Working at Love

Chapter 1

            Joseph Carmichael was good at disappearing in plain sight. His medium-sized 5’7” frame combined with his shoulder length dark brown hair and brown eyes didn’t make him noticeable in the ways that mattered to most men. At 32 he had given up on traditional dating methods. By 34 he was an online dating professional.

            Joseph attributed his relationship failures to three people: his mother—the drunk, his father—the adulterer and Carl—the inconsiderate bastard who soaked up all of his twenties then dumped him the day after his thirtieth birthday. He had wasted his best husband hunting years on Carl and in return he left him and gave the life Joe had earned to a twenty-five year-old teacher. Despite Joseph’s vehement disdain for Carl, he remained one of his closest friends. It was what Carl wanted and Joseph couldn’t say no, so he suffered through their friendship. Carl’s announcement that he was adopting a baby had pushed Joseph to online dating. Two years later, Joe had nothing to show for his efforts while Carl had an adorable little girl and a husband.

            Joseph’s career was headed in the right direction but he wasn’t happy because he knew something was missing. He wasn’t like most of his single co-workers. He didn’t embrace the single life or devote himself to his job. He went to work then he went to a lonely one bedroom apartment. On some nights he ventured out on first dates. His first dates were legendary among his group of friends. Joseph’s calm demeanor seemed to put most men at ease. So much at ease that they often opened their mouths and inserted their foots on first dates instead of second dates. It was a gift and a curse. Joseph rarely went on second dates and third dates might as well have been unicorns because they seemed to only exist in Joseph’s imagination.

            Joseph was standing in his bathroom staring at himself in the mirror. His hair was pulled back in black chopsticks to match his black jacket. He put on a black and white dress shirt. The first few buttons of his dress shirt were left undone in order to give his date a hint of what might be his. He had on a silver chain to match his silver earrings.

            He took out his chapstick and gave his lips another layer. His pink lips contrasted nicely with his freshly whitened teeth. He worked hard to look his best on dates. He wasted hours figuring out the right items to put together and how to wear his hair. He took pictures and often sent them to his friends and asked for their opinions. He didn’t want his looks to be a detractor for a man. He wanted his date to look at him and immediately recognize that he was a mature, somewhat effeminate, sexy man.  

            He took a deep breath and hoped that this date would be different, but he had a bottle of wine waiting in his refrigerator just in case. He sent his date a text message to let him know that he would see him at 8:00. The message was more for Joe than for Julian. Joe waited fifteen minutes to see if Julian responded with a lame excuse about why he couldn’t make it. Julian texted that he couldn't wait to meet him. Joe grabbed his wallet and left his apartment. 

            Joe was sitting in a poorly lit area of the parking lot of Mercy’s at 7:45, but he didn’t dare enter. He had to wait until his date confirmed his arrival. At 8:05, he sent a feeler message asking Julian if he had arrived and letting him know that he would be there soon. Julian responded that he was there and he was sitting at a table towards the back of the restaurant. Joe immediately wondered if Julian had requested a table towards the back or if that was where the hostess sat him. If the guy requested a table towards the back, then that was a red flag.

            Joe moved his car to a closer parking spot then texted Julian again at 8:10 saying that he had just arrived and he was on his way in. He walked in the restaurant and looked for his date. Julian saw him and waved his over.

            As soon as Joe reached the table Julian said, “You look exactly like your picture.”

            Joe shook his hand and thought ‘you look nothing like yours.’ His picture must have been ten years old, maybe more. Joe wasn’t surprised, but he also wasn’t going to end the date over something silly like that. He always gave the guy a chance to prove his worth, whether he looked like his picture or not.

            Joe sat at the table and engaged in light banter with the gentlemen. It took a few minutes before he was able to ask, “Did you request this table or did the hostess lead you to the back?”

            Julian smiled, “I requested this table. I thought there would be fewer people back here and it would be quieter.”

