When I got back, Claire didn’t answer a soft knock on her door and I assumed she’d gone to sleep. I left all of her things in the car and went to my own room to call Ziggy and pack.
I called his apartment first, but there was no answer. They were probably still out on the town. I paged him instead. Then I thought about calling Sarah’s and decided that was a bad idea. Stalking him all over was just going to wind us both up and that was not going to end well.
I left a voice mail for Carynne, though. “Hey, update, I’ve got a new number where you can reach me starting tomorrow. You’d be so proud of me. I found a rental to move to all on my own! You didn’t have to come to Tennessee to do it for me! Haha. I’m moving Claire and myself there tomorrow so we can start paying a tenth of what we’ve been paying in hotel bills and start eating less in restaurants. Which will probably be healthy for her. And me. Anyway, your machine’s going to cut me off so here’s the number.”
Then I tried to concentrate on packing. I was used to packing. When you stay in a different hotel every night you get really efficient because you get into habits about where you put things, both in how you spread it out and how you get it all back together. If you don’t, you lose stuff.
What I wasn’t used to was having been in the same hotel room for weeks at a time. My stuff was everywhere. There was something in every nook and cranny of the place and you wouldn’t have thought it would take that long to collect it all but two hours later I still had not actually packed anything. I had made three large piles on the bed: one of clean clothes, one of dirty clothes, and one of stuff that was not-clothes including the toiletries and books and knickknacks and gifts and miscellaneous stuff I had accrued while I was there. Deciding what should go into what bag and how seemed more complicated than my brain was prepared to handle.
I decided my life would be simpler if I washed all my clothes and packed everything clean. Also, the bungalow didn’t have a washer/dryer, and the motel did, down by the “gym” which was actually what I was pretty sure was once a store room and now was a store room with a couple of mirrors on one wall, an exercise bike, and an incomplete rack of rusty-looking dumbbells. Logic dictated I should wash my clothes now while it was convenient and then I wouldn’t have to worry about keeping the clean stuff separate from the dirty stuff.
I heaped all the dirty stuff into the duffel and hauled it, top unzipped, down to the machine, along with all the loose change I could gather.
I was not picky about separating my clothes into “like colors.” My red flannel shirts and black T-shirts and blue jeans (and black jeans, for that matter) all went into the same load together. This meant any once-white underwear I had was actually gray. But who sees my underwear other than people who should love me no matter what it looked like?
It took three quarters to get a packet of detergent, and four quarters to run the washer. The dryer would give you ten minutes for every quarter you put in. After I got the load going in the washing machine, I picked through the remaining coins I had and it appeared I would get 20 minutes of dry time. It had been a while since I had done coin-op laundry but my recollection was that wouldn’t be enough.
Shit. You know who would have change for the machine? The front desk clerk. Who I was avoiding.
I decided to see how dry or not-dry the things were after the 20 minutes were up before doing anything drastic. Maybe in the intervening time I’d find another quarter in my pockets or on the floor or something. Right? That wasn’t optimism that was making me search everywhere like that. That was anxiety. I ended up pacing back and forth in the tiny laundry room, listening to the machine run, for almost the full run of the cycle. It wasn’t the kind with a glass door where you could watch it go around and around. It was a top loader with a metal slider to push the coins in.
The machine went into the spin cycle and began to shake noisily. As if it would help stabilize it, I gripped the front corners like a pinball wizard. The shaking made a sharp pain in my damaged palm shoot up my arm. The equivalent of a stabbing pain in my brain was the sudden flashback to the water tower that hit at the same time. I tucked my hand under my arm and sat down hard on the concrete floor.
I felt like I wanted to cry, but couldn’t, which was only a little less awful than when you feel like you have to vomit but haven’t reached critical mass yet. Meanwhile, my inner critic started to beat me up as usual: god, you’re stupid. This is stupid. You don’t actually have anything to cry over right now. Not having enough change to do your laundry is not a tragedy. Neither is having to talk to a perfectly nice kid.
