As I sat there high above the clouds in the jet that was speeding me to Jacksonville, I didn't know whether to be resentful or grateful. I supposed that would depend on how the trip turned out. You see, I'd been ordered to take two weeks of vacation. That's right, ordered.
* * *
"Will," my boss Jake had said, "I want you to get out of town. Go somewhere fun. Go somewhere warm. Just get yourself straightened up and come back ready to do the kind of job for us you've always done. Until recently, that is."
"Christ, Jake, I don't want a vacation. I've never enjoyed traveling alone, and I sure as hell don't have anybody to travel with."
"Yeah, yeah, I know all about Sean. But that was months ago. You've moped around long enough. And, frankly, your work is suffering. I've tried to cut you some slack, man, but we can't afford accountants whose minds are wandering. You've got to pull yourself out of your self-pity and shape up, or I can't promise you'll be with us much longer."
I worked as a bean counter in the Cleveland branch of an international company, and for a guy who was just shy of thirty, I was doing okay. It was the kind of work I'd trained for, and I was making enough money to live comfortably, if not lavishly. Not wanting to cope with finding a new job, I realized I'd better humor Jake.
"Go somewhere warm," he'd said. As I looked out of my office window at the snow being driven almost horizontally off the lake and across Euclid, I decided maybe that wouldn't be so bad. But where?
I sure as hell wasn't going to see my folks. I hadn't told them about Sean until I called them on Christmas day. Mom had tried to sound sympathetic, had tried very hard not to say "I told you so," but she hadn't quite managed either one. They'd never approved of Sean. Although they'd never actually said so, I think they were never able to forgive me for being gay. Something inside told them my being gay shouldn't matter, but somehow to them it did. If I went there they'd interrupt their golf and dinners at the country club and try to make me feel welcome, smothering me all the while. Being effusively kind to make up for what they really felt. No, no way was I going to Arizona.
My only other relative in a warm climate was my cousin Stacie in Florida. We'd been pretty close as teens, but I'd never visited her since she moved to Naples. I couldn't very well call now and say I wanted to spend two weeks with her.
The evening after Jake announced my enforced vacation, I got online. I stumbled onto a site that featured "deluxe" motor coach tours of Florida, found one that looked acceptable if not promising, and signed up for it. I'd only been to Florida once before, and that was a disastrous spring break trip to Daytona Beach with some straight college buddies. I spent that week in an alcoholic haze, sometimes enhanced by weed. So, I thought, why the hell not see Florida when I'm sober? At least it would be, as Jake said, warm.
* * *
The captain came on the PA and asked us to fasten our seatbelts because we were going through some "turbulence." I knew all about turbulence. That's what I'd gone through when Sean dumped me.
* * *
Sean and I had known each other since we were working on our MBA's at Case Western. He'd gotten a job much like mine at another company in Cleveland. What had begun with friendship and some hot sex turned into a partnership of six years. Then, the fall before my mandated trip to Florida, he'd found somebody else. Somebody younger. Somebody who wasn't such a stick-in-the-mud, he'd said. Before then I'd never had a clue he wasn't happy in our partnership.
Part of the reason I was so devastated was that I'd never expected a guy like Sean could find anything attractive about a guy like me in the first place. At 5'9" and 140 pounds, I wasn't very impressive physically. I had medium brown hair and uninteresting brown eyes. Oh, and I wear glasses. Sean was always after me to get contacts, but I'd tried them and hated them. So, I was ordinary looking at best. Maybe not that good. Face it, I was a nerd. A gay nerd.
Sean, on the other hand, was gorgeous. He had black hair and blue eyes and was sexy as hell. He was about my height but built like the gymnast he'd been at Kent State. And he'd been fun to live with. His outgoing personality and his enthusiasm were a good complement to my bookishness and my tendency to be a homebody. When he left I was a mess. I'd hated him for seeing Lawrence behind my back, but I couldn't help thinking that maybe I'd never been good enough for him. I began to think I was lucky to have had him for as long as I did. With neither looks nor personality to offer him, I realized his leaving was all my fault.
Jake was right, I suppose. My work did suffer. I spent most of my time feeling sorry for myself. I had season tickets for the Cleveland Orchestra concerts at Severance Hall, and I gave them away. I hadn't seen anything at the Playhouse that fall, hadn't even been to a movie. I didn't leave the condo except to go to work or buy groceries. I hated eating in restaurants alone, so despite all the good places to eat near where I lived in Shaker, I tended to heat tv dinners or open cans of soup.
