From Surrender the Past:
“I shouldn’t,” Truman said. “Question for you, Nick. Confidentially, if you wouldn’t mind.”
Nick turned. “I usually keep confidentiality at my discretion. What’s up?”
“Would you take me on as a client? Between now and the wedding, I mean.”
“You don’t want him to know?”
“I expect to fail.”
Nick took Truman in through the back door and immediately pulled him into the office.
“This used to be a steam room,” he said, gesturing around. “Actually, the day Hugh and I met, I brought him here.”
“Did you?” Truman smiled. “Steam room seduction?”
“I thought about it, but even at eighteen he was—you know how he is. And it was a little different.”
“So I gathered. The night you brought Bernie to the house for the first time Hugh described meeting you as setting the stage for his life.”
Nick rolled his eyes and sat down in his desk chair. “He’s such a drama queen, Truman. How do you put up with it?”
“Practical application of Will Derrie. How do people put up with their partners without a handy Will? Speaking of which, how’s Bernie?”
Truman sat down, as if he was committing to something. “Serious question. I really did like him. Should we include him on your wedding invitation?”
Asking Bernie to be his date to Hugh’s wedding. There was a thought that hadn’t occurred to him. “I assume I’ll have a plus one option.”
“You’re lucky I’m in charge of the guest list. Hugh would play matchmaker. Hugh’s already playing matchmaker.”
“Do you remember Molly? Will’s Molly?”
“Hugh’s inviting Will’s ex-girlfriend to your wedding?”
“Inviting her was my idea—with Will’s permission, of course. Nudging the two of them closer and closer together was all Hugh.”
Nick shook his head. “He’s always meddled. He and Lucy. Meddling meddlers. So, Truman. Tell me what the hell you’re doing here.”
“I thought that was obvious?”
“Uh huh. You’re getting married and want to wake up on your wedding day looking the way you thought you’d someday look when you were sixteen and swore you’d never get fat.”
Too far. Truman’s eyes hollowed, as if Nick could see all the darkness behind them.
“Sorry. But I don’t think you need me standing over you shouting in your face about doing one more rep, Truman.”
“Then what do I need?”
Nick considered the man before him—a friend, these days, though not one he knew particularly well. Tread lightly. But Truman didn’t require gentleness. (No one marrying Hugh could really require gentleness.) He required directness without sarcasm.
“I think you have the body you’re likely to always have,” Nick said, and watched. When Truman’s expression didn’t change, he continued. “You look good in your clothes. You may not feel good out of them, but for you, the wedding isn’t a helpful motivation, it’s—what, Truman? A last ditch effort? When you look at yourself in a mirror, what do you feel?”
Oh, honey. “Yeah. You should work on that. Separately from this. So I’ll clarify my position. I’ll take you on—that’s not actually a question. I don’t have many clients these days and you’re not going to be a whiner in the gym, so I’m not worried about it. But Truman, the real work is your head, not your body.”
“Nothing I’ve ever tried has worked. I feel like a slob beside Hugh. I’d rather not feel that way on our wedding day, if I can help it.”
“Okay. So here’s how that goes down.” For a split second, Nick considered not saying it. But Truman had to be one of the few people he could speak to like this, one of the few who could handle it. “From now until your wedding you spend every day stressing about this. You count your calories with every meal, every drink. You resent every piece of food you put in your body because all of it, even things you previously enjoyed, becomes symbolic of your effort to change yourself into something that disgusts you less. Your loving partner will over-analyze his own responses and say the wrong thing most, if not all, of the time. You’ll come to the gym, and in a sense, regardless of how much you hate it, it will become the only time you can let go, because someone else is telling you what to do, so you don’t have to choose.”
Truman took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Nick waited until he was ready.
“You’ll achieve your body shaping goal, or you won’t. But you’re dedicated, and Hugh’s in front of your face, and you have something to prove, so probably you will. You’ll be there on your wedding day and for a brief, shining moment you’ll be proud of yourself. You did it. You’re finally what you thought you’d be.
“And then, you’ll slide back down to exactly where you are now. Actually, it’s more likely that you’ll be bigger than you are now. Statistically. The self-loathing will be worse. It’ll be familiar, and you’ll sink back into the habit as if you never stopped. Because you never did. Even when you start looking better, that voice in your head will keep after you.” He spread his hands, then recognized it as a Hugh move and stopped, resting them palm-down on his knees.
