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by Renee-chan

Life really was unfair, sometimes, the way it snuck up on you. It didn't really give you a chance to fight, hell, even to raise an objection. It just crept on in there, rearranged your happy, content little world without even a by-your-leave and then skulked right back out the window again. And when you woke up in the morning and came downstairs, you found out that not only was all the furniture moved, but the jackass had gone and bolted it to the ceiling and then stolen the family silver to boot.

With an irritated frown, Jerry shook his head and slapped his hand on the bar. Stupid, pointless thoughts. They led him in circles and didn't get him any closer to an answer than he'd been when he started drinking in the first place. Hell, escaping those very thoughts was why he'd picked up what had turned into the first beer of about... He squinted at the bottles lined up on the counter in front of him. Seven. Seven damned beers. And around about the time he'd hit the fifth, those thoughts had come sneaking on back in, accomplice to the whirlwind of life that had rearranged his world in time for him to wake up this morning.

The bartender - and Lord help him, he couldn't even remember the man's name - approached him with his eighth beer in one hand and a frown in the other. Eying the way Jerry was slumped over on the bar, he withheld the beer in favor of serving up the frown, "Son... I think maybe you've had enough, don't you?"

Jerry picked his up his head, heavy with those unwelcome thoughts and handed back a frown of his own, "Last I checked, you ain't my father, you're my bartender. Now, I sure as hell don't need you try to be the first, but I do need you to the be second. So, could you just shut up and hand over my damned beer, please?"

Sighing and sadly shaking his head, the bartender slid the beer across the bar, "Have it your way, kid. From experience, though, I can tell you, those that come in here to drown their troubles in alcohol always end up leaving with more of them than they came in with and that's the G-d's honest truth."

Frowning harder, Jerry grabbed his newest beer bottle and pushed himself off the barstool, determined not to sit and listen to some bartender telling him not to drink. Unfortunately for him, he'd consumed the seven beers he'd already had fairly quickly and on a roilingly empty stomach and they'd hit him harder than he was expecting. As the room spun around him, he dropped the bottle in favor of bracing his hands on the stool he'd just vacated. He was so focused on the kaleidoscope of interesting colors currently swirling in front of his eyes that he only dimly heard the resounding crash as the bottle hit the floor.

A large, strong hand braced itself under his elbow and a warm, deep voice spoke quietly but firmly near his ear, "Just take a deep breath. You're going to be fine. Come on. Let's get you out of here." He vaguely thought that he should protest, should say something to indicate that he was not fine, was never going to be fine again, but he just couldn't gather the energy. He heard the man settle up his tab with the bartender and definitely thought he should say something about that, but suddenly the urgent need to throw up and the equally strong desire to not do so were occupying all of his attention and he missed his chance.

Before he'd even realized what was happening, the man had steered him out of the bar and into a cab. Every instinct he had was screaming that this was a bad idea, that he really oughtn't be in a cab with a man he didn't know, in a city he'd never been in and without a soul in the world knowing where he'd gone when he left town that morning. Louder than those instincts, however, was a still, small voice deep within him that was telling him how absolutely, royally fucked he was... and how it might just be easier if he disappeared... if he never came home at all.

Easier on who, Jerry, boy? Easier on your mother? Your poor, sick mother? The doctors already think she's heading down the primrose path to the grave. What would losing you do to her? It would kill her for sure. You want to take her with you if you go? You that selfish? Moaning quietly, he raised a hand to his head, trying to block out the voice of his conscience. He didn't succeed. So, not her, huh? How about your father? Would it be easier on him? You're his son, his only heir. It's been hard enough for him, coming back here, living in disgrace... in exile. The only bright spot in his life right now is the time he spends with you. What happens to him if you don't come home? Didn't think about that, did you?

