Ticket to Ride
It was just an unpainted wooden box, with vertical slats holding up a pale blue sign. Sometimes the sign read “Lemonade 50 cents,” only there wouldn’t be any lemonade. Other times it commented on current affairs.
I almost didn’t look that morning since I was hurrying to buy something I couldn’t live without at Cliff’s Hardware. But the message drew my eyes and slowed my steps. “Time Machine Rides 5 cents, return 25 cents.” I put down three dimes and continued my trek, chuckling. A good laugh was worth more than 30 cents.
On the way back, my dimes weren’t there of course but there was an envelope hand-addressed to me. After a look over both shoulders, I shrugged and tore it open. Inside were two rectangles of yellow construction paper. The first said in pencil: “To Wherever.” The second said in ink “From Wherever. P.S. don’t lose.” Each had a disclaimer printed in tiny, precise letters on the back.
“Ticketholder may go to wherever he/she chooses. No time limit on stay. Must have From ticket to return. (Or else it’s not my fault.)”
I thought what a good joke it was until I remembered to ask how they knew my name. I pondered that while slapping the tickets against my palm. Anyway, if I were going to wherever, which wherever would it be?
The answer came to mind immediately. I would go back thirty years, to Chico. I closed my eyes and pictured myself there but nothing happened, of course. I heard someone say, “Try again.” I looked around but no one was nearby or even grinning from a window. “Out loud,” the voice prompted. I stared at the tickets to ride. If I were going crazy, why not go all the way?
“I want to go back to Chico when I was eighteen before…”
In the middle of my sentence my head jerked, I saw my room in Chico and me, lying on my rumpled bed, breathing heavily. I had just come. And then I was there.
“Aaron,” I heard my father call, which almost made me cry since he’d been dead nearly twenty years. Next, he’d bang on the door and yell “breakfast!”
Bang, bang, bang! “Breakfast!” I jumped out of bed, pulled on my boxers and opened the door.
“Dad!” I yelled, grabbing him in a bear hug.
“Hey, big guy!” he said in surprise. “What’s the occasion?” I just held on until he pulled away, hands on my shoulders. “What’s wrong, son?”
“Nothing, Dad,” I told him, pulling him close again, smelling his aftershave, feeling the scratch of his stubble on my cheek. He patted my shoulder. Neither of us knew what to say. Neither of us ever did. Finally, Dad pulled away again and I let him go.
“You better get dressed, son. Your mother’s chomping at the bit. Remember we’re going to the coast today after breakfast. You sure you want to stay here on your own? It’s gonna be a scorcher.”
“Yeah,” I said uncertainly. Why exactly was I staying home?
“You and Kevin don’t tear up the place, okay? No wild parties.” Oh, right. It was this weekend.
I went across the hall to the bathroom I used to share with my little brother. And there he was, brushing his teeth. He looked back at me in the mirror. “Don’t say it,” he mumbled through the toothpaste.
“You always ask, ‘Why ya brushing your teeth before breakfast?’ and then you mess up my hair.”
“Okay, I won’t ask. Anyway, Ben, it’s your mouth.” He was still staring at our faces in the mirror. “What?” I asked again.
“You called me Ben.”
“That’s your name, isn’t it?”
“A million times I ask you to stop calling me Benny and you never do. Why today?”
He was right. I didn’t call him Ben until he went in the Army. “Yeah? Must be your lucky day…Benny.” He made a face, showing me all the toothpaste in his mouth, and went back to brushing.
I hopped in the shower. When I opened the door and reached for my towel, it was gone and so was Ben. Funny guy. I dried off as best I could with the hand towel.
The mirror was all mine. Damn, I used to have a lot of hair! Now I was about as bald as Dad and Grampa. Grampa. He was gone too. I combed my long, luxurious hair and ran to get dressed.
When I walked into the kitchen, my family was eating pancakes, like we did almost every Saturday back then. I sat down to mine, wondering what chores my dad would have for me while they were away. On cue he said, “Be sure to mow the lawn today, son.”
“I will, Dad,” I promised, glad to say the word Dad again to him.