            His lips said one thing, but Joseph heard, ‘I have wandering eyes so I thought I should limit the opportunities for distractions.’

            Joseph had already decided that Julian was not going to be a good match for him, but he continued to smile and be polite. He wondered why his love life couldn’t be like the movies. He wanted to meet a man and know that he was his soulmate. He was tired of trolling online dating sites and sifting through relationship advice books. He wanted to find his future husband.

            Julian ordered a medium rare steak. When his steak arrived, he complained that it hadn’t been cooked long enough. He showed it to Joseph. Joseph thought it was cooked to perfection but he nodded in agreement. Julian sent the steak back.

            About five minutes later, Joseph happened to look over to his left. He saw a man walking towards his. The man had a plate in his hand, and chef hat on his head. Joe's eyes were drawn to him. Joe noticed that Julian had stopped mid-sentence, but he rudely ignored him and stared at the man in the hat. He whispered out loud, “He looks familiar.” He stared at the chef and studied him. The chef looked taller than him, which was always a plus. He appeared to have a nice body, but Joe couldn’t tell if he was toned or just naturally that size. Joe dissected his facial features. He had a tint in his skin. Joe thought he looked Hispanic. He had a cute nose and nice lips but it was his eyes that drew Joe's attention. He had dark eyes. Joe was gazing in to the chef's eyes when he was struck by the realization that the was also looking at him. Joe wondered if the chef was his prince charming. The chef stopped in front of Joe and smiled.

            “Joseph Carmichael?”

            He knew he looked familiar, but he didn’t know why. Joe returned his smile and asked, “Where do I know you from?”

            The chef offered the plate to Julian but his eyes never left Joseph. “This might help,” he said. He took off his hat and allowed Joseph to get a good look at him. His hair was jet black and there was a tiny scar just above his left eyebrow.

            Joe stared at him for a few seconds. Then it hit him. “Seth?” His smile widened. Joseph stood and hugged him then quickly sat back down. Seth Martin was his first boyfriend.

            Seth told him, “I’ve been looking for you on Facebook for years.”

            Joe shook his head, “I’m not on Facebook.”

            Seth gave him the typical incredulous expression that followed that statement. “I see that you’re busy now, but we have to find time to touch base.”

            Joe reached in his wallet and pulled out his business card. He handed the card to Seth. Seth reached for the card and Joe watched in horror as the light reflected off of Seth's wedding band. “You’re married?” he asked.

            “Not anymore.” Joe thought he caught a glimpse of sadness in Seth's eyes and he wondered if Seth was a widower. Seth turned to Julian. “Sir, how is your steak?”

            Julian scowled and replied, “It’s fine, thank you.”

            “You’re welcome.” Seth put his hand on Joseph’s shoulder. “So is this your husband?”

            Joseph quickly responded, “No.” He smiled at Julian to balance out the "no." “We’re on a first date.”

            Seth took a step back. He looked directly at Joseph, “I will definitely give you a call soon.” He smiled again then walked away. Joseph blushed.

            Julian asked, “Old friend?”

            Joseph took a few minutes to explain that he had gone to school with Seth, but he hadn’t seen him since him since middle school. He was surprised that he remembered him. Julian quietly listened and Joseph couldn’t tell if he was genuinely interested or just being polite. He almost wanted to add that he wasn’t interested in Seth, but he hadn’t made a decision about him yet. He was going to wait to see if he called him.

            The rest of the date was nice, but Joseph knew that it would be another one and out. Julian walked him to his car and kissed him on his cheek. Julian said he would call him later but Joe knew he wouldn’t. He could tell by the way Julian hurried to his car. He didn’t turn around which meant that he wasn’t giving Joe a second thought. Joe laughed to himself then decided to go home and enjoy his wine.

