For the first time in six months, I was genuinely happy again. My body felt stronger and healthier every day, my sons were coming to spend the summer with me, and my best friend and I had never been closer. Life was finally starting to look up.
After the spontaneous kiss we’d shared in the kitchen, Nick and I had agreed to take things slow. Waiting for him to make the first move had worked out well for me, and I knew I needed to stay patient. As long as I let Nick set the pace, we would keep moving forward in our relationship, whereas I worried we’d take a step back if I pushed him. He was clearly still uncomfortable with his newfound feelings, and I had to give him time to accept them. I was willing to wait for as long as it took. To me, Nick was worth it.
In the meantime, we had plenty to preoccupy us. Leigh was flying down the second week in June with James and Holden, who would be staying with me for the next two months. A few days before they arrived, Nick randomly said, “Hey, Howie, remember when you promised to put a fresh coat of paint on the walls of the guest room? When are we gonna get that done? ‘Cause I can still see the outline of your kid’s name, and to be honest, it kinda bugs me.”
I laughed. “Couldn’t we just cover it up with some wooden letters that spell out ‘NICK’ instead? Would that make you feel better?”
“Depends on what font they’re in,” Nick replied. Then he rolled his eyes at me. “C’mon, dude, can’t we just go get some paint and do it today?”
I considered the request for a second, then shrugged and said, “Sure, why not? Go put some shoes on. If you’re a good boy, I’ll even let you pick out the color.”
Nick laughed. “Don’t make promises you won’t wanna keep!” he sang out as he went to find his shoes.
Sure enough, I regretted what I’d said once we were standing in the paint aisle at Home Depot, poring over paint chips. “Boring!” protested Nick, when I held up a selection of neutrals for his input. “These are all shades of beige. Let’s pick a fun color!”
“Like what?” I asked warily.
Nick wandered further down the aisle, his tongue poking out between his teeth as he studied the samples. “What about this?” he asked, pointing to a vivid, lime green.
I blinked. “Are you kidding? That would be blinding in a bedroom that size! It’d be blinding in any room of any size, actually.”
“I like it. It’s bright,” Nick said, smiling.
“Yeah, no shit. Let’s keep looking.”
“How about red?” Nick suggested.
“For an accent wall, maybe, but not a whole bedroom.”
Nick snorted. “An ‘accent wall’? Someone’s been watching too much HGTV.”
“No, someone used to have a wife,” I corrected him. “Leigh liked to watch HGTV. I just got sucked in sometimes.”
He laughed. “Watch it, Howie, your gay is showing,” he muttered, just loud enough for me to hear.
“So what? Homophobe.” My voice was louder, making Nick’s face flush.
“Shut up, I am not.”
“Could’ve fooled me.” I was only half-kidding, but I knew I’d better change the subject before I really hurt his feelings. “Sorry, bud, but red is still too bold. And it looks like blood.”
“Aww, but isn’t red the color of AIDS Awareness?”
“I think we’re more than aware, don’t you?” I snapped. Nick’s feelings for me may have changed, but not his love of messing with me. I was still waiting for the night when he’d want to mess around with me in another way.
“Touchy, touchy,” Nick said in a sing-song voice, strolling ahead of me down the aisle while I frowned at his back. How nice for him that he could now joke about what had happened to us, but I couldn’t forget that my actions had also hurt my wife and infant son, who’d once occupied the room we were painting. It would never be a laughing matter to me.
In the end, we settled on a pale blue-gray that Nick said reminded him of the sky. We bought a gallon of it and headed back home to start painting. This didn’t go much better than picking out the paint.
“Haven’t you ever painted a wall before?” I asked Nick, after watching him roll on drippy lines of paint in random directions.
“Uh, yeah. I think I helped my parents once when I was a kid,” he replied.
