(originally published in Fiction International 46; 2013)
How It Is Between Us
When Richard gets up to leave, Nok, who is usually very polite, just nods to him and doesn’t rise from the couch. Maybe he did hear Richard and me talking earlier. Or maybe he just has good instincts about people.
As I see Richard to the door, he asks me to walk him to his car. I know he wants to pry around more about Nok and probably give me some advice, so I make an excuse about it being too cold. “Okay,” he says, and leaves.
I close the door and sit back down, next to Nok. We can see Richard get to his car, get in, drive off. It strikes me that he is alone, that there’s no one at home for him.
When Nok is finished with his tea, he takes a chair into the kitchen, where the floor is easy to sweep, and I follow and he begins trimming my hair.
Twenty Minutes Earlier
Richard’s sitting in the big chair. I’m on the couch. I hear the bedroom door open, so I call out, “We’ve got a visitor.” Nok doesn’t reply. I hear him go into the bathroom.
A few minutes later, wearing a robe, he crosses through the living room, without saying anything, into the kitchen and a minute after that, I hear the kettle whistle. A moment after that, he appears with his tea.
I introduce them to each other, then Nok sits down next to me. It’s true that he’s just gotten up and may still be half asleep but is he being unusually quiet? Could he have heard us talking earlier? He sips his tea, doesn’t pay much attention to Richard. After a while he leans back, gives me an appraising look, and says, “You get a haircut later.” Everything seems to be okay between us.
Half An Hour Before That
Nok is sleeping. I’m working on my taxes. The house is quiet. The weather is overcast, gray. It may rain. It’s a perfect day to be indoors, doing something that needs to be done, with someone you love in the next room, just quietly part of your life.
The phone rings. It’s Richard. He’s in the neighborhood. “Want to go for coffee?” he asks.
“Come on by,” I say. “I’ll make it here.”
“You only have instant,” he says.
“Yes, so that’s what you’ll get. I’m not going out.”
“Okay, okay,” he says. “I’ll be there in a few minutes.”
I keep an eye out for him and when I see him coming across the front lawn, I open the door and warn him. “Keep it down. My friend’s asleep.”
He nods, steps in. I get him settled in the living room but as I’m going back and forth between him and the kitchen, he calls out for sugar and I gesture toward the bedroom, to remind him to be quiet.
“You guys had a late night?” he asks.
I explain, “He doesn’t get off work until midnight.”
“What’s he do?”
“He’s a vampire,” I say. I know why Richard’s here. He’s heard someone has moved in with me.
“Just tell me. He’s a waiter, right?
“Yes, Richard. He’s a waiter.”
“Because if he was a bartender or bar back or something, he’d be home after two.”
“He’s a waiter,” I say, “but he’s also going to school. He’s studying hair styling.”
Damnit! Why did I bother to explain? I don’t have to defend Nok.
Richard asks, “Where?”
“Where’s he taking his classes?”
“You’re an expert on hair schools?” I say. “It’s a place called Paul Mitchell.”
“Paul Mitchell?” says Richard. “I know about that. That place is expensive.”
“Everything’s expensive,” I say.
“How does he manage it?”
“Manage what?” Am I over sensitive or is he implying something?
“How can he afford it, on a waiter’s take home?”
Richard decides to back off this line of inquiry and finally gets around to asking his name.
“Nok,” I say.
“Nok? Like ‘knock-knock’?”
“No. He’s Thai.”
“Ahhh... He works in a Thai restaurant?”
“So you met him there?”
“Brilliant, Holmes.” But he’s wrong.
“Yes,” I say. “He’s young. Younger than me.”
Richard smirks and says, “Lucky you.” There really are times I’d like to punch his fat face. Then he asks, in that light. half mocking way of his, “Is it love?”
“Why does it have to be love?” I say. “Why does it have to be bigger than it is? Why can’t it just be what it is?” This shuts Richard up pretty much until Nok gets up and joins us.
A Month Before That
The house is quiet. Nok has gone to bed. I only have a few pictures up of Henry. There’s the one on the wall in the den that I took when we went on a cruise to see the glaciers in Alaska, and the small one in a silver frame on my desk. And on the refrigerator, the strip of funny poses of Henry and myself, taken at an old self-photo booth we found in an arcade in Hollywood. I put them all away in the bottom drawer of the big cabinet in the living room.
Earlier That Night
Nok still brings meals from the restaurant but he’s also taken to cooking from time to time. Tonight’s one of those times. I like the few sounds he makes. The click of dishes, the tap running, the ding of the microwave. I clear a space on the coffee table. We’ll eat, as always, side by side on the couch.
Usually, after we’ve eaten, we watch television or a DVD, lying together on the couch but this time he stays upright.
“Ben,” he says to me, “Something happened today.”
He tells me that he’s lost his roommate. And there is a further complication. Their arrangement was that Nok gave his half of the rent to the roommate, who added his half and paid the landlord. Turns out, not only has the roommate gone to Hawaii but he used the rent money to buy the ticket.
“How much do you need?” I ask.
“The rent is six hundred and seventy,” he says. Then he adds, “But I don’t want to live there anymore.”