            Joe waited for Julian’s car to leave because he didn’t want to pass him on the road. Five minutes later, Joe headed home. He was happy that his date hadn’t been a disaster, but he was sad that his search had to continue. He thought about Seth. Seth was doing well for himself. Mercy’s was a nice restaurant and Seth must have been the executive chef. He wondered how long he had been in town. Seeing him had been a nice surprise and he hoped that he would call him. He also hoped that he had a good explanation for why he wasn’t married anymore. Then a thought hit him. ‘What if he has children?’ He had a no children policy. He didn’t want to be anyone’s stepfather. Although he had recently decided that he was going to open his dating pool to include men with ex-husbands and/or children once he turned 35. He grimaced when he realized that he was only two months away from being 35. Of all the things he had planned for his future, being single at 35 was not one of them.

            He drove home and had a few glasses of wine then he put on his pajamas. He pulled out his drawer of sexy underwear and sifted through the items with his left hand while he sipped his last glass of wine. Some of the items had been bought for him by Carl, but he had bought most of the items himself. He thought, ‘What type of man buys sexy underwear and has no one to wear them for?’ He closed the drawer and sat on his bed. His bedroom bore all the signs of a single man. He put the glass of wine to his lips and turned the glass up. He sat the empty glass on his nightstand and crawled under his sheets.

            Joseph was trying not to be jaded, but each passing year brought him closer and closer to the realization that he might end up alone. He closed his eyes and had a lovely dream about eighth grade. He had glasses with a thick black frame. He had been an outsider since kindergarten so he played up his uniqueness instead of trying to hide it. He told his friends and family that he was gay in the seventh grade. His parents thought it was a phase and his friends didn't care. His friends loved him and that was all that mattered to him. Seth had been just a friend until that fateful eighth grade Valentine’s Day. Seth gave Joe a rose and asked him to be his boyfriend. Joe thought Seth was joking so he laughed and thanked him for the rose. Seth had his own dorky looking pair of glasses and a wardrobe that looked more like it was third or fourth hand than secondhand, but he had always been Joe's friend and he had always been cute. Seth had a natural charm. Joseph knew that lots of pretty girls had crushes on Seth so he just assumed that the rose was a sweet gesture.

            While they were walking home, Seth asked, “Are you going to be my boyfriend or what?”

            Joseph stopped walking, “You want me to be your boyfriend? But you're not gay, are you?”

            “Well I asked you to be my boyfriend, didn’t I?”

            Joe blushed and nodded his head. Seth held his hand out and Joe took his hand. The next day Seth told him that his parents were getting a divorce and he and his mother were moving back to Nebraska to be closer to her family. They said their goodbyes the next week then Seth was gone. Joseph had all but forgotten about him and then there he was: grown and sexy with a perfect smile.

            Joseph opened his eyes. He heard the distinct sound of his phone ringing and he knew that someone had interrupted his sleep. He reached for his cell phone and glanced at the clock. He hoped it wasn’t an emergency, but he was worried because no one would call him at 7 in the morning unless it was an emergency. He breathed a sigh of relief when he didn’t recognize the number in the caller id. He thought it was either something work related or the wrong number. Either way, he wanted to deal with it then and keep whoever it was from calling him back before 8.

            “Hello.”

            “Hi, is this Joseph?”

            “Yes.”

            “It’s Seth.”

            Joseph took a deep breath and thought, ‘Wow, this guy is desperate.’ “Good morning Seth, how are you?”

            “I’m fine and I apologize for calling so early. Did I wake you?”

            “No.”

            “Good. I remember you used to be an early riser. I was wondering if you wanted to meet for breakfast.”

            Joseph held the phone away and yawned. “What time?”

            “Is 9 okay? I was hoping you would meet me at Mercy’s.”

            “9 is fine. I’ll see you there.”

            “Great. I can’t wait to see you again. It’s going to be nice to talk about old times.”

            Joseph smiled, “Yeah, it’ll be nice.”

            “Bye Jojo.”

