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Risk-Seeking Behavior

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After Eddie spent a week in the hospital unconscious, and another three days awake and watching the hole in his chest slowly close up with a mixture of fascination and horror, the staff was forced to admit that he was well enough to be discharged, even if no one could explain how or why that had happened.

He was tempted to stay longer, but if he did that he was going to lose his nerve.  He let the four of his friends who had stuck around take him out to breakfast, and then let Ben and Bev escort him to airport security and wave wildly as he went through, like proud parents whose kid was taking his first solo flight to see Grandma. Then he called Myra to tell her he would be on a flight tomorrow, because if he told her the truth she would meet him at the airport, and letting her load his suitcases into her car felt like a decision he couldn’t walk back.

It wasn’t a big deal. He could do this. He and Myra were toxic in ways he couldn’t even have conceived of three weeks ago, and Myra wasn’t an unreasonable person, so logically there was some combination of words that would make her understand that and agree that they should break up. He just had to find that combination.

She would have to agree, wouldn't she? He could have talked to his friends about this first, but he couldn’t shake the fear that they would ask him a lot of gentle, leading questions, or, in Bev’s case, straight-up tell him that everything was fine and he was having a mid-life crisis. Was this how Greg Oslacovic in finance felt, right before he left his wife because of a ‘profound, spiritual connection’ he had formed with a 24-year-old bartender?

Of course, he and Myra had real, important problems that had nothing to do with the fact that Eddie suddenly had an actual libido for the first time in twenty-odd years. But then, Greg had also insisted that his marriage had real, important problems, even if those problems had never seemed all that important before what’s-her-name and her tongue ring. Eddie had listened to Greg with a mixture of embarrassment and pity but no sympathy whatsoever. He hadn’t known then, or hadn’t remembered, how it felt to want someone so badly it made you reckless and stupid. 

Christ, at least Greg had probably gotten laid a few times before he lost everything in the divorce and the bartender left him for his ex-wife.  There was no chance of that happening for him, so maybe Greg was the success story.

Amazingly, despite everything, he slept on the flight to LaGuardia; more amazingly, he didn’t have any nightmares. Instead, he dreamt he was cocooned in a warm, dark space, listening to an audibly weeping Richie Tozier recite what sounded like passages from Fifty Shades of Gray. The subtext was heavy-handed and enjoying Richie’s sobbing was probably a little mean, but Eddie liked the dream anyway. Richie had been gratifyingly distraught when Eddie was skewered, and it was no surprise his subconscious chose to focus on that instead of the fact that Richie had fucked off to LA the second Eddie woke up.

He felt calmer as he got off the plane, and decided the dream was a good sign. He was Eddie Kaspbrak. He had faced (and stabbed) his childhood bully. He had helped kill the physical manifestation of the concept of fear. He had taken a giant claw to the chest and survived. He was prepared. He could do this.

He was not prepared, and he could not do this, and Myra had neatly taken apart all of his careful explanations as though they were puzzle toys he had thoughtfully brought her from the airport gift shop.  But somehow, four hours later, here he he was in a parking lot six blocks from his house, with his passport and a thumb drive with last ten years of his tax returns on it safely on the passenger seat next to him. His cell phone rang, but it was a number he didn’t recognize — thank God — so he ignored it. It was starting to rain. Shit, where was he going to go? He had friends in the city who would put him up for a night, but that wasn’t what he needed; he’d already planned to go back to the airport Best Western if Myra didn’t want him sleeping in the guest room. What he needed was someone who would physically stop him from answering his phone when Myra called, and he didn’t have friends like that.

Then he realized that, shit, he did have friends like that, friends whose landline numbers he might not recognize, but by then the call had gone to voicemail. He stared at the missed call notification in panic for a second, then remembered, hey, dumbass, your phone has a redial button, and pressed it.

The phone rang for a worrying amount of time before connecting. “Hey, man,” said the slightly breathy voice of Richie Tozier. “I’m in town for a work thing, and I was hoping we could catch up? I’ll be here a few days, so any time that works for you is good.”

“I just left my wife,” Eddie said.

“Um.” Richie sounded thrown. That was fair. Eddie was also extremely thrown. “Congratulations? No, really, congratulations, that’s great. Where have you been staying? We should celebrate.”

“No, I mean I just left my wife. Like twenty minutes ago I left my wife. And now I’m having some kind of breakdown in an Applebee’s parking lot.”

“Okay, fuck,” Richie said, “which Applebee’s?”

