They met on a Friday night. It was October 5, to be exact, and C.C. Collins closed his pub, My Local, early for a gathering of friends. C.C. called Andrew once that night, called Andrew twice, called Andrew as many times as it took to get him to say yes, I’ll come by the Local, and a few more calls after that to get him to actually show up.
“You have to come,” C.C. said, traces of his original English accent adding an unfair authority to his words. “I’ve told everyone you’re coming.”
“No one cares if I’m coming.”
“You have mates here, Andrew. Besides, I care. The place needs some eye candy, and you’re it.”
At 46, C.C.’s pale-blond hair was thinning around the edges, but he was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, as C.C. himself liked to say. He was the bartender’s bartender with Guinness and guidance all around. Always keen for a ready laugh, C.C.’s good humor was extended toward everyone, inside the bar and out.
Andrew sighed. “I don’t know, C.C. I’m tired. I brought home a lot of work...”
“Is there a night of the week you don’t have a lot of work?”
“I have an early meeting.”
“Don’t get me started on the early meetings. Andrew Whittaker, you have twenty minutes to get yourself onto these premises or I’m coming myself to drag you over.”
“Kiss my ass,” Andrew said.
“Is that an invitation?”
Andrew laughed. C.C. did flirt with him, but only on occasion, and only in fun. Everyone knew C.C. was with A.J. (no joke), and the two owned the pub together, their house together, and they were joined in the holy union of domestic partnership (since, for the only-liberal-if-you-lived-in-Portland-or-Eugene Oregonians, domestic partnership was an easier term to swallow than marriage or even civil unions). In fact, the gathering that night was a celebration of the fifth anniversary of A.J.’s 39th birthday. Andrew took C.C.’s words as they were meant, lighthearted banter between friends, and he gave C.C. a hard time about showing up until finally he gave in. He realized, as he often did with C.C., that it was easier to show up to the Local, have a pint or two and slip out when C.C. wasn’t looking than to deal with the nagging phone calls.
My Local was a corner pub, the kind Andrew saw everywhere when he was in the U.K. It had five dartboards, four pinball machines, three skeeball machines, two pool tables (or snooker tables as C.C. insisted on calling them), and a partridge in a pear tree—as the regulars liked to say. Round booths lined the dark-papered walls, with cast-iron tables and chairs scattered around. To the right was a square dance floor, a flashing jukebox, and a raised stage for the occasional live bands. To the left was a long bar with tall stools in front. C.C.’s father was Irish, so Republic of Ireland flags with green footballs were everywhere on the walls. While the Republic of Ireland flags dominated the scenery, there were also flags from the Barclays Premier League teams. You could call them soccer teams if you wanted, but then you’d have to duck and cover because C.C. would swat you with a dishtowel. It’s football. Not that silly word soccer. Football. You might get away with calling a chip a French fry in My Local, but calling a football a soccer ball would make C.C. throw things, or at the very least he would frown at you, and you wouldn’t want that since C.C.’s smile was all anyone in the pub wanted to see.
My Local was a gay bar, yet it wasn’t a gay bar. True, many of the patrons were gay men, but the pub also catered to American fans of British football (don’t say soccer...). People would stroll past the pub, look through the darkened windows, see the Republic of Ireland, Man City, or Liverpool flags on the walls, spot the matches on the flat-screen televisions above the bar, and stop in for a lager or a pint or anything else that sounded British. If there were all men in the bar, no one cared. Some of the men went to check out the football matches. Some of the men went to check out each other. Some went to check out their lungs at the end of a long day to feel for oxygen, lingering with a glass of wine or two. The straight men sat next to the gay men and the gay men sat next to the straight men and they shook hands, talked about the football matches on the televisions, vented about their jobs. They’d share how they got into British football, how they were home sick one day and ESPN happened to be showing a Swansea v. Cardiff City match and they became fans. They’d pull out their cell phones. “Here’s a picture of my wife and kids...” they’d say, or “Here’s a picture of my partner (or husband if they married in another state) and kids...” or “Here’s a picture of the boy (or girl) I’m dating...” It was fine. Really, it was fine. The brimstone-laden hell fires of Beelzebub never flared. Sodom and Gomorrah were nowhere to be seen. Noah didn’t float past on the Willamette on his ark, his crook bobbing as he counted his animals two-by-two. C.C. always said the U.S. Congress should stop in for a pint to see what people really thought of each other, though even the open-hearted C.C. knew nothing in life was that simple.
Andrew finally arrived at My Local. He hadn’t thought twice before he left his condo for Downtown. He peeled off his fancy-pants suit, threw on jeans, a t-shirt, black Converse shoes, and the first jacket he grabbed from the closet. It was October in Portland, the weather a nippy 44 degrees, not raining, in many ways a perfect, crisp autumn night. He walked into the pub, waved at a few friends dancing near the jukebox, and sat on his usual stool at the far end of the counter. C.C. smiled.
“Usual?” C.C. said.