That was enough to get him to pry open his eyes, to look around at the inside of the cab. The man that had taken him from the bar was sitting beside him in the back seat, one arm companionably slung around his shoulders, a melancholy look on his face. And... it was a nice face, Jerry couldn't help but notice. Warm, gentle brown eyes, set into a face that, while not as old as his father's, wasn't young, either. It had it's share of lines, mostly a few laugh lines across the brow, some crow's feet at the corners of the eyes, a few around the mouth. But he had a thick wave of honey blond hair tied back at the nape of his neck that had only just started to turn to silver at the temples. Jerry gave him fifty, maybe sixty years, tops. And he just seemed to exude strength and reliability. Still... he'd just taken a young man, a stranger, from a bar and dragged him off into the night. Didn't matter how nice he looked, he was probably some kind of pervert and Jerry really shouldn't be in a cab with him.

When he moved to push himself upright, though, the older man let out a small huff of a laugh and tightened his grip, "I, uh... I wouldn't do that if I were you."

Jerry squinted, frowning up at the older man, "Or you'll do what?"

This time the laugh came more quickly and gently bounced Jerry as it moved the chest he was obviously resting against, "Relax. I'm not going to do anything to you, I just remember what happened the last time you tried to get up quickly without regard to how much alcohol you'd obviously consumed." At Jerry's confused look, the other man rolled his eyes, "I don't want to have to pay the driver extra if you throw up all over his vinyl interior."

Blushing hotly, Jerry conceded that the older man had a point and allowed himself to be held without further comment. And, if he were interested in admitting uncomfortable truths to himself, there was something extremely comforting about it... being held like this. He couldn't remember the last time someone had just held him... To his utter shame, he could feel a touch of wetness gather at the corner of his eye and start to spill over. He tried to hold it back, but it had been such a damned long day already and he was exhausted, he didn't know where he was and some random stranger was being nicer to him than everyone else in his life had been for longer than he could remember. Combine that with the alcohol and any prayer he had of control just went right out that damned window along with his life and his thoughts.

And it sure didn't help any when the handsome stranger beside him tightened his arm around his shoulders and said, "It's OK. I won't tell anyone if you don't."

And right then he decided that he just didn't care anymore. He couldn't care. He just didn't have the energy. He was probably going to get killed or robbed or just plain kidnapped and he just... didn't care. Turning his face into the older man's chest, he let the tears come.

The next thing Jerry became aware of was that he was no longer in the cab. He was in a bed in some motel room. Fuck. That couldn't be any kind of good. He sat bolt upright, determined to figure out what the hell was going on, then immediately bent over his knees and let out a pained groan. Oh dear Lord... how the hell much had he drunk? He started desperately praying the room would stop spinning even while berating himself for daring to think that G-d would answer the prayer of a drunken fool like him.

Eventually, the room stilled and his stomach stopped its violent protesting of his initial movement. Greatly daring, he attempted to raise his head again to look around the room. It was the same as any other motel room he'd ever been in - two queen-sized beds, dull, unoriginal paintings on the walls, cheap but strangely ornate furniture. And that was where things changed. Sitting in one of the room's two armchairs, a book resting in his lap and a pair of glasses perched on his nose was a man reading by the dim light of one of the bedside lamps. It was the man from the bar.

Memory rushed back in with a vengeance causing the room to start up its crazy, whirling dance, again. Jerry whimpered and tucked his head back down against his knees. Oh, perfect. He was in a motel - a motel! - in some random city with some random stranger who'd done only G-d knew what to him while he'd been asleep. When the room calmed itself again, Jerry tried to subtly shift the covers to peer underneath, to try to see what state of dress he was in. Before he got too far, however, that same velvety laugh that he remembered from earlier that night rolled out into the room, "Jesus, would you relax, already? I told you last night that I didn't have any designs on your virtue. I only brought you back here to try to protect you from any other man who might."

Jerry blushed at that, embarrassed all over again by the predicament he'd unwittingly gotten himself into. Trying to cover his discomfiture, he let out a small cough, "Well, sir, I do thank you for the thought, but I think I'd best be going, now. If you'll just let me know what I owe your for the bar tab and my half of the cab fare, I'll be on my way."

A slow headshake was the only response he got and he frowned, "What? Are you going to try to stop me if I try to leave?"

