In Donnie's car blowing west on I84, he was aware that Justin was looking at him, not the Columbia River on their right. Donnie's heart rate was down a little and he wasn't feeling the disorienting nausea he had felt at the base of the falls. He could tell that Justin wanted to speak, seek an explanation, but couldn't figure out how to ask. If Justin had asked, Donnie would have had no explanation. Somehow, saying that he was a straight guy who was reacting to Justin the way he had to Lynn didn't seem appropriate. He also clearly understood that he wasn't angry with Justin, but he realized he was a little afraid.
Fear was disorienting, too. Donnie hadn't felt real fear for many years before meeting Lynn and not since the visit to her oncologist and her subsequent decline. He had been afraid of living without her and hadn't been able to bullshit her about that. When he would admit the fear to her, she would get the look of anyone who loves another and can't change an inevitable outcome. He tried not to discuss it with her, but periodically, she would drag him back to it. Then she'd say how sorry she was to be leaving, and he would feel like shit until one day she explained how important it was for her to try to take care of him while she was diminishing. After that, he felt a only a little less like shit.
"I'm worried," said Justin, as if he had overheard Donnie's rumination.
"Look, it has nothing to do with you. Just crap I'm still resolving."
"I know. When I first saw you in the gym, I knew you were lost. But, something's changed."
"I really appreciate your concern, and I haven't said that to many people over the past year, but I have to figure this out."
"I'm not sure that's true."
"Well, I god damn sure am!" Donnie almost shouted.
"There it is," Justin said softly. "You're really angry as well as sad."
Donnie was ashamed at his loss of control, at the eruption. He quickly reasserted mental control and tried to repair the boundary he'd allowed Justin to cross. Unsure why, he said, "I'm not going to do myself in."
He'd never even toyed with suicide, because it would be …
Justin interrupted the thought. "I know you wouldn't, because that would be disrespectful."
Donnie's eyes filled, and he thought, 'Fuck, how could he see that?'
"I'm just suggesting that talking with a new friend who isn't mixed up with the past might help."
Donnie wiped his eyes and said, "Maybe so, Justin, but in case you've missed it, and I don't imagine you have, talking to you hasn't made things clearer for me."
"I won't insult you by claiming I'm not attracted to you, but obviously you're straight. I like you, even if you are damaged. My mom always said I liked to pick up strays."
Justin reached over and placed his hand on the top of Donnie's thigh. Strangely, Donnie didn't feel assaulted. Given the content of their conversation, he didn't feel like Justin was doing anything other than establishing human contact.
"I just mean people who are alone and troubled. That hasn't always worked out for me, but I feel like we could be friends. Or does it make you feel weird talking to a gay guy about your life?"
"I feel weird talking to anyone about this, especially someone I don't know well and who is twenty years younger than I am."
"Nineteen, if I remember."
Donnie laughed. "Okay, detective. Nineteen."
"If I hug you sometime, are you going to freak? Because, I feel like you need to be hugged. The world doesn't seem safe to you anymore. If you take a chance, I won't abuse the trust."
"I thought you did I.T., not psychology. And, I'm not sure, but I don't think I'd freak."
"Message received." Justin removed his hand from Donnie's leg.
When he dropped Justin off at his apartment, Donnie asked, "How about we hit the gym tomorrow night?"
Leaning over after getting out of the Forester, Justin said, "Good. See you then. Call, if you want to talk."
"I hate to talk about important things on the phone."
Donnie watched Justin walk to his door and saw him safely in. He couldn't yet figure out what dynamic was developing. Somehow Justin had managed to change Donnie's focus from Lynn to himself.
'Fuck the antidepressants,' he thought.
The next day, one of Donnie's colleagues stopped by his desk, and said, "I'm glad you're finally perking up. We've been worried. Maybe you're letting go a little. You need to get out and get back in the mix."
Donnie said, "Thanks."
What he really wanted to say was, "Maybe I'm already back in it, and, by the way, I'm mixing it up with a guy." Of course, he wasn't mixing anything up with Justin in that sense, but he had a perverse desire to shut some of these guys up, and saying that would silence them even if they were only trying to help.
Donnie told his assistant director that he was taking a week off. He needed to get some things straight with himself. His boss simply told him to do whatever he needed to do but to make sure the unit was up to speed on his stuff. They always were because they were good. So, at the end of the day he headed home for a week.