Hm. Maybe that wasn’t the inner critic, because that sounded kind of sensible? But the inner critic always tries to sound sensible…
Imagine a sound effect like we’re in a coffee can, since this is inside my head: The one thing you have to cry about right now is Jordan being gone. But you know Jordan couldn’t have helped you in this situation.
Well, except in the larger situation of Ziggy being a thousand miles away both physically and metaphorically, I bet Jordan could have helped to bridge that gap. And if he hadn’t died, Ziggy wouldn’t have gone to the city in the first place.
But who was I kidding? Some urgent business or another would have pulled Ziggy away eventually. He had a career trajectory that my family issues should not affect. Except you know what was probably keeping him grounded on the launch pad right now? Me and my issues.
Anxiety started to climb back up my throat like the mercury rising in a thermometer and just as poisonous.
The washer buzzing startled me. Like, grab-your-heart kind of startled. It was a loud, ugly noise in a small, hard-sided room and gave me a fright. I hopped up and put the clothes quickly into the dryer and started it, my heart pounding the whole time.
Then I stood there listening to the clothes tumbling, taking deep breaths in time with the rhythm.
One thing at a time. Stay focused. What are you trying to do right now? What’s bothering you right this second, and what can you do about it?
Twenty five cents. Maybe fifty. That’s what I needed right at that moment. And to get it I had to get over my hangup about talking to Ricky and act like a responsible adult. “Act like?” How about “be” a responsible adult? Is there really a difference? We can talk about that later.
I went through the hallway and came out by the front desk. There he was, sitting on a stool and reading a book. He brightened up the moment he saw me, but so would I if I were bored to death and someone came to talk to me whether that person was the gay rock star I had been flirting with or not.
I reminded myself I wasn’t sure he was flirting. He might have just been dishy and maybe slightly queeny in my presence, which did not necessarily mean he was flirting. The package had turned out to be a real package after all, hadn’t it?
Shit, had I picked up the package? I hadn’t.
One thing at a time.
“Let me guess,” he said, before I could open my mouth or even come to a full stop at the counter. “You need change.”
“We all need change,” I heard myself say. “Over a decade of Republicans in the White House is way too much.”
He tittered. “I meant for the laundry machine. I could hear it buzz all the way from here.”
“You’re right.” I put the handful of nickels and dimes I had in my pocket onto the countertop. “I got the dryer started but I’m not sure how long I need.”
“I’d say at least six inches,” he quipped, in the same tone I’d used a second ago, but then he turned bright red and put his hand over his face and laughed nervously. “Oh my goodness, I don’t believe I said that!”
Okay, Daron, here’s your shot. You have to be real here. No matter how hard it is. Come on. The one thing Janine found to like about you is that you’ll actually say what no one else will.
Those, of course, are the hardest things to say. “I can see what’s on your mind.”
“Oh no, oh I’m terribly sorry, it just slipped out–”
He looked me in the eye.
“It’s okay. It’s… safe to say outrageous things to me.”
He blinked. “What do you mean?”
“I mean exactly that. Nothing bad is going to happen if you flirt with me or try to impress me or whatever. Because I know what I am, and I’m not going to take any action.”
“And you are…?”
“A gay man from the big city, who blew into town with his rather famous boyfriend, and, if it’s not too sarcastic to say, we might be the most interesting guests you’ve had in a while?”
He clamped a hand over his mouth and stared at me, a bit wide-eyed.
“Go on, you can say what you want to.”
“I just… you’ve left me speechless, actually.” One of his fingers lightly brushed a curl that had come loose from his pompadour back from his forehead. “By ‘not take any action’ I take it you are crushing my dreams to dust.”
“You can dream all you want,” I said. “But I know what I am, and I know what I’m not.”
“I’m not one of those guys who is constantly cruising.”
“I thought all big city guys were.” He used the word “guys” but with his southern accent it could have almost been the word “gays,” too.
“A lot of them are. But a lot of them aren’t. Or not in recent years.” I wasn’t going to say AIDS, but I didn’t have to. “I just didn’t want you to think I was rejecting you because you’re not… hot enough or tempting enough, you know? When I was your age I would have thrown myself in the path of someone like me over and over hoping that something would happen, and when it didn’t, I’d beat myself up about it. Because nobody talks about these things.”
