Fathers

I

The beach was just a hundred meter strip between the Great Ocean Road and the sea. Joe, as usual, had left it until the last minute to arrange the holiday. Combining a job with being a single parent usually meant he was late – for everything. He felt he let Sean down by not being more organised. As it was, they’d left behind schedule, because Joe had had to work an hour more at the office. Joe hated leaving Sean at home alone, even though he was old enough to look after himself.

It was the Labor Day weekend in March, early autumn, and the weather bureau had predicted perfect conditions for the holiday. There had been a thunderstorm the day before, but the sky was clear and there was the gentlest of southerly breezes.

Joe almost missed the turn off. They’d tried two coastal caravan parks already, and both had been full. Joe was cursing his own disorganisation when Sean had seen the beach with tents and caravans through a break in the ti-trees. “Dad, there! Look!”

There were still places left. Joe relaxed. He’d been dreading having to tell Sean they’d have to turn round and go back. The caravan park was a cleared space between the beach brush and the ti-trees next to the road. Through the cropped grass you could see the pale cream and beige of the beach sand. Joe parked the Commodore in a vacant spot at the end of the row of tents and caravans. Their site was a fair way from the ablution blocks, which was a pity, but Joe didn’t mind – at least they had somewhere to stay.

Sean was jittery with excitement. Joe opened the boot, and they got out the tent together.

“OK, mate, let’s get this thing up before it gets any darker.” Joe unwrapped the bundle of aluminium poles and pins, and began.

“No, dad, you do it like this!” With nonchalant competence, Sean took over. Joe laughed at himself. As usual, he was more or less useless when it came to practical matters. Just as well Sean knew what he was doing. But then, Sean had been on lots of school camps, and Joe was cack-handed.

After they’d finished assembling the tent, and it had been erected to Sean’s satisfaction, Joe started the fire. He’d bought barbecue wood at one of the service stations on the way down from the city to the Great Ocean Road. He knew that was cheating, that the whole occasion required that you collect driftwood along the beach. But he also knew, from previous experience, that that meant you had to eat your food cold because there wasn’t enough driftwood, or you’d arrived too late to find much, or what you found was too thin and didn’t burn for long enough.

He’d bought easy-to-prepare stuff from the supermarket on the way from work. Not-Bacon and canned fruit and soymilk. Bananas. Yoghurt. Bread. Potatoes for baking in the embers. Soft drinks for Sean and a bottle of wine for himself.

The sky was a perfect turquoise, shading to indigo against the mountain. The night was cool, but not chilly. The air was filled with the smell of the sea, of barbecues and woodsmoke. Far away, a radio was playing, just audible over the distant roar of the breakers. As always, there was something that Joe had forgotten. This time it was a trowel or spade to lift the embers so that they could roast the potatoes underneath the cinders. Joe was beginning to feel the sense of helplessness he so often experienced when he tried to give Sean a good time. He’d tried to scoop out a hole in the sand with the breadknife, but it wasn’t working. He succeeded only in burning the tips of two fingers.

“Would you like to borrow this?” A girl’s voice, confident, blithe, ingenuous. A metal garden trowel appeared under his nose.

“Thank you. I should be delighted.”

The girl stared at him solemnly. “What’s your name?”
“Joe. And yours?”

“Alice.”

“That’s a lovely name.”

“Mmm- mm.” She clearly didn’t agree. “What’s his name?” she pointed at Sean, with a little gesture, as if she was shy, much less confident than her words had been.

“Ask him,” Joe replied. Sean was uncharacteristically silent. The silence stretched for a while. “He’s Sean,” Joe said at last, when it became clear that Sean wasn’t going to speak. Sean was stared hard into the fire, now and then flicking up his eyes to sneak a look at Alice before once again staring into the flames.

“Where’s your mum?” Alice asked Sean. But the question was directed at Joe too. Joe had just opened his mouth to speak when Sean said, gruffly, “Gone.”

My mum’s dead,” announced Alice.

“I’m sorry,” said Joe, wondering whether the way Alice’s mum had been lost was better or worse than the way Sarah had gone.

“It’s OK. I don’t remember her much. She died when I was only little.”

“My mum didn’t want us.” Sean’s tone was matter-of-fact. Joe felt the familiar vice of grief and guilt clamp down on his heart. He was just about to speak when he was interrupted by a male voice.

“There you are. I wish you wouldn’t do that, Liss. Just go off like that.”

“Oookaaay, daaaaad,” said Alice with exaggerated patience. “Our campsite is just over there. It’s not like I’m in South America!”

“I know, Liss, but I was worried.” He squatted down on his haunches next to his daughter. “G’day. I’m Luke,” he said extending his hand to Joe.

“Joe,” said Joe, feeling his heart sink. He didn’t want to spend time with a straight bloke. He wanted to spend time with his son. God knows, he had little enough time with him, and so much to make up to him for. “Thanks for the trowel.” He smiled at Alice, hoping they’d both go away now.

I forgot to bring potatoes.” Luke was self-deprecating, his tone ironic. Joe liked him for it. But he had no intention of getting involved with strangers on the first day of a long weekend. The silence stretched.

“Dad?” Sean had the tentative tone he assumed when he was about to ask for something that was important to him but which he was afraid was unlikely to be granted.

“Yeah, mate?” Joe, wise to the ways of his son, was non-committal.

“Can Alice and Luke have some of our potatoes?”

Trapped, Joe could only agree.

In the end, Joe invited them to share the whole meal. It was too much trouble to cook meat and non-meat separately, and Joe didn’t want to endure the embarrassment of explaining that they didn’t want to use the same frying pan for meat and their vegetarian food.

Luke had merely nodded when Joe had explained that he and Sean were vegetarian. Reluctantly, Joe was forced to concede that Luke was tolerable. All the same, he was still wondering whether they should go and find another campsite to stay at the next day. Yet he knew he couldn’t do that to his son. The reason Sean had asked if the man and his daughter could share their meal was obviously because Sean was keen on Alice. Joe knew that he didn’t get to meet enough girls outside school. The two teens were about the same age – just on the edge of adolescence. Joe tried to remember who he’d fancied at thirteen. Marco. That’s who it had been. How much time and nervous energy he’d wasted on his hopeless infatuation! And how badly it had all turned out.

He looked over at the other man, on the far side of the fire. Luke was handsome. True, his wiry hair was receding a little in front, but his mouth was pleasing and his pale tan eyes contrasted agreeably with the red-gold of his hair, on his head and his slim body. Joe wondered what Luke’s pubic hair was like, then firmly stomped on the thought. Why was he always thinking that every bloke he met was gay, or bi? Grow up, he told himself, irritably. But he was drawn to look again at Luke’s chin – beutifully shaped – and his mouth, which was eminently kissable.

His own coloring was pure wog. His parents were Italian, and still spoke Italian at home. His hair was black and curly and thick, with a few speckles of silver, his eyes so dark you couldn’t see the pupils. For Joe, the worst was his eyelashes – long and curly. As a child his relatives were always exclaiming over him, “È bello, no, questo ragazzo?” As a teen, he’d often wondered if he would have grown up straight if his eyelashes hadn’t been so girly, if he hadn’t been so pretty.

Joe cooked beans and onions, the Not-Bacon, and they had olive oil on the baked potatoes, which were as usual, blackened on the outside but all the same, perfectly delicious. When he’d told his parents that he was vegetarian, they had made as much fuss as if he’d told them he was gay. It was blatantly obvious they thought not eating meat and fish a shameful perversion.

“No tortellini? No lasagna? What will I cook for you? Don’t you like my cooking?”

Joe wondered just how dramatic they would be if he told them he was gay. He imagined his mother retiring to her bedroom, in tears, and his father shouting at him in dialect. Just as well he’d never told them. And he probably never would, now. What likelihood was there of any man being interested in him when he found out about Sean? And Sean came first. That was a no-brainer. Add to which – it had been a long while since Joe was pretty.

