Statute of Limitations
The black duffle in the doorway, hiding in the dark, would normally piss Joe off. Tonight, it made him smile. Liam’s duffle meant Liam. Joe listened in the shadows for the sounds of the light snoring he’d so often fallen asleep to. He’d imagined coming back to a letter or a message on the machine about how things got too weird, too much for Liam to handle.
He got a gentle greeting instead. “Hey.”
Joe pushed the bag out of his way with his foot, tossed his own after it.
“Hey,” he responded, trying to keep his nerves from his voice. “You’re here.” He knew this dorm room like the back of his hand, even in the dark, and it was dark. No illumination from the streetlights reached their third floor windows, and the dim square of light from the hallway was cut off as the door swung closed behind Joe.
“Where else would I be?” As carefully as he listened, Joe couldn’t detect anything in Liam’s quiet, level voice to give away what he was thinking.
“I thought maybe.” He paused, unsure how to word it. “Well, I thought after what I did, that is-”
“You thought I’d be weirded out.”
In fact, Joe thought, Liam should have been furious. “Yeah.” A pause. “Were you?”
“Honestly?” Joe waited. When Liam spoke, he sounded a little sad. “I was too high.”
Too high. It was true. They both had been. For the last two weeks, Joe had agonized over what he’d done, over what it meant, why it had happened, and all he could come up with was they were both high, and that was a lousy excuse. “Are you now?” Now was what mattered.
“What? Weirded out or high?” Trust Liam to make light of this, but when he continued, he’d changed his tone entirely. “Are you?” The softness had left Liam’s voice, replaced by familiar hard edges. Joe moved further into the room, hoping proximity would let him lower his voice a little. Liam had a right to those hard edges, but Joe didn’t like to hear them.
“No,” he answered both questions. His voice hitched, though, and he immediately pictured Liam’s jaw tightening. He went to the bed without turning on the light. He wasn’t ready to see what Liam was thinking, or the bruise Joe’s own clumsiness had left across his high cheekbone. He stopped when his shins fetched up against the metal bed frame. Liam shifted up on his knees, clicked on their tiny TV, and in the flickering light, Joe could see the dark pools of his eyes, his always-pale face framed by black curls. Maybe the bruise was gone. He thought about the last girl he’d been with, running his fingers through lots of long, silky hair, and he swallowed because he wanted to feel these curls, springy under his fingertips.
It was Liam who reached for him, though, lacing his long fingers through his hair, gripping tight enough to pull him close. It was a slow, very deliberate gesture, meant to be resisted, and Joe winced because he hadn’t afforded Liam the same courtesy last time.
The first kiss was nothing, really. Liam’s dry lips touched his, a test. His own lips responded, not exactly against his will.
There had been no will the first time, and certainly no kissing. They had been too high for intimacy. It had not been gentle, just quick and rough and then a sweaty mass of limbs and heavy breathing before they fell into that peculiar, silent regret of it not having been in any way real. The silence lasted two days, until they both went home for Christmas break, and it stretched over the holidays without a single phone call or message in either direction. The silence, to Joe, had become surreal, the unnatural part of the whole thing.
This, now, was real, and before Liam could pull away, Joe leaned against him, seeking his lips, touching his hair, wrapping an arm around his waist, desperate to hold him there until he knew it was real too.
“Hey!” Liam strained against him. “Take it easy.”
“I-” Joe swallowed. He was shaking, suddenly terrified. “I’m sorry,” he whispered, admitting his guilt if Liam would hear it.
“I know.” Liam’s hand passed over Joes face, as though pushing back clouds of fear with his hair. “I know.” He pulled Joe down on the bed, pinning him there for a minute with his weight and a heavy kiss. Then he was pushing against Joe’s lips and teeth with his tongue and Joe let him in. Liam kept it up until Joe’s breath came in little panted gasps, then his hand slide up under Joe’s shirt. Joe couldn’t help the reflexive reaction of his body or his sharp exclamation when Liam’s fingers brushed across his nipple. Liam pushed up a bit so they could see one another. Joe didn’t quite know what to make of the expression on Liam’s face.
