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The phone rings in the middle of the afternoon. I’m home alone, having a drink, not doing much of anything constructive, as tends to be the case pretty often nowadays, and I know who it is before I answer, even though of course it could be any number of people. His ring sounds no different than anyone else’s, and it’s not like he always calls at the same time of day. But still, I know.

He sounds…not horrible, not the way you’d expect him to sound under the circumstances. If you didn’t know how good he is at covering up, you might not notice anything, or you might just think he sounds tired. You’d be absolutely goddamn right about that. I can’t imagine being as tired as he is, or as scared.

He wants to come over. No, he needs to. But he doesn’t say that; he doesn’t say much of anything. He’s fine, she’s fine, the kids are fine – today, at least. It’s always one day at a time. But no, they’re fine, really.

So I have to lay it on the line. “Paulie,” I say, “get your ass over here. Now.”

I don’t think he means me to hear his sharp little intake of breath, the sound of relief. He says, “I’ll be there in an hour.”

 

*****

 

We don’t fuck anymore. We did for years, on and off, when we got the chance, which was pretty often, considering how much time we had to spend together. We were crazy back then, crazy with the kind of dumb, unthinking recklessness that seems normal when you’re young and rich and famous, really famous for the first time. It could have ruined us, but I don’t remember ever worrying about that. If anything, the possibility of discovery just made it that much more intense, gave it an edge, a bright, dangerous glow that sent us even higher. A lot of what we did in those days seems like a dream now – now, when things have slowed down, evened out, and the world has gotten so much colder than we ever thought it could be.

Back then he loved me. Now it’s more than that. Now he needs me.

He doesn’t even speak when I open the door. He steps inside, waits for me to close the door behind him, and then grabs me and holds on, tight, as though he’s trying to absorb me though his skin. I grab him too, pushing my hands under his jacket, running them over his back. He feels a little thinner, the ridge of his spine clearly defined through his clothes.

He breathes hot on my neck. He’s not crying, but there’s a sobbing quality to the quick, unsteady breaths, and he shakes under my touch. I hug him harder for a long moment, and then pull my hands back to unbutton his shirt. He stands, passive, and lets me do it. His eyes rove over my face, drinking me in. I let my hands linger at his chest, stroking the soft hair. I still love touching him. Maybe I love it even more now than I used to, which is pretty fucking strange, considering how important sex is to me.

It’s good to be needed.

He likes having his back rubbed. He told me once that it stimulates the chakras along the spine and releases healing energy to the rest of the body. I don’t know. But he believes it, and maybe that’s why I can feel him start to loosen up as I touch him there. His breathing slows, and he sighs a long, shuddery sigh.

He could go to a massage therapist for this, a professional who actually knows what they’re doing. But he comes to me. Sometimes when I feel useless or forgotten or just plain shitty, I close my eyes and repeat that to myself. He comes to me. God knows I never wanted his life to fall apart. I never wanted this nightmare, this awful, unthinkable thing, to happen to him and his family. But if it hadn’t, would I still be able to touch him this way? I try not to think about that. I don’t enjoy feeling guilty.

He’s leaning into me so heavily, with such evident exhaustion, it’s starting to make my arms ache. “Lie down?” I whisper, and he nods silently, his hair brushing my lips.

In the bedroom, I don’t take my clothes off, and he keeps his pants on. This isn’t about sex. He doesn’t want that, or if he does, he has no intention of acting on it. It’s about strength and weakness, the strength he gets from me and the weakness he can’t show anyone else. What’s he supposed to do when he’s terrified, overwhelmed, despairing? What’s he supposed to do when the doctors tell him there’s no cure? He’s the only healthy one in the house. He’s got to be strong. He’s got to take care of them.

But here with me, he can be as weak as he needs to be.

He lies face down on the bed and closes his eyes. He waits patiently while I take the massage oil from the nightstand drawer and spread it over my hands. Then I kneel, straddling his hips, ignoring my hard-on. I start to stroke him, long, firm strokes over the hard planes of his back. He’s got knots everywhere, bunched up muscles that need a lot of coaxing to smooth out. It worries me, him carrying all that tension around all the time. I wonder about his blood pressure.

I don’t think I’m very good at this, but it doesn’t seem to matter. He sighs and moans just the same. The flesh of his back trembles under my fingers as the stiffness leaves him. I move up past his shoulders, and he rises to his knees and lets me manipulate his neck, back and forth and around. It cracks, and he groans in gratitude.

I love this, the feeling of unwinding, of loosening, of calming. I love doing it for him. I love that he wants me to. I go on, probably for longer than I need to, smoothing and caressing and touching. So amazing, that something as simple and basic as human touch can be so addictive.

When I’ve done all I know how to do, he sinks back to the mattress and just lies there, looking – not happy, really, not the way he used to look after sex, but profoundly relieved. And just as sensual, with his eyes closed, veiled by those long, thick lashes, and his back rising and falling slowly with his breath. He has a beautiful back. I want to thank him for letting me touch it.

After a few minutes he rouses himself, turns over, and looks up at me, his eyes wet. He holds his arms out to me. I lie down with him, chest to chest, and we hold each other for a long time without speaking. I close my eyes and try to imagine my strength flowing into him, shoring him up, fortifying him for whatever lies ahead. It’s funny. I don’t feel strong myself very often. A lot of the time, in fact, I feel like a loser, a hopeless fuck-up with a fucked up life whose main talent is fucking up other people’s lives.

Like I said, it’s good to be needed.

Just as I’m about to drift off, lulled by his warmth and the sound of his heartbeat, he moves, pulling gently away from me. I feel the mattress shift as he sits down on the edge and puts his shoes on. I keep my eyes closed and try to look unconscious. I don’t like saying goodbye, and I know he has to get home. His family needs him.

He probably knows I’m not asleep, but he doesn’t say anything, and after a moment I feel him leaning over me, and his soft breath as his lips touch my forehead.

He leaves almost silently. I can barely hear the click of the front door downstairs as it closes behind him.

In the bathroom, I wash the oil off my hands and study my face in the mirror. I don’t think he has any idea how much easier it is to look at myself after I’ve been with him.

Not useless. Not useless after all.