I couldn’t believe I was actually doing this. I mean, when my brother Jerry told me I should contact Larry Bertoni, our sister’s ex-boyfriend, I was, in a word, flabbergasted. Seems Larry had admitted to Jerry he was going through some kind of sexual identity crisis, and Jerry had latched on to that fact as quick as he could when I just happened to mention my own recent questioning. Well, not so recent when I thought about it—but I better back up some and let you in on what had been happening in my life—and as it turned out, Jerry and his new boyfriend Taylor’s lives, also.
I had a problem. Truth be told, I still have the problem. When you’re an addict of any kind—booze, drugs or in my case, gambling—it’s not something you can be cured of overnight. It can take months, years, a lifetime in some cases, and for many people there is no cure. You’re not termed a cured addict, you’re a recovering addict, and I guess I’m still recovering. My brother, all of my family really, has been very supportive of my trying to beat this craving for the green baize, for the dice and cards that tumble or slide so mesmerizingly across those smooth surfaces. But I can’t let myself dwell too long on those images. They’re too tantalizing, almost sexual in their allure for someone like me.
Anyway, I managed to get myself even deeper into the problem a few weeks ago when I fell foul of some loan sharks from whom I had, like a fool, borrowed a rather large sum of money. A hundred grand in total. Not all in one lump sum, but these smaller loans have a nasty habit of becoming more than a person can pay back—and as I found out, payback can be a bitch.
Jerry had helped me out on a few occasions, or as he would no doubt tell you, many occasions. Jerry had, true to form, ranted and raved at me, calling me weak, irresponsible, a danger to our mother’s health—that’s a crock of course, our mother’s as healthy as a horse—all things that under normal circumstances I would have considered hurtful. However, at the time he was raging at me over the phone, I was being held, tied to a chair in a sleazy Vegas hotel room, by a pair of enormous thugs who I was convinced were going to ‘off’ me at any moment. So Jerry’s recriminations were not only hurtful, but also untimely, especially as I was terrified to the very soles of my feet.
Fortunately for me, a good Samaritan, on whom I had earlier unloaded my tale of woe, had contacted Jerry and persuaded him to come to Vegas to help me out of this predicament. Taylor, that’s the Samaritan’s name, and my brother immediately hit it off, and hit on each other, but despite those distractions of the flesh, managed to get me out of trouble, home free, almost without a scratch. That can’t be said for the thugs and the guys they worked for. They all ended up either dead or in jail, where they belong.
During the process of rescuing me, Jerry called our sister’s ex-boyfriend, Larry Bertoni, an LAPD cop, and asked if he could keep an eye on Taylor’s apartment in case the thugs, who were still alive at that point, might come a’callin’ looking for a little payback from Taylor. Larry surprised Jerry, in the course of their conversation, by telling him he had been batting for Jerry’s team, or at least was interested in the possibility he might be swayed over to the gay side.
Color me surprised, very surprised, when Jerry told me this tale. Larry was at least six-four, all muscles, and had a jaw that could take punches from Ali and Mayweather together and still come up smiling. No way could this man have been gay or even bisexual, I thought, but then I had to reflect on this some more, because…well, I’ve been married twice, no kids, both marriages were fairly short-lived and, when I’m in my honest mode, really not that satisfactory. You know, on the intimate level. And not just the sex, but the out of bed stuff too, like conversation, having fun together, visiting friends. Well, that might be difficult as I have a habit of losing friends almost as quickly as I lose my wives.
Apart from Jerry, there was no other guy I could open up to, rely on, feel at ease with. Even though I know he thought me a total pain in the ass, a screw-up who used him to welch off, only coming around when I needed something, mostly money, he only occasionally railed at me and he never sold me out to our mother.
I’ve always admired Jerry for being so open about who he is, and I’ve envied the easy camaraderie he has with people, both friends and work colleagues. I guess it was watching the developing relationship between him and Taylor that made me finally realize just what it was I was missing in my life—a friend, someone to love and who would love me back. Not necessarily a sexual relationship, although that would’ve been nice, too, but just someone I could talk to, listen to, and feel comfortable with.
Which brings me back to what I couldn’t believe I was doing. Jerry had wheedled out of me the fact that in high school I’d had a boy crush on Bobby Wilson, captain of the wrestling team. Then I had to go and admit that through the years, I’d found some guys kind of attractive. Never did anything about it, of course, I’d hastily added. Jerry couldn’t for a minute hide the fact he found all this intriguing. He suggested I give Larry a call and maybe we could be supportive of one another. So, against my better judgment, I’d called Larry. He had sounded really pleased to hear from me, or like he’d said, someone from the ‘old days’. Old days—he’d dated Linda a year and a half ago. Never mind. His gruff, so butch voice, relaxed me and made me think this would just be two guys getting together for a drink and a laugh or two. No complications whatsoever.
