Oh, how Cooper wished he could take back his conversation at the bike rack. The "I'm too tired to do anything how about a movie at my place?" tactic only backfired. What was he thinking? The move would probably haunt Cooper to his dying days. He knew it.
Why Harlan had to sit so close, or have his arm on the back of the futon, Cooper hadn't figured that out either. Buddies weren't what Cooper would describe them as. Yes, they'd talked since Stubby's, for sure since Harlan backed up Cooper's version of events, but Cooper had assumed it was friendly banter that would trickle off into nothingness—not invasion of his personal space.
The movie—what were they watching again?—seemed long as hell. Not Cooper's best choice, he focused on the TV. Battle Royale. Right. Apparently, subtitles didn't scare people like Cooper thought they did, or at least, not Harlan. Something shorter would've been better. Good movie, bad choice for getting rid of company.
Company that had no personal space.
Was it hot? The thermostat had to be set too high or something. Cooper leaned away from Harlan, but a heavy weight on his shoulder stopped him from really getting anywhere. Cooper tensed, frowning slightly. He chanced a glance down, and yup, there was Harlan's hand, kneading his shoulder.
A sigh escaped Cooper. Really? That was what all the bluster before was about.
Right now all Cooper could do was work two jobs, and pay for his crappy apartment and one to two classes a semester at the local community college. He had no time for … well, Cooper struggled for the right word for the situation. Well, for shit like a relationship. He didn't even have the energy for a quick down and dirty fuck either—not that the idea appealed to him in the slightest—and if that's what Harlan thought he was getting the ass would find himself getting tossed on said backside.
Another quick attempt to scoot away from Harlan resulted in the same. Another not so subtle shoulder squeeze. Fuck. No, just no. Cooper didn't need this shit.
"Would you lay off?" he said, rolling his shoulder and jerking away from Harlan.
"What?" Harlan began, his hands sliding against Cooper but he was standing already.
"I got enough from harassment from Evelyn, I don't need it from you too." Cooper crossed to the door, unbolting it. "If you think I'm going to bend over for you—"
"Whoa! Whoa!" Harlan said from behind him.
Closer than Cooper expected really. He turned, crossing his arms. Nerves all jumbled in bad ways. Cooper pressed against the door while Harlan took a couple steps back, his hands up.
"I'm sorry, Cooper. Touchy thang, aren't you?" Harlan smiled, but it faded as Cooper glowered.
The bartender was no longer on the "he's a decent dude” list. And honestly, it sucked. He had seemed like a decent sort. Maybe someone Cooper wanted to friend, if he still had time for those.
"You can leav—"
"It's not like that." Harlan took a tiny step forward, his hands now his pockets.
"Like what?" Because really, Cooper felt pretty sure it was. And honestly, he did think Harlan knew enough about him to know hookups weren't his thing. The night at Stubby’s should’ve been enough of an indicator.
Harlan watched Cooper for a minute before huffing and going back to the futon.
"Weren't you on your way out?" Cooper asked.
"I hope not," Harlan answered. He patted the futon. "My friends always told me my touchy-feely ways were going to catch up with me."
"Uh-huh." Cooper called bullshit.
"Would I like something to happen? Yes."
See? Cooper smiled triumphantly.
"Does it have to? No."
Now that didn't make sense.
"Sit down. Let's talk."
Two of the suckiest phrases ever. "I prefer to stand."
Harlan gazed at Cooper, not flinching once during their stare-off. Instead he frowned, clasped his hands together, and said something that caught Cooper off guard.
"Who hurt you so badly?"
It felt like a sucker punch to the gut. Cooper rubbed his head, his hair standing up every which way. He really needed to get it shaved again.
"Were you…" Harlan stopped, making a face, like he was trying to choose words carefully. "Were you raped?"
Not the question Cooper expected. "No."
Cooper shook his head, whether to deny it out of habit or to clear his head he wasn't sure. Admitting what happened made him nauseous. He hated how people looked at him when he said he had been abused. Most people didn't believe him. A big guy like him? Must have been the abuser, not the other way around.
"You sure some guy hasn't hurt you?"
Fucking shitty-ass assumptions.
"No, but my ex-girlfriend did a bang up job," Cooper replied, breathing in hard, pressing against the door.
There was a pause in Harlan's litany of questions, but only a pause. Harlan sat forward. "You're straight?"
"In the closet?"
And fuck it all, yes, Harlan sounded judgmental as fuck. Cooper straightened and said, "No."
"So you're gay?"
Harlan stood, frowning, squinting at Cooper. "Your one word answers aren't helping me here, Cooper."
"Fine. I'm bisexual. Happy?"
