"Oh, man," he sighed as he looked at the man slumped over the table. "What the hell am I supposed to do with you?"
He shook his head, passing the man and going over to the bartender. "He's been here a while, hunh?"
"Couple of hours. Pretty clear from the outset all he wanted to do was drink himself into a stupor. Did a damn fine job of it too."
"I can see."
The bartender looked a little sheepish. "I didn't realize how far gone he was until he keeled over. I called as soon as I saw that."
"And I appreciate it." He sighed again. "I am not looking forward to this."
"What's his story?" The man behind the bar asked. "I mean, someone who downs that much vodka in one sitting…"
"Long story. Let's just say the guy's got a lot of demons to wrestle."
The bartender gave a dry chuckle. "Yeah, we get a lot of those in here. You need some help or do you think you can handle him?"
"I got it. I hope." He took a step forward then turned back. "Is his tab covered?"
"Yep. Paid for the bottle upfront. Let me know if you need help, okay?"
He sighed as he pushed the half-finished bottle of vodka away, having to practically pry the fingers off the glass.
"Wasn't down - done - with that," was the slurred response from the man who was trying hard to lift his head from the table.
"Actually, you are."
"Not," was the petulant reply. Bleary eyes finally looked up at him. "You. What are you doing here? Come to rescue me? Don't need rescuing."
"Who does? Nope, I'm just here to keep you company."
"Oh." A hand batted the bottle towards the man. "Have a drink."
"Thanks, but I'm fine."
"I'm crappy company."
"I got that. Can I ask why?"
"Because life isn't fair. So much pain… Why so much pain?" Tears started to trickled down the man's face, and he choked back a sob before lowering his face to his hands and letting the tears flow.
He sighed and moved over to the other side of the table and pulled the man into a tight hug, holding him as his body shook from the weeping. It took a while for the man to regain his composure and when he did finally wipe the tears away, John's head was pounding so hard he could barely lift it. Whether from alcohol or from the crying, if someone had offered to scoop out his throbbing brain with a rusty spoon… at that moment he'd gladly take them up on it.
"I warned you about my company," he told Thomas.
"You're entitled. 'Sides I've been in worse company."
"Yeah." John pulled the bottle towards him, not even bothering to pour it into the glass, simply chugging it straight. After a moment, Thomas grabbed the bottle, wrestling it out of his grasp.
"I think that's enough, don't you? It never helps, you know."
"Dude, I am an expert on the subject." He glanced around the room. "Come on. Why don't we get out of here? Go somewhere a little less… dank."
"Like it here," was the peevish reply.
"Yeah, well I could say a few things about your choice of hangouts."
Red eyes looked around the room and then the man shrugged his shoulders. "It's seen better days." He laughed sharply. "So've I."
"Preaching to the choir on that one."
"We came here the first night. Our first date. It was a cool place then. Before the neighborhood moved over a few streets. It was so nice here. So pretty. Now it's dead too."
Tom leaned back in the chair. "Tell me about him."
John smiled wistfully. "He was… he was Paul. He had this inner joy… it just shone out of him. I could never figure out what it was he saw in me. I'm just some guy from the wrong side of the tracks, and he was so beautiful. Worked in this high tech company. Not high up or anything; he was happy where he was. He had ambition, yeah, but he'd rather work somewhere with people he liked than rake in the big bucks. And he loved windy days. He'd stand out on the balcony for hours just letting the wind blow around him, this big smile on his face. God, I loved his smile…" He had a faraway look in his eyes, and an occasional tear leaked down. "So beautiful."
"When he got sick… he just kept on smiling. All he did was work hard at keeping on a brave face. You know, so all his friends wouldn't worry. He even did it for me. But there would be times, I'd come home early and he'd be doubled over, moaning and sobbing with the pain. I tried to help a few times, but it upset him so much that I saw him like that… And he lost so much weight. So thin. So fragile."
"Towards the end that was all there was: pain. He'd still try to smile that beautiful smile, but it was so much of an effort. He was so fragile… And he'd forget things. I'd come into the bathroom and he'd be holding a toothbrush in his hand staring at it, like he'd not only forgotten what he was there to do, but also what a toothbrush was, you know? I hated that the most. He was so smart, and here he was barely able to do the simplest thing."
"He was a big eater. Loved his food, and sure he had a little tummy, but not so bad. He loved new tastes and flavours. And coffee. God, he loved coffee. He was kind of snobby about it: had to have his Kona or Blue Mountain. We were all living in this Ikea furniture place, and having Kraft dinner sometimes, but the coffee was always the finest. At the end… he couldn't even drink it. He'd pour a drip or two in a cup and then fill it with hot water. Wasn't enough real coffee in it to even taste, but that was all he could manage. And anything that wasn't boiled and flavourless… he'd just throw it up."
