Ex-Beefcake by Zoe Lee

Chapter 3

Halston

Eleven Years Ago

Trudging up the five flights of stairs to my apartment, I used the railing to help haul me up. Little grunts of pain escaped every other step because of the ache from my strained left quad during my last hockey game. Today was my first day back at a full workout and I should have gotten a massage or had a soak in the hot tub after it, but I was too tired.

Since it was around eleven on a weekday, I wasn’t expecting Sam to be home. But when I shoved the door open, swollen from the summer humidity, he was on the couch.

He looked like a handful of overcooked spaghetti that had been thrown against a wall, his head buried under the hoodie I’d forgotten to move last night. One of his arms was stretched out over his head, his hand an inch away from landing in a dirty bowl of what I thought was ice cream. One of his legs was bent, his knee hanging over the couch and slowly dragging his body weight off-kilter and towards the floor. All he had on was briefs and a tee shirt, plus a lavender button-down that was tangled around his other arm.

Hnngh,” he snored loudly when the old floor creaked as I snuck by.

We lived in a studio that had a kitchenette and door on one wall, the bathroom and a microscopic closet on the adjacent wall, the couch Sam was on against the third wall, and our bunk beds and dressers on the fourth. The middle only had enough space for a table with the TV on it and speakers, gaming consoles, and our internet crap stacked under it.

Sam said it looked like a cross between a sleepaway camp cabin and a frat. But he said it with pride, said it was a badge of honor showing that he was responsible for his own life.

I was twenty-seven and had expected to be slightly less broke, but I didn’t need more.

“I wish I were dead,” he whimpered piteously as I tossed my shit on my bottom bunk.

“I’ll make some coffee,” I offered in a quiet voice, deciding my shower could wait when he slid off the couch and then dragged up his sweaty, queasy head to look at me. I thought he’d gone to a party last night, which wasn’t unusual for him, but this was the first time I’d seen him hungover. So it had either been an epic night or a really shitty night, and either way, he deserved coffee and bacon, and I could do that while I made a protein shake.

“Troy broke up with me,” he muttered as he staggered into the bathroom.

It sounded like he pissed a gallon, not bothering to close the door.

Since he couldn’t see me, I grinned. I hadn’t officially met Troy, even though they’d dated for probably three or four months, but he’d always sounded like a moron. Sam went through men with gusto, trying on all different shapes and sizes, from what I could tell from the fleeting glimpses of guys picking him up here or hustling past me when I got home.

“Now you can ask out the librarian you were drooling over,” I said philosophically once the sink turned off and he came over, wiping his wet hands on his briefs. He had a blob of toothpaste on his chin and I pointed at it, “You’ve got a little something on your chin.”

With a scowl, he swiped the back of his hand over it and then leaned against the metal rack next to the stove where we kept all of our food and dishes. “Stupid toothpaste.”

I pulled out the bacon and then reached behind him for my protein powder.

“Please, no blender,” he begged, clapping his hands together like he was praying. “It’s so loud and the shit you put in with the powder smells so bad, it’ll make me yack.”

I could have my shake later, so I just put the powder back.

“I think I’m cursed,” he announced.

“I think you’ll survive,” I countered mildly, putting a paper towel on a plate to soak up the grease once the bacon was done.

“I can’t make it past three months with anyone,” he went on while he poured the coffee into two mismatched mugs, then bent down to slurp the top half inch out of each of them since he’d filled them to the brim. “It’s all fun and then suddenly ‘it’s just not working.’”

Sam was so smart and focused when it came to his job, diligently doing research and taking free online courses to better himself so he could get better jobs. His childhood hadn’t been perfect, with a family that seemed to criticize each other with zinging barbs that flew faster than I could keep up. He’d come from a small town in Florida to Chicago for college and thrown himself into city life, into gay life too, and that took a lot of guts. But he was still naive, soft in some way that I wasn’t able to articulate to myself. He had no idea what he was looking for or what made him happy.

We were friends, but sometimes people had to look the other way and ignore their friends’ blind spots because it was something they needed to figure out on their own. It was his journey and I wasn’t going to help him cheat by telling him any of my observations.

Instead, I just cooked the bacon and when it was done, I suggested, “Let’s watch Iron Man 2.” I carried over the plate and added indulgently, “And you eat this nice, crispy bacon.”

“You should eat some too,” he said through a mouthful of it while I put the DVD in.

“Aren’t southerners supposed to have manners?” I joked as I flopped onto the couch.

He snorted and put the plate down between us, then made a flourish with his hand. “Voilà,” he sang. “It’s good manners to offer to share my food with you.”

The trailers started and I laughed. “Even though I cooked it?”

