This was the first Halloween night in five years that Eric would be manning the front door alone to welcome all the little 'uns out for the annual treat grab-fest.
It was also the first time that he had made the apples dipped in caramel and rolled in nuts for the evening, solo. Eric watched the afternoon talk shows in the kitchen as he prepared the treats for the kids in his Fairfax neighborhood.
'Has it really been eight months since Pete pulled the plug on our relationship?' he ruminated. Eric Morris had met Pete Llamedo in the fall of their freshman year at UCLA at a LGBT Alliance mixer. The transition from high school in Sacramento to university had been a difficult, challenging experience for Eric. Becoming friends with Pete provided a needed anchor for Eric's young life.
Not only was he a little homesick from being away from his family for the first time, but also Eric missed his best friend and fuck buddy, Steve Watson. Stevehad moved to Seattle with his family after high school graduation and would attend the University of Washington in the fall. Eric was aware that he looked to Steve as more than a friend in high school. In addition to being socially and intellectually compatible, the physical closeness of the two teens took the edge off the continuous demands of raging teen hormones. 'Pretty hot,' he considered, thinking of their last encounter after high school graduation and Steve's move. Looking back now, Eric pinpointed his junior year in high school where guys in general, and Steve in particular, were his primary sexual interest.
They kept up with each other via emails and finally Christmas cards. The last card that Eric received had been in his junior year at UCLA. Steve announced that he had become engaged to a terrific woman in his class and planned on marriage in the distant future. That was the last time Eric had heard from his old pal.
In the meantime, the friendship with Pete revved up to boyfriend status by the time they became sophomores. Pete lived in Orange County and his family unofficially adopted Eric as an honorary Llamedo when he became a frequent houseguest on weekends. Likewise, Eric took Pete home to Sacramento once in a while. Both sets of parents were pleased that their respective sons had chosen 'special' friends wisely and were not surprised when Eric and Pete announced that they were in love and life-partners at the start of their junior year.
Halloween was always considered a gay holiday and the guys braved the masses for the annual parade and festivities in West Hollywood while they were in college. However, by the time they graduated and found jobs in L.A., the WeHo silliness gave way to house parties with friends. When Eric and Pete - with the help of their parents - bought a small home in the Fairfax district, they opted to become homebodies and dole out treats to the kids on 'All Hallows Eve' before joining friends later.
Pete was the cook in the partnership. Their first fall in the house, he came up with the idea to give out caramel-dipped apples. Eric became chef's helper but used his graphic design background to create some very clever jack-o-lanterns that would be a welcoming beacon at the entrance to their front door. They established a pattern of prepping for the evening in advance and always took off from work for that day to organize for the younger early visitors. In their neighborhood, parents would start the journey with the youngest...from toddlers to kids around 10…at 5:00 p.m. By the time 8:00 p.m. arrived, the older kids had made their rounds. On the second year, Eric and Pete had added small bottles of water for the parents.
Two years ago marked a landmark promotion for Pete and his career in sales. Just after Halloween in 2004, the division boss of the software firm for which he worked gave him a larger area to cover. While heretofore Pete was busily building and servicing clients in a small district including part of Orange County and the fringes of L.A., he was given the growing 'Inland Empire" cities, San Bernardino and the burgeoning Palm Springs desert area.
At least twice a month, Pete would be gone for a couple of days due to the long drive to 'San Berdoo' and Palm Springs. For a while, Pete would schedule his desert trip to coincide with a Friday so that Eric could come out for a visit to the energetic, gay Mecca in the sand. But gradually Pete's scheduling became more complex and Palm Springs usually was a mid-week sales call.
As the time away from home became a predictable routine, so did their sex and love life. To be sure, Eric and Pete were very healthy guys in their mid-twenties. However, Eric sensed that romance had left the room…and certainly the bed. Even when he would go 'the extra mile' with candles, music and flowers, the feedback from Pete was polite but hardly enthusiastic.
After a very pleasant 2006 Valentine's Day dinner, Pete feigned exhaustion when Eric wanted to play in the privacy of their bedroom. Sitting on the bed, legs crossed, Eric looked at a sprawled out Pete and asked, "Babe, you wanna talk about anything? I thought maybe this would be a nice time to make love."
