Ex-Beefcake by Zoe Lee

Chapter 6


The restaurant Sam had picked was low-key chichi, as my mom would say. Dark flagstones and gleaming wood furniture, with glass-blown light fixtures hanging from the high ceilings like an upside down flower garden. When the host led us to a table beside the back wall of floor-to-ceiling glass, two men stood up. I’d met Eliott a few times when Sam and I were roommates, so I recognized him as the neat man in chinos and pink polo shirt, which meant the other man with long mermaid-colored hair and a nose ring was Gavin.

They’d all flown in together, so they didn’t hug Sam, just looked at me curiously. I was used to being looked at, but this was personal; they were only sizing me up as Sam’s friend.

“Hi!” Gavin said, sweeping around Sam to envelop me in a hug. “I’m Gavin, of course.”

“Hi,” I murmured, returning the quick, but sweet hug.

Gavin stroked Eliott’s jaw. “This is Eliott, if somehow you don’t remember him.”

Eliott had one of those serious, thoughtful faces, the kind where I instantly knew he was smart and cautious, a fascinating counterpoint to Gavin’s crackling energy. He held out his hand in the way of people who did it constantly for work, and I shook it, appreciating the cool, brief clasp. “It’s good to see you again, Halston. It’s been quite a while.”

“Yes it has,” I agreed as we all settled into our seats.

Gavin plopped his elbows on the table and clasped his hands under his chin. “You’re even sexier less than a foot from me than you are thirty feet tall on a movie theatre screen.”

It was impossible not to be charmed by him, and I didn’t even try. “Thank you.”

“Eliott hates watching your movies with me because I like your ass,” he went on, winking at Eliott. “After your washing in the river scene in The Beast, he had to—”

“Listen to you rhapsodize about it,” Eliott finished dryly with a crook of one eyebrow.

“Can you believe he used to be able to convince everyone he was uptight?” Gavin laughed, curling into Eliott’s side, and I had to smile. “Oh! I was in LA two months ago at a party at Argus Waterbury’s, I think it was in Laurel Canyon. Were you there too?”

Now that gave me pause. “I was.”

As I looked at him, waiting for him to explain, Sam reached over, poking Gavin’s side and making him twitch. “Maybe you want to elaborate for Halston, Gavin.”

“I work for Barley Finn,” he said. “The band did a few nights at The Forum. Barley can’t remember how he met Argus originally, but we always go by if he’s in town when we are.”

“I love their music. That must be an incredible job,” was all I said.

“Yes, yes, you’re both very cool,” Sam grumbled with a grouchy look.

“No need to be jealous,” Eliott murmured.

Our server arrived and asked what we wanted to drink, and Gavin told her cheerfully, “We haven’t even looked at the menu yet, can you please give us a few minutes?”

“Of course, take your time,” she said.

Then Gavin arched out of Eliott’s side and danced his fingers across the table top near my arm. “I’m loving this scruff. Is it for a role?”

I angled my chin up a little. “Go ahead and touch it,” I invited him.

With a happy noise, he petted my cheeks and over my chin. “It’s so soft.”

“Can you stop mauling Halston’s beard?” Sam said, sounding prickly and annoyed.

Shooting him a soft look, I said, “It’s okay, Sammy. You can touch it too.”

He crossed his arms and pouted. “I know what a beard feels like, thanks.”

“Someday you’ll be able to grow your own,” Eliott said sagely, mouth curving when Sam stuck up his middle finger. “Oh, the server is headed back. Pick out your drinks, and don’t forget that we’re at a high altitude so alcohol is going to go right to our heads.”

Gavin let go of my beard and we all flipped through the drinks menus, then placed our orders with the server, Sam the only one who wound up choosing something alcoholic.

“Which activities are you two doing tomorrow?” Eliott asked.

“We’re doing all of them,” Gavin put in with a big grin, all teeth and anticipation.

“Sam hasn’t had time to tell me all the options yet,” I said.

Sam took a long drink of his water, two of the ice cubes slamming onto the tip of his nose and making him go cross-eyed as he glared at them in betrayal. Then he told me, “I don’t have it all memorized, but I know tomorrow there’s a zip line thing and broomball.”

