“I CAN’T wait,” Bill Smith wailed, his head thrashing from side to side on the bed. “I’m going to explode! I’ll die—I can’t!”
I wasn’t worried about the noise. I’d had my studio soundproofed as soon as I bought it. Bill could have screamed, and nobody would have heard much at all. The thick fragrance of our sweat, our breath, and the sage we’d burned at the beginning bore us up, up, into prayer.
He brought his hand to his penis to stroke it, but I pushed it away. “No. Don’t make it happen. You don’t have to. Just let it happen. Keep your eyes open. Listen to me. Let your body break all the way open, it’s good.” After weeks of practice, he was ready, so ready.
“See yourself opening to the sun, like a lotus,” I coaxed, undulating inside him. “Not to me, or me inside you, but to the whole universe. Give yourself to sun-fire, petal by petal. Keep your eyes open, breathe from your belly, let the mystery take you.”
He bucked, his eyes wide and fierce. He clamped his legs around my waist and dug his fingers into the sheets. He stopped breathing.
“Breathe out, now, all the way. Give all your beauty away. Now!” I pushed in all the way, and his breath burst out of him in a ragged prayer to “Oh, God!” as he came. His body arched and shuddered, beautiful and holy in release. Magnificent. I loved this work.
For a while, neither of us moved, just sweating, still joined. The only sound was our breathing as it slowed. After a few minutes, I leaned forward to kiss his throat softly as I reached for a small alabaster jar beside the bed.
“Thank you,” he said shakily, as I wiped him clean and slowly anointed his heart and belly chakras with sandalwood oil from the jar. “Fifty-some years since puberty, and I’ve never come without someone or something touching my dick before.”
“And?” I asked with a smile. I knew the answer already.
His belly convulsed as I slid out. “Amazing.”
BILL’S WEATHERED face still glowed as he tucked in his shirt, smoothed down the fabric. His hand stopped just below his solar plexus. “I can still feel that,” he said, his voice soft with wonder. “My breathing goes all the way down, wide open. Powerful.”
“Isn’t it wonderful?” I said, toweling my hair dry. “Breathing,” I repeated from our very first session, “is our first and most primal sex— welcome in, as deep as we can; pour out, twice as long as in. Twice as much time giving as taking. Without breath, we have nothing, are nothing.”
I came up behind my client to give him an affectionate peck below his ear. I rubbed my clean-shaven cheek along his neck, wondering how long he’d stay this pliant, this gentle. “You did great today, Bill.”
I knew what Bill Smith’s real name was. I took on clients only by referral and then only after a thorough background check, but I honored professional convention. He was a relatively new client and, so far, preferred the pretense of anonymity. If that made him feel safer with me early on, no problem—his comfort made it easier to do the work. We could go deeper into the mystery.
He caught my eye in the mirror and held it, as only a tough, silver-haired airline executive could. Very used to being in charge. “You didn’t answer the question I asked in the shower,” he said. “But I’d like an answer. Do you ever regret being so beautiful?”
“Not that I’m aware of.” I hesitated, cautious about where this might lead. “Why?”
He shrugged, his smile disappointed. “I would have preferred you to say yes. It’s selfish of me, but the world would seem a little more just if once in a while you felt there was a downside to your looks. Even here in Los Angeles, your physical perfection is… unnerving. When we’re together, I’d rather not be the only one in the room who felt a little awkward about that, at least once in a while.”
Involuntarily, my hand rose to cover the three blood-red spots of the birthmark that lay along my neck. “I’m not perfect.”
His laugh carried a hard edge. “You,” he said with quiet accusation, “are more physically perfect than any human being has a right to be.” His gaze flicked to where my fingers lay. “And those things serve only as punctuation, like an eighteenth century beauty mark.”
I laughed too, just to deflect him. “Okay, then. But that’s not really what my coaching is about. Would you be less interested in working with me if I were less attractive physically?”
He pulled the knot of his tie into place, looking thoughtful. “It might have mattered to begin with. Not now, certainly.”
“That’s because you’re beginning to experience your own beauty, inside.” I waggled a finger at Mr. Smith’s reflection. “But I’m hearing comparison and competition creeping back into your language already, and you’re not even out the door.”
“Competition makes the world go around,” he said, showing teeth.
“Not with me, not here in my space.” I hugged his trim, mature body from behind, catching a rich whiff of sandalwood, and whispered into his ear, “You are unique. That’s what makes you a pleasure to be with, for whoever you’re with.”
“Huh. I’ll bet you say that to all your customers.”
“Clients,” I corrected. It was almost the same thing, but not quite. Certainly not to me. I gave him another smooch on his neck, on comfortable territory again. “Of course I do. Because it’s true. My work is to help a man discover how true that actually is.”
“By having the most spectacular sex imaginable.”
“Exactly!” I squeezed and pulled away. “Can you think of a better way to discover your sacred inner beauty?”
Bill shook his head, finally surrendering a real smile. “Trust me, I’m not looking for a better way.”
