In Love

By Rock Lane Cooper

OK, what I'm about to tell you probably won't surprise you or anybody else, not nearly as much as it did me. But I got myself into what you might call a situation. I'll admit I'm not blind and I've got something of a wandering eye. You can say I've let it linger a while on other men--a bit longer sometimes than I ever really let on to Mike.

A handsome man of a certain age and bearing can turn my head, but guys like this have always been straight as far as I could tell, and so it's easy enough to just let it go--like a billboard you pass on the highway--nothing ever comes of it. I learned my lesson way back in high school, and I tried hard to steer clear of anyone who was going to get my shorts in a twist just because he preferred girls to me.

Tried hard, that is, and failed.

That first time, which doesn't count--you get to make a mistake at least once--it was Matthew, who shared a table with me in biology. We sat together in the back of the classroom, and missed a lot of lecture points while running our fingers along the inseam of each other's jeans. He grabbed my nuts one night while we were working as stage hands during a school play rehearsal. Chasing him outside to wrestle in a snow drift behind the gym, one or both of us had a boner in our jeans--at least I did.

And in between times, when we weren't in the same room together--and even when we were--I pined for him, especially those endless, lonely summer months on the farm, when on a Saturday night I might borrow the family car to drive the twelve miles into town in hopes that I might find him there, cruising Main Street in his Fairlane and looking maybe for me.

But all the time it was the right girl he was after. As soon as we graduated, he got married to a woman two years older than him, and before you know it they'd started having kids. His not dating much in school made more sense when I realized the two of them must have been carrying on under the radar and just waiting for him to finish senior year to head for the altar.

I saw him a couple times after that at class reunions, until I stopped going to the damn things. Every time, he'd come over to me with a big grin and talk like old times, but he was right away whipping out his wallet to show me pictures of his kids and some new farm implement he'd acquired. Meanwhile, his wife would be across the room keeping a suspicious eye on both of us.

I can't tell you the lonely nights I had for a long while knowing he and I would never be more than what we were--friends, yes, but not close enough to fill the emptiness in me. And then realizing that our lives had taken different paths and we were drifting apart, I felt that emptiness grow from a good-size gulley into a canyon.

I couldn't have told you at the time that what I wanted was not just everlasting friendship from Matthew. When I let myself think about it, I knew even that was too much to ask. But if you'd told me that what I wanted was what they were singing about in all those top-40 love songs of the time,

My love must be a kind of blind love;
I can't see anyone but you . . .

I'd have said you were full of it. If what I felt for Matthew was everlasting love, and the hard-on I got when we touched was my body wanting to have sex with him, I was nowhere near being on that wave length.

Funny how you can make the same mistake over and over, and I kept making it. In college, there was any number of guys whose warmth or sense of humor or intelligence or good looks called out to me. I'd try hard to get close to them, wanting each of them to fill the void that Matthew had left. But it never worked for long. They were on the lookout for a steady girlfriend.

Meanwhile, I couldn't catch on about myself. It was barely 1960, Eisenhower was in the White House, and there I was coming from a dirt farm in the corn belt. How was I supposed to figure this out?

You might still wonder what I thought about when I was jerking myself off, for I had discovered that pastime. Well, this will sound loopy, but the psyche does weird things when you're trying like hell not to know something about yourself. Each time I gave my cock a quick workout--and it never took me long--I imagined I was some other guy getting laid--a lifeguard, a star athlete, or some rebel without a cause in a pair of levi's and a red windbreaker.

Ah, yes, James Dean. Looking back, I know now that the feeling he'd given me was my heart skipping a beat. And how sad it was that in the last movie he was ever to make he played a cowboy, for I'd been fascinated by cowboys since I was a youngster.

Later on, Little Joe Cartwright on "Bonanza," with his curly dark hair and his slim build got to me, too. With his two older brothers and a firm but kindly father, the idea of that all-male household produced a warm feeling that the only child in me yearned to know somehow, anyhow.

Clueless, I just took myself for a loner who would probably always be one. There I was, a college boy in a small Nebraska town, and nothing had changed. Come a sleepless hour later than usual, and I'd be driving the deserted streets, like those old Saturday nights in high school, only this time with no destination and no one whose company would take away the empty feeling in me--someone who'd want me like I wanted him.

It took meeting Mike to get me tuned into that. With him I began to realize that being with someone who liked having sex with other guys was a whole different ballgame. And while the light of that realization dawned slowly, one day it came to me that I was falling in love, big time. And the love I felt blended perfectly with the sex we'd been having almost from the start. I began to understand what all those top-40 songs were about.

