First Chapter: Hello Forever
It all began on an ordinary Friday night.
The ordinary part was that I was home alone and settling in to watch a basketball game. And if my favorite team—the Chicago Bulls—had been playing that night, my life might not have changed.
The Bulls weren’t on, though. And I was enough of a basketball nut to find another game to watch. I loved the sport in all its forms. College hoops? I’m there. A pickup game at the gym? Pass me the ball.
Basketball was my sport, my hobby, my obsession. But until that Friday night in November, I couldn’t have said that a basketball game changed my life.
Now I could.
The game I’d chosen to watch wasn’t even televised—I’d had to dig through several pages on the Barmuth University website to find a live-streaming link for the school’s game against Northern Mass.
I’d wanted to see the Barmuth Brown Bears in action, because Barmuth U. in Henning, Massachusetts had just offered me a job, and I needed to know what I was getting into.
Might be getting into. I hadn’t yet decided whether I was going to accept the position.
The job offer was in their athletic department, where I’d be employed on their budding sports-marketing team. In many ways it was my dream job. I loved sports, and I had a newly minted degree in marketing. Instead of trying to push toothpaste or insurance products, at Barmuth I’d be responsible for marketing the school’s sports events to the community and to the college’s wealthy alumni.
It sounded like a whole lot of fun.
On the other hand, Henning was a tiny, tiny town a thousand miles from my mother’s home in Ohio. And it was two and a half hours from Boston and three and a half hours from New York.
For a young, gay, single man, the location was less than ideal.
Then again, I didn’t have a lot of better options. I was living in my childhood bedroom, working an internship that did not pay. All of my friends had moved away from Columbus after graduation. There was really no reason to stay.
I was already lonely. How much worse could it be out in the woods in western Massachusetts?
My boyfriend had dumped me the day before we both graduated from OSU. “We’re too young to be serious,” he’d said. But what I heard was, Later, sucker. Thanks for all the blow jobs that I didn’t reciprocate.
So there I sat, my face close to the computer screen, watching a basketball team that would probably never darken the door of the NCAA playoffs.
Barmuth was a small, private liberal arts university. It was prestigious for both its academics and its long history. I’d done a lot of reading on the school’s website, and it seemed like a nice enough place. They had an LGBTQ students’ union, which was a good sign. And theoretically, liberal arts colleges in New England were as gay-friendly as any place on earth.
But would all that rainbow-powered goodwill extend into the dusty corners of the athletic department? That was my big concern.
At the end of my interview, my potential future boss had asked if I had any further questions. My last question should have been, “Will it ruffle any feathers if the new marketing person is as gay as a rainbow parade?” But I hadn’t asked, because I wanted them to offer me the job.
The college’s anti-discrimination policy would be wholly on my side, though there were no guarantees. And moving a thousand miles away to join a department full of strangers scared me more than I wished to admit.
On the screen, Barmuth scored a couple of three-pointers in a row. The team had some talent. I tried to imagine them as my team. In a month, I might be sitting at the officials’ table, making notes for a boosters’ press release and updating the team’s Facebook page.
And here was a strike against Barmuth—the school’s colors were an unfortunate combo of brown and white. I’d be sitting at that table wearing a brown tie.
But a guy couldn’t have everything. At least the mascot was cute. I wondered who was inside that giant brown bear costume.
When the announcer mentioned the game’s attendance was two thousand people, I cracked a smile. That was a far cry from an Ohio State game. But unlike my alma mater, Barmuth had offered to actually pay me for my labor. And working for the Barmuth Brown Bears would be a hell of a lot more fun than ending up in a cubicle at some faceless corporation.
I leaned closer to my screen, as if the proximity of my nose to the video feed would make the decision easier. When the refs stopped the game to review a play on video, I got a closer look at the officials’ table. There sat Arnie Diggs, the head of the athletic department. I recognized him from my Skype interview. He was an older man and the typical plainspoken jock.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I just wished I knew whether he was a tolerant man. Would I feel welcome in his department?
He wants to hire you, though, I reminded myself. His judgment couldn’t be that bad. Obviously.
The camera moved slowly across the stands, and I scanned the basketball-loving population of Henning, Massachusetts for clues. Could I make a life there? As the announcer yammered about a two-for-one special on pizza slices, I watched the crowd’s faces.
It was right then that my night took a turn for the weird. Because one of those faces was really familiar.
He was in the third row. My eye snagged on a set of handsome cheekbones and a cleft chin. A face I’ll never forget…
“Oh my God,” I said aloud. It couldn’t be him, my mind chided. But it really looked like him. Really. A lot.
Naturally, the shot cut away before I was ready. The camera went back to a view of the basket, and a player about to try for a free throw. But I was no longer interested in the players. They were just a blur to me now.