Well, this is it, I figure. Yeah, I’m ready. “How about you move in here?” I ask. “You’re here a lot anyway. It would be easier than going back and forth all the time.”
Nok nods gravely. “Yes,” he says. “That’s what I want. You want that, too?”
“Sure. When do you have to be out? Do you need any help moving your stuff?”
“I’m out already,” he says. “We were two months over due.” I go with him to his car and bring in his belongings, mainly clothes stuffed into several large black garbage bags.
A Week Before That
Somehow, I’ve walked into very cold water. It’s soaking my shoes, my pants. Now I’m not wearing shoes. I’m barefoot. I try to find my way out of the puddle, but it has become a pond and I’m floundering in it.
“You were dreaming,” says Nok. “You were kicking around.”
I tell him I was in the water. He says, “You were cold. You always dream you’re in the water when you’re cold.”
We sit up, rearrange the covers. When we lie back down, his neck comes to rest on my arm, I can feel his pulse. Slow, steady, strong. A soft heat radiates from him, like the warmth of sand in the sun.
A Month Before That
He stands over me as I cook the sausages. “I don’t get in your way when you’re in the kitchen,” I say. He looks doubtful. The water’s boiling. I slide the spaghetti in. He goes into the living room.
After a few minutes, I bring the meal out to him.
He tastes, eats.
“Well?” I ask.
“Good,” he says. I do think it came out well, but I also think he’s a little bored by it.
Some days later, after another visit, I discover some new bottles in my kitchen cabinet – peanut sauce, fish sauce, red pepper, two different kinds of curry powder. I’m not particularly surprised. Awhile ago, he started leaving some of his clothes in the bedroom closet and before that, a toothbrush and comb in the medicine cabinet.
The Day Before That
I’m sitting around the office, things are slow, but I’m very happy because I know I’ll be seeing him this evening and every hour that goes by is an hour closer to that time. Then he calls. Someone called in sick at the restaurant, so he has to go in for their shift, a late shift, and in the morning he’s got errands, so is it all right if he doesn’t come over after all? I’m not grumpy with him on the phone, but afterwards I brood a bit. Will I be seeing less of him now that I’ve loaned him money? Was it a mistake to lend him money? Lend? No, I learned a long time ago, don’t lend. You can both call it a loan, but you’d better not do it unless you’re willing to accept that lend usually means give. Am I being taken advantage of? Well, everyone’s hustling. Everybody wants something. Maybe he does just want someone to help him and it’s not me in particular he cares about. Well, I want something from him – his company, his presence.
He’s told me that he doesn’t see clients anymore, that the responses to his ad trailed off anyway, and he doesn’t have time for it now that he’s in school. But this afternoon, I look around on Craigslist and a few other sites, and I’m glad to see that he hasn’t posted anything for months.
Two Months Before That
We’ve fallen into a routine. I see him two or three times a week. Often he comes by after work, sleeps over and then spends a few hours with me in the morning, longer if it’s his day off. My schedule’s pretty much my own. Sometimes we go to an afternoon movie.
Today is a day off for him but he’s busy, out doing all the things he has to do to register for his first classes at Paul Mitchell, the hair styling school.
When he does come in, late in the afternoon, I ask him how it all went.
“Okay,” he says. “It took longer than I thought.” He had to spend hours chasing around after paperwork he didn’t know he’d need. And there was a further complication – they don’t t take cash.
“I had to go to a post office and get a money order.”
“How much cash?”
“More than I thought,” he says. “The deposit was two thousand, five hundred.”
“Wow. And you had all that in cash?”
“All twenties,” he says, smiling. The point, I know, is that ATMs pay out in twenties, and that’s how massage clients usually pay.
“You shouldn’t be keeping that much cash around,” I say.
“Well, I don’t have it any more,” he says.
“You can make more. But you shouldn’t keep all that around.”
He shakes his head. “Not so much massage money any more,” he says. “I used to make a lot doing massage but now I don’t have as many calls. So the restaurant, I don’t make as much but it comes in all the time.”
In fact, I’ve noticed that he doesn’t seem to be getting many massage calls, and, truth to tell, I’m glad of it. Now I ask him why he thinks business has fallen off.
“People run from one guy to the next. Always want to try the next guy. We say, they are like the butterfly.”
“You know,” he explains, “because they go from one flower to the next. Always chasing around.”
“That’s pretty funny,” I say. “I’m trying to imagine myself as a butterfly.”
“You don’t chase around.”
I wonder if he’s just being polite. In fact, I did get into the habit of calling a lot of different massage guys. It started about a year after Henry died, but I haven’t seen anyone else since I met Nok. I wonder if he knows this. Do these guys know each other, compare notes? I don’t ask but I think they probably do.
A Week Before That
I have to go up to Santa Paula, a drive of little more than an hour, in the hills above Santa Barbara, to look at some undeveloped acreage that’s come on the market. I ask Nok if he wants to take a little trip with me.
We arrange to go on his day off. It is a perfect California spring day, clear and blue and fresh.
He understands that it’s business, dresses causally but no tank top or shorts. A nice shirt and slacks. I’m proud to have him with me.