“I get to be in charge this time, yeah?” Liam asked. It wasn’t his normal, soft tone, nor was it that herd-edged voice Joe feared. In fact, Joe had never heard him like this before. Liam’s hand moved under his shirt again, his fingers tweaked Joe’s nipple and made him gasp. “Yeah?” he repeated. Joe nodded.
“Yeah. Anything you want, Liam.”
Liam broke into a wide grin, but his eyes were soft. “You’re lucky I’m a nice guy, or saying something like that could get you into trouble.” When he settled back to kiss Joe again, it wasn’t with the same demanding pressure. After a minute, Joe realized he was taking his time, giving Joe the chance to get used to the idea that this wasn’t just sex. Liam was giving him one last chance to back out. He didn’t.
Afterward, in typical Joe fashion, he could not just let it be what it was. He rolled onto his back, cool air drying the skin left bare between them. He focused his eyes on the pictures of naked men above the bed, pictures that didn’t move him because they weren’t Liam. “Why?” he asked. “I mean, you could have your pick of a hundred guys who are actually gay. Why me?”
Liam propped himself up on one elbow and placed his hand on Joe’s abdomen. He grinned, a crooked sort of grin Joe had never seen, though he had to admit he’d never looked at Liam from this angle before, and Joe could actually see him resist saying ‘Why not?’ He moved his fingers, trailing through the hair at Joe’s groin, tickling over his lower ribs. It should have been impossible that this repetitive motion aroused him again so soon.
“Because you’re my best friend.” Which should have been the strongest argument against, not for. “Because I’ve never had sex that took my breath away before.” Joe couldn’t argue there. “Because we know each other so there’s no pressure to talk about it.” Joe tensed under his fingers, too vulnerable just now to think Liam might be making fun of him. He needed to know where this left them. But Liam’s fingers were creeping ever further down through the hair, brushing the base of his cock, curling around, making him hard again.
He opened his mouth to say something – he couldn’t remember – as Liam’s fingers worked their magic and all that came out was a low, inarticulate groan for more as his hips started rocking in time with Liam’s strokes.
Joe grinned when Liam asked him after if he had any more stupid questions. It was a typical Liam response, though, avoiding giving him a real answer. Joe hoped it wouldn’t haunt them later.
Ten years. Joe picked up the picture on his desk and leaned back in the chair with it, running his thumb over the glass. They were young in the picture, not that they were old now, but ten years was a long time. He remembered the exact moment the flash had gone off. They were standing on the beach, deep blue sky behind, glasses of lemonade in their hands, and a college buddy holding the camera. Their first vacation together, the study break after they hooked up. It had all been Liam’s idea, and Joe, always eager to please him, had gone along. Fearless Liam just called in sick and took off to Cancun. They stole hotel blankets and slept on the beach the first night, because Liam couldn’t keep his hands to himself and Joe didn’t want anyone to know. By the end of the week, they were all laughing about it. There’d been a pool going as to when and how Joe would give in to Liam’s charms.
And Liam, sweet, protective Liam, never told anyone how it really happened. No one had to know, he said, because Joe was the only one who thought it brutal. Liam would never have said no. It was never a complete thought; if Joe had asked, he wouldn’t have said no. Joe couldn’t remember if he’d asked. Or maybe he didn’t want to remember. But it was silly to worry about it now. They had had ten years together, and while nothing was perfect, it had mostly been good.
If things were stale, it was because they were both busy. They needed a vacation, some time alone together to remember why they’d fallen in love in the first place. At least, Joe hoped that was all they needed. Liam didn’t seem interested in even admitting there was a problem. Joe sighed. Liam never did want to talk about things. He wanted the easy way out, the safety net of great sex and mutual admiration and never having to say anything out loud. Joe was the talker and always had been because Liam, so adept at making things okay with a kiss, a gesture or a smile always managed to put Joe at ease before he could get a word in edgewise. Lately, though, all of Liam’s attempts fell flat. Joe was on edge and Liam didn’t want to know why. Or maybe he did know and was trying to spare Joe finally having to say it out loud. If only he could see how Joe withered under the silence. Liam’s instinct to protect was killing them.