Joe shared his bottle of red with Luke. He felt unexpectedly at ease with the other man. On impulse, he fetched his guitar from the boot of the Commodore, and just buzzing enough to be relaxed but not too drunk to play badly, he began to play.

The falling leaves drift by the window
The autumn leaves of red and gold
I see your lips, the summer kisses
The sunburned hand I used to hold

Since you went away the days grow long
And soon I’ll hear old winter’s song
But I miss you most of all, my darling
When autumn leaves start to fall

Luke joined in Joe’s singing, in an agreeable tenor. After a moment Sean also sang along. Alice sat on the folding canvas stool and swung her feet in time to the music. Joe played several songs and then there were requests. Sean and Alice asked for stuff Joe hadn’t heard of. They agreed on the bands they liked.

“They’re so grouse!” said Alice enthusiastically.

“Yeah,” said Sean, looking at Alice, pleased, his shyness visibly melting.

“OK,” said Joe laughing, happy and at ease. “I’ll see if I can find the scripts at Allans. I’ll play them next weekend.”

“But we won’t be here next weekend.” Alice’s voice was dismal. “And dad can’t play the guitar.”

Damn manipulative kids, thought Joe, cursing the stupidity that had let him mention the future. He didn’t want to Luke and Alice to become fixtures in their lives. He didn’t want a straight friend in his life. He and Sean were good. They didn’t need anybody. He remained stubbornly silent. He put away his guitar. “Bed,” he said in the tone that told Sean he meant business.

Later, while they were lying side by side in their sleeping-bags, Sean asked, his voice neutral, “Dad, do you like Luke?”

“He’s OK. Why?”

“I like Liss.” Sean was always so transparent. Joe smiled to himself.

“Maybe we can get together again, some time.” Joe tried not to let his son know how little he was looking forward to the prospect.

“Yeah, dad. That’d be grouse.”

They woke early in the morning. Sean was trying to be quiet, but his tossing and turning in his sleeping-bag eventually woke Joe too. “C’mon,” Joe said, “let’s go for a walk on the beach. It’s awesome in the morning when everybody’s still sleeping.” Joe pulled on his scarlet Speedos, and Sean his baggies. They each put on a sweater – the morning was chilly. Joe grabbed a small backpack, put in two apples and a bottle of water, rolled up two towels, and they headed out through the brush to the shore. The kilometer long stretch of sand was deserted. The sea had the glassy look it gets before dawn when the air is still. The sun was only just rising, tinting the far curve of the hills shaping the bay a tender pink. Joe and Sean walked in a companionable silence along the pristine sand, marked only by the cryptic doodles of seagull feet, and the vanishing lines of sand-dwelling molluscs. In the lee of a small dune, they came across a sleeping seal, as big as a man, dressed in sable like the sand itself. It woke after a few minutes of their scrutiny, and lumbered off, panic-stricken, into the breakers. Sean was about to run after it, but Joe stopped him.

“I didn’t want to hurt it, dad,” said Sean in an injured tone.

“I know, mate. But it didn’t. And there are people who think it’s clever to hurt animals. There was a dolphin killed last week in the bay, stabbed fifteen times.”

“Fuckin’ bastards!”

Joe cuffed his son’s head lightly. “Didn’t quite hear that, Seanie. Luckily for you.”

“Sorry, dad. But dad, how could they do that? How could they hurt something that hasn’t hurt them?”

Joe wondered how long it took to stop feeling the sting of cruelty and selfishness. It had never stopped for him. “Some people are just wrong, Seanie. Selfish, thoughtless, stupid. That’s why you must stick with the good people, the ones you can trust, the ones who are honest and kind and care about others. And you must care for them back.”

Sean considered this for a moment. “I love you dad.”

Joe stopped and pulled his son into a tight hug. “I love you too, Seanie. Only when you become a dad yourself will you understand how much I love you.”

“Dad, you’ll be alone.”

“When, mate?”

“When I marry Liss.”

“I’ll be OK. You’ll come and visit often. And I’ll go and see you.” Joe was amused by Sean’s infatuation. Then he sobered a little. He remembered his Marco. Infatuation or not, it hurt. It still hurt.

“But you need somebody, dad.” There was a long pause. “Till Mum comes back.”

Joe felt like weeping. “If she comes back, Seanie, maybe I shouldn’t have anybody, hey, buddy? How would she feel about that?”

“Maybe,” Sean was speaking very softly, “maybe she won’t come. For a long time.”

“Don’t worry, mate. Maybe, if mum doesn’t come back, I can find someone else.” Not fucking likely, he thought bitterly. “C’mon. Let’s swim. Last one in is a wuss-puss!”

Throwing off their sweaters, they raced each other to the water. Joe noticed that

he didn’t have to let Sean win any more. He must have grown longer legs in the last few weeks. He was at the age where they just shot up, all gangly legs and raw wrists. Everything out of proportion. Whooping with the cold they raced out of the breakers almost as soon as they had entered them.

“Race you to those rocks over there!” Sean was happy, Joe could tell. He ran almost as fast as he could. “Beat ya, dad!” Sean was triumphant.

Joe felt a pang. No longer young and fit, no longer sexy and desirable. He shrugged the melancholy off. This was Sean’s time. In a peaceful silence they munched their apples and drank from the communal water bottle. Joe was glad they’d come.

When they got back to the tent, they could see Luke and Alice having breakfast.

“Come and have some,” shouted Alice when she saw them.

It was oats porridge and toast and marmalade, fortunately. Joe didn’t want to have to offend by refusing sausages or bacon. And he had forgotten to bring marmalade.

“So what’re you doing today?” asked Luke.

“Nothing!” Joe’s answer was firm. He was on holiday.

“Good.” Luke smiled at him, his head at a slight angle, his hazel eyes warm

Damn him, thought Joe, resenting his ease, his natural charm, the way he wanted to run his hands over Luke’s stomach, brush his lips against Luke’s red-gold stubble.

“It’s a good day for doing nothing. Swimming and sleeping and reading. Maybe, if we feel up to it, we can go into Lorne. Have lunch or coffee.” Luke obviously felt much as Joe did about holidays.

Joe didn’t like the ‘we’. But he saw how Alice and Sean were talking, with the energy and joie-de-vivre that only youngsters seemed capable of. “Sounds good,” he said, trying hard to make it sincere.

They went in Luke’s four-wheel-drive, a big petrol-guzzling monster. Joe felt inadequate – his car was over twenty years old, and rusting, with a bumper that was about to fall off. Luke was obviously richer than he was. He was straight, handsome, easy to be with, and likable. Joe was beginning to feel sulky. Get over it, Joe di Cicco. He was firm with himself. This was the first day of the holiday. There was no way he was going to spoil it for himself or Sean. And, for heaven’s sake, the man couldn’t help being successful. And he liked the way Luke hadn’t asked him “what he did”.

In Lorne, they wandered up and down the main street, had coffee and scones at a pavement café, then went down to the beach. Joe still had his Speedos on, and Sean his shorts. As Joe took off his shorts he tried not to look at Luke as he stripped. Luke was also wearing a Speedo under his shorts. Luke’s Speedos were vertically striped, black and blue, and made his butt look sensational. Joe lifted his towel in front of his waist to hide his fatty.

After the swim, they walked along the beach in their cozzies. Sean and Alice raced up and down like two dogs, running into the shallow water and splashing each other, shrieking with laughter. Instant friendship. When did it stop happening like that? Probably about now. In a year or two they would have been supremely uncomfortable with each other.

“So, you’re single?” Luke’s question was tentative. Joe could tell he was ready to retreat, if Joe didn’t want to talk about it.

“She left me.” Joe didn’t want to discuss this with a stranger. He didn’t want the inevitable reaction, that it had been his fault, that he should have tried harder, that her behavior was entirely comprehensible. He knew all that. What he couldn’t forgive was the way she’d treated Sean. The combination of guilt and anger made it hard to talk.

“Bad luck, mate.” The rough male sympathy, the reticence and tactfulness made Joe all at once want to confess everything. He bit down on his tongue.

