runner breached the finish line.
Emmet was neither the first nor the last to cross. He finished in 3rd place with a respectable 10.47 seconds and I watched as he took time to slap backs or shake hands with each man like a brother or a friend. I took time to compare Ethan to the others. While all of them were muscular, Ethan was broader by far than most of the others. His size was impressive even from afar.
The rest of the day was a mix of adrenalin highs and long waits.
When Ethan came off the mark for the long jump, his feet pounded a strong measured beat as he approached the sand pit. I watched in fascination as he propelled himself into the air at the last possible moment, arms wind-milling for momentum, legs still cycling. Frankly I was amazed by the sight of his large frame hurtling through space in a way that appeared to be tightly controlled chaos. I couldn’t imagine throwing my own body that far and I knew my eyes were wide with disbelief.
There was a look of dissatisfaction evident on Ethan’s face, though, as he noted the distance he’d achieved and I wondered why.
I continued to follow Ethan with my eyes until I noticed a familiar form walk up to him. It was Ben, another reporter from The Daily. He was one of the regular sports news guys, attending every home event and riding with the team to meets away from home. He would cover the whole track team while my assignment was more of a personal interest piece. I watched as Ben and Ethan chatted with ease, gesturing at the marks in the sand. Ben patted Ethan on the back before he turned away.
My gaze lingered on Ethan as he downed most of a bottle of water and splashed the rest on his face and hair. He scrubbed his hands across his face and the back of his neck. It was such a little thing, so normal, and yet I felt a tiny ball of warmth bubbling up in my chest. Imagining what disappointment he might be feeling made me cringe.
On impulse I jumped down from the bleachers and headed over towards Ethan on the pretext of snagging my own water bottle. “Hey man.”
“Hey.” He seemed tense, rolling his neck and shoulders. The little bubble in my chest grew at seeing him so subdued and I needed to do something to bring back that grin of excitement I’d seen in the truck when we’d first arrived.
“So… shot put next, right?” He only nodded. “I, uh, hear you’re pretty good at that,” I said, quirking an eyebrow at him.
“I’m alright, I guess,” he shrugged not really meeting my eye. Fuck it. Time to pull out the big guns.
“Yo, Ethan,” I said pointedly. I waited until he looked up before I continued, allowing a slow, flirty smile to form on my lips. I looked him straight in the eye. “Show me what you’ve got.” He gaped at me and I let my words hang heavy in the air between us for a moment before I sauntered back to my seat. When I turned back to look in his direction he was still staring my way and I could have sworn I saw his eyes snap up to mine. Busted! Checking out my ass puts another mark in the gay column…
Even from my seat in the stands I could see a hint of grin on Ethan’s face as I watched him warming up for the shot put event. He was the last man up. When it was his turn in the white circle I scribbled my impressions on my notepad. I was writing without looking at the paper so that I didn’t have to take my eyes off Ethan; I didn’t want to miss a thing. I tried to imagine the feel of the smooth talc on his neck where the sixteen pound metal ball was nestled as he took his stance. Was the ball cold to the touch or had it heated in the sun? Ethan stepped off the mark and his gyroscopic spin gained speed and momentum. He whipped the shot down the field.
It streaked through the air for a breath, then hit the grass and rolled to a stop. The ref called the score – 68 feet 9 inches – and the crowd that had so far responded to each event with quiet cheers and golf-claps burst into sound. Ethan’s distance had topped all the others by more than 4 feet.
After accepting a round of congratulations and back-slapping from his teammates and the other decathlon athletes, Ethan jogged over to where I was sitting. He was carrying two wrapped sandwiches and two bottles of water. He tossed me one of each with a giddy grin and I smirked back, holding out my fist. He bumped it with his own and we ate side-by-side in a silence that was punctuated by sidewise glances and muffled chuckles.
The rest of the afternoon held two more events for Ethan – the high jump and the 400 meter dash. Despite his imposing size, Ethan loped with a natural grace towards the high jump bar suspended over the thick mat. It was bewildering to me how that confident stride morphed into leap, twist, arch. The flex and spring of his spine seemed a trick of the light, a bit of magic, as his feet cleared the bar.