My colleagues at work tried to be sympathetic. They all kept saying I'd find somebody else, somebody better than Sean. Before long, though, they began to comment that I was "letting myself go," not dressing as well as I used to. Who cared what I looked like? My work was in an office. Except for occasional trips to conferences, I never had to meet anyone outside the office. Oh, I showed up in the requisite jacket and tie, but I admit I didn't pay much attention to matching up colors or to whether things needed to go to the cleaners. And shining shoes just seemed like too much trouble. In Cleveland winters, you've got to polish your shoes regularly or they look like shit. Mine looked like shit.
So shortly after the first of the year Jake called me in and banished me for two weeks with the clear message that I'd better come back sporting a new attitude or I'd be history.
* * *
The turbulence didn't last long. The rest of the flight was smooth. Somewhere over South Carolina the clouds disappeared and not long after that we landed in the "Sunshine State." In the baggage claim area I found a part of our group milling around a driver who was holding a sign with the name of the tour. Apparently people who'd registered for our tour had been arriving all day, so instead of a large motor coach, they'd been shuttling back and forth between the airport, which is on the north side of Jacksonville, and St. Augustine, which is a half hour or so south of downtown, in a mini-bus.
At any rate, there were about ten of us in this load. My heart sank when I saw they were all over fifty, and all couples. Except for one guy. A kid. A gorgeous kid. About six feet, with brown hair, darker than mine, which he wore cut short. He had blue eyes, a sparkling smile, and a nice package. Also, I soon discovered, he had an English accent. We didn't sit together on the van, even though we were both unattached males. He was sitting alone when I got on, but I went toward the back and sat by myself. The rest of the group were couples, as I said, so there was the Brit in the front of the bus, alone, and there I was, in the back, alone. Soon, however, he was being engaged in conversation by the people behind him and across the aisle from him. I couldn't hear what they were talking about, but he was smiling and responding animatedly to their questions.
I'd worn a warm jacket and a sweater to the airport that morning. I carried the jacket off the plane and as soon as I was on the van I pulled off the sweater. Florida was living up to the hype. It was brilliantly sunny that afternoon. At least, I thought to myself, I might thaw out in the Florida warmth.
When we got to the hotel we were told we'd have some time to get settled into our rooms and freshen up. At 5:00 there would be complimentary wine and hors d'oeuvres in Party Room B. Afterwards we were guests of the tour for dinner. Our leader told us the hotel would serve complimentary continental breakfasts, but we were on our own for lunch and dinner the rest of the time we were in St. Augustine. He told us there were restaurants catering to all tastes in the area near our hotel.
I'd brought shorts and was hoping to wear them most of the time in Florida, but I decided to put on fresh khakis and a short-sleeve shirt for the evening's get-together. I ran the electric razor over my face and then washed it. What the hell, I thought, and I jumped into the shower. That English kid flashed through my mind while I was washing myself, and my dick plumped up a bit. I mean, I wasn't interested in a guy that young, but he was kind of cute.
"Down, boy," I said, and finished my ablutions.
There was a table just inside the door of Party Room B where the tour leader, a pleasant guy about my age, was asking our names. I assumed he was checking to see that no one crashed the party, but it turned out he had printed name tags for each of us. They fastened to our clothes by means of a magnet which went on the other side of the shirt from the tag. He asked me to wear the tag for the rest of the trip. It would identify us as members of the tour, and it would help us all to learn one another's names. I hated name tags. I'd worn enough at conferences and business meetings I'd had to attend. But I could see the usefulness of them here, at least from the tour company's point of view. They assumed everyone on the tour would want to get to know everyone else. They didn't know about me. Ha!
A look around the room wasn't encouraging. Except for the Brit and me, every fucking one of the others was in the 50 plus bracket. There was a pair of old biddies who were obviously together. The rest were all apparently married couples. And there were, as I learned later, 46 of us on this particular tour. 'Oh, well,' I sighed, grabbing a glass of red wine, 'I didn't come here expecting to meet Mr. Right. I came to warm up and to see Florida. And forget Sean!' As I munched on a jumbo shrimp, I wondered whether I had in fact expected to find Mr. Right. One can always hope. But except for Jim, the smiling tour guide, there was no male of eligible age in the group. I consoled myself that at least in Key West and South Beach there'd be lots of cute gay guys to ogle. And maybe I could hook up with somebody at one or the other of those places.
During the get-together I did do some handshaking. People usually wanted to know first where I was from and then what I was doing there alone. I told them I was escaping Cleveland in January. Most of them smiled and nodded, saying that they were escaping Syracuse or St. Paul or some other equally frigid and snowy place.
