What He Left Behind by L. A. Witt
To anyone who’s ever been a Michael, an Ian, or a Josh.
“Dr. Klein asked me out.”
Michael isn’t looking at me when he says it. He’s across the dimly lit booth, staring down at the piece of bread he’s been absently shredding for the last few minutes. Brow taut, shoulders hunched, he hasn’t said much since he showed up for lunch, and I knew something had to be wrong. I just wasn’t expecting…that.
“Oh.” Now I’m mutilating a piece of bread too. “You said no, didn’t you?”
The long, resigned release of breath confirms it. Michael sets the bread down, brushes a few crumbs off his fingers and sits back against the fake leather cushion. “I said no.”
My heart sinks. He’s had the most adorable crush on that doctor for months, and ever since he found out the guy was gay, he’s been trying to work up the courage to ask him out. From the sound of it, the doctor—a vet who spends one or two days a week in the clinic where Michael works—has reciprocated pretty hard, and they started flirting cautiously a few weeks ago. I can’t blame either of them. The doc is one of those smoking-hot rugged guys with a little gray around the edges, and Michael… Well, Michael is gorgeous. Even my husband ogles him, though he admittedly does have a thing for redheads, and we both get a little breathless at the sight of a man in scrubs.
But Dr. Klein asked, and Michael said no, and I don’t know what to say. I didn’t know what to say the last couple of times this scenario played out. It happened with another vet tech who worked in the same office last year—they flirted, they danced around the obvious, and when the guy had finally suggested a drink after work, Michael balked. He never has given me a straight answer about that one. Or about the FedEx driver he’d played the same game with for the better part of a year before the vet tech came along.
Except I have my suspicions, and I hope like hell that this time and those other two times were just cold feet, not a throwback to Michael’s awful past.
But what the hell do I say?
Come on, Josh. Say something, for fuck’s sake.
Treading carefully, I ask, “What changed your mind about him?”
Michael leans forward again, pressing his elbow onto the table and kneading the bridge of his nose with two fingers. “God, I’m so stupid.”
With anyone else, I’d have thought—and quite possibly said—that yes, dude, you are stupid. Dr. Klein is one of those guys who can turn every head in a room that’s already packed full of hot men. Plus he’s a vet who’s notorious for being extra gentle and kind with animals, and if there’s a better way to Michael’s heart, I don’t know what it is.
I fold my arms on the edge of the table and try to narrow some of the distance between us. It’s a struggle not to reach past the abandoned bread basket and put a reassuring hand on his arm. Even after all these years, it’s hard to remember that Michael doesn’t like being touched. That’s one of the biggest tragedies of his past—he’d always been touchy-feely in an endearing kind of way, and it still hurts to see him recoil from even the slightest brush of human contact.
“You’re not stupid. What happened?”
“Nothing. Nothing happened.” He drops his hand again, and he meets my eyes. “I just couldn’t do it.”
I swallow. “Have you talked to Dr. Hamilton about it?”
Michael flinches and drops his gaze. The bread is back in his line of sight again, and when he starts ripping crumbs off it once more, his hands are unsteady. Were they earlier? I can’t remember now and wish I’d paid attention.
“I left her a message,” he whispers. “I doubt she’ll be surprised.”
“Why?” I chew my lip. “I mean, is this about…” …the whole reason you have a therapist in the first place? “Is it…”
My hackles go up at the sound of that asshole’s name. “Yeah.”
“Isn’t everything about him these days?” Michael’s voice is bitter, and as if for emphasis, he tears off a chunk of crust and tosses it into the basket. Then he shakes his head and sits back again, dusting more crumbs off his fingers. “Every time I think I’m past all that…”
“Dr. Klein is nothing like Steve, though.”
“Neither was Steve when we first started dating,” he mutters.
The booth is silent for a moment. I still don’t know what to say, and Michael’s lost in his own thoughts.
Right then, the ponytailed blonde waitress appears with our food and asks with a huge grin, “Okay, who had the veggie stir fry?”
Michael musters something in the neighborhood of a smile. “Me.”
She sets the plate down in front of him and turns to me. “So this pesto chicken must be for you.”
I nod, but as she lays it on the table, my stomach twists. I could’ve sworn I was starving when I got here. “Thanks.”