Oh, the look on Harlan's face. Absolutely priceless.
"Bisexual?" Harlan asked again. Cooper banged the back of his head against the door. Not hard, but yeah, it was a bang head moment. Like they hadn't been going in circles over the same fucking conversation for ten minutes. It was like talking to Evelyn all over again. She hadn't taken it any better.
"Yup." Cooper gave a thumbs up. "Both are good."
"Yup. Both." Cooper managed a smiled somehow. "Men and women both do it for me."
Harlan grimaced and shook his head. "So you are a closet case."
God, no, Harlan was one of those guys. Cooper felt for the door handle. Locating it, Cooper swung the door open and made a sweeping motion with his hand.
"Listen, Harlan, I'd like to say it's been fun, but it hasn't." Cooper paused, but the bartender still hadn't gotten a clue, sitting on the futon like the door just hadn't been opened for him. Okay, time to be blunt. Well, more blunt. "You just stepped on a sore spot for me. Bisexuality isn't B.S. I'm not hiding anything. I'm not trying to make excuses. I'm just me. I know what gets my dick hard. So, leave. Now."
But the ass didn't move.
"Really? I have too much shit going on in my life than to deal with another stalker, or to have someone tell me I'm lying to myself, or whatever it is you're doing."
"I'm sorry, Cooper. I am." Harlan leaned back, the exact opposite of getting up and leaving.
Okay, fine. He wasn't going, yet. Cooper closed the door again but made no move toward the futon.
"I'm not going to hurt you."
"You're also not leaving," Cooper pointed out. "A very Evelyn move if you ask me."
Well, Harlan had the decency to flinch, that was something. More than Evelyn aka "The Stalker Girl" anyway, and she was still oblivious and mad. Oh, to be honest, she was all kinds of messed up. Too much like Tabitha for his tastes.
Huh? Cooper glanced back to Harlan, who was still on the couch, not gone. But his expression had changed to something more serious. Frowns did nothing to distract from Harlan's looks, though Cooper felt smiles suited him better.
"You said 'Too much like Tabitha'," Harlan said, crossing his arms.
Great. Defensive posturing. Why did he attract all the weirdoes? Cooper had to be doing something wrong. Or maybe he had come kind of weirdo-attracting pheromone.
"Tabitha was my ex. Nearly killed me." Cooper lifted his shirt, pointing to an old scar. A scraggly mish-mash line that went across his entire abdomen. He also showed off the two puncture wounds where she stabbed him. "Things started small. Her wanting me to wear certain things. Then buying me what I should wear. It spiraled downward after that. By the time I realized I needed out, she was already throwing stuff at me and hitting."
A small part of Cooper wished he could enjoy the expression Harlan had. Didn't he look completely and utterly aghast? Shit. This is why Cooper hated saying this stuff. He pulled the shirt back down, tugging it for a couple times just to make sure it was in fact, all the way down.
Cooper hated those scars but he would never, ever be able to hide from them completely.
"You—?" Harlan began, but his voice gave way. Cooper didn't need to guess what was coming. He'd had this conversation before. Harlan leaned forward. "You let a girl hit you?"
"You just can't help putting your foot up your own ass, can you?" Cooper snapped. God, he hated this fucking conversation. It went the same way every time. Every time. No question. "But you don't know shit. So do me a favor and just leave."
It wasn't immediate, but Cooper saw the moment Harlan decided it—what it was, ‘cause that much Cooper hadn't figured out—wasn't worth the fight anymore, and stood.
'Bout time the ass left.
"I really am sorry, Cooper. I just—I just…" But Harlan stopped. He pressed his lips together and shook his head again.
When Harlan looked up, the tension in Cooper finally unfurled. Finally, the ass would just take a hint and leave.
"Now, if you don't mind," Cooper said, indicating the door. "I do better alone, thank you."
Suddenly Harlan tensed, their eyes meeting. A spark went off in Harlan's gaze. Shit.
Some days Cooper had to wonder what karma he pulled in from past lives to have to put up with this nonsense now.
"No wonder you're so jumpy." Harlan did the arm-crossing thing a lot of guys did. Someone needed to go back in time and tell the male species posturing was the stupidest move ever.
And Harlan also did the not leaving thing, again.
Cooper just wanted cry from frustration. He closed the door and crossed the room. "Because a girlfriend almost killed me, or because I have one stalking me? Or, or, and this is a good one—I have a guy turning into a stalker."
"I am not a stalker. I just want to get to know you."
Oh, ooooh. How good was that shit thinking? "By not taking 'No' for an answer?"
To Cooper's delight, Harlan paled and he had to take a minute to gather himself. He even put up a hand and told Cooper to wait a minute. Watching him squirm made Cooper a little too giddy. God, now who was being the ass? Cooper really needed more time in the sack.
