Tugging at Your Heart Strings

Disney Wonder cruise ship sails under the Golden Gate Bridge on the way to the Port of San Francisco

As you may have learned in my previous post, I got Romance for a genre in the latest round of NYC Midnight’s Flash Fiction Challenge, which is kind of my thing. Our assigned object was a map, our assigned location was a tugboat, and we had 48 hours to write a 1,000-word story; I was like, I got this, and I cranked out what follows. I was pretty happy with the way I worked the map into the story, but as I was snipping my first draft down to size (and rushing the ending), I realized that the tugboat was more “this thing that exists” than any kind of true “location,” so I went back to the drawing board. The second story was a smash (in my own mind — results for this round are a week or so away yet), but I kind of like these guys — if you’ve read my stuff, you know this isn’t my first redheaded Romeo — so I’m sharing their story just because, as the guy who wrote it for them, I feel like it’s kind of my job. Enjoy what my “Documents” file calls

Tugboat Romance A

“A tug?”

“Yes, Captain.”

“What do you mean, ‘they’re sending a tug?’ I’ve docked this beast in Mazatlan a hundred times. I was here last week.”

“Yes, Captain. I remember. Welcome back. Order of the Port Authority, I’m afraid. Please standby; the tug’s on its way.”

Annoying. Andreas wasn’t the Captain of the Cavalcade, but he was the Second Mate, which often seemed to be a euphemism for Jackass Who Steers the Boat Into Port When the Captain’s Too Drunk to Do It. They did keep calling him Captain; maybe that’s why they were sending the tug.

There was nothing for it but to wait. He was dying to drop anchor and get back to sulking in his room, but there was plenty of time for that. There was no question Keith was the man of his dreams. The question that did nag, of course, was, Then why did you sail away from him, you fool?

Andreas sailed nothing but the Pacific coast. Acapulco, L.A., on up to Vancouver and Juneau in the summer, then back down. Ships stopped in San Francisco, naturally, but his seldom did—Monday had been maybe his third time ever. It was also maybe the third time in history the City by the Bay had basked under a clear blue sky in August, and he practically ran ashore; he had nine hours before they sailed again, and he was going to make them count.

He found his way to the California Street cable car, snapped the requisite selfie hanging from it as the steep street dropped away behind him. He figured a trip to the Castro was pretty much required of him as a gay guy on the loose in San Francisco, but when he washed up at the confluence of North Beach and Chinatown, he wondered if he shouldn’t have made Bugs Bunny’s proverbial left turn at Albuquerque. He was so absorbed in his fold-out pocket map that the tap on his shoulder made him yip.

He turned, ready to give an overly brazen beggar what for, but when the eye-popping redhead laughed out an apology, Andreas laughed, too.

“You scared me.”

“I see that. I’m sorry. I just wanted to see if I could help you—you look lost.”

“I don’t know if I’m ‘lost,’” Andreas said. “But I do think I may have made a wrong turn.”

“At Albuquerque?”

Andreas smiled sideways at this mind-reading rascal. “Or somewhere, yeah.”

“Where are you trying to go?”

Andreas shrugged. What was the point of aimlessly cruising the Castro if the handsomest man in the world was gonna be standing here on Columbus Street? “Nowhere in particular,” he decided. “I’m in town for a few hours, I just wanted to kind of check it out.”

“I see. Then let me ask you this: do you want to see the San Francisco that’s on that map, or the real City?”

“Well, the map’s kind of all I’ve got…”

“Not any more it isn’t.” The redhead grinned. “I live here. I’d be happy to show you around.”

“You would?”

He gave Andreas a very definite onceover, winked when their eyes met again. “I would. My name’s Keith.”

“Andreas. A pleasure.”

Keith raked him with his eyes again. “I think you might be right.”

Had they been standing next to one, Andreas would surely have pitched the map into a trash can. Instead, he crumpled it into his back pocket, forgetting all about it as he followed Keith through the side streets of San Francisco. They ate what they were served in a Chinese restaurant the size of a phone booth that had no menu; they hiked up the stairs cut into a sidewalk to the best espresso in town; they kissed standing on top of a Russian Hill park bench that afforded the exactly right glimpse of the Golden Gate Bridge through someone’s outrageously posh uncurtained living room. Once he was back aboard ship, the map struck Andreas as a funny souvenir of their decidedly map-free frolic, even as he dreamily retraced their day across its folds.

San Francisco wasn’t on his itinerary again until at least May, and then what was he going to do? Roam the streets hunting redheads? They’d lingered until the last possible minute—even when Andreas had finally hopped in a cab, it was with no guarantee he’d make port in time. Phone numbers, e-mails—impossibly mundane daily details they just didn’t manage to shoehorn into their starry-eyed goodbye. And the pointless snag of this tugboat simply prolonged his opportunity to stand on the bridge and count the ways Mazatlan wasn’t San Francisco.

“Andreas?” This squawked over a different radio. Not Mexico calling, but a crewmember. Now what?

“What is it?”

“This is Krueger, Sir. Can you come down here?”

“Not at the moment I can’t. We’re waiting on a tug for some reason.”

“It’s about the tug, Sir. They’ve come alongside. They’re requesting permission to come aboard.”

“What, someone from the tugboat?”


“For what possible—? I’ll be right there.”


He clomped down the stairs from the bridge; he rolled his eyes in the elevator down to the Starfish deck; he huffed along the hallway to the garage-sized service door open to the sun and spray.

“What kind of business could someone from that tugboat have on board?” he fairly hollered at the crew gathered ‘round.

Krueger was stooped to help a man up the last two steps of the ladder and didn’t answer. When the intruder climbed aboard, he was backlit, but Andreas could tell it was just some guy in jeans and a t-shirt. He said, “Unfinished, is what kind.” Andreas noted the lack of a Spanish accent, but it wasn’t until he’d taken three steps out of the glaring sunshine that he recognized Keith for certain.

“How…?” His irritation almost ruffled his hair, so forcefully did it rush out of him.

Keith grinned. “It wasn’t easy.”

“I’ll bet.” Kissing Keith senseless, though? Piece of cake.


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