“Angela died. She got cervical cancer. They took out the cervix and the womb, and put her on chemo. But it came back, two years later. They could do nothing. It was everywhere in her body.” Luke was making a point of not catching Joe’s eye.

Joe could tell Luke still grieved. He turned to look at the other man, and their eyes met for a second. “Shit, I’m sorry, Luke.” Compassion and sorrow filled him.

“It’s OK, Joe. Shit happens. I . . . we were happy together. I have good memories.”

“No one else, then?” Joe resisted the urge to hug Luke. Straight blokes don’t do that.

“No.” Luke’s voice was wry. “She would be getting two for the price of one. And Liss would have to like her. Too hard. And you?”

“Same here. And anyway, I fucked up big time the first time.” Joe was surprised at the bitterness and contempt in his voice.

“Yeah. Well, we’re only fuckin’ human, mate.”

“Yeah.”

They walked in silence after that. But it was a comfortable, easy silence, the tranquillity of old friends.

On Sunday afternoon, as they packed up to leave, Joe asked Luke for his phone number. He was surprised at himself. He told himself it was because Liss and Sean had made friends. But he knew it was because he liked Luke as well. He gave Luke his numbers, too.

“I’ll ring you,” said Luke.

II

When nearly two weeks had come and gone and Luke hadn’t rung, Joe assumed he never would. But that evening his mobile rang.

“G’day, mate, how are you?”

“Good.” Actually, Joe had been feeling very down. But that wasn’t for sharing. “What’s happenin’?”

“Do you and Sean want to come over for lunch on Saturday? A barbie? Last one before winter. I’ll have veggie food, you won’t have to worry about that. And Liss would like Sean to have a sleep over, if that’s OK with you. You may as well stay over too. It’s a long drive.” Joe wasn’t misled by the casual way his own invitation had been tacked on to Sean’s. He felt an unaccustomed warmth in his heart.

“Yeah, that’d be good.”

“You sure?”

“Of course.”

Joe was smiling as he disconnected the mobile.

Luke lived in Mount Macedon, in a house on a steep slope of the mountain, surrounded by native forests. The house had three levels, and the garage was at the topmost, with bedrooms and living rooms and decking underneath. The view was stunning. In the far distance, the towers of Melbourne’s downtown rose into the clear pastels of the autumn sky.

Luke and Alice were on the deck above one of the rooms. There was an awning and a swing-sofa, elegant Victorian chairs, a table loaded with salads.

“Hi!” Alice bounced over to them. “I thought you were never coming. Come and look at the salads. I made them. Aren’t they nice?”

Joe agreed. He met Luke’s eyes over Alice’s head. They were unreadable. He smiled a little uncertainly, feeling all at once that coming to visit was a mistake.

After lunch, they went for a walk along a lane that climbed the side of the mountain to the summit. It was lined with deciduous trees in their autumn dress of red and sable, orange and gold and lemon yellow. There was an occasional grand mansion with huge gardens planted with exotic trees and bushes, secluded behind high brick walls.

We get snow here in winter,” said Luke, when they had stopped to gather their breath at a bend in the road, with half Victoria seemingly spread out in front of them.

“It’s fairly chilly now.” They were high up. And it was April. In a few weeks, the winter rains would start.

“We can have hot chocolate when we get back. Maybe with something in it.” Luke’s eyes were mischievous.

“Jeez, Luke. You’re debauching me. Before I met you I was teetotal, innocent, church-going, and chaste. Now . . . . . .” Joe realised he was flirting.

“Yeah, right. Mr Innocent.” But Luke was smiling. Joe felt giddy. He’d made a friend.

“I’ll set la mamma onto you!” said Joe sternly.

Luke merely grinned.

From the summit of the mount, Luke pointed out various landmarks. Sometimes he stood really close to Joe. Joe didn’t know whether to move away or stay there. He’d learnt his lesson with Marco – don’t waste time on straight guys. But sometimes he was so lonely. He’d grown tired of waking up in the double bed by himself, of having no one to share Sean’s growth with, his triumphs and victories, his losses and sorrows. On the few occasions his sister agreed to take Sean for the night, Joe had gone to a club on his own, and then come home again by himself, because he just knew in his heart that no gay bloke was interested in him. He’d fended off the well-meant attentions of his family, introducing him to women they thought he’d like. His loneliness was like a physical presence to him, like it is in Georges Moustaki’s song:

Pour avoir si souvent dormi
Avec ma solitude
Je m’en suis fait presqu’une amie
Une douce habitude
Elle ne me quitte pas d’un pas
Fidèle comme une ombre
Elle m’a suivi ça et là
Aux quatre coins du monde

Non, je ne suis jamais seul
Avec ma solitude1

“Penny for them?” Luke was looking at him.

“I was just thinking how my family continues to introduce me to eligible women, even though it would never work.” Joe had no idea of explaining the tortuous route he’d taken to get to this thought.

“At least you have a family.”

“You an orphan?” Joe looked directly at Luke.

“Nah. Not really. My family cut me off.”

“Why? No, you don’t have to tell me, if you don’t want to . . . . . .”

“Now if I don’t tell you, you’ll think I’ve done something terrible.” Luke was smiling, his eyes glinting with fun.

“Bullshit. You couldn’t do anything that bad. OK, maybe you drank too much and spewed all over their expensive carpet. Or you smoked dope at Auntie Joan’s wedding and then did a striptease on the dance floor.”

“Oh no. It was much worse than that. I refused to go into the family business.”

“Not mafia. Say it ain’t so!” Joe put the back of his hand theatrically against his head.

“That’s my line.”

“Idiot. No. They own Wagnitz’s.”

“The supermarket chain?”

“Yup. I wanted to be an architect. My father wanted me to run the business. I knew I’d hate it. I knew I’d be no good at it. I told them I wouldn’t do it. So my father had me escorted out of the house by his security guards.”

“Fucker.”

Neither spoke for a few minutes.

“You can meet my family if you want. They’re great. Just a bit dramatic. Sono Italiani, la mia famiglia.” Joe wanted to make things up to Luke. He knew that once his family took someone to its bosom, he or she would never be permitted to escape.

Io so. È bene.”

“Show-off.” Joe was happy. He didn’t know it, but when he was happy, his eyes gleamed like black olives, slick with oil. He didn’t see Luke looking at them, at him.

For dinner, Joe helped Luke make pizzas. Luke made some with salami for himself and Alice and without for Joe and Sean. But when they started eating Alice said in the voice that Joe had come to recognise as indicating that she had made up her mind and wouldn’t budge, “I’ve decided to become a vegetarian.”

“Oh.” Her father looked at her. “OK. You could’ve told me before we made these pizzas. Queste pizze sono meravigliose. Splendide!

“I know, dad, but. . . . . . Sorry, I should have told you before.”

“You speak Italian well,” Joe said, over a piece of pizza, his eyes on Luke.

“Angela was Italian. She taught me a lot. We went to meet her family in Italy. We go back every couple of years, so Alice can meet her grandparents. Liss can speak Italian, too, can’t you Liss?”

Alice smiled beatifically at her father. “Si, papa. È facile. Mai, siamo qui con Sean. And he can’t speak Italian.”

“Yeah, I can. A little. Grandma always talks Italian to me. Sometimes she’s hard to understand.” Sean was staring at Alice with a look Joe found easy to interpret. He was smitten.

La nonna speaks dialect. She’s from the south. It’s almost a separate language.”

“I like Italians.” Luke wasn’t looking at him. He was staring at the pizza on the plate in front of him.

Siamo tutti Italiani, qui.” Joe tried to make a joke out of it. What the fuck?

Davvero.” Luke’s voice was very dry.

They put the children to bed, and Joe read another few pages from “Lord of the Rings”, which had been their nightly ritual since before Sarah had left them. Sean had a mattress on the floor in Alice’s room. Alice listened to the story, as enthralled as Sean. As he was leaving the room, Joe heard Alice whisper, “Your dad’s so cool, Sean.”

“Yeah. He’s the best.”