When I made a noise of surprised pleasure, Eliott commented, “We’ll have to tie one hand behind your back or something, Halston. We’re all quite competitive—a bunch of us are in a summer sports league, baseball this year, and we always play a lot of flag football at Cam’s parties. But I think your prowess is going to put us all at a disadvantage.”

“Where are we going to play flag football now that Cam and Julian bought their new place?” Gavin asked with a touch of disappointment. “It has a super cute back garden, but it’s definitely not big enough for football. Badminton, maybe.”

“There are a million parks we can use,” Sam pointed out.

“Or,” Gavin countered with a mischievous glint in his unbelievable purple eyes, “we can start having pool parties. If only we knew someone who had a pool. Oh, wait!”

“My building’s pool welcomes guests, but I hardly think I can sneak in two dozen people on the regular,” Sam said, but he was happy about the idea, I could see it in the way his body relaxed from a stiffer posture into his usual indolent sprawl, like a prince on his throne. “When I swim laps, it’s mostly a gaggle of old people, some nannies taking advantage of the amenities mostly to tan, and the stoners who live in the penthouse.”

Eliott pretended to cover his ears. “Please don’t tell me about your yuppie life.”

Yuppie?” Gavin repeated with obvious glee. “What are you, seventy?”

“Hey, I look good for seventy,” Eliott returned the banter with an easy smirk.

“My life isn’t a yuppie life,” Sam wedged in with mild outrage.

His eyes flicked his eyes over at me like he thought I was going to join in and give him crap about it. But all I said was, “It’s a long way from our place in Bridgeport.”

“Tell me about it,” Gavin prompted. “Were you a struggling artist?”

Sam laughed, free but still with that cynical edge that had crept into it sometime in the last ten years and made me itch to fix things so he was as eager for the present and the future as he’d been back when we met. “No, he was a broke minor league hockey player.”

“Now we really will have to tie your hand behind your back for broomball,” Gavin said.

Our drinks and appetizers arrived, and we spent a minute tasting everything. Gavin stole sips of everyone’s drinks, proclaiming Eliott’s Arnold Palmer the best choice.

“I can play referee,” I finally replied to Gavin. “Or it can be me versus all of you.”

“You seem too smart to underestimate us like that,” Eliott said in his calm, unhurried way. He reminded me of my agent, who never had to raise his voice or use outright threats to make everything he wanted to happen, exactly when and how he wanted.

“Don’t let him fool you,” Sam said to Eliott, dragging his thumb over his upper lip to wipe away the foam from his IPA. “I’ve never met an athlete with less competitiveness.”

With a mild look for Sam, I explained, “For most athletes I’ve known, competitiveness is the same as toxic masculinity bullshit. Why would I want to do that? I earned every spot I had and then I was a great teammate and I won. I didn’t need to prove anything.”

“Damn,” Gavin exclaimed, “that kind of self-confidence is sexy as hell.”

“I’m sure Eliott agrees, since you seem like you have plenty too,” I replied.

“Well played,” Eliott murmured.

“I’m getting the seabass,” Sam announced.

It wasn’t like him to be out of step with a conversation, especially among his friends, so I hid a frown, trying not to feel like it was my fault somehow. Instead, I glanced at the menu pinned under a corner of my plate and my elbow, then answered, “I’m torn between the turkey burger with asparagus and the spaghetti squash. They both look good.”

“The turkey burger has beets,” Sam said after he found the items on his menu and skimmed them, “so you should get the spaghetti squash.”

I smiled in appreciation he’d noticed, since beets never sat well with me. “Thanks, Sammy.”

Eliott and Gavin exchanged a look that I couldn’t interpret, before Eliott said in a brusque way, “So, Halston, I know what you do for work and that you live in LA, and now I know you used to play hockey, but that’s it. Do you have a significant other these days?”

There seemed to be something pointed about it, but it was aimed at Sam instead of me, if the way Sam snapped his menu shut with a huff was any indication.

As if it was a signal, our server returned and took our orders.

There was an odd pause, so I answered Eliott’s question honestly, still feeling like I was treading unsteady ground, “No, I’m single right now. I miss having someone though. I never take it for granted while I do, but I’m still always kind of surprised by how fast I get lonely and take up a new hobby or sign on for a new role after the end of a relationship.”

