It’s past midnight when Buster finally reaches the clinic. Tim has had the surgery done over twelve hours ago now and is in post-operative recovery. Buster is politely informed that it would be imprudent to disturb Tim’s rest. He is not Tim’s partner, boyfriend, brother. He is Tim’s team-mate, albeit very well known in this baseball town, but that holds no special power in this space, he knows that.
After the frustration of the game, the weary ache of the long innings and longer season in every bone, this expected refusal still burns through him, makes his eyes sting. He is just about to turn around, go out and call a cab and go back to the team hotel, when Dave Groeschner suddenly appears out of one of the long brightly lid corridors that lead inside the clinic. He looks as rumpled and tired as Buster feels, and his surprise at seeing Buster is palpable.
“Buster!”, he exclaims, “What’re you doing here?”, a bit too loud for the tastes of the night receptionist, who glares at them both, no doubt thinking completely uncharitable things about professional athletes who demand special attention wherever they go. Buster could care less, has to restrain himself from glaring back. “Dave”, he says, and is startled to hear the imploring desperation of his tone, “Dave, I ... I just wanna see Tim. Five minutes, I won’t even wake him, but I worried all day...”, and trails off. He knows he is being uncharacteristically emotional, and he can see the questions form in Dave’s eyes, but Dave has known him for 6 years now, Tim longer, and Dave is, above all, a Giant, so Dave won’t question Buster too closely to his face, as irregular as this incident is.
Dave just says, “This way”, and waves Buster in with him, nodding towards the receptionist who goes back to her kindle. The harsh lighting, the sterile smell of the clinic makes Buster swallow nausea brought on by the memories of his own endless hours in a similar space, the terrible bleak uncertainty about his ankle and his career, and the overwhelming worry about his pregnant wife, his team. The thought of Tim suffering is a different kind of grief altogether, more immediate and intimate than his own remembered pain.
They stop in front of Tim’s room, and Dave eases open the door, trying to not make a sound. The room is dim, Tim is resting in bed, on his side, a pillow between his legs keeping the pressure off the left hip, which is swathed in white gauze, with a drainage tube in place. There are IV tubes in his right hand, and he is lying motionless, hair disheveled, eyelashes fanning out on his gaunt cheeks. Buster’s heart aches at the sight. Suddenly Tim opens his eyes, narrowing them in the dimness of the room to see who’s there, and Dave says, “Hey Tim, look, Buster’s here to see you.” He pats Buster on the shoulder and leaves him in the dark coolness, and Buster finds himself crossing to the bedside, sitting down heavily in the chair, suddenly boneless as if he was waiting for this moment, for Tim’s feverish gaze on him, to have his strength desert him. His hands move of their own accord, across the starched cotton sheets, and take the long pale fingers of Tim’s right hand into his own, carefully stroking where the needle is taped in. Tim is running a slight fever, and his eyes look at Buster dazedly, as if he’s not sure if Buster is a mirage, a dream conjured out of his own longing. Buster’s eyes well up, as Tim reaches out to him tentatively, touching the fingertips of his left hand to Buster’s face, rubs against the heavy stubble coming in, touches the corner of Buster’s eye and comes away with moisture. Tim exhales, “Oh, you’re here!” as if he has dreams of Buster sitting at his bedside regularly, and it’s only the tangible realness of Buster’s skin on his own that makes him believe that such a thing could happen outside his imagination.
This late at night, the terrible season, the knowledge that this might be Tim’s career ending sitting like a lump beneath his breastbone, the love and longing he keeps hidden in his heart and mind, the fear that he won’t get to see Tim for a long long time after today, means Buster’s self-control is near breaking, and he can’t seem to stop the tears sliding down his face, pooling in the corner of his mouth. He pulls Tim’s hand to his face, hides himself and presses a kiss to Tim's palm, and shakes and shakes.
“Buster”, Tim calls softly, tries tugging his hand out from where Buster is holding it, “Buster, please”. “Hey, hey!”, he says again, low and urgent, and tips Buster’s face up. Buster closes his eyes tight, unwilling, unable to see the look in Tim’s eyes, because he will forget every promise he made to himself and made Tim agree to, break every resolve and vow he’s ever made for the Giants, for Kristen, for the babies.The way Tim looks at him is always his undoing, and he can’t take that look right now. Tim huffs a small pained laugh, “Buster”, he says, “I am okay, you know?”, and tugs gently at Buster’s hair. “Open your eyes, you idiot,”, so fond, so bright, that Buster’s eyes burn again.
He opens his eyes, and for a second even the dim glow of the bedside lamp is blinding, but then, his sight adjusts, and there is only Tim, fever brilliant eyes and pale pain-lined face, white bandages and white sheets and the beep and hum of medical equipment, drip of the IV. He leans over and touches his mouth chastely to Tim’s chapped lips, presses in the quiet caress. Tim sighs, as if the kiss soothes some pain he’s held deeply, bearing it with his quiet grace and courage. Buster knows how deep that wound goes, how long Tim’s borne it, how much he himself had a part in inflicting it.
Tim smiles at him, eyes already drooping with fatigue, but somehow finding the strength to tug Buster down, kiss the remnants of his tears from his lashes. Such a stupid Tim thing to do, Buster thinks. This is why neither of them can be free from this pull, this unnamed fragile tenderness that binds them to each other, beyond any acceptable label they can put to this relationship. Buster came to San Fransisco already in his happily ever-after, married to the love of his life, beginning the career he had dreamed of and worked for endlessly since he’d been old enough to know that he wanted baseball. In all of his careful plans, there had been no place for Tim. But he smashed through Buster’s understanding of the world and where he fit in it, carving a space in some dark corner of Buster’s heart that he fills so completely Buster is afraid he’ll lose himself if Tim ever moves away.
They lead uncertain lives, he and Tim, always, always fighting against the next loss, the next-career-ending injury, the next transfer-season, the next tabloid-revelation, the endless speculation on Tim’s decline and his lost future. The art of losing. That Tim twines into him, a shock of recognition that binds them in spite of history, of class, is a miracle, the thread tenuous, probability of loss always present, contemplation of it always unbearable.
Tim tightens his hold on Buster's hand and murmurs, "Stay. Just until I fall asleep. But stay until then, please don't leave." Buster replies, voice hoarse with shouting during the game, and now with tears and exhaustion, the first words he's spoken to Tim since he entered this room and saw him - "Of course I will. Of course." Tim's entire body relaxes, relieved, as if he had asked without hope of being heard, and now that he has Buster's promise, there's nothing else to stay awake for. Between one breath and the next, he is fast asleep.
Buster smooths the hair back from Tim’s face, counts his sleeping breaths for a space of a few moments, untangles his hand softly from Tim’s grasp, and walks out of the room without a backward glance.