Are the stars out tonight?
I don't know if it's cloudy or bright,
Cause I only have eyes for you . . .

Songs like that, I finally saw, were about love and sex and never feeling lonely again.

Like I said, I didn't stop noticing other men. How can you? Why would you want to? But I knew it was me for Mike and Mike for me. Always. Once I settled in with him that first summer, I realized the searching and the loneliness were over. In or out of his wranglers, Mike was all the man I needed or wanted. Corny, you may say, but true.

OK, now back to where we started.

Seven year itch, maybe, and I had heard of it. Well, something like that happened to me. And given my smug self-confidence and my modest though irritating sense of superiority, you may well say I had it coming.

It all started--well, who knows when these things really get started--let's say it all started when I stopped for gas at a truck stop along I-80, headed for Lincoln where I'd been taking a summer course at the university.

There was this eight-track in my Camaro that Mike had installed for me, and I was getting pretty tired of the same old tapes, so I was in the shop they had there for truckers and tourists, looking through the music racks for something new to listen to.

It was mostly country and western--Buck Owens and George Jones--no big surprise way out here on the Great Plains. I'd found a Ray Charles Greatest Hits and had just put my hand on a Johnny Cash, more to have a look at the man in black than to consider buying the tape.

I confess, I loved the romance of the man who sang in Folsom Prison more than his songs--a bit too heavy-handed to suit me. "I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die." What's with that?

And as I'm looking, there's a voice next to my ear. "You're gonna like that one," I hear this guy say. "No shit. That man's got real hair on his balls."

I look over and see a young guy with a straw cowboy hat tipped way back, a handful of hair flopped down onto his forehead. I quickly realize that, yes, it's me he's talking to. Ever polite, I shrug and mumble something friendly but noncommittal.

He leans his shoulder against mine and takes the cassette from my hand, flipping it over to read me the songs on the back. I'm not hearing him so much at this point as I am aware of the pressure of his shoulder through the sleeve of his tee shirt, the muscle and the warmth of his arm.

I remembered him now from the café. We'd sat at the counter with an empty stool between us, and then he'd moved next to me to make room for some other guys--two farmers in bib overalls. His knee nudged mine a couple of times as he did that, and when he got his hamburger and fries, he'd asked me to pass him the salt and pepper, and then the catsup.

Reaching to take them from me, he'd said, "Much obliged," each time, and I saw he was wearing a wide silver ring with a nice piece of turquoise. And I took him for someone from New Mexico or Arizona--Indian country anyway.

Wanting to get back on the road and not wanting to risk starting up a long, drawn-out conversation with a stranger--he had a kind of slow western drawl that sounded like he could be more than usually talkative--I kept my attention fixed on my own hamburger and fries.

Now here he was standing next to me, reading song titles and commenting on nearly every one of them, and I was sensing two things--the guy wanted to talk, and he wanted to be talking to me. A third possibility was also rapidly coming into focus. He was after more than conversation.

"Where you headed?" he wanted to know.


"Same place I'm going," he said. "Can a guy ask you for a ride?"

Now I looked him over. He was about my age and about my size, and he was giving me this friendly grin. While I'm a poor judge of sincerity, he seemed to be no more than what he appeared to be--an ordinary guy only wanting to get from one place to another.

He had a black nylon bag with him, about big enough to carry a change of clothes and a shaving kit--or a knife or gun. You have to think of these things.

"Ain't got much," he said, unzipping the bag for me to look inside. "See, no weapons." Like he'd been reading my mind.

I saw a wrinkled shirt, some underwear, and a pair of jeans that looked like new. Stuffed into one corner next to his socks, there was an old paperback western--the beat-up cover showing a cowboy at a table with some poker chips and a hand of cards.

That was probably what did it. Foolish I know, but show me a man who reads a book and my defenses start coming down.

"OK," I said.

He grinned again and zipped up the bag. "Thanks, pardner."

I bought both tapes, the Ray Charles and the Johnny Cash, and soon we were outside in the hot summer sun, walking to my car.

He had a long loping stride. His jeans were worn and frayed, one knee busted out, and with a sweat-stained leather belt, but his boots were polished up nice and black, like he made an effort to take care of them.

"Where you from?" I said.

"Outside of Vegas."

"How long you been on the road?"