He glanced around reflexively as if making absolutely sure there was no one there to overhear us. There wasn’t.
“I thought it was better to come right out and say it instead of making everything a guessing game. I know some people find the guessing game kind of hot. I don’t. Not anymore.”
“I know what you mean.” He curled his hand against his lip like he was about to start biting his nails. “But I’ll be honest. I think if I’d actually propositioned you, or you me, I’d have freaked out. Like, that just doesn’t happen.”
“Except it does.” I shrugged. “I’ve had absolutely terrible sex with caterers and flight attendants and… okay, it wasn’t all terrible. But somehow it goes from a flirtatious potential to an actual thing that you go through with. And I just wanted to be up front about the fact that we can’t go there.”
“Because I’m too young?”
“Because I’m monogamous.” I waited a beat. “And because you’re too young.”
His face was still quite red and I got the feeling his heart was beating as hard as mine had been earlier. “It’s a catch-22 though, isn’t it? If I want someone more experienced to show me the ropes? I’ve got my choice between these middle-aged salesmen who come through town or everyone my own age or younger who are behind me on the learning curve.”
“I know.” I tried to say something encouraging: “When you get to college it’ll be different.”
He chuckled bitterly. “The only college I’ll be going to is where my older brother is a leader in Campus Crusade For Christ.”
“It’s funny. My sisters just kind of escaped an evangelical, um, group.” I’d almost used the word “cult” but I thought he might be offended by it, plus I wasn’t sure if it was strictly accurate.
“Oh, well good for them?” He sounded tentative. I guess it wasn’t really covered in the rules of etiquette which nicety was appropriate for congratulations on sibling liberation from Bible thumpers.
“Yeah.” I wasn’t really sure what to follow that with, either. “You know, now that I think about it, college was better than living at home, but I was still in the closet. It wasn’t like I went to gay student group meetings. I just know a lot of people found their people once they got there, even if I didn’t.”
“Where did you find your people, then?”
I wasn’t expecting a question, much less that one. I was kind of stopped dead for a second. But I thought about the answer. I thought about Matthew, and Colin, and Jonathan. And Fran and Clarice. And Brad. And Carynne and Sarah and Courtney. And the two straight guys in my foxhole, Bart and Christian.
I wasn’t trying to be glib. “They found me,” I said.
He wrinkled his nose like that wasn’t a very good answer, even if it was true. “I’ve been told I should get into musical theater.”
I decided right then was not a good time to go into a scathing critique of the musical as an art form. “There’s a lot of room for queer folk in entertainment,” I said. “At least in my experience.”
“Room to breathe,” he said, and it seemed apt. “Oh, hey, your package is still here.” He dug under the desk and pulled out a purple and white Federal Express package. He passed it to me and opened a ledger book. “Sign here for it.”
I signed my name next to a series of numbers. “There. Now you have my autograph. Although if you wanted one, you could just ask.”
He made eyes at me. “I want a lot more than your autograph.”
He grinned almost Ziggy-like. “You said I could say anything to you and it’d be safe.”
“Ha. You’re right.” I had set myself up for that, hadn’t I? “Now, I better get my change and finish my laundry. We’re moving out tomorrow.”
“Oh, darnit, and here I was just getting to know you, finally. Well, I suppose–” he cut himself off mid-sentence as the phone rang. While he answered it in his professional voice, he changed my random nickels and dimes into a few quarters and then slid them across the counter to me.
I was pocketing the money when I saw him looking at me meaningfully. “Oh, he’s right here. Would you like to speak with him?”
“Who is it?” I asked, but I was already reaching for the phone.
I won’t keep you in suspense. It was Ziggy, of course.
(I figure this is our one chance to use a Weird Al Yankovic song. And just a reminder, if you don’t want to wait until Tuesday to find out what Ziggy had to say, drop a dollar or two in the tip jar and if enough of you do, the post could go up Saturday… Just sayin’. -ctan)