Andy Su, Matt's physical therapist, stood frowning at the edge of the bench where Matt lay on his back, unwilling to move lest some other part of him he hadn't known he had decided to start hurting.
"You're going to have to take it easier on your left knee," said Andy.
In frustration, Matt lifted his head, and then dropped it back quickly on the bench, which caused pain to blossom at the back of his skull. He groaned. "I think my knee is the least of my problems."
Andy sighed. "You're just sore. You've been overexerting yourself instead of taking it easy like I told you. But everything that hurts now will feel better in a couple of days. Except for that knee. It needs time to heal, or you're going to tear something. If you don't back off, I'm talking to Bill about putting you on the disabled list."
Matt groaned. "Fine, I'll go easier on it."
"That means no running unless you have to. That means you tell Bill to put in a pinch runner if it hurts during a game. That means you stop the insane workout routine you've had going for the last two weeks. I mean, what the hell, Matt? You know better. What's gotten into you?"
"Nothing has gotten into me," said Matt. Nothing he'd admit to, anyway. There was the small matter of the crush he was developing on the rookie third baseman, but that was really small potatoes. It wasn't the first time he'd developed a crush on another player, and it probably wouldn't be the last, and always these things were short-lived. By way of explanation, he said, "You said working out more would build up my endurance so I wouldn't get so tired after a game."
Andy frowned again. "I did say that, but there's a difference between an extra fifteen minutes of circuit training and the two-hour workouts you've been putting yourself through."
"Fine, fine. Point taken."
Andy reached over and helped Matt back on his feet. Matt imagined he could hear his body creaking as he stood. He groaned again as his muscles cried out.
"You're not as young as you used to be," Andy said.
"Yes, I get that."
"Your body is your livelihood. I understand that completely. You want to stay in shape so you can keep on playing baseball until you've reached a ripe old age. But that also means you have to take care of your body."
Feeling tired of the lecture, Matt started walking toward the locker room.
Andy called after him, "Same time next week!"
Matt pushed through the door to the locker room and fantasized about taking a long, hot shower and then going home to sleep for a very long time. But, of course, sitting on a bench right in the middle of the goddamned room was Ignacio Rodriguez.
Matt loped over to his locker and pulled it open with so much force that it banged into the locker next to it.
"Uh. Everything all right?" Rodriguez asked.
Matt was about to strip and head for the shower, but he felt self-conscious suddenly, aware that, even if Rodriguez had zero interest in looking at him, he was still right there. He glanced behind him and saw that Rodriguez was sitting on a bench, a towel wrapped around his waist, and he was fishing through a duffel bag for something. Then he stood and went over to his locker and started pulling clothes out of it.
Curiosity piqued, Matt said, "You lose something?"
"Um." Rodriguez turned to face him. Matt noticed that his face and chest had gone crimson. Matt had to put some extra effort into not letting his gaze settle too long on that chest. "Well, I..." Rodriguez put his hands on his waist and shook his head. "I think I've been hazed."
Matt really tried to hold back the chuckle. "Someone stole your underwear."
"It sure looks that way." Rodriguez sighed. "What, are we thirteen? I thought shit like this stopped happening after you graduated from college."
Matt chuckled. "Come on. You know baseball players are basically just overgrown teenage boys. Normal men grow up and get jobs in accounting or whatever, but we spend our adult lives playing the same game we've been playing since we were kids. Some of us never grow up."
Rodriguez pulled a pair of jeans and a T-shirt from his locker. Matt really wanted--and at the same time, really didn't want--to see what was beneath that towel, so he turned back to his locker and considered his options. He could just go to the shower room and strip there. He could bide his time and wait around for Rodriguez to change and leave. He could get over himself and strip out here. It wasn't like naked men in the locker room were unprecedented, and Rodriguez had probably seen many of them many times before. He knew he was being ridiculous. He pulled his T-shirt off over his head and then glanced back at Rodriguez, who was still just standing there, holding his clothes. When Matt turned to find out what was wrong, he heard the hiss of Rodriguez taking in a breath too fast.
