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The End of the World

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It was the week before the End of the World, and John Hodgman arrived in San Francisco for his appearance at San Francisco Sketchfest. As soon as the plane touched down, he tapped his phone off airplane mode and got on twitter. “Ask me questions while I wait on the runway and ride to the hotel,” he tweeted. His first show didn’t start until 7:30, so he would have plenty of time to prep for the show after an early dinner. Just as he refreshed his twitter feed to keep him occupied, a text alert popped up from his good friend and favorite comedian of all time, Paul F. Tompkins.

Picture a cartoony round-bottom flask over a bunsen burner. It’s filled with mysterious liquid (The color is up to you!). The flask was John’s stomach and that text struck the flint to light the bunsen burner. He knew they would be seeing each other in San Francisco, but he couldn’t help the tiny spark of excitement at that notification. He would be seeing a lot of old friends and making some really fun stuff, but he couldn’t deny that he was especially excited to see Paul.

“Want to get dinner before the show? Or get drinks after my second show? Or both? Or also go to this place I heard about tomorrow morning to eat an entire egg baked into a savory muffin?”

John smiled to himself under his mustache. Paul knew him too well. He would, indeed, be up for all of those things, he typed, while the bunsen burner flared up a bit. Paul sent him the address of a barbecue place close to the hotel and they planned to meet there once John had checked into his hotel. He absently refreshed his twitter, and jumped a little in his seat when he saw the notifications. He had been too busy daydreaming to remember he had solicited questions. He started answering a few, somewhat dismissively, lost in thought about tonight, both the Live Justice he would dispense and the time he would get to spend with Paul these few days before inauguration came and the world would probably end. In fact, the passenger next to him had to tap him on the shoulder to get his attention when it was his turn to disembark from the plane.

In a mild daze, he made his way through the airport, retrieved his luggage, and found his car. He continued to answer twitter questions until another text notification popped up on his phone from Paul.

“Aren’t you here yet? I’m hungry. And bored. And thirsty. Get here!”

This time he laughed aloud as he ignored twitter for a few minutes to text back that he was on his way. He contemplated a winky face but decided it would be too juvenile. He answered a few more questions on twitter and made small talk with the driver while they meandered across the city. His stomach grew jumpier as they neared the hotel and his twitter responses became terser. His stomach was now becoming more than jumpy; knotted really, as the flask began to warm. He wrapped up his twitter questions a little early. It hadn’t been nearly as distracting as he’d hoped, and he fairly buzzed as the car pulled into the porte-cochère. He tipped the driver absent-mindedly but generously, leaned over for his possessions, then climbed out of the car, locking eyes immediately with Paul F. Tompkins, standing just outside the lobby. Paul was, as always, impeccably dressed, today in a three-piece suit and a blue bow tie.

“What are you doing here?” he asked, quickening his walk toward him. Paul broke into a wide grin as he approached and they hugged.

“We’re at the same hotel,” he laughed as they stood at arm’s length appraising one another.

“You look good without the beard,” smiled John.

“Did I look that bad before?” Paul feigned hurt.

“You know you did. Are you following me to my room?” asked John as they turned toward the lobby.

“I think I am,” replied Paul as he walked with John to the front desk to check in. John got his key and headed up to his room, which it turned out was just down the hall from Paul’s.

“It looks like they housed a bunch of the acts in one big block. Michael Ian Black is just down the hall. The Cackowskis are over there,” Paul pointed toward a room, but John was mainly focused on finding the right room number. He finally located it, successfully swiped the key, and shouldered everything inside. Almost instantly, there were lips on his and arms wrapped around him as Paul pressed up against him and kissed him ferociously. The liquid in the round-bottom flask began to bubble as the bunsen burner below flared. John leaned in, dropping his bags, returning the embrace and kissing back, combing fingers through Paul’s dark, wavy hair. Paul’s insistent tongue parted his lips, and John let out an almost squeaky moan of surprise. Paul laughed into the kiss, eyes squinting, as John began to laugh too.

They broke apart, and John grinned to hear Paul’s laugh in person again.

“Hi,” said John, his grin spreading wider across his face, eyes crinkling in delight. He straightened his glasses and appraised Paul again.

“Hi.” Paul smiled back with his entire being. “I’m hungry.”

“You said that earlier. Could I put my things down first?” John chuckled. Paul laughed too, again in that impressively genuine way and John felt a bit melty.

“Make it quick. I’m genuinely starving.” Paul took a step back to allow John to pick up his dropped luggage and move it out of the doorway. He did, then stepped back closer to Paul.

“It’s really good to see you,” he said, leaning in. “It’s been a rough few months.”

“God, I know. I think we might be trapped in an alternate reality punishment zone of some kind.” His smile half-dropped and he looked somehow even more genuine. “It’s good to see you too.” The smile returned.

