Ex-Beefcake by Zoe Lee

Chapter 2

Sam

“To Asher!” I cried, hefting my beer up high to clink it against Asher’s Moscow mule, Cam’s beer, and Eliott’s red wine. “To being the first of us to get married—again!” Asher only managed to scowl for a split second before he smirked. “You’re such an overachiever.”

Eliott let his wine dangle from one hand as he commented, “Or he’s the bravest.”

“I thought this was a dish and bitch,” Cam complained, “but this is all sappy.”

I hooked my arm around Cam’s neck. “After almost twenty years of our monthly dish and bitch tradition, I’d say we can be sappy one time.”

Everyone gave me skeptical looks, and I shrugged and took a long drink of beer. I might have been a little too enthusiastic, but I wanted Asher to know that I really was so happy about his wedding to Lucas in Aspen in two weeks. As the last single man in our squad, I didn’t want them to think I felt left out or pissed off about it. All three of these men had found wonderful people, and I was thrilled for all of them, without a doubt.

But they knew I was in a really different place, and not by choice.

“Our wedding toasts are going to be sappy anyhow,” I added. “This is good practice.”

“My speech will be moving,” Eliott said. “Cam will cry. But it won’t be sappy.”

“Hey!” Cam protested. “I’m not going to cry.”

Asher put his elbows on the table and smiled wolfishly. “Lucas will.”

“Why do you look excited about that?” I asked, rolling my eyes.

Eliott patted my hand in his elegant way. “Because he knows he’s going to cry too, so he wants Lucas to cry first. It’s going to be beautiful,” he assured Asher, not that Asher looked like he was worried about it at all. “Sam and Cam might not cry, but the rest of us will. Gavin and I are so looking forward to spending a week with all of you to celebrate.”

“I had to stop Julian from buying you two a recording studio as a wedding present,” Cam said with a dopey smile, “but he axed my idea of getting you two a cat too.”

“You’re both terrible at gifts,” Asher informed Cam in his dry way.

Cam’s mouth fell open in outrage, while I nearly dropped my drink when I realized I hadn’t gotten Asher and Lucas a present yet. My job had been a hellscape for the last year, since the highly profitable, boutique real estate agency I worked for had been bought. As the head of human resources and talent acquisition, I had been working nonstop to ensure the transition went well and that all of the employees’ jobs were as secure as I could make them. It hadn’t left me time for much other than some sleep, a swim or two a week, and these dish and bitch sessions. Since I wasn’t the only busy one—Asher had been planning the wedding, Cam and Julian had bought and just moved into their new place, and Eliott’s boyfriend Gavin had been traveling a lot for work—the others hadn’t noticed.

Guilt gnawed at me, but Asher distracted me from it when he snapped his fingers.

“Sam, I almost forgot. Lucas fell off the couch, he laughed so hard when he saw who you put down for your plus one. It took him ten solid minutes to calm down enough for me to explain that Halston Stern, world-famous action star, actually is your plus one.”

Camdon guffawed like a dumbass while Eliott’s genteel chuckle rolled underneath.

I made a disgruntled face. “What a dickbag. Why is it so unbelievable, huh? You’re friends with one of the best songwriters ever. Gavin works directly for a rock god. Julian’s mega-rich—it’s not the same as knowing famous people, but it’s just as out of the ordinary.”

Asher scratched his beard and shook his head. “Once I convinced him I was telling the truth, he complained about how you’ve been holding out on him. Then he got pissy that I’ve been holding out on him. He made me list every ‘important’ person I’ve ever met, Sam.”

“Is it terrible that I can’t wait to watch him and Gavin ask Halston a million questions about everyone he’s met in Hollywood?” Eliott asked with the same level of seriousness I would use talking about the meaning of life. “Does he still get flustered from attention?”

Flustered?” Cam repeated like he didn’t even know the word. “The guy makes like ten million a movie. Guys who get flustered by attention don’t make it that big.”

I frowned at Eliott and said, “I’ve never seen Halston uncomfortable. He’s not an attention whore at all, but being comfortable is like… his thing. His trademark.”

Eliott pursed his lips. “Really,” he said, dragging it out.

I gave him a you’re crazy look and then turned to the others, expecting them to agree with me right away, but instead they all kind of let their eyes drift away too slowly.

“We haven’t seen him since you were roommates at the place in Bridgeport,” Asher said after a beat too long. “I remember the party because my sister showed up with her emo vampire type girlfriend. And Cam ate all the shrimp and threw up all over your bathroom.”

Guest towels,” Cam corrected darkly. “You kept gasping, My guest towels over and over,” he half-accused me. “But Halston was the one who helped me clean up and got me water.” He squinted one eye and ran a hand through his hair. “So I like him more than you.”