I rolled my eyes behind his back. Well, that explains a lot, I thought. Trying to keep my tone light, so it wouldn’t sound like I was nagging him, I said, “You know, it looks a lot better if you only go in one direction... like coloring. And, hey, make sure you rub the extra paint off your roller so it doesn’t drip so much.”
“Thanks for the handy hints, Bob Vila.”
“You’re welcome, Stevie Wonder.”
“Wait, what??” Nick laughed.
“Just saying... a blind man could do a neater job painting than you are.”
“Ohh, burn!” He was still laughing. “Damn, Howie, when did you turn into such a smartass?”
“Since I started living with you.”
He turned around and grinned, oblivious to the paint dripping down his front from the roller he was holding in midair. “Well, at least you learned from the best.”
I sighed. “Thank god we put down drop cloths.”
Nick looked down at his paint-splattered tank top and giggled again. “Oops.”
“It’s okay,” I said. “You didn’t need that wifebeater anyway.”
“Whatcha sayin’, Howie? You want me to take it off?” Nick wiggled his eyebrows. How he could go from endearingly clueless to deliberately sexy in the span of five seconds was a mystery to me, but it was one of the things I adored about him.
“If you must,” I said with a wink.
Nick smirked. He set his roller down in the paint tray and made a big show of flexing his biceps before he attempted to rip his tank top right down the middle. I watched, suppressing a smile, as he struggled with the fabric for a few seconds, then gave up and peeled the shirt off over his head, managing to smear paint into his hair. He proceeded to twirl the top around his finger. I couldn’t tell if he was trying to be seductive or trying to be funny, but I pretended to be turned on by it.
“C’mere, you,” I said, beckoning him over. When he got close enough, I rose on tiptoe and planted a kiss on his cheek. “You’re adorable. Did you know you have blue hair now?”
Nick’s nose wrinkled. “What?” He reached up and put a hand to his hair, getting paint on that too. “Man... I’m a fucking mess,” he finally admitted, laughing, as he looked at his paint-streaked palm.
“A hot mess,” I replied.
With a grin, he suddenly wrapped his arms around me and pulled me tight to his chest. His bare skin was warm and slightly damp with perspiration. He kissed me until I was dizzy, then wheeled me around and pressed me up against the wall. “Nick-” I started to protest, but he silenced me with another kiss. By the time we broke apart, I was also covered in paint.
“Now you’re a hot mess, too,” said Nick triumphantly, still grinning.
I turned to look at the wall he’d thrown me up against, the wall I had just finished painting. There was now a body-shaped smudge in the drying paint. “Nick!” I groaned. “Thanks a lot; now I have to redo this wall. If you’re not more careful, we’re gonna have to go back and get another gallon of paint.”
“Sorry, my bad. Want me to go over that wall again?” Nick asked, picking up his roller.
“No! Just... finish your wall, and try to roll in one direction, would ya?”
“One direction. Got it.” He turned away, as I tried to salvage the smudged wall. I was so deep in concentration, I didn’t realize the eighties music we’d been listening to on Nick’s phone had been replaced with something else until I heard Nick singing. “‘You’re insecure... don’t know what for... you’re turning heads when you walk through the do-o-or...’”
“Uh, Nick? Did you change the station?” I asked, turning around.
He grinned over his shoulder at me. “One Direction Radio - I thought it might help me remember. ‘Everyone else in the room can see it, everyone else but you... Baby, you light up my world like nobody else. The way that you flip your hair gets me overwhelmed, but when you smile at the ground, it ain’t hard to tell, you don’t kno-o-ow... you don’t know you’re beautiful.’” I watched him dance around, shaking his butt as he sang along. Even when he was trying to be funny, his vocals were perfect. As for his painting? Not so much, but at least he really had started rolling in the same direction.
Shrugging, I said, “Whatever works, man.” I didn’t mind the music selection. It was just nice to hear Nick having fun. For the first time in six months, he seemed genuinely happy again, too.
“Well? Whatcha think?”