The older man sighed, removed his glasses and placed them gently on the night table before closing his book and placing it beside them, "I'm not going to try to stop you, I just don't think it's a good idea. You've still got a lot of alcohol in your system, it's nearly midnight and I'll wager you don't even know what city you're in, much less where you left your car or how to get back to where you came from if you do remember." Frowning, he added, "A wise man would lay back down, sleep off the alcohol and tackle those problems in the morning."

Shaking his head gingerly, Jerry repeated, "A wise man, huh?" At the older man's nod, he sighed, "Well, I sure haven't been one of those lately, that's for damned sure."

Eyes painfully understanding, the man leaned forward in his chair, arms braced on his legs, "I don't suppose you'd like to talk about it?"

Jerry let his eyes meet the other man's from across the room. He couldn't figure this guy out, had no idea what he thought he'd get out of this, what he stood to gain. And then it hit him. He knew exactly what the other man stood to gain. Hunching down under the bedcovers, he said miserably, "You're a reporter, aren't you?"

The other man just shook his head, an amused smile lighting his face, "No. Actually, I'm a history teacher. Why? Do you often get kidnapped by reporters?"

Not a... what the hell? If he wasn't just some pervert and he wasn't a murderer - Jerry figured he'd be dead by now if that were the case - and he wasn't a reporter... Unable to take another minute of the uncertainty, he finally blurted out, "What the hell do you get out of this, then? Do you get your rocks off carting around drunk twenty-somethings?"

"Well, you're certainly a distrusting soul, aren't you?" The other man sighed and leaned back in his chair, "Not that I blame you. The world isn't as kind as it once was, I guess." Sighing again, he said, "I don't expect you to believe me, but really, I just took pity on you on a whim. I flew out here this week to try one last time to bury the hatchet with my father before it's time to bury him, instead. Seeing you sitting in that bar trying to drown what looked like a pretty impressive self-revelation in an equally impressive amount of alcohol..." He shook his head and let out a rueful laugh, "Let's just say you forcibly reminded me of a much younger and equally terrified me and I felt bad for you. And, since I figured you didn't need to add getting mugged, raped or killed on the streets of Kansas City to the list of your woes, I brought you back to the motel with me. That's all. Nothing more, nothing less."

After that little speech, Jerry found himself staring at the other man. He couldn't help it. People just... people just weren't that altruistic anymore. Not even in the Midwest. Well... at least he knew where he was, now. Kansas City. Fuck. It would take him five or six hours to get home from here. It really would be better to just spend the night and leave in the morning. He frowned, "So, you'd really let me just go back to sleep and then when I get up in the morning, let me leave? No hidden cameras? No secret photos? No exclusive copy? No special favors in return for your silence?"

The other man nodded, "If that's what you want, yes."

And there it was... the catch, "What else could I possibly want from you?"

A shrug, "Nothing, I'm sure. Except that my offer to talk about it still stands."

Hunching down further in the bedcovers, Jerry whispered, "Talk about what, exactly?"

The older man leaned forward again, eyes bright and intent, "Whatever it was that drove you to drink in the first place. Like I said, it looked like it was something pretty monumental... and I've been there." At Jerry's skeptical look, the other man smiled, "Look, I'm not going to force you. And if all you want to do is sleep here tonight and then leave in the morning and forget this ever happened, then that's your prerogative. But if you want a chance to get this off your chest, this may be the best one you get. I won't even ask your name or give you mine. Complete anonymity." He laughed then, "Like a priest."

Finally, Jerry let the tight muscles in his shoulders relax a fraction, "You... you really don't know who I am?"

The other man took his finger and made an 'X' over the left side of his chest, then smiled again, a boyish grin that would have looked far more appropriate on a man much younger than he, "Scout's honor. I really don't know. I told you, I'm not from around here."

Jerry loosened his protective grip on the bedcovers and let them drop into his lap, "Where are you from, then?"

The other man settled back into his armchair again and steepled his fingers in front of him, "New York City." At Jerry's wide-eyed look, he laughed, "Don't worry, we don't really eat babies for breakfast." Smirking widely, he added, "Like all civilized people, we save them for lunch."

Watching the twinkle in those brown eyes and the small twitch at the corner of those smirking lips, Jerry finally relaxed the rest of the way and let himself laugh, "Sorry... Sorry. It's just... you hear stories, you know?"

