It wasn't the reunion they planned....
I'm going to ask you to do something I have never asked to to do before. Promise me you'll say yes."
Nights of parties, concerts, hanging out, or working had all ended in this spot. When the fun was done, we sobered up as the sun rose here. When we were exhausted from working those double shifts and pulling all-nighters, the sunrise reminded us why we worked so hard. When we were flying high on concert-induced endorphins, it spun wild dreams in our heads that spilled from our mouths in raucous harmony. The three of us, wrapped in one blanket, sipping from one bottle, from one cup, contemplated that sunrise. In snow and rain and heat and cold we huddled here. For four years, this place colored our lives in ways we couldn't imagine.
The bench we'd claimed as ours drew me onward. My feet recognized the path, if my mind did not. In the inside pocket of my too-thin-for-the-Colorado-cold-but just-right-for-California black leather jacket, the crinkle of paper jabbed at my soul. As much as anything else, it was why I was here.
When I found it, the bench was still the same with its old, wrought-iron rails and splintery wooden slats. I stopped. Progressing from here would be harder. The cold seeped through the inadequate leather soles of my knee-high black boots, chilling my feet. Once I'd known how to dress for the cold. Once cold hadn't mattered. I'd had their warmth to keep me warm. For years I'd had a vision, locked in my head. This bench, this park, the sun rising in the background. The first flakes of falling snow drifting down. On the bench, two men whose heads turned as I approached, who jumped to their feet with open arms and welcoming smiles. The first time we met here, the last time we met here.
Today, I had a memory. A sunrise that would start soon. I forced myself forward, placed one booted foot on the seat and hoisted myself into the familiar position, buttocks perched on the topmost slat of the bench. Splinters prickled against the seat of my 501s, but the first changing light as the sun made its appearance caught my gaze. Since the last time I'd sat here, the last time we'd been together, I hadn't sat through many sunrises. I'd observed a lot of sunsets on the Pacific coast, but the sunrise had become a time of regret.
As I leaned forward to rest my elbows on my knees and prop my chin in my hands, the crinkle of the envelope in my pocket and the crunch of dead leaves on the grass behind me competed for my attention. I drew the envelope from my inner pocket as the footsteps approached. I knew who it was. Had realized he would be here, though how he had known I would be was anyone's guess. It appeared to me that I hardly knew what I was doing, catching that plane, leaving behind friends and commitments. Me. Mr. Responsible. Reliable. Dependable. Had I even called in and told the principal I wouldn't be there for the last week of classes? I couldn't recall. He'd figure it out when the Calc I kids showed up for the key to the classroom, no doubt.
The sudden drag of a wool cap being tugged down over my long hair startled me. It shouldn't have. I should have predicted he'd be in this "taking care of Morgan" mode. At twenty two it had been endearing; at thirty two it pissed me off. Deep, calming breaths kept the anger manageable. Come here, do what needed to be done, get on the next plane back to California, back to emotional stability.
"I see you're dressed for the weather as always, Morgan." Jason's voice was husky, hesitant.
A pair of black knit gloves landing in my lap tipped me over that edge from making a snide remark to throwing an uncalled-for hissy fit.
My jaw clenched tightly. Screw breathing deeply. I yanked the cap from my head, pulling long strands of black hair from the band at my neck, and winced at the tiny pain. I flung the cap to the ground in front of us and looked up the black denim-clad legs to the black pea coat and beyond. My mouth opened to swear, but no sound came out. The hissy fit drained away to something else entirely. My pulse still raced, but for an entirely different reason.
How fair was that? How fucking fair was it that after ten years apart, my hair showed silvery streaks and my face showed my age, but Jason was still the slender, boyish youth of years gone by? Yeah, he'd shaved the dirty blond dreadlocks. Those wire-rim glasses were new, but he appeared as youthful and vibrant, untouched by life, alive as he had when we'd all parted years ago to make those sunrise dreams reality. His black jeans had the telltale smudges of paint, and I'd be willing to bet that underneath those leather driving gloves lurked more paint.
This wasn't the reunion we planned then. It was nine years too late, for one thing. We were one man short, for another.
The bench creaked as he perched next to me on the top slat, and instinctively I grabbed his knee to anchor both of us so we wouldn't topple backward. His hand covered mine before I could jerk it away, and he refused to relinquish it when I tugged. I gave in with ill grace. Jason’s touch stirred physical responses that I’d rather not experience.
"I sent you an invitation to my gallery opening last year."
"I got it."
"You couldn't make it." No judgment. Levelheaded, easygoing, that was Jason. I didn't even understand how he knew to send the damn invitation to the school in the first place. For all I knew, he still lived with his parents and painted in that fucking unheated studio over their garage.