When Joe arrived home, late and unhappy, he heard Liam’s guests in the kitchen and cursed quietly. He’d forgotten the dinner party. Going straight up to the bedroom to shed his work shirt and tie for something dressier, he hoped his entrance would go unnoticed. Liam appeared in the doorway just he was tying on the new tie.
“Sorry. Late client. Mother, kids.” It was only a white lie. Now was not the time to bring up how he had actually been pining for something he feared they’d lost completely. “It was a mess.” He pecked Liam on the lips and tried not to flinch when he got no response. “I’ll tell you about it after dinner. So who’s here?” he reached for his jacket and hitched it on over his shoulders.
“My new boss.”
“Oh.” Joe bit his lip as he checked himself one last time in the mirror. “Does he know who I am?”
“Sure.” Liam turned and went back downstairs. Joe took a little longer, primping and waiting for the sting behind his eyes to go away, before following. Liam introduced him and he smiled and shook the hand of a greying man and his wife.
The man was short, spare, with hair cropped close to his head, and his handshake spoke of deep-seated confidence in his ability to intimidate. He called himself Ted, a name Joe didn’t think fit him very well until his wife called him Teddy and tapped his shoulder in reproof over a comment Joe barely registered. A word and a gesture was all it took to show how perfectly these two fit together. Joe envied them instantly.
Showing them to the sofa, he sat in a nearby chair. Liam perched on the arm beside him as though it wasn’t the first time in weeks they’d been that close to one another. If Liam wanted to pretend everything was fine, Joe would give it to him. It was a small enough concession to make. Maybe, by the end of the evening, things would be better.
Dinner was good; one of Liam’s best efforts and Joe complimented him on it. Liam thanked him without looking up from his plate. He let that go too. They talked a bit about law, but stopped when Ted’s wife began to look bored, and the conversation turned to families. Liam smiled and said he wasn’t quite ready to settle. Joe cleared the table. He washed up, tidied, put the extra food away and stayed in the kitchen as long as he thought he could reasonably get away with it. He didn’t think he could handle much more domestic bliss.
It seemed to take forever, but finally, they were seeing the couple out the door. Liam’s boss turned in the hallway to address Joe. “I don’t know how a nice boy like you landed catch like Liam, Son, but be glad you did. Ones like him don’t come along often.”
Joe’s smile had grown rather thin, but he nodded. “Yes, Sir. I know that.”
“I’m the lucky one,” Liam said. “Joe took the initiative I never would have. I didn’t have a lot of choice in the matter.” He dropped an arm over Joe’s shoulder to prevent him escaping back into the apartment. All Joe could do was smile and nod stupidly until their company finally turned, arm in arm, to walk to the elevator.
“God, that was hell,” Liam sighed, closing the door and pulling his tie loose.
“Yes.” Joe couldn’t quite will his feet to move him across the floor so he stood facing the closed door and wondering what Liam’s comment meant.
“Joe, if you’re pissed, say so.”
“I’m not pissed.” Finally, Joe went to the bookshelves and pulled a large album down, flopping onto the couch with it. “Is that your way of getting back at me?”
“What? What are you talking about?” Liam poured glasses of scotch for each of them and handed one to Joe. “Getting back at you for what? What are you doing?” Liam balanced on the arm of the sofa, looking over Joe’s shoulder at the book in his lap.
“Looking at pictures.” Joe sipped his drink and turned pages. Maybe he was over reacting. Maybe Liam really hadn’t meant anything by his remark.
“Can I help it if pictures of you in your twenties still turn me on?” He glanced over his shoulder to see Liam pull a face as he rose.
“I’m going to bed. You coming?”
“In a minute.”
“Yeah?” Joe was turning pages still, reliving memories, marches they didn’t attend these days, weekends away in places they no longer visited, Christmases with friends they never saw any more.