The other man laughed along with him, "Yes, I actually do. I lived out here for over a decade, myself." At Jerry's raised eyebrow, the other man smiled widely, "What? I don't read like a Kansan? I think I'll take that as a compliment."

Jerry coughed to try to cover his laughter, then finally gave it up as a lost cause. When he'd calmed, he looked back up at the older man and said, "Are we really in Kansas City?" At the nod he received in response, he cursed, "I didn't realize... When I left this morning, I really wasn't paying much attention to where I was going... or how far."

Abruptly, Jerry swung his legs over the side of the bed and stood up, started to pace the room, "Really... you people from the big cities, you don't understand. I was born here, raised here. My parents were born and raised here. Their parents were born and raised here. We've owned and worked this land since it was first settled by my family in the 1800s. That's a lot of history to live up to." Snorting softly he said, "You're a history teacher, right? So you know - life was really hard here back then. You stuck together, you watched each other's backs, you huddled up for protection... and you didn't keep secrets. You didn't do anything different, anything radical or new, because if you did and you failed... you took everyone else down with you when you went."

Sitting down hard in the other armchair, Jerry dropped his face into his hands. The older man nodded, eyes sad, "And that thinking still persists, today. I remember from my time in Kansas. It's not a comfortable feeling, especially for one who is different... is it?"

Jerry whimpered, "No... No, it isn't. And I wasn't, not really, not for a long time. I grew up on the family farm, I did my fair share of the work. I went to school, I played football. I got good grades. There's only one thing I did that was different." Raising his eyes back up to stare dully across the table, he spat out, "I like to cook... and I'm good at it."

The older man nodded sagely, "Ah. And that's not all, I'd wager." At Jerry's narrow-eyed look, he shook his head, "If I were a betting man, I'd put money on the fact that you don't have a girlfriend, either."

Jerry slunk down in his seat, a slight blush staining his cheeks. And that was the crux of what had driven him out here to begin with. When asked that question in the past, he'd always responded that he did have a girlfriend... in another state, in another country, he'd met her at Bible camp, at the state fair, at a Junior Republican's Convention... any number of likely places that could excuse the fact that no one he knew had ever met her. But tonight, the ready lie wasn't quite ready enough. He shook his head miserably, "You'd make a windfall, then." Brown eyes met brown across the table as Jerry let himself take this opportunity for what it was - a chance to live, if only for a moment, with no mask, "I've never had a girlfriend. Ever."

The sympathy in that other pair of brown eyes was almost too much to bear. There was something so comforting, so familiar about the older man that Jerry found himself relaxing into this bizarre situation in a way that he hadn't been able to relax into anything in a very long time. The older man just smiled sadly at him, "It's not a disease, you know."

A soft snort, "Around here, it may as well be."

And there was that smirking grin again, "Maybe you just haven't met the right girl?"

Another snort. G-d how he wanted to take that easy out. Just say, 'Yep, that's right. Haven't met the right one. Plenty of fish in the sea. So sorry to have bothered you. I'll just be going now.' G-d, he wanted that. And that's what he'd told himself for years. He just hadn't met the right girl. He wasn't ready. His family came first. When the time was right it would happen. Thing was... he was twenty-six years old. He'd been to college. He'd seen a little of the world... and nowhere in it had he found a woman that he was even a little bit interested in in that way. And he'd been fine with that, really he had. There were plenty of people he knew that didn't get married - granted they were all priests and nuns, but still - and he figured that he was just destined for something like that. He was just waiting to get the call. Only... the call never came. He had no desire to be a priest or a monk. He just... he liked to cook, he liked to bake. Sighing heavily, he braced his head in his hands.

The other man leaned over to gently pat his shoulder, "I know there's more. It'll help to get it out, believe me. I know it doesn't seem like it, but if you leave it sitting inside you like it is, it'll poison you in the end. Tell me."

And he did. In a rush of words only half comprehensible, Jerry finally got the rest of the story out. It had happened this morning. He'd been sent down to St. Louis to pick up some supplies for the bakery where he worked. It was a couple of hours away, but he never really minded the drive. In fact, once a month when the trip was necessary, he usually found himself volunteering, found himself looking forward to it. He'd never really questioned why.