“Sure,” he said, already sounding better with a few strips of bacon and some coffee in his stomach. “I have thoughts on why I need to become the exec admin of a genius CEO so he’ll become a superhero and make me his CEO,” he said happily as I started the movie, wiggling down into the cushions and grabbing my hoodie to use as a neck pillow. “Or maybe if I wish hard enough, I can be an exec admin who’s secretly Black Widow!”

“She’s a perfect role model for you,” I agreed, smiling and starting to shift positions.

When my quad protested the movement, a little hiss escaped me and my leg twitched.

“What’s wrong?” Sam demanded, twisting his head to look at me sharply. “You’re making a face. That’s your I’m a very strong dude, but I got a papercut face.”

“My quad is still on the fritz a little,” I admitted, carefully stretching my leg out.

After moving the now empty plate to under the ice cream bowl, he moved onto the middle cushion and put his hands under my knee and calf. “Bring it here,” he said, even though he was already lifting up my leg slowly until it lay across his lap. “I got you.”

“This isn’t actually more comfort—ohh,” I cut myself off to groan when he started to massage my thigh. It wasn’t as efficiently brutal as the massages the team’s physical therapist gave, but he was deceptively strong and his fingers dug in deep. The tension popped in every inch he worked on, making the rest of my body melt into relaxation.

“I don’t get why you do this to yourself,” Sam said a while later over the loud blasts of a fight sequence. He patted my knee and I sighed and moved it back to my cushion. “I mean, if you’re going to spend your whole life counting calories and eating and drinking nasty protein stuff,” he began to rant, making me smile as I leaned my head against the couch and watched him scowl and wave his hands. “If you’re going to do all that and beat up your body, you should at least be making NFL money, Halston. You seem so tired lately.”

My other friends were either athletes like me or friends I’d met through other sports activities, who all believed in sucking it up and the glory of the game. But Sam both loved sports with a purity and dedication that humbled me, and was passionately disgusted by how much effort and work it took for what he considered not nearly enough benefits.

A lot of his rants on the topic were more theoretical, philosophical debates with me on the purpose and merit of sports and how it played into ‘outdated and overrated masculine ideals’ as he put it. But this one felt stronger, like it was about me, worrying about me.

“It’s not glamorous or financially rewarding,” I conceded, so glad to have someone like him in my corner, fierce and completely biased in my favor, “but it’s okay, Sammy.”

“But listen,” he exclaimed, pausing Iron Man 2 before he turned to me, pulled his legs up, and wrapped his arms around them. “You’re amazing at hockey, you know that, you know I love watching you play and think it’s a travesty you’re not in the pro league.”

A little smile tugged at the corners of my mouth. “I know. I appreciate it.”

“Yeah, but you could do so many other things. Look at this movie,” he said, flicking his eyes over to the pretty blurry freeze frame. “You could do that! You would be awesome.”

“What?” I asked, looking back and forth between the TV and Sam. “Be a stuntman?”

“No—well, that would actually be badass, but I meant, I don’t know, act or something. You’re as crazy about movies as I am, and you’re definitely pumped up and macho enough to be in them,” he teased, rolling his eyes. “You’ve seen like every movie and TV show that are about the things you like, and not just the big blockbusters, you watch the indie ones and all the foreign ones too. And you have that thing, you know? That spark actors have.”

The faith he had in me made my cheeks a little hot, and I didn’t know what to say. I knew I couldn’t play hockey forever, and I was only just now coming to terms with the fact that if I hadn’t made it to the NHL yet, I never would. But I’d still never given any real thought to what to do next. I wasn’t scared of the unknown or afraid of a challenge, but something in the arts was a billion miles away from everything I’d done so far.

I had to chuckle at the very idea of a minor league hockey player becoming an actor.

“How about a little experiment?” He rubbed his hands together. “Give me a smile.”

That was easy, so I gave him a smile.

“Now make it a smirk, like you have a secret,” he instructed.

My brows knit as I thought. I wasn’t a smirker, or the type of person who thought they had an edge over anyone else, but I curled up one side of my mouth more than the other.

“That’s it,” he encouraged me. “How about a dark, menacing look?”

His enthusiasm was catching and when he screwed up his face, baring his teeth and puffing up his chest, I laughed and gave into the urge to be silly. I made a big, exaggerated scowl, clenching my jaw. I crossed my arms over my chest and flexed my muscles too.

“Oooh, you’re giving me chills.” He put the back of his hand to his forehead and tumbled back on the far arm of the couch like I was so scary I’d made him faint. Then he opened one eye to peek at me, to see if I was laughing, and so I had to laugh some more.

