Six Feet Apart

an excerpt






Chapter One

I wasn't expecting very much at all when I sat at my computer that night last March. I guess I was suffering from the post festive-season blues. I just wanted something different in my life, not necessarily someone, just a change of course perhaps. I had considered hitting one of the many bars on University Avenue. San Diego has a plentiful supply of gay haunts, but right then the idea of venturing inside one by myself, didn't really appeal.

I'm a bit of a socially awkward guy, not good at joining in with groups. I have friends, but they're either straight or coupled, so not available at short notice to go out for a night on the town, as it were. Anyway, for some reason, that night sitting at my computer, I ended up in a male chat room. I must have saved the URL, for suddenly I was staring at some thumbnails of handsome dudes and some not so handsome, some with big smiles on their faces and others who looked downright gloomy. I couldn't help but wonder who they hoped to attract with such long faces.

For fun I picked the guy with the biggest smile, which on closer inspection was more than just big. It was beautiful. I clicked on his profile. His name was Sean Harlan. He was twenty-nine years of age, had light brown hair and blue eyes. His height was five eleven, he was in shape but not muscular, and he was looking for friendship that might lead to more.

Well Sean, friendship's okay with me too. But leading to more? Not in the cards any time soon. Been there, got burned too many times, over it. However, his smile was contagious, and, with what I could tell was a goofy look on my face, I stared, smiling back at him. Oh, what the hell. I shot off a message to the address he'd given on his profile.

Me: Hi Sean, my name is Taylor Johnson. I don't have a photo of myself at hand, but I'm 30, same height as you, dark brown hair, gray eyes. I'm pretty much in shape. I like to run. Looking for a guy to pal around with, go for a drink occasionally, maybe dinner, movies, that kind of thing. No strings.

There. Didn't sound too enticing, I had to admit, but what the hey, he'd either reply, or he wouldn't. From the looks of things, there were plenty more fish in the sea or guys to choose from, if you prefer. But the longer I gazed at his smile, I kinda, sorta hoped he'd reply. I pushed my chair back from my computer and stood then headed to the kitchen to get a beer from the fridge. As I pulled back the tab on the can I thought I heard a "ding" from the living room but couldn't be certain.

I strolled back and stared at the computer's screen. What d'you know? A message from Sean. There was an odd feeling in my stomach as I sat down. What if it says "Why no photo? Are you butt ugly or something? Or is your face on a wanted poster in some police station?" Telling myself I was really a dumbass I opened the message.

Sean: Hi, Taylor. Nice name. Don't worry about the photo. Some guys look nothing like the pics they post anyway. If you're up for it, we could meet for a chat in person. I prefer doing that in a public place, like Barnes & Noble or Starbucks for instance. Not that I think you might turn out to be a serial killer, but safety first isn't a bad idea. What d'you say? Tomorrow night works for me. How about you?

So, Sean believed in not rushing into a first meeting right away. Good. It gave me time to look forward to seeing him or cancel.

Me: Hi again, Sean. Tomorrow night is good for me too. Let's say the Starbucks on 5th St. at 8pm?

Sean: Sounds good, Taylor. Look forward to meeting you.

Me: Wait, how will we know each other?

Sean: You've seen my photo, and I do look exactly like it.

Me: Okay. I think I'd recognize that beautiful smile anywhere.

Shit, that sounded like I was flirting with him already.

Sean: Glad you like my smile. See you at Starbucks at eight.

Okay, so I'd committed to a date with Sean. I felt a tingle of excitement mixed with apprehension. I'm not good at small talk, but I had a feeling Sean just might be a talker, and I could listen...that I could do...if he actually showed up.

***

I'm a graphic artist, so work is pretty much time consuming. We had a new client, Troy Asher, who wanted some specific logos for his business. The boss gave him to me, and I spent a couple of hours with him while he told me his ideas, and I tried to draw some things from his imagination. Actually, it wasn't that hard. He knew what he wanted, and from the looks of things, he was happy with what I'd interpreted on paper. He was a nice-looking guy, had a gay vibe, and seemed to have an easy-going personality. I looked forward to working with him on it and maybe some other project, down the road.

Later, my boss gave me a thumbs up, indicating that Mr. Asher had given the job to us. Before I knew it, we were shutting up shop, and I had a couple of hours before my date with Sean rolled around. Time to go home, have a bite to eat, shower and choose something to wear that was casual as well as presentable enough to make a good first impression.

After I'd showered I stared at the row of shirts in my closet. After mentally dismissing most of them as too formal, I chose a light green cK sweater my sister had given to me at Christmas. She said it made my eyes pop. That, my Tommy Bahama jeans, and my favorite Marshall black boots would complete my ensemble. The mirror told me I looked okay. I'm not a jock by any means, but I have wide shoulders, and the running keeps me from growing love handles or extra weight on my stomach. I winked at my reflection then laughed at myself. At least I was in a fairly decent mood as I set out to meet Sean with the great smile.