There was a long hesitation before Liam spoke. “They’re just pictures.” Joe didn’t say anything. They might be just pictures, but they were pictures of a life that had dwindled to two men in condo furnished with stale conversations about nothing that mattered. “I’ll be upstairs when you want the real thing.”
“Yeah.” Joe barely heard, lost in a past where he’d felt less alone. He didn’t hear Liam pad back across the carpet until he was whispering in his ear.
“Remember when you wanted me so bad you couldn’t even think to ask if I wanted you?” Joe’s hands trembled on the pages. There was nothing malicious in the words, was there? There had been plenty of times Joe had been impatient for him, taking advantage of his weaker moments, cajoling with words, with touch, until Liam had no choice but to give in. Not that it was ever very hard to convince him. But maybe Liam was thinking of another night. Joe couldn’t be sure, so he said nothing.
“Well,” Liam straightened up. “Do what you want. I’ll see you in the morning.”
He should have said something. But he never knew any more, when Liam made those cryptic remarks, if he was just making an observation or trying to hurt him. Liam always said things that loomed larger in Joe’s mind than in his, but the hard edges crept into his voice more and more lately. Joe still didn’t like to hear them, and didn’t think he could live in a place where that was the only voice Liam had left for him.
It was late when he finally went up to bed. Liam was still awake in the dark, and reached for him under the covers. He didn’t resist, but it wasn’t like it had once been, and it was over too quickly with neither of them really satisfied. Liam hopped out of bed and went to the bathroom almost before Joe had regained his breath. Joe clicked on his bedside lamp and picked up a book.
“Liam?” Joe watched the bathroom door where Liam had disappeared half an hour ago.
“What?” He sounded irritated.
“Nothing.” Joe put his book down, took off his glasses.
“What, Joe?” Liam was leaning in the doorway now, a towel around his still slim waist. His hair, too short for curls now, and greying at the temples, was wet against his head. Joe swallowed. He hadn’t ever really been turned on by any other man, but he had never failed to respond to Liam just out of the shower.
“I was just thinking. You remember that study break when we went to Cancun?”
“Sure.” Liam went back into the bathroom, already dismissing the conversation.
“You think we should go back there?” Joe had to raise his voice over the water running into the sink.
“You’re spending too much time around college kids, Joe.” Liam reappeared. “I have a full case load through the end of July, at least.” He smiled, but Joe didn’t recognise the expression. “And besides, lawyers don’t vacation in Cancun.”
Joe cocked his head. “When did we get so serious? Did I miss a memo?”
“Maybe you can take the time, Joe, you’re state-appointed defence. I can’t just take off. I’m a partner.”
“A junior partner.”
“Fuck you.” And he was gone, back in the bathroom, the white paneled door closed behind him. After a few minutes, Joe got up and tried the handle. He was not surprised to find it locked. He knocked. There was no answer, and he leaned his forehead against the wood.
“Liam, come on. I’m sorry.” On the other side of the door, he could hear Liam brushing his teeth, an excuse not to have to answer him. “I don’t want to fight, Liam.” But fight was all they seemed to do lately. This time, Joe was not going to let it go. He felt them slipping away from each other. He settled on the floor against the locked door. It was like that night, when he couldn’t see Liam’s face in the dark.
“Li, do you remember our first time?” He waited. Finally, Liam’s voice drifted through the door, and Joe thought it sounded just exactly like what their life had become, insubstantial, based in nothing but air and shifting sand.
“Sure, Joe. The night you came back from Christmas break.”
“No.” Joe’s gut twisted, but he pushed through the nausea. “Before Christmas. We never talked about it.”
“What’s to talk about? It was ten years ago.” The door shuddered, and Joe knew Liam was sitting, leaning on the other side. “Water under the bridge.”
“Is it?” Joe swallowed, but he had to ask. “Do you think, I mean, did I, was it?”
“Consensual?” Joe nodded, knowing Liam obviously couldn’t see him, but unable to actually form words. “What do you want me to say, Joe?”