“You already have the badass tattoos, but none on your face, neck, or hands… What else would a big action star have to do?” he wondered, then snapped his fingers as an answer to his own question came to him. “A smoulder! Give me a big ole smoulder, Halston.”

Muffling a laugh behind my hands over my face, my shoulders shook. “I’ve never smouldered in my life,” I told him. “I don’t even know what that looks like.”

Sam sat up again, then ran his hands through his red hair. “It’s the not-so-secret weapon of sexy men,” he informed me seriously. “It’s like… ‘I’m so hot and sexy and you thought someone so hot and sexy could never be interested in you, but I so totally am.’”

When I didn’t change my expression, he smacked my knee. “I’ll show you.” His eyes got a little unfocused as he fussed with his hair, as if getting it just right was imperative to smouldering. But then his eyes flashed up to me and he said, “You can’t laugh at me.”

“I would never,” I promised in my solemnest tone.

“Here goes…”

Subtly at first, the muscles in his face shifted, his gaze sharpening but aiming through me, and his mouth tightened, making his cheeks hollow out a little. He looked intense, and then he did something else, maybe flared his nostrils or something that I couldn’t quite pin down. Suddenly he looked like one of those underwear supermodels on giant billboards.

“I get it,” I said. “It’s like you’re trying to seduce someone into seducing you.”

The expression collapsed into his usual animated, friendly look. “Exactly! You try it.”

I had never been one of those people who pursued women or played some game to entice willing prey into their traps. I was more about getting to know women and then dating them for a year or two before the romantic relationship naturally ran its course and we became friends. But I saw it all the time, surrounded by my teammates and all of the women who flocked to us, hoping to get a taste of our bodies and our small-time fame.

Concentrating, I tried to morph my face into a smoulder, looking at the TV instead of Sam, because if I looked at him, it would just make me grin at the silliness of this exercise.

“Damn,” he whisper-shouted, “that’s it. Maybe you really can act!”

That had me dissolving into laughter as I grabbed a throw pillow from behind my back and threw it at his face like it was a pie. He batted it away and then lunged at me, playfully shoving my hoodie in my face. “Pretend you’re the hero and I’m trying to murder your ass!”

“You’re so bad at this,” I told him as I easily caught the hoodie before he could stuff it into my mouth. “It’s a good thing you don’t want to be the action star, Sammy.”

“Fuck off, I can do anything I put my mind to,” he huffed, sticking out his tongue before he growled and swore, thrashing around like I was putting up a big fight against being suffocated. “Why won’t you just let me assassinate you?” he demanded, redoubling his efforts to shove my hands down next to my head so he could get the hoodie over my face.

It took barely any effort to hold him off. “You should work out more.”

You should eat more Cheetos,” he retorted.

“You sound like you’re about to have an asthma attack,” I said, then picked him up like he was a little kid, plopping him down on the floor once I’d stood up. Shaking my head fondly, I gently tugged the hoodie out of his hands and threw it over my shoulder, hearing it hit the ground with a soft whump. He tossed up his hands in loose fists, bouncing left and right like he was a boxer. “If you were an assassin, you’d have to just poison me.”

Giving up, he busted up laughing and fell back on the couch. “That’s the most efficient way to assassinate someone anyway,” he said as he started the movie again. “Thank you for that total humiliation. Why don’t you make it up to me by grabbing me some water?”

“Okay,” I said, smiling when I heard one of my favorite zingers in the movie.

When I sat back down, Sam took the water from me with a big smile, drank some, and then said thoughtfully, “I do really think I’m onto something. You should sign up for an acting class. You need a hobby. All you do is work out, play, and watch shit with me.”

“I go out with friends and date too, but you’re off doing your own thing so you don’t see,” I pointed out mildly, not offended by that. Since our schedules never lined up, we only overlapped a couple hours a day at most, so he really didn’t know what I did besides practice, have games, and work out. But I didn’t mind because he seemed to have amazing friends, people who had much more important things than a love of action movies in common with him. And when we hung out, it was fun and relaxing, without any demands or expectations, unlike when I was hanging with my teammates or my girlfriend.

“I like how we’re really good friends without being all up in each other’s lives every second,” he said without looking away from the movie. “I know if I need you, you’ll be there, and that’s all we really need, right?”

Even though people looked at me and saw a big, strong man, or a fierce hockey player, I was more than my job, more than my size. The fact that Sam knew it—and didn’t make fun of me or try to change me—was the reason he was my best friend.

“Yeah,” I agreed, bumping our shoulders together, “we’ll always be there for each other.”

“Don’t forget that promise when you’re giving your MTV Award speech,” he teased.

“Shut up and watch the snarky genius anti-hero,” I suggested with a happy grin.