Ridiculously moved and honored, Joe went back to the sitting room, leaving the bedroom door wide open. Luke produced a bottle of red. He raised his eyebrows in query.

Joe nodded. He was still feeling elated by the overheard compliment. Luke had started a fire in the slow-combustion fireplace in the middle of the room.

“First one this year,” Luke said. Behind the glass, the flames glowed red and gold and orange, and already Joe could feel that the room was warmer. Luke had drawn two comfortable armchairs closer to the stove. He gestured to one of them, and sat in the other. They sipped their wine.

“Why don’t you want to be introduced to eligible women?” Luke’s voice was quiet, neutral.

Joe wasn’t sure where this line of questioning was going. He didn’t want to put Luke off, not after the way Sean had looked at Alice, and Alice’s clearly Sean-inspired declaration about vegetarianism. “Like you said at the beach, they would have to get on with Sean, and he with them. And it’s not that easy, finding someone you connect with who also accepts your children.”

“No. It isn’t.”

“Did you ever try to get back with your parents?”

“Yeah. Several times. And when Angela was sick, I told them. My father put the phone down on me. I never called again. We haven’t spoken or contacted each other since then. It’s been ten years.”

“He can’t have ever really loved you. But you’re a fantastic father to Alice. Being a bad father’s obviously not genetic.” Joe smiled at Luke. He’d helped himself to a second glass of Shiraz.

“Yeah, well, I love her so much.”

“Anyone can see that.”

“So I’m assuming my father doesn’t love me. He wanted a trophy son. He didn’t want or need a breathing, living human being.”

Joe looked at him with compassion. He couldn’t imagine not being totally embraced by the love of his family. Even after he’d told them he was becoming a veggie, they’d still loved him. “Not so good, huh?”

“Everybody has bad things. It’s your friends that keep you going.”

“Yeah.” Once again, Joe’s thoughts drifted back to his best friend in school, Marco. An arrow of regret and melancholy pierced his heart. He hadn’t had anybody so close to him since then – what, sixteen years ago?

“You OK?” Luke’s look was concerned.

“Yeah. I suppose. I was thinking about my best friend at school. We were so close. I haven’t seen him for years.”

“What happened?”

At that moment, Joe felt nothing in him that he needed to hide from Luke. The alcohol in his bloodstream loosened his tongue. “I was in love with him. I told him. Which was a mistake. He rejected me. He never spoke to me again.” Remembering the pain of rejection, the humiliation of being ignored the next day at school, and the day after, and all the months after that, Joe’s voice almost broke. Unable to meet Luke’s eyes, he stared into the flames.

“Shit, I’m sorry, Joe.”

“It was a long time ago.” Funny that it still hurt so much. “I married Sarah on the rebound.”

“And it didn’t work?” There was no hostility or blame in Luke’s voice.

“I deceived myself and her, Luke. I was dishonest. She paid the price. Sean’s still paying. Fuck, Luke. I live with that every day.”

“You’re just a bloke, mate. Not superman. Or Einstein.”

“Yeah, but I did her wrong. And Sean still misses her.”

“Does he know?”

“No. I’ve never been able to pick up a bloke since then. I’ll go to a club and I just can’t. I don’t want Sean to be embarrassed by me or reject me. He’s the best thing I’ve got. Maybe when he’s older. But the whole gay scene – you wouldn’t know – it’s about buff bodies, good looks. What chance does someone like me have? I’m no picture.”

“Oh, crap, Joe! Any bloke who got you would be the luckiest guy in town. You’re a great father, loving, generous, caring. You’re top bloke, mate. Alice thinks you’re wonderful. I’m a little jealous.”

Joe could hear the smile in Luke’s voice. He could feel himself coloring. For some reason he couldn’t meet Luke’s eyes.

“Best friends often love each other, mate. My best friend loved me. And I was freaked out. I never rejected him. But. Well. Things were never the same between us after that. I’m sorry now. I was so freaked out. And it wasn’t fair. I wish I could go back and do it over.”

“What would you do different?”

“Be kinder. Braver.”

“Yeah. I wish I’d never married Sarah. I hurt her. She rejected both of us. She was hurt. She said some horrible things.”

“She rejected her own son?”

“She lumped the two of us together, I think. But she said he wasn’t mine. I couldn’t give her what she wanted. So she started having affairs. I . . . . . . God, it’s all my fault.”

“Sean looks like you.” Luke’s voice was gentle.

“Maybe the guy she was fucking was another wog.” Joe wasn’t even bitter. How could he blame her?

“No, there’s a stronger resemblance.”

“It doesn’t matter anyway. He’s mine. In my eyes.”

“You’re a good father. He adores you. Being a father is about your heart, not your genes. Look at mine.”

“Thanks, mate.”

“Maybe you’ll find someone.”

You haven’t. And you’ve got a bigger pool to draw from. And no gay guy, used to being alone, will be interested in a man with a son.”

“Such a pessimist! Never give up hope. We both may find someone, one day.”

In the morning, Joe was mildly hung-over. He was a little embarrassed, but Luke was perfectly easy with him. His revelation had made no difference. As Joe and Sean were getting into the rusting Commodore, Joe said, wondering whether the request would be refused, “Next weekend? Our flat, this time.” He had bought the flat a few years before, and it had been their home for seven years. It was nothing as grand as Luke’s house, but it was theirs, and they’d even paid off some of the mortgage.

“Cool.” Luke smiled, and the warmth of his smile lit up his whole face, making his eyes glow.

It was only when he got home that Joe remembered that there were only two bedrooms. And only two beds.   One of which was Sean’s.

III

On Friday, Luke phoned to suggest they go to Wilson’s Promontory instead. “The weather’s still brilliant. We should enjoy it while it lasts.”

“Don’t you need a permit?”

“Only if you’re going to camp overnight. We can stay in a motel, and then drive down to the beach every day. Go climbing, swimming. It’ll be good.”

The silver four-wheel-drive pulled up outside the block of flats at six on Friday night. Sean was watching from the front window of the flat. “They’re here, dad, they’re here.”

Joe would normally have been irritated by Sean’s bouncy happiness. But he was almost as excited himself. He didn’t examine his feelings too closely. He didn’t want to.

Rush hour on the freeway was almost over, though the traffic was still thick. By half-past seven, they were well past the raw, new suburbs, and in the countryside, on the road to Phillip Island and Wilson’s Promontory. They stopped for junk food at a service station. Joe wondered what people thought when they saw two guys with two children. Since both Sean and Alice were half-Italian, they did look vaguely similar. Joe didn’t much care what others thought, but he was very concerned about what Luke thought. But Luke appeared to not care at all.

Luke had booked two rooms at the ‘Blue Marlin Motel’ in a small town about forty kilometers from the edge of the national park. They could see the mountains of the Prom through the picture windows of the motel. They bought take-aways for dinner. Fortunately there was Chinese Restaurant that could do veggie stuff, like tofu with vegetables, and they arrived just before it closed for the night. Luke ordered sweet and sour chicken for himself. After supper, they went for a stroll along the beach. It was full moon.

“Very romantic,” said Luke, looking straight ahead.

“A book of verse, a jug of wine, and thou – singing beside me in the wilderness.” Joe wanted to tease Luke.

Luke looked at him, a half-smile on his face. “Well, I didn’t bring any poetry. But you brought your guitar. We can sing. And no jug, but a few bottles, if you want. I even brought champagne.”

“What are we celebrating?”

“Dunno. Do we need an excuse?” Neither noticed the ‘we’.

It was romantic. If they’d been a man and a woman, they’d have been holding hands. The air was cool, but still without the bite of winter. They needed only light sweaters to keep warm. Alice and Sean walked along the sands examining in the bright moonlight flotsam thrown up by the storm a few days before. The stroll along the completely deserted beach took longer than they realised. By the time they got back to the motel, it was nearly midnight. They were tired from the long drive and the walk. Luke had organised that the three males would have the one room and Alice the other, but neither Alice nor Sean liked this arrangement. In the end, they allowed Sean to sleep on the sofa in the sitting room, just outside Alice’s room, and let them talk for a while through the open door. Joe wondered whether he needed to have another talk with Sean about sex and relationships.

