OK, like I say, I don't know if Barry is much of an authority on all this. A happily married man probably feels a guy like me is missing out on a lot. And maybe I am, but looking back I'd say if a life with Mike is second best, I'll take it--easy.
Not that Barry ever leaned on me to do otherwise. By my second year at the college, he and his wife Priscilla (and if you think that's a funny name, remember it didn't stop Elvis from falling in a big way) had asked me over for dinner so often I felt obliged to return the invitation.
Besides opening a can of Chef Boyardee, I do have some skills in the kitchen, and I sat my two married friends down one night to helpings of my sweet and sour pork, from a copy of Gourmet Cooking By the Clock, a dog-eared paperback I'd picked up at a library book sale that had got me through grad school after tiring of mostly awful TV dinners.
Priscilla, who'd done some work on the stage in Toronto and taught part-time in the theater department, got to looking at my bookshelves--she was a reader, too, and mostly remarked on my lack of books by Henry James, who I find damn near unreadable, though I didn't tell her that--noting in passing a framed picture of Mike and, stuck in one corner of it, a snapshot of the two of us taken one hot Sunday afternoon out at the sand pit.
We've got our arms over each other's shoulders, standing in water up to our navels, so you can't see we're both buck naked.
Mike's nephew Kirk had taken the picture. It was right before he enlisted--or maybe just after. "Dick Nixon before he dicks you," he liked to say. And before long he'd shipped off and spent two years on an aircraft carrier, where he was a mechanic and--to our surprise--mostly followed orders and stayed out of trouble.
Anyway, Priscilla saw Mike's picture and asked about it.
"A buddy of mine," I said and left it at that.
But I suspect she connected the dots between Mike, my many weekends out of town, and the absence of any other photographs in my apartment. A while later, Barry approached me with a different kind of invitation.
"How about you and your friend come by some time? We'd like to meet him," he said.
Nothing like jumping to conclusions.
"Mike?" I said, trying to sound just enough surprised and not as startled as I in fact was. "I dunno. He's pretty busy."
"Some weekend," he said, shrugging. "A little backyard barbeque before the snow flies."
I held off for a long time and just let it ride, like I was thinking about it, but I'd pretty much made up my mind. I'd picture the four of us together, and my heart would start pounding like I'd just woke up from a dream of falling off a cliff.
Besides a few male friends, most of them queer--and also my father and his second wife, my father being the disapproving one of the two--no one knew us as more than just two guys, one of them the hired hand, living in the same farm house.
Look at it this way. It was 1971 and everybody knows there are no queers in Nebraska. Never have been, never will be. And I felt no resentment about this. Just a kind of safety in being invisible. I was used to it, and that was fine with me.
Now suddenly, two people outside our scattered circle of friends were offering to treat us as more than that--a couple. It felt strange. Judging by my stampeding heart rate, you could say I was scared out of my socks.
Our private life, which included sleeping naked in the same bed and regular sex, would now be the subject of idle speculation. I imagined them somehow guessing with just a look at the two of us which one liked having his nipples rubbed while getting kissed hard (me) and which one was known to throw up his legs in bed to get his butt hole softly stroked (Mike).
It was irrational, I know, but I felt the lives I'd carefully kept separate colliding like two container ships on a foggy sea. My cover blown. My private life suddenly front-page headlines. Smile, you're on Candid Camera.
That's what I mean.
But Barry persisted, and when I finally brought it up with Mike, I picked a time when I was sure he'd say no.
He was cranky and out of sorts from spending a whole Saturday tearing apart a corn picker he'd bought at an auction and found didn't work, which involved two or three trips into town for parts, and instead of watching TV with me after supper, he'd gone straight to his desk to write bills and do his books, which involved much muttering and head scratching.
Come bedtime, I was in the bathroom brushing my teeth, and he came in behind me, in his underwear, with a towel around his neck, reaching behind the shower curtain to turn on the water.
In the mirror, I could see his bare back and his butt as he bent to pull down his boxers.
"Mike," I said. "Wanna ask you something."
His hand still behind the curtain, feeling the spray as he waited for it to warm up, he turned in my direction. His cock gave a quick nod from side to side in the thatch of dark, curly hair between his legs, and then it settled again over the snug pouch of his balls.
He looked tired, and I felt a little guilty bringing this up now.
"You heard me mention Barry and Priscilla?" I said.
"Yeah," he said. "Your friends."
"They want us to come over for barbeque some time."
"Sure," he said, turning back to the shower. "Anything but another day like today." Then he pulled aside the curtain and stepped in.
"I thought you'd be too busy," I said, raising my voice so he could hear me.
"Hell, no," he said.
I'd been aced. Like just about every other attempt of mine to second-guess him, this one fell flat. Flat on its ass.
Then Mike was pulling the shower curtain open again and waving me in to join him--an end to a long day's journey into a hard day's night that we both enjoyed together--lathering each other up with soap and gliding smoothly into each other's arms.
"Wash your back?" I offered, stepping out of my jockeys.
"Whatever you can reach," he said.
Mike liked his showers hot, and a cloud of steam quickly rose around us. I scrubbed and shampooed him, taking a soapy washcloth to every part of him, turning him this way and that, his body hair flattening out in dark whorls against his pale skin.
He let me wash him like a big baby. No place, no matter how seldom it saw the light of day, went unattended--armpits, between his legs, even between his toes.
I was down on one knee, washing the inside of his thighs, a thick foam of soapsuds in his crotch and dripping from the end of his dick, and I worked the washcloth under his balls and stroked along his half-hard cock. When I rinsed him down, he was going to be one clean machine.
Then I turned him around and slowly massaged the thick muscles of his shoulders, and he stuck his head under the spray, water splashing onto my face. My dick had bounced to life and was tapping against his butt.