I winked into the mirror at him. “Me neither.”
After he left, I massaged my chakras using lavender oil as I always did to separate from a client. I did some stretching, showered again, and dressed slowly.
His question about beauty had touched a nerve. From childhood, I’d been keenly aware that people thought me beautiful. I was. It had been one of Mother’s favorite topics of conversation with her martini friends. But in spite of Bill’s curt dismissal, I was also marked by ugliness.
I stared into the mirror at the rough red spots that lay on my neck like blood spatter. As they had since puberty, when I’d first started having the nightmares, they whispered to me of grisly, violent death. Mine.
Any number of times I’d decided to have them removed, but I’d never been able to go through with it. Always—once as late as actually settling onto the table with the plastic surgeon standing next to me—I decided it would be wrong to cut them out. They were a true part of me, somehow, even though I hated that they were. I didn’t want to be beaten to death like the nightmare promised.
My throat tightened and began to ache. I’d looked at them too long. Sweat beaded on my forehead. I shut my eyes and breathed into the rising swell of nausea. I’m safe right now. I began a silent affirmation. This is my studio. I choose my clients. I’m safe here.
I wouldn’t let that prophecy of violence and death become reality, even though it had marked me from birth. I had the resources to make sure it didn’t. I took all the precautions.
I wiped my face with the damp towel and shrugged into a fresh shirt. I needed to schedule another appointment with Reggie, my therapist, to work on that again. But right then, I was due for lunch with Stef at Chez Henri. My reservation was for two o’clock, and they wouldn’t hold a table even for a regular like me.
I LEFT the keys in the Maserati for the parking valet and stepped into the elegant, restrained clamor of Chez Henri. Stef stood waiting for me in the vestibule, looking a little nervous. His face lit up when he saw me, and I’m sure mine did the same. We hugged. He was such a great kid.
“They kept looking at me like I’d snuck in through the kitchen,” Stef said with his brightest aw-shucks grin. “Guess they don’t want an Oklahoma farm boy here unless he’s trussed up on a platter with an apple in his mouth. They should’ve asked—I’d’a said sure, for the right price!”
He glanced around the room. “Could be fun, with some of these guys.”
Stef was naïve, way too open for his own good, but I wasn’t sure how to teach him more caution without damping the irrepressible spirit that made him so special. I’d lecture him about it over lunch. Again.
“The Scottish wild salmon is particularly fine today, Mr. Bucknam,” the maître d’ murmured as he seated us at a window table.
“Thank you, William. Your ‘particularly fine’ must translate to ‘heavenly’ for the rest of us.”
One corner of William’s urbane lip curled heavenward at the compliment, maybe as much as a millimeter, as he withdrew into the flow of his domain.
I watched Stef tuck into his steak the way he did just about everything—with unabashed enthusiasm. I could list plenty of reasons why I felt so protective of him, why I enjoyed being with him so much, wanted to teach him how to flourish, succeed. I wanted him to be happy.
He was a good kid, smart and dangerously generous of heart. His love of adventure electrified everything he did. He made me laugh, more than I had in a long time. I also considered him my protégé, which was something new for me. I found my proprietary attitude surprisingly satisfying. He loved our work and would become superb at it.
Six months ago, Stef had tried to pick me up at a party as he worked the room—so new to LA he was still wearing cowboy boots and a belt with a giant silver and brass buckle, his straw-blond thatch headed in half a dozen directions without any help from hair product. I’d been mildly offended at first, but then as we talked, I became intrigued—and ultimately charmed.
For his part, Stef had been miffed when he discovered that he wasn’t going to make any money off this particular trick, but by then, he was too interested to say no. We had a truly wonderful time.
He was special. From that first night, he’d been eager to learn how to grow beyond just hustling. He was imaginative, playful, and talented too. He possessed the intuitive empathy that enabled him to listen to another man’s body. He was an excellent listener.
I took a bite of salmon. It really was heavenly. I lost myself in the melting texture and flavors for a moment. Beautifully delicate, with just the right whisper of tarragon in the butter.
“Wherever you went, I could tell you had a good time,” Stef said with a leer. “I swear, sometimes food is just as good as sex.” He waved his fork at me and winked. “Except sex with you, which is better’n food any day. I think I need another lesson soon.”
“Have you been doing your meditation and breath work?”
“Every day.” Stef dropped his eyes. “Well, nearly every day. I like it. Makes me feel good.” He looked up, his eyes soft and thoughtful. “It really does. I feel like I glow afterward.”
He cut off another bite and stuffed it in his mouth. “Mercy, that is fine,” he mumbled around it. “And speaking of sex, is it okay if I use the studio later this afternoon? I’ve got a high roller.”
“Sure. I was there just now, but I didn’t clean up. Camilla won’t be in until tomorrow morning, so you’ll have to tidy up before your appointment.” I paused, weighing whether I should ask. Stef got skittish if he felt I was crowding him. “Anyone I know?”