"Dinner and wine was great, Hon, but I'm pooped. Gotta get up early to drive to Palm Springs," Pete replied with a sheepish smile and shrug.
"We've been a team almost eight years and I love you…but there doesn't seem to be the excitement, anymore." Eric sighed and stroked Pete's leg.
"I love you, too. But eight years is a long time for two people; guys especially. Tell you what: let's have a long talk this weekend when I return and am a little fresher. It'll all work out," Pete replied with a yawn.
"Okay, we'll cook in but you're the chef." Eric picked up on the ominous undertones but chose to ignore them.
"Aye, aye, captain." Pete closed his eyes and was off to slumber land within minutes.
Eric tossed and turned the rest of the night and finally drifted off to sleep in the early hours of the morning. He didn't hear Pete leave the bedroom, later. To beat the morning L.A. commute traffic, Pete was always on the Interstate 10 by 6:00 a.m. at the latest.
The rest of the week was uneventful. Eric was now a design member of the NBC-Universal graphics department. The team was putting the final touches on the summer film releases and nothing approaching crisis mode was imminent. Eric was able to get over to Crunch for a late afternoon workout Thursday before going home to a solo dinner and the nightly phone call from Pete around 7:00 p.m. He tried not to verbalize his disappointment when Pete said that he wouldn't be coming home until Saturday morning. Apparently there was an important new client that Pete needed to schmooze over dinner Friday night. 'Shit,' Eric thought, 'just another night to jerk the gherkin to some cam clips downloaded from DudeTube.'
The weekend arrived and Eric decided to do the shopping without Pete. He figured that a trip to the cleaners, Ralph's and Whole Foods should fill the morning and he'd be back in time to greet Pete with a sandwich and soup. After a final stop at an ATM for a wallet refill, he was ready to head home. When he rounded the corner and pulled into the driveway, Eric saw a Hertz van in the rear by the garage. He was puzzled by the cargo van as he parked next to the front door walkway.
"Hi," Pete yelled as he strolled out of the house. "Let me help you." He smiled wistfully and opened the rear door to retrieve the dry cleaning.
"Hey, yourself. I'll grab the groceries." Eric felt that the atmosphere was a little off. 'Strange that Pete just greeted me like I had just returned from taking out the trash,' he thought as he picked up the two paper bags. "What's with the van?"
"Needed to borrow some wheels to get down here," was Pete's only reply.
Silently the two guys went into the house; Pete took the dry cleaning to the bedroom and Eric went to the kitchen with the groceries.
"You wanna beer? I'm going to make some sandwiches. Okay?" Eric asked in a loud voice.
"Um, I've got a few things to do in the bedroom. I'll meet you in 10 minutes."
Eric busied himself by first putting away the groceries and then made two sandwiches with ham and Swiss cheese that needed to be used before 'bachelor mold' appeared. 'To hell with the grams of fat,' he thought, when he ripped open a bag of chips and garnished the sandwich plates. Just then, Pete appeared in the kitchen.
"Good timing." Pete walked over to the refrigerator and got bottle water. "I decided it'd probably be best to stick with no alcohol."
"Maybe I'll just have water, too." Eric sat the two plates on the table and eased into a chair as Pete joined him. "You on the wagon all of a sudden?"
"No, ah, I'm goin' to be driving today," Pete replied, looking at his plate.
"Driving? As in to see your folks?" Eric took a bite and looked at his partner staring down at his sandwich.
"Eric, this isn't easy. I'm, um, going to be returning to Palm Springs. A lot of stuff has been going down and I'm going to be working out of a new office in the desert."
"You…you're doing what?" Eric asked with his mouth full of food. He quickly chewed, swallowed and took a drink of water. "What the hell are you talking about?"
"I…I've made a difficult decision. You asked some questions after dinner earlier this week about our lives together. As much as I hate to admit it, what we had is not there anymore. I'm, ah, I'm moving on and going to Palm Springs is just part of it."
Eric sat there dumbfounded as he absorbed the news that the 7-½ year relationship had 'gone south'. Pete went on to say that he'd met a guy in Palm Springs a year earlier and the casual friendship developed into a full-blown love affair. Full-blown enough for Pete to be moving into his new lover's Palm Springs home.