Matt's thought process worked quickly. Rodriguez had gone red again as Matt turned around, so there was that. He couldn't possibly be embarrassed, could he? The man had been playing Major League Baseball for more than half a season, and he played in the minors and college before that. There was no reason for this situation--two professional players in a locker room--to be unusual. And yet Rodriguez seemed to be waiting for Matt, just like Matt was waiting for Rodriguez. Which didn't make any sense, unless...
"Everything all right?" asked Matt.
Rodriguez nodded. Then he shook his head. "It's not a big... I mean, you wouldn't understand, and I..." He frowned.
"I was a rookie once too."
"I know, but..." Iggy looked up. Matt met his gaze. There was so much anguish there. "I... Please. Just go shower. It's nothing."
"Are you sure?" Their gazes were still locked. Some of Rodriguez's pain looked familiar to Matt. He wondered if some of what he saw there was in his head or if it was true. "Wait, are you...?" he started to ask but caught himself.
But Rodriguez started to answer. "I..."
Their eyes met again, and suddenly Matt understood. He took a step back. His back collided with the row of lockers. "Jesus Christ," he said.
Rodriguez sat back down on the bench. "Oh God, oh God, oh God."
Matt closed his eyes and tried to gather his thoughts enough to say something rational. "Okay," he said. "Here's what's gonna happen. I'm going to go take a shower. You do whatever you need to. When I come back, we're gonna talk about this." Not that there was much to talk about. If Matt's hunch was correct--something he would have bet on given Rodriguez's reaction--then it wasn't like Rodriguez was going to go off blabbing. Nothing like a secret that would bring both of them trouble to keep them both quiet.
Matt closed his locker and went off to get a towel. He showered quickly, thinking about Rodriguez the entire time, his mind bouncing between erotic fantasies and whether it was a great or a terrible thing that Rodriguez had turned out to be gay also. He grabbed his workout clothes and put a towel around his waist, realizing on the way back that he'd have to be naked in front of Rodriguez sooner or later, so he might as well get that over with.
When he got back to the locker room, Rodriguez was gone.
IGGY DRESSED IN record time--sans underwear, but some things couldn't be helped--before running out of the stadium. The subway seemed safer, more anonymous than bumming a ride or calling a cab, so he hopped on a train and then spent the whole ride trying to calm himself down. He had plenty of time to do that, since he had to transfer trains three times to get to his apartment. He'd just signed a contract worth $25 million, but somehow he couldn't figure out how to get an apartment in New York City that was convenient to his job.
On the way, he considered the old school-yard taunts he'd put up with his whole life. In Iggy's primarily Latino neighborhood, the worst thing a boy could do was fail to be completely masculine. The kids Iggy knew growing up were always waiting for you to slip up, to do something that didn't fit with their precise definition of masculinity. Iggy routinely failed to pass that particular test, mostly because it had taken his voice longer to drop than it had for the other boys. Cary had told him later that it was also because he had such a pretty face. On top of that, his ability to hit almost any ball pitched to him from the Little League mound had intimidated a lot of the other boys. Iggy had repeatedly been called "gay" or "fag," starting from a young age. He was smart enough now to know there was no way the kids on the playground could have known how close they were to the truth. At the time, his standard retort had been, "It takes one to know one!" The one thing the arbiters of masculinity could never suffer being called was gay.
And that was where that look in Matt Blanco's eyes had come from, Iggy realized as the train finally pulled into his station. Iggy had almost confessed the very secret he held closest, all because Matt had almost asked while looking at him with that sad expression. Perhaps it really did take one to know one.
That didn't help Iggy's panic subside at all. Once safely inside his apartment, Iggy pulled out his phone and dialed Cary, who had been his best friend since they'd played ball together in college. Cary answered on the third ring. Then a jumble of confused words tumbled out of Iggy's mouth. "He knows, he goddamned knows, and I think he is too, and what the hell am I going to do?"
There was a long pause on the other end of the phone. Then Cary said, "Wait, what?"
Iggy began pacing. He took a deep breath. "Matt Blanco--the Matt Blanco--knows that I'm gay. And I think he is too."
"Holy shit!" There was some rustling in the background; then Cary came back on the line and said, "Back up. Tell me everything."