I handed him the envelope. The envelope that had brought me here, as he had known it would, when nothing else could. "I want to buy it."
He shook his head. "It's not for sale. That's not why I sent it to you."
Heat pooled at the back of my neck, and the tiny, irritating noise of my own teeth grinding warned of a potential headache in the offing. I turned, made eye contact for the first time. "Then why? Why send it? Fuck, why paint it? How the hell could you even stand to paint that picture? It kills me that you could have done that, like it doesn't mean fucking anything to you." By the time I spit out the last words, my voice had risen enough to scare off the waterfowl in the pond.
The expression on his face was one I'd never noticed before. I thought I had all their expressions memorized, his and Paul's. Oh, Christ. "Paul." The name slipped out, the memories in. I dropped my head to my knees again, breaking eye contact. I had to create mental distance since physical wasn't possible. I was empty, raw. My stomach tightened and my eyes burned.
"Morgan, it means everything to me. It's all I have. That painting, it's the heart and soul of who I am, who you are, who Paul was." The hand clutching mine drew away, and I nearly protested as cold took its place. Then I felt him fussing. I rolled my eyes as he loosened the band from my hair and combed his fingers through it before gathering it back into a neater ponytail, smoothing the hairs pulled loose by the wool cap. It felt too good to be cared for like that again. I jerked upright and away.
"Damn it, Jason, I don't want to go there. We can't recapture the past! You are not my mother. You are not Paul." I narrowed my eyes and gave him the look that intimidated school board members and recalcitrant football players alike. "Why did you send it if you won't sell me the painting?"
"Were you here? May twenty-sixth, two thousand one? Because I was."
I stared at him. My anger was fading, heart rate returning to normal. The heat from earlier was replaced by a chill that had nothing to do with the low temperature. Surely he was kidding. "Why? Why did you bother? Paul was dead by then. You had to know I wouldn't come."
"No, I didn't. See, somehow, I never thought it was all about you and Paul. Somehow, I thought it was all about you, me, and Paul. I guess I naively believed that without Paul, you and I would need each other even more."
I couldn't speak, but my shock must have shown on my face. With an impatient sigh, Jason jumped from the bench. I automatically steadied myself, swaying slightly as the bench protested the sudden movement.
He tossed the photo from the envelope into my lap. "I have it crated and ready to ship. Pick it up at my parents' house any time. I won't be there."
I didn't look up. I didn't speak. I listened to his footsteps, muffled now by the snow that had fallen on the crunching leaves. As the colors changed and faded from the morning sky, I stared at the photo of the painting that had brought me here. Three men on a bench in a park at sunrise, three heads pressed together, three hands clasped. If one of the images was a little blurry, I couldn't tell if that was the artist's intent, the tears in my eyes, or the snow that fell on the photo.
May twenty-six, two thousand, the day after graduation, was a day I remembered well. It was the last time we'd sat here at sunrise together at the end of a long night of celebratory graduation activities. We'd started with Paul's family taking us to lunch at the country club. We'd all sat in uncomfortable splendor, making stilted small talk while Paul's parents smiled their tiny, icy smiles of approval at us all. Jason and I were on our best behavior. We'd run tame in one another's homes since we'd met in kindergarten, and it hadn't taken us long to adapt our behavior with Paul's parents to a more sedate, discreet level. As far as the rigid and correct Mr. and Mrs. Archer St. John were concerned, we were still Paulie's best friends, the bohemian painter boy and the cute geek who played chess. Paul's parents had no idea that there was so much more involved now.
From the country club, we'd rushed over to a backyard BBQ at Jason's parents' house, where we could be as openly affectionate with each other as we liked. A sense of impending disaster hung in the air, a something-wicked-this-way-comes aura that compelled us to cling together. We accepted congratulations, drank icy cold beers, and ate hot dogs and chili with Jason's parents and their friends before escaping to the studio above the garage.
The studio had been first our playroom, then our clubhouse, then a studio when Jason began to show an interest in art. Always, it had been our preferred hangout. Jason's studio had been the scene of many an evening of debauchery and mayhem. We'd gotten drunk for the first time there, we'd smoked pot for the first time there, and we'd had sex for the first time there. A ratty old futon and a table next to the easel were the only furnishings. A CD player sat on the floor nearby, and the scent of oil paint and turpentine had seeped into the wood.
Graduation day, we'd fallen together on that futon and held each other close for long moments. We exchanged kisses and caresses, whispers of reassurance and love. In this place we could pretend that our world wasn't changing more rapidly than we'd prepared for. In this place, we could just be...three men in love.