“Then and only then can you and Kevin go for a swim in the pool.” That’s right. Dad had the pool put in that spring, in time for summer.
I got the mower out of the garage and yanked the cord to get it going. The noise was louder than I remembered. I had almost finished the section between the two crepe myrtles when my family came trooping out the front door. I cut the motor and brushed the hair out of my eyes. I still did that sometimes, even if it was just phantom hair.
“Here’s the number of the motel we’re staying at,” my mother said. I stared at her hand. It was so smooth and pale. Now it was wrinkled and mottled with liver spots.
Dad handed me some money. “Enjoy yourself.” I pocketed the bills, realizing my credit cards were thirty years ahead of us in San Francisco.
“We’ll be back late Sunday,” Mom said as she got in the front passenger seat of the old Buick. Benny slid in back. I waved goodbye and stared after them. Dad was dead, Mom was in a retirement “village” and Benny lived in Massachusetts. Maybe I should have gone with them. But that wasn’t why I came back. I cranked the mower up again.
Once I’d finished the backyard, I reached in my pocket to let Kevin know my family was gone. Oh, right. No cell phones yet.
“Hello?” Kevin’s voice answered after I called him from our house phone. My brain couldn’t get my mouth to work. “Aaron, is this you?” he asked after I just kept breathing into the handset.
I wanted to shout “I love you! I’m sorry!” over and over but all I said was, “Yeah. How ya doing?”
“Great. Your folks gone?” Kevin was always a get down to business kind of guy.
“Okay. See you in ten. Bye!”
The dial tone buzzed in my ear. I was about to see my dead lover. What would I say to him after what I’d done? Only, I hadn’t done it yet.
It seemed like only seconds before the Mustang’s tires screeched when Kevin hit the brakes in our driveway. The car door slammed, his big feet slapped along the sidewalk, the doorbell rang and there he was, all 6’3, 220 pounds of him, in sleeveless shirt, baggy shorts, and flip flops. I resisted the urge to throw my arms around him and cover him in kisses. Neighbors in a small town are always watching and I wasn’t out back then.
“Why’d you ring the doorbell?” I asked, hands inserting themselves into my jeans pockets.
“I always ring the doorbell.” Something else I’d forgotten. That said, he closed the door behind him and leaned down to kiss me with those soft full lips no one could forget. “You wanna?” he asked, wiggling his eyebrows.
“Uh, let’s go for a swim first.”
“Huh?” He looked at me like I was crazy. Maybe I was. I mean, was any of this really happening? But he felt real when he put his arms around me so I wiggled my eyebrows yes.
“That’s better, baby,” he said and led me off to the bedroom. We got undressed and into bed. Kevin took his time. Nobody was home to knock or walk in on us.
After sex, we lay naked on top of the bed, him smoking those damn cigarettes, one arm around my shoulders, my head against his.
“I wish you weren’t going away this summer.”
I was going away? Oh, right. The Forest Service. Oh, no! Geoff! “I have to make money for college,” I said, like there hadn’t been a pause. “And you’ve got football camp anyway.” We were going to UCLA. Kevin had a football scholarship. I wanted to go to Berkeley but he had talked me out of it.
“Yeah, I know, but that’s not ‘til August. You coulda still taken the road trip with me.”
The past came back to me with a thud. After this weekend, I had spent that summer cutting brush with a machete and chain saw and fucking Geoff. Kevin had ridden the Harley around eleven western states before he went off to UCLA. I had gone to Berkeley after all, with Geoff.
“Come visit me in Arcata,” I suggested.
“I am. Hey, what’s with you today?” He stubbed the cigarette out on an empty coke can and turned towards me, his fingers automatically attaching themselves to my left nipple. “You’re gonna miss this, baby. And this.” He put his other hand on my cock and started jerking.
“I sure have,” I said, gasping.
He laughed. “You talk like it’s been years or something.”
“Yeah,” I agreed, making myself laugh too.
I spread my legs when his hand slid between them. He fingered my ass, then pushed both legs up. I didn’t stop him this time and suggest we use a condom. Neither of us had one anyway. AIDS hadn’t entered Chico’s consciousness yet.
