La veille de Noel. Christmas Eve as it was called in this country. Well, actually, Christmas morning now.
Albert had left the closing-up to his principal sous-chef, showered and changed clothes at the restaurant, and gone to midnight mass. He disagreed with many things about the Church. But it was the Church. And this was the birth of the Christ. He knew he had to be there. The liturgy still sounded strange in English, though he had been in Ohio much of his adult life. But it was still the liturgy. And the wafer. . . and the cup. Even the incense.
It took a while to get out of the church. He could have left by a side door, but he stood in line to shake hands with the priests. There was no reason to rush back to his empty condo.
It was a cold night but clear, stars visible despite the lights of the city . . . unlike the previous Christmas, when they'd had a blizzard.
As he unlocked his Peugeot and got inside, his thoughts went back to that snowy night, just one year ago.
In the parking lot he'd had to brush several inches of snow off his windshield, and large flakes were still falling. It was tricky driving home. The streets weren't crowded at that hour. Probably everyone was snug at home except the Catholics and Episcopalians who had midnight services. Despite the lack of traffic, however, he drove slowly because visibility was bad and the roadway was slippery. A good thing, too, because suddenly he saw a pedestrian, a male figure with snow on his head and shoulders, leaning into the wind, carrying a backpack. He was in the street, probably because there had been no attempt yet to plow or salt the sidewalks.
Normally Albert would have continued on his way. One didn't pick up strangers. He smiled inwardly at the ambiguity of "pick up." But one shouldn't be outside in this sort of weather. It was too dangerous. So, after passing the walker, he thought of driving on. But he couldn't. It was, after all Christmas Day. He stopped and waited.
When the young man, for such it turned out to be, came even with the car, he put down his window.
"Are you in trouble? Can I help?"
"Thanks for stopping. My piece of shit car broke down back that way, and I was hoping to find a cheap motel that was still open. I passed one, but they'd closed up for the night."
"Do you know anyone here in Colby?"
"No, I'm just passing through."
"Then you must get in the car."
The young man appeared dubious. Obviously he'd heard all the stories and warnings.
"I assure you I am a responsible person. I can show you identification if you'd like. My name is Albert Ronsard. I am harmless. (He didn't think it necessary to speak of his training in the French Army before he'd gone to the Cordon Bleu school in Paris.) Why don't you get in the car where it's warm while we think about how to help you?"
"I guess I'd better."
The young man got in the passenger side and put his bag on the floor at his feet. Albert turned up the fan on the car's heater and aimed the vents at him.
He pulled off his gloves. "My name's Casey, Casey Shaw. He offered his hand. It was cold, Albert noticed, despite the gloves. Casey blew on his hands, as if to confirm what Albert had already noticed.
"I'm happy to know you Casey, though I wish we had met under less extreme circumstances."
"Man! My ears and nose were getting pretty numb. Casey pulled off the knit cap he'd been wearing and put his hands over his ears.
Albert thought at first it was a gesture of refusal, refusal to hear what he was saying. Then he realized the boy was merely trying to warm the ears.
"I think we must take you to my home where you can find warmth. You could soon be suffering from, what is it called, hypothermia?"
"I don't want to be any trouble, Mr. Ronsard."
"No trouble, jeune homme. You were walking in the direction of downtown Colby. The hotels there will be open. They would have someone on the desk all night, even on this night. But they are expensive. I will not, of course, do anything against your wishes, but I believe it would be best if you came home with me."
The young man gave him an appraising look. Then he smiled slightly. "I think I could handle you if you started anything. No offense. It would be nice to get inside someplace warm. And I need to take a piss something awful. I thought of doing it beside the road, but I figured I'd freeze my pecker. Or else a cop would drive by right then."
Albert smiled at the appealing ingenuousness of the boy. Then he remembered to ask a vital question.
"How old are you, Casey?"
"I'm 21, sir. I can show you my driver's license."
"Bon." He drove them cautiously through the blizzard to his condo.
Once inside, he could see that Casey was perhaps an inch shorter than he, about 5'9" to use the American measuring units. He had short blond hair, obviously bleached, because his eyebrows and day's worth of stubble were a medium brown. His eyes, too, were brown.
"You must understand my request as coming only from concern for your well being. I think you should get out of your clothes, so that we can dry them. You have my parole, my word, that I am not, eh, coming on to you. In fact, a warm shower would probably be best for you at this moment."