They leaned in and kissed again. This kiss was electric molasses. It was slow, but it was deep and real and spoke volumes. This kiss reintroduced them, caught them up, and made promises for later.

Eventually, they broke apart to catch their breath and Paul furrowed his brow and scrunched his mustache.

“Still hungry.” John laughed, took a step back and caught a glimpse of Paul just as he was right then. He hadn’t realized how much he needed to just appreciate Paul F. Tompkins in that moment, but appreciate he did. His hair had grown long and a little wild, made wilder by John’s own hands. His lips were ruddy from that kiss. As John stared, Paul’s mustache twitched a bit as another smile lit his face from within.

Smiling again himself, he stepped toward the door, holding it open for Paul. As he walked by, Paul caught his hand momentarily, giving it a little squeeze, then dropping it as he hit the hallway’s hideous carpet.

They immediately ran into Mark Gagliardi, who was coming out of his room at the same time. They all greeted each other warmly, even John, though his warmth was tempered a bit by disappointment. He had naively pictured a dinner alone with Paul. He had so much pent-up conversation about life and executive branch horror and work and, well, everything. Dinner with Mark along would also be great. He had a lot to talk about with him too, but he had been craving Paul’s full attention. It was his presence in a conversation John had missed more than almost anything. When Paul F. Tompkins focused on him, he felt like the most important person on the planet. Paul hung on every word. He laughed so easily and so earnestly, it was impossible not to feel funny and adored, and that feeling was addictive. Paul would listen, his grin would widen, his eyes would sparkle, and John would feel utterly appreciated.

He realized halfway to the barbecue place, daydreaming while he walked behind Paul and Mark, that he had spaced out entirely and worked to bring himself back to the present. He focused, naturally, on Paul, watching his eyes light up in response to something Mark had said. Paul stopped walking to start laughing and clapped Mark on the shoulder for support. John could feel the light reflecting from him. He smiled to himself and half-jogged a few steps to catch up.

The three of them sat down and ordered together, Mark across the table from John and Paul, and John and Mark soon fell into a conversation about We Got This and how it was going. He did his best to commit himself to being present and paying attention to what Mark was saying, but at least 25% of his consciousness was devoted to the fact that Paul F. Tompkins was sitting directly to his left and was not touching him. He could feel the left side of his body tensing as his subconscious started to alert him that showtime was soon and he wouldn’t get to talk to Paul for the entire evening. His heart sank as Paul waved Marc Evan Jackson over. John hadn’t even noticed him enter the place, and a wave of guilt washed over him. He was, of course, thrilled to see Marc too, but he couldn’t seem to help the niggling possessiveness. Couldn’t these two see they were denying him the thing he needed so much?

Of course they couldn’t because John swallowed down his neediness. He was a grown adult. He had a mustache! And a scraggly beard! He was a weird dad for god’s sake! So he focused on the excellent brisket and the good company and did his best to enjoy this hurried meal before they all had to leave. As dinner wound up, Mark suggested they all share a ride to their improv show. It was, of course, a completely reasonable suggestion since the three other men were all headed to the same place, but John couldn’t help feeling hurt and petulant.

“Well, I guess I’ll be finding my way over to my own show. The one with my name on the marquee.” The men all laughed and Marc stood up to let Mark out of the booth. Paul turned to him, looking apologetic, and John felt the slow, steady warmth of Paul’s hand on his thigh. He gave a pat that was somehow simultaneously quick and lingering.
“See you at Wheels Off?” he asked, his eyes serious, but with that perpetual glint of joy behind them.

“If not sooner,” John promised. Paul gave a short laugh and a genuine smile and with that, he was gone. John shook his head a little, laughed uncomfortably to himself, then made his way back to the hotel to get ready for his car.

Without Paul’s distracting direct physical presence, John was able to really, truly enjoy dispensing some good old-fashioned Live Justice. He laughed fully when the couple introduced the bizarre painting of the Fragogolite and loved having the opportunity to listen to Sara Watkins again. Her music was truly beautiful and he appreciated being able to lose himself in it for a while. It always felt so rewarding to know he had performed well and had been able to share the stage with such talent.

The show was followed by the very solid distraction of an hour and a half of meeting and greeting his fans. He managed to only think about Paul every few minutes instead of constantly. He found that the bunsen burner had been turned down almost completely, but the liquid in the flask was still bubbling merrily along, especially when he checked his watch to see that it was almost 10:00 by the time he was able to retreat backstage.

He was greeted at the door of his dressing room by his good friend and bailiff, Jesse Thorn.

“Want to get a quick drink?” he asked. John quickly assented.

“As long as it’s quick,” he answered as he gathered up his things.

“Well gee, I’m thrilled to see you too,” said Jesse, following him out the door. “It’s not like I live in NEW ENGLAND and get to see you regularly.”

