*Addendum: it is now edited and with the proofreaders!
There was also an interesting plot hole that she spotted, and it took me about ten minutes of sitting, staring at the screen, saying, "What the hell is she on about?" over and again, before the penny dropped.
It's fixed now, and I've got to say that right at this point in time I think this is the best story I've ever written. It's probably just a post-writing / post-editing moment of euphoric bias, because I love my Hiding Behind The Couch series beyond the capacity for rational thought. However, Checking Him Out was a new kind of challenge for a few reasons, and I feel very accomplished, which is rare for me. I don't think I'm good at writing. I know how to put words together, and I'm very particular about detail, but that doesn't necessarily mean I'm any good at it. Nonetheless, people generally seem to enjoy what I write, and I do feel that I've achieved a lot with this story, in part because it's a little bit different to my usual stuff, although you can still expect plenty of interesting secondary characters, and a bit of an emotional rollercoaster along the way. Ever met a perfectly balanced person? No, me neither.
What's different about Checking Him Out?First and foremost, it's a first person narrative. I usually write in third person, and this is brand new for me. Being an academic, it's been trained out of me to even write in active, rather than passive, voice, never mind first person, and to begin with I found it really hard. I wrote the entire of Chapter One (below), feeling very alienated from the writing process, and originally wrote it in present perfect tense, but didn't like it, so I paused halfway through Chapter Two, rewrote, and continued.
Secondly, I've never written to a remit, which wasn't as tough as I anticipated, and turned out to be really good fun. The "Dear Author" letter was almost like I was standing in the checkout line, watching the interaction take place. In fact, I can see it quite clearly in my mind's eye, and it would be exactly the sort of interaction to trigger my imagination in real life.
That said, it did lead to a further challenge, which is that I've never deliberately set out to write gay romance before, and from a male perspective. I do read it, but I struggle to reconcile being a woman (albeit a woman whose friends are mostly male, and often gay) with writing about gay men's experiences. As authors, we have to get inside the heads of our characters. It doesn't matter who they are - age, gender, sexuality, job - we're getting into role in the same way as actors do, in order to create a realistic portrayal. However, I worried that my characters would be less than three-dimensional, because I was approaching the story from the romance angle specifically, whereas I normally "just write" and the characters gradually reveal themselves, shaping the action accordingly. I think they turned out OK - I'll find out when you all go and read it (ever the optimist).
Lastly, for some crazy reason I based a significant part of the story in Boston, MA. I'm still not entirely sure why, as I normally go for fictitious locations that are similar to real places, or base my story somewhere that I know well. Other than watching Boston Legal in its entirety, Boston is a city I know nothing about, but I've always wanted to visit.
So, I visited. A lot - on Google maps and Street View! I wandered up and down streets, past parks, peered inside subway stations...I thought I'd nailed it, and then a fellow author with a rather fabulous knowledge of Boston (and an awesome turn of pen) checked out my geographical / local references. Last minute edit rush! Eek! It's a better story for it, though (thanks, Rick Bettencourt).
I want to say a huge thank you (again) to my "Dear Author" author... :) for such an inspirational prompt. I hope that the story lives up to expectations. And thanks also to Larry Benjamin, for beta-reading whilst I wrote. I needed an honest opinion, and I knew you would provide it. Whilst I'm doing the thank-yous, I also owe quite a few to my fellow beta-reading Love's Landscapes authors, K.C. Faelan and Shayla Mist.
Now, in my last post I said I'd tell you more about the main character, Sol Brooks, but I think I'll just hand over to him! So, without further ado...
CHECKING HIM OUT
by Debbie McGowan © 2014
I probably wouldn't have noticed, but the guy was wearing sweatpants with nothing underneath. First the attempt to shove his way behind me, then the hot palm on my shoulder. Elise stopped talking and all of a sudden I had no idea what she'd been saying.
"Hey, would you mind?" That was Captain Impatient, his crotch now level with my ass, pressing into me, because there's really not enough space in a checkout aisle for two big guys to pass by untouched, though it wasn't the physical contact that threw me.
He was my height, maybe a little shorter, so around six one, and my build—yeah, I work out, a lot. And he was looking right past me, like he was so sure I'd let him go ahead, even though I could take him, in more ways than one. He had a strong, kind of musky scent going on—guess he worked out a lot too, and that's where he'd been. A guy who's got any sense of pride gets a shower first, but not this guy. Probably couldn't wait long enough. His hand was still on my shoulder, the distinctive smell of residual sweat and the metal of weights snaking its way up into my nostrils, the heat coming off his chest radiating right across my back. I could almost taste him. And I could feel him, getting hard inside his sweats...
Elise was about to reply, but I shot him a glance over my shoulder.
We'd been in the store a long time, and I was getting tetchy. Flattered by his reaction, but tetchy nonetheless.
The moment passed. He ground his way back to his place in the line, smiled, far from apologetically, and followed up with, "Sorry. It's just I figured as I only had this, and you're, well..."
His accent. He was British—English, in fact, with a hint of something else, and the words poured off his tongue like maple syrup trickling off hot pancakes. They slid over my skin, pooled around me, stuck my feet to the floor. I was still staring at him. Damn.
I turned back to Elise to find her slamming the last of the groceries onto the belt. She had on her thunderstorm face, the one where her eyes flash with danger and darkness falls, thick and heavy. Maybe not today, and maybe not tomorrow either, but at some point the thunderclap would come, and then the torrential downpour.
Oh boy, was I in trouble.