"I really don't want to be any trouble."
"Are you a Christian, Casey?" Albert supposed with a name like Casey Shaw he probably was.
"Well, sir, I was brought up in the Church. I don't go anymore."
"Eh bien. It is the Noel, Christmas. How could I turn you out on this day of all days? You must stay here tonight. Tomorrow we shall think what to do about your car. Is it safe where you left it?"
"I think so. I managed to get into the parking lot of a strip mall before it died on me."
"Bon. Though it is unlikely that we can find anyone to repair it tomorrow. . . that is, today." He thought a moment. "Two more questions. Is there someone you need to call?"
"No, not really."
Triste that the boy seemed to have no one to be with at this special time.
"Are you hungry?"
"I had some greasy crap at a burger place about 7:00, so I'm good for now, thanks."
"Then why don't you take the shower now? It will help you get warm."
Albert showed him to the bathroom, gave him a new bar of soap and clean towels. Unwilling to go through Casey's backpack, he laid out a pair of his own sweats.
While Casey was in the shower, Albert put the boy's wet clothing, except for his coat, in the dryer.
It was a long shower. Albert suspected his guest was reveling in the warmth after being so chilled. Eventually Casey came out of the bathroom wearing the sweats. He was toweling his hair.
"Oh, yeah, thanks."
"Let me get you some warm socks. A moment."
When Casey had pulled on the socks, Albert asked, "Would you perhaps like a small cognac to warm up the insides?"
"I'm not supposed to have alcohol. It's not on my training regimen."
"I'm not trying to get you drunk, Casey, but brandy might be just what you need right now."
Casey smiled. "Well, okay, if you say so." He looked around Albert's kitchen. "You live here alone?"
"It's a nice place. Lots of room for just one guy. And you keep it so neat!"
"Thank you. It has two bedrooms, but I use one of them for my computer and books. Thus there is only one bed. It is a big bed. You are welcome to sleep with me, and I promise not to molest you in any way. However, if you prefer, you may sleep here on the sofa, though it won't be as comfortable."
Casey swallowed the fine cognac as if it were a shot of whiskey. Albert cringed. Then the boy set the glass down and said, "I'm so wiped I think I could sleep anywhere. The sofa'll be fine."
"As you wish." Albert was naturally curious to know more about this very polite and very beautiful young man. He'd noticed one of Casey's ears was misshapen, the sort of thing that was called, what? Broccoli ear? No, it was cauliflower ear. But his face was most handsome, he had broad shoulders and narrow hips. Perhaps as well that they not sleep together. It might have been difficult for Albert to keep his promise.
He got out a pillow and a blanket for Casey, wished him joyeux Noel. Casey thanked him profusely, and they retired separately for what was left of the night.
The next morning Albert woke later than usual. Although the restaurant was open on Christmas Eve, Adrian always kept it closed on Christmas Day. So Albert had expected to have the holiday to himself. But it was not to be. Spooned up behind him, one arm draped over his chest, was Casey. He had no idea when the boy had gotten into his bed. But there he was, from his breathing apparently sound asleep.
Albert wasn't particularly attracted to younger men, at least not those as young as Casey, but it had been a while since he'd shared his bed with anyone, and the warm, firm body snuggled up behind him felt good. He relaxed, lay there, and enjoyed the sensations. When Casey nuzzled the base of his neck and pushed his morning erection into his butt crack, however, Albert decided he had better get up. If the boy was straight, he'd be mortified when he found out what he was doing. If he wasn't, well, that could also be a problem.
He lifted Casey's arm off of his chest and scooted toward the edge of the bed, trying not to wake him.
"Oh, hey!" the young man said, voice foggy from sleep.
"Shh! Sleep. No reason to awaken."
"'Snice, thanks." He pulled the covers up and resumed his regular breathing.
Albert shaved, showered, and dressed in jeans and, as a gesture to the occasion, a red sweatshirt someone had given him. The condo was chilly, so he turned up the thermostat. Then he made coffee.
As he sat in the kitchen, enjoying the quiet, sipping coffee, he thought back to the last person who'd been in his bed. Jim Grant. He and the police detective had been lovers. An unfortunate ending, ca. And it had been several years ago . . . too many years.
Of course, there was nothing sexual between Albert and his young guest, certainly not, but there had been that moment of extreme content when he woke up with a male body pressed against his.