“No, see, I just trust you, Jesse. I know you’ll know the best place to get a very quick drink since we’re here in SAN FRANCISCO, your beloved hometown,” returned John as they found Jesse’s car and climbed in. “I’m just supposed to meet someone in a bit.”

“Oh yeah? Who?” asked Jesse.

“Paul,” he answered.

“...of the F. Tompkins variety?” asked Jesse. “Once again, he renders me superfluous.” John didn’t correct him, instead his eyes crinkled and he gave a belly laugh that somehow still came out as a “hee-hee.”

Jesse did, indeed, know a nearby bar that they could get in and out of quickly. They talked a bit about politics, the state of the world, families, and, naturally, the podcasting business. John enjoyed the conversation, and it was always good to catch up with Jesse, but of course the later it got, the more frequently his inner monologue reminded that him that Paul would be done with his show soon. He must have been checking his watch an obvious number of times, and eventually Jesse raised an eyebrow as John looked up from the most recent check--only 30 seconds or so had passed since the last one.

“That bad?” he asked, smiling gently.

John reddened a little, then shrugged, laughing, “It’s been a rough few months.”

“Don’t I know it,” answered Jesse ruefully. “Look, it really won’t hurt my feelings if you get going. We can catch up tomorrow if you want.”

“Well, I can stay long enough to finish this drink. I already missed the beginning of the show, so I won’t see him until it’s over anyway,” he said, taking a drink. Jesse laughed.
“He is a pretty great guy,” he said.

John grinned widely, eyes crinkling to emphasize his agreement.

“That he is.” He finished his drink.

When he arrived at Wheels Off, the show was not quite finished. John quickly found his way to Paul’s dressing room, which miraculously only had his name on the door. While he would have made small talk with whichever performer friends he ran across watching from the wings, he was relieved not to see any of them. He was glad to see that the only name on the door of the dressing room was Paul F. Tompkins, as he went in and made himself comfortable. He turned the sound on the monitor up a bit. Rhett had Paul and several other guests onstage with him, singing what John hoped was a finale. He checked his watch, the song ended, and he checked his watch again. No music started up after the song ended, and he could hear a lot of applause and suddenly felt very good about his timing.

He checked his watch, then checked his phone and read a few tweets, willing time to move faster. A few minutes went by, and John felt his foot impatiently tapping. He checked his watch again and felt his bunsen burner start to heat back up. The bubbling in the flask had briefly diminished, but now the flask was in danger of boiling over. Several minutes later (and several watch checks later), and Paul still wasn’t here. He knew he shouldn’t be worried; Paul would be here soon. He had no way of knowing John was back here, so of course he was shaking hands and congratulating everyone who performed tonight. It occurred to John that they might even have a meet and greet after the show and he began pacing. Any more time waiting for Paul was unacceptable.

He hadn’t seen Paul since November and he needed so badly to process the horror and numbness and disbelieving fog we all collectively lived in for those months. He had texted, called, and tweeted but god he needed to talk. He needed Paul’s perspective and humor and to have his story really truly heard. He needed to bask in his kindness, to soak up some of his sparkle, and to just drink in his presence and focus and kindness. He almost didn’t care about whether they would touch (almost) because the thing he craved most was just Paul’s presence: his laughter, the gap in his teeth, god, his voice. He knew if he could get that he could power through the next few months whether Trump caused the actual apocalypse or he just managed to get his book finished on time. The longer he waited for Paul to arrive (five minutes!), the more tense and anxious he became, thinking only of how slow time was passing and how badly he needed this time.

The longest six minutes of his life finally managed to pass, then the door was open and Paul F. Tompkins was there. His eyes lit up as he realized that John was there waiting for him. The bunsen burner flared to maximum heat and he suspected the liquid had evaporated in the intense heat from below. Paul grinned a huge grin, and John thought to himself that all he had ever needed was in that grin. Then Paul crossed the room and kissed him and John realized that he was very wrong. THIS was all he had ever needed. It was, to be honest, hard to kiss. Both men were grinning fiercely, making it difficult to get to the business of meeting lips. They bumped teeth, giggled, tried again, and eventually succeeded. John realized he wasn’t sure if the door was closed or not, but then realized he did not care. He wrapped his arms around Paul and pulled him close, kissing for all he was worth. Their tongues met tentatively, then enthusiastically. They kissed like the world was ending, which, for all intents and purposes, it was. They kissed until they were both breathless and ragged and then they kissed a bit more for good measure.