“Nah, it’s not even someone I’m supposed to know, but I do. This is our second time. First was at a hotel a couple days ago. But I saw him on the news yesterday going on about some big project. Political guy. Wild man in the sack, though. Big dick, knows how to use it.”
Stef impaled a spear of asparagus. “Isn’t it kinda stupid to stack these up in a tipi like they do? I mean, it’s the first thing I pushed over getting to the—”
“For god’s sake, don’t let on you know who he is.” I grabbed Stef’s fork hand so hard the asparagus jarred free and fell back onto his plate. “If he doesn’t want you to know who he is, then trust me, you don’t want to know either. You’ve got to play by the rules. You could get into serious trouble if you don’t.”
I let go of Stef’s hand with a squeeze, a little embarrassed at feeling—and sounding—like an overprotective parent. “I care a lot about you,” I said, trying to explain myself. “I should start screening all your clients.”
Stef shook his head firmly and picked up the dislodged asparagus. “I know you mean well, Shepherd, that’s a sure thing.” He popped it in his mouth and chewed. When he looked up, his eyes told me he’d dug in and wouldn’t budge.
“I know you got the finest corral I can imagine all ready for me, but I still can’t abide fences. Even yours.” He looked sad. “I get spooked every time I see a fence. I just ain’t ready to give up the right to pick my own guys.”
“I understand that.” I smiled and held up my hands, backing off. “It was wrong of me to put it that way. It’s just that I get scared for you sometimes, Stef. Los Angeles is a very different place from Oklahoma City. Bad things happen to men like us every day here. There’s good reason behind my paranoia.”
“Geez, you’re really serious about this, aren’t you?” Stef grinned at me as if reassuring a baby brother afraid to get up on the big scary tractor. “Don’t worry, dude. His secret is safe with me. I’ve got nobody but you to tell.”
OUTSIDE THE restaurant, Stef seemed to hang back when the valet brought my car up, its engine rumbling, impatient for the street.
“Where’s yours?” I asked Stef. I tipped the valet but closed the car door to stop the warning bell from dinging.
Stef blushed. “I’m already parked at the studio. I figured you’d say yes.”
“Not a problem. That’s why I gave you your own set of keys. How did you get here, then?”
“Walked. It’s only a mile or so.”
“Nobody walks in Los Angeles,” I laughed. “Jump in—I’ll give you a lift.”
Stef laughed and climbed in. “How can I say no?” The doors clunked shut, and we buckled up.
“Sweet.” He ran a reverent hand over the burl paneling. “Dude, you have no idea how much I love riding in this thing,” Stef sighed. “A bad-ass Maserati. I’d send my folks a big ol’ photo of me in it just to annoy them, but my dad wouldn’t even open the damn envelope.”
We pulled into traffic and turned up a back street toward Westwood. After a few blocks, we were stopped by a patrolman waving his arms. Lights from two police cars flashed. Another cop was stringing up yellow tape.
An ambulance siren got louder behind us, coming up fast. Something bad had happened; I could feel it. My stomach knotted. “Oh, damn,” I whispered to no one, bracing against the first wave of dread and nausea.
“It’s okay, he’s saying just go around,” said Stef. We crept forward. I kept my eyes focused on the street. Maybe I could get through this without a disaster.
“Look—just follow his… holy crap, check it out!” Stef crowed, pressing his face against the window. “The guy on the ground, he’s in cuffs. Look at all the blood! Cripes, how can he still be alive? He must have tried to… shit—there’s another guy, no cuffs, nothing. Not moving at all. Man, he’s gotta be dead already, lying twisted up like that. What a mess!”
I sped up, tried to escape it, tried not to look—but I did. One glance was all it took. I tasted thick salt, leaned forward, and lost my wild Scottish salmon through the steering wheel, onto the floor between my knees.
“Jesus, dude!” Stef shouted, laughing nervously, putting down the window. “What the fuck was that?”
I wiped my mouth with the back of one hand, steering the car past the crime scene with the other. “Sorry.” I smiled tight-lipped, afraid I might hurl again. “Violence. Makes me sick.”
“No kidding!” he coughed, his face screwed up in disgust. “You gotta get that taken care of.”
“Trust me, I’ve tried. Still can’t crack it. At least not yet.”
“Throwing up in a car like this, though. Jeez, that’s gotta be a federal crime all on its own.”
I shook my head. “The dealership can take care of it. It’s happened before. They’ll make it like new.”
We drove to the studio in silence through the hot Los Angeles afternoon. Even with the fan on high and windows down, the car still stank. I pulled into the garage and stopped at the elevator.
Stef leaned back in through the open window, looking worried. “You gonna be okay? Really?”
“Yeah, I’ll be fine.” I gave him a feeble thumbs-up. “You be careful, okay?”
“Sure thing, boss. I’ll call you later tonight.”
“No, call me tomorrow. I’ve got a club dinner and concert tonight. I probably won’t get home until after midnight.”
Stef nodded, returned the thumbs-up, and headed for the elevator, whistling.
Stinking and clammy, I headed home, calling on the hands-free to get the car scheduled for cleanup.