Sharon smiled. The dinner party was starting well with everyone mixing. She had known that Tom and Glenda could be relied on — they had been to many of her dinner parties — but she had been concerned about Mark. He was a late addition to the invitee list when she learnt she had to find a ‛partner’ for Carl at short notice. There being an even number of people at her dinner parties wasn’t essential, but she thought it worked out better when there was. When she had learnt that Mark, the new accountant at the office, was gay and single, she had grabbed the opportunity.
Sharon frowned as she noticed Carl’s wine glass was empty. She caught her husband’s eye and glanced at Carl. Aiden grinned, grabbed the bottle of Chardonnay from the wine cooler and headed over.
“More wine, Carl?” Aiden asked.
“Only a little. I have to be able to drive home,” Carl said, blushing slightly as he apologised.
“I could give you a lift, if you like. I don’t drink,” Mark said.
“No, it’s okay. I’ve got to pick up Ben later, too.”
Mark’s eyebrows rose. “Ben? Who’s Ben?”
Carl’s smile lit up his face. “My partner. The best guy in the whole world.”
Mark’s face fell for a moment before he recovered. “Oh, I thought you were single. Why isn’t he here tonight?”
Carl flicked a glance at Sharon. “He… ah… had other plans.”
Sharon took the couple of steps required to join them. “What Carl is too polite to say is that Ben is an arrogant control freak who waited until the start of this week before announcing that he wasn’t coming — he had a better offer.” She rolled her eyes.
“Sharon, play nice,” Aiden said as he slipped an arm around her waist. “Isn’t it almost time for the first course?”
She glanced at her watch. “Another five minutes, and don’t try to stand up for Ben. You know what he’s like.” She caught her husband’s slight movement, which directed her attention to Carl’s expression. “Sorry, Carl, but I remember how many times he’s dragged you away when you’ve had other things you were planning on doing, often with almost no notice.”
“They were important! He was under a lot more pressure than I was, and it was only fair that I made things as easy as possible for him.”
“What does he do?” Mark asked.
“Did,” Tom said as he joined them. “He retired six months ago.”
Mark was clearly surprised. “Retired? How old is he?”
Carl laughed. “Only thirty-four, but that’s old for a professional football player.”
Tom smiled. “Carl’s partner is Benjamin Trann. You’ve probably heard of him.”
Mark’s expression was blank for a moment, before a glimmer of understanding appeared. “The gay AFL player? Sorry, I’m a rugby league fan, and don’t really follow Aussie rules.”
“Yep, that’s him, and my former team mate. He and some of the guys from the club are having a night out,” Tom said.
“He’s been looking forward to it all week,” Carl said, grinning. “He’s been a bit morose recently, now that he’s no longer playing, and it’s good to see him excited.”
“Why didn’t he take you?” Sharon asked, already sure of the answer.
Carl shrugged. “Because he said I had already told you I was coming here.” He gave Sharon a wry grin. “And he knows you don’t like him. You only put up with him for my sake.”
Sharon sniffed. Carl’s comment was too accurate for any other response.
Aiden looked at Tom. “Did you get an invite to whatever they’re doing tonight?”
Tom grinned. “Yep, but I couldn’t make it. I’d already accepted an invitation to a dinner party. I expect to hear all about it at training tomorrow morning, though, so it’s not like I’m missing out completely.”
* * *
Mark patted his lips with his cloth napkin. “That was absolutely wonderful, Sharon! If it’s not rude, can I ask for the recipe? Hopefully it’s as simple as it looks.”
Sharon laughed. “No, it’s not rude, and yes, it really is simple. It’s only button mushrooms and finely chopped garlic, boiled in chicken stock. I love it because it’s not only easy, but also tasty.”
“You served it as the first course at one of your dinner parties last year, didn’t you?” Glenda asked.
“Guilty as charged, but you won’t recognise the main course. I’m using you all as guinea pigs for something new.”
Tom chuckled. “That sounds familiar, too.”
“Hey, what are dinner parties for if not to try out new recipes on your friends?” Sharon asked.