“You give this speech to everyone?” Yeah, there’s that iron core. Truman’s voice didn’t waver.
“Don’t care about most people. And most people—well, you probably see it, too. Most people don’t know what they’re really doing here. They read an article, or a web page, or maybe their boyfriend or girlfriend talked them into ‘getting healthy’ so they show up here, they do six weeks, they disappear.”
“Hugh didn’t do that.”
“Well, Truman, if I was fucking you, this would be different. But Hugh was off the end of a truly disastrous relationship and his mom was diagnosed with cancer. This place became a refuge from his world. He couldn’t control how fucked up the chemo was, or how he kept trying to pick up tricks and sucking at it, but he could come here and lift five more pounds, and that was enough. I wouldn’t have let him do everything he did, if I was training him now. I was young. Both of us were reckless.”
“He said he resists the vanity of it, but it motivates him more than anything else.”
“Fool. Hugh’s motivated by control. But you aren’t motivated by that, Truman. You aren’t grasping the only thing in your life you can hang onto. You have a good life. And I’ve been in your kitchen; you’re not hiding pantries full of processed food. You eat well. Could you trim some off your portions and survive? Sure. But there is nothing more unhealthy about your lifestyle than how much you seem to hate your body.”
That got a twitch at his jaw.
“Have you been talking to Will?” Truman asked.
“Not recently. Why?”
“Will very much wants me to love myself.”
“Sweet kid. He wants you to love yourself as much as he loves you. Unfortunately, it doesn’t actually work that way.”
“I’ve noticed.” Truman re-crossed his legs and studied the surface of the desk.
Hugh, in the old days, would have choosen this moment to say something deeply personal and likely offensive, something so barbed it would take Nick’s breath away.
Truman said, “I want to be free of the self-loathing more than I want to be free of the weight.”
“Because you’re not a fool.”
“Yes, thank you, Nick, but do you have anything helpful to add? Because if it was easy, it would be done.”
“I think you should talk to them. Both of them, not just Hugh.”
“How can that possibly help?”
“You’re trying to quit doing something you’ve been doing for many years, which is ingrained in you by your culture, and you have no idea what life looks like on the other side of that. They love you. They want you to feel whole. Why wouldn’t you talk to them?”
And that was the real question. Truman had demanded Hugh put aside his defensive stupidity and get goddamn real, but here he was, unable to use his words? That didn’t really make sense.
“Being in a room with Hugh and Will is like being in an Escher painting. You know M.C. Escher?”
“The pictures where you keep trying to track a path through, but the stairways up all lead down?”
“Something like that. Between the two of them I’m vanilla and naive and—boring, Nick. My problems are mundane, next to theirs.”
“You think Hugh’s marrying a boring guy? That would be weird.”
“I think he needs someone to anchor him—or buoy him, as the case may be—and I fit that need.”
“Truman? Don’t take this the wrong way, but that’s the fucking stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.”
“Can’t imagine taking that the wrong way.”
Nick leaned forward. “Yeah, listen, don’t feed me a line of bullshit. And you know it is, because you’re not stupid. He’s not with you because it’s convenient, Truman. He was alone because it was convenient. Because it’s so much easier to tell yourself you don’t need anyone than it is to allow yourself to actually risk something.”
“I never committed to a solitary life, the way that Hugh appears to have.” This time Truman leaned forward. “It must have really thrown him for a loop when he realized he couldn’t just keep going the way he was going forever. Right, Nick?”
Shrink. And with Hugh. And saw he and Bernie together. Called out, righteously, by Hugh’s fiance.
“It’s like sky diving and knowing your parachute has a eighty percent chance of failure,” he said. “He took that leap for you, Truman. Don’t insult him by acting like he can’t understand how you feel. And I’m not sure you can still pull off the line about being vanilla anymore, either, but I don’t want the details.”
That got him the hint of a blush.
“They fucking love you, and either one of them would take a bullet for you. Up, down, none of that shit matters. Let them be there for you. Let them anchor you, or buoy you, Truman.”
“I want to be strong enough to come to terms with this on my own. And I know how ridiculous that sounds.”
Nick shook his head. “Yeah, well, I’m not exactly the reigning fucking champ when it comes to disclosing my fuck-ups, not even to Hugh. But it’s got nothing to do with strength. You share this with him so he can challenge the voice in the back of your head calling you a slob. And I’ve seen the way he looks at you, Truman. Being with you turns him on more than being with Will, and I didn’t think that was possible.”