Just then Casey wandered in, yawning and stretching. He was wearing a pair of boxers that were different from the ones still in Albert's dryer. It was all the older man could do to restrain a gasp. The boy's body was simply beautiful. Not heavily muscled, but perfectly defined, lean but with a sense of strength.
"Morning. Coffee smells good."
Albert poured him a mug full. "You like cream or sugar?
Casey smiled and nodded when he held out his hand for the mug. "No, thanks. Just black."
He took a sip.
"Ahh! That's fantastic!" He took another sip. "In fact, it's the best coffee I've ever tasted."
Albert was, despite himself, staring at Casey, who noticed and blushed.
"I, uh, hope you don't mind that I crawled into bed with you. I didn't sleep as well on the couch as I thought I would. And it got kind of lonely."
"Casey, I don't mind. But I should have told you last night that I'm gay. If you had know, you perhaps wouldn't have wanted to . . . "
"Oh, I knew!" He grinned.
"Vraiment? Really? How?"
"Well, we sort of pick up on that, don't we? Haven't you been in this country long enough to know the word 'gaydar'?"
Nothing had been said about Albert's being French. He'd become an American citizen long before. But he was a chef, not a linguist, and the boy had obviously noted his accent.
"Yes, jeune homme, I know the word. So you, too, are gay?"
"Let me fix you some breakfast and you can, if you are willing, tell me more about yourself. Would you like an omelette? With perhaps saucisses, that is, sausages?"
"I usually just have some fruit and whole-grain cereal for breakfast, but this is a holiday, so what the hell? I'd love whatever you want to fix. Got any O J?"
"Yes, of course." He handed Casey a glass and the container of orange juice. Then he began to take eggs, butter, scallions, mushrooms, and sausages from the refrigerator.
"After breakfast, maybe I'd better go see what I can do about my car. I mean, this is Christmas and all, and I don't want to mess up your plans."
"I had no plans. I'll take you to check on your car. We can call a towing service and see if they'll move it to the auto shop of a friend of mine. But I'm sure, even if we get the towing service, nothing can be done to repair the problem until tomorrow. So, please allow me to be your host. That way neither of us will be alone on this day."
Casey looked like a young man who was accustomed to taking care of himself, but he seemed relieved.
"Well, sure, if you don't mind."
"Most assuredly I don't," Albert said.
Later, as the two were having more coffee in the living room, Albert asked, "Casey, would you tell me something about yourself? I do not wish to pry, but I am interested. You have something about your training. Are you some sort of athlete?"
"Yeah, I'm in MMA."
"Mixed martial arts. It's a combination of boxing, wrestling, kick-boxing, and other things like jiu jitsu and muay thai."
"Oh. That sounds dangerous."
"It can be, if you don't know what you're doing. But it's all pretty well regulated, and the refs look after us while we're in the ring - or the octagon."
Casey grinned. "Yeah. The bigtime guys have an eight-sided ring with a six-foot high chain link fence around it."
"I see. I assume there's a door?"
Something about the idea of two young men going after each other with practically no holds barred inside a cage was repellant to Albert, so he changed the subject.
"May I ask where you were going when your car stranded you here in Colby?"
"I'm on my way to Dayton. I have a fight there the end of this week, but I have to weigh in the day before. I'm meeting my corner guys there."
"What is your weight class?" Albert knew enough about kick-boxing, which was very popular in Europe, to ask that question.
"I'm in the 155 lb. division."
"Do you have trouble, what do you say? Making the weight? I've heard about fighters who must seriously dehydrate themselves to bring their weight within the required limits."
"Huh uh, it's never been a problem for me."
No wonder the boy looked so good. He was obviously into intensive physical training for his fights.
"Where is your home?"
"I don't really have one. My folks don't want to see me since I came out to them."
"So where do you live?"
"I knocked around awhile after high school. But then my grandma gave me some money so I could go to community college. I'm in my second year. I share a crib in Cleveland with a couple of other guys. But during the holiday break from school I've had some fights. I was on my way from Toledo, where I had a match day before yesterday, to Dayton for the next one."
"So you don't make a living fighting?"
"Not yet. I make enough to help with the expenses. But I'm hoping to get into the UFC or WEC, maybe, if I can find a sponsor."
Albert almost shuddered. "It sounds dangerous to me."
"It can be unless you know how to take care of yourself. I'm usually okay."
They sat in silence for several minutes, each lost in his own thoughts.
"Casey, do the other fighters know you are gay?"