It always amazed me that the All North State quarterback fucked me on a regular basis. “You close, baby?” he asked in a hoarse croak. I gasped out a yes and Kevin went into overdrive. He started groaning, that uh, uh, uh that always made me come.
He wiped us up with the rag we always used. “Whew,” he said, flopping against the mattress. When he reached for another cigarette, I tried to stop him. He slapped my hand away, lit up, took a puff and asked, “So, what do you wanna talk about?”
I gulped. My ticket to ride had brought me back to Wherever all right, the last minutes before I’d ruined my life, before I told Kevin I didn’t want to go to UCLA, that I thought we should break up. What should I say instead? Kevin smoked while I thought.
“Knock, knock,” he said, rapping his knuckles against my forehead.
“Uh…well…I just thought maybe we should make some plans for your visit. To Arcata, I mean.” Good save, Aaron. Everything would be all right now. It had been so simple. I could go back to 2015 soon.
“Oh, yeah. We should decide when and where. I gotta fit it into the ride.”
We settled on a date. As for where, I said, “I have a room,” remembering Mrs. Grundy’s big, white, two-storey house. “I’ll give you the address.”
“Yeah, I’ll need it to drive you up there like we planned.” He took a drag on the cigarette and blew the smoke away from us. It hovered in the air at the foot of the bed like the specter it was. In eighteen years, he’d be lying in a different kind of bed. I yanked the cigarette out of his mouth and pushed it down the Coke can.
“Hey! Why’d you do that?”
“You know why. Cigarettes are going to kill you.”
Kevin slumped and stared up at the ceiling. “Yeah, I know. I know,” he said, looking me. “I’ve tried to quit. I don’t know if I can.”
“You can. You will. Otherwise, you’re dead at thirty-six.”
“What, you have a vision or something? Sounds like you know the exact date.”
I did. Where was a nicotine patch when you needed one? Not invented yet. I could probably “invent” all kinds of stuff. We could be millionaires.
“Earth to Aaron. Come in please.” Kevin was waving his hand in front of my face. I blinked. We were still on my bed, totally naked, his big football body still muscular and full of life. And his beautiful hair. I ran my fingers through it and thought of his chemotherapy. He closed his eyes and hummed happily.
“Baby, when did you start doing that?” His eyes opened. “Okay, let’s make our plan.” It was back to business.
Kevin drove me the two-hundred miles to Arcata in the Mustang, with me playing GPS. Mom and Dad offered to take us but I needed to be alone with Kevin as much as possible before I met Geoff for the second time.
The house was at the end of a cul de sac. Huge blackberry bushes filled the lot behind the gravel parking area next to the kitchen porch. I was looking forward to seeing Mrs. Grundy, remembering how nice she was to me that summer. I’d been so unhappy when I arrived. The Mustang sent the gravel flying as Kevin stomped on the brakes just before he ran over the blackberries. He hopped out, popped the trunk, and hoisted both my bags out.
“Let me take one.”
“Nah. I got em.” He looked towards the porch and turned on his Mr. Popularity smile. A friendly looking older woman smiled back at him.
“Aaron?” she asked, looking at Kevin.
“I’m Aaron, Mrs. Grundy,” I said, moving towards her. “This is my friend Kevin.”
“Welcome to Arcata! Let me show you to your room. It’s upstairs,” Mrs. Grundy said in her always optimistic sounding voice. We followed her into the house and up the narrow flight of steps, down the equally narrow hall. At the farthest room, she turned the knob. “I’m sorry there’s just the one bed.”
“That’s okay,” Kevin said. I was glad Geoff wouldn’t arrive until the next week.
Mrs. Grundy opened the door and showed us the one bed, which was occupied at the moment by a large dark haired person about my age. Geoff was here already! I must not have remembered correctly.
Mrs. Grundy looked flustered too. “Oh, Geoff! I’m sorry. I was just showing…oh well, Geoffrey Freudlich, this is your roommate, Aaron Cohen. You’re both working for the Forest Service this summer.”