            “Bye.” Joseph hadn't heard that nickname in years. He outgrew Jojo by the time he went to college. All of his friends called him Joe or Joseph.

            Joseph hung up the phone and stored Seth's name and number, then he shook his head. Seth had just ruined his fantasy. He wasn’t going to sweep him off of his feet. There would be no romantic story to tell about an old friend who became a lover. Joe didn't do desperate. He sighed from a disappointed heart. He was looking forward to talking with Seth and finding out about his life but he was no longer looking forward to anything else. He decided to rest for a little while longer.

            Joe forced his body to get up and walk to the bathroom. He wasn’t going to waste his time with trying to get himself to look perfect. Seth wasn’t worth the effort. He was just an old friend. Joseph took a quick shower then skipped his usual morning facial routine. He wasn’t concerned with moisturizers or looking his best. He put on a pair of jeans, a red T-shirt, red shoes and his red trimmed glasses. He ran his fingers through his hair and put it in a ponytail then he looked at himself in the mirror before he left.

            He was sitting in the parking lot of Mercy’s at 8:30. The restaurant was closed so there was nowhere for him to hide. His car was the only car in the parking lot. Five minutes later his phone rang.

            He looked at the name and saw that it was Seth. Joseph smiled and tried not to sound too happy when he said, “Hello.”

            “Hi Joseph, it’s Seth again. I was wondering if you happen to drive a silver Mercedes?”

            “Yes.”

            “Good! I thought that was you. I’m standing at the side door. I was going to leave it unlocked but I’ll just wait for you to come in then I’ll lock it back.”

            “Okay.” Joseph had a quick thought that Seth could be luring him in to a trap. He didn’t know him well enough to spend time with him in a locked restaurant. His doubts flew away when Seth opened the side door and he saw him standing there. Joseph got out of his car and walked towards the door. He felt Seth's eyes watching his every move and that made him uncomfortable. Joe gave him a hesitant smile. He smiled back at him and there was nothing hesitant about Seth's smile. His smile left little doubt about his intentions. He wanted Joseph and Joe knew it. Unfortunately Joseph also knew that Seth had already ruined it.

            Seth greeted him at the door then he locked the door and commented, “You look great!”

            “Thanks.” Joseph knew he was lying to him and that put his on edge. He was as wary of a silver tongued date as he was of the flat out creepy looking dates because he knew that games were played across all groups and in most cases, it was the silver-tongued dates who camouflaged their true selves behind the most believable loads of crap. Joseph walked in the restaurant with his figurative shovel in hand. Seth led him to a table that had been set for two. He pulled out a chair and motioned for him to sit down. Joseph rolled his eyes. Guys who pulled out chairs usually wanted something.

            Seth asked, “What would you like to drink? I have orange juice, apple juice, cranberry juice and water.”

            “That depends on what you’re making for breakfast.”

            “Pancakes, eggs, sausage, bacon.” Seth covered his mouth then moved his hand and asked, “Do you still eat meat?”

            “Yes.”

            He smiled. “Okay good. I thought you did. I mean you look like a man who eats meat. Wait, that didn’t sound right. I mean you look good. You look like you eat.” He sighed. “I’m sorry. I’m nervous. It’s weird to be here with you after all these years. I mean you used to mean so much to me.” He clasped his hands together, “I’m going to go do the eggs. How do you want yours cooked?”

            “Scrambled with American cheese.”

            “Coming right up.” Seth turned around and walked away. Joseph took the opportunity to fully appraise Seth's ensemble. His butt looked firm in his black slacks. He had on a light grey short-sleeved dress shirt with a dark grey sweater vest on top. Joe had worked his way up to Seth's slicked back black hair when Seth suddenly turned around. Seth caught him staring at him but he didn’t pause; instead he said, “I forgot what you wanted to drink.”

            “Orange juice, please.”

            “Okay.”