The 400 meter race was much like the 100 in form but required more stamina and a sustained speed, a controlled blaze rather than the incendiary flare of a struck match. I moved closer to the track for a better view. It was truly a marvel to watch him move, stride for stride, with much leaner guys. He placed well and seemed satisfied, relaxed. Through the whole experience I was gaining an appreciation for the dedication, skill and grace of these sportsmen and women but more than that I was in awe of the mechanics of the human body in a way that was entirely new to me.
Ethan walked off the field towards me, guzzling water from a bottle. The light sheen of sweat that covered him seemed to highlight the lines and curves of his muscled body. He emptied the bottle, crushed it, and lobbed it underhand to the nearby trash.
I cuffed his shoulder lightly. “Haven’t you ever heard of recycling?”
He grinned at me and whipped off his shirt, using it to wipe the sweat off his face and chest. I tried not to stare. The smell of his fresh sweat made me think of sex. Not helping.
“I gotta hit the showers.”
“Yeah you do, you stink,” I lied.
He just laughed and his grin got bigger. “You’re coming out to eat with me and the team tonight. I’ll meet you at the Chevy in twenty.” At that he walked away, pausing once to grab his plastic bottle from the trash and wink at me, and then continued to the locker rooms. I think I heard him whistling.
At dinner I sat with Ben. The restaurant had pushed tables together to make one long enough for the whole team. We were a few chairs down the table from Ethan and I, ever the observer, watched him interact with his team. He was genuinely likable. He bantered easily and had a good word for everyone. He delivered advice with respect and received it with aplomb. But when one of the smaller-framed runners started teasing Ethan about his bulky size I thought I saw his cheeks get pink as he shrugged it off with a muttered, “Whatever.” It was a difficult concept for me to reconcile. Ethan was a paragon of confidence on the track, master of his skeleton, muscles, nerves, reflexes. He drew the eye like a statue of Adonis. And yet, off the field, when someone remarked on his physique he was… shy?
Rachel sat next to Ethan and it seemed that every time I looked up she was scooting her chair a little closer to his. More than once I caught sight of him turned towards her whispering, his arm on the back of her chair, her hand in the curls at the nape of his neck. When she noticed me watching, her eyes twinkled like she knew a secret. I wanted desperately to know what they were whispering about but I thought it might make me sick if I had to listen to them coo at each other.
After dinner, Ethan and I took his Chevy to the motel where the team had accommodations for the night. We checked in at the front desk at the same time. I was sharing a double with the other reporter Ben, and Ethan was bunking with a teammate. We walked together and got to my room first. Ben hadn’t yet arrived. Ethan followed me in and we traded phones so we could exchange cell numbers. Afterwards, I began unpacking.
He was standing there, leaning against the wall in that rakish, confident way again just watching me as I unpacked. I felt hyper-aware of his presence suddenly and it unnerved me. Finally I turned around and threw him a questioning glance, “What?”
“Just watching you,” he laughed. “You got to watch me all day, right? Turnabout is fair play and all that.”
“I watched you because that’s my job. Whatever, you can look all you want but I’m just unpacking.” I was babbling and I knew it but was powerless to stop myself. “It’s not like you’re going to see something exciting. I’m not going to hurl heavy metal objects or leap over high jump bars. The longest jump you’ll ever see me make is the one that gets me into this bed.” Damn, that did not come out right! I fumbled the bag of toiletries I was holding.
My cheeks were burning in embarrassment. So I did what any nervous person might do in this situation. I deflected.
“So… Rachel Harris, huh?” I tried to waggle my eyebrows at Ethan in implication.
His eyes widened slightly and he raised his own eyebrows at me. “What about her?”
I cleared my throat. Ethan was still leaning against the wall next to the bathroom door. I would have to walk past him to take out my contacts. I stalled, staying safely on the other side of the room. “She’s, you know… hot.”
“You think so?” He stared at me with an incredulous look on his face that pissed me off.
“Well, yeah,” I huffed. Did he think because I was gay that I couldn’t determine whether or not a girl would be considered hot by straight guy standards? A lick of anger tingled up the back of my neck and got my feet moving again. I walked past Ethan and into the bathroom, leaving the door ajar. “Blonde, long legs, big rack, pretty face… dream babe, right? Track and Field Barbie.”
He turned to follow me, reaching up to grab the top of the door frame he filled. His t-shirt was stretched taut across his broad chest and rode up a bit at his belly. I could see a swatch of downy black hair there that hinted, invited the eye and mind to wander.
