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Better and Worse

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As usual, there was nowhere to park, and Arthur didn’t bother. He glided up alongside the cars packed sardine-tight against the curb, hit the brakes, and turned on his hazard lights. Fishing the phone from his pocket, he texted Ari, I’m here. Out front. The rain continued to come down in sheets, its roar and the whump whump whump of the windshield wipers nearly drowning out the radio.

Settling in his seat to wait, Arthur flicked through his email accounts—nothing new—and then back to his messages. No response. With a sigh, he put the BMW in park. He tried calling, but after three rings, the line cut to Ari’s voicemail.

There was a honk of aggravation as a car had to maneuver around him. The cars in the left lane let loose a volley of honks too as the driver cut them off. Arthur didn’t even look over. They could suck it.

The bagel shop that occupied the street level of the building was busy, people in their fall coats streaming in and out, clutching lattes and brown bags of bagels beneath their umbrellas. Arthur’s stomach lurched a little, a Pavlovian response. A year of Ari living above this bagel shop, and its bagels had not lost their luster. They were fantastic, the best in the neighborhood. Maybe Ari had decided to pick them up an impromptu late breakfast; it wouldn’t be the first time. If that was the case, Arthur would totally forgive her tardiness.

Ari, come on, he texted. I’m double parked.

No sooner had Arthur hit send than the back door opened and slammed shut. “Finally!” Arthur barked, “What took you so long?”—before he realized that, one, why would Ari climb in the backseat?, and two, a large, handsome man was in his car, buckling himself in.   

He was a sight: his short brown hair was completely sodden, plastered across his forehead and over his ears; large raindrops chased each other down his straight nose and over his full lips, and the lashes of his greenish eyes were clumped together. He was wearing a trench coat that was soaking Arthur’s leather upholstery, and he promptly tossed a broken umbrella, a ruined newspaper, and a paper bag down on the seat. Immediately the car was filled with the delicious smell of toasted garlic and sesame. The man pulled a cell phone out of his coat pocket and appeared to resume a conversation mid-sentence, speaking cheerfully with a broad British accent.

“Uh,” Arthur said, staring at him in the rear-view mirror.

The man pulled his phone away from his face a few inches and grinned at Arthur, raising his eyebrows. “Sorry, love,” he said. “The lines in this place, you wouldn’t believe…”

Then he went back to his phone conversation. Arthur caught a few words. It sounded like he was setting up a lunch meeting, or maybe a lunch date; his voice was a delicious purr that mixed pleasure with business.

“Hey,” Arthur said, twisting around in his seat, trying to get the guy’s attention. “Hey! I’m not your Uber.”

There was a loud honk, someone really laying on the horn, then some cursing.

“I’m sorry?” the man said, holding his free hand to his ear.

Arthur looked beyond him and realized that one of the cars he was boxing in was attempting to get out, possibly had been for a moment now. The driver was red faced and gesticulating—whether at Arthur or some deity, it was hard to tell. What was apparent was his barely checked desire to climb out of his car and kick Arthur’s BMW. And if he did…

God, imagine if Arthur showed up to the wedding soaking wet with bloody knuckles. Mal would kill him.

The car behind Arthur began beeping too.

Fucking hell.

Arthur turned back around and hit the hazard light button, threw the car in gear, and began to drive. He’d just go around the block, he’d call Ari again, he would—

The man was still in his car.

“Hey!” Arthur said again. “You! I’m not—”

“Seriously darling, it’s quite alright. No, not you, mate. I’m talking to the driver.” He covered the lower part of his phone with a broad hand and made an exaggerated can you believe this? face at Arthur, rolling his pretty greenish eyes. Arthur grit his teeth. “Wouldn’t listen to them, if I were you. You’re obviously an excellent driver.”

“But I’m not —”

 “You are!” The man leaned forward between the front seats to clap Arthur on the shoulder. “Managing this chaos in the rain, putting up with all these assholes giving voice to their existential dread by blasting their stupid car horns. Can’t let those fuckers get you down. They live miserable lives, and they’re terrible fucking drivers, yeah? Christ, no one knows how to drive in this town.”

Despite himself, Arthur was rather touched by this speech. He wasn’t sure whether it was the hand on his shoulder, the impassioned pack-a-day rumble in his ear, or the invitation to gripe about Masshole drivers, but he found himself humming agreement.

Apparently satisfied, the man slumped back against the seat. He let out a bark of laughter that made Arthur start. “Still not talking to you, mate!” he said into the phone.