Anyway, it had started out like any other trip. He'd gotten in his car and driven down to St. Louis, windows open, music playing, the wind in his hair and not a care in the world. He felt free, unburdened. He loved every minute of it. And then he'd arrived in St. Louis and parked his car. He always parked in the same place, at this little park near the wholesaler. If he left early enough and drove quickly enough, he could usually steal a half hour to an hour or so to enjoy that park while he was down there and with the roses in bloom this time of year, it was really a sight to see. Only the roses weren't the only sight to see on this particular morning.

He'd been walking along, minding his own business, smelling the roses, getting ideas for the Beckerson wedding cake while he was at it. And then he'd come around a corner, to his favorite spot in the park, to find it already occupied. There were a pair of young men, about his age, sprawled out on a blanket on the grass. At first glance, there wasn't even anything odd about them. Only a second glance revealed the deeper truth - the way they were holding hands, one man's thumb slowly rubbing across the other man's knuckles, the way they leaned ever so slightly towards each other, shoulders touching... the way they seemed so completely at peace with each other. It took him a minute to understand, but deep in his gut, he knew what he was looking at... what he was seeing.

Before long, Jerry had found himself crouched down in the bushes, watching their every move like some kind of Peeping Tom. He wanted... he needed to be horrified. His father... G-d, his father had made his entire career destroying the political careers of people who were gay, had spent Jerry's entire life telling him how vile and unnatural that lifestyle was. And Jerry, well, he'd never had any real exposure to it. His father had kept him away and sheltered from the whole thing, even in Washington. But now... watching those two men... his heart about stopped.

What he'd felt wasn't horror. It wasn't disgust. It wasn't revulsion. It wasn't anything of the kind. It was... it was longing. They weren't doing anything vulgar, those two men. And... it didn't look unnatural. It looked like the most beautiful thing in the world at that moment. They were just sitting with each other and enjoying the park, just like a hundred other couples Jerry had seen here over the years. And Jerry, Jerry who had never before looked at those couples like he could even imagine being a part of that carefree love and togetherness... Jerry found himself wanting what they had. He wanted to be a part of something like it.

And as that realization broke over him, as he realized what it meant, ice had flooded his veins. Where the hell had this come from? He'd never been attracted to another man. He'd never... never... He'd bolted out of that park and run back to his car, panic thundering in his chest. What... what the hell was wrong with him? He wasn't gay. He wasn't gay. He was not gay. He couldn't be gay. His father... oh G-d. His father would kill him, disown him... and his mother! His mother would die. This would kill her. No! No... No.

Jerry only slowly came back to himself, remembered that he wasn't in that park, wasn't in his car... wasn't in a bar. He was in a motel room with a man he didn't know, talking about things he shouldn't even be thinking. And now... now he was crying. He was bent over in his chair, the older man on the floor in front of him, holding him tightly as he sobbed into his shoulder. Those long-fingered hands rubbed gentle circles around his back, that velvet voice spoke soothing words into his ear. And Jerry couldn't have stopped crying if his life depended on it.

He sat there like that, bawling like a baby, for G-d only knew how long. Hell, G-d probably didn't give a crap about how long some little faggot was crying. It was a sin, wasn't it? A sin to even be thinking the things he'd been thinking. He let out a soft moan. How could he ever go home again? How could he face his father... his mother? How could he go back to his little town in his little county, settle back into the cornfields of Illinois with this roiling around in his gut?

He wasn't even aware that he'd spoken those thoughts out loud until the man holding him answered, "You just do. If your family, if your life in Illinois means that much to you, you just do. You go back, regardless of the consequences. If you love them that much, you owe it to them." When Jerry leaned back, the older man got up off the floor with a small wince, "Fuck, that was easier twenty years ago."

As the other man resettled himself in his chair, Jerry wrestled his tears back under control, "And that worked out so well for you, huh?" At the older man's raised eyebrow, he elaborated, "You said you came out here to try to mend fences with your father, didn't you? You..." A light blush staining his features, Jerry concluded, "No offense, but you're kind of old."