            Seth walked away and Joseph had a lively conversation in his head. Seth made him feel some kind of way. As much as he didn’t want to give him a chance, he was seriously considering making an exception for him. There was something about his smile and the way he looked at him. Joe could tell that Seth was genuinely excited to see him again and that triggered his need to feel wanted. It was an emotional response that he had spent the last couple of years trying to suppress. Hormones and emotions had led him to bad decisions and one night stands and he was done with that life. He knew what he wanted and he wasn’t going to make a sacrifice that he knew would lead to an unhappy ending. Allowing something to happen between him and Seth would go against his system of checks and balances. Seth had been married before and he seemed desperate. He didn’t date divorced men and he definitely didn’t date desperate men. In his mind, both were disasters waiting to happen.

            Seth returned a minute later. He sat a glass of orange juice in front of Joseph then he sat a glass of orange juice near his napkin on the other side of the table. He smiled, “Now I’m trusting you to be alone with my drink. Don’t go putting something in it.” He winked and walked to the kitchen area.

            Joseph found the joke distasteful, plus he knew he wouldn’t have to drug Seth if he wanted him. Seth's actions told him that he was as good as his. Joe smiled. Seth came out from the kitchen with two plates. One plate was overflowing with food. He sat that plate next to his orange juice then he reached across the table and sat a regular portioned plate in front of Joseph.

            Joseph grabbed his fork and sampled his pancake. He wanted to see how it tasted without syrup. He was surprised to find that it was absolutely delicious. He reached for the syrup anyway and poured it on his pancake. He noticed that the syrup was generic.

            He held up the bottle and asked, “Generic?”      

            “It’s not the restaurant’s, it’s mine. We don’t serve breakfast here so I had to bring most of the things myself. The orange juice is homemade.”

            Joseph sipped his orange juice. He didn’t believe him. “You made this?”

            “Yes.’

            He admitted, “It’s really good.”

            “Thank you. I perfected the art of straining while I lived with my mother. We had some rough years so I learned how to be creative with food. I can whip up a meal out of almost anything.”

            Joe noticed Seth's willingness to talk about the rough times and that was a marked change from the Seth he once knew. Joe commented, “You’ve changed.”

            Seth looked down as he responded, “I know.”

            Joseph noted his reaction. Seth seemed uncomfortable with the fact that he had changed, but Joe thought all of the changes he saw were for the better. He hesitated for a moment before he decided to take the plunge and ask him about his reaction. “You don’t seem happy that you’ve changed. Why is that?”

            Seth smiled. “Do you remember how I looked in eighth grade?”

            “Yeah.”

            “And do you remember how socially awkward I was?”

            “No. You were always kind of popular.”

            “Well I felt awkward. I’ve learned over the years that I don’t see things the same way that other people do. Like take you for instance, last night you were all made up and you were beautiful, but I think you’re just as beautiful today. I love how natural you look, but I’m also taking it as a sign that you aren’t interested in picking up where we left off.” He smirked. “Do you remember where we left off?”

            His voice rumbled in to Joe's ears and danced down to his heart. They hadn’t seen each other in twenty years and yet he was asking him about picking up where they left off. Joe responded, “It’s been twenty years. How am I supposed to remember where we left off? We were friends, weren’t we?”

            Seth looked hurt for about a second then he said, “You know we were more than that at the end. You kissed me goodbye. You don’t forget the person who you shared your first kiss with. I never forgot you.”

            Joseph blushed then he thought, ‘If I’m so special, why didn’t he come looking for me before he got married?’ He took that as proof that he didn’t mean as much to Seth as he claimed he did. “We’re practically strangers,” he said.