If anyone imagined us together, would they not think of things like this? I knew I wasn't ready for that. No way, Jose.
Mike had been hugging his chest, as you do when you're naked and wet, and now I felt his hands reach back to me, touching my flanks and then reaching with his fingers to hold my hard-on. The shock of his touch made me shudder, like it does sometimes, my knees wanting to give out from under me.
I let my arms steal around him to hold him to me, my cheek resting against the back of his neck, my nose in his wet hair. The fingers of his other hand now crept between my legs and cupped my balls.
As always this gave me a strange feeling of being both tenderly cared for and at his mercy--a delirious sensation I could let myself drift with for long minutes at a time--like a kind of dead man's float in space.
I held him tighter, realizing that the little animal noises I was hearing over the rush of water were coming from me.
"You OK, bud?" he said.
I was, for sure. And in another way I wasn't.
I'd realized at that moment what I was really afraid of--not just people knowing that I was having sex with this man, but that I loved him, too.
That's what I wasn't ready for.
After we got out of the shower, I toweled Mike down and then I got out the Johnson & Johnson and patted him all over with baby powder. He lifted one leg as I got to his balls and his butt, and as my fingers lingered there, he closed his eyes, the fatigue of the day rolling over him once more.
I wished I could just pick him up and carry him to bed, and I ached to have sex with him. But I stood there as he nuzzled me, sleepy-eyed, mumbling, "'Night, bud," and then padded in his bare feet out of the bathroom.
By the time I'd turned out the lights and let Rusty in from outside, the autumn night air sharp on my warm skin as I held open the screen door, Mike had fallen sound asleep in our bed, the blanket pulled up to his chin, one bare arm bent across his forehead.
He had left the lamp on for me, and I sat on the edge of the bed for a while, watching his sleeping face. "I love you, Mike" I whispered, so softly even I couldn't hear myself.
Then I reached over and turned off the light.
My dick was so hard it hurt. I got in beside him, and like I did almost every night I was away (if I didn't, my nuts would hurt like anything all the next day) I stroked myself till I came.
* * *
So when the corn was all in--Mike had begun renting a second farm and got a bank loan to buy a grain dryer; "We're in business now," he said when he showed it to me, "and I got the debt to prove it," and we stood together in the middle of the place admiring it--he drove us over to Kearney on a late Indian Summer day to spend the afternoon with me as my "buddy" at Barry and Priscilla's.
The day was so warm, we sat outside on lawn chairs, as Barry fired up the smoky grill and threw on slabs of steak. Priscilla had laid out places at the picnic table, and their little, red-headed boy Pogo (if he had a real name, no one ever called him that) kept bringing us chips and pretzels to have with the cold beer.
I noticed that they all kept stealing looks at Mike, who'd put on a pair of pressed and creased wranglers and a new button-down shirt he'd picked out for himself at Penney's.
Getting ready, I'd never seen him take so long trimming his mustache, and I realized he was shaving himself for the second time that day, leaning in his boxers almost into the bathroom mirror to square off his sideburns with the meticulous attention of a brain surgeon.
"A person would think you were going out on a date," I'd told him.
He laughed, rinsing off his razor in the sink. "More like meeting the family," he said, reaching for a towel to wipe his face and then regarding himself in the mirror again. "I want to make a good impression."
"You'll be a big hit. Don't worry." I pulled the elastic of his boxers and let it snap back.
"I'll count the day a success if I get laid tonight," he said. He shook a little Skin Bracer into his palm to splash on his cheeks. "Think there's a chance?"
"If you're lucky."
I thought of this, of course, as Priscilla came out with a camera and wanted to take a picture of the two of us. "Pull your chairs closer together," she said, like the manly distance I'd maintained between us hadn't fooled her for a minute.
Mike quickly obliged, and his aluminum chair scraped on the concrete patio as he moved it over against mine.
"I wanna be in the picture, too," Pogo said, trying to climb onto Mike's lap. He'd always warmed right up to me whenever I came over, but as soon as Mike walked in the door that day, I'd been ignored like yesterday's cold oatmeal.
"No, no," Priscilla scolded. "I want just Danny and Mike."
And I sat there looking at her, feeling self-conscious.
"Is that color film?" Barry asked, stepping over from the grill to watch.
"Yes, why?" she said, looking through the viewfinder.
"Danny just went all red," he said and winked at me from over her shoulder.
With that the camera flashed, and I was seeing bubbles of light in my eyes for a while.
Later, after it was dark and we'd gone inside, Barry playing his Gordon Lightfoot records and Pogo wrestling with Mike on the living room floor, Priscilla got me in the kitchen and said, "He's nice, your Mike."
I didn't know what to say, and just nodded, feeling myself turning red again.
And she said the sorts of things people probably say when they see you with someone they like, instead of being--well--alone, I guess.
It was all new to me. As she was talking, I looked into the living room, where Mike was on the floor with Pogo sitting on his chest. And I tried seeing us both for a moment from her eyes, but I couldn't.
* * *
It wasn't until two weeks later, a bitter day with the first snow flurries of the season on the autumn air, that I did.
Priscilla had come by my office--the cubbyhole in the sub-basement--and handed me something wrapped up in tissue paper. I opened it, and it was a photograph in a frame, the picture she'd taken that day of Mike and me.
There I was looking a lot like someone sitting still to have his picture taken. And there was Mike, legs crossed in his pressed wranglers, a can of beer in one hand and his other arm along the back of my chair. His head is tilting toward me, and he has a smile for the camera that says, "I got everything I need to be happy."
"You didn't need to do this," I said.
"I know, I just wanted to."
She'd had the photograph enlarged, and around us in the picture you could see the soft golden hues and tints of fall sunshine. The frame around it was bright red.
"Your color," she laughed. "Like a valentine."