I leaned against the door and watched as my friends, my lovers, hastily shed clothing and set the scene. Jason had Tom Petty pouring from the CD player in no time. I feasted my eyes on smooth white skin, taut, firmly muscled bodies, and hard, throbbing cocks as I slipped out of my own Dockers and dress shirt.
As always when we were close, we couldn't keep our hands to ourselves. I sighed in pleasure. I lay back on the futon in the corner, salvaged from Jason's mom's renovation of the guest room years earlier, and watched Jason and Paul kiss hungrily.
Cheeks flushed and eyes sparkling, they approached me, intent on satisfaction. One hot, wet mouth latched on to a nipple, and the other covered mine. I reveled in the flavor of Paul's mouth as Jason sucked me sweetly, tenderly. I nudged him away.
"All of us, at the same time," I whispered.
A bit of shuffling and rearranging and Jason was on his knees beside the bed, Paul behind him. While Jason tormented me, severely testing my willpower with the seductive heat of his mouth, Paul prepped him for entry.
Jason moaned in gratification as Paul's thick cock slid slowly into his waiting body. Paul paused and we all waited, poised on the edge of orgasm, for Jason to adjust to the invasion. At last his brow smoothed, and his lips parted on a sigh of pleasure. He opened his mouth wide to take my cock to the root, and Paul thrust carefully, his face intent, eyes luminous as they met mine. We leaned forward to kiss over Jason, who arched his neck and twisted his head to get a part of the kiss.
Kisses were forgotten as the end fast approached, and Jason reached for his own cock, to have his hand batted away by Paul, who stroked him furiously, matching his rhythm.
Jason pulled away from my cock when orgasm overcame him, and I stared enraptured as ecstasy washed over his features. Beautiful, he was so fucking beautiful when he came. My own tribute to love spurted, landing in slick arcs across his face, lips, and chin. Paul cried out and slumped forward as he too found satisfaction. We lay in replete aftermath, words of love, soft chuckles, and tender jibes passing for conversation.
The demands of the world couldn't be held back for long, and no sooner had we made ourselves decent than it was time to head off for the next event.
The round of parties and drinking and celebration had lasted throughout the night, and every minute that passed, we became as a unit more desperate to break away. Our time together was precious now, because the next day would bring a big change. Bigger, perhaps, than we had dreamed.
In all our dreamy talks and confidences, reality had never played a part. I never realized how my heart would ache at the idea of being separated from Jason and Paul. I had only considered how wonderful California would be with the beaches, the missions, the cities, and the museums. The job I'd been offered had seemed like a dream come true. A place that wasn't always ass-freezing cold? Summers free, and long holidays? Teaching in California had a great deal of appeal. I tried to convince the others to leave with me, but Paul had a job offer in New York City, and Jason wanted to paint in the mountains. His parents would allow him to stay at home and focus on his art, and he wouldn't even need to work.
So this was it. May twenty-six, two thousand, sunrise in the park. The final sunrise for a year.
We sat together, arms wrapped about each other, staring out across the still water of the pond, focusing on the deep blues giving way to intense reds and oranges, unspeaking. There were no more words to say. This was goodbye. Two of us had flights out of town that afternoon, and one of us had pictures to paint.
"You're coming back, right?" Jason asked.
I turned and reached across Paul, in the middle, to tug on one of Jason's dreadlocks, twining it about my fingers. As I shifted on the bench, my shoulder brushed Paul and sent him swaying as well. His hand landed on Jason's knee as he, too, turned.
"Babe," I remember saying with foolish confidence. "Nothing could keep me away!"
"May twenty-six, two thousand one," Paul's mellow, cultured voice inserted. "We'll meet here at sunrise and see how the year has gone." Paul grabbed our hands, withdrew a pen from his pocket—ever the closet poet, our Paul—and he wrote on the backs of our hands.
"So you won't forget." He drew both newly inked hands to his mouth and pressed a kiss to each inner palm, and my skin tingled in response, as always.
Jason stared at his hand and at mine, then grabbed Paul's hand and the pen. He carefully copied Paul's 5/26/01 sunrise comment and added something I couldn't quite read beneath it. Then he grabbed my hand, and as I watched, he added the same notation to mine. A tiny series of three hearts overlapped under the message.
Not to be outdone, I grabbed the pen and scrawled an infinity symbol below each message, then held out my hand to Jason. "Do mine too." He complied, tracing the symbol below the hearts.
Paul took out his cell phone, and we lay our hands in his lap. He snapped a quick shot, and we sighed in relief. A pact had been made.
This was no end. It was a beginning, and we would still be together.