“That’s sweet. So you like taking care of someone, spoiling them?” Gavin asked.

My head tilted and I replied, “I wouldn’t say that. I show my love, of course.”

“Of course,” Eliott murmured, sharing another inscrutable look with Gavin.

When Sam fidgeted and checked something on his phone, I swallowed hard and asked, “How did you two meet?” With a huge smile, Gavin launched headfirst into their story, tumbling along and pretending to pout when Eliott interjected dryly now and then.

Before I knew it, two runners were setting down our entrees.

“You must know the value of trust with whomever you’re dating,” Gavin prompted me.

I felt like it was better to push through until Sam worked through his awkwardness, so I answered honestly, “When I’m out anywhere or at work, I have to be on. I don’t have a fake public persona, but I still have to be conscious of the words I choose and can’t show if I’m having a bad day or if I’m late or ready to go home. It all has to be… a unified narrative. If someone asks what I did on my vacation, they want to hear that I went parasailing, not that my favorite part was cuddling up in the hammock and stargazing, you know?”

“Isn’t trust a requirement for any relationship?” Sam asked as he cut into his fish.

Eliott hummed as he delicately speared a strawberry off the top of his salad. “Sure, but I think Halston means that he needs someone who is just as happy to be with him when he’s off and not only when he’s on. He needs to trust that they don’t want him to censor himself.” He glanced over at me and checked, “Have I got it right, Halston?”

“Yes,” I said, impressed by how cleanly he cut through what I’d said to its heart. This was the sort of conversation I really treasured, people connecting because they were genuinely interested in each other and made the effort to understand and listen. It was rare to find it, especially in Hollywood where it was so easy to see ourselves and everyone else as a package, not a full person, and feel pressure to be flawless all the time.

“The hard part can be trusting yourself,” Gavin murmured.

We were all quiet for a minute, and it felt like I wasn’t the only one reflecting on how true that could be.

“Yes, but can we trust ourselves with that dessert sampler?” Sam asked in the most serious tone he had, steepling his fingers in front of his lips, brows drawn together.

There was another beat of silence, but this one was incredulous.

And then we all started laughing.

I looked over at Sam, and his head was thrown back, his face split into the widest smile. His deep red curly hair brushed his shoulders, a few locks tumbling across his forehead. If I’d had a camera handy, I would’ve snapped a hundred shots of the moment.

Something inflated under my ribs, making my chest feel too full and squeezed.

When Sam took a big breath, the laughter done running its course through his body, his brown amber eyes settled on me, and I offered him a smile I felt wobble the tiniest bit.

A million times before, our eyes had met. In politeness, the first time I’d seen him when he sat next to me at a table in a sports bar. In curiosity, as we’d gotten to know each other or when one of us had said something stupid or confusing. In sadness, if we’d shared something hard and needed the other’s support to get through a tough time. In happiness and laughter, while we watched movies or sports. In tiredness, when we’d silently agreed it was time to give up and admit defeat and go to bed already.

But this was a brand new feeling, and it slid up to lap at the edge of my awareness.

Before I could explore it, or get the full experience, Sam snapped his eyes away.

“... the flourless chocolate torte too,” Gavin was saying enthusiastically.

I realized I must’ve missed a chunk of conversation, caught up in my head.

“So, everything?” Eliott summarized with tart sarcasm.

“I’ll put in the order now,” the server said, and I nearly jumped out of my skin at her voice almost right behind me.

While Gavin challenged Eliott by saying he’d never try the spicy mango ice cream, Sam leaned toward me and asked quietly, “How are you doing? You look like you fell asleep with your eyes open for a minute there. It’s okay if you want to go up to the room and pass out.”

“No!” burst past my lips. “No,” I repeated calmly, “I’m not tired. I like being here.”

It was so simple and sounded commonplace, but I almost ached with how true it was.

There were a lot of people I loved and enough places where I felt content and happy, but this dinner was the first time in a long time I’d felt like I had everything I could want.

“I like you here too,” Sam replied, his voice so low I almost missed it.

I wanted to hug him, but didn’t know how I’d explain it, so I pushed back the urge and let Gavin and Eliott’s back-and-forth pull me back in, Sam jumping in to give them both shit.