"God, no! I'm out to a few people, but not professionally. I'd be in deep shit if anybody found out."
"Then you must be very careful, please."
There was a glint in Casey's eye when Albert said "please."
"You're a good guy, Albert. Thanks for caring."
Later Albert made two phone calls. The first was to Mel, the friend who owned the auto shop. It was arranged that Casey's car would be picked up and towed in the first thing the next morning.
"But, Albert, you're gonna owe me for calling me on Christmas Day."
"Come in to Adrian's anytime, mon ami, and I'll fix you whatever you want. My treat."
Mel chuckled. "Don't think I won't take you up on that."
The second call was to Jim, his detective friend. He asked if Jim could perhaps call someone to see that Casey's car wasn't ticketed while it sat on the strip mall parking lot. Jim, who was also alone, it seemed, on this holiday, said he'd take care of it.
"Thanks, Jimmy. I'll explain sometime."
"De rien, my friend. Merry Christmas."
"And to you, mon cher."
It continued to snow lightly throughout the day, though the wind had abated some.
They had a light lunch of cheese, crackers, and fruit.
Afterwards they watched "It's a Wonderful Life."
"At home I watched this every year. It's corny, but somehow I love it," Casey exclaimed, seeming very boyish.
Albert, who had never seen the film, thought it was pretty saccharine, but he enjoyed sitting next to Casey on the sofa, especially since the boy was taking such pleasure from the film, at times repeating the dialog along with the actors.
As they sat there together, Casey seemed to become more relaxed, more tactile. Albert remembered the term "touchy-feely." Occasionally Casey would put his hand on Albert's knee or thigh. And when the film ended, he put his arm around Albert's shoulder and gave him a hug.
"Thanks, man! You know, this sure beats spending Christmas in a cheap motel in Dayton!"
Albert returned the hug. "It is a pleasure having you here, jeune homme. It would have been a very lonely Christmas without you."
"You have any family in this country?"
"No. I have no family. Mes parents, my parents, died a few years ago."
"How did you wind up here?"
Albert smiled. "When I finished cooking school, I learned that there are many French chefs in France. So my mentors at the school helped me find a job. It took a lot of courage, believe me, to set off as a young man for Ohio, in the United States. I was expecting to be on the wild frontier."
"As it turned out, my first job was in Toledo. Then after a few years I was offered a better job here in Colby at The Faculty Club. And then my current employer, Adrian Lynch, asked me to be his executive chef. His restaurant is not only the finest in Colby, it is one of the best in Ohio."
"Here on the frontier," Casey chuckled.
Albert stood. "I need to go to the kitchen. I cannot offer you the traditional holiday turkey or roast of beef. I was planning a ragout for supper, and I must get it started."
"I'm sure if the head chef of Ohio's best restaurant is fixing it, it'll be delicious. But what's a ragout?"
Albert chuckled. "If I said it was a kind of stew cooked very slowly, would that sound appetizing? With perhaps some salad and bread?"
"Sounds healthy. I'm sure I'll like it. Unless you're going to put liver or something gross like that in it."
With a twinkle in his eye, Albert replied, "I'll make sure to omit the liver this time."
Casey sat on a stool in the kitchen so the two could continue to talk while Albert worked.
The supper went well. The evening went well. The two men found a level of comfort together neither would have believed, given that they were strangers, given the twenty-year difference in their ages.
When they turned off the television after the late news, Casey asked, "Uh, would you mind if I sleep with you again?"
"Not at all."
Albert was surprised though not the least unhappy to learn that Casey had more than sleep in mind.
They were in bed, Casey lying on his stomach. "Albert, I've always found older men sexy, but I've never had any experience with one. Would I be way out of line . . . ?"
"Jeune homme, with a body and face like yours, you could have sex with anyone you wanted, I should think. Tu me blagues. You're joking with me?"
Casey rolled over and threw back the covers to reveal his erection sticking up through the fly of his boxers. "You think this is a joke?"
Albert chuckled. "Obviously not. Here, let me help you remove your underwear." He grinned at the boy. "It is appropriate that you wear boxer shorts."
Casey seemed puzzled for a moment. And then he laughed. "I'm not really a boxer. Well, not mainly. In MMA, if a guy knows how to use his fists, we say he's a good striker."
Albert listened, but he wasn't really interested in mixed martial arts just then.
Their needs caused them to refocus, to concentrate on each other.