“Rachel’s the best, don’t get me wrong,” he started. “I just didn’t think she was your type, that you’d be interested in her.” He was watching my face closely. I tried not to let it give too much away.
“I’m not interested in her, you ass. I was asking about her because I thought you were into her. Mystery love interest,” I reminded, pointing at him. “Reporter,” I pointed at myself. The room felt too small but he stepped in anyway.
“No, I’m not into her.” He stepped closer. I swallowed tightly.
“Reporter,” he pointed at me, so close now that his index finger hovered over my chest. Anticipation curled in my belly. “Gay,” he continued to point. It wasn’t a question but I looked him in the eye and nodded.
He tapped his own chest lightly. “Gay,” he repeated. He was so close I could feel his breath on my face as he spoke.
Then his signature grin came out in full force and I was blinded like there were fucking stars in my eyes or some shit. “Guess you still have a mystery to solve.” He walked out calling Later as the door to my room clicked shut.
The next day everything seemed to be on fast-forward. Ethan called my cell and we checked out of our rooms, rushing to meet up for breakfast with the team again. This time we were at a diner and shared a booth with Rachel. Ethan sat next to me and Rachel sat across from us both, batting Ethan’s hand away playfully when he tried to steal food off her plate. She was surprisingly cool and had good taste in film. When Ethan told me that Rachel had dressed as Hedwig from Hedwig and the Angry Inch last Halloween, I gaped in awe. The two of them laughed happily when I offered her my fist to bump with a geeky but reverent, “Word!” Yeah, I’m old school like that.
Back at the field, Ethan was keyed up and buzzing with excitement. “Pole vaulting today,” he sing-songed and the skin around his eyes crinkled, his grin was so big. Ethan’s first event was the 110 meter hurdles and then discus after that. His enthusiasm had infected me and by the time Ethan lined up behind the chalk for the pole vault I felt the double thrill of excitement and dread.
I stood, gripping the metal rail in front of me as Ethan sprinted down the runway, the pole raised like a lance before him. He gathered speed and I felt my heart accelerate with him. While the arc and twist of the high jump had happened so fast it seemed like a trick of the light, this vault flickered before my eyes like a silent slide show of still frames.
Ethan lowering the pole to plant the tip in the box.
Ethan swinging up, feet over head, as the pole bent nearly in half.
Ethan harnessing the recoil potential in the pole, his body an arrow shooting up, up.
Ethan rolling, curling, arching – like a high dive in reverse.
There was a pounding in my ears and it sounded like this: Ethan. Ethan. Ethan.
I spent the next two hours crashing from the adrenalin high of witnessing Ethan’s vault. I honestly could never remember ever getting this caught up in actions and events so outside my control. It was boggling. Rachel had finished her events for the weekend and led me under the stands for a covert cigarette. I was too amped to eat any lunch and though I didn’t smoke very often, the ritual of it calmed me somewhat.
She and I returned in time to see Ethan throw the javelin. When he finished, I grabbed two bottles of water and walked onto the field where he was stretching. I wanted an excuse to talk to him, to be near enough to him to remind myself that he was still real, but I didn’t want him to see how affected I had been by the pole vaulting. So I asked him about the javelin instead. He told me that he only came in sixth out of ten, but he was pleased to have beaten his own previous record by several feet. I shook his hand in congratulations and I didn’t want to let go.
Eventually I walked back to the stands so Ethan could prepare for his last event. Sitting there staring down at my notepad, I didn’t know how I was going to manage to write this article. I had pages of notes on Ethan’s background, his stats, and his philosophies on decathlon and on life. I had pages more on his strength, agility, speed, on his god damn grace on the field. There was more than enough material; that was not the issue. The problem was this: I was feeling… something… for Ethan. But was that just the nature of the assignment? After shadowing any half-decent person for two days – watching their every move, immersed in their element – wouldn’t I naturally become attached to my subject? Was it natural for me to dread the end of our time together? And how was I going to sort out a theme for my article when I couldn’t even sort out my own feelings?
I was too caught up. I needed to pull back and gain some perspective and some objectivity. I needed distance.