“It’s an hour outside the city, I guarantee it’s nowhere near you. And I’m really not up to taking the train tonight. Listen, I’m sorry to dump this on you. Let’s meet up tomorrow when I have some kind of filter again.” He wouldn’t have thought twice about asking Bill or Ben to fly across the country, but asking Richie to take the commuter rail to North Hempstead suddenly seemed like way too much. Richie had left Derry before he woke up, and Richie hadn’t contacted him in the week and a half since. He remembered that the couple’s therapist he and Myra had seen for a while had talked a lot about setting boundaries, and respecting boundaries others had set.

“Eddie,” Richie said. “Which fucking Applebee’s?”

Eddie told him.

After Richie hung up, promising to be there in a timespan Eddie knew to be physically impossible, a voicemail notification popped up. Eddie tapped it.

“Hey, man,” said the voice of Richie Tozier, sounding — oddly rehearsed, actually. “I’m in town for a work thing, and I thought maybe we could get together and catch up. I— wait, fuck, shit—” There was a fumbling sound, as though Richie had dropped the phone, and then a few beeping noises, as though he were hitting random buttons, before the message cut off. Eddie hit play again.

“Hey, man,” said the voice of Richie Tozier, sounding definitely, extremely rehearsed now that Eddie was listening for it. And wasn’t that how he’d started their phone conversation, too?

Everyone had told him that Richie had stuck to his side like a lamprey the whole time he’d been unconscious, and that he’d only left because he had something unspecified but very important to take care of back in LA. Until this moment, Eddie had been a hundred percent certain they were only saying that because of how pathetic he’d looked when he woke up and found out Richie was gone. It turned out IV painkillers made it really hard to control your facial expressions.

Listening to that voicemail, though, he felt only ninety-five percent certain.

He hit play again.

Richie did not make it to North Hempstead by the time he promised, though he made it fast enough that the trip could not have been safe or legal. He was breathing heavily when he walked in, frantically scanning the wrong corner of the restaurant, and the hostess eyed him and took a step backwards. The rain had plastered his hair and clothes to his skin. He had mud splashed up his leg and the right arm of his jacket. He looked, objectively, like wet roadkill, and the fact that Eddie’s eyes were still drawn to the line of his throat was total bullshit.

Fuck, he might owe Greg Oslacovic an apology.

Instead of dwelling on that distasteful thought, Eddie waved. “Hey! Great voicemail.  Just - really stellar.”

Richie whipped his head around, then sagged and closed his eyes. “Fuck me,” he said, “please tell me this place serves alcohol.”

“No, really.” Eddie kicked out a chair. “It was very eloquent. You should get up on stage and say words out loud for a living.”

“My old phone is somewhere in the Derry sewer system,” Richie said, dropping into the seat. “I’m not used to the incoming call display on this one yet. Fucking sue me.”

Eddie nodded solemnly. “It’s an iPhone. There’s a big red button that says ‘end call and answer’, and then there’s the whole rest of the screen that does not say that. I can see how that would be intimidating for you.”

“Weird how you looked so fucking angelic when you were unconscious. Yes, fine, I panicked, I thought I was going to hang up on you by accident.”

They both stared at the menus for a second, and ignored the question of why the idea of accidentally hanging up on Eddie was panic-worthy.  Eddie had felt a strange flush of confidence when Richie walked in, like he'd just realized he knew every answer on a test he hadn't even studied for, but that feeling was fading the longer the silence went on. 

“What do you recommend?” Richie said after a while. “Are we on lunch or dinner? Does time even have meaning here? What’s good?”

Eddie stared at him, then held up his menu. There were full-color pictures on every page. Onion rings featured prominently.

“Do you honestly think I’ve been here before? It was five minutes from my house and it was the last place Myra would look for me.”

“Yeah, about that,” Richie said.

He’d already told Richie about The Mommy Incident after a half dozen too many drinks their first night in Derry, and while the memory of that revelation still made him cringe, it was also convenient. The incident stood in for so many aspects of the relationship that he didn’t have to explain now. It also meant that he didn’t have to worry about preserving his dignity when describing the afternoon’s events, because now that that story was out there, there was nothing he could do or say that would ever make Richie respect him again. It was oddly freeing.

Even so, he started out talking less to Richie than to the plate of cheese fries he had defiantly ordered while waiting but now couldn’t bring himself to touch. It was easier to talk if he didn’t have to look at Richie’s face. At least, it was at first. Then Richie started picking up fries and moving them around making soft zooming noises, and fuck if Eddie was going to reward that kind of behavior, so not looking Richie in the face became a point of pride, and he had to start picking random objects to focus on instead.

“…but I can’t just say ‘you’re controlling and smothering and I need to never see you again if I’m ever going to grow a spine,’” Eddie said to the fern behind Richie’s head, “because she’ll just ask for examples and then pick them apart until I give in, not to mention it’s hard to explain why it took me ten years to figure any of this out. So I just told her I was gay.”