Geoff stood up in his short shorts and tight T-shirt, displaying a body I definitely had not forgotten. He shook my hand, then reached out to Kevin, whose mouth was wide open.
“Uh, this is my friend Kevin Roberts.” I tried to look at Geoff like we were strangers.
Kevin closed his mouth, put my bags down, and shook Geoff’s hand, squeezing hard enough for Geoff to wince. They held on, like two bulls competing for the same cow. Finally, Kevin said, “I gotta go,” and lurched away. I followed, trying to talk to him as he tromped down the hall and pounded down the stairs. He finally answered me outside by the Mustang.
“Where am I going to stay, Aaron? In bed with you and your roomie? I don’t think so.”
“We could get a motel room. Please Kevin. Don’t be mad. Geoff wasn’t supposed to be here until next week.”
“Oh, it’s Geoff already, huh?”
Damn. Blew it already. “Don’t be jealous,” I said, trying to recover.
“I’m not jealous,” he said automatically. He leaned against the car. “Okay, I’m jealous.” A big sigh lifted his big chest. He looked up at the second floor.
It’s a long summer.”
“Don’t worry,” I said, giving him a hug and kiss out in public. “I love you, remember?”
“Wow,” Kevin said. “Who are you and what did you do with my boyfriend?” I pulled away fast and he grinned. “Yeah, I remember. I love you too, babe,” he said, socking my shoulder. “I’ll come through on the bike like I promised. Then, we’ll be together at college and next year we can get our own place. What’s one summer anyway?” Kevin had life planned out for us, down to his career and mine. He would play in the NFL, and I would be a doctor. I knew the N.F.L. wouldn’t be ready for an openly gay quarterback in 1988, but we wouldn’t have to face that situation anyway. Kevin would become a copier salesman after college and work his way up at Xerox. He was their youngest district manager when he died.
“Right,” I agreed, trying not to picture his funeral.
“Don’t look so sad, baby. I saw a phone in the kitchen. We’ll talk.” He gave me another hug and a kiss with plenty of tongue before he hopped in the car and drove away, honking three times like always. When there was only empty street and settling dust, I wiped my eyes and turned around to face the house. No one was staring or calling the police. I went inside.
Mrs. Grundy was in the kitchen, too obviously stirring a pot. She looked around at me. “Is everything all right, dear?”
“Yes,” I assured her—and myself. “It’s just that my friend had planned to stay the weekend.” The lie the words my friend told hovered in the air between us.
“Oh, I’m sorry. I wish I had another room but when the Forest Service called I told them I only had the double bed. I thought they’d tell you.” I said it was okay even though it wasn’t and began trudging up the stairs to start avoiding my summer fate.
The door was open and Geoff was sitting on the bed when I walked in. He stood up, showing me again all I’d have to say no to. I remembered what he looked like naked, how his cock felt, how sweet….
“I hope everything is okay, Aaron.”
I focused again on the past present. “Don’t worry about it.”
“I’m sorry about the bed. I didn’t know either until I got here. I called the Forest Service, but they said basically take it or leave it.” I thanked him for trying.
He moved to the chest of drawers. “I saved half for you. You want the top or bottom?”
“Do you want the top two drawers or bottom two?”
“Bottom, I guess.”
He smiled. “Good. I’d rather be on top anyway.” Then, he gave me that lopsided grin I had loved so much the two years we’d dated at Berkeley.
“Uh, okay,” I said, looking away towards my luggage.
“Here. Let me help you with those.” He yanked both bags onto the bed as if they were Ziplocs. I bent over and started unpacking, trying not to sweat. He stood behind me and the room temperature went up even higher. I kept unpacking and not looking at him.
“Well, I guess I better get out of your way,” he said after several minutes of mutual silence. I said okay without turning around. Once I heard the stairs creak, I sat on the bed and asked myself how I was going to do this.
That night, Geoff made it harder when invited me to dinner. Mrs. Grundy cooked breakfast for her boarders, but at lunch and dinner we were on our own. I tried to say no to the invitation but Geoff wore me down.