The other man raised an eyebrow at him, then finally let out a hearty laugh, "I suppose I am at that. That's what happens if you live long enough, you know." Arching an eyebrow at the younger man sitting across from him, he added, "Not that you will if you pull stupid stunts like you did tonight on a regular basis."

Jerry's blush deepened, "Yes, sir. I know that. I just..." He sighed.

The older man reached a hand across the table and patted his shoulder again, "You were upset. I get that. I did my own fair share of even stupider things when I was even younger than you, so I understand the impulse. And to answer your question... no, not exactly. My father and I have far more problems than just this one. And as much as I'd like to say that I handled it better than you are... I can't."

Sighing heavily, he rose from his chair and began to do some pacing of his own, "Not only that, but I had an opportunity to tell him the truth not once but twice... and I screwed it up both times. I ran away. I ran away and I didn't look back once. Hell, the first time I ran off - and it took me almost until now to be able to admit it - I was essentially trying to kill myself. On some level, I thought it would be better to die than to deal with my father's disapproval. Solve everyone's problems in one fell swoop. And I almost succeeded, at that. Fortunately for all concerned, though, almost only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades."

Jerry couldn't help but stare at the other man, his heart beating a rapidfire tattoo in his ribcage. Hadn't he been thinking the same thing earlier that night? That it might be easier for everyone if he just disappeared... if he died? Seeing the horrified look on Jerry's face, the older man patted his shoulder, "I see you understand. Like I said, though, I didn't really understand that that was what I'd tried to do until much later. And by then, I'd already fucked up my second chance, too. I ran away again, didn't even tell my family where I'd gone, didn't even give them a chance to heal the rift that was already there. Not for several years. And even then, I wasn't the one who reached out to fix the rift my cowardice had caused." Snorting softly, he said, "It was my mother who did that. But even so, it's been almost twenty-five years since then and my father and I still can't talk to each other without it devolving into a screaming match."

He sat down on the corner of the bed across from Jerry's chair to look him in the eye, "It's the one major regret that I have in my life and to this day I wonder... if I'd talked to him either time, tried to make him understand when we were both young enough to make that reach... could we have bridged that gap?" Shaking his head, he said, "And I don't have an answer for you about that. I wish I did. But what I can tell you is this: living a lie isn't living at all. It makes you invisible to everyone around you... and being invisible isn't a way to live. It's a way to die. And one way or another, living that way will kill you in the end."

Jerry swallowed hard, feeling more and more trapped with each word that he heard the other man speak. This strong, self-possessed, mature man had once been as young and as panicked as him? He just couldn't picture it. He couldn't. But if someone who was now so strong had handled this that poorly, what the hell chance did he have? Breath coming faster and shallower with each word, Jerry said, "You don't understand. I can't... I can't tell my father the truth. He... he'd kill me. He'd disown me. He'd run me out of town, out of the only life I know. And my mother... she's already so sick. It would kill her. I can't... Can't I just pretend it never happened? Things have been so good up until now... Can't it just go back to the way it was? This... it isn't so important, is it? I... I don't have to be this thing, do I? It's a choice. That's what my father always said. It's a choice. I can just... choose to ignore it, can't I?"

The older man sighed, shook his head sadly, "I wish with all my heart that I could tell you that you can. But here's the thing: a bird that's learned it has wings will never be truly happy tethered to the nest. As long as you were innocent of this thing that makes you different, you could be happy living that lie. Now that you know? You can't deny who you are, no matter how much you may want to. It isn't a choice... it's who you are. Sure, you might find a girl, one you like enough to marry, one who likes you enough to help you live your lie, but neither of you will ever be truly happy. I've known too many people who have tried it. In the end it didn't cause any of them anything but pain. It may seem monumentally unfair, but telling the truth, living your life in the open, is really the only chance you have of finding peace."

Seeing that Jerry was anything but ready to hear what he'd just said, he patted the younger man's knee again and let out a bitter laugh, "But I suppose that's the sort of mistake you just have to make for yourself, isn't it? I suppose we all do. Ultimately, it has to be your decision... as the consequences that go along with it are yours, too." Smiling sadly at Jerry, he sat back, having run out of helpful things to say, "Sleep on it. Maybe you'll have a clearer perspective on it in the morning."