"You just waltz in here and tell me our relationship is over and I'm being tossed away like yesterday's garbage? That's bullshit…complete and utter bullshit." Eric was trembling as he stared at his now ex-other half.
"Hey, calm down. It isn't easy for me," Pete said firmly.
"You sneak around behind my back with some new honey and ask me to calm down? Screw you."
"I guess I deserved that. Just hear me out."
"This better be good." Eric snarled, while resisting the urge to throw something and storm out.
Throughout Pete's monologue, Eric's emotions internally went from explosive shock, to disbelieving, to seething and, finally, to defeated neutrality. Pete's admission merely added substance to what Eric had felt for the past several months. 'Jeez, what a naïve, dumb fuck I must be,' he thought as partner - make that former partner - droned on.
Pete seemed remorseful as he laid out his feelings and plans. When he suggested that Eric could buy his part of the house for the amount of money that his folks had lent him over five years earlier, Eric numbly shook his head in agreement. Pete handed him a legal document that represented the buy-out.
"I suggest you have a lawyer check out everything As far as I know, it's all in order. We can figure out a payment plan later."
"Dad can probably come up with a loan," Eric replied, flatly. He was amazed at the detailed planning that had gone on behind his back. "Um, what happens now?"
"I'm going to grab all of my clothes, computer and stuff and take it back to Palm Springs."
"Define stuff. There's a lot here that we bought together."
"In the agreement you'll see where I'm surrendering all rights to our furniture and furnishings. I won't need it out in the desert."
"So, you're outta here…just like that?" Eric felt his stomach churning and took a deep breath to calm the passing nausea. 'Seven and a half years…and that's that?'
"As soon as I get packed. I don't need any help, unless you want to stick around to make sure nothing is missing," Pete said with a shrug.
"I think that it's best that I get out of your way. Except for ripping out my heart just now, you've never done anything to make me think you'd take anything of mine. Um, how much time do you need?" Eric was now just mouthing words without any emotion. 'Pete must have been planning this for a while,' he decided. 'This is all too calculated.'
"I should be finished and on the road in an hour or so."
"Leave the keys on the kitchen table when you take off. Maybe we can talk rationally…someday. Right now, I'm too upset to say anything else."
"I understand how you feel. I only hope that we can be friends…down the road," Pete replied.
Eric nodded to Pete and walked out of the kitchen and the house. He got in his car and took off to the nearest bar - The Gold Coast on Santa Monica Boulevard - for a few beers.
Eric had to admit that Pete's modest buyout proposal was very generous. 'Probably did it to ease the guilt,' Eric decided, when he returned with a slight buzz. He entered the kitchen and found the keys on the table with a note.
"My dearest Eric,
I'm sorry. It just happened. Maybe we can be friends?
Eric crumpled the note and threw it in the garbage. "Fuck," he yelled to himself. 'Friends don't stab you in the back,' he thought as a lone, belated tear appeared. 'On the other hand, we had some good years. Maybe we'll run into each other under different circumstances. I wonder what the new other-half is like?'
That was eight months ago.
Ellen DeGeneres was just starting her opening monologue on the TV and that signaled to Eric that he had exactly one hour to pull his act together. The caramel apples were firming in the fridge and he had filled a tub with ice to chill down bottled water. The jack-o-lanterns that he had carved Sunday needed to be brought out from the coolness of the pantry and positioned outside on the sides of the stoop.
He noticed that a slight chill was in the air when he arranged the carved pumpkins. 'Ideal weather,' Eric decided. No wind meant that the candles illuminating the faces he had carved would not blow out. With the jack-o-lanterns in place, he went inside and stripped out of his sweats.
While the shower water was warming, Eric stood and absent-mindedly touched the towel bar that used to hold Pete's bath towels. The bathroom was more orderly now…but less lived-in. Once satisfied that the shower temperature was hot, Eric stepped into the shower and performed the quick, efficient shampoo and body cleansing routine that he had perfected now that he was living alone.
Toweling off afterwards gave him pause to remember when showering was a sensuous, two-man operation. Eric shrugged and looked at his trim, nude body with satisfaction. The remaining prep included hair gel, teeth brushing and moisturizer. 'What would a gay man do without Clinique?' he wondered with a sardonic smile.
