Ellis wasn’t supposed to do this. Brent was no longer his concern. But when the desperate man called Ellis that morning, begging to go, declaring he was ready for help, Ellis knew he had no choice. He drained his coffee to the bottom of its cup, slapped on his woolen coat and drove across town to collect the man he once loved.
Brent waited in the parking lot of his ratty, beige-colored apartment building. These dispirited accommodations were the best he could afford with his salary from Wal-Mart. Ellis kept gazing out the side windows as he eased through the lot, looking for any black men who might pose danger. He eased into a space in front of Brent on the sidewalk. His ex-lover shivered in the crisp winter breeze. The weatherman had predicted a rare snowfall for later that afternoon. While the car idled, Ellis rolled down his window and called out to Brent. “Where’s your stuff? I thought this place made you live in-house at least a week.”
“Baby, I can’t do that,” Brent said, rubbing his hands together. “I can’t take the time off work. I had to beg Miranda just to get taken off morning shift.”
“Well, I guess that will have to do.”
The two men drove through commuter traffic to the rehab facility. Brent fiddled with the radio dial, never settling on a single station long enough for Ellis to tell what song played. After a few moments, Brent gave up the search and threw himself against the seat like a sulking child. Ellis glanced at him. He hadn’t bothered to fix his hair; the dyed blonde tufts angled in every direction. Stubble covered his face. Ellis remembered how slowly Brent’s facial hair grew. He must not have shaved for several days. Tossing his head against the headrest, he ground his teeth.
“Did you drink last night?” Ellis asked.
“Of course I did.”
“Are you still drunk?”
“No, I slept. I mean, probably not. Fuck it, I don’t fucking know.”
“Have you been doing anything else?”
Brent snapped his head around and glared at Ellis. “What do you mean?”
“You know what I mean, Brent.”
Perhaps losing his nerve, Brent shrugged and looked away. “I told you, baby, I quit all that shit. I promised you, didn’t I?”
Ellis risked taking his eyes off the rusted pickup cruising ahead in order to inspect Brent. Over the course of their two-year relationship, Ellis had learned the facial twitches, the jittery eyes that always gave away his lies. Brent curled into himself, head resting on his shoulder, as if he were snuggled under a warm quilt. Surely, he knew Ellis watched him.
“You have to be honest with these people, baby,” Ellis said. “It’s a wasted trip if you’re just going to lie.”
Brent surprised him with a quick reaction: wide eyes and slack mouth.
“What?” Ellis asked. “What is it?”
“I don’t remember the last time you called me baby.”
East Texas Rehabilitative Center sat like an angry toad among lush green shrubs and dead yellow grass. Ellis circled the driveway, came to a stop before the double glass doors. He sat motionless in the driver’s seat, the engine stuttering. Brent pressed himself against the passenger window, his breath fogging the glass. Ellis didn’t know how long he would have to wait. Frankly, he had doubted he would see this day. He simply imagined Brent downing wine coolers alone in his shitty one-bedroom apartment until…until what?
“What do I do now?” Brent asked, eyes fixed upon the rehab entrance.
“I suppose you go inside and tell them why you’re here.”
Ellis dragged his hand over his face. He’d been looking forward to a sedate morning in front of morning chat shows. His shift didn’t begin until noon. He had nowhere to go. “I don’t know, Brent. This is all new to me.”
His ex-lover whipped around, eyes glassy and vacant. “Take me back home.”
“I changed my mind. I can’t be here. I’ll figure out something else. I don’t know, I’ll—please take me home!”
Ellis had not touched Brent since they embraced at his doorway the day Brent moved out. Without thinking he grasped Brent’s hand and squeezed it, the other man’s blood pulsing beneath his grip.
“You belong here, baby. Everything will be fine. Go inside and find out when I should pick you up.”
“Promise you’ll come back for me?”
“I’ll use my lunch break.”
Brent withdrew his hand from Ellis and returned his gaze to the rehab entrance. “Does shit like this really work?” he asked, not looking at Ellis.
“You can tell me about it when I come get you.” In that moment, watching the man with whom he once hoped to spend his remaining years, Ellis knew Brent would never truly leave his life. He shut off the engine and sat quietly while Brent gasped for breath, clutching the door handle. I can wait, Ellis told himself. We have the whole morning.