“I think he’d say they’re different.”
“All due respect, I know the way Hugh’s eyes dilate when he’s hot for something, and he’s hot for you just having a conversation, Truman.”
“Nick—I can’t lay this on him. He has enough without dealing with my ludicrous insecurities.”
“The fuck are you kidding me? Christ, Truman, Hugh’s a moody, cantankerous asshole at least half the time, he’s terrible at knowing when to tell you how he feels and even worse at knowing when to shut the hell up about what he thinks! And you’re worried about burdening him?”
“All of that’s true, but the second he takes his clothes off—well, all right, I’m not actually thinking about how fat I am when I’m looking at Hugh naked. But when he looks at me, it’s all I can think about.”
Nick paused on the verge of saying something far too revealing. Then said it anyway. “When Bernie looks at me, fully clothed, in the middle of a crowd, I feel stripped to my skin, Truman. I’ve let him say and do things to me that I never even came close to discussing with Hugh, and I trust Hugh completely. You think you can hold back from him? Okay. But he’s gonna know you’re doing it and it’s gonna hurt his feelings, which of course he won’t tell you about, so I look forward to him having some kind of unrelated temper tantrum that really comes back to you won’t let him help, and he wants to.” He sat back. “So when do you want to start?”
“Well, if you’re gonna be a fuckin’ idiot about this, you may as well let me kick your sorry butt all over my gym while you’re doing it.”
“You think I should go home and spill my hopes and fears to Hugh?”
“If you were Lucy, you’d damn sure tie him down and gag him first.”
“I could probably manage that.”
Nick grinned. “Damn. Let him tell you how hot you are until you start believing it, Truman. It’s not the same as looking in the mirror and thinking you look good, but it’s better than being stuck in the echo chamber of your skull, you know?”
“I do.” Truman studied him for a moment that definitely ran over into too long. “What do you see when you look in the mirror, Nick?”
He hardly even had to think about it. “A mask. I see the mask I put on when I was thirteen years old, running so long and so hard that I puked, just so I wouldn’t have to think anymore.”
“But Bernie sees a bottomless well of fidelity and grace.”
“You’d have to ask him,” Nick said, uncomfortable suddenly.
“Come over for dinner again, soon. I liked him. I’d like to know him better.”
“I’m not getting fucking married, Jennings, so can it.”
“Who does that proclamation remind me of?” Truman stood up. “Thank you for having the meeting, anyway, Nick. I appreciate it.”
“Even if you’re not walking out of here with ripped abs and a muscle T-shirt?” He walked Truman to the back door, and stood there in the doorway, blinded briefly by sunlight.
“Even so.” Truman kissed his cheek. “I think it’s far better than twenty percent, Nick. Come over again soon.”
“Yeah, all right.”
He waved and went back to his office. On a rash, terrible whim, he texted Bernie. Truman says you look at me and see fidelity and grace. Engagement is like some kind of acid trip, right?
Come home. My day lacks grace, Nicholas.
The most impossible part of the entire thing was choosing. It wouldn’t be an option much longer; he could feel that in himself and sense it in Bernie. Nick contemplated the message and reached for some day in the near future when he’d meet an order like that with acceptance.
Well. Maybe not acceptance, exactly, but he’d obey it. Bernie made him detail out his gym schedule and his staffing, so he’d know exactly when he could and couldn’t say something like Come home.
If I’m the source of grace in your day, you’ll be disappointed.
Come home right now and I’ll show you exactly how little you disappoint me.
For a second, he considered it. Stepping into Bernie’s house, stripping off his clothes, kneeling in the entryway and knowing that Bernie watched in his cameras, waiting until Nick was centered before coming to him. He could do that. It would please Bernie beyond measure. Hell, if he was being honest, it would do a lot more than please himself. The moments Bernie gave him a choice and he chose to obey were the greatest, far more satisfying than the moments Bernie merely enforced their agreement.
It didn’t matter.
I’m sorry, he sent back.
Oh, don’t be, sweetheart. This gives me more time to plan.
Nick exhaled. See you in a few hours.
Nothing back, but that was expected. Bernie would already be planning, and Nick certainly looked forward to whatever he came up with.