There were some ugly chairs and a table in the room. But the picture window was in reality a door, and could slide to one side, and outside, the patio furniture was much more pleasing. Putting on thicker jerseys as protection against the chill, Joe and Luke went and sat outside. Luke opened the bottle of champagne. “To friends, absent and present,” he said, raising his glass, and taking a swig. “Does one go on making mistakes, do you think?”

“You haven’t made many,” Joe pointed out.

“How do you know? Maybe I just hide things. I have, you know. Like everybody.”

“The answer to your question is yes. We do go on making mistakes. We do wrong, without meaning too.” He took a sip of his champagne, which was rather good. Better than the kind he could afford. “And I suppose, if we are to be forgiven for our mistakes, our sins, if you like, we must forgive others. But I don’t think I could forgive Marco.”

“Who?”

“My best friend. The one . . . . .”

“Oh. Yeah.”

Joe thought Luke was embarrassed by the reference, and that irritated him. “He ignored me from then on. The day after I told him I went to sit next to him at lunch, and he got up without a word and walked away. He never spoke to me again. It hurt so fuckin’ much. I’ve never been closer with anyone than I was with him.”

“Yeah. I don’t think there’s any love like the one you have with your best friend at fifteen. It doesn’t come again. It must have been hell, Joe.” His voice was pensive, and Joe could feel his sadness. He remembered Luke saying something about his best friend, but before he could speak, Luke continued, “Would you forgive Marco, now?”

“Would he ask for my forgiveness?” Joe poured himself some more champagne.

“Suppose he did, would you forgive him?”

“If I thought he meant it, I would. But Luke, what difference would it make? We’ve grown apart. Would there be anything left of our relationship? We change so much between fifteen and thirty-five. What would be the point?”

“Maybe he feels guilty.”

“He knows where my parents live. They haven’t moved since I was at school. OK, I admit it, if he came to me and seriously apologised, I would forgive him. Then I’d put him into a lip lock and then I’d root him silly.”

Luke gave a great burst of laughter, which he instantly smothered with his hand. But his eyes went on shining with amusement. Joe stared back at him trying not to smile, but had to give in and started chuckling.

Because they were all sharing the rooms together, and Alice was with them, Joe wore cotton sweatpants to bed. He ostentatiously did not look at Luke as he changed. But he couldn’t help seeing Luke’s old-fashioned manly fly-front briefs, baggy and comfy. His own skimpy bikini-briefs seemed rather sad by contrast. Joe thought Luke was on the whole well satisfied with himself and his life, while he himself felt that he’d done everything wrong.

“Good night, mate,” said Luke softly from the other bed.

“Night,” replied Joe.

He lay in bed for a long time staring at the ceiling listening to the muted roar of the breakers on the strand, and decided that, on the whole, despite everything, he was happy.

The next morning they left early for the Promontory, with a picnic lunch and towels in their backpacks. Joe was pleased that Luke wore his Speedos under his baggy cargo shorts. It was nice to know that the slinky sleek lycra was pressed against Luke’s skin. He wore his too. For the same reason. Anyway, he hated changing on the beach.

They drove to Picnic Beach, accessible only by a steep path. It was deserted, with perfectly white sand. They found a space in the shade of some gum trees, and spent the day there. There were great slabs of granite, smoothed by time, rising out of the beach. A creek tinted brown by peat trickled out over the pristine emptiness of the shore. They lazed on the beach, walked to the far end, found a large dead seagull, and ate their picnic lunch. In the afternoon, they drove as far south as they could, to Tidal River, then hiked from there up into the mountains. They passed through a tree-fern forest. As the path climbed, the views became ever more spectacular. It was autumn, and they couldn’t stay out too late – the evenings were drawing in – so they only went part of the way before turning back.

That night all of them were tired. But Luke insisted they have a barbie on the beach. Joe was amused to see that he also cheated like Joe, and had bought redgum barbecue firewood from the garage. They fried veggie sossies and tomatoes and bananas, and shared two packets of crisps. Luke told ghost stories and the two youngsters listened in silence. Then Joe told Italian ghost stories his grandmother had told him, about lovers killing themselves, vengeful spirits bent on dragging others with them into the underworld, and demon-possessed villagers doing evil. It was relatively early when they kicked sand over the embers and walked back along the beach to their motel. The two youngsters went to bed immediately, worn by the exertions and excitement of the day, but Luke invited Joe outside, and bundled up in their sweaters, they opened another bottle of champagne.
When they had each had most of the first glass, Luke said, “Sometimes it’s so fuckin’ lonely.” He was staring out into the grey silk sky made bright by the pewter shine of the moon.
“Yeah, mate, it is.” Joe supposed that it was the same, whether you were straight or gay. What you wanted was someone to care for, who would in return care about you. What difference did sexual orientation make?

“I’m glad I met you, Joe. It’s good to do this stuff with someone else, someone who understands about having a child, being a single parent.”

Joe snuck a look at Luke. He looked away again, wondering where this was leading to. “Yeah, it’s good, Luke. It’s been a while since I had someone like you.” He didn’t want to mention Luke’s acceptance of his sexuality. The tacit acquiescence was all he wanted. To discuss it might raise all sorts of issues, prove to him that Luke was a closet homophobe. Better this way.

“I don’t have many real friends, Joe. Oh, there are lots of people I know casually, but none I would trust with my life.”

Joe waited, his heart beating, not daring to meet Luke’s eyes.

“I would trust you, mate. Totally.” Luke wouldn’t look at him, but his tone was intense and insistent.

Preventing himself from putting his hand on Luke’s shoulder, Joe said, “Same here, mate.” He turned to look at Luke, and was surprised to see how keenly the other man was gazing at him. He sipped some more champagne. He didn’t want Luke to make some kind of drunken pass at him, only to regret it in the morning.

“What happened with your best friend?”

“It was kind of obvious that he loved me. He loved me more than a friend should.”

“And how much more is that?” asked Joe tartly, tired of these tergiversations, this beating about the bush, this minute analysis of the miracle of love, which like dissection, destroyed the thing it analysed.

“You know what I mean. I’m not saying it’s wrong. It’s just – friends are one thing and lovers another.” Luke wasn’t slurring his words but he was speaking them very carefully in his attempt not to.

“Luke. It’s not that simple. It really isn’t. Look how many old married couples are best friends, but still make love. Or how many best friends fall in love, especially of they’re of the opposite sex.”

“I’m not criticising. It’s just a fact. Lovers love more than friends.”

“Bullshit, Luke Wagnitz. Sometimes they love less. Believe me. I’ve been there. Sometimes friends love more. And because their love isn’t selfish, it’s better.”
“I love you as a friend, Joe.”

Jeez, thought Joe. The way straights torture themselves with definitions and boundaries! Get over it! Aloud, he said, “Luke, you’re gonna say something you’ll regret in a minute.” He stood up, and pressed his fist gently against Luke’s head. “You’re a top bloke, mate.” Successfully resisting the urge to kiss Luke’s forehead, he said, very softly, “I love you too, Luke.” There. He’d said it. And it was true. Only he knew Luke would add “as a friend” to what Joe had said when he remembered it. But that was his problem. Joe went back inside the motel to bed.

The next morning Luke was subdued.

“Did you have a bit too much last night, Luke, mate?”

“You’re a heartless man, Joe di Cicco. A beast. A wicked demon in human clothing.”

Joe grinned. “Here,” he said, giving Luke two panadols and a glass of water. “What you need is a nice fatty breakfast – bacon and eggs and coffee. It’s on me. Give me the Landcruiser keys. I’ll drive.”

“I dunno.” Luke was clearly reluctant to hand over his baby to Joe.

“What happened to the “trust” and “eternal friendship” from last night?” Sometimes Joe felt like the wicked fairy at Snow White’s christening. Luke gave him the keys in silence. After a large breakfast at a pavement café, his pallor went away and he started looking human again.

When they went back to the car, Joe started to get into the passenger side.