I had been so lost in my thoughts that I looked up in surprise when I noticed Ethan standing in front of me. I had missed his 1500 meter race completely and while I noticed the crease of disappointment furrowing Ethan’s brow, I was still too preoccupied to adjust the way I was behaving towards him. I felt a pang of guilt for being such a jerk, though truly, wasn’t it better this way? Wouldn’t it be better to put some space between us? Wasn’t I already too attached to his feelings, to his reactions to me, to him?
I heard Ethan ask me to meet him at the truck in half an hour for dinner and I must have answered him though I don’t remember what I said. There was this fog in my head that was noisy with my thoughts and I felt desperate to clear it. I gathered my things numbly and dropped them off at the Chevy. Standing outside its closed door I wondered what to do with myself while I waited. I needed to find some silence, some room to breathe. I needed to walk.
My hands stuffed in my jean pockets and my eyes on the ground, I stalked off to the far end of the parking lot. It was nearly empty here and I hoped the quiet of my surroundings might help to quiet my mind.
I was walking, pacing really, trying to get my head screwed back on right. Everything about Ethan was so… Well I just didn’t know how to believe in it because it was so different from what I was expecting. My head felt inside out and upside down. Two guys walked by me then. They looked like freshmen, youthful and callow.
“Did you see that really huge guy from UW? Doyle? I don’t know how a guy that big can get that much air. I thought the fucking pole was gonna break in half.” His tone was admiring. I smiled because that was something I had wondered too.
“Dude, you like that queer?” I felt my body tense involuntarily.
“What? I thought he did pretty good out there?”
“No man, I mean he’s queer. A faggot. He takes it up the ass.” Crude gestures. Laughter.
It was stupid. It was the same juvenile bullshit I’d heard and ignored a hundred times. It’s the kind of posturing tough-talk that you hear in the hallways at school, in the movies, on the street and I’d learned to shrug it off. The times when comments like that had been more than talk and directed at me had taught me to be fast, to duck, and to block blows to my face and groin because those were the most humiliating. And because no matter how fast I was he always found a way to corner me and I couldn’t block every punch. Bobby Patterson taught me that.
It was stupid, inane and I should have ignored it. I should have walked away knowing I was the better man but I just couldn’t. There was this coldness that settled into my shoulders and the back of my neck, an icy stiffness that tightened my chest and this time I just couldn’t let it go.
I stomped right past the first guy and swung at the one who called Ethan a faggot. My knuckles glanced off his chin and it hurt like hell. I’d never punched anyone before and though I knew it would hurt and thought I was prepared for it, I wasn’t. While I clutched my aching right fist to my stomach in pain the two guys began shouting.
“What the hell, man? What the fuck?”
“Oh shit, Mike! He clocked you!”
Mike, the one I hit, got in my face. “What the hell was that for, you asshole?” He shoved me, hard in the shoulders, and I stumbled back. I could feel all the frustration, humiliation and self-loathing I’d locked away since leaving Forks high school and Bobby Patterson behind. I scrambled to my feet.
“Don’t you ever fucking talk about Ethan!” I hissed at him, shoving him away from me. Out of the corner of my eye I could see the other guy hanging back. It seemed like he didn’t want to get involved in the altercation. For that I was grateful, but in the moment I took to check his position I had let down my guard.
“Keep your hands off me, fucker!” Mike stepped up again and this time he jabbed me twice with his fist. The first hit cuffed me in the temple, whipping my head around to the right. The second hit landed in my gut. The air whooshed out of me with a grunt and I fell forward, catching myself roughly on my palms. A hand grabbed the collar of my shirt and I heard the fabric rip as Mike shook me. “And stay the fuck down this time, you crazy bastard!”
I was extremely lucky that neither of them were really much like Bobby Patterson after all. There’s no way Bobby would have walked away while I was on the ground without at least a parting kick to the ribs.
I stayed down until they were gone and I was breathing normally again. Finally I dragged myself up to my feet and trudged back to Ethan’s truck. He was there already, pacing, and I winced at the look on his face when he saw me. I must look as shitty as I feel.
“What the hell happened to you?” His voice was a blend of shock and concern.
“What’s it look like? I got in a fight.” I bit out, wiping blood off my face with my sleeve. The shirt was ruined anyway.
Ethan looked like he wanted to ask more questions but he closed his mouth instead and I was grateful. He tried to put an arm around me but I shrugged it off and he backed down.