At Angelo’s, we sat across from each other like we were on a first date, which in 1984 we had been, as it turned out. Geoff was a good listener and matter of fact about himself. He was a sophomore at Berkeley and on the baseball team. He asked lots of questions about Kevin, except the one I knew he really wanted the answer to.
Back at the house, Mrs. Grundy was watching “Family Ties” on her new Sony in the living room. I thought about Michael J. Fox’s Parkinson’s in the future and felt sad for him. Geoff and I said good night to her and went upstairs.
“You want the bathroom first?” he asked. “Hey, you like hiking? There are some great trails around here.” I said no. We had fucked and sucked on some of those trails. I collected my toiletries and took my turn in the bath. Back in our room, Geoff was sitting on the bed with a towel wrapped around him. His chest was everything I remembered.
“All done?” he asked, hopping up.
I waited for him to leave, only he didn’t. He just stood there in his towel, watching me standing there in mine. His started to tent. So did mine.
“I can’t,” I said quietly.
“Boyfriend?” he asked and I nodded. “The guy today?” I nodded again. “Too bad.” He rewrapped his towel so his erection was against his body, took one more look at mine and left for the bathroom. I exhaled, slipped back into my Jockeys and got into bed. When Geoff came back, he turned off the light. I heard the towel drop and his underwear slide on. I remembered how good his ass felt.
He must have bumped into something.
“You can turn the light back on.”
I listened to him settle into bed and not say anything for several minutes. I was drifting off to sleep when I heard him whisper, “I wish you didn’t have a boyfriend.”
I wanted to say, “Me too,” but just pretended I didn’t hear.
The next morning we were spooning when I woke, my ass against his erection, his arm holding me close. That summer, Geoff and I fell asleep like that almost every night and woke up in the same position almost every morning. We fit together well, but then so did Kevin and I. Kevin. I tried to pull away but Geoff mumbled something in his sleep and his arm tightened around me. I tried again and woke him up.
“Oh, God! I’m sorry. I was asleep. Really!”
The second night it happened, I said, “I could get a sleeping bag.”
He leaned over me. “Don’t be stupid. Maybe we could put pillows down the middle of the bed or something.”
“That won’t leave much room, especially for you.” I sat up while Geoff considered that. “Look,” I said. “We can do it. We don’t have to have sex.”
He gave me his crinkly smile. “Won’t it be more like not doing it?” So, we spent the weeks before Kevin came back not doing it, although anyone who saw us and knew from gays, assumed we were. We worked together, ate all our meals together, shopped together and slept together, his cock against my ass every morning. Mrs. Grundy treated us like a couple. People in Arcata stared at us. The surveyors we worked for made insinuations frequently.
By the time Kevin called to remind me when he’d be back in Arcata, I was so horny I was ready to jump him in the blackberry bushes. I booked a motel room instead.
“Hey, this is a nice room,” he said as he opened the door. I closed it behind us and started kissing him fast and furiously, then went down on him and sucked him hard. “Wow! I missed you too, babe!” he yelped.
We fucked twice before coming up for air. Post second coitus I lay on his chest, waiting for him to light up, but he didn’t.
“Three weeks, no smokes,” he said, grinning down at me. “Do I get a reward?” I laughed until he rolled against me, cock to ass. I froze immediately.
“What’s wrong, baby?”
“Nothing,” I assured him, rubbing my ass against his hard on.
“That’s my hot man,” he whispered into my ear, teeth nibbling the lobe, one hand guiding his cock back inside me, the other starting to jerk me off. I’m ashamed to say I closed my eyes and pictured Geoff some of the time, but at least I didn’t yell the wrong name when I came. Tuesday morning, when I woke up spooning with Geoff, I tried not to think of Kevin’s cock up my ass and what Geoff’s would feel like up there. Anyway, I remembered how it felt. I pulled away, Geoff woke up and we began our new workday.
Another month passed, with Kevin in Chico working for his dad and me in Arcata working for Uncle Sam. We talked every day, which really ran up my phone bill since I usually dialed the numbers, but reminding myself I loved Kevin was the only way I couldn’t fall in love with Geoff again.