Nevertheless, I felt like a complete outsider in this group. I was beginning to think, not for the first time, that this whole tour thing was a mistake. But I'd been ordered to get out of town, to pull myself together. And I simply hadn't come up with a better idea.
Finally, as I was reaching for a second glass of wine, I turned to find the English kid, holding a glass of coke, looking pretty sour. When he noticed me he smiled, shifted his drink to his left hand, and held out his right.
"Hi. I see you're Will Thomson. As you can see, I'm Graham Knight. Looks like we're the only two single blokes in the whole bloody group."
"Hi, Graham. Yeah. It looks like there's just the two of us. You seem to be hitting it off with the old folk."
"Well, can't be impolite, can we? Me mum didn't bring me up that way."
"Hey, man, I wasn't criticizing. I just think it's going to be a long trip surrounded by all these old people."
"Aww, give 'em a chance. Some of 'em are sweet old codgers. It's just too bloody bad there aren't any loose birds here."
I decided I may as well get that part over with right away. "That won't bother me."
"Yeah, I'm gay."
I think he blushed. "I was wondrin' if the stud in your right ear means the same thing here it does back home. I reckon it does."
"Is that a problem?"
"No, no. Some of me mates are, uh, like you."
About that time, one of the women came over and grabbed him. "Oh, Graham, over here, dear. There's someone who's dying to meet you." She tugged at his arm. He gave me a weak wave and allowed himself to be taken away.
"Some of me mates are like you"? Is that like the old saying, "Some of my best friends are Black"? Usually said by someone who had never even talked with an African-American. Young Graham might, when he got back home with his mates, bemoan the fact that the only other single guy on his tour in the States was pushing 30 and queer. And there were no "birds."
Soon we were shepherded into a private dining room where we were asked to find seats. I thought about going back to my room, but two glasses of house merlot and a couple of shrimp don't make dinner. Not having had anything to eat since breakfast, I was hungry.
I was relieved, I think, when Graham wound up sitting across the room. I was, of course, at a table of oldsters. The two women traveling together were Dorothy and Mamie, from Boston. Since the tables were for six, I spoiled the symmetry. The other couple at our table was Bert and Linda from Pittsburgh. They all began to question me. Where was I from? What did I do? Why was I on this trip? It turned out that Burt had worked for a Pittsburgh-based competitor of ours, though he had been in what was then called Personnel and now was called, he said sneeringly, Human Resources. Still, we were able to talk shop a little while Linda visited with Dorothy and Mamie. The two biddies were all atwitter about what a lovely boy Graham was. They said he was from Yorkshire. Then they took turns telling about their visit to York and the things they had seen and done there, arguing occasionally over details like an old married couple. Although I hoped to visit Scotland some day because the Thomsons were Scots, the closest I'd ever come to Yorkshire was the Yorkshire pudding my Grandma Spencer used to make at Christmas time to go with her roast of beef.
On the far side of the room, Graham was practically holding court, the two couples seated there obviously fawning on his every word. He was all smiles, apparently enjoying being the center of attention. It was about then that I decided I didn't like the Brit very much. He was a sexy stud, but he was, from what I could see, a suck-up. And I doubted that he could be more than twenty. Too young to be really interesting.
After dinner I took a stroll, enjoying the mild air. It had cooled off since the afternoon, but by Cleveland standards it was still balmy. Lots of tourists were doing the same thing. The sidewalks were full of couples holding hands, some quiet, others chatting away. I walked south from the hotel toward the campus of Flagler College, where on this Friday evening there were lots of straight couples to be seen, talking, laughing, some groping each other. I thought how wonderful it must be to be that young. Then I chuckled. I was reminded of a line by Housman, "And now I'm two and twenty, and oh, 'tis true, 'tis true." Graham had made me feel very old. Yet from the perspective of the rest of the people in our group, I was just a kid as well.
And what is a CPA doing quoting Housman, you ask? Okay, it was like this. In college I had wanted to major in art or music or something. I loved literature courses, too. I always had my nose stuck in one sort of book or another. But my dad would have none of it. He and Mom were paying the bills, and I was to major in something "useful," something where I could make a decent living for myself and my family. Well, I had always been good at math, though I never enjoyed it much, so I majored in accounting. But I got even, more or less, when I explained to them why I wouldn't have to worry about supporting a family. Now they were retired and in Scottsdale. When I decided to go someplace warm on my enforced vacation, the idea of going to the Southwest never entered the picture.