The choice of clothing was a no-brainer: post-preppy khakis, a cotton crew sweater and Topsiders. Eric and Pete did try wearing costumes on the second year of greeting the kids but ended up scaring too many of the little ones and pissing off some of the parents. 'No reason to give the adults a reason to hate the neighborhood queers,' they decided. Costumes were 86'd from that point on.
Eric went back to the kitchen, poured himself a glass of wine and watched the remaining moments of 'Ellen'. As she went to the final commercial, Eric took the first of three trays of caramel apples out of the fridge and brought them to a table just inside the front door. Next he carried the tub of water bottles to the table and turned on the front door light. Lastly, he lit the candles inside the jack-o-lanterns and turned on the door light. Eric smiled when he spotted the first of the costumed visitors coming down the sidewalk with their parents or older siblings. He kept the front door open and allowed the screen door to be the minimal security to the house.
For the next hour, Eric entertained and was entertained by a steady trickling of tiny Supermen, Sponge Bobs, Cinderellas, witches, ghosts, and clowns. He chuckled when a young girl, perfectly made up as Elvira, arrived with her mother in matching costumes. Many knew him and were very polite to 'Mr. Morris'. The parents were equally appreciative to be provided with bottled water.
Around 6:45 p.m. the sky was starting to become dark; twilight was settling in earlier as daylight savings time had ended just two nights earlier. Eric was flipping through the latest issue of Vanity Fair when the doorbell rang. He went to the door saw a little boy dressed as Spiderman and an older girl dressed as Little Miss Red Riding Hood. He guessed the girl to be 10 years old and the boy…maybe six.
"Hi, kids." Eric opened the screen door and smiled.
"Hi, Mister. Trick or treat?" said the girl.
"Oh, a treat to be sure," Eric said with a smile. He took two caramel apples, wrapped them with waxed paper and handed one to each of the children. He looked at the little boy and something stood out. 'Jeez, who is this kid?' he wondered. 'Must be a neighbor but I don't recognize him. He certainly looks familiar, though.'
"Oh, wow," said the boy. I'm going to eat this when I get home."
"Thanks, replied the girl. "Come on, Stevie, your dad is waiting to go to dinner."
"Just a minute, kids. I'm curious…do you live around here. I've seen Stevie somewhere but I can't place it."
"Stevie's my step-brother and we just recently moved here. His real dad is taking us around tonight so my parents can go to a party," the girl replied.
"Um, Stevie's dad is with you?" Eric started feeling as if he was filling in the last part of the morning crossword puzzle. The more he looked at Stevie the more he remembered what his best friend, Steve Watson, looked like as a boy.
The miniature Spiderman nodded and said, "Daddy is waiting for us by the curb." He turned and pointed to the silhouette of an adult standing under a tree next to the street.
"Ah, would you take me over so I can say 'hi' to your dad?" Eric asked with restrained excitement. 'This has to be my old buddy, Steve,' he decided when he looked closer at the man in the shadows. 'What's he doing here?'
"Um, sure, follow me." Stevie took Eric's hand and led him to his dad with the girl trailing behind.
"Well, Stevie, who have you brought to…uhhh, oh god. Ah, sh…Eric, is that you?" Steve said with a gasp. He instinctively placed his hand on Eric's shoulder and squeezed firmly.
"Long time, Steve." Eric released little Stevie and grabbed his dad's firm, adult hand for a shake. "Way too long." He realized that his eyesight was becoming blurred from the spontaneous tears as a jolt of energy surged from the touch.
"What, eight or nine years?" Steve asked as he pulled away to look at Eric. "Age seems to agree with you," he added, with a smile.
"Hey, being 26 isn't over the hill." Eric used the comment and chuckle to ease the emotional tension between the two.
"Let me officially introduce everyone. Kids, this is Eric Morris. Mr. Morris and I were best friends many years ago in Sacramento. The beautiful Little Red Riding Hood is Lucy, Stevie's stepsister."
"Hi, Mr. Morris," Lucy said. She held out her hand and let Eric shake it.
"Hi," was all Stevie could say as he looked at the tall male stranger and his dad.