She left the case of beer in the cart, because there was nowhere else for it to go, and because it was mine. She was making a point of that. She attempted to reconvene the conversation, but I was only aware of her mouth moving. I couldn't hear the words over the blood pumping in my ears. I had my back to him, as he took a call on his cell. I heard that, loud and clear.
"The store on Memorial," he said to person unknown. "Yeah, that's the one. See you in five." A pause. "You too. Bye. Bye."
Pause and confirmation.
That's what it'd be, right? Why should I care? I'm a married man. Happily married man, so they tell me. Maybe I didn't agree with the happy part so much, but I sure as hell wasn't interested in this guy.
"Chrissakes, Sol," Elise hissed.
I snapped myself out of it.
There was space on the belt now and I effortlessly hoisted the beer, turning as I did so, and caught a brief glimpse of him. Dark hair, short and kind of wavy, square jaw, thick ruddy lips. White sleeveless tee, taut against his chest, picking out, enhancing, defining. A dark tattoo graced his left upper arm, though I couldn't tell what it was. He was counting out the exact money for his purchase—a two pound tub of vanilla cream protein shake mix. I looked again at our cart-load of groceries, and maybe felt a little mean making him wait. He glanced up, met my gaze. Smiled again.
"You getting this?" Elise asked and opened her purse anyway.
"Uh, yeah. Sure," I said. I moved forward and handed over my card. Sexy guy moved forward too, hot on my tail, and I really do mean on my tail. I wondered if he had personal space issues, as in he was claiming mine. The teller handed my card back. I followed Elise and the cart out to the car.
"You didn't answer my question," she reminded me. I was wondering how much grief I'd get for admitting I had no idea what she'd asked. She saw that I was clueless and sighed so loudly it could have lifted the groceries out of the cart for her. Instead that was left to me. She decided to help me out, with the question, not the groceries. On that score she stood, arms folded, inspecting her nails, watching me heave the multitude of bags into the trunk.
"Right?" I searched my brain for the scattered remnants of what we'd been talking about. It came back to me. Her new boss was having a rooftop garden party, and as husband of the newest junior partner I was expected to attend. I hated those kinds of things—work socials, grocery shopping, anniversary dinners—but that's what I'd signed up for.
"When was it, again?" I asked.
"A week from Thursday. Eight thirty."
I scanned my mental calendar, hoping to find a clash. No joy. I relented with a shrug and we got in the car, drove home in silence and wordlessly stowed the groceries. Elise went to shower. I filled up the coffeemaker, switched it on, but grabbed a beer instead. I was restless, still thinking about him, building him a life story. I'd have said he was single, were it not for the phone conversation. He seemed kind of...available. Interested. Interesting? I guessed he had a physical job, maybe in security, or something, though people made that assumption about me, wrongly. It was crazy. I mean, I'd just met the guy. Not even that much. I'd likely never see him again, and it wasn't as if I was short on options. I considered calling to Elise, to say I was going for a quick workout, see who was still around, but it was getting late and I changed my mind. I turned on the TV, flicked through a few channels. The running shower made for an interesting soundscape to the muted moving slideshow. I took a big gulp of beer and flopped back onto the sofa, immediately rescued from my reluctant R and R by a knock at the door. I automatically checked the time. Nearly ten. I went to answer anyway.
"Hi," I said. He smiled, extending an arm.
"You left this."
I fought to unlock my eyes from his and looked down. My wallet was in his hand.
"Ah. Um, thanks," I uttered inarticulately.
I reached out to take the wallet, my eyes straying down past it. He was no longer in sweatpants. Stonewashed jeans, tan boots. Clean boots. For some reason that irked me. I followed the blue jeans back up, glancing over the smooth black tee. My gaze met his once more, a glistening silvery blue in the glow of light from the apartment, like molten metal. He was still smiling, his mouth a little crooked, tipped up to the left. Infuriatingly, I found myself smiling back. After what seemed an age, my fingers made contact with the wallet. He relinquished his grip on it, though he still had a hold on me, like we were tethered together and neither of us could break away. Finally he nodded and turned to leave.
"Thanks again," I called after him. He raised a hand in acknowledgement. I slowly closed the door, aware of his retreating form, aware of the scent of his cologne on the wallet I was holding. A thought occurred to me.
"Hey! How'd you know where to find me?"
He turned back, raising both hands now in a dismissive shrug.
He rounded the corner and disappeared from view. I closed the door, returned to the sofa, carrying my wallet as if it were the most precious gift ever given to me. Elise appeared before me in a short silky floral robe, rubbing her wet hair with a towel.
"Who was that?" she asked.
"The guy from the store." I waved the wallet at her. She looked at me blankly.
"What guy from the store?"
"With the protein shake?"
She nodded once, clearly no clue who I was talking about. "Did you check he didn't take anything?"
Oh yeah, she was serious. It wasn't as if I liked him. In fact he'd royally pissed me off, but really, who finds a wallet, loots it, then goes to the effort of returning it? But Elise was unrelenting. I sighed and opened my wallet, trying not to react when I saw what was inside—apart from everything that should be, that is.
"All present and correct," I reported. Elise wandered away, still rubbing her hair.
"I'm going to turn in," she called back.
"OK, hon," I replied.
I waited for our bedroom door to close, quickly typed his number into my cell and disposed of the evidence.
Checking Him Out is a story of novel length (60K), published in Summer 2014 by MMRomanceGroup as part of the Love's Landscapes Anthology.
Next time, I will definitely tell you about my Love's Landscapes story #2 - it's nothing like this one!
For more information on the Love's Landscapes event (and previous events), visit the M/M Romance Group on Goodreads / MMRomanceGroup.com