Though ardent, Casey lacked finesse. Albert showed him some new ways to pleasure his partner. Before they slept, they had experienced each other's bodies in several ways, culminating with Casey quite vocally reaching his orgasm inside Albert.
They slept in each other's arms most of the night, and the next morning Casey showed Albert how much he had learned.
For Albert, it was the first time he'd had a sexual partner for much too long, and he found himself exhilarated, more "alive" than he'd felt in years..
Casey practically gushed over breakfast about how "fantastic" it had all been.
"I mean, any guys I've been with, and there haven't been all that many, just want to get their rocks off. With you it was slow and gentle and, well, sweet, I guess."
"Which is the way it should be, Casey." He gave the boy a chaste kiss.
Casey responded by holding him around the shoulders, pinning his arms to his sides, and kissing him in a way that was not at all chaste.
The problem with Casey's car was taken care of with the installation of a new alternator. When Mel told Casey how much the bill would be, Albert, seeing the shock on the young man's face, handed Mel a credit card.
"Albert, you can't do that!" Casey said.
"Mel, would you excuse my young friend and me for a moment while we take a brief stroll?"
"Sure, guys. Go ahead."
The two stepped outside.
"Why won't you let me do this?"
"Because it makes me look like some cheap trick. Well, not so cheap, actually. He'll think I'm your boy."
"Calm yourself. You have given me a beautiful Noel. I have come to care about you. This is not in any way payment for what we did last night. I'll explain to Mel another time."
"Look, man, you rescued me from that blizzard the other night. You gave me a place to sleep, and you've fed me great food. I can't let you pay for my alternator. Even if it's gonna take most of my cash."
"You are letting your pride interfere with your reason, I think. But if it will make you less unhappy, we can consider it a long-term loan. A very long-term loan."
Casey thought about that for a while. "Okay. But I'll pay it all back, I promise."
"Si tu veux."
"If you wish."
So after tight hugs, each blinking back tears they tried to hide from the other, they said goodbye, and Casey set out for the weigh-in and subsequent match in Dayton.
A week or so later Albert received a note postmarked in Cleveland saying that Casey had won his fight in Dayton and thanking him for their wonderful Christmas together.
Then he heard nothing for over six months.
During that time Albert had a temperamental outburst at work which almost cost him his job. Things were tense between him and Adrian, the very fussy owner, for weeks afterward. He was able to apologize and smooth things over, fortunately. But after that he felt even lonelier than before. He realized he needed to get out more, but his working hours made connecting with others in Colby's gay community difficult.
It was sometime in July when he received a postal money order for the full amount of the alternator plus the tax. Casey had remembered to the penny. He'd included a note saying he'd gotten his AA degree from Cuyahoga Community College, and that he was getting fights fairly frequently now. He said he was making almost enough to live on from his fighting, though he had a part time job to help with expenses. He still had to allow time for training, and that cost money, too. But, he said, he was getting by and he loved what he was doing. So far he had seven victories and only one loss.
Albert worried about Casey but he thought it was better not to know too much about what was happening to him. Out of curiosity, he'd watched some MMA fights on television, and he cringed at what the two combatants were doing to each other. He had trouble picturing his sweet, gentle Casey smashing his forearms into the face of an opponent. Or, worse, having someone do that to him. Especially after one of the sportscasters had referred to it as "ground and pound."
After July, however, he didn't hear any more. He worried, but he had no way to get in touch with the young man. Perhaps, he told himself, he's found a young lover now and is no longer interested in a friendship with such a one as me. He consoled himself that he still had his happy memories of their holiday interlude. 'Tiens! I sound like a dotard!'
Albert emptied his mailbox when he got home from mass and dropped the contents on the coffee table in his living room. It was too late to open it. He had had a long day and merely wanted to fall into bed.
Quite late that morning, since it had been well into Christmas when he retired, he took coffee to the living room and opened the previous day's mail. There were ads for after-holiday sales, a bill, and a Christmas card postmarked in Cleveland.
The card was from Casey and there was a note inside:
I'm sorry I haven't been in touch. A lot has happened to me. First I had a dislocated shoulder and then a broken collar bone. After that I began to wonder if I was really cut out for MMA. My grandma got on my case to go back to college.
So, with what I'd been able to save from my winnings and a little help from her, I decided to try being a student again. And I've got a partial scholarship, too! Guess where?
I'm starting to Colby State right after the first of the year. Can I come and see you?