“Just answer the question.”
“You already know the answer.” He could hear the hard edges, flinty after all this time, still there. “And what does it matter now? It was ten years ago.”
“It matters. It matters because it’s been there all this time. Like a stain we’ve been trying to erase without ever really looking at it.”
“Maybe I never wanted to look at it. You were high, and I was too out of it to stop you. So what? It was what we both wanted in the end.”
“But not like that. That’s no way to start a relationship. It’s nothing to base a life on.”
“But it’s enough to end on? Is that how we’re going to go out, Joe? Talking about something that happened ten years ago that neither of us can change?”
“Do you want out?” There. He’d said it.
“What happened to us, Liam? We used to be so brave.”
“We used to be a lot of things.”
“I want it back.” Silence. “I want you back.”
There was no resolution that night. Joe went to work the next day, eyes gritty from lack of sleep and tears he never seemed able to shed. He was not the crying type, really, but he could feel them there, just behind his eyes, always stinging. Liam avoided him until he was out of the house. So it was the end. It was the first time, no matter how bad it had ever gotten, how big the blow up, that they’d never kissed good-bye over a coffee cup or the morning paper. This, as far as fights went, had been mild. No yelling, no slamming doors, just words spoken quietly through a locked door, which was maybe why Joe knew it was over. No one could reconcile anything through locked doors.
He didn’t expect it, then, the banging on the front window of the office. When he looked up, he saw only the picture. Liam had it pressed up against the glass. He and Liam on the beach, lemonade glasses in hand. Then Liam himself was banging in off the street, the front door shuddering its way closed behind him.
Everyone looked up from desks ranged around the room in a pathetic attempt at privacy. This was little more than the legal equivalent of a welfare office. Privacy didn’t exist here. Joe glanced around at their sly smiles and open curiosity. Liam never came to his office. He was a corporate lawyer and Joe was defence attorney for people who couldn’t afford lawyers. Joe’s coworkers only ever saw Liam during his brief appearances at the office Christmas party. The way he sauntered in now, as though this was Joe’s private office had them buzzing. Joe knew the swagger was an affectation, a display valuable in the courtroom and used here to cover up his nerves. Joe could see right through it.
“I got these for you.” Liam held out an envelope.
Joe frowned. There was something in Liam’s face Joe hadn’t seen there in a very long time. He could almost categorize it as fear if he thought Liam would show such an emotion in so public a place. Whatever it was, it didn’t suit his professional attire.
He took the envelope gently and laid it on the desk. “Do you want to go somewhere quieter?” He pointed over his shoulder at an inner door leading to a closet of an office. It wasn’t much but it had the benefit if privacy. Liam only shook his head.
“Open it.” Liam pushed the envelope across Joe’s desk until it stopped against his hand.
Joe did, and stared silently at the contents for a bit too long before looking back at Liam. “Airplane tickets.”
Liam smiled hopefully. “Not Cancun, but warm.”
“Listen to me.” Joe looked at him carefully, searching, but found no clenched jaw, no hard edges. “A long time ago, you forced me to do something I wasn’t ready to do.” There was his admission that he hadn’t wanted it to happen, spoken here, as if there weren’t a dozen people straining to hear what they were saying. Joe hung his head, but Liam wasn’t going to let him hide. He lifted Joe’s face with a finger under his chin and caught his eye. “I’m telling you it doesn’t matter. Maybe it was a bad way to start. Maybe it did throw a shadow, but it was a start, wasn’t it? There’s been a lot of good times, a lot of light?” Joe nodded, fighting his instinct to glance around at the other people in the room. He blocked them out, focused hard on Liam and caught a glimpse of the impossible. This man, who never showed anything but pride and strength and gentle kindness even when it wasn’t deserved, who Joe loved more than life was on the verge of tears. Joe had never seen this in him in ten years. “I love you. I always have. Isn’t that enough?” Again, Joe could only nod. “I didn’t want to go out with a locked door between us, you thinking you’d hurt me and I couldn’t forgive you. I don’t want this between us any more. Let it go. I forgive you, Joe. I forgave you a long time ago but you have to forgive yourself, too. Don’t let it be the thing that matters the most to us.”