The Starbucks we'd chosen for our rendezvous is only a few blocks from my apartment, so a brisk ten-minute walk in the cool evening air was just what the doctor ordered. As I neared the coffee shop, I experienced a little tingle of nervousness in the pit of my stomach. It had been a long time since I'd done this. In fact, to be honest the only other time was when my sister arranged a blind date for me, and the less said about that, the better.

As I rounded the corner, I could see into the Starbucks' interior through the large window at the front. There were only a few people inside, most of them staring at their phones or laptops. No one looked like Sean from what I could see. Was he going to be a no-show? Should I go in anyway, order a drink, sit, and wait for a few minutes? Okay, I could do that, give him the benefit of the doubt. I glanced at my watch. He was only a couple of minutes late. Just as I was about to open the coffee shop's door, a hand on my shoulder made me jump.

"Hi, sorry..." There was that smile, except in person it was even more beautiful. "Are you Taylor by any chance?"

"I am by any chance," I replied with what I hoped was a dash of humor. "You must be Sean."

"Guilty as charged." He held out his hand, and I took it, liking the firmness of his grip. "Did you want to go in for a coffee?"

"Um..." I hesitated. He'd said he wanted to meet somewhere public, so a walk in the park was maybe off the list of public places. It was dark after all. "How about a real drink, say at The Gallery?"

"Sounds like a plan. I haven't been there in a while."

"It hasn't changed much, but it's the quietest gay bar I know. No crazy loud music, so we can talk."

We walked up to University Avenue, the center of Hillcrest, or Boystown,as it's often called, our shoulders touching now and then. His hand brushed mine a couple of times, and he looked my way and smiled each time it happened. We didn't say much, just a reference to the weather and how nice an evening it was. I started wondering if he was as socially awkward as me. Maybe I'd have to man up and start the conversation. When we got to the bar, he held the door open for me and squeezed my shoulder as I brushed past him. I caught a whiff of his cologne, something spicy that made me want to lean in closer. I had to admit I liked him touching me. There had been an unexpected tingle when his fingers had brushed mine on our walk.

We found a couple of stools at a table in the corner. "This looks good," he said. "And you're right. I like their choice of music...cool jazz, nice." His cell chimed as he sat. "Sorry..." He stared at the screen for a moment, grimaced then shut his phone off.

"You can take it if it's important," I told him. "I don't mind."

He shook his head. "It's not important, and anyway I'm one of those strange beings who thinks it's rude to talk on the phone when you have company."

I nodded. "I guess I'm one of those strange beings too. There's nothing sadder than watching two people sitting together and talking into their phones to God only knows who, instead of each other."

"Right..." He touched my arm. "That sweater is a great color on you, brings out the green in your eyes."

I ducked my head, certain that I was blushing under his gaze. "That's what my sister said when she bought it for me."

"She's right, and she has good taste."

The waiter, who didn't look old enough to be anywhere near a bar, launched himself at our table with a bright smile, told us his name was Randy, and asked what we'd like to drink. I ordered a scotch and soda, and Sean ordered a vodka martini.

"Be right back," Randy chirped and sped off to the bar.

"He's full of beans," Sean remarked. "Talking of beans..." He picked up the bar food menu.

"Are you hungry?" I asked.

"I could eat. I got tied up with, uh...some arrangements I had to take care of, so I didn't have time for anything but getting ready to meet you."

"Oh, well order something." A pleased flush spread through me at the thought he'd rushed home and skipped eating, just so he could meet me on time. "Last time I was here, which I have to admit was probably a year ago, I had the sliders, and they were very good."

He raised an eyebrow. "Don't go out much then?"

"I used to, but the last year or so I've been too busy to hit the bars. I want to start my own business, so I've been saving to become independent."

"What d'you do?"

"I'm a graphic artist and web designer."

"Oh, interesting."

"And you, Sean?"

He sighed. "I was an event planner until a month ago, when my bastard partner took everything from our joint bank account and disappeared."

I stared at him, shocked by what he'd just said. "Oh, wow, that's terrible. I'm so sorry. You must have been devastated."

"You could say that..." He paused as Randy dropped our drinks off.

"Anything else, guys?"

"Uh, yeah, I'll have the sliders," Sean said. "You, Taylor?"

"No, I'll pass. I had a bite before we met." He looked a little upset. Maybe he didn't like the idea of eating in front of me. "I might filch a couple of the fries they come with. They're good too."

"The best," Randy proclaimed as if he made them himself.

"Okay." Sean's smile was back, and Randy waltzed off to put in his order.

"So you were saying you're an event planner?"

"Was."