Instead, I sat there quietly freaking out, trying to decide if my subconscious had played a trick on me.
The last time I’d seen Cax Williams had been here in Ohio. We were sixteen. He’d been important to me back then, even if I’d never told him so. We went to the same church retreats from third grade up until the awful day when I last saw him.
It had been Labor Day weekend, and the church diocese had rented out a girl scouts’ camp to host the youth retreat. Cax and I had gotten caught doing something decidedly secular in nature. Although one of us might have said, “Oh, God.”
We’d been on a church retreat, for fuck’s sake. Not my sharpest hour getting caught with Cax in a liplock. The pastor in charge had stumbled across us in the woods. He’d had a proper fit and marched us into the office, where they’d yelled at us in separate rooms. Sin and hellfire and all that.
They’d also called our parents.
From what I could gather, our parents had vastly different reactions to our stupidity. After having stern words with my mom, the pastor had finally handed me the phone. And my mother had laughed.
“Oh, honey,” she’d said with a giggle. “I’m so sorry to laugh. But you’re going to have to work on being subtle. Do you want me to pick you up? The director said I could decide whether to bring you home a day early or to wait until tomorrow, like normal.”
“I don’t need to come home,” I’d choked out. Not if I could stay one more night at camp with Cax. Even if they treated me like a convict, I still wanted to be near him. I needed to know if he was okay.
“All right, sweetie. Don’t take their proselytizing too hard. And call me if you change your mind.”
That was how I came out—or got outed. My mom, who’d raised me on her own and had hippie tendencies, had been typically cool about it.
But Cax? He’d disappeared.
I hadn’t seen it happen. The camp director sent me off to dinner after another long lecture and a few threats. But Cax never returned. I’d spent the last twenty-four hours at the retreat watching for him, feeling devastated.
When I’d gone home, the news only got worse. I found that I’d been blocked from his Facebook account and from his phone. He never showed up at another diocese event.
Over the intervening years, I’d thought about him. I wondered where he’d gone, and if he was happy. I’d Googled his name a few times. But “Cax” was just a nickname. His real name was Henry Caxton Williams, and there were enough Henry Williamses on the Internet to populate a small country, so I never found a reliable hit.
Now, several years later, I could swear I’d just spotted him on camera in a tiny Massachusetts town.
For the rest of the basketball game, you would have needed a hammer and chisel to pry me away from the screen. Every time the camera panned the crowd, I squinted at the third row. I spotted my mystery man each time, but I’d need another close-up shot to decide if it was really him.
In the meantime, I tried to figure out who he was sitting with. On one side sat another guy, his head down, as if he were tapping on his phone. And on the other side sat a woman.
None of this told me anything. But all of it made me crazy.
Finally (finally!) there was another close-up of the team’s bench. And there he was—his brown hair as thick and shiny as I’d remembered it. His gorgeous movie-star chin. That masculine, kissable jaw…
The broadcast cut to a commercial break, and another shred of my sanity flew out the window.
But wait! Now I could search for him on the Internet, because I had a little more to go on. I typed “Henry Williams Barmuth University” into the search box. A millisecond later I was clicking on the first link that came up, which led me to a page at Barmuth.edu. Henry C. Williams, Teaching Assistant, History Department.
Hot damn. There he was, looking back at me from the department’s website. I’d know him anywhere. The familiar, shy smile in the photo made me ache. It had been a long time since I’d allowed myself to wonder what happened to this boy who had accidentally broken my heart. I didn’t realize I’d gasped until I heard my mother’s voice.
“Axel? Is something wrong?”
I killed the browser tab so fast my thumb cracked on the button. “Nothing,” I said, determined not to be caught stalking my first love. Didn’t want my mom to know that six years later I was still thinking about the first boy I’d kissed. “Just watching a Barmuth game.”
“Are they any good?” My mother stuck her head into the den and smiled at me.
“Um,” I said, realizing I had no idea how the actual game was going. “They’re okay. They’ll be better when I’m working there.”
Mom’s eyes opened wide. “Did you decide? Are you taking it?”
“Yeah,” I heard myself say.
She came all the way into the room and hugged my head in one arm. “I’m proud of you. But I’ll miss you! Can I visit?”
“Of course.” I hugged her back a little awkwardly.
“I worry about you.”
“Why?” I chuckled. “Because I have no job, no friends and no boyfriend?”
Mom grabbed the back of my neck and shook me a little. “You have a job, but it doesn’t happen to pay actual money. You have friends, who all moved to Chicago and New York. And your boyfriend was a dick.”
“Jeez, Mom. Tell me how you really feel.”
“I hope you meet a nice boy in Massachusetts. That place might be a little lonely.”
It might. But I’d already decided I was going, whether it was crazy or not.