At the far end of the table, Aiden raised an eyebrow. “Who, exactly, is cooking the main course?”
“Oh, okay. You are, but I picked it out.” Sharon said in a mock haughty manner.
Carl laughed. “Either way, I’m sure it’s going to be fantastic. You always–”
He stopped as the theme from Love Story started to play. “Sorry, Sharon.” Carl stood up and moved into the lounge room as he answered his phone. “G’day Ben! Having fun?”
“So what are we having for dinner?” Mark asked in the awkward silence that followed Carl’s departure.
“Fillet steak on mustard toast, with a brandy cream sauce,” Aiden said when Sharon didn’t respond immediately. “I’m sorry, but I didn’t know you were a teetotaller when we organised the meal. Is that going to be okay?”
Mark grinned. “Don’t worry about it. With most things like that, the alcohol evaporates during the cooking, anyway. I don’t drink simply because I don’t want to, not because of any serious moral or other objection. My parents were Methodists, so we had no alcohol in the house, and I grew up without developing a taste for the stuff. I’ve tried it, and I just don’t care for it, that’s all.”
“If you’d like to try something, just let me know,” Aiden said. “We have a reasonable selection of wine, spirits, and beers.”
“Nah, it’s okay.”
Carl returned. He was slipping on his jacket. “Sorry, Sharon, but I’ve got to go. Ben’s had enough of being at the pub with the guys and wants me to pick him up.”
“Why the heck doesn’t he get a cab?” Sharon asked, furious both for Carl and for her plans for the evening.
Carl shrugged. “He didn’t say. I’m really sorry that I’m going to miss the rest of the night.” He turned to Mark and stuck out a hand. “Glad to meet you, Mark! Maybe we’ll meet at another one of these dinner parties sometime.”
Mark rose to accept the hand. “I’d like that. Take care, Carl.”
The sound of the front door closing behind Carl set Sharon off. “That’s it! I’ve had enough of that arrogant son of a bitch. He knew where Carl was tonight, and what he was doing, and he deliberately called to stop him from having a good night out.”
“You don’t know that,” Tom said. “Ben may’ve lost his wallet, or forgotten to go to an ATM.”
“If he had his wallet, he’d have his credit cards, and if he lost his wallet, his mates that he was drinking with could have paid for the cab. I know you, Tom, and I know the rest of the guys in the club are the same.” Sharon jabbed a finger in his direction. “You stick up for each other, and if someone lost his wallet, the rest of you would chip in to get him home. Ben did this deliberately!”
“Tom may be right, honey. We don’t know the circumstances,” Aiden said.
“It’s not just this time. Ben’s a control freak and he’s determined that Carl won’t enjoy himself. Last month it was that incident at the park. Last week it was at the pool. Ben’s taking advantage of Carl and Carl’s too much of a nice guy to push back. Well, if he won’t, I will. I won’t stand by and watch Ben wreck Carl’s life.”
“What can you do about it, even if what you’re saying is true?” Tom asked.
Sharon’s expression hardened. “Carl needs to see Ben for who he really is, and I’m going to make sure he does.”
Tom gave her a quizzical look. “How?”
Sharon gnawed on her lower lip for a moment. “I don’t know yet, but I’m going to work it out. Carl deserves someone a lot better than Ben.”
* * *
“Carl, why do you let him run your life? He never lets you do anything you want to do,” Sharon said after their lattés had been delivered to their table.
Carl shrugged and then smiled. “He’s no trouble, Sharon. I enjoy making him happy. And get your mind out of the gutter,” he added, waggling a finger at her. “He’s more important to me than anything else in my life. If he’s happy, I’m happy, and that’s enough for me.”
“Can’t you see that you’re becoming just an accessory to him? He’s using you.”
Carl laughed. “We all use each other. I’m using him, too, because I don’t like being lonely. Been there, and it sucks.”
Sharon pounced. “What if you found someone else? There are other guys out there who are a lot nicer than Ben.”
“You mean like Mark? He’s nice, I’ll admit that, but I’ve made a commitment to Ben, and if I break that it says something about me that I don’t want to say.”
“So you’re saying you’re not happy with him?”