Firearms and alcohol never mix well, so he had stopped drinking after he joined CID. That meant he hadn't had alcohol during his entire marriage. Lynn had been a social drinker who fortunately got funnier and hornier after a couple of glasses of wine or a mixed drink. She had preferred Bourbon of all things. He became a de facto designated driver for their crowd, which didn't include many of his colleagues and did include a lot of hers. Lynn had socialized with some of the wives, but cops were mainly solitary beings except for drinking and sports. He hadn't been tempted to drink himself into oblivion after she died. He had never used recreational drugs and rarely used therapeutic ones. After his evening run, he had a couple of hours before heading to the gym.
Donnie had learned that writing things down helped him organize problems. He always used white boards when working a case, a habit that drove some of his partners crazy. The only sure way to piss him off was to fuck with his white board. So, he began to scribble on a legal pad. His method was to free associate and brainstorm for a while until the problem revealed an approach to its solution. Goren. He sipped a diet root beer and after thirty minutes, on the legal pad were three column heads: Lynn, Justin, Me. On the left side the rows of what was now a matrix listed: Love, Friendship, Need, Sex, and Confusion. The last row was difficult for him to write, but he had learned not to ignore what was inconvenient, uncomfortable, or not PC.
He smiled as he filled in the rows under the Lynn column, noting the obvious. Then he started on the Justin column. Brainstorming, a familiar process, permitted no censorship. When he finished he was deeply surprised. A question mark resided in his column in the Confusion row. For the other rows, the columns were astonishingly similar, except the Sex row. There, he didn't have any information about Justin, but the biggest surprise was that he found himself considering investigating that possibility. He had learned from Lynn that sex and love were deeply intertwined.
He didn't think she would be shocked at the prospect of his loving another man or having sex with one. She would just want him to be happy, something he had been unable to consider before meeting Justin. He asked himself why he felt no distaste for the possibility. Then he realized that he hadn't been projecting his lingering love for Lynn on Justin. These feelings were separate. He always knew when he was onto something during a case when an explanation assumed a kind of elegance and coherence. That's how this felt.
He thought, 'Well, I'll be fucked!' Then he laughed at that. He really didn't know whether exploration with a man took the same form that it did with a woman.
As he pulled his gear together, he thought how he might approach Justin. The kid had already admitted that he was attracted to him, but had offered nothing but help and human kindness. Donnie had to improvise a lot in his work and he decided that he would improvise here. Lynn had told him that she expected him to find someone else, and maybe where another woman might trespass on his relationship with her, a man wouldn't. He thought of how amused she would be.
When he arrived at the gym, Justin was also pulling into the lot. Donnie mused that Justin had stopped showing up with the ex. Justin parked beside him and walked around to his passenger door. He saw that Donnie was locking his weapons away and quickly turned away as if he had stumbled on a secret ritual. Then, Donnie realized that this was the first time Justin had actually seen the handguns. He finished, grabbed his bag, and stepped out.
"Sorry, that's just normal procedure for me."
"Didn't want to see what I shouldn't."
"I think we're beyond that, Justin. I trust you, and besides, I know where you live." Justin looked a bit puzzled, but when Donnie smiled, Justin did, too.
"Donnie, you don't smile enough. When you do, you're a different person."
"Well, I haven't felt like smiling a lot lately. I guess you're responsible for this one. Let's get this done." Donnie knew he meant more than the workout.
They did the usual workout, talking about nothing important, and Donnie had the impression that Justin was a little uncomfortable. They were alone in the shower after their workout, and Justin looked like he wanted to say something but couldn't. Donnie thought that this wasn't like Justin.
"What?" he asked Justin.
"Nothing. … No, that's not true. Okay, at the risk of screwing things up, I think you're very hot, and showering with you is distracting." The sentence came out in rush and Justin looked away.
"Look. Having this discussion here isn't very helpful, at least not for me. You want to go somewhere for tea, coffee, whatever?"
"That would be great. I wasn't sure you'd want to talk to me again."
"I do. Let's get out of here."
By now Justin was used to seeing the ankle holster. As they walked out, Donnie thought, 'Well, that wasn't so bad.'
He could see why Justin might be confused. He had always defined himself as straight and that's how he came across, however that was. Changing cop behavior isn't easy, and he wasn't sure he could if he wanted to.
"Let's take your car," Donnie suggested.
Getting in someone's car was very revealing. Donnie always looked carefully at victims' or offenders' cars because people thought of them as sacrosanct spaces. He saw that Justin was confused because Donnie was opening the driver's door on his own car.
"The kids," Donnie said.
A light went on for Justin and he waited patiently while Donnie armed himself. Donnie locked his car back up and asked, "This doesn't bother you, right? I don't want you scared with me in your car."
"No, I'm fine."