“Alright, alright, just come into the lockers with me and I’ll patch you up.”
I followed him into the empty locker room and sat on the bench he pointed out to me. I watched out of the corner of my eye as Ethan gathered the first aid supplies he wanted. When he had them all, he straddled the bench mirroring me, touching our knees together. He started by washing the dirt and blood from the cut over my eye and the raw flesh on my knuckles and palms. My agitation from the fight ebbed gradually under his gentle touch but as it faded I felt the shame and humiliation hiding underneath.
“This shit’s gonna sting,” he warned me when he started to apply the ointment and I hissed in agreement. He taped the cut and bandaged the scrapes.
“Did you take any hits in the ribs or the gut?” I nodded, looking away. Then Ethan cleared his throat and reached for the buttons on my shirt.
“I can take off my own goddamn shirt, Ethan,” I spat. I was an ass for taking out my self-loathing bullshit on him and I knew it. He brushed my fingers away gently and I looked at him then.
“I know you can. I want to do it,” he said, and I tried to understand the look in his eye. He reached for the buttons again and this time I let him.
He peeled the shirt down my arms, careful of my cuts and scrapes. Ethan nudged my shoulder. He wanted me to lie back so he could check my torso and he balled up my shirt to place it under my head. His hands on my ribs were firm but so slow and gentle as he hovered over me. I cracked wide open in the wake of his tenderness.
“Shh, Mark, shh. I’ve got you. I’ve got you now.” Ethan wiped saltwater out from under my eyes with the pads of his thumbs and pulled me gently upright again. He cradled me in his arms and I let my head sink onto his shoulder. He smelled like soap and sandalwood and cedar. I turned my face into Ethan’s neck, breathing him in, and my arms tightened around his waist in a hug. I shuddered at the bittersweet feeling of having someone in my arms again. I didn’t know if I deserved this man but I wanted him, I needed him, and I wanted to show him how much.
“Mark?” My name was a question on Ethan’s lips and I needed to know if he was feeling this too. I traced his jaw with my nose as I pulled back to see his face.
“Ethan,” I breathed. “Do you want this? Do you want… me?” My voice cracked at the end.
“I want you Mark, I do. But I can wait, baby. When you’re feeling better…” he whispered.
I shook my head. “You make me feel better, Ethan. You make me feel better than I’ve felt in a long time.” I pulled him into a kiss and felt him smile against my lips. We tasted each other with little nips and licks and dipping tongues. I tugged at Ethan’s shirt, asking. He removed it in answer. Hands on my hips, he dragged me closer until our legs tangled together straddling the bench and our chests were pressed against each other tightly.
He nuzzled his smooth cheek across the stubble on my jaw. I raked my fingers through the black curls on his chest. They were silky and I snickered lowly when he rubbed his chest against mine. They tickled. Ethan laughed too and the tension of the last few hours evaporated as his laughter echoed within the empty locker room. For a little while the only sounds to be heard were the rustle of denim grinding against denim, soft grunts from Ethan and my own panting breath.
The friction was driving me crazy and I needed to touch him. One hand trailed down his chest to the waistband of his jeans. I dipped the tips of my fingers inside and whispered them back and forth across his belly. His muscles there quivered and jumped. I fingered the button on his pants and he moaned his permission. I sucked and licked his neck as I popped the button. My teeth teased his earlobe to the sound of his zipper opening click by click.
I pulled back from Ethan to disentangle our legs and catch my breath. He moved his lips to my jaw, neck, earlobe and I shivered. My fingers found his belt loops and I tugged upward, whispering, “Stand up for me, baby.”
I ran my hands over his flexing thighs as he pushed to a stand before me. He laid one palm flat against the lockers to steady himself while I worked his jeans and briefs down over his erection. I pressed my face in the crook of his hip and wrapped my arms around his thighs, hugging him to me tightly and breathing in his musk. His free hand caressed the muscles in my neck.
I nuzzled his hip with open-mouthed kisses and playful nibbles, loving the sound of his groans and the feel of his cock twitching against my cheek. My fingers stroked up and down his body caressing his lower back, butt and thighs. I looked up at him and wet my lips thoroughly and then I ran my tongue around his tip, coating it with my spit. I wanted so badly to please him, to care for him, to thank him for the tenderness and acceptance he had shown me. One hand grasping his base now, I pursed my lips and pushed my mouth down onto him slowly until just the head popped in. I watched him watching me as my lips imitated for him what it would feel like to enter me elsewhere.
