Former professional baseball player Justin Piersol needs a new life after a career-ending injury, and his job as a high school baseball coach isn’t exactly fulfilling. Still, things are looking up: he finds the perfect room in an apartment in Brooklyn with Mark, who writes a popular column on sports statistics.
Mark is nerdy and socially awkward and intensely shy, and he immediately develops a terrible crush on Justin, who barely seems to notice him. As they get to know each other, Justin admits he misses playing baseball, that coaching doesn’t scratch the itch. Mark confesses he thought he’d be married by now, that he wants a serious relationship. So they make a pact: Justin will help Mark find a man, and Mark will help Justin find something he loves more than baseball.
They put their plan into action… and then life gets complicated. Mark meets a nice guy named Dave, and Justin is suddenly crazy with jealousy. Justin realizes he wants to let go of the past and focus on the present, but as Mark and Dave become an item, Justin fears he’s too late.
EXCERPT from WHAT THERE IS:
THE guy who answered the door—he’d said on the phone that his name was Mark—seemed innocuous enough. He was tall and skinny with huge black-rimmed glasses perched on his nose. The plaid shirt tucked into tight jeans walked the fine line between nerd and hipster. And this was Brooklyn, so either of those was possible.
“Hi, I’m Justin. I’m here to see the room?”
“Yeah, okay,” said Mark. “Come on in.”
Justin followed Mark up a wide staircase. The steps were covered in scuffed linoleum that looked like it had been there since the ’70s, and there were strange black smudges on the otherwise white walls.
“The apartment is nicer than the staircase,” Mark said.
He was maybe three steps ahead of Justin on the stairs. It gave Justin an opportunity to appreciate his ass, which was pretty nice, if on the small, narrow side.
Mark opened a door on the third floor and escorted Justin inside. The apartment was plain. Spartan. There were scarred wood floors that were a classic feature of every pre-war apartment Justin had looked at in the last two weeks. All of the walls were white. Mark led Justin into the living room, which featured a nice TV—good—propped up on a pair of milk crates—not so good. There was an Ikea chair—workable—next to a beat-up futon couch—ugly and uncomfortable-looking—and absolutely nothing on the walls save for a really ugly painting of a dragon hanging over a hip-high bookcase that pushed Mark over the hipster/nerd dividing line right into nerd. The bookcase itself was crammed with an odd collection of books that didn’t seem thematically related—old math textbooks sat next to fantasy novels, which sat next to presidential biographies.
“So this is the living room. I know it doesn’t look that exciting, but most of the furniture and stuff was my old roommate’s.” Mark stood next to the bookcase and shifted his weight from side to side a couple of times. He looked around as if he was seeing the space for the first time. “I guess it’s kind of empty. Plenty of space for you, though.”
“I don’t have a lot of stuff. I do have a better sofa than that. Not by a lot, but it’s all right.”
“Okay. Yeah. I don’t really like the futon. It’s just all I could afford. I mean, it was free. Some guys around the corner were getting rid of it. It doesn’t have bed bugs or anything, though.”
“Uh, the bedroom’s over here.”
Justin followed Mark into an empty room. It was stark, but it was clean. That was more than Justin could say for the last couple of places he’d looked at. Someone had swept or mopped recently and it still smelled vaguely of fresh paint. It was not a huge room, but there’d be enough space for Justin’s things. There was also a large window that, if Justin’s sense of direction was correct, faced west and was currently letting in a lot of sunlight.
“Nice,” he said to Mark.
“Yeah, I… yeah. It’s a pretty good room. Do you want to see the rest of the apartment?”
Justin followed Mark around, peeking in the bathroom—immaculately clean, which was making Justin think he might have a case of OCD on his hands—past a bedroom that Justin couldn’t see much of since the lights were off, and into a small but reasonable kitchen—also sparklingly clean. The only appliances were a microwave and an ancient-looking toaster, so at least there’d be space for Justin’s stuff here, in the place where it mattered.
“I love to cook. I’ve got a bunch of kitchen stuff.”
“Oh,” said Mark. “I can barely boil pasta.” He wrung his hands. “So, um, maybe talk to me for a few minutes? We could go sit on the couch.”
Justin tried to interpret Mark’s behavior—he seemed nervous, but maybe he was just shy—but dutifully followed him back to the living room where they sat on the as-expected profoundly uncomfortable futon.
“Is this stuffed with sawdust?” Justin asked.
Mark laughed. “I know, it’s awful. So, um, what do you do? Like, you have a job, right?”
Justin had been through this part of the process about eight times in the last two weeks. His current place was nice, if you didn’t factor in the roommate, a football player who liked to have very loud sex with his girlfriend. Justin figured he meant to continually reassert his heterosexuality in the face of his gay roommate. Like, yeah, Justin got it. Dude was straight. Message received.
But this was why he was moving.
“I teach phys ed at Midwood High School,” Justin said. “And I coach their baseball team.”
“Oh. Nice. Um. I don’t know where that is.”
“Brooklyn College stop on the 2 train. It’s like six or seven stops from here. So this location is actually pretty convenient. What do you do?”
“I write about statistics for Sports Net.”
Of all the things Mark could have said, that was about the last thing Justin expected. This guy was picked-last-in-gym-class material. But he was a sportswriter? “Wait, are you Mark Braverman?”
Mark blushed. “Yeah. That’s me.”
“Holy shit! I read your column every week.”
Mark squirmed. “Uh, yeah. Thanks. I mean, I have a math degree and I like baseball, so it was a pretty good fit.”
“Yeah. Wow. That’s awesome. I played baseball, kind of briefly. I pitched for the Brooklyn Cyclones for a season, so the minors, but my arm died when I was twenty-five. Total fucking tragedy. I just couldn’t get the ball over the plate anymore. I like coaching all right, though. We’ve got a really solid team this year.”
“Good. That’s good.”
“You and I would have something to talk about, I guess.”
Mark laughed nervously. “Yeah. And you cook, so you know, I was already leaning toward letting you move in here.”
Justin smiled. “Can I decorate? Because this place looks a little sad.”
“Oh. Sure. I mean, knock yourself out. I don’t know anything about decorating. And I’m color blind, so…” He gestured around. “I try to stick with safe stuff.”
Justin looked around again. He nodded, but mostly to himself. This was going to be a project.
And it fell right in the middle of his Venn diagram of New York City housing. One circle was the condition and cleanliness of the apartment. One was how well he got along with the roommate. And one was location. He’d found a lot of nice apartments in good neighborhoods with crazy roommates. He’d also found nice guys who lived in nice apartments that involved a complicated commute to school. And there were shitty apartments with good roommates in good neighborhoods. But this… this seemed to have all three things.
“I mean, if you’re willing, I could see myself living here,” Justin said.
“I… yeah. I think… yeah. I mean, I have to see three more people, but assuming none of them is, like, my soul mate, the room is yours.” Mark stood. “I’ll call you, okay?”
“Yeah.” Justin stood too. “Oh, one last thing. I hope this doesn’t change anything, and it shouldn’t, but in the interest of full disclosure, I’m gay.”
Mark look startled for a second, and that was the moment when Justin thought he’d lost the apartment, but then a slow smile spread across Mark’s face. “Oh. Yeah. That’s cool. I am, too.”
Justin laughed, mostly out of relief. “See? Another thing we have in common. We’ll get along just fine, I think.”