Arthur’s gaze kept flicking to him in the rear-view mirror as he prepared to turn onto Beacon Street. He was running a hand through his wet hair, pushing it off his forehead so it stuck up in awkward yet adorable tufts, scattering drops of water in the process. One of them improbably landed on the back of Arthur’s ear. He shivered.

“What are you, a dog?” Arthur blurted. Then, flushing, “You’re getting my seat all wet.”

“Occupational hazard, eh? You want to go left up here.”

“I do not, Arthur said.

“Oh well, you’re the expert.” He made a strained noise. “No, no. Christ, Mick, I’m not making fun of you. I’m talking to the driver. But look, much as it pains me to admit it, you do know a few things. You’ve got to trust yourself. Seriously, darling, it’s going to be okay. No, I am talking to you this time…”

This apparently set off the person on the line. The man went quiet save for a succession of “mmhmms,” surprisingly soft and reassuring.

Arthur opened his mouth and closed it. Cleared his throat. Tapped his fingers against the steering wheel. This was ridiculous. Why was he worrying about being rude, interrupting this conversation? He wasn’t a taxi service, and this guy needed to get out of his car, before this mix-up went from awkward to excruciating.  

Then the man said, “Just breathe, mate. I promise you it’s going to be fine. No, you will. Listen to me. Let’s take a deep breath.” He breathed in, then out—theatrically loud, but rhythmic, calming. “That’s good. Come on, one more. In—and out—you’ve got this—”  

Arthur found himself breathing in sync with the stranger and, presumably, the man on the phone—who potentially wasn’t a lunch date, business or pleasure.

Who potentially was having some sort of emergency.

Arthur glared at the red light ahead, the longest light in human history. He shut his eyes for just a moment, shifted in his seat. God, he was supposed to be the best at getting shit done, at taking care of things. He’d scheduled the morning to a T, had even given himself extra time for everything. He’d been right on schedule too…

Up at 5:00 to shower and shave.

6:15, picking up Mal’s first cousin and her husband from a red eye flight. 6:45, dropping them at their hotel.

7:15, bringing breakfast and a tray of coffees to Mal and her bridesmaids.

7:30 to 8:00, engaging Mal's mother in conversation about foreign policy, so Mal could eat her breakfast in peace.

8:00, driving Mal and the bridesmaids to the venue, where they'd start on their hair and makeup.

9:00, making sure the flower vendor hadn't mucked up the order again. 9:45, talking to the caterers on the phone.

10:30, pick up Ari, with their tailored suits, with bagels...

Now, it was 10:50. No Ari, no suit, no bagel. He wasn’t late yet, but he would be, soon. Was that an emergency? Yes. Was it a weightier emergency than this stranger’s, whose friend was having trouble breathing?

“Mick? No, don’t—fuck! He hung up on me.”

Arthur watched as he redialed the number once…twice…then tossed the phone across the back seat with another curse.

“Your friend…” he tried. “He’s—in trouble?”

“In way over his head,” the man concurred, with a quirk of his lips. Then his up-to-this-point bright expression fell away, and he pinched the bridge of his nose. “Fucking wanker. God, I’m afraid he’s going to pull some stupid shit.”

Arthur’s hands clenched on the steering wheel. “Is he…going to hurt himself?”

“And someone else, yes.”

“Then shouldn’t you—shouldn’t you call 911?”

“Oh.” A sharp exhalation. “It’s not that kind of thing.” The man looked out the window. “If I can just get there, I can…” He waved his hand in the air, an encompassing gesture.

There was an empty stretch of yellow curb ahead, the loading zone in front of a fancy apartment building. Arthur flicked on his blinker and pulled over.

“What—?”

“Give me a second, I just have to…” He unlocked his phone and pulled up his messages, fired off another text to Ari.

Hey, I don’t know what’s going on. I hope you’re OK.

You’re going to have to find another ride. Something came up. I’ll meet you there.

DON’T FORGET MY SUIT

He took a deep breath, swiped to his messages with Mal. I’m running a little late, he typed. But I’ll be there soon. His fingers hovered, indecisive, then he added a red emoji heart—a warm, calm little shape, entirely unlike Arthur’s own heart, which was anxious and knotted with a melancholy that threatened to climb his throat and choke him, like bile.

Get it together, he told himself. He was going to help this handsome man. Then he was going to drive like hell back to the venue. That’s what Mal would do, if she were here. Once he dropped off this guy, he’d have the the whole rest of the day to melt into an insipid, mawkish mess.

He set his phone in his lap, looked up at the mirror to meet the man’s eyes. “Okay,” he said, decisive.