Asher hummed, perfectly on-key because he was in a local band after all. “It’ll be good to see him again. Aspen should be chill enough that he won’t get mobbed while we’re there.”

“I told you, he’s always comfortable,” I assured him. “Everything will be perfect.”

With that, the conversation shifted back to the wedding and its itinerary.

The four of us, plus their significant others and Halston, were getting there five days before the rest of the wedding party. It wasn’t our last hurrah before we all went our own ways. While we didn’t spend most of our free time together the way we had during college, we weren’t drifting apart. But things had changed a lot—for them—in the past few years and so this seemed like the perfect opportunity to enjoy our friendships.

After that would be three days of wedding stuff. If I didn’t love Asher’s family and didn’t already know every guest, except Lucas’s relatives and friends from back in Wisconsin, I’d feel differently. For some reason, I had two distinct reactions to lots of people. When it was a club, or a concert or a waterpark or a sports arena, I was completely fine. I was usually in heaven, actually. I was a speck of dust in the universe, one star out of a trillion, and I felt connected to everything. But when it was a house party or a wedding where I only knew a few people, I got weird. I felt judged, like everyone was looking at me wondering what I was doing there, noticing all the ways I obviously didn’t fit in.

It all started years ago while I was experimenting with the kink community, trying to figure out if my friend’s advice that I might be a Dom was true. I wasn’t, and sometimes I honestly wished I was because maybe then I would be all loved up right now too. But every demonstration I went to, every new members’ night at a club, every community hang, made it clear I didn’t belong. Even though I’d just been standing there, or talking to people to get to know them, or flirting with one of the submissive men, they’d known. I’d gotten these sideways looks, these passive-aggressive or snide comments, about how I was a poser.

At the time, I’d felt judged, embarrassed, and infuriated by their snap reactions.

But later, I had to give them credit. I had been playing at something, trying on a costume around people to whom kink meant something deep and fundamental. Just because I wasn’t a Dom, it didn’t mean I was excluded from being bossy or liking to see a man on his knees for me. It just meant I didn’t belong in the community.

So yeah, I didn’t like groups where I felt out of place. I didn’t want to be stared at again.

Sighing, I finished my drink and scrubbed my tired face. “I hate to be the first one to leave,” I apologized, “but it’s been a really long week at work and I’m totally wiped out.”

“Oh, come on,” Cam protested.

But Asher got up to hug me with a mumbled, “Good to see you.”

I dug my fingers into his shoulders hard for a beat, then pulled back and gave his stubbly jaw a tough pat. “I love you too,” I told him, smiling when he tried not to look so pleased about it. “And I love you both too, Cam, Eliott,” I sang out, bending down to smack kisses on Eliott’s forehead and Cam’s chin. “Can’t wait for next week!”

“Drive safe,” Eliott called as I headed for the door off the rooftop deck.

I really was tired, until I made it down the stairs back onto the main floor of Local Beats, where a DJ was swaying on stage and a sea of bodies danced, bounced, and laughed. I knew the name of everyone behind the bar, including one of the owners, and I recognized a good number of people dancing from all the time I’d spent here over the last twenty years.

A wave of nostalgia hit me for the early days, when Asher, Cam, Eliott and I had come here during college because it was queer friendly but not strictly a queer club. Back then, Cam hadn’t been comfortable at queer clubs and Asher had a girlfriend who’d wound up his ex-wife, so we’d found Local Beats. It always had great music and good drinks, and the owners had taken us under their wings. Not all of us had needed a home or a family, but I had, and knowing I could show up here pretty much anytime and get a hug or a drink or advice or find someone to dance with or take home or talk to meant the world to me.

There was an adorable younger man in cropped sweatpants and a tee shirt that hung a little loose, flirting with his hips and flashing his belly as he danced who caught my eye. When he saw me, a shy smile snuck onto his face and he danced a few steps toward me, inviting me to join him without being really obvious in case I wasn’t interested.

Suddenly I didn’t want to resist. I was going to be surrounded by and celebrating love for almost a week and stress from work was spilling into my real life and I was sick of it.

I joined the man, putting my hands on his hips after he threw his arms loosely around my neck and wriggled his hips. “Hey,” I yelled to be heard over the music. “I’m Sam.”

I’m Sam too!” he yelled back, giggling and biting his lip.

Our bodies got closer together, rubbing and reacting, for several long songs before Other-Sam darted out his tongue to curl around my earlobe. “Your cell’s buzzing a lot.”

“Oh shit,” I said, reaching into my back pocket for it, then unlocked it.

Halston:I’m at this place and it has about fifteen dessert options. You’d be in heaven. I’m drinking a wheatgrass smoothie.

Halston:Did you ever finish watching the newest season of The Boys? It just came up and made me realize you were going to, but then you never told me if you did.