Carl shook his head. “Don’t put words into my mouth, Sharon. I know you don’t like him, and he isn’t that fond of you, either, but you both put up with each other for my sake. I really appreciate that, and I love you both for doing that for me. That shows me how much you both care for me. Ben’s not obvious with how he loves me, but it’s little things like that that tell me he does.”
Carl paused to take a sip from his coffee, looking thoughtful while doing so. “You know, I think it’s because he’s got this macho image he has to project. Football still has a homophobic atmosphere to it at times, and he has to show he’s not a weakling. That’s why he sometimes comes over a little strong. He’s fallen into a habit of appearing tough, and he hasn’t worked out yet that he doesn’t need to keep doing that now that he no longer plays. Once he does, I’m sure he’ll mellow.”
Sharon leant forward to emphasise her point. “So you agree he needs to mellow. What if he doesn’t?”
Carl gave her a wry smile. “Nice try. I’ll admit that Ben has his flaws — we all do — but I love him and he loves me. I know that, and if letting him be the one in control most of the time keeps him happy, then I don’t mind.”
Before Sharon could think of a response, Carl’s phone rang. He glanced at the display and then grinned as he took the call. “G’day, Ben. Were your ears burning? Sharon and I were just discussing you.”
Carl listened to the response and then laughed. “He says he loves you, too, Sharon.”
Sharon started grinding her teeth.
“Okay, Ben. I’ll see you soon. Love you!” Carl put his phone away. “Sorry, Sharon, but I’ve got to go. Ben needs me to pick up his dry-cleaning.”
“Why the f… why can’t he do that himself?”
Carl shrugged. “He’s busy at the club. He said he has meetings all day. I think he’s angling to get a job there, helping out, which would be great if it comes off. He loves that place.” Carl gulped down the rest of his coffee and then stood up. “Thanks for the chat, Sharon. I’ll see you around. Definitely at the game on Saturday to see Tom play, if not sooner.”
* * *
“Tom, Glenda, I’m sorry if I sound like a broken record, but this situation between Carl and Ben is driving me mad.” Sharon’s fists closed on their own accord and she had to force herself to relax.
Aiden came into the lounge room with a tray of drinks; wine for the ladies and beers for the guys. “Maybe you should just butt out.”
Sharon glared at her husband. “Once Carl’s come to his senses, maybe.”
Tom chuckled at the two of them bickering. “I don’t know if you realise how similar you and Ben are, Sharon.”
“I’m nothing like that arrogant son of a bitch!”
“No? You both seem to know what’s best for Carl, and you both seem determined to get your own way.” Tom snatched a beer, almost knocking over one of the wine glasses. “Thanks, Aiden.”
Glenda put a hand on Tom’s arm. “Honey, what are you saying? You’re making it sound like Carl is some sort of prize in a contest between Ben and Sharon.”
Sharon narrowed her eyes. “Are you telling me that Ben is trying to keep Carl away from me?”
Tom wouldn’t meet anyone’s eyes. “Sorry, I shouldn’t have said that. Like Carl, I’m in the middle here. I’m friends with both of you, and with Carl, and I don’t like having to take sides.”
“That implies that you are taking sides. Whose side are you on, Tom?” Sharon asked.
“Sharon, stop it! That was unfair. Tom, you don’t have to answer that.” Aiden glared at his wife.
“No, I’ll answer it.” Tom looked up and fixed Sharon with his gaze. “I’m on Carl’s side. You and Ben are big enough to look after yourselves, but Carl’s vulnerable. You both have the ability to hurt him deeply, and I’m not sure if you realise that.”
Sharon considered his accusation for a couple of seconds before looking away. “I know he could get hurt, but I’m also convinced that Ben’s wrong for him. He’s going to get hurt a lot more by that bastard than by anything I could do.”
“Really?” Tom replied, loading his answer with as much sarcasm as he could. “So you get to decide what’s best for Carl, and if that means breaking his heart, then that’s what you’re going to do?”
Sharon glared at him. “Ben’s going to break Carl’s heart, not me. All I’ll do is point out the facts.”