Richie, who had moved on to using one large and one small french fry to stage a dramatic reenactment of the dissolution of Eddie’s marriage, froze. It was startling enough that Eddie accidentally made eye contact with him. A curl of hair had dried plastered weirdly to his forehead. It was profoundly unfair that Eddie had spent twenty years only distantly aware of any sexual or romantic attraction, and now that he could really, viscerally feel that attraction again he had to feel it towards this asshole.

“Holy shit,” Richie said, dropping Freddie and Fryra Kaspbrak. “I mean, this was clearly a hostage situation and you were justified in whatever steps you took to escape, but you seriously lied to your wife about being gay?”

“What?” Eddie said. “No, asshole, I didn’t lie to her about being gay, I am gay. I wouldn’t lie about that. Wait, are you having some kind of freakout right now?” Because Richie looked like he’d just taken a cartoon anvil to the head. Weirdly, for all the constant low-grade worry that Richie would notice the way Eddie had always trailed along in his wake and draw the obvious conclusions, the idea that Richie would react badly just to his purely theoretical sexual orientation had never even occurred to him. Jesus, that had been stupid — he couldn’t remember Richie saying anything overtly homophobic, but he was still from fucking Derry.

“No! No,” Richie said, “I’m just mentally rebuilding the foundations of my universe,” and Eddie started to breathe again. Richie frowned. “Actually, your marriage is a lot less creepy if it wasn’t a sex thing. I just assumed you were regularly driven into an erotic frenzy by the memory of your mom’s giant arms in those cotton house dresses.”

Eddie gave him two middle fingers, and decided not to mention that he was probably a Kinsey 4, or that the memory of Myra’s body curled around his still felt like safety in a way that he would probably always miss, now. He might not have any dignity left, but he also wasn’t going to eviscerate himself just for kicks.

“So, as I was fucking saying. First she starts lecturing me on safe sex practices — yeah, I know, don’t even make that face — and when I tell her I haven’t been cheating on her she decides it means I can’t possibly be gay, I must just be confused because so many people assume that about me, which was fucking news to me, by the way — do. not. say it — so I -” told her about you “— made up some shit about being secretly in love with Brian from work, and she came over and hugged me and —”

“Wait, hold up, who the fuck is Brian,” Richie spat, with surprising venom and no audible question mark. A waitress walking towards them made a sharp right turn towards a different table. Where was their food? Wait, had they ordered yet?

“He’s … Brian? He’s from work? He’s married? He’s not relevant to this story.” Eddie tried to catch the waitress’ eye, then gave up when he realized that she was deliberately avoiding him and that he didn’t blame her.

“I hate to break it to you,” Richie said, “but you are also married. This isn’t Victorian England. People split up all the time. If you really care about this guy, maybe you should. You know. Shoot your shot.” Richie looked as though he were swallowing battery acid as he said this, but to be fair, that was probably his reaction to being forced to express genuine human emotion without a protective layer of irony, and not his reaction to gay cooties.

“I don’t give a shit about Brian,” Eddie said. “Literally all I know about him is that he’s married and likes the Mets, and now that I think about it the Mets thing might be a different Brian. Brian is a prop. Focus.” Eddie snapped his fingers in Richie’s face, then realized that that was an unbelievably rude thing to do that he would never in a million years have done to anyone else, what the fuck was wrong with him, and then he realized he didn’t care and did it a few more times.

Richie didn’t seem to care either, since his entire response was to say “Touché” and eat a cold cheese fry. “So, to recap, you’re not okay lying to your wife about being gay — anymore — you’re just okay lying to her about literally everything else. Doesn’t this seem kind of, I don’t know, elaborate?”

“Please, there was no way she was going to believe I was actually gay if I didn’t give her something.”

“I haven’t been in a serious relationship in” — Richie checked his bare wrist — “ever, but I don’t think you’re legally required to convince someone that you’re breaking up with them before you’re allowed to break up with them. I think you can just say ‘I’m breaking up with you’ and leave.”

“Maybe you can, dipshit. If I could do that, do you think I’d be in this position in the first place? My entire plan was based on her breaking up with me.” It was more of a relief to admit than he’d expected. Eddie could get used to having no dignity to lose.

“Ugh, this is so tragic,” Richie said. “But okay, fine. You told her about your fictional sad gay love, she hugged you and forgave you and kicked you out but in a nice way, you get to spend a delightful evening with delightful me — yeah, fuck you too, I see that face — and this story has a happy ending. Right?”

Eddie picked up his napkin, pressed it to his mouth, and silently screamed into it for ten seconds. Then he folded it and put it in his lap. Richie had frozen again, like he thought maybe if he stayed that way Eddie wouldn’t be able to see him.