“No,” said Luke. “You drive.” He was silent for a moment. “Joe, I meant what I said last night.” He was gazing intently at Joe over the bonnet of the four-wheel-drive.

Joe couldn’t read his expression. He held Luke’s eyes for what seemed an eternity, then said, “So did I, mate.”

They went to Squeaky Beach again, and spent the rest of the morning lazing in the autumn sun, swimming, building sandcastles, looking for peculiar shells, and not talking much.

Joe drove part of the way home, and then Luke took over. As they pulled up outside Joe’s flat, Joe invited Luke in.

“No. Thanks. It’s still another hour’s drive for us.” He waited for Joe to speak. Joe waited to see what Luke would say. At last, Luke said, his voice tentative, “Shall we come and stay next weekend like we had planned for this weekend?”

“No,” said Joe, and was surprised at the quick, bitter disappointment that spread across Luke’s features. He let him suffer for a minute, still angry about the evasions and semi-truths of the night before, then relented. “I have a family thing next Saturday. How about the weekend after?”

Luke smiled a little uncertainly, then nodded, aware that something was wrong.

“Luke, thanks, mate. It was great.” He put his hand on Luke’s shoulder, and squeezed it. “You’re a top bloke.” And, so Luke couldn’t see what was really in his eyes, he straight away turned and went up the stairs of the block of flats to his home.

IV

On the Saturday morning that Luke and Alice were coming to visit, Joe decided that Luke could have his bed, and he’d sleep on the sofa in the sitting-room. It was hideously uncomfortable, but he could survive a night on it. They had been going to have a barbie, but the weather had finally turned, and it was pouring with rain. He never failed to wonder at Melbourne’s propensity to go from summer to winter in a few hours. Joe thought he’d cook some of his mother’s tortellini, using vegetarian fillings. And he thought they could all go to see the most recently released episode of Star Wars in the afternoon. He didn’t bother to consider why he was so happy.

They all enjoyed Star Wars, each for different aspects of the film, and each to varying degrees, and then they went home through the wet streets and the driving rain to the flat. Joe made hot chocolate for them all. He made the tortellini while Luke watched, and they talked about ordinary matters. It was comforting to have Luke in the kitchen with him, his long legs stretched out in front of him as he sipped tea and watched Joe cook.

“Can I make the salad?”

“No. The kitchen’s too small. You’d just get in the way.”

Luke had made a face at Joe. “I’m not that big, and the kitchen’s not that small.”

So Joe gave in and Luke made the salad. They kept on brushing against each other as they worked. Luke seemed to be comfortable with it. Joe was very careful not to deliberately touch Luke. They were both in a good mood, and when Luke had finished the salad, he went back to the chair and started telling anecdotes about his clients, who seemed one and all to be oddities.

“You designed your house, didn’t you?” Joe asked.

“Yep.”

“It’s fantastic.”

“Thank you.”

“Are you glad you chose this instead of the family business?”

“Oh yes. I’m happy.”

“I can see that.” Their eyes met for a moment, and Joe felt a shock in his stomach as if he had just swallowed brandy, a warm fire that spread from his gut into his loins and his heart. In the kitchen light, Luke’s eyes were afire, the tan and hazel glowing. Joe quickly looked away. Don’t be stupid, he enjoined himself. It’s just a trick of the light.

He opened a bottle of red to go with the savory tortellini. The children complimented the food by eating it in silence and asking for seconds. Luke complimented Joe by looking at him through the candles (Joe always put out candles on special occasions, like his mother did) and saying “Best meal I’ve had in ages.”

Joe colored. He’s just being nice, he thought. He’s straight. He’s kind. He wants to put me at ease. He wants to show that he doesn’t mind that I’m gay. Joe muttered something and collected the plates and took them through to the sink.

After dinner, they played a speeded up version of Monopoly Joe had invented, which Sean won, with much crowing and jubilation. Joe leapt on him and started tickling him, until Sean begged for mercy. Joe noticed that Sean was nearly as strong as him now, and far more wiry and quick. He gave almost as good as he got. When Joe got up from the floor he noticed that Luke’s eyes were once again on him, though this time it was hard to read his expression.

Then it was time for bed for the teenagers. Joe had suggested to Sean that he should give up his bed to Alice and sleep in his sleeping bag on the floor. He’d pointed out that it was polite and that she was the guest. He’d said nothing about his son’s infatuation for her. They’d had several small sex talks over the years, starting with the basics (after they’d seen dogs mating) and going on to love and affection and ideal relationships, which was the bit Joe thought important. Sean was only thirteen, but he seemed wise beyond his years. Joe had explained only a few months before that Sean was now old enough to make a child with a woman, and had shown him how to use a condom (using a banana, which meant that that innocent fruit had caused much adolescent hilarity for weeks afterwards). He had also said that Sean ought not to just use people for sex, that he must love the person he was fucking. He’d talked about gay compared with straight, and said that there were many shades in between. Sean had listened, asked intelligent questions as well as naïve ones, and had appeared comfortable.

Joe hadn’t had any discussion about this with Luke. So while the kids were brushing their teeth, he said, “Is it OK that they share a room?”

“They’re only thirteen!”

“I was lusting after Marco at thirteen. Well no, not lusting. Hopelessly in love.”

“But you did nothing.”

“No. Not then. Actually, not ever.” Joe wasn’t bitter any more, just wry.

“Maybe Sean can sleep in the lounge room?” Luke paused for a little. “I’ve had the chat,” he said. “I had to when she started having periods. I told her it was a natural and beutiful part of being a woman, that every woman had them, and that they were a sign that she was growing into a woman, that she could have babies.”

“Were you comfortable with it?”

Luke smiled. “I had to do it myself. There was no woman I could ask that Liss would have felt at ease with. Were you comfortable talking about your gayness?”

“I’ve never told him. I don’t want him to grow up like me.”

“Why the fuck not? You’re a fuckin’ top bloke, Joe. Any son would be proud to have you as his father.” Luke seemed almost angry.

Joe didn’t know where to look. “I don’t want him to go through what I went through. I’m hoping he’s straight.”

“Jeez, Joe, I didn’t know you hated yourself so much.”

The compassion and understanding in Luke’s voice nearly made Joe weep. He got up and went and stood at the window looking out into the dark, watching the rain streak the window with silver. Luke was standing behind him. He could see his reflection in the glass. Luke lifted his hands towards Joe, and then with a helpless gesture, lowered them again. Sounding almost defeated, he said, “Joe, never think that. You’re a top bloke. Never believe what they say about you. Fuck them! You’re the best.” In the window-glass, Joe saw Luke turn away, and stick his hands into his pockets as if that was the only way he felt safe, as if he wanted to touch Joe and had to restrain himself.

Joe turned round. “So,” he said with a rather tremulous smile, “do you think it’s safe to leave them for half an hour?”

“Yeah.” Luke leant against the wall, his hands still deep in his pockets, his gaze solemn. “Why?”

“There’s a pub nearby, with good live music. I thought we could go there, have a glass or two, listen to a few songs. Sean has a mobile with my number in it. We won’t be long. I was thinking next time you come down, I could ask my sister to baby-sit, then we could have a whole evening out. I don’t like to leave him alone at night for too long.”

“Sound good. OK. It’s time for Lord of the Rings. I’ll read this time.”

“. . . . ?”

“Liss made me get a copy. After you read to them at my house. We started at the beginning. But she won’t mind me reading from where you have gotten up to.”

“No. Read from where you’ve reached. Sean knows the story. This is the third time I’m reading it to him. But if Liss hasn’t heard it before, she won’t know what’s happened.”

Luke read well. Joe leaned against the door-jamb and listened. Luke put expression into his voice, made the story interesting and alive. When he’d read his three or four pages, he said “OK. Bedtime now. Joe and I are going out for a while to the pub. Behave, both of you!”

“You’ve got my number in your mobile, Sean,” Joe said, going over and kissing his son in his sleeping bag on the lounge room floor. “If you need me, call me, OK? I’ve set the phone to vibrate if it rings, so even if I don’t hear it, I’ll feel it.”