The man blinked at him, a crease between his brows. “Okay…?”

Arthur cleared his throat. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I don’t know where I’m going.”

“You’re not from around here, are you?”

Well, no, but Arthur lived here. “I’m from Chicago, originally. But I mean,” he said patiently, “I don’t know where you’re going. So maybe you can, I don’t know, give me directions? Where are you going?”

The car door opened, then slammed shut. What—? After all that, was this guy just—leaving?

The passenger door opened, and the man sat next to Arthur. “You don’t mind, do you?” he asked, looking over.

All of a sudden, despite the world of noise—the whirring wiper blades, the tick tick tick of rain on the car roof, the ebb and flow of traffic, the murmur of the radio—the car seemed very quiet. Arthur shook his head, winded by the man’s proximity, by how attractive he was—not just his strong jaw or his lovely eyes, but his composure, the sure way he moved and his low, calming voice.

The man seemed to notice the hot weight of Arthur’s gaze. His expression shifted toward a smile again, just a small one, but he had crinkles at the corners of those pretty eyes. “I’m Eames,” he said, holding out his hand.

Arthur clasped it, automatic. “Arthur. Nice to meet you.”

“Arthur,” he repeated, purring the Rs. He sounded thoughtful. Then he pulled up a map on his phone. “Alright, Arthur, straight through the next three intersections, then a left, then straight till we're over the bridge. It's south of Fenway.”

"Okay." South of Fenway. Arthur could work with that.

“Do you mind if I eat in here?”

“Go ahead.”

The man—Eames—twisted around in his seat and reached into the back for the bag of bagels. The movement brought him close enough that Arthur could smell his cologne, spicy and citrus-sharp.

“Have you had breakfast?”

Arthur shook his head. “I’ve been driving around all morning.”

“Shit. Our evil corporate overlords work you hard, huh?”

Arthur thought of Mal—not quite a Bridezilla, but exacting, as always, in executing her ingenious vision. She was intense whether she was planning a museum fundraiser or a wedding.

“Here,” Eames said, offering half his bagel.

“I don’t—” Arthur began, but Eames just pushed it closer, like maybe he’d shove it into Arthur’s mouth, so Arthur grabbed it. “Thanks.”

“S’the best bagel place,” Eames said around a bite. “Always go when I’m in town.”

“Mmhmm,” Arthur agreed, savoring a mouthful of scallion cream cheese. Fuck, he was starving. He should have eaten breakfast. Had he even finished his coffee?

They drove in silence, eating, for several minutes. Arthur tried not to look at his watch. It's okay, he told himself. You're going in the right direction.

Then, suddenly, traffic stopped, several lanes excruciatingly trying to maneuver into one. There was orange ahead—construction?

“I’m sorry,” Arthur said, after they hadn't moved for several minutes. The clock said 11:23 now. The guests would be starting to arrive. Panic warred with despair. “This is a mess.”

“It’s okay. I’ll still, uh, give you five stars.”

Arthur took a deep breath. “I’m not an Uber driver.”

Eames paused. “Lyft?”

Arthur shook his head, eyes on the road. “I tried to tell you, but you were on the phone. And all those cars were honking.” He shrugged.

“Oh my God,” Eames said. “You mean I just—?”

“Threw yourself and all your shit into a random car? Yeah.” Arthur looked over his shoulder, decided to change lanes. “You’re lucky I’m not kidnapping you.”

“Oh my God,” Eames said again. Then he threw his head back against the seat and laughed—a full, rumbling laugh, tilting toward out of control. “What a day.” He wiped tears from his cheeks.

“Tell me about it. It’s a fucking train wreck. I was supposed to pick up my friend. She had—something I needed. For this thing we’re doing today.”

For the wedding I’m about to be late to, he thought glumly. But that was a lot to lay on this stranger, who was clearly in the middle of his own crisis. Arthur had made this decision; he’d deal with the consequences on his own. Sabotage, a small, terrible part of him hissed. For all Arthur had supported Mal, labored to make this wedding perfect for her, he didn’t want her to get married—not to the clown she was in love with, not to anyone. He didn’t want her to move to LA. Fuck. He fought the impulse to smash the car horn.

“Oh!” Eames said. “I—I know where we are. If we go right up here, there are some side streets. I think it’ll be faster. I mean—you can just pull over and let me out. I can call, um, a real Lyft. I’ve already inconvenienced you enough, I don’t want to—”

“No,” Arthur said. “It’s okay. I’m going near the MFA anyway. Let me help you. Please.”