Standing just inside the doorway, Nick and I admired the freshly-painted guest room. It had taken three coats to cover all the flaws, but once the paint finished drying, I was pretty sure it would look fine.
“I like it,” I said. “What do you think? You’re the one who’s gonna be sleeping here.”
Nick nodded as he looked around the room, then down at himself. There was paint spattered all down his bare chest, paint on his hands, paint in his hair, paint everywhere. “I think I need a shower.”
I laughed. “Me too, thanks to you. Care to join me?” The words came out of my mouth before I could stop them. Inwardly, I scolded myself: So much for taking it slow. “Just kidding,” I added quickly, trying to cover my mistake. “I mean, unless you want to...”
Nick raised his eyebrows. “You suck at lying, Howie. I know you want some of this.” He ran his hands down his chest, and even though he was speckled with blue, I did. I wanted to run my own hands all over his body and peel every last fleck of paint off his skin.
“I... I don’t want to pressure you into anything,” I stammered. “It’s your decision.”
He smirked at me. “Relax, dude. It’s not like we haven’t seen it all before, right?”
Now it was my turn to raise my eyebrows. “So... does that mean you do want to?”
Nick chuckled. “Come on.” He brushed past me and headed down the hall to my bedroom. I followed, my heart pounding in anticipation. Leave it to Nick to play me hot and cold. I shouldn’t have expected anything less; he had always been moody and unpredictable like that.
We went into my master bathroom, which had a whirlpool tub and a separate, walk-in shower. “You just want an excuse to use my shower,” I joked.
Nick shrugged. “Yeah, pretty much,” he admitted, grinning at me.
“I see how it is,” I said with a wink, then opened the glass doors and reached in to turn on the rainfall shower head. As the room started to steam up, I tried to strip off my paint-soaked t-shirt, but it stuck to my sweaty back.
“Here,” Nick laughed, as I struggled to free myself from the tangle of fabric in front of my face. “Let me help.” He wrapped his arms around me and gave the t-shirt a tug. I felt a flash of pain and pleasure from it pulling the hair on my back as Nick pried it away from my skin. He guided it up and over my head, then let it fall to the floor.
“Thank you,” I whispered, looking up into his beautiful, paint-flecked face. His arms were still around me, his bare chest touching mine. I could feel the vibration of his heart thumping against his ribcage, or maybe that was my own heart pounding. It was hard to tell which of us was more nervous. We hadn’t been this close, skin-to-skin, since that night on the cruise. Wrapping my arms around his neck, I leaned in and lightly kissed his lips. “You taste like paint,” I said, as I pulled away.
He laughed. “And what exactly does paint taste like, Howie?”
“I dunno... it tastes how it smells - bad.”
Nick inhaled deeply. “I actually love the smell of wet paint. Does that make me weird?”
“No, it only adds to your weirdness. You were already weird.”
He smirked down at me. “You like weirdos, then.”
“I’m starting to,” I admitted, winking at him. I ran my hands down his bare back until I reached the waistband of his shorts. I slipped my thumbs underneath and slowly slid them down his hips. He put his hands on my shoulders as his shorts dropped below his knees, holding onto me for balance as he stepped out of them. I couldn’t resist looking down.
“Hey,” said Nick sharply. “My eyes are up here.”
I quickly looked away, feeling my face flush. Nick took advantage of my temporary distraction to depants me with the practiced hand of an expert prankster: all it took was one sharp tug, and my shorts were around my ankles.
He snickered. “Gotcha.”
It wasn’t the first time I’d been pansted by Nick, but it was the first time I’d enjoyed it.
Leaving our clothes in a pile on the floor, we stumbled into the shower. Nick closed his eyes as he stood under the spray of warm water. “God, this feels so good,” he said.