"But surely you still are," I said, hoping I wasn't opening up a subject he didn't want to talk about. "Just because you had some bad luck with your partner doesn't mean you can't strike out on your own. You still have the talent it takes, don't you?" He stared at me for a long moment, and I began to think I'd blown the fledgling friendship we'd begun. "I-I'm sorry, if I said the wrong thing."

"You didn't." He reached across the table and ran his fingers over the back of my hand. His touch was like a tiny electric shock, and I jumped slightly then laughed with embarrassment. He grinned and took my hand in his. "You felt that too, huh? Must be static electricity in this place."

"Oh, yeah that must be it." I wasn't about to say that it hadn't been static, that it'd been all him. Bit early for lines like that, but darn it, he had the prettiest mouth I'd ever seen on any man. His lips were full and soft-looking. I had to control the urge in me to lean across the table and find out just how soft they really were.

He looked down at our joined hands. "Anyway, I was going to say thank you for what you said about me still having the talent. I haven't been getting a lot of encouragement from other people." He squeezed my hand then withdrew it as Randy got ready to plonk a large plate of sliders and fries in front of him.

I waited until Randy had left us with a cheerful, "Enjoy!" before saying, "Your friends aren't encouraging? Sorry...I'll let you eat. The way you're looking at those sliders tells me you're more than just famished."

Sean laughed. "You're right, but three's too many for me. Have one and some fries, then we can both chew and talk at the same time." He stopped Randy who was whizzing by our table and asked him to bring another plate. "We're sharing."

"Oh, sweet," Randy crooned. "I'll be right there."

And he was right there. "Think we'll have to call you ‘The Flash,'" Sean said smiling at him. I wouldn't swear to it, but I think Randy quivered a little as he laid a plate, fork, and napkin in front of me.

"I like to keep the guests happy," he murmured before rushing off again.

Sean chuckled as he placed a slider on my plate. "'Scuse fingers. Help yourself to the fries."

I picked up a few and munched on them while Sean took a bite of his slider. "Mmm...you were right. This is good. Thanks for the suggestion."

"So now that we can chew and talk at the same time, tell me why you think you can't start up on your own." I met his gaze as he dabbed at his mouth with his napkin.

"Believe me, I've thought about it, even acted on it a couple of times, but it seemed as if the excitement I used to feel when we got a new client just wasn't there." He took another bite of his slider and chewed thoughtfully for a minute or so. "To be honest, I think what Danny, my ex-partner, did sort of soured me on the whole planning thing. I'm not a negative person really, but it felt like a chore all of a sudden rather than the thrill it used to bring me."

"I think that what your partner did has left you hurt and betrayed." I waved a fry around for emphasis. "Can't say I blame you for feeling that way. It'll take time to get over it, but you will eventually."

"Are you a counselor in your spare time?" His smile belied the snark.

"No, just saying what I believe to be true," I said. "I've been through a couple of fucked-up situations, thinking I'd never get over them, but I have." I spread my arms wide and grinned. "It's amazing how resilient I am."

He laughed, which was what I wanted him to do. "Well, I guess if you are, I can be too."

"That's the spirit." We ate for a few minutes without speaking, but our eyes met several times, and even with his mouth full, when he couldn't smile, his baby blues sparkled with humor. Why would anyone want to leave this guy in the lurch? What is wrong with people?

"Like another martini?" I asked, fingering my empty glass.

"Okay. I'm walking, so no problem."

"Great, me too. Where d'you live?"

"On Upas. Just a few blocks from here."

"I'm on Montecito, near the hospital."

I signaled at Randy, letting him know we needed refills. He was at our table, breaking records for efficiency again. "Did you enjoy the sliders?" he asked, placing fresh drinks in front of us then clearing the table at lightning speed. This boy was an employee in a million.

"Yes," Sean told him. "They were delicious. You're a good cook."

Randy giggled. "Thank you, but don't let the chef hear you say that."

We spent the rest of our time together, sipping our drinks and getting to know a little more of each other's stories. Sean said he was from Seattle originally, when I asked.

"Issaquah," he told me. "Just outside the city. My mother still lives there. Dad died three years ago..."

"Oh, I'm sorry."

"Thanks. He and I weren't very close. Didn't approve of my career, thought it was more of a woman's job." Sean shrugged dismissively. "What about your folks, Taylor?"

"They all live in Oakland. Mom, Dad, Susan, my sister, and her husband, Bill. They have two little ones, a boy and a girl. We're pretty close. I just don't see them as often as I'd like...work can get intense at times, but I try to make it for the holidays."

"It's good that you're close. Do they know you're gay?"

"What gave you that idea, that I'm gay, I mean?"

"Ha, ha." His eyes sparkled with mischief. "But now that you ask, I'd say just about everything. You're too good-looking to be straight for a start."

I laughed. "There are tons of good-looking straight men...but thanks for the compliment."