* * * *
Larry had suggested we meet at Sykes, a bar on Melrose. A ‘mixed crowd’ he’d called the patrons, and I of course, assumed he meant men and women. After I’d found somewhere to park my Audi and gritted my teeth at the exorbitant parking fee, I made my way along the sidewalk to Sykes. I couldn’t help but notice the number of young men and some women walking hand-in-hand, seemingly without a care in the world. Happy in the liberal attitude of West Hollywood. My brother lives in Hillcrest, the ‘boys town’ of San Diego, so I’m not exactly unused to this, but I live in a more restrained part of San Diego where guys wouldn’t exactly be in danger of being stoned for holding hands, but you don’t see a lot of that kind of outward affection.
The sounds of chatter, laughter and music told me I was nearing Sykes. I braced myself to meet Larry for the first time since he’d broken up with my sister, and I paused at the entrance thinking, This is weird, isn’t it? The guy dated my sister and now I’m meeting him for a drink to talk about…what exactly? Had I even liked Larry on the few occasions we’d met? Well, this was a helluva time to be mulling over the likes of that.
Larry was standing at the bar. You really couldn’t miss him. He was a good head taller than anyone else around him. I’m no shorty. I clock in at about six-one, but Larry had at least two or three inches on me. An involuntary chuckle escaped me. What was I doing thinking about ‘head’ and ‘inches’? Jerry would have had a field day if he’d been with me right then and I had vocalized my thoughts to him.
My cheeks grew hot, and Larry took that exact moment to turn and see me hovering in the doorway. He waved and grinned at me, and I had to admit I’d forgotten what a great-looking guy he was. Like I said, tall, wide-shouldered, with short, dark brown hair, and a face that was more rugged than conventionally handsome. He was wearing a black T-shirt that showed off his muscled chest and arms to great effect. I suddenly felt overdressed in my beige polo and pressed Dockers. I gave him a small wave back, and he walked over to where I was still dithering and held out his hand.
“Good to see you, Mike,” he said, his voice deep and masculine, but at the same time warm and welcoming. “You haven’t changed a bit.”
I took his hand. “Nor you.” I met his gray-eyed gaze and smiled, and was it just my imagination, or had the sound and the crowd around us receded, leaving just Larry and me standing there, holding hands for way too long and grinning like idiots at each other?
He released my hand and stepped back, breaking the spell perhaps only I had been aware of. Pull yourself together, I told myself, then flinched as he put an arm around my shoulders and steered me toward the bar.
“So, how’ve you been?” he asked. He gave my shoulder a squeeze before letting go.
“Just fine, thanks to Jerry and Taylor,” I replied. I’d filled him in on some of the stuff that had gone down in the last few weeks, and of course, he knew some of it from Jerry when he’d been asked to keep an eye on Taylor’s apartment.
“Yeah, that must have been pretty scary.” He touched my arm and tipped his head at the bartender. “What’ll it be?”
“Uh, Heineken on tap?”
“Comin’ up, handsome.” The bartender, a young blue-eyed blond, winked at me and smiled, showing two rows of the whitest teeth I’d ever seen.
“Is this a gay bar?” I asked Larry, immediately feeling like a hick from the sticks.
“Yes, is it a problem?” Larry gave me a wary look. “It’s like I told you, a mixed crowd. A lot of gay bars in WeHo attract young straights as well. I picked this one because it’s less of a cruise bar than most. I didn’t want you to get nervous, but it looks like you are anyway.”
“No, no, not nervous.” I paused as Mr. Pepsodent placed my glass in front of me along with another wink and a gleaming smile. Once he’d moved away, I said quietly, “It’s just that I have a hard time thinking of you as gay, you know? You’re so…so manly. You’re a cop.”
He chuckled. “This might surprise you, but there are quite a few gay cops in Los Angeles these days. Besides, you don’t look gay, either.”
“I’m not gay!” I suppose that could have been said with a modicum more tact, and the reaction didn’t come as much of a surprise. Just about every head in the bar turned. Men and women stared at me as if I had ‘Republican Whore’ stamped on my forehead. I waited for the floor to swallow me whole. It didn’t happen, instead Larry burst out laughing.
“He’s not gay, but his boyfriend is,” he said, still laughing.
Someone tittered, a few shook their heads, then everyone turned away, getting on with whatever they’d been doing before my foot-in-mouth outburst.
“Jeez, I’m sorry.” I was afraid to meet Larry’s eyes so I kept mine firmly fixed on the space on the floor between us.
“I remember when I said I’m not gay the first time.” Larry picked up his drink and took a long swallow, then wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Only I was looking at myself in the bathroom mirror. You had more of a reverse Ellen moment there.”
“Ellen DeGeneres? She came out on a mic in the middle of a store on TV? It’s on YouTube.” He sighed at my blank expression. “You’re really not gay, are you?”
I sighed. “I’m just not into knowing who’s who. Jerry’s always quoting some old movie star, Judy or Bette somebody, then he has to explain the whole thing to me—and most times I still don’t get it.”