The work doesn’t take long. Everything’s just as represented on-line. We’re finished in time for a late lunch. I take him to the Ojai Valley Inn, which has an elegant little restaurant. I wonder if he will feel at all out of place, but he has a casual self-confidence and a grace that charms everyone, including the crusty old maitre-d.
As we’re eating, I think about Wheeler Hot Springs, a few minutes drive from here. It would be fun to have a nice soak in the sulfur water with Nok. I’m sure he’d like it. But Henry and I went there a number of times and the recollection keeps me from suggesting it to Nok.
We head back to L.A. after lunch.
A Few Weeks Before That
We don’t drink much but it’s been a hot day and the evening’s balmy, so, after the massage we’re sitting outside, in the back yard, sipping beer when his phone rings. I’ve noticed that when he takes a call in front of me, the conversation is usually in Thai. When he goes into another room, I suspect it’s a call that will be in English, probably from a massage client. I’ve never asked him about any of them.
This time, he does something I don’t remember him ever doing before. He glances at the number, lets it go to voice mail.
“Aren’t you going to take that?” I ask.
“No,” he says. “Too relaxed.” He takes another pull at his beer, stretches, and smiles. That lovely smile.
A Month Before That
For some time now, he’s been bringing dinner for us from the restaurant. I’m waiting on the couch, staying out of his way while he heats it up in the kitchen. Soon he appears with shrimp soup and a curry dish. A while ago it began to seem to me that the food was getting better and better and I think I have finally worked out what’s going on.
I ask Nok if he’s been changing something about the food he’s been bringing,
He laughs, a “busted” kind of a laugh. My suspicions are confirmed. When we first started eating together, he had to have the restaurant make the food mild enough to accommodate my Western taste buds, and that that was too mild for him. So, gradually, patiently, over the months, he’s been having the restaurant increase the spice levels, which brought out all the rich flavors Thai food can offer. Now we both enjoy the meals. He’s a clever guy.
Two Months Before That
Before the massage, I suggest we look at a DVD I’ve gotten from Netflix that I think he might like – Hangover II, the one shot in Thailand. I’m stretched out on the couch. Nok nestles in, half beside me and half on me.
The movie isn’t as good as the first Hangover, slow to get going. When the boys finally get to Thailand, I say, “Your home”.
“That’s the south,” he says. “I’m from the north.” He doesn’t say anything after this and doesn’t laugh. I realize he’s fallen asleep.
I doze myself, half watch the movie, and then, near the end, he stirs.
“Do you want to sleep over?” I ask.
We get into bed. Its the first time I’ve slept with anyone since Henry. It feels good. In the morning, I discover that Nok is hard, so I go down on him.
Later, as he’s about to leave, I hand him his money. To my astonishment, he refuses it. “What for?” he asks. “I didn’t do massage.”
“Next time,” he says, kisses me and goes. Is this guy trying to grab my heart?
Two Months Before That
He’s about 5’5”, maybe 5’6”, with a compact, wiry body. Not stunningly handsome, a round face. Lots of jet black hair. Dark eyes, of course. There’s something good natured about him. He smiles easily.
He’s arrived right on time and we quickly make the arrangements. I’ve got a mat I like to use, and he helps me roll it out, cover it with a towel.
The massage is thorough and genuinely competent, not just the prelude to a jack off. I ask for particular attention to my feet. He works his thumbs into my soles, manipulates and pulls my toes. Then, with me lying face down, he stands on the back of my feet, rocking slightly back and forth. Tension I didn’t know I was feeling dissolves.
Then he asks, “You want sensual?”
“Yes,” I say. Of course I do.
He runs his fingers very, very lightly down my back, down my butt, around the inside of my legs, just touches my balls, strokes my cock.
“Turn over,” he says, and when I do, he strokes my chest, flicks a nipple, then suddenly goes down on it, using his tongue to generate sensations I’ve never felt before. Soon he’s got a hand on my cock.
When I shoot, it’s with a power and amount that I haven’t experienced in years. My cum flies past my face, over my head.
He slips away, to the bathroom, returns with a washcloth he’s run in warm water, wipes me clean. Finds some jizz on the carpet, cleans that up.
Then he lies down next to me, fitting himself under my arm. In times to come, this will be one of my favorite times with him, the times he lies next to me, under my arm. We fall asleep. When I wake, he’s on his feet. I pay him, and then, on sudden impulse, ask him how much extra he’d charge to stay the night. He says he has to go. “I have my dinner now.”
“You haven’t eaten yet? Maybe I have something.” I open the freezer, peer in. Frozen pot stickers. Maybe he’d like those. Or maybe he’s eating hamburgers now.
But he seems to really want to go. “Okay,” he says, “Call me again, okay?” He hugs me and kisses me. All the hustler’s tricks, I know, but I also know that I want to see him again soon.
Earlier That Evening
The ad on Craigslist says, “Hot Thai Masseur. Excellent in Thai, Swedish, Combination, Sensual.” There’s a phone number and rates for Incall and Outcall. And a photo –a head shot – of the man I will come to know as Nok. And a phrase I don’t think I have ever seen in an ad before: “Nice Guy.”