The please was—strange. But how could he put into words, the letdown he would feel if Eames got out of his car and disappeared? Left him late and harried with nothing to show for it, no happy ending? How could he explain that without knowing anything about Eames’s life, he needed his friend Mick to not to do the stupid shit, to be okay? Like that could somehow translate to Arthur not doing stupid shit today, could translate into Arthur being okay, keeping it together.

Eames was quiet for a moment. “Thank you,” he said finally. “I really appreciate it.”

Arthur nodded. He blinked rapidly, trying to clear his vision. Kept his eyes on the road. They inched along, finally merging, toward the intersection. “Right up here?”

“Yeah.”

Arthur put on his blinker, began the arduous process of butting his way into the turn lane. The car they cut off wasn’t pleased, and they were treated to a fresh volley of honking. Arthur had his hand on the back of Eames’s seat, so he could look over his right shoulder. If he leaned a little further, he could really inhale that cologne, could bury his face in Eames’s neck. Crazy. This morning was making him crazy.

Get it together, he told himself again. Hold it together until the reception. Mal had promised, over his protests, that there’d be several single guests Arthur might hit it off with on the dance floor, at the open bar. Arthur had rolled his eyes as Mal had insisted he needed to meet Dom’s best man, the academic who was flying in too late for the rehearsal. As if anyone who would stand up with Dominic fucking Cobb wouldn’t be a total spaz.

They turned onto Eames's side street. It seemed a little less congested.

Eames began to hum, drawing Arthur's attention to the radio.

You bought me violets for my furs
And it was spring for a while, remember?

“Can’t believe this song is playing right now.”

“Why? Does it bring back memories of the last time you rescued a charming stranger who bungled his way into your fancy car?”

He flushed. Eames’s joke cut a little too close to his inner monologue. “It reminds me of my friend.”

“The one you were supposed to pick up?”

“No, the one whose—thing we’re going to today. We used to be really close, but she, uh, hasn’t been around much lately. And she’s moving to California.” Arthur swallowed. “I just…miss her, you know?”

“Yeah.”

“Which is stupid. She isn’t gone yet, and I still see her all the time. It’s just—not the same.”

“Hey, it’s not stupid,” Eames said. “It’s how you’re feeling. You’re allowed to feel what you’re feeling.”

Arthur thought about Eames on the phone with Mick. Seriously, darling, it’s going to be okay. Breathe. “You don’t have to do that for me. That, uh, emotional labor. You’re already supporting your friend, and it sounds like it’s—a lot.”

Eames shrugged. “S’okay. I do this for a living.”

Arthur looked over at him, and he spread his fingers like jazz hands, which was ridiculous. “Therapize.”

“That’s not a word.”

Eames snorted. “Well, then, help people. I’m a psychologist.”

“Jesus, that’s worse. You shouldn’t have to work when you’re not working.”

“It’s not something you can just turn off, you know. Being a supportive person.”

Arthur huffed, opened his mouth to retort, then reconsidered. “I’ve never met an actual psychologist before,” he said. “Do you listen to opera? Would you say you’re more like Niles Crane or Frasier Crane?”

“Honestly, I’m more of a Roz.” Eames laughed. “I mostly teach. Write papers, go to conferences, that sort of thing.”

“And the opera?” Arthur prodded.

“Well, I…sure.”

Arthur bit his lip. “Hand me that auxiliary cable.”

Eames pulled the cable out of the center console, uncoiled it, passed it to Arthur. They both flinched as their hands touched. Arthur flicked his gaze back and forth between the road and his phone as he pulled up the album he wanted, found the track—there. He dropped his phone again, cranked the volume knob.

The Billie Holiday song cut off, mid-chorus. Epic, swooping operatic music hit them, flooded the car like a tidal wave.

Arthur took a deep breath, hit the gas, sped around a car lagging in the left lane. “I’m going to show you how we drive in Chicago,” he shouted.

He glanced over at Eames, who was grinning, mouth hanging slightly open, staring at Arthur. “How is that?”

“What?”

“How do people drive in Chicago?”

“ANGRILY.”

Eames laughed. The music swelled. “This vibe you’re going for—like, Frasier crossed with a buddy cop movie from the eighties—?”

“Yeah?”

“I like it.” Eames yelled.

What are you doing later? Arthur wanted to ask. Want to dance with me? At this thing? This wedding thing? There’ll be an open bar.

He turned the music up louder.

Eames let out an exhilarated shout—a roar, a liberated sound.

Arthur licked his lips, tried to shout too, to set his coiled-tight nerves free.