No sleep and Evelyn-related stress made Cooper one caustic individual. It sucked. He collapsed on the futon, sighing. Just a few minutes. That was all he needed. Cooper let his eyes close.
A quiet "I'm sorry" came from Harlan's direction.
"I've heard that before." Cooper rubbed his head. "From you too. You've only managed to dig yourself in deeper."
"You're right." Harlan coughed, humming briefly. "Look, I've done this all wrong. I thought…"
But he didn't continue.
Cooper popped open one eye, staring at Harlan for a minute before prompting, "You thought?"
"I just figured you were just being skittish. Shy. Something like that." He shrugged. "I see I was wrong."
"Good. Acknowledging the problem is the start of the solution and moving on," Cooper said, yawning. He glanced up and was startled by the expression Harlan wore.
"Coop, you've been in therapy."
"Yes." It helped, a lot. Not that everything was perfect, but Cooper was learning to make those steps for himself again. "Why? Have you?"
Cooper nodded. "Good for him."
"Juan had been raped."
Too stunned to reply, Cooper shifted on the futon, pulling his legs up. That… No wonder Harlan assumed rape.
"Listen, Coop." Harlan rocked, his dark blue gaze moving everywhere, mouth working but silent. He finally settled, stepping closer. "I am sorry. Really. How about this? I'm gonna leave—"
"That's kinda what I asked you to do already," Cooper pointed out. He got ignored.
Harlan kept right on going. "I'm gonna leave, but I will be back. I really do want to be your friend. Maybe more. But I can take it one day at a time. Okay?"
"I'm not sure I want to be your friend," Cooper answered honestly. He did not have time for people who wouldn't listen to him. Never again.
"Okay. Okay." Harlan nodded. "I deserve that. But can I remind you we have had fun talking before. I did back you up about Evelyn."
That much was true.
"And I don't want to be that guy."
That would be nice.
"How about you sleep on it?"
Sleep. Best word ever.
"Coop?" Harlan rocked again, itching. "What do you say? We start over? Blank slate?"
No. He couldn't listen. Cooper had heard this song and dance before. He knew—fucking knew—how it ended.
But God, did Harlan look so sincere, so hopeful.
"Only if you leave right now."
* * * *
Jo sighed. “You do attract the weird ones.”
“Please, I know this,” Cooper said. He banged his head against the cafeteria table a couple times.
“You don’t have enough brain cells to damage, you might want to reconsider your current course of action.”
“True.” He rolled his head, settled his cheek on the table, and looked up at Jo’s slight smile. “But you’d have to include yourself in that statement.”
“One, we’ve never dated.” She held up a second finger. “Two, you gave me your number.”
“Can’t argue there.”
Too bad too. Jo seemed like one of the few sane people in his life. Somehow they always managed to pass each other by. But she was always there when he needed her. The best of friends.
Cooper sighed. “I think I should never see Evelyn again.”
“Time to start looking for another job?” Jo asked, she laid her had across his back between his shoulder blades and stroked downward.
“Yes, probably. Just sucks. I liked it there, besides her.”
“What about Harlan?”
That was a harder answer. It felt like Harlan had manipulated Cooper into agreeing to being friends, possibly more. That enough made his skin crawl and fear a repeat of Tabitha. But Harlan didn’t approach Cooper when he was upset, well, not a lot, and he left when Cooper gave him the ultimatum.
“I don’t know,” he answered honestly. “Seemed decent enough. At first.”
“But not anymore?” Jo picked up her apple an munched into it.
“It was a weird … fight? Is that what you’d call it?”
Jo nodded, chewing, and gave a half shrug.
Yes, Cooper understood the sentiment behind her answer. “He might have thought he was being helpful? But the shit he said… ”
“Just because a person is ignorant does not mean they cannot learn.”
Cooper grunted then pushed back up, slouching in his chair.
“Did he seem like he wanted to understand?”
Jo’s eyebrows rose and she gave Cooper a half-grin. “So Harlan’s a toss up?”
“Yes, I guess so.”
“Don’t be so quick to judge. You said he’d been a gentleman while watching the movie.” Jo cupped patted his knee and took another bite out of her apple. “You could use a few more decent friends.”
Though it scared Cooper. Harlan could do a lot of damage if he wanted to. He wasn’t small.
Jo stood, grabbing her backpack. “Class is going to start in ten.”
“Shit, yeah.” Cooper gathered up his books and shoved them into his bag.
Jo looped her arm in his. “If Harlan ends up being a jerk I’ll help you hang him from his balls from the flagpole.”