After Justin unlocked the car doors, Donnie sat in the passenger seat and buckled up. The little Hyundai was immaculate, as if it had just been detailed. No crap on the floors or in the cup holders, no stains anywhere he could see, the windows were clean.
'Just as I thought, the kid takes care of what he has,' Donnie thought.
Justin looked in the mirror and pulled slowly out of the parking spot. At the exit, he came to a full stop even though, at this hour, no other cars were in sight. He flipped the turn signal on and pulled onto the roadway.
"Justin, I'm not a traffic cop."
"Sorry. I'll try not to be nervous."
"No ticket book anyway, and I think trying not to be nervous is self-defeating."
Justin looked over at him and said, "You're a good guy, you know? You've been trying to make me comfortable since we met, but without any bullshit or hiding what you are. Do you realize how rare that is?"
"Yeah, I'm a fucking saint."
"I hope not!"
Donnie gave him directions to a twenty-four hour place that carried herbal teas. Only a few people were there now, and Donnie led them to a booth off to the side. When Lou came over, she looked at Justin, and asked, "New partner?"
Justin blushed deeply, and Donnie replied, "No, Lou, a very good friend–Justin. Play nice."
Lou's face betrayed the obvious question. Good friend with you at this time of night? But she knew not to prod Donnie. Donnie knew she was lesbian, and had once settled matters with a guy that had been a little too insistently forward, but she never pegged him for a closet case. Plus, he had come in once with his wife, but something had changed about a year ago.
She knew what Donnie would order: whatever Celestial Seasonings hot tea she had, but asked Justin, "What for you, very good friend of Donnie?"
"Just water, please."
They sat across from one another. "All right, Justin. I need to figure out what's going on here."
"Donnie, I'm so sorry that things got weird in the shower." Donnie said this just as Lou arrived with their order and raised her eyebrows at Donnie, but to her credit said nothing.
Justin whispered, "Shit. Talk about timing."
"Stop. You have to figure out what's going on for you. I'm talking about figuring out what's going on with me. Here's the thing. Since we started hanging out I have felt decent for the first time since Lynn died. I've thought a lot about whether I might be, I don't know, sort of replacing Lynn with you. I don't necessarily mean romantically." He waited for Justin to absorb the last comment.
"No, you're gay, I'm confused. Look I've done a major gut check, and the feelings I've developed have nothing to do with Lynn. I've pretty much learned to trust my reactions to people. If you talked to the people who work with me, they'd tell you that my approach to work is unconventional but effective. That's why they put up with me. So, I don't automatically discount any possibility when working on a problem."
"Are we a problem?"
"You tell me what you see as problematic about us, Justin."
"Okay. I feel so good when I'm with you, like I don't have to censor myself, that you like me as I am. I don't doubt that you're an unconventional cop. I don't have many good friends and despite the age difference, I want that friendship. I'm just not sure I have much to bring to it."
Now, Justin waited, but Donnie said nothing. Donnie's body language was open, and Justin knew he had to continue.
"Then, there's the fact that I can't help but be attracted to you. But, please understand, I can be attracted and not act on the attraction. If it gets to the point that you're uncomfortable, I won't hang around. What do you mean by confused?"
"I'm glad you got around to that question. But first, I don't think sexual attraction is very useful for the long haul without friendship and at this point in my life I'm a long haul guy. I'm too old to rule out a potential good situation out of hand, but I don't really have any experience to guide me in this situation. That sounded too clinical. Look, if you were a girl, I'd probably be asking you out. I assume that's how guys do things, as well."
"Donnie, are you sure about this? It can't be easy to change a lifetime's pattern. What about your job, your friends, your relatives? And by the way, this feels like a date."
"I hoped so. About the rest, there's going to be nothing secretive or sordid about this. I assume that you had to work your way through coming out, and I'm not about to ask you to go back in the closet for me. As to friends, colleagues, and relatives, they'll have to figure out how to deal with it. I think most of them will be confused or think I've lost my mind, but they've always surprised me with their support and patience. I don't give a shit what any assholes out there think, one way or another."
"Shit. This is not how I expected the night to end."
"Yeah, it was only one of the possibilities I considered. What's your take on the age thing? I'm not looking for a son. I'm looking for a partner no matter where this goes."
"I've had enough boys for a lifetime. We're both men."
Donnie smiled warmly, and said, "Good. So, want to go back to my place?"
When they stood up, Justin came to Donnie and hugged him. 'This is nice,' Donnie thought.
He left enough money for the bill and a generous tip for Lou. He looked over at her as she picked up her dropped jaw and he sighed the first happy sigh in almost a year.