It was Tom’s turn to look away. “You may be right, but what facts have you got that you haven’t already pointed out to Carl?”
Sharon slumped. “I don’t know. Carl’s got an excuse for everything. He doesn’t seem capable of seeing the pattern that’s forming. Ever since Ben retired, he’s been a different person. He’s become more manipulative. Nastier, even, but Carl won’t admit it.” She sighed. “If it makes you feel better, Tom, I’ll concede that while he’s always been arrogant, when he was playing he looked after Carl. But since he’s retired…”
“You just might have to face facts yourself, love,” Aiden said. “Carl is an all round nice guy and he won’t accept anything bad about his boyfriend unless it’s blatant.”
“Like what?” Glenda asked.
Aiden shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe if Ben hit him, or cheated on him -- but despite everything that Sharon’s said, Ben’s not like that.”
Sharon straightened. “That’s it!”
“What’s it?” Aiden asked.
A thoughtful furrow appeared on Sharon’s forehead. “Ben wouldn’t hit Carl, even I’ll admit that, but he hasn’t been showing Carl a lot of attention recently. Maybe he’s seeing someone else?”
Tom shook his head. “I can’t believe that. Ben’s not the cheating type.”
Sharon didn’t appear to hear him. “Or maybe he can be encouraged to cheat?”
“Sharon! What the hell are you thinking of?” Aiden asked.
She threw up her hands. “Okay, I’m getting desperate. The only thing I can think of to get Carl to admit that Ben’s bad news is for Ben to cheat on him.”
Glenda frowned. “That would do it, but you can’t make Ben do that, and I don’t think he would do it, anyway. He still cares for Carl, even if he’s changed.”
“So you agree he’s changed? And not for the better?” Sharon asked.
Glenda nodded. “Yeah, and Carl does too, but he thinks it’s only temporary. Who knows, maybe he’s right.”
“I don’t believe that. I think Ben’s lost interest in Carl and doesn’t care that he’s walking all over him,” Sharon said.
“Carl’s opinion on that is the only one that counts,” Tom said.
Sharon ignored Tom and tapped her lips with her index finger. “Now, how to get Ben to cheat on Carl? I’m sure he just needs the right encouragement.”
“If that means what I think it means, that’s despicable!” Tom leapt to his feet. “Come on, Glenda. I’m not going to stay and listen to this rubbish.”
Aiden clambered out of the chair, casting a worried glance at his wife. “I’ll see you out, Tom, Glenda.” He lowered his voice as he escorted them to the front door. “And I’ll try to make sure she doesn’t do anything stupid.”
Back in the lounge room, Sharon was talking to herself. “Maybe Mark? No, I can’t afford to get him involved, or he’d never have a chance with Carl afterwards. Who do we know who’ll make a move on Ben if I ask?”
* * *
“Tom, can I ask you a question? And the answer needs to be no,” Aiden said, as he and Tom jogged towards the next hill.
Tom dropped back to a swift walk and gave his friend a quizzical look. “That’s weird. Ask and I’ll let you know.”
“Do you have any gay groupies chasing you after the games, or at training, that might be interested in Ben, instead?”
Tom blinked and then chuckled. “Sharon put you up to that, didn’t she? Sorry, but the answer’s no. The number of groupies that approach me has dropped away to almost zero since I got married, and I haven’t had a gay guy hit on me for years. Ben used to get a number, but to the best of my knowledge he’s ignored them since he started going out with Carl.”
Aiden smiled with relief. “Sorry about that, but she’d know if I hadn’t asked. She’s getting obsessive, and I think she’s also beginning to clutch at straws.” Tom laughed. “She threw up her hands the other day and asked the world where all the sex-crazed gays had gone! She’s looking for someone to try to seduce Ben, and she’s not having any luck.”
Tom chuckled. “I’m surprised she hasn’t suggested you make a play for him.”
Aiden glared. “I nipped that one in the bud before she could ask. I think she might’ve if I hadn’t made it clear that there was no way I’d do that.”
Tom laughed and slapped Aiden on the back. “Race you to the top of the hill.”