I squirted some body wash into my palm, worked it into a lather, and put my hands on his chest. He let out a sigh of pleasure as I scrubbed his skin with soap, peeling away the latex paint. I played with his nipples until they hardened under my fingertips, enjoying the fact that I could arouse him. Wondering what else I could make hard, I ran my hand down the center of his chest and over his abs, following the faint treasure trail of hair there. When my fingers were just above his pubic bone, his eyes suddenly popped open.
“Whoa! Slow down there,” he said. “Gimme some of that soap, would ya?” Disappointed, I pulled back and handed him the bottle of body wash. “Now turn around,” he ordered me. I obeyed and soon felt his hands on my back, washing away the sticky residue from the paint that had saturated my shirt. I groaned with pleasure as his strong hands worked their way up to my shoulders, massaging my sore muscles. It had been so long since anyone had touched me like that.
Suddenly, I felt something firm pressing against the small of my back. When I turned around and saw what it was, my eyes widened. “Well, hello there!”
Nick winced when he looked down. “Shit... I’m sorry,” he said, turning away from me toward the wall.
I chuckled. “Why are you sorry? Like you said, it’s nothing I haven’t seen before.”
He shook his head. “I dunno... This is still so new to me.”
“You’ve never had a boner before?” I joked.
Nick glared at me over his shoulder. “Shut up. You know what I mean. It’s... it’s just weird, is all.”
“It doesn’t have to be,” I said quietly. “We’re two people who are attracted to each other. What’s so weird about that?”
He didn’t answer. I watched the beads of water roll down his back as he huddled against the wall, trying to hide himself from me.
“You have nothing to be ashamed of, Nick,” I added. “I know how you feel. I felt weird about it at first, too. I’d always been taught that it was unnatural, but honestly, being with women never felt natural to me.”
“But I love women!” Nick protested. “That’s what I can’t wrap my head around. How can I like girls and have these feelings for you at the same time?”
“So you like both,” I said, shrugging. “What’s so bad about that? You get the best of both worlds.”
He just shook his head.
I sighed. “Look, I know you’re not religious, Nick, but I believe God made us this way, and God doesn’t make mistakes.”
He snorted. “Yeah? What if getting HIV was God’s way of smiting us for sinning?”
His words hurt, but I refused to accept them. “I don’t believe that. The Church may disagree, but I don’t see loving someone as a sin.”
“Loving someone?” he repeated, laughing derisively. “And here I thought we were just fooling around.”
I swallowed hard. “I do love you, Nick,” I said softly. “I’ve loved you for a long time.” I saw his body stiffen. “I’m sorry if that makes you uncomfortable. I know this is still new to you, but I’ve felt this way for a long time. It feels good to finally say the words out loud.”
I waited a few seconds to see if he would reply. When he didn’t, I added, “You don’t have to say anything back. Just... let me help you, okay?” I put a hand on his shoulder, slowly turning him toward me. “Let me help you,” I repeated, extending my other hand.
He hesitated, then closed his eyes and nodded. As I wrapped my hand around his hardness and squeezed, some of the tension left his shoulders. He leaned against the shower wall, breathing raggedly, until I’d worked him to the point of release. Then his whole body went limp.
“Damn, Howie,” he whispered, doubling over to catch his breath.
I laughed. “Better?”
He nodded. “Yeah.” He straightened up again and reached for my shampoo. “Dr. Usako can suck it,” he muttered under his breath, as he squirted some into his hand. “Erectile dysfunction, my ass.”
“What?” I said in surprise.
He rolled his eyes and shook his head. “Just something my doctor said once. I don’t have it, obviously,” he added, scrubbing his scalp so vigorously, I worried he was going to rip his hair right out at the roots.
I reached up and took his hands, pulling them away from his head and replacing them with mine. “Yes, I can see that,” I said, massaging the shampoo into his scalp. “So why would she think you did?”
“‘Cause Lauren told her I couldn’t keep it up in the bedroom. As if it was any of her freaking business.”