"Coupla days."

I was talking to be talking, reassuring myself while we were still walking to the car that the guy was OK.

"Someone drop you off here?"


When we got to the car, he stood back on his side for a moment and admired it. "Nice wheels," he said.

I'd left all the windows open, and he tossed his bag and his hat in the back seat. After he'd taken his hat off, I could see he had a shock of hair that fell over his ears and down the back of his neck, like he wasn't much for barbers.

Then we both got in and I headed back toward the highway.

"Name's Randy," he said as we were driving past the big rigs at the diesel pumps. "Rhymes with candy. Melts in your mouth, not in your hand." And he gave me a big wink.

"Danny," I said and shook the hand he held out to me.

My eye fell for a second on the crotch of his jeans, where I could see his white underwear showing through a patch of threadbare denim.

"How about unwrapping that Johnny Cash and putting him in the player," I suggested, and he went to work at that, seeming eager to please, pulling off the cellophane and cardboard packaging and dropping them on the floor. After he popped the tape into the eight-track and waited for the first song to get started, he cranked up the volume so we could hear it loud and clear above the sound of the engine and the wind rushing in the windows.

"Aw, ain't that man just something else," he said and settled back.

Then he put both hands to his sides and peeled off his tee shirt, turning to reach into the back and stuff it into his bag. And while I was concentrating on the road ahead, I was aware of his naked chest and shoulders and his arms, and the rest of him shifting in his seat, taking his time to do all this, his body brushing briefly against mine.

Then he was done and looking out the windshield again, one elbow set in the open window beside him, his other hand scratching his flat stomach for a moment and then coming to rest on his belt buckle.

"Good lookin' pair of boots you got there," I said, figuring we'd keep talking about anything but what was becoming increasingly clear, that he might be angling for more than just a ride with me.

He laughed, looking down at them. "Funny story about these," he said. "Me and a bunch of buddies chipped in to buy a new pair for a friend of ours. The ones he'd been wearing were so old, I swear they was holding together with duct tape."

The friends had presented his new boots to him for his birthday, and during a night of celebrating they'd persuaded him to burn the old ones to make sure he'd never wear them again. They'd all trouped outside, set a fire in a trash barrel, and stood around as the boots went up in flames.

"Came time to go home," Randy said, "he goes to put on the new ones, and they don't fit. We'd went and got the wrong size." The friend, figuring it was all a joke, got pissed off, especially when everybody else was too drunk to do anything but laugh about it. "Hell, he was fightin' mad and ready to throw some punches. Took three of us to hold him down."

Finally, one of them had loaned him a pair of his own boots to get home in, and Randy had ended up with the birthday ones. "Course I had to pay for 'em. Didn't get 'em for free." And he'd had to chip in again for another pair, this time in the right size.

He turned now to watch the passing countryside, the wind lifting the hair on his forehead. He fell silent, and when I glanced over at him again, I saw that his fingers had dropped between his legs, and he was rubbing across that threadbare spot with his thumb.

"What's in Lincoln?" I asked him, keeping the conversation going.

"Prison," I thought I heard him say, but he was still turned away and over the sound of the music I wasn't sure I'd heard him right.

"Did you say prison?"

"Yeah, the state pen. Buddy of mine, doing some time," he said and shook his head.

It wasn't any of my business, but before fully considering this, I'd already said, "What's he in for?"

"Stealing a car. They don't look kindly on that here in Nebraska." He lifted both hands now and ran his fingers through his hair, pulling it back from his face.

And this story, with somewhat more gravity than burned boots, slowly emerged from him.

His friend, it seems, was part Indian--"I won't say what part," he snorted, "but he'll tell you it's Paiute." They'd met as teenagers wrangling horses at a ranch in northern Nevada, and they'd been together ever since, promising to get a little ranch of their own some day.

"We was going to get us open-range mustangs from the BLM and gentle 'em, you know, then sell 'em to folks."

But they'd split up for a while, his friend spending some rodeo winnings to see a sister who'd married and gone to Omaha. And then he'd got a job at a packing plant for a while, which he hated, but every dollar was going into the bank for that ranch they'd promised each other.

Then all of a sudden he'd got himself into some trouble--Randy still didn't know what really happened. The sister wouldn't say much on the phone, when he called, except it wasn't his fault. And now there he was doing time.

"For a while, we'd be writin' each other every week, and we never stopped talking about that little ranch of ours." But as the months passed, his friend had grown despondent, cooped up away from the wide open spaces, which was about all he'd ever known. He finally stopped answering Randy's letters.