“I know, dad,” sighed Sean.

“I love you buddy.” Joe hugged his son tightly.

“Me too, dad.”

“I know I can trust you to be sensible. You’re growing up now, and I know you are responsible and thoughtful. You’re a top bloke, Seanie.”

“Yeah, dad.” Sean rolled his eyes. But as Joe stood up, “Love you too, dad. I’ll behave, OK?”

Alice was in the bedroom, in Sean’s bed. “Good night, Liss, sweetheart.” Luke was so loving and tender with his daughter that Joe felt a wave of affection wash through him. It was so good to find a straight man with an affectionate soul. Joe didn’t let himself think about whether he was falling in love with Luke. He knew that that had already happened. Looking back, he was pretty certain he’d fallen in love on the Labor Day weekend, at the seaside. It was too late now to stop it. He’d just have to make sure Luke never found out.

The pub was noisy and crowded. They shook the rain off themselves as they went in. A band was playing laid-back rock, sounding like a mixture of JJ Cale and Santana. Joe bought Luke a Coopers Red and a Cascade for himself. They stood in silence watching the band, their shoulders touching. It was too loud to talk easily. The band was excellent, and Joe wondered again at the amazing live band scene in Melbourne. Joe felt someone’s eyes on him. It was the drummer of the band. He had a round head, hair and beard cropped to stubble, rings in his eyebrows and ears, and, Joe could see though the tight T-shirt, his nipples. He was slim, with every muscle defined and cut. His jeans were worn low, and Joe could see the waistband of his underwear. He looked about twenty. He was handsome and confident and radiated sexual desire like a beacon. The drummer’s eyes were afire. Joe stared him down. The drummer looked away, and Joe also did, but when he looked back at the band again, the man’s eyes were on him. Joe’s hard-on was supremely uncomfortable in his snug briefs and suddenly too-tight jeans.

When the band took a break, the drummer came and stood near Joe, without speaking. Joe was painfully aware of his presence, so lost in the younger man’s magnetic field that he jumped when Luke leaned close to him and murmured in his ear.

“You can go with him if you want. I’ll go back to the flat and look after Sean and Liss. Just give me your keys.”

Joe turned and looked at him. His face was just a few inches away. Luke’s hazel eyes were filled with affection but also a deeper emotion which Joe couldn’t interpret. “I don’t want him,” Joe said. Somehow that had come out wrong. “I don’t want him.” That was better. “I want somebody who will be a friend, who will be good to me when I come home from work tired and crabby, who will go with me to Sean’s school concerts and prize-givings, who’ll love me despite what I am.” He stopped just in time, biting back the words that he’d almost uttered.

Luke’s face was quite calm. But Joe got the horrible feeling he had actually said his the last unspoken thought aloud. He gulped the last of his beer, and fled. The rain was sheeting down outside. Dimly he heard someone calling. Not looking where he was going he blundered into the high brick wall that marked the edge of the pub’s parking lot. Two strong arms pushed against the rough bricks either side of him.

“Turn round.”

Joe shook his head. His face was wet with more than rain.

“Turn around, damn you!” Luke’s voice was hard.

Joe turned inside the curve of Luke’s arms and body. He looked down at the ground, unable to face Luke’s accusing gaze. Strong fingers took him under the chin and lifted his head. Luke’s eyes were fierce. Angry. Loving. Tender.

“My mother always said a gentleman should ask before he kisses someone. But what the fuck did she ever know about love?” And Luke’s hand moved behind Joe’s head, and his lips pressed against Joe’s. Unaware of the water running down their faces and down their collars, of the cold wind on their hands, of soaking jeans and wet shoes, they kissed, in public, as passionate as if it were their first time, and they were both just eighteen again. “Was I the sort of man you had in mind?” Luke asked, when they came up for air.

“Strange that you should mention that . . . . . .” Joe snagged his hand into the waistband of Luke’s jeans and pulled him closer. “You were exactly what I had in mind.”

“Let’s go home,” said Luke, his hands still pressing Joe against him.

Joe just nodded.

All at once conscious of the rain and just how wet and cold they were, they ran the half kilometer through the glistening streets to the block of flats. When they turned the key in the lock, they heard the sudden cessation of chatter from inside the flat. Their eyes met, and both grinned simultaneously. They went through to Joe’s bedroom.

“C’mon,” whispered Joe, “let’s get out of these wet clothes.”

“You’re just trying to seduce me,” said Luke, quietly.

“Me? Seduce you? I am as chaste as a nun.”

“Pity. So why then were you trying to get me out of my kit by standing talking in the rain? And why just the one – double – bed?” Luke was grinning, his head tilted a little to one side, his eyes warm and filled with affection.

“I was going to sleep on the sofa. I still am.”

Luke straightened up. His face was suddenly solemn. “Why?”

“You’re being great to me. But you’re straight.”

“Since when do straight guys kiss their best friends? Hug their best friends?” Luke suited his actions to his words. Joe had closed the bedroom door when they had come in. The flat was old-fashioned, and the walls were made of solid brick not paper-thin ceiling board. They were private.

“I don’t want you to do this on impulse and regret it tomorrow.”

Luke looked at him for a moment. “I’ve thought about this a lot, Joe. You’re so funny and kind and generous. You’re so good with our children. You don’t even know how sexy you are, what a catch. When I saw that drummer looking at you I wanted to kill him on the spot, bash his brains out with a brick. That’s when I knew for sure.” By this time they had both removed all their wet clothing except their briefs. Suddenly paralysed with shyness, Joe turned his back as he took off his undies. Luke grabbed him from behind and kissed his neck. “You’re so fuckin’ handsome, Joe. You have no idea, just . . . no . . . .idea. Why do you think that little sex-toy stud wanted you so bad?”

“Stop!” Joe turned within the cage of Luke’s arms and stared at him. “Don’t play with fire, Luke. We could both be burned.”

Luke kissed him gently. “Can we get into bed and discuss this? I’m freezing.” He let go of Joe and they slid between the sheets.

“Oof! It’s cold.” Joe was shivering.

“C’mere. I’ll warm you.” Luke put his arms around Joe. They were facing each other. “’Course,” said Luke with a wicked glint in his eye, “there’s one sure-fire way to get warm.”

“Talk first,” said Joe. His eyes were hard. He’d been through hell once. He wasn’t going to do it again, no matter how much he loved Luke. He’d hurt Sarah by not being the right sexuality, by not being honest with himself. He wanted to know now why Luke loved him. He wanted to know now, before they made any further commitments, how long Luke was going to love him.

Luke stared into Joe’s eyes. “I can see why you’re careful. I understand. That’s why I didn’t make a move before.” He began to stroke Joe’s back, his hand, just starting to get warm, strong and callused. “It happened at the beach. You were playing the guitar, and you looked at me. And there was such longing and loss in your eyes. You were looking at me as if I was . . . your long-lost brother.”

“Go on,” said Joe, beginning to relax under the gentle caresses.

“I watched you with Sean and Alice. You were strong and gentle, talking to them in their own terms, without talking down to them, or letting them misbehave or take advantage. You were wise and fun to be with. You were sensible and caring and . . . . . well, just lovable. You cared about me and what had happened to me. I wanted you as my friend.” Luke rolled onto his back and stared at the ceiling. The arm which had been rubbing Joe’s back was now resting on Joe’s chest, quite still. Joe was glad that Luke wasn’t trying to muddle his thoughts by rubbing his nipples, by moving his hand lower to Joe’s cock. If he had, he would have discovered that some part of Joe’s brain was ready for love, even as another part coolly considered the options.

“Anyway, I didn’t know you were gay or anything. I just thought of you as a friend. A special friend, someone I was proud to know. Someone I wanted in my life. You know, Luke, we’re not given much to introspection, we blokes. Things just sort of happen to us. It’s the women who analyse this stuff. I just knew I liked you. And admired you. Then when you came up to Mount Macedon, I just couldn’t get you out of my mind. Not like sex and stuff,” and he turned to look into Joe’s black-olive eyes, “but just you. The way you walked on the mountain, filled with wonder. The way you fitted into our life. When you told me you were gay, at first I couldn’t believe it. And then I thought, why not? I haven’t found a woman who’ll fit. . . . . .”