Then Eames leaned toward Arthur to yell the directions into his ear, put a hand on his shoulder. He was a good navigator. Arthur let himself get lost in it. He just drove—fast, determined, breathless.

Before he knew it, they'd arrived.

“Here!” Eames said, excited. “Here’s good. You can pull over anywhere, yeah!”

The track ended. Arthur turned down the music to a murmur. A sedan was pulling out of a metered space, and Arthur quickly claimed it, parallel parking neatly, heart pounding in his chest.

He turned to Eames. Eames was looking at him. He had unbuttoned the collar and first few buttons of his trench coat, and he was clearly wearing a suit beneath—the same dove gray suit with the blue floral tie that Arthur was supposed to be wearing.

What?

Oh.

Arthur looked around wildly—they were on Evans Way, next to the park, in front of the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum.

It was 11:47.

Oh.

Eames had unbuckled his seat belt and grabbed his ruined newspaper and his blown out umbrella from the back seat. He had one hand on the door handle, and he was looking at Arthur, hesitating.

Then he made a small sound—surrender—and leaned over to kiss Arthur. Just a soft press of those generous lips, sweet and lingering. Arthur met him halfway—hands hurrying to touch Eames’s jaw, his wet hair. Eames's fingers brushed the back of Arthur’s neck, very carefully. When he pulled away, it was with a sigh. He was smiling.

“Thank you,” he said, “for your help.”

Arthur swallowed. He looked at his lap. “Yeah. Yeah of course.”

“Uh, good luck with everything.” He heard Eames open the car door. 

“Yeah, you too.” There was something else he should say, but he couldn’t get his mouth and brain in sync; he was still reeling from the coincidence…

Eames was stepping out of the car.

“Wait!” Arthur said. He caught Eames's arm. Eames turned back to face him—his lips were wet from their kiss, but the softness in his eyes was already receding, replaced by determination. “Your friend—Dominic—I mean, Mick—tell him it’s just nerves, that he’s doing the right thing.” Tell him if he flakes today, I’m going to kick his ass, Arthur barely managed not to say.

“Okay,” Eames said. He was staring at Arthur strangely, that crease back between his brows.

“You should go.” Arthur released his arm.

“Yeah, alright, goodbye.” Eames hesitated just a moment longer, then with a slam of the car door, he was gone.

Arthur put his head on the steering wheel. “Fuck,” he said. His phone buzzed—a text message.

Cherie, where are you?

With shaking hands, holding back a wild laugh, Arthur replied, Don’t worry, I’m here.

 

At 1:00 on the nose, all crises averted and cold feet warmed, Mallorie Miles married Dominic Cobb.

Arthur performed a fast change into the suit a shame-faced Ari pressed into his hands—“Oh my God, Arthur, I’m sorry, I overslept, and then I had to run out of the apartment to the tailor’s, I’m so sorry!”

He kissed Mal’s cheek and told her she looked beautiful.

Mascara tears and powdered donut sugar were lovingly wiped away.

(She clutched Arthur. “My love, what if this is a dreadful idea?”

“Do you think it’s a dreadful idea?”

She shook her head. “Just nerves.”

“What’s my line? I have a car waiting out front if you change your mind.”)

The diffuse, stormy day light that shone through the glass-roofed garden courtyard made everyone look gorgeous in pictures. But Mal in particular was radiant. (Dom looked alright too, Arthur guessed.)

As the music started up, Arthur saw Eames across the lobby. His hair was still wet, but it was neatly combed.

When he offered Arthur his arm, he was distracted—looking into the garden, at Dom. He didn’t look worried though; he looked proud—and Arthur, following his gaze, said, “You saved the day, then?”

Eames startled and stared at him, wide eyed and hopeful. “Oh my God, it’s you.”

“Surprise.” Arthur took his arm, and they walked down the aisle.


 

Later, at the reception, on the dance floor, Eames spun Arthur under his arm, and Arthur spilled champagne on his shoes. So they danced in their socks, laughing and kissing, kissing and laughing, until the party devolved into yawns and third helpings of wedding cake out in the courtyard, under the stars and the half moon. The rain had stopped, and the city was fresh and clean, blanketed by midnight quiet.

“Want to get out of here?” Eames murmured, pulling his coat more snuggly around Arthur; Arthur’s had disappeared sometime around the bouquet toss.

“Sure,” Arthur said into Eames’s shoulder, fizzy-chested more from flirtation than champagne. He was bone-tired in the best way, clutching his hard-won bouquet tightly. “But you gotta call a real Lyft this time.”

 

♥︎