"And the sex… god, the sex was fantastic. He was so… the things he could make me feel. We'd spend whole weekends in bed, just loving each other. I loved holding him close. Just hugging him, smelling his beautiful smell. Soap and his own natural scent. Most wonderful thing I'd ever smelled in my life. We kept on holding each other; that was all we could do for the longest time, but he smelled like medicine. Sort of pungent. But I loved him so much and I'd just keep on holding him and keeping the memory of his scent alive in my mind."
"God, what I wouldn't give to do that again. Even the sticky smell; just to be able to hold him…"
Thomas gave John's hand a squeeze. "He sounds wonderful." "He was. The one wonderful thing in my life. And then he left me. Left me forever," John started to weep again.
When John subsided again, Tom managed to get him away from the table, slinging an arm around him and practically carrying him out of the bar. John had gotten a room at a hotel just up the street: THE hotel. The place he and Paul had first made love.
And the same place John had spent the night in on every one of Paul's birthdays, whether Paul was with him or not. A place that kept his lover's spirit alive.
Thomas was going to stick him in the car he'd borrowed from Mary when the call had come in. It had been a fairly light night at Tangles so he'd been okay to take off when they got a call from the bartender. Mary had sighed, saying that she was an idiot for not remembering what day it was. Every year since Paul's death, on his birthday, the same thing happened. Usually John managed to stumble off to the hotel without any trouble - other than a massive hangover the next day - but in the past few years she'd had to go down and take care of moving the wounded man from one spot to the next. She'd tried bringing him home, instead of to the hotel, but been told in no uncertain terms that if she ever did that again she'd not only be unemployed, John would 'kick her ass' too.
So she had given Thomas her keys and told him to go take care of things. He'd heard her advice about not skipping the hotel, and was going to ignore it, however after hearing John's tale it was obvious that John needed to stay there. Tom could understand that: he'd only wished he'd had that with the man he loved. He cast that thought away; he'd run from that for so long the last thing he needed was to remember… No. He was building a new life for himself now, with John's help, and he wasn't going to start thinking about his old life anymore. Best to leave it in the past; it was the pain that John talked of. At least John had had a few years of love with his Paul. Tom would never have that with his…
He was puffing heavily when they finally made it to the room. John wasn't heavy, more awkward than anything, and Thomas wasn't a muscular man. Carrying a man who could barely walk himself didn't help. He dropped John on the bed. John rolled back with a groan, muttering something which Tom couldn't catch. He got himself a glass of air from the bathroom, and then got one for John, insisting that the man drink it down, before helping him into the bed.
John's head lolled towards him as he settled in the bed and then his hand came up and stroked Tom's face. "So pretty," he said huskily. "So very pretty. Not Paul, but pretty."
Thomas chuckled, pushing his hand away. "Not so bad yourself. A little more pickled than I like 'em, but still cool."
John struggled up, his bleary eyes looking into Thomas'. "Your eyes. So like his. So blue. Could drown in them." Then before Tom could react John was kissing him.
As kisses go it was… well, pretty awful. Tom had given a gasp of surprise, and John used it to move his tongue in. The major problem was that, in addition to alcohol breath, he was having a lot of trouble with coordination. Before Tom had the chance to push him away John has managed to not only give him a sloppy kiss, he's even licked his nose wetly.
Tom tried not to laugh as he helped John lay back on the bed. He wiped his face quickly, reassuring the drunken man. His first kiss in years - and not much to write home about. "I am such a sad man," he thought, then glanced at John. "He's sad too. For other reasons. Me… I'm just plain sad."
"John, I'm going to head out now. You just sleep and if you need help in the morning you call me, okay?"
John nodded, then groaned and held his head as the movement made his head ache worse. He looked at Tom, stroking the man's face again.
"So very pretty. Blue like my Paul. Not green like the other guy. Who was he? Wanted you. Green not blue, though."
Tom stopped in shock. "Green? Looking for me? Who was green?"
"Tall like my Paul, but green not blue. So beautiful. Tall, dark and handsome. But green. And bushy. Weird. Wanted you but I no tell…"
Tom could think of someone who matched that description, but there was no way he could be here. It didn't make sense. "John, please. Please tell me what you're talking about. Who was it? What did he say? Who are you talking about?"
The only response he got was a loud snore.