* * *
“Tom, it’s good to see you. Aiden’s not here at the moment, but he shouldn’t be long,” Sharon said, as she stepped aside to let him in.
Tom wouldn’t meet her eyes. “Actually, it’s you I’ve come to see.”
“Oh? Would you like a drink or something?”
“No, thanks. It’s about your plans to try to get Ben to cheat on Carl. I got the impression from Aiden that they’re going nowhere.”
Sharon sighed. “Yeah, he’s right. It looks like I’m just going to have to put up with watching Carl being used as a welcome mat for the rest of his life.”
“I’ve had an idea, but I don’t want anyone else to know about it. If you agree, can we keep it between the two of us?”
Sharon’s eyes opened wide. “I didn’t think you were getting involved.”
Tom shrugged, still not looking at her. “Let’s just say that I think you might be right. It’ll be up to Ben as to whether he cheats on Carl, but I think I know how you can give him the opportunity.”
Tom swallowed once. “It’s simple, really. Just ring up an escort agency and arrange for someone to do what you want. You can give them the place and time, and then arrange for Carl to show up soon afterwards.”
Sharon smiled. “Brilliant! Working out how to have Carl catch Ben was another problem I hadn’t solved, and you’ve settled that, too. Thank you!”
* * *
Carl frowned at the hotel entrance. “I’ve heard of this place. When did you start visiting sleazy gay dives, Sharon?”
“Just starting, but I heard there was something interesting going on, and I thought we should take a look.”
“What sort of something?”
Sharon smiled and beckoned Carl forward. “Why don’t we find out?”
The hotel interior was dim, but there was sufficient light to see the booths that lined two of the walls. The nearest booth contained two young men engaged in a passionate bout of kissing. Several posters of nearly naked men adorned the walls, and two TV screens were showing a soft porn gay movie. A number of patrons were sitting at the long bar that ran down the right hand side. A couple of older men smiled at them as they entered, though Sharon suspected it was more Carl than her they were looking at.
Carl leant over to whisper to Sharon. “Well? Let’s get this over with, because this place is giving me the creeps. What is it that you wanted to show me?”
Sharon strolled forward, casting her gaze around the room. One of the booths on the far wall held what she had hoped to see. “Follow me.”
They were only a few paces away when Carl stumbled to a stop. “Ben?”
Ben broke the lip lock with the young blond man to glance up. “Oh, hi, Carl. Come back later, will you? I’m busy.”
“Busy? Busy! What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” Carl’s yelling had everyone in the bar watching them.
The young man started to pull away, clearly nervous, but Ben pulled him back. “What do you think I’m doing? I was having a good time, and I’m hoping to have an even better one shortly. Don’t worry, I’ll be back to look after you later. I won’t neglect you, even if you are starting to get a little boring.”
Carl stepped forward and slapped Ben across the face. He then turned and started towards the door. Halfway across the room, he paused and glared back over his shoulder. “I’m going to Sharon’s place. By the time I get home, I want you gone.”
Ben shrugged. “Whatever.”
Carl gritted his teeth and stormed out, Sharon following. He managed to make it to her car before he broke down.
* * *
Tom entered the bedroom and glared at Ben. “I hope you’re happy. Carl is currently bawling his eyes out at Sharon’s place.”
Ben looked up from where he was putting clothes into a suitcase and shrugged. “He was going to get hurt one way or another. This way, Sharon can calm him down and he can move on.”
Tom sat down on the edge of the king-sized bed. “It’s not too late. If you go to him and explain, I’m sure he’ll forgive you.”
Ben snorted as he resumed packing. “Yeah, right. As if that’s going to happen.”
Ben paused and gave a heavy sigh. He didn’t lift his gaze from the suitcase in front of him. “What am I supposed to do? Go up to him and say, ‘Sorry, Carl. It was all a big mistake. I didn’t want to hurt you and can we make up? Oh, and by the way, I’m going to be dead within three years, but I’m a selfish bastard and your feelings don’t count, so making you stay by me while I slowly die is going to make me really happy.’”