Joe knew he was right. He pushed away from the desk and stood. Still on the edge of the desk, Liam looked up at him, the question still in his eyes. “I don’t know what I did to deserve you,” Joe admitted.
“You’re just you. It’s all I ever wanted.”
“I hate that I did that to you.” What he hated was to see the tears, so close to spilling, and knowing he’d caused them.
“And I hate what it’s been doing to you ever since, making you so unsure of yourself. I don’t want someone so eager to please me, so scared of offending me he won’t stand up for himself. I want the Joe I used to have, who knew what he wanted and didn’t hesitate to get it.” Liam closed his eyes for an instant. When he opened them again, there was something of his habitual poise back, but it was merely overlaid on the rest. It wasn’t real, and wouldn’t be until Joe found the right words to say. Liam had tried everything he knew to make this thing better between them and none of it had worked. It was up to Joe, as it had always been, he suddenly realized, to make what he’d done right somehow.
“I thought you hated me. I thought you were angry with me for it. You never said you weren’t and you always get this tone when we get near it.”
“Maybe because it hurts me to see how much it hurts you and know there’s nothing I can do to make it go away.”
Joe took a deep breath and studied Liam’s face carefully. “I need to hear you say it. Does that make any sense? I thought I was alone with this thing, that you were keeping it back to throw at me some day when I stopped being what you wanted. I just want to hear you say that I did this thing to you, and that you know I did it and that we can get past it.” Liam hadn’t moved, his expression hadn’t changed. “We can get past it, can’t we?”
“You’re the one who said we were brave.” Liam lifted one side of his mouth in a crooked grin “You will never stop being what I want. I wanted you then, I want you now. Just tell me what you want me to say and I’ll say it.”
“I want you to tell me the truth. If I had asked, if I’d given you the chance to say no, would you have?”
“I would have been terrified to say yes, Joe. I was so in love with you and you were straight. At least we both thought you were. If I’d said yes, I would have fallen too far. What if you turned out not to like it? What if I’d fallen for you and you left me like that? In ten years, you’ve never looked at another man.”
Joe wanted to laugh but knew if he did it would sound hysterical. “Isn’t that supposed to be a good thing?”
“Not when you might decide I’m not enough for you. I suppose I never brought that night up because I was afraid that if I did, you might remember.” Liam took a deep breath as though the next thing he would say would be the end of everything. “You might remember that you aren’t gay.”
For a long minute, Joe merely stared at Liam’s shattered calm. Even in the aftermath of their first badly conceived union, Liam had not looked this vulnerable. Joe couldn’t stand it. He pulled Liam close, rubbed his face against the short, scratchy hair and mumbled into the side of Liam’s head. “I don’t know what I am, Liam, except that I’m in love with you. I’m not ever going to decide I don’t want you or that you aren’t enough. In case you hadn’t noticed, in ten years, I’ve never looked at a woman either.” Joe stood back to pick up the picture and turned it so Liam could see their faces smiling out from under the glass and the blue sky of Cancun. “This is all I’ve ever seen; you smiling at me like nothing else in the world matters.” He put the picture down so he could cup Liam’s face in both hands. “I am sorry for what I did. I’m sorry for doing that to you, and I’m sorry for almost letting it destroy us. And I’m sorry that I have to kiss you right here with everyone watching like we’ve lost our minds, but I do. I hope you can forgive that too.”
“I wouldn’t forgive you if you didn’t.” Liam stood up straight and Joe had to rise up onto his toes to reach, but he did kiss him. They might have gone back ten years, in that moment, to where the passion was fresh and there were no locked doors and Joe couldn’t care less about what Liam looked like in pictures because he had the real thing, right here in his arms, and he was sure, beyond all doubt, this was what they both wanted.
Continued in Happy Homecoming