After my walk around the town, I went back to my room, stripped to my boxers (Sean made me quit wearing "tighty-whities" when we first got together) and turned on the radio. I couldn't find a classical music station. There were lots of country music stations and rock stations. I also found one broadcasting from the campus of some college in Jacksonville that played nothing but songs from the fifties. When I wondered who'd listen to such stuff, I realized that half the population of Florida must have been young in the fifties. Anyway, I got out my iPod and listened to Gilels playing the first Brahms piano concerto.
I dozed off during the second movement, waking up part-way through the third. When the piece ended, I did my bathroom chores and collapsed into bed. More tired than I expected to be, I went to sleep and didn't wake up until my travel alarm went off at 7:00.
The free breakfast was more lavish than I would have expected, and I noticed that many of the people there were ones I recognized from the previous evening. Mamie and Dorothy smiled and waved at me as I was helping myself to orange juice and danish. I waved back.
I think they wanted me to join them, but I sat alone, looking around the room as I did. From time to time I got a nasty glare from a couple of my fellow breakfasters, because, I suppose, they had spotted the earring. I'd lived with that sort of thing for years, so I just ignored them. I thought maybe the next day I'd get in their faces by replacing the stud with a silver hoop.
It was a full day. First off we were taken to see a big old fort, the Castillo de San Marcos, which had been built in the late 17th century by the Spanish. It had changed hands several times over the years. Now there was some scaffolding on parts of it because it was being restored. It was a very impressive place to me, and I enjoyed hearing about its history. It seemed to me that Jim, our tour leader, rushed us off too quickly to see the oldest house in America. That site had been occupied since the early 17th century, and the present house dates from the early 18th century. Some of the couples just stood outside and chatted while the rest of us were inside looking around and listening to the docent explain about the evidences to be found there of Spanish and British occupation of the area before it became part of the US.
Once we were all done, we were put on little "trains" and given a tour around the rest of the city. The driver indicated points of interest so that in our free time after lunch we could go wherever we liked. As I said, we were on our own for lunch and dinner.
In the old town of St. Augustine there's a street that's closed to vehicular traffic. Its buildings are used now for lots of shops. Some of them were tourist traps, but others were full of local arts and crafts. I spent a good part of the afternoon just moseying around and shopping. As I stepped out of a dark store into the warmth and light of the Florida sun, I realized that I was enjoying myself. And I felt relaxed, more than I'd been since Sean and I split. Thinking about that made me tense up again, so I took a couple of deep breaths and went into another shop.
By the time I was ready to eat supper all the little restaurants in the old town area were full to overflowing with tourists, most of them oldsters. I decided to forego quaint and go back to the hotel. The restaurant there, too, was pretty busy, but I was able to make a reservation for later. I went up to the room and had a shower. After milling about with the crowds, I felt the urge to wash. I don't know whether it was being naked or not, but once again I thought of Graham as I stood under the refreshing jets of water. I hadn't seen him all afternoon. I supposed he was still schmoozing with the oldies.
For dinner I had a couple of glasses of chardonnay, a salad, and wonderful crab cakes served with grilled veggies on the side. After all that walking I decided to have dessert. I'd heard about real Florida key lime pie, so I chose that. Even though the dinner had been delicious, the pie was disappointing, a narrow wedge of almost tasteless filling in a graham cracker crust. I smiled, almost chuckling aloud. Here in the land of crackers I'd met a guy named Graham. I wondered if he was as insipid as the pie.
It was pretty late by the time I finished dinner, maybe around 9:00. Feeling full, I decided to walk a while before going back to my room. Fatigue hit me sooner than I expected, so I decided to return to the hotel. As I was crossing a street, I saw two guys my age standing in the doorway of a closed shop. They were kissing. One had his hands on the other's hips while his friend was rubbing his chest. The sense of pleasure I'd experienced that afternoon had vanished. I don't think I'd ever felt more alone.
I returned to the hotel, hoping maybe I could find an old movie or something to watch on the television. As I went down the hall to my room, I heard voices behind me. It was the two biddies and Graham. I couldn't hear what they were saying, not that I cared. I slipped the key card into the slot on the door and opened it. As I did, I turned to see what was going on with the ladies and the kid. Dorothy and Mamie were by that time walking down the hall, and Graham was going into his room.
I stood there for a moment watching him. He was cute, no doubt about it. Great ass. Great face. But I didn't think I really wanted to get to know him. He was too young, too willing to play up to the old folk. Besides, he'd certainly kept his distance from me.
Drew will write the next chapter from Graham's perspective. After that we'll alternate -- Tim