“Nng… mmph… OH!” His cries shot liquid heat straight to my cock.
My tongue twirled and pressed as I opened wide and took him deeper. I reveled in the flex and release of his muscled butt under my hand as I used it to direct the buck of his hips. Ethan’s fingers curled around the back of my neck and I sensed that his body was coiling, tightening. The hand that I had wrapped around his base now moved to lay flat against the skin just next to his cock, fingers threaded loosely through the hair there and my thumb snaked under his sac to press up against the flesh underneath, timing it with his thrusts.
The pressure built as I laved him, loved him, gave over all my thoughts to pleasing him and drinking him in.
“Ah… ahhh… oh God…. Mark!” I clamped him to me with my forearm across the dip of his back and swallowed down around him until my nose was buried in his curls. His whole body was tensed against me as he shouted his release.
I backed off him slowly when he was finished, reflecting back to him the tenderness he had given me, and helped him drop softly to the bench. We leaned against each other, forehead to forehead. He stroked my face and I ran my hands behind his neck, scratching lightly, until he caught his breath.
Ethan grabbed me then and kissed me so deeply that I couldn’t breathe. I panted for air when he broke the kiss and growled at me, “Take these off, Mark.” He was yanking at my jeans. I stood to one side of the bench, toeing off my shoes & socks as he jerked open my button-down fly and peeled my jeans and boxers away from my body.
I let him guide me back to the bench, my shirt a pillow under my head again. I had one foot flat on the floor and the other flat on the bench, my knee bent. I was totally naked before him, open and vulnerable in more ways than one. I let it all go. I put myself completely in Ethan’s hands.
He didn’t disappoint.
Ethan hooked my bent knee over his shoulder and wrapped that arm around my thigh, rolling my hips up and pinning me to him, anchoring me in the here and now. I convulsed in pleasure when his tongue met my flesh. “Oh fuck!” He was burning me with the sweetest fire. His free hand stroked my cock while his mouth was licking, sucking and probing everywhere below.
I clutched my own hair just to hold onto something, anything. I ached to have him inside me but with no lube, no condoms, and none of the important conversations, I knew it couldn’t happen now. Next time, dear god, please let there be a next time.
Ethan changed positions fluidly so that his hand and mouth traded places, my leg slipping lightly to the floor. I felt his fingertips stroking and teasing my entrance while open-mouthed kisses and hot breath ravaged my shaft. When he finally took me deep in his mouth I felt like I was being devoured. The lick of flames in my belly became a wildfire. He popped just the tip of his index finger inside me and I flew apart. He wiggled small circles there, swallowing and humming as I shuddered through my climax until my whole body went limp.
I felt him shift over me and lay his head gently on my chest. I brought my arms around his shoulders, holding him to me.
“I can hear your heart beating,” he whispered and I ached at the sweetness in his voice.
I wondered if my heart sounded the same to him as it did to me, a thudding repeat of one word: Ethan. Ethan. Ethan.
We dressed quietly with soft touches, lingering kisses, lazy smiles and smoldering eyes.
In the truck on the ride home to Seattle I told Ethan everything. I spilled my guts about Bobby Patterson in high school and the fight in the parking lot tonight. I told him how Peter had broken my heart and about the fortune cookie and Anya’s prediction. I confessed that I wanted to hate him before I met him. And I tried to explain how I felt today when I saw him vaulting through the air. The whole time Ethan held my hand on the console between us. Through it all he squeezed my fingers in reassurance, rubbed soothing circles on the back of my hand with his thumb, and nibbled my fingertips gleefully. By the time I was done, a bone-deep fatigue had settled over me. My eyelids were too heavy and my words had begun to slur.
Ethan turned on the radio so that it played softly in the cabin of the Chevy. “Just crash, Mark. You need some sleep.”
I mumbled something in response that I meant to come out as, “I want to keep you company.”
“Shh, Mark, you are.” He kissed my palm, biting playfully at the heel of my hand. That mega-watt smile was back on his face as he spoke. “I’ve got you, baby. I’ve got you now.”