"Um, can you come in for a few minutes and tell me how you happen to be in my neighborhood?"
"Yeah, I don't have to get Lucy and Stevie home for a while. His mother and her husband are at a party. I was going to take the kids over to Canter's for some food, as a matter of fact."
"Then come in and let me feed you guys. It'll give us a chance to catch up," Eric said as he naturally grabbed Steve's hand. Eric was aware that Steve had no intention of letting go.
"Kids, Mr. Morris has invited us in for some dinner. That okay? I'll get you back home in time."
"Yes, Daddy," came an affirmative answer from Stevie. His stepsister just smiled and nodded.
"Great, let's go inside. There will be a few more tricksters coming by for treats but we can handle that and make some food." Eric led his long lost friend and the children back into the house. Eric and Steve eased into two over-stuffed chairs while Lucy politely sat on the couch. Stevie plopped down on the carpet and crossed his legs.
"Lucy, I think that Mr. Morris and I were your age when we first met. He and I played together, went to the same school, attended church and joined scouts at the same time. Those were good times."
"I wish I had a good friend like that," Little Stevie said quietly. "Being in a new town is tough."
"Buddy, you'll do just fine. New town and new school is a big deal. It just takes a while," Steve said in a reassuring tone.
"Let me get something to drink. I've got Cokes and beer. I think Coke for the kids?" Eric said with a laugh. "Beer okay for you?" Eric stopped and looked at Steve.
"That's something I've never turned down…as you know."
Eric brought back the drinks and relaxed with his guests. For the next several minutes, Lucy and Stevie told Eric more about their lives and projected general happiness about being part of a new family. The two men swapped some harmless tales about their growing up together. Occasionally Eric would excuse himself to answer the door and dole out goodies to his costumed visitors. Finally, he noticed that the youngsters were started to fidget. 'Whoops, the attention span as been short-circuited,' he observed. 'Time to take action. Plus, I want some solo time with my old friend.'
"Ah, there's a TV in the next room. Why don't you two take your drinks and find something to watch so I can talk with Stevie's dad? The remote is on top of the set."
"Yes, Sir," the girl said with some relief. She took Stevie by the hand and walked over to the den.
"Steve, to say this is a surprise is an understatement. Why don't you watch the door while I get a couple more beers?"
"Gotcha. I'll do goblin patrol until you return." The two men just smiled and stared at each other. Steve shook his head and said with a chuckle, "I can't friggin' believe it".
"Yeah, amazing. Back in a sec." Eric made a dash for the kitchen and retrieved two more Heineken's. 'Man,' he thought, 'my old bud has really turned into a hunk. Well, a young daddy hunk.' He returned to the living room and handed the bottle of beer to Steve before joining him on the couch.
"Thanks, buddy. After hauling the kids around the neighborhood, beer really hits the spot." Steve winked and took a long pull from the green bottle of beer. "Nice place you got. Have you lived here long?"
"Five years. I bought it with another guy…he was, um, my partner." Eric decided not to beat around the bush of half-truths and fabrication.
"Partner? As in…"
"Gay life partner. Well, 'life' I thought at the time." Eric expelled an audible sigh and took a sip of beer while looking at his old best friend.
"I, err, um, assume that this is no longer the case?" Steve looked into Eric's eyes with an intensity mixed with uncertainty and questioning.
"Pete - my ex - found love out in Palm Springs and dropped me like a used rubber. He left in February."
"So, you're single and…"
"Yep, your old best friend is gay." Eric swallowed hard and continued, "I guess I should admit that the, um, messing around we did had more meaning for me than it did for you. I hope you're not pissed at this news?" Eric's voice trailed down to almost a stage whisper.
"Pissed? As I remember, we got off pretty good," Steve said with an equally low voice.
"And pretty messy.
"I remember the contests we had…seems you always won." Steve smiled and shook he head. "I think that it might be a little simplistic to file away the stuff we did as just two guys with raging hormones going through puberty."
"Buddy, puberty was around 12 or 13. What we did when we were in high school got pretty advanced." Eric studied his old pal for any subtle reactions. "Seriously, are you okay with me being gay?"