Eventually they both had to catch their breath. John stood back slightly (just slightly) to take Paul in. He was utterly gorgeous like this. His eyes were pools of molten chocolate, made all the darker by his blown pupils. His cheeks were pleasantly flushed and his lips were bruised dark. He looked exhilarated, aroused, amused, and relieved.
“God,” John said as Paul went in for a kiss on the neck below his beard, “I knew I needed to see you, but I didn’t realize just how bad it was.” He sighed as Paul’s mustache brushed his cheek, followed by his lips. “I’ve genuinely felt,” he continued as he felt lips just below his right ear, “since the election that--oh god that’s nice–this is it. It’s really the end.” Paul came up from the most recent section of John’s neck he had been exploring, grinning. His eyes radiated not only his arousal, but that same constant twinkle of good humor.
“John,” he said seriously, cupping his face and making John feel absolutely validated, “it’s not. This isn’t the end. Maybe it’s coming soon, who knows what that asshole will do once he’s inaugurated, but he can’t end all things. I know he can’t end human decency. He can’t end good in the world.” John already knew all of this on one level, but on another level, this was a revelation. Of course Trump couldn’t erase all good in the world; Paul was still here. His infectious laughter was still here. His smiles were here. His dancing eyes were here. John heard him, he appreciated him, he drank John’s very presence in, and he basked. His face cracked into a grin and he leaned back in for another kiss.
This kiss left them both panting. John realized that at some point he had loosened Paul’s bowtie enough that when they broke apart again to catch their breath, Paul just untied it and let it hang loose. He unbuttoned the top few buttons of his shirt to give himself some breathing room. It turned out that, breath or no breath, that action triggered more kissing, some touching, and a few moans. Eventually they came up for air once again, and this time Paul had fire in his darkened eyes.

“Are we going to fuck in this dressing room with the door open or are you going to treat me like a lady and take me out for drinks first?” he asked, humor and heat mingling in his voice. John laughed again, from deep in his belly.

“I’d like drinks. I’d also like to talk, but,” his voice lowered into the growl register, “I don’t want to have to share you.”

“I don’t even have to reach to catch your drift,” he said, grinning, in a ridiculous voice. He gathered up his belongings as John called for a car.

“Hang on,” said Paul, “I thought of something.” He fumbled and retrieved his phone and flicked it into camera mode. He pulled John close and positioned them in front of a mirror. He kissed John on the cheek as he took the picture. They both leaned to look at it. John looked mildly surprised, but surprised in an utterly joyful way. He was overcome at seeing himself looking so genuinely happy and so honestly captured and had to cope by kissing Paul a few more times. Eventually they made their way out of the theater. John quietly but authoritatively insisted that Paul leave his bowtie loose. And if anyone had seen them in the green room, no one said a word. They didn’t talk to anyone on the way out and John didn’t know if they had snubbed any other performers or just had the good fortune of not running into anyone, but he didn’t care. He had everything he wanted and everything he needed and they were going back to the hotel together.

They managed to mostly keep their hands off each other for the duration of the car ride back to the hotel, but only by keeping a running stream of conversation, peppered with innuendos and in-jokes.They got the driver to stop at a liquor store, and John jumped out to buy a very large bottle of scotch. They immediately started sneaking alternating swigs from the bottle, and by the time they got the hotel, John’s face was warm and his thoughts were fuzzy. They paid the driver and made their way inside.

As they waited for the elevator, neither man could contain his joy and radiant excitement. They giggled every time they made eye contact. When the elevator finally arrived, the two men stepped in together. John handed Paul the bottle of scotch, and just as he was poised to take a not-so-dignified swig, a woman neither of them knew stepped into the elevator. He reluctantly lowered the bottle and threw a friendly grin her way. John chose the correct floors for themselves and the stranger, then made crinkly-eyed contact with Paul as the woman turned around and faced the front of the elevator. Paul grinned then went forward with his swig. He passed the bottle back to John, who laughed and felt his heart overflow with affection for this man. He held that feeling and just when he was sure it was palpable enough for this strange woman to also feel it, they arrived at her floor and she exited the elevator. When the door closed, he leaned over and gave Paul a scotch-flavored slow, lingering kiss. This kiss was gentle. There was heat in it, but it wasn’t filled with the kind of urgency he had felt earlier. This kiss was affection, satisfaction, and delicious joy. This kiss settled his anxieties about the world, grounded him, centered him, and gave him hope that he could continue on.

The elevator arrived at their floor with a distracting ding, and they stepped out, grinning fondly at each other. Without thinking, they laced their fingers together and made their way to John’s room.

Contrary to what you might be thinking, the rest of the night actually progressed pretty slowly. The two men sat together, slowly working on the bottle of scotch, and talked for a couple of hours. They caught up on everything and nothing and all the bits in between. And later, they managed to give John something to keep him going through the next few months of writing, Trump, and then some. It was the perfect blend of slow, heated, tender, and intense. He felt adored, appreciated, and utterly renewed.

The entire egg baked into a savory muffin the next morning was just icing on an amazing savory cake.