I frowned, wondering why he would tell me that. Was he admitting he hadn’t been sexually attracted to Lauren after all? And then I remembered what he’d told me the day he’d left her: “I can’t let that happen to Lauren. I won’t.” That’s when it occurred to me. “Because you were afraid of infecting Lauren?” I asked.
Nick nodded, his eyes cast downward. I continued to run my fingers through his hair, making sure all the paint had been washed out of it. “It’s okay, Nick,” I said, guiding him back under the showerhead to rinse off the shampoo. “You don’t need to worry about that now.”
“I know,” he said quietly, closing his eyes. I felt a wave of fresh guilt wash over me with the lukewarm water, as I remembered that I was really at fault for ruining their relationship. Nick may have been the one to end the engagement, but I was the reason he’d felt he had to. The fact that I was secretly glad he was here with me instead of back in L.A. with Lauren made me feel even guiltier... but it wasn’t enough to keep me from taking advantage of the situation while I could.
When we finally got out of the shower, we wrapped ourselves in warm towels and drifted away to different parts of the condo to get dressed. Nick’s clothes, along with all the furniture from his room, were in James and Holden’s room while the paint was drying.
“Even if we move the bed back in, I don’t think you’re gonna be able to sleep in here tonight,” I said later that evening, when Nick and I went in to check the walls. “Smell those paint fumes.”
Nick wrinkled his nose and nodded. “It’s okay. I can sleep on the couch,” he said. “Or in James’s bed.”
“Or mine,” I offered. He looked at me, eyebrows raised, and I felt my face getting warm. “I just meant, you’re welcome to sleep in my bed with me, if you want. We don’t have to do anything other than sleep.”
He smirked. “In that case... I’ll consider your offer.”
I knew there was no way Nick would want to sleep on the couch or in my son’s twin bed when he could have half of my comfortable king, so I wasn’t surprised when he came back to the master bedroom with me that night.
What did surprise me was when, out of the blue, he suddenly blurted, “So what’s it like to fuck a dude?”
He was standing in the doorway of the bathroom, watching me brush my teeth. When I heard that, I almost choked on a mouthful of toothpaste. Coughing and sputtering, I ran to the sink and spat.
Nick chuckled. “Smooth.”
I wiped off the corners of my mouth. “Sorry... wasn’t expecting that.”
“Yeah, well... what’s it like?”
I wondered why he wanted to know. Was he considering doing more than sleeping in my bed, or was he merely curious? “Well...” I said slowly, watching him in the mirror as I rinsed off my toothbrush. “It doesn’t feel all that different from doing it with a woman, once you get past the initial weirdness. Why?” I caught his eye and grinned. “You want me to show you?”
Nick shuddered. “No, I don’t want you to stick your dick up my ass, Howie.” He turned and disappeared back into the bedroom.
I contemplated that for a moment, then shrugged. “You could be on top, if you want,” I called after him, sticking my head through the doorway.
Nick was sitting on the edge of the bed, his back to me. He shook his head. “No... I’d probably rip you apart.”
I snorted, ducking back into the bathroom. “I know you like to think you’re so well-endowed and all, but I’m sure I can handle it,” I said. “You won’t hurt me.”
My own words triggered something in me. I turned to look at the shower, thinking back to our earlier conversation and Nick’s admission that he’d been afraid to have sex with Lauren. Suddenly, his conflicted, hot-and-cold feelings started to make more sense to me. I set my toothbrush down on the counter and walked back into the bedroom. Sitting down next to him, I wrapped my arm around his shoulders.
“Did you hear what I said?” I asked, hugging him to my side. “You don’t have to be afraid anymore, Nick. You won’t hurt me. You can’t.”
I turned my head and looked into his eyes. They were wide with uncertainty, but behind that, I thought I saw something else in his expression. Was it curiosity - or desire? I still couldn’t tell. I put my hand on his thigh and gave it a gentle squeeze, watching for his reaction.
Nick took a deep, shuddering breath and released it slowly. My own breath caught in my throat as he whispered, “Okay.”