"Yeah - no problem. It wasn't like I was forced into anything I didn't want to do." Steve paused for a few moments before he continued, "I wish, though, we had been a little more honest with each other."
"Meaning?" Eric asked with a raised eyebrow.
"That I had special feelings for you. I thought about that when I moved to Seattle. However, as I started college and met the woman who would become my wife and Stevie's mom, I just pushed what we had done into my sub-conscious - like, um, just part of, ah, you know, growing up and nothing more."
"What we did…I, ah, never forgot. Guess it was just natural that our lives would move on with so much distance between us."
"Certainly nothing planned. I got married, graduated from university and Stevie was born. However, when I started my first job it suddenly hit me that I was denying who I was."
"Hit you? Who you were? You mean that…?"
"That I started thinking about what we had done and began to occasionally mess around with guys. Basically, I became more attracted to men at work, on the street and at the gym. Here I was; a working family man and my feelings for other men were pressuring me into sexual activity on the side."
Eric was completely mesmerized by Steve's story. A ring at the door interrupted him. "Um, hold that thought. I'm going to give out the last of the apples and shut down the trick or treat routine." Eric went to the door and gave out the last of his apples to a group of older kids. He also gave each a bottle of water and wished them a safe and fun evening. After they left, he extinguished the candles in the jack-o-lanterns, closed the door and turned off the outside lights. He saw Steve coming from the den.
"Just checked in on the kids. They're doing fine with 'Nick at Night'." Steve sat down with Eric and they both quietly took a long swallow of beer.
"I guess this is where I ask you what you're doing in L.A. and my living room…not that I'm complaining," Eric said with a broad grin.
"Three years ago I came clean with the wife and told her that I was absolutely sure that I was gay. To make a…well, the bottom line is that we decided upon an amicable divorce and I moved out immediately."
"Nothing ugly, thank god. There was the initial shock, of course, that her husband was gay. But the priest at our Episcopal church counseled her and laid out the substantive facts about sexual orientation and the biological data that concludes it isn't a choice."
"You're one of the lucky ones. I've heard of guys coming out and the wife 'outing' them at work, spreading vicious rumors and making the guy's life hell."
"Yes, very lucky. She took custody of Stevie and kept the house. But she always honored my visitations and custody weekends."
"Sounds like a terrific woman," Eric said.
"Yep, absolutely, fantastic. About a year later, she met a guy - good man, by the way - and they eventually got married. In fact, I attended their wedding and watched little Stevie be the ring bearer."
"Wow, talk about dodging a potentially bad situation."
"We all became good friends. However, the rub came when her husband took a job promotion that meant moving to L.A. I obviously wasn't going to be in a situation where I couldn't see my son. So, I asked my boss about a transfer to L.A. and he came through. Stevie and family moved down here in May and I arrived a few months ago."
"Where do you live?"
"I've got a small apartment over at Park La Brea. It's not too far from Stevie in Hancock Park and my office in Santa Monica."
"Um, and not too far from here."
"Not at all."
"Steve, I'm not going to go altruistic and unrealistically optimistic on you, but I'd love to figure out if we can get back to friend status…at the very least." Eric clasped his hands and leaned forward.
"We drifted apart because we lived in far away cities…it just happened. Now that we're almost neighbors, I'd really enjoy getting you back as a friend." Steve reached over and grabbed Eric's hand and squeezed it tightly.
"Um, maybe you can come back for a few drinks and dessert after you take the kids home?" Eric said with a grin.
"Oh, I think that an adults-only reunion is definitely in order. I want to share what's happened in our lives…in detail."
"Buddy, this is not a trick but certainly a treat. I look forward to getting together a little later." Eric took a deep breath and clasped his hand over Steve's. "Now let me figure out what we've got to feed you and the kids."
The two old friends smiled and stood up simultaneously.
"And I'll save a spot for dessert."
"The dessert I have in mind, you'll remember." Eric looked over to the den to make sure the kids were not in viewing range before continuing, "But here's a little hint." He pulled Steve into a tight embrace and offered a short, warm, wet kiss.
"Mmmm, I like. And as much as I'd like to figure out what's poking me in the leg, we'd best maintain a 'PG - 13' rating until later."
"Later, then. Come on out the kitchen and help me fix some dinner."