Iggy related what had happened in the locker room that evening and agreed with Cary that it wasn't absolute proof. It sure seemed like something, though. There'd been a lot of tension in that locker room before Iggy had gone and given himself away, but at the time, Iggy hadn't been able to put his finger on the source of it. To Cary, he said, "So now the question is if he was acting all weird because we're both gay, or if he's actually attracted to me. Oh God, what if he's attracted to me? What if he isn't?"
"Calm down, Ig. One crisis at a time. So Matt Blanco, one of the most beloved players in baseball right now? That guy. He could be gay."
"Yeah. More than could be."
Iggy realized late in the game that this was a dangerous conversation to have with Cary, who had gone into sports media instead of playing after college. Cary often said that he owed his career as a reporter for Sports Net, a fairly prominent sports news Web site, to the fact that he'd played college ball with three guys who were now in the majors. Either way, he worked in an office that was a hotbed of gossip. On the other hand, Iggy trusted Cary with his life and knew nothing he told Cary would make it to the Web site unless he gave permission.
"It's never even been implied, though," Cary said. "You know how the New York media is. Those players are all under microscopes. Blanco stays out of the gossip pages by some miracle, sure. There's never even been a hint of anything in any place I've ever worked."
"I don't know what to tell you, just what I saw with my own eyes." Talking to Cary was helping Iggy to calm down. He felt a little more rational as he dropped onto his sofa.
"What are you going to do?" Cary asked.
There was a long pause. "But you...like him, don't you?"
"Sure. He's a nice guy."
"Is he as hot in person as he is in photos?"
Cary sighed. "Man. That team has an attractive lineup. Too bad Evan Miller got traded. Now that's a man I can..." He paused. "Well, that's a man I could get behind. In more ways than one."
Iggy groaned. "Not to be selfish, but can we focus on me for a second?"
"Just so we're clear, you like him, like him. You want him."
"I..." It was impossible to deny. Cary had known Iggy too long. He'd known about the framed baseball card, he'd seen the poster in his dorm room, he'd known for years that if there was one player Iggy would have killed to get his hands on, it was Matt Blanco. "I barely know him," Iggy said, which was true. "I mean, I've known of him for years, and you know that I worshipped him when I was in college, but I don't really know the real him at all. We've barely even ever had a conversation. He could be a giant asshole. And he's kind of a lot older than me. More than ten years."
"These are valid points," Cary said. "But also, I feel like you have an opportunity here. How many people get to meet their idols? You've not only met yours, but you're playing on the same baseball team. In more ways than one, even! I think you should go after him."
Go after him? "Are you crazy?" Iggy's voice screeched as he spoke.
"I'm not saying you should fuck him, although you should if you get the opportunity, because when does that ever happen? I just mean you should get to know him. And if he is gay, then you have an unexpected ally on your team, don't you?"
"I know it's risky."
Iggy sighed. It wasn't even the risk that bothered him. He lived in a glass closet, where most of his friends and family knew he was gay, but hardly anyone he knew professionally did. Sometimes a tiny part of him hoped that the general public would find out. Having to keep the secret brought so much stress to his life, not to mention loneliness. He was terrified of dating now that the New York media had decided he was worth paying attention to, and he knew that his sexuality making headlines would effectively derail his career. The gay athlete was always persona non grata in the locker room. It stood to reason that either the fans would turn on him or his teammates, more likely both, and that would create a lot of tension that would distract from the game.
Iggy knew all this, and still that didn't seem like the biggest problem here. "It's also, you know, I've worshipped this guy for years. And he thinks I'm just some rookie kid. That's just to begin with. But what if...what if he's a giant asshole?"
"Ah," Cary said. "What if he doesn't live up to your expectations of him?"
"Well, I can't help you there. Although maybe you seeing that he's a real person instead of a god will help with your hero worship complex there. Then you can fuck him."
Iggy laughed despite himself. "Thanks," he said.
When Iggy got off the phone, he flipped on the TV. ESPN was doing some kind of special on the shape of the top teams now that the trade deadline had passed. Iggy was featured quite prominently, but he found he couldn't watch himself on TV. He flipped around until he found a dumb-looking action movie and settled in to watch, hoping it would take his mind off Matt Blanco.