Ben lifted his head and glared at Tom. “I won’t do that! I love him too much to put him through that much hell. Acting like I didn’t care was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but what he’s going through is the lesser of two evils. I prefer him to go through some pain now and then get on with his life, rather than spend the next couple of years looking after me and then spending God knows how many years mourning. He deserves better.” Ben gave Tom a pleading look. “You know Carl. If I died while we were still a couple, he’s the sort that wouldn’t look at another guy for years, and possibly never.”
“You don’t know you’re going to die. Stephen Hawking’s been living with it for decades.”
“Stephen Hawking, besides being a certified genius, is a bloody freak! Look it up — almost everyone who gets motor neurone disease dies within three to five years of the diagnosis. I’ve used up almost twelve months already, trying get Carl to leave me, and I’m not going to take any chances.”
Tom was horrified. “Please don’t tell me that you’re going to kill yourself!”
Ben gave a dark chuckle. “I’ve thought about it, but no. I can’t risk Carl finding out and thinking I did it because he dumped me. The guilt would destroy him. I’m just going to find some obscure part of the country where people don’t know me and let myself slowly die.” He lifted his left hand and tried to make a fist. “See, it’s already started. I’m losing strength in my arms, and I know my legs are going to go soon, too. From what the doctors have told me, I’ll be in a wheelchair within a year, and then it’ll just be waiting until it’s progressed enough that I can no longer breathe.”
He paused and took in Tom’s look of concern and compassion. “Tom, there are only six people who know the truth. I don’t want Carl to find out — ever! He has to live his life without me — I’ve known that for the last year — and I need you to make sure I haven’t sacrificed his love in vain.”
“You haven’t given him the chance to choose, Ben. Shouldn’t he have the right to make this sort of decision for himself?”
Ben grimaced. “You think I haven’t thought about it? The problem is that giving him the chance to choose removes his best option for getting over it. If he knew, he’d never let me go. I’m a bastard, I’ll admit it, but telling him the truth would hurt him more than what I’m doing now. I’m just glad that Sharon came up with a way for him to dump me — I was beginning to get desperate that nothing would work. You’re not going to tell him, are you?”
Tom sadly shook his head. “I disagreed with you when you first told me your plans, but I promised you then, as now, that I wouldn’t stop you. I can’t help you any more, my friend, but I’ll be there for Carl. And I certainly won’t tell him what Sharon did, or that I told you about it so you could play your part in the charade.”
Ben smiled and closed the lid on the suitcase. “Thanks, mate. I can’t ask for anything more than that. I’m glad that Sharon took the suggestion of using a prostitute, because it meant I didn’t have to cheat. I wanted to be able to say that much, at least.” Ben chuckled. “The guy was surprised that he didn’t have to do anything, but since he was paid, he didn’t really care.”
“It was your idea in the first place,” Tom said. “I just passed it on.”
Ben shrugged. “It worked. Anyway, thanks for coming to see me, but it’s time I disappeared. As far as Carl and the rest of the gang are concerned, I’m going to just disappear off the face of the Earth.”
Tom watched him leave. Despite a wish that things could be different, there was nothing else for him to do.
When I was doing the research for this story, I was surprised to learn how much isn’t known about the causes of motor neurone disease. In particular, why some professional sportsmen seem to be at an increased risk of the disease. The fact that in the USA it is known as Lou Gehrig’s disease after an American baseball player who died of it in 1941 just reinforces that point.
There is so much we still don’t know. Maybe one day we’ll be able to prevent or cure this terrible disease.
Copyright Notice — Copyright © December 2009 by Graeme.
The author copyrights this story and retains all rights. This work may not be duplicated in any form — physical, electronic, audio, or otherwise — without the author's expressed permission. All applicable copyright laws apply.
Disclaimer: All individuals depicted are fictional, and any resemblance to real persons is purely coincidental.
I would like to thank Ray, C James, and also everyone from The Mail Crew for the advice they have given me on this story.
I would also like to thank Rain from The Mail Crew for editing this story for me. I can thoroughly recommend their website to all teenagers who are gay, lesbian, bi or not sure.
This story first appeared in the Gay Authors 2009 Winter Anthology.