When we all turned the calendar to August, Kevin flew south for football camp at U.C.L.A., no cars allowed. Phone calls got fewer. Geoff and I got closer. When he told me about his life at Berkeley, I remembered more than he said. It had been our life after all, once upon a time.
Not having sex became increasingly difficult for both of us. One Saturday morning it became impossible. I got a sleeping bag after that. Geoff said he’d sleep on the floor but I made sure we took turns.
At the end of August, my last day in the Forest Service and taking turns on the floor finally arrived. Football camp was over and Kevin was flying north to pick up his car, pick up his boyfriend, and drive both of us back to Westwood. I was going to be a tennis team walk-on so he and I could be roommates in the jocks dorm.
Geoff and I said goodbye at a gas station off 101 in Arcata. After they gassed up, he and the surveyors were driving to Gasquet for the rest of the week.
“Thanks for everything!” he said, with what looked like tears in his eyes. The surveyors glanced at each other like, yep, homos. I didn’t care anymore. I leaned across the seat and gave Geoff a long hug. I wanted to say let’s keep in touch but just got out and waved goodbye.
The green Forest Service SUV pulled out of the gas station, and I ran up the overpass sidewalk. From the center of it, I watched the Suburban merge onto 101 north. I waved again, in case Geoff was looking back. Then, I walked the long sad blocks to Mrs. Grundy’s.
Kevin was waiting outside the house. I tried to smile for him. He looked so happy and healthy. He hadn’t smoked all summer. Seeing him, I knew I’d made the right decision coming back, not changing our plans, not screwing up my life and his.
“I put your bags in the trunk already,” he told me. “You good to go?”
“I’ll just say goodbye to Mrs. Grundy.”
“She had to leave. She told me to give you a big hug.” I hugged him back, so tightly I could feel his heart beating. He gave me a kiss and I didn’t worry about the neighbors.
“I’ll just go in and take another look around,” I said after he let me go.
“Okay, babe. Take your time.” Old Kevin would have taken his pack out then and had a smoke while he waited, but New Kevin just settled his bubble butt against the Mustang, folded his arms across his chest and smiled.
The house was locked so I used my key. I wrote a note to Mrs. Grundy and then wandered around, saying goodbye to my summer. In my room with Geoff, I looked at the bed we’d slept in and, once, made love in. I felt a tsunami of regret and, for better or worse, also wrote him a note, with my address and phone number. In the final moments, I couldn’t face not knowing him. And anyway, I’d be safe and sound in Los Angeles with Kevin. It wasn’t like I’d be living in that funny old house on Channing Way.
On my way out, I stopped at the kitchen window. Through the curtains I could see Kevin leaning against the Mustang, trying not to be impatient. I could also see Geoff’s MG farther away where he always parked it. What would their lives be like now that I had changed the past? Would I still know Geoff? Would Kevin start smoking again? And my dad. If he just ate healthier food, got more exercise and had his cholesterol checked, he wouldn’t have his stroke, at least not so soon.
I pulled the return ticket out of my wallet and read the words again. I had come back to change my life and I had. The thing was though, I would never actually get to live it. But I could. All I had to do was not do just one more thing. I heard Kevin honk the horn, a bugle call to action.
Without another thought I tore my return ticket in half and quarters and eighths and let the pieces flutter into the trashcan under the sink. My stomach dropped with them. What had I done? Kevin honked again. I looked outside. He was walking towards the door.
“I’m sorry,” I said, opening it for him.
“No problem,” he lied, one foot tapping.
I locked the kitchen door behind us, slipped my key under the mat, and took my first steps into the next thirty years. I wasn’t sure what would happen through all those years but I was ready to find out. Kevin opened the passenger door on the Mustang and I slid in. He popped the gearshift into reverse, backed up, and then we roared off, leaving dust and gravel flying behind us. I settled back. I no longer had a ticket, but I was ready to ride.
Richard May’s work has appeared in several literary journals, short story anthologies and his book Ginger Snaps: Photos & Stories of Redheaded Queer People. Rick also organizes literary readings and events, including the annual Word Week literary festival, Noe Valley Authors Festival, and Magnet San Francisco author events. He lives in San Francisco, in exile from Brooklyn, New York.