            “I was fifteen the first time I got drunk. I had sex with one of my friends and she ended up getting pregnant. She moved in with me and my mother. I married her when we were 18 because I thought it was the right thing to do. She cheated on me constantly. I thought it was because I looked like a dork so I started going to the gym. I moved to contacts instead of glasses and I cut my hair in to a more socially acceptable style. I spent ten years being a model husband. I worked hard to provide for my wife and my daughter and then at our ten year high school reunion, Michael Donoso decided to tell me that he was probably the father of my little girl. I didn’t believe him at first, but the look on my wife’s face told me that there was a possibility that it was true. I spent the next three years in denial. My daughter had a car accident while she was learning how to drive. She needed blood and that’s when the truth knocked me on my ass. She wasn’t mine. Her blood type proved it. I stayed anyway and I waited until she graduated from high school then I sat her down and told her the truth. Needless to say, I filed for a divorce the next day.”

            Joseph thought, ‘Typical man, abandoning the daughter he raised.’ “Do you have any contact with your daughter?”

            “Of course, I talk to her almost every day. I raised her, you know? I can’t let her go that easily. She’ll always be my little girl.”

            Joseph smiled. “Why did you come back here?”

            “My daughter is in college now and she wants me to be happy. She asked me what would make me happy and I told her coming back here. I think a part of me was hoping I would run in to you. You’re the only person in my life, besides my daughter, who never hurt me. Then you walked in here last night. I've only been working here three months. It seems pretty clear that we're meant to at least be friends and quite frankly, I'm wondering if you still have the power to make everything better.”

            Joseph laughed, “I didn’t make anything better.”

            “Yes you did. My parents argued all the time, but when I came to school it was like none of that mattered because I had you. You were so special back then. You made me feel like together we could do anything. You were unique in every way, like my own personal unicorn.” He winked, “I remember your obsession with unicorns.” He reached inside his shirt and pulled out a chain. At the end of it was a unicorn charm. Joseph wanted to laugh because it seemed like a cheesy moment from an extremely corny romantic story. “I found this when I was packing my things. It seemed like a good sign so I put it on.”

            “Did I give that to you?”

            “No. I bought it soon after I left. It reminded me of you.”

            Joseph had finally had enough. “We were kids.”

            “I know.” There was a long pause before Seth added, “I’ve scared you away, haven’t I?”

            Joseph admitted, “This is all a bit much.”

            “I’m not crazy. I’m just really happy to see you. I know I’m coming on too strong. I don’t know how to dial it back a notch. I’m sorry.”

            Seth’s overzealous behavior made him seem like he was clingy and needy and too much work for Joe. Joe wasn’t going to give him the joyous reunion that he wanted. Seth was fresh out of a bad relationship and looking to lay his baggage on Joe's doorstep and Joe wasn’t having any part of it. Joe wasn’t interested in a man who was so broken that he held on to a bad woman for way too long. Joseph gave Seth a quick once over. He was too cute to ever let a woman walk all over him. The fact that he had lived as a doormat for years meant that there was something wrong with him. Joe took a few moments to decide if he wanted to try to be friends with Seth, but he quickly decided that even that would be too much for him. Seth needed to come to terms with his own issues before he latched on to someone new.

            Joe reached across the table and touched Seth's hand then he lied, “I don’t think you’re crazy.”

            Seth smiled. “Thanks but I can see it in your eyes. You’re ready to leave. All that’s left to decide now is if you’re going to continue talking to me and judging by the way that you just looked at your napkin, I’m assuming the answer is no.”

            “It really was good to see you again,” Joe said. “I’m sorry that you’ve had such a rough time.”

            Seth stood and softly said, “I don’t need your pity.”

            Joseph politely asked, “Why are you standing?”

            “I thought you were ready to leave.”

            “I’ll finish my breakfast first. Thank you.” Joe wanted to leave but something held him back and forced him to stay in his chair and make small talk with Seth. At some point, Joe started talking about his life and his ex-fiancé. About an hour later other restaurant workers began to arrive. Joseph stood and Seth walked him to the front door. Seth pulled him in to a hug and the closeness disarmed Joe and silenced his inner alarms. There was something very right about being in Seth's arms.