“ . . . . . but you might!”

“ . . . . . No. Listen. It’s more than that. I found myself looking at you, wondering what it would be like to make love to you, to have you wake up next to me for the rest of my life. You were gay. That was so cool! I couldn’t believe my luck. But I wasn’t sure. I didn’t want to hurt you, Joe, baby. I never want to hurt you. So that Monday I went to talk to a good friend of mine, who is bi, and also a psychiatrist and healer. And I told him what I felt, what I thought was happening to me. I didn’t believe it, Joe, love.”

“It repelled you.” Joe felt a kind of dismal sorrow fill him. Of course. It was too much to expect that it would work out.

“No!” Luke’s voice was fierce. “No. It aroused me!” His hand on Joe’s chest pressed down, pressed hard against him. “He said it sometimes happens with men as they get older. They find that they want men to love in their lives. He referred me to a group of married bi blokes, and I spoke to a couple of the guys there. I was in love with you, I knew that. It was kind of miraculous, I admit, but it, well, it just happened.”

Joe lifted himself onto his elbow to look at Luke. He knew what he wanted. But he had to be sure that’s what Luke wanted too.

“So?”

“It was just so right when we worked in the kitchen together tonight. I kept on wanting to kiss you, to make love to you right there. But you were so distant. So I didn’t. I mean, you are so good-looking, Joe,” – Joe just shook his head – “that you could have anybody. Why would you choose me?”

“Because you’re a top bloke! Generous, kind, loving, funny. Fun to be with, a wonderful father. Jeez, Luke, you tell me how wonderful I am! Do you realise what a catch you are?”

“A catch? Who’s caught me? Joe, have you thought that I haven’t had a single woman since Angela died? Don’t you think that’s revealing?”

“No more so than my not having a bloke since Sarah left.”

“You said yourself – the pool is smaller. And I saw the way that guy looked at you. He was hot!”

“Since when are you an expert on male pulchritude?”

Luke gently cuffed Joe’s head. “pullkry-what?”

Joe smiled at him. “Don’t come the ignorant farm-boy with me. I saw the Latin texts in your bookcase.”

“Damn. Another guilty secret revealed.” Luke smiled lazily. “Anyway, he was hot. Hell, even if you hadn’t opened my eyes, I would have seen that. And he wanted you. You, Joe di Cicco. No one else in the whole place. You! You could have had a whole string of guys before now.”

“I wanted love. Sex is easy. Love is hard, Luke. Love that survives ups and downs, love that lasts, love that matters. I want another dad for Sean, I want . . . . .”

“ . . . you’ve found him.”

Joe stared into Luke’s eyes. There was so much love in them. How could he have missed it before?

As if he could see into Joe’s mind, Luke said, “I love you, Joe. I dunno how it happened, but I do.” He looked away, and when he looked back, his eyes were haunted. “Joe, I have a confession to make. With Ben, my best friend, I actually did fool around with him. OK. Let’s not be squeamish. We pulled each others’ wires. Joe, I hurt him, because I was too uptight to let our love flow naturally. Too stupid. Too homophobic. What a selfish, thoughtless arsehole I was! But I knew then, even though I denied it, that I could love men. I knew it, Joe! I bullshitted myself. I made a mistake. I did him wrong. Joe buddy, I’m not going to make the same mistake twice. I love you. It’s that simple. I know it.”

Joe leaned in to kiss him. He nibbled Luke’s ear, and ran his tongue down Luke’s strong neck. He lapped at Luke’s shoulders with his tongue, with his lips.

“I love you too, Luke Wagnitz.”

He moved his mouth down Luke’s torso, biting each nipple gently, then followed the treasure trail of red-gold hair to Luke’s cock. He remembered wondering what color Luke’s pubic hair was. It was the same as the rest of his hair – a mixture of wonderful shining copper and fawn. When Joe took Luke’s cock into his mouth, Luke gave a small sigh, as if he had in the end come home, a sigh that showed he could put his burden down, that he was safe at last.

In the morning Joe woke to find Luke’s hard-on pressed against his butt-crack.

“There’s a tube of lube in the drawer,” he said.

Luke kissed his neck. “I’ve never done this before. What must I do?”

“Sizzle me up, first.” Joe was looking into Luke’s face when he said this and he saw Luke’s eyes darken with desire.

“My pleasure!” Luke began to kiss him. His lips were clever, powerfully erotic, his tongue warm. Luke moved his hands over Joe’s body as if he was touching something precious. Every few minutes he would stop to say “I love you Joe di Cicco. I love you, mate.”

It had been a long time – since before his marriage – that Joe had had a man in him. But he took Luke easily. With his legs wrapped around Luke’s waist he watched in ecstasy as Luke’s eyes darkened and he swelled inside him in climax. Luke had never let go of Joe’s cock with his hands, and with fierce concentration, he brought Joe to orgasm too. Still inside Joe, with Joe’s legs wrapped round him, he rolled over and pulled the bedclothes back over them. His face was six inches from Joe’s. He stared into Joe’s eyes, and then he smiled.

“Think we could go on doing that, for ever, love?”

“Why not, Luke, mate? It just gets better, I think.”

At that moment, the door swung open. During the night, Joe and Luke had gotten up to wee, so the bedroom door was unlocked. They must have left it slightly ajar. Sean stood in the doorway. His eyes went from Joe to Luke and back again, then he turned and fled.

“Fuck!” said Joe, struggling to untangle his legs from Luke’s, to get Luke’s cock out of himself, to get out of the tangled blankets and sheets. But before he could do much, Sean and Alice appeared at the door, Sean in front, Alice peering over his shoulder. In wide-eyed silence they stared at the two men.

At last, Sean spoke. “See, Liss. I told you!”

Alice ran into the room and hugged her father. “Oh, dad, I’m so glad. Will you get married? Can I be bridesmaid?”

Joe almost laughed out loud at the shock on Luke’s face. Sean went over to Joe’s side of the bed. Then, unable to speak because he was so overcome, he leaned over and hugged his father, sniffing back tears as he buried his head in his shoulder. “I’m so glad, dad. Now you won’t be alone when I marry Liss.”

Too moved to speak, Joe just stroked Sean’s head.

After that, telling Joe’s parents was easy. And his mother did cry, from happiness, and his father did shout at him, before dragging him into a huge bear-hug. It turned out they’d suspected for years. Joe’s constant refusal to even consider the nice Italian girls they suggested had finally percolated.

Luke never told his parents. But it didn’t matter. He had a whole new family, who took him into their hearts, who loved the fact that he and Alice spoke Italian. They spoke far more Italian when Luke was around than they had before. Joe just rolled his eyes at this.

They married in September, and went on honeymoon (with the teenagers) down to the warm seas of the southern N.S.W. coast at Merimbula . They sold Joe’s flat and Joe moved in to the house in Mount Macedon.

A year after they’d met, they went down to the same little beach on the Great Ocean Road, on Labor Day weekend. They were walking along the beach, while Alice and Sean ran backwards and forwards with the two fox terrier puppies they bought when they started living together, and Joe asked, “So what did you really see in me?”

“Ah,” said Luke, his eyes sparkling with love, with affection. “I just like wogs. I married two, didn’t I?”

Joe grabbed him, and in a moment they were scrapping on the beach in their Speedos like two teenagers, laughing till they were out of breath. They had to stop when the dogs joined in and started yapping in excitement and licking their faces.

Joe lay back on the sand, fending off the dogs with one hand.

“Is this for keeps, Luke Wagnitz?”

“’Course it is, Joe di Cicco.”

And it was.

© 2011 Nick Thiwerspoon. All rights reserved.
Romantic m2m novels and short stories

http://www.nick-thiwerspoon.com/

http://nikolaos-thiwerspoon.blogspot.com/

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