Halston: Fine, I admit it. I’m bored at this dinner.

Halston: And I finally noticed it’s Friday night. You’re probably out having fun.

So not an emergency—like my new corporate overlords deciding to lay off our strategic account manager again—unless you counted boredom as an emergency.

“Everything okay?” Other-Sam asked.

“That’s sweet,” I told him, “but they’re texts from one of my friends. He’s bored and he’s at a work dinner basically. Apparently the restaurant has a killer dessert menu.”

Other-Sam’s face lit up so brightly my instinct was to take a step back. I had no idea what I’d said that warranted such a strong response, but he babbled happily, starting to dance again. “I love it when my friends send me thoughtful messages! Just little things to let me know they’re thinking about me. I bet you love dessert and he looked at the menu and thought you were the only one in his life who’d appreciate it. Isn’t that amazing?”

“Sam,” I said slowly, leaning my shoulders back so I could narrow my eyes at him, “are you incredibly high right now? No judgment if you are, but it would explain your… joy.”

His adorable face crumpled a little. “No,” he sighed. “I’m not high; I’m just extra.”

He said the word like it was a curse word, and like he’d heard it said as a dubious honor every time. I felt horrible that I’d made him feel like that, especially after all the times older guys had pointed out my less than desirable qualities, as far as they saw it.

I hugged him tight and said into his ear, “I’m sorry. I’m old and cynical, and I didn’t mean to make it sound like there’s something wrong with being joyful.”

“It’s okay,” he said, the words muffled in my neck.

I moved enough to catch his chin, then pinned him with a look. “No, it’s not. You should never have to change who you are for anyone else, and I should never make someone feel bad about themselves, even if I didn’t mean to hurt their feelings.” When his eyes filled with tears, I added to lighten the mood, “Unless you’re a serial killer. I will do my best to make you feel really bad about that, even if it means I wind up your next victim.”

My joke pulled a small but genuine laugh out of him.

“But I should get going,” I said, even though I felt like I should say more.

“Call your friend,” he said, some of the light coming back into his eyes.

“I will,” I said, giving his chin one last gentle squeeze.

As soon as I was outside, I did.

“Hey,” Halston said, sounding sleepy.

“A guy I was dancing with when you texted said I had to call you,” I said.

He laughed softly and I heard the sound of him shifting around in bed. “How’s your week been? No, your month? God, it’s been too long since I had any time to talk to you.”

I wandered toward my car, lifting my hair up off my neck to let the summer breeze cool me down. “I know. I would feel bad about it except we’re going to actually see each other soon. I can’t believe it’s been almost two years since it’s happened.”

“Life has been pretty busy for us both,” he agreed.

“So what dessert did you have?” I asked, because I was too tired to have a deep conversation right now, and I figured there would be plenty of time for it next week.

“Lemon sorbet,” he murmured. “It was the perfect amount of tart.”

Groaning in disappointment, I said, “Sorbet isn’t dessert, it’s a palate cleanser.”

We teased each other about our eating habits as I got to my car and drove home. Halston’s voice got sleepier, his thoughts slurring together with longer pauses between words. It was like a sleepover when I was a kid, where everyone was determined to be cool and stay up all night, telling secrets and bragging about shit I’d never actually done. But as the hours ticked by, it got harder and harder to stay awake, but I didn’t want to give up.

As soon as I pulled into my spot in the underground parking in my building, I sighed and said, “I’m home, and you sound like you’re talking in your sleep.”

“I know, but I’ve missed talking to you like this.”

I could imagine what he looked like after having lived with him, even though I had no idea what kind of bed or comforter he had now. Once he was asleep, his head always wound up sandwiched between two pillows, one of his legs hanging off the side of the bed, one of his arms usually stuffed under his body so it was all pins and needles when he woke up. But while he was falling asleep, he curled up like a potato bug, his knees against his pecs and hands curled under his chin. He liked to have the blankets tucked in around him.

“Me too,” I said as I took the elevator up to my floor, not saying more until I got off because reception was spotty there. “You need rest though,” I went on as I walked down the hall and into my apartment, a tidy two-bedroom with fake stone floors covered in soft, thick area rugs, and abstract prints grouped in sunbursts on the white walls. I tossed my keys on the little table next to the door, tucking my shoes underneath it. “So let’s say goodnight.”

“G’night, Sammy,” he said around a big yawn.

“Night. I’ll call you when I’m at the airport to make sure you’re good.”

Shaking my head, I undressed, leaving a trail of clothes from the door to the bathroom, where I cranked on the shower. It wasn’t strictly necessary after a night out since they didn’t allow smoking inside anymore, but the faint scent of a long night out clung to me.

Once I was clean, I flipped back my covers and starfished on my stomach in the middle of my king sized bed, my eyes drooping shut as exhaustion rolled over me.