“No,” he said, “No, she did not break up with me.”

“Eddie,” she had said into his hair, “Eddie, darling, why do you hurt yourself like this?” and he had realized that for her, nothing had changed: Eddie pathetically throwing himself at some straight guy and getting rejected — and fuck, that was absolutely what she was picturing now, and she was only going to pat his hand and give him a watery, understanding smile if he tried to correct her — was no different from the time he tried joining the company softball team, or the time he thought he could maybe be the kind of person who enjoyed sushi. Eddie had flown too close to the sun, and now he had fallen, broken, back to earth, and Myra would always be there to pick up the pieces.

Instead of trying to articulate all of that, Eddie unlocked his phone and pulled up his e-mail as he talked. “She said she was sorry I had gotten hurt, but that this was what happened when she couldn’t watch out for me because I didn’t tell her the truth. And then she said she was going to get me some vitamin-B supplements to help me calm down, and tomorrow we were going to talk about ways to keep me from getting into stressful situations like this again. When I told her I was leaving she wasn’t even upset, she just said she understood that I got like this sometimes and we’d talk when I got back. Then she said it was going to rain and she wasn’t going let me out the door if I was going to drive, so I set a two-minute alarm on my phone and pretended to call an Uber.” Eddie pulled up the latest e-mail on his phone and slid it across the table, then put his head down on his arms so he wouldn’t have to look at Richie’s face.

“She sent me three websites like this just while I was waiting for you,” Eddie said into the table. He could picture Richie squinting down at the screen through his glasses, carefully tapping at the text link. He waited.

“Jesus fucking— is this an escort company?”

“Yep,” Eddie said, hitting the ‘p’ hard. “They have rigorous STD testing policies. It’s all part of her plan to make sure I don’t do anything ‘stupid’.” He made finger quotes around ‘stupid’ without lifting his head from the table. He hated people who said ‘yep’ and he hated finger quotes, but every other judgment call he’d ever made had been wrong, so statistically he had probably been wrong about those too.

“God,” Richie said softly. “God, Eds, I’m sorry. This is fucking awful.” And great, now Eddie was going to cry. He lifted his head and scrubbed at his face without much success.

“It’s okay. You can laugh. It’s funny. It’s really funny. My life is a fucking joke. I’m not even going to tell you not to use this. Actually, I insist you use this. You’d be an idiot not to. It’s hilarious.”

“The fuck I will,” Richie said. “This is too insane. No one would ever believe it. And even if they did we’d have to have, like, Prozac dispensers at every exit. This is the saddest shit I’ve ever heard.” Fuck, now Richie looked like he was going to cry.

Eddie had maybe, vindictively, wanted to see Richie cry just a bit back when he’d been in the hospital feeling abandoned, but now that it was about to happen he was desperate to stop it. “Listen, it’s fine, it’s really not that bad,” Eddie said in a rush. “She’s probably right. I mean, not about the escort service, but about me going back. This was a dumb idea.”

His words were not having the intended calming effect. “Are you fucking kidding me? You are not going back to this psychopath. This is fucking unacceptable.” Shit, Richie’s voice was breaking now.

“I mean, realistically, she’s going to keep calling, and eventually I’m going to have to pick up, and she’ll convince me to come by and talk, and then it’ll pretty much be over.” Eddie tried to keep his voice even and reasonable. “She’s not a bad person. She’s just a problem-solver. It’s not her fault. She really does want what’s best for me.”

“Fuck that,” Richie said. “Just— come with me. Right now. Come with me.”

“What?” Back to Richie's hotel? To the bathroom to clean himself the up? To a different restaurant that wasn’t an Applebee’s?

“Don’t go back to her. Come with me to California. Let’s just go now. We’ll buy you whatever you need when we get there. I’ll do whatever you want, I’ll put childproof covers on all the outlets and get you a granny chair for the shower. Just— please. Please come with me.”

Holy fuck.

It was obviously misplaced guilt from the hospital talking, plus the shock of experiencing Myra in concentrated doses. There was no way Richie had thought this offer through. That didn’t change the words Richie was saying, or the way his voice had gotten low, or the fact that his eyes were very — blue? Gray? Blue-ish brown? Whatever stupid color they were, they were very that color. Normal people with normal life experiences would probably have defenses against this, but Eddie didn’t, and he took a quick, shocked breath before he could stop himself.

A better person wouldn’t take advantage of an ill-advised, split-second offer like this. Luckily for Eddie, he was not a better person.

“Yeah,” he said, then coughed to clear his throat. “Yeah, okay.”

Behind Richie’s head, the waitress from before gave him a double thumbs-up and mouthed “nice”.