Andrew nodded, and C.C. slid a frothy Guinness his way. Andrew took a sip, wiping the foam from his lip, watching his friends chatting or dancing or laughing and he felt like he was watching beings from another planet speak a language he didn’t understand. He was E.T. in a house of humans staring at a packet of Reese’s Pieces wondering what the hell it was. When did he lose the ability to enjoy a night with friends? To simply relax? Was he ever able to just be? As he watched Gregory and Santos, a newly minted couple holding hands as they watched friends throw darts, he wondered if he would ever be lucky enough to find someone. But Andrew didn’t want just anyone. He wasn’t interested in casual dating. He wanted The One. C.C. was always offering to set Andrew up, but Andrew didn’t know what he wanted, or who he wanted, and he was always so busy anyway. Maybe when work let up, he thought. As if that would ever happen.
And then, as if on cue, there he was.
Andrew spotted Mark out of the corner of his eye as soon as he walked into the pub, mainly because Mark couldn’t take his eyes off him. But Andrew didn’t take much notice at first. Andrew had fallen into the habit of avoiding eye contact with anyone who was looking at him, even if he looked at them first. It sounded counterintuitive for someone with Andrew’s good looks, but Andrew didn’t like the attention. It made him uncomfortable, so the easiest way to handle it was to keep himself to himself. But as Andrew sat at the bar nursing his dry Irish stout, he noticed Mark bustling behind the bar, setting out a coma-inducing display of bite-sized pies and tarts. When Andrew truly looked at Mark for the first time he realized the boy was beautiful. Mark stood as tall as Andrew at six feet, and he was slender-built though he had strong arms and a strong back. He had golden-chestnut hair that fell in a wave over his forehead and eyes nearly the same color, more gold than chestnut, though they were translucent and sometimes looked dark and other times light depending on where he stood under the fluorescent beams. Then there were those eyelashes that never ended. Andrew had heard the term doe-eyed too many times, yet it applied to Mark, certainly.
“Thanks, Mark,” C.C. said. “From the bakery?”
Mark nodded. “I made them this afternoon. The cake is in the back. Let me know when you want to bring it out.”
“Everything is perfect. How much do I owe you?”
“It’s my contribution to the party.”
C.C. gave Mark a friendly hug. “That’s very generous of you.”
A young man at the end of the bar flagged C.C. down. With C.C. out of the way, Andrew had a better view of Mark. Mark looked to be three years younger than Andrew at 24, and when Mark smiled at something someone close to him said, Andrew saw an open, kind smile, and he had to know who this Mark was.
Andrew slid from his stool and walked the four steps to where Mark had his back turned while he plated a few more pastries. Suddenly, Andrew realized he didn’t know what to say. He didn’t have a pick-up line. He always thought pick-up lines were cheesy. And it’s not like he had dated many people in his life. All these thoughts, and a hundred more, flashed through his mind leaving him tongue-tied. When Mark turned around, he stopped cold, the pastries still sliding on their plate, the only movement between them. Mark’s gold eyes were wide, as though Andrew was the last person in the world he expected to see standing there.
“Hello,” Andrew said. It was all he could think to say.
“Hello,” Mark said.
“Well...” C.C.’s voice rang out from the other side of the pub. “I’m glad you two are getting acquainted. I was about to introduce you. Andrew Whittaker, Mark Bryce. Mark Bryce, Andrew Whittaker. Andrew is a rising attorney at La Grue, Harris, Goodman, Mason, and Beller. Mark owns Bryce’s Bakery with his parents, the very wonderful Scott and Rosie Bryce. Mark studied at culinary school in Paris. He apprenticed there as well.”
Andrew looked over the pastry display. “Everything looks really good,” he said. Knock ‘em dead line number two.
“The chocolate raspberry tarts are what the bakery is most known for.” Mark blushed, his cheeks the color of strawberry jam. Andrew thought he was adorable.
C.C. slipped away, leaving Andrew and Mark to figure their own way through the awkward conversation. Instead of struggling for something else to say, Mark slid a chocolate raspberry tart onto a paper plate. He handed the plate with a plastic fork and paper napkin to Andrew. “Would you like to try one?”
Andrew took a bite. “This is really, really good,” he said, and he didn’t have to lie. The tart was really, really good. “Do you use dark chocolate?”
“Dark Belgium chocolate and homemade raspberry filling.”
“Did you learn to make this in Paris?”
“I did, though it’s my own recipe for the raspberry filling.”
Andrew never thought to ask Mark if he dated men. It wasn’t because Mark was in C.C.’s that night since C.C. had friends of all sizes, colors, and orientations. Maybe it was the way he spotted Mark staring at him as he walked into the pub. Maybe it was the way Mark stopped short when he turned and saw Andrew there. Andrew hoped he wasn’t being forward when he asked the chestnut-haired, golden-eyed boy with the lashes too long for his own good out on a date, and he was only too pleased when Mark said yes. They went out the first time the next night.
“And to think,” Andrew said aloud to himself as he pulled into the parking lot at work. “That was already a year ago.”
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