"I gotta go see him. Find out what's up."

"I hope he's OK," I said. Not the lamest thing I could think of, but getting close.

"I don't mind telling you, I miss him sometimes," he said, and when I glanced over at him, I saw he was looking squarely at me. "I think you know what way I'm talkin' about."

I wasn't sure how to respond to this and just looked back at the road.

"I picked you out for queer the minute I laid eyes on you back at the restaurant," he said. "And you don't have to worry about me knowin'either, cause I'm no different." He pointed his thumb to his chest. "Queer as a two-fuckin'-dollar bill."

This about took my breath away. I'd never met a guy before who'd just come right out and tell me this about himself. Not in the first thirty minutes anyway.

"You are, too, ain't you," he said.

I shrugged and nodded.

"Never been wrong yet," he said and laughed. "You wanna know how I can tell?"

I nodded again.

He studied me for a moment. "Kinda hard to say with those glasses, but it's something about your eyes." He was still looking at me. "And back there at the restaurant, when I touched you with my knee and you didn't move away, I was sure of it."

I suppose I grinned at that. I'd thought it was just him making room for his legs, and I don't know why, I just let him do it. Some guys can have this funny way of flirting with you, as if to say, "It's OK, we're both not queer and we know it." But like I said, nobody's ever surer the other one's straight than I am, because it always works out that way.

So I miss the obvious, if it ever happens. A student once waited after class absently buttoning and unbuttoning the top button of his jeans as he asked me if there was anything else he could be doing for a better grade. I took it for nerves. In class, he'd always been on the quiet side. I suppose now he was making some other kind of offer. Like Randy, maybe he'd seen that look in my eyes--the look I was totally unaware of.

Not that having sex with my students was something I'd ever do anyway. When it comes to them--and I know I'm not like every other college teacher--you have to draw the line somewhere this side of taking advantage. And to be honest, I didn't want to get caught fooling around with students and have my ass fired. A straight teacher might get away with it, but in the middle of Nebraska in 1972, a queer one would get thrown to the wolves.

"So, we gonna pull over somewhere and fuck or not?" Randy said.

"No, we're not," I said, and grinned some more, making a joke of it.

"At least let me give you a blowjob. You got that coming for giving me a ride."

"This is an offer you make to everybody?"

"Yeah, and there ain't many turn me down. Especially the truckers," he laughed. "Especially them guys. They're always horny."

Listening to him talk like this was giving me a hard-on, but I shook my head and said, "Not this guy."

"I'm serious," he said. "You don't think I picked you out of the crowd back there at the truck stop just because I knew you was queer."

"Isn't that what you've been driving at?"

"Hell, no. I've always been a sucker for a guy in glasses."

I groaned. "Give me a break."

He laughed. "No shit. You turn me on, buddy." With this he grabbed himself between his legs like there was something there trying to get away. "And I think you're feeling the same way about me."

I admit it. He was right. He was just the kind of guy to get a second look from me, and his confidence in himself tickled me even more. That and the patch between his legs where his underwear showed through.

I also knew we weren't going to have sex--not even a blowjob. Because of Mike, I'd never done anything like that. Never let myself so much as be tempted.

But what this was now, if it wasn't that, I'm not sure. If I was letting myself be tempted, it was to have the satisfaction afterward that I'd been a temptation to somebody else. Get myself a little ego boost out of the deal. I can always use one of those.

Still, what spoiled it a little was that he was making this all seem too easy, like he'd done it countless times before. It was just a line of bull he was using on me.

"What about your friend, the guy in prison?" I said. "Wouldn't he mind if he knew you were fucking somebody else?"

"You gotta be kidding," he said, like I'd just said something unbelievably stupid.

"No, I'm not," I said. "You must care about each other. You're coming half way across the country just to see if he's OK, right?"

"You're saying he gets himself sent to prison and I'm supposed to turn into some kind of monk?" he said. "Shit, he's probably getting his ass fucked by some other guy right now."

I picked up a tone of bitterness in this, like there was a whole lot more he hadn't begun to let on.

"I'm only getting what's coming to me." He slapped one hand against his bare chest. "He'd be a damn fool if he didn't understand that."

"OK, I can see your point." I didn't really, but I got to thinking I'd probably have a whole different attitude myself if I were in his position.

"So," he said turning to me again. "You want that blowjob or not?"