The ring burned a hole through the pocket of his jeans, drawing his attention with every step. It was supposed to be a symbol of his love, which had simmered for three years and burned bright for another two. Instead, it was the sole representation of his humiliation.
He’d been so excited when he’d strolled into the jewelry store while wearing his best dress shirt and a pair of slacks that had fit him just right. He dressed well for his work, but he’d never really worn something truly expensive before.
He’d kept his jaw sewn tight as he looked at the price tags on every ring, going from glass case to glass case until he’d finally found the dismal selection targeted for men. A simple gold band had barely been within his budget, but he’d needed something. He hadn’t been able to go another moment without telling Spencer how he felt about him.
They’d hardly spoken during the whispered moments at night when they had lain together in the most intimate embrace. But what was he supposed to say to someone who had started as his roommate but had stolen his heart instead?
It had all begun so innocently as a way to blow off steam. The tension had seemed to build as soon as they’d settled in as roommates, even though they’d been strangers at the time. Outside the apartment, they’d become friends who were perhaps more affectionate than most, but as soon as the apartment door had closed behind them, their walls had come down.
Spencer had been his. He would slip into Copley’s bed and lie with him until the sun peeked through his bedroom curtains when he had to roll out and go to work with his ass aching and his lips still bruised from their kisses.
“Copley, come back to bed.”
How many times had he fallen for that? How many sick days had passed with them in bed as they kissed and made love until they simply couldn’t anymore?
That was why the ring had been so important, and why he’d purchased the simple gold band from the clerk, who had given him a slightly disappointed look, as if he should have spent thousands instead of hundreds.
He was in love, but he still had to eat.
His heart had been ready to pound out of his chest by the time he’d arrived home, pulling the ring from the tiny box and clutching it in his hand. He had bitten his tongue, pushing himself through the door before he could chicken out.
And everything had come crashing down.
He’d grabbed his packed bag from his side of the bed, wiping the tears from his cheeks before he’d fled the apartment with Spencer staring after him looking so confused and concerned that it had nearly broken his heart a second time.
The bag was heavy on his shoulder, thumping against his back as he took practiced steps toward the main street. He’d packed light for the second part of his would-be surprise—a camping trip just for the two of them.
The bag contained a single change of clothes with one tent and an extra-large sleeping bag that would have zipped around them just right. It was the perfect way to celebrate a new engagement.
Only he’d been wrong from the very beginning. While Copley had been falling in love for five wonderful years, Spencer hadn’t felt a thing. Their stress relief had been just that and nothing more to him—which was why Spencer had introduced him to his girlfriend while Copley had clutched the ring in his hand like some clueless idiot.
Wiping his cheeks with the back of his hand, Copley looked out onto the street and the zooming traffic that was slowly starting to thin. For a gloomy fall Saturday, the road was surprisingly busy, with people rushing here and there as they prepared for winter.
It would have been near freezing in the tent on their impromptu trip, and they would have had to snuggle so close to share their bodily warmth, fogging the air as they breathed each other in.
Copley sobbed, cupping his hand over his mouth as he stumbled to the nearest bench. He sagged onto the slatted wood frame, dropping his pack as he pressed his face into his hands. A wail seeped past his lips as his chest pulled so tight that he wondered how he could still breathe.
Sniffing, Copley turned to the man next to him, who looked rather startled at his new bench mate. His hair was gray, a few age spots peeking from under his waterproof cap that matched the poncho around his shoulders.
“Yeah.” Copley sniffed, wiping his hands over his face to try to squish the sobs at the source. It didn’t quite work, but the stranger’s eyes on him stalled his tears where they were. He’d already humiliated himself enough for one day.
“I get like that on rainy days, too, sometimes.” The stranger tipped his cap as he gazed up at the cloudy sky. “Not sure if it’s the best weather for camping, though, son.” He eyed Copley’s bag and the sleeping bag nearly bursting from its packaging. “It’s going to be a mighty cold one tonight, and you don’t look like you’re dressed for it. I can feel a storm brewing in my bones.”
Copley’s lips twitched in the briefest of smiles as he let out a breath. “You sound just like my mother. ‘Don’t forget your sweater, Copley.’” He shook his head, pulling his arms around himself as a gust of wind stripped him of warmth. The guy was right, though. In his haste, he hadn’t grabbed a jacket, and with the nightfall only a short time away, it was already starting to get chilly.