As the other man rose from the bed and started to make his way towards the bathroom to start getting himself ready for bed, Jerry lurched up out of his seat. It couldn't end like this, so unresolved. There had to be something more! Some hint, some clue... something. Anything to help him figure this thing out. Reaching out a hand in entreaty, he said, "Wait!" The other man turned around, arching an eyebrow. Jerry swallowed hard, "You... Now that you live your life in the open like you said, no more lies... is it worth it?" Seeing the confusion on the other man's face, Jerry asked desperately, "Are you happy?"

Brown eyes met brown again and a slow smile stretched the corners of the older man's lips, deepening those lines at his eyes and the corners of his mouth. There was a touch of sadness, an air of melancholy about that smile, but it was real just the same. Walking back over, he enfolded the younger man in a gentle hug. When he stepped back, that smile widened and in that moment, Jerry caught a glimpse of what he must have looked like in his youth... and it took his breath away. Seeing that smile was like basking in the warm summer sun. G-d, if the man were younger - hell, even if he were just a little closer to Jerry's age - Jerry might have been willing to run home and out himself to his father right then and there if there was a chance that the other man would smile like that just for him. The older man raised a hand to cup Jerry's cheek and nodded once, "More than I ever dreamed possible. It isn't perfect - with the world the way it is, it can't be - but it's real and it's enough."

And it was like that moment in the park all over again. Seeing that love and happiness wrapped around the older man like a blanket, Jerry couldn't help but wish that he had even a small corner of it wrapped around him, too. He wanted that... to feel like he belonged to someone else, to know that his existence could make someone smile like that... to have someone that he loved enough to risk losing everything. And in that moment, he truly understood. He'd never have that living a lie. Never.

As the older man walked away again, Jerry climbed back into bed to huddle under the covers. Could he live his life never letting anyone in close enough to see the truth? Could he live his life without ever feeling this simple human connection that he'd found so easily with a stranger he'd met in a bar - a stranger with whom he had nothing in common but a perversion? Could he live his life the way his father expected, putting every chance he had at true happiness aside? His stomach clenched in despair. Could he? No. He couldn't. He really couldn't. He shouldn't have to! But he knew even then that he was going to try just the same. He wasn't brave enough to make the other choice. And with that second self-realization sitting cold and hard as a stone in the pit of his stomach, Jerry Hauser cried himself to sleep.

The next morning the older man was gone and there was no trace that he'd ever been there at all save one. On the table next to Jerry's bed were two small pieces of paper. On one was written the address of the bar where they'd met the night before and on the other was a telephone number with a non-Illinois area code... and a quote.

Jerry picked up that note and held it over his heart for a long moment. He didn't know if he could ever follow that advice, knew he wasn't brave enough to do it now, but he could take it to heart... carry it like a talisman until that distant someday when he could. And as for that phone number, he didn't think he'd ever call it, but simply knowing it was there sparked a small spot of warmth in his chest. Someone out there knew him, understood him, supported him. He didn't know the man's name, didn't know where he lived... but he was real and he was living the life that Jerry couldn't. Not yet. Not today. But someday... someday...

Tucking the paper into his wallet, Jerry gathered his few belongings and called a cab to take him back to the bar. He'd have a lot of explaining to do when he got back, but one thing he knew for sure... he would go back. It wasn't going to be easy, was going to be harder than anything he'd ever done, but he had to. For his mother's sake, for his father's sake... he had to. And maybe someday... maybe someday, things would change for the better and he, too, could live his life in the open. And if G-d was listening - though Jerry still doubted that he was anymore - he would pray that that day would come soon. Heart heavy and soul sick, Jerry left the motel room and its memories behind.

And at night when he finally got home, and every night thereafter, he pulled out that note and read those words to himself until they became a personal mantra that he could have recited in his sleep: "Be free. No guilt. Be whoever you are. Do whatever you want to do... just as long as you don't hurt anybody."