“Most straights don’t, but there’s a lot that goes over my head, too. I’m kinda new at all this—”
Just then, I was shoved out of the way by some little guy who pushed in front of me and flung his arms around Larry, then gave him a huge kiss on the lips. What the fuck? I couldn’t believe someone could be so crass. I mean there we were, two guys, obviously deep in conversation—at least that’s how it felt to me—and this twerp thought he had the right to just barge in and manipulate Larry’s time without so much as an ‘excuse my asinine-ness’. I was pissed, but also uncomfortably aware of something else. An emotion I didn’t think was possible under the circumstances.
I was jealous.
Watching Larry being devoured by this skinny-ass kid, who was wearing way too tight jeans and a transparent tank top, made me see all shades of red. Don’t be ridiculous, I told myself. Why in hell should I be jealous? Larry isn’t even a friend of mine…not really. He’s just my sister’s ex that I came up to LA to have a drink with. That’s it, nothing more. So why was this little green-eyed monster poking me and hissing, ‘set the little fucker on his ass’?
Larry extricated himself from ‘grabby’ and threw me a look of apology. “Hi, Toby,” he said, turning the maggot around to face me. “This is my friend from San Diego, Mike.”
“Oh, hi…” Toby gave me the once-over, then the twice-over, his gaze moving up and down between my face and my crotch. “’Scuse the interruption. I haven’t seen Lar in so long, I just got excited.”
A half-ass apology to be sure and Larry seemed uncomfortable with Toby’s affections, so two pluses in my favor. What was I talking about? Thinking about, rather. For Chrissakes, stop behaving like some giddy teenager. Larry’s gay and you’re not. The most that can happen here is a bromance, right? Yeah, I liked the sound of that. A bromance. I wasn’t quite sure what a bromance was, other than it had come up in a movie with Paul Rudd. I liked Paul Rudd, wouldn’t mind a bromance with him. Whatever it was, exactly.
“Okay,” Toby said, winking at us both. “You guys are obviously into talking, so I’ll just scoot over there and say hi to the other guys.” He pointed in some vague direction, kissed Larry again, this time on the cheek. I felt a low growl build in my throat and gave myself a mental slap as, after giving me a wave involving only his fingers, he actually scooted away.
“Sorry,” Larry mumbled, then threw back what was left of his drink. I signaled for the bartender who whizzed over and gave us another view of his amazing white molars.
“Please.” I returned his smile, trying to relax into this, for me, alien atmosphere. Someone else came up and started talking to Larry. This time, the guy didn’t launch himself over Lar, just gave him a quick hug, then waited to be introduced.
“Phil, this is Mike…Mike, Phil.” We shook hands while Larry went on, “Phil works with me at the precinct.”
“I’m not a cop,” Phil said, obviously noticing my surprised blink. “I’m on the administrative side of things.”
He seemed like a nice guy, fairly attractive, but not my type. Jeez, there you go again. Will you get a fuckin’ grip? You don’t have a type—at least not a guy type!
“Where’s Cody?” Larry asked.
“The fool’s working,” Phil replied, shaking his head. “My husband,” he added, smiling at me. “If you search the dictionary for the word workaholic, you’ll see Cody’s name there. I’m meeting a couple of friends over there.” He pointed at two guys standing at the far end of the bar. “Join us later, if you like. Lar, I think you know Don and Mark?”
Larry nodded. “Yeah, I’ve seen them around. Mike and I are just trying to catch up. We haven’t seen each other in some time…but maybe later, for sure.”
Phil left after shaking my hand again. The bartender dropped off our drinks, and I slipped him a twenty and told him to keep the change. That earned me an even greater peek at his gleaming dental work, plus a gentle hand squeeze. Friendly guy. In fact, everyone seemed friendly. Even after my stupid ‘I’m not gay’ outburst, the people around us nodded and smiled when I caught someone’s eye.
“So…” Larry touched my arm again, this time to get my attention. “Feeling a bit more relaxed?”
I leaned against the bar, and for the first time since entering Sykes, I managed to give him a genuine, unforced smile. “Yeah. I really don’t know what was making me jittery. Everyone seems so nice.”
“You’re a handsome guy, Mike,” he said. “You give off a friendly vibe. People gravitate to that, but I’m guessing you haven’t spent much time in gay bars.”
“Well, I’ve been to a couple with Jerry.” I grinned. “One time I met Linda, our mom, and Jerry in a bar for Jer’s birthday. It wasn’t until he told me some guy was giving me the eye that I realized it was a gay bar.” I laughed quietly at the memory. “Of course, like a schmuck, I stared back at the guy like a fuckin’ deer caught in the headlights, and Linda—well, no need to tell you what she’s like, she laughed so loud and wouldn’t stop until Mom told her to behave herself. Not for my sake, but for the guy sitting at the bar. Mom thought Linda’s laughing might upset him. I wanted to crawl away and hide. ’Course, I was a lot younger…”