“Sounds like a wise woman, like my Nancy. I would forget my pants if my wife didn’t remind me every morning.” He smiled, rubbing his hand over his knobby knee and grimacing. “I’m surprised she even lets me take the bus anymore. Some days it’s just nice to meet new people, but she’s more of a homebody. Always was.”
Smiling through the last of his tears, Copley leaned against the bench and shuddered as another wind gust swept over him. The blue and yellow bus sign blared above his head, but there were no vehicles in sight. The routes went every fifteen minutes in the city, and he could hop from one to the next with his eyes closed. He’d never even thought of having his own car before.
“Where are you headed, son? Up toward Forrest Lake? Or maybe down by the flats? We used to party there in my day. Don’t tell my Nancy, but there were quite a few ladies that liked to tag along, if you know what I mean. I played football back then. Nothing like a bit of pigskin to get the fire started.”
Copley blinked, chuckling awkwardly as he looked around for an escape. Listening to an old man talk about his young and straight escapades was slightly awkward, if he were honest. He didn’t want to be rude, but that generation tended to be a tad…ungentlemanly to him when they found out he was attracted to men.
“I wouldn’t know, actually. And as for where I’m headed…? I haven’t figured that out yet.” I couldn’t catch a football if it was covered in glue.
He looked to the bus sign. Route fifteen looped around the north side of town before it hit low-income housing and some spots that he didn’t dare step into while he was dressed the way he was. As much as he tried to be open-minded and non-judgmental, he clutched his keys tighter when he passed by graffiti or a few gang members on a corner.
“Well, this bus will take you to some of the best spots,” said the old man, tugging his cap back over his brow as the sun peeked out one final time before clouds consumed it again. It was starting to get low in the sky, bronze blushing to pinks and reds as a few lamplights buzzed to life.
“My Nancy was raised on South Street, just next to the old inn. Not much to it now, but in its glory, it was a beautiful place. Do you know it?” He looked to Copley, his bushy eyebrows scrunching as he slowly blinked.
“I do. I was raised up that way, actually,” said Copley, tugging his shirt tighter around his belly as a raindrop landed on his knee. The rain was cold, sinking straight to his skin as a second drop landed on the bench next to him.
He had been raised near Highbury Street, which was only two blocks from South, and he knew exactly why he shouldn’t travel there. He remembered the noises in the night and the shouts that had kept him awake. His mother and pop had done their best to raise him and his brother and keep them safe in that neighborhood, but sometimes he wondered how he’d ever made it out.
When he’d been old enough, he’d left the neighborhood behind, and his parents had followed shortly after, only they had moved so far south that he rarely saw them in person anymore.
“My brother is still down that way, actually. He’s in the old apartment building near the corner of Highbury…the one with the yellow brick and the steeples,” said Copley. The brick had been all but crumbling the last time Copley had seen it, the shingles on the peaked roof barely hanging on.
“That’s the old McGuire place. He used to own the old bus line in town before it went out of business. Committed suicide not long after that, and his wife went into a nunnery.”
“Oh dear,” said Copley, trying to keep his face blank. Do nunneries still exist? He used to watch The Sound of Music with his mother all the time, and he still knew the songs by heart. The man nodded, his mouth set into a grim line.
“We lost a lot of good men to things like that back then. Not so much now with people my age, but then, half of them aren’t alive anymore, anyway. There are only two people left from my high school graduating class.” He let out a long sigh, finally stilling his hand where he rubbed at his knee. “But I should be going before Nancy sends the search party out for me. I hope you find your way, son.”
The old man stood with a groan, his shoulders stooped as he grabbed the cane that was sitting next to the bench. “And be careful in that part of town. There are a lot of sons of bitches out there.” He walked off, slowly shuffling his feet against the sidewalk.
Copley looked to his pocket where he could still feel the ring like a blazing halo of misfortune. He wasn’t close to feeling any better, but at least he had a touch of perspective.
“Well, I guess I know where I’m headed.”
He grabbed his bag as the bus pulled up to the stop and parked with a burst of air brakes before the doors swung wide. Stepping inside, he clutched the strap of his pack as he paid and slipped into a seat near the front. He hadn’t seen his brother in years, so he was woefully overdue. Hopefully, he had a couch that still had its cushions where Copley could sleep.
He let out a sigh as his eyes began to burn again, his tears budding afresh as he looked back to the bench and his neighborhood. It’s going to be a long night.