VANITY FAIR, November 2017
A FAMILY AFFAIR
An excerpt from the actor’s forthcoming memoir WILD NIGHTS chronicling his early years growing up to his days as a struggling actor. In anticipation of the Royal Wedding enjoy his take on a wedding among Britain’s uppercrust.
By Percy Wainwright
Imagine my surprise when my stepfather George invited me to his third wedding, in London. He wanted me there with him as he took on his new life and invited me out for the “whole season”. I took one look around my tiny, non airconditioned studio apartment in the Valley and knew I had no other choice. Within 24 hours I was touching down in Heathrow. I wondered a little about why George invited me, but in a small way it made sense: he had no real family himself and didn’t want to feel left out. He let me have the use of his apartment- or “flat” as I learned to call it, having already moved in with his bride to be.
What did I do? I did what any self-respecting 22 year old would. I went clubbing of course. That’s how I first met Kay*. It was sometime past midnight, and the DJ was trying out some experimental trance pop. I saw him before he saw me. He was small, but he didn’t have that obnoxious edge some short men get. Cute blonde hair a shade most boys grow out of. Muscular, but the white shirt and jeans he wore showed he didn’t really care about his appearance. He glided through the crowd, disappearing in the back room for a moment. I lost track of him until I saw him cut through the dancefloor to leave. On a whim, I grabbed his hand and kissed it. He looked up at me and laughed, crinkling a pair of baby blues that would have made Paul Newman jealous. I pulled him to me, like he was water in the desert. The music was too loud to have a coherent conversation, but neither of us wanted one. After three or so songs (who can really tell with electronica?) he was pressing me up against the wall outside the bathroom, kissing my lips, my neck, as if he wanted to swallow me whole. In fifteen or so minutes we were in my flat and I was flat on my back. When I woke up the next morning alone in that big bed, I actually laughed- I’m usually the one that leaves them high and dry.
I still went clubbing, but I didn’t see my blonde boy again. Four weeks before the wedding George invited me out to a dinner with the family. “They’re gentry, you know. You don’t have to bow or anything, but do you know the proper forms of address?” He’d asked me nervously, in the taxi on the way over. “Um.. milord and milady?” I’d said, trying to remember what I’d learned from my days of getting high and watching Downton Abbey. He sighed. “They’ll just think you’re an uncouth American, it will be fine.” He’d huffed in reply. It was cute, to see him so nervous to make a good impression.
How to describe the family. Everyone looked like one of those paparazzi pictures of the royal family on their time off: trying to look normal in jeans and a sweater but the outfit still cost 700 pounds. I suppose I’m not one to talk though, my style’s always been very Gucci via Goodwill.
My new stepmother’s flat also had that rich, lived in feel. There was a couch from 1972 next to what I’m fairly sure was a pair of original Chippendale settee chairs. Every flat surface or shelf was covered by books: leather bound ones in the library and slick, glossy ones in all of the real living areas. Yes, you read that right: this was an apartment. With a library.
We all sat down to drinks in the living room. I chose one of the Chippendales, of course. An actual butler took my drink order. Once everyone was arrayed and properly lubricated, the true conversation began. The son who was obviously serving as Head of the Family grilled me and George about our jobs, hobbies, acquaintances, and was probably about to start on what petty misdeameanors we’d committed when his wife patted his arm and started a real conversation instead of a background check. It was boring, but I was surprised to find I was enjoying myself. Mostly I was enjoying what I am dead certain were a pair of original Degas’ ballerina studies.
Nearly an hour in I was shocked out of my art appreciation when my own tiny dancer walked in. He was out of breath, dressed for work (a boring navy suit, so a professional of some type, I noted), and apologizing profusely, to his mother, his soon to be stepfather, his annoyed brother, and then his gaze fell on me. I’ll say this about him: I’d never want to play poker against him. There’s not a man alive better at controlling his face. For a moment I was certain he didn’t remember me (I mean, I was in a clean cut Oxford, not the neon green mesh tank he’d last seen me in.)
“Hello. You must be Percy. I’m Kay.” He said, warmly, holding out his hand for me to shake. The look he gave me, and only me, had so much heat I thought I was back in L.A.
He sat across from me when we moved to dinner, and chatted politely. I was annoyed to find someone so handsome was also smart, and funny, and kind, especially to his mother and my stepfather. Yet, when he raised his brows to me at the end of dinner- a challenge, and invitation- I was all mush.
The next four weeks went by quickly- too quickly. All the pomp and nonsense of what American hetero weddings have become pales in comparison to An English Society Wedding. There were morning suit fittings, and tux fittings, and even normal suit fittings, to make sure I wouldn’t be looked at some poor American cousin. Forget a bridal shower at some swanky country club. There were at least three engagement parties, a trip to the Queen Anne Enclosure of the Royal Ascot (requiring another suit), and multiple days involving skiffs, yachts, polo ponies, and cricket. I was game: it was like being stuck in some specialty park at Disneyworld, and I love to learn the rules so I can break them. Here were a few I discovered:
-You can’t ask people where they go on vacation. You ask them where they summer, or winter, or, for the younger, sportier ones, where they ski.
-An American accent threw them, especially when I turned on the Southern drawl I usually kept safely packed away. If I wasn’t from Newport, or Vail, or New York, I was no one of importance.
-No one ever discussed money, but every conversation was about it: where children were going to school, what new homes or paintings were being purchased, who had just closed what deal.
-And unlike in L.A., where everyone bedecked themselves in the latest runway looks, here you often learned the richest people also had the oldest clothes. The Princess Royal attended one of these parties in a dress she’d had since 1983. I know the year because I asked her.
By the time the wedding rolled around, part of me was ready to go back to the plastic sheen and bounce of Los Angeles. Other parts of me, like my heart, wanted to stay in this weird world forever, because it’s where Kay was. If this world was a weird Disneyworld, than I was its Cinderella. I’d been scraping things together for so long, spent so many nights wondering where the money was going to come from, how I was going to eat, I cannot explain the relief of having that disappear. Of having someone ready to pick up the check like nothing- and unlike a lot of the men I’d slept with, not expecting a quid pro quo.
Kay and I spent a few weeks before we even had sex again- he was busy, and I was being pulled along to every wedding event anyone could possibly imagine. It’s the stolen moments I remember the most. The way his breath hitched when he saw me partially undressed during our tux fitting. How he always made sure I had what I wanted to drink, no matter the party we were at. When his hand brushed mine and we hooked our pinkies together, walking down this hallway or that. And the night we were finally together again: breathing our secrets together in the dark.
I told him I loved him. I didn’t actually say “I love you”, I’m not an idiot. I told him “I’ve never felt this close to someone,” and that “I’ve told you things… I’ve never told anyone before” and “I know this must sound strange.” He soaked it up, and looked at me, those blue eyes full of affection, rubbed my arm. “I care deeply for you, Percy. My heart… I think someone else has that. I can give you everything else.” He said it like he’d pried it out of himself… carefully and painfully.
I wish everything had been enough for me.
The summer swept along, and suddenly it was the day I’d come for all along: the wedding. It was held in a quaint village in a “small, country chapel” that sat the two hundred guests with ease. The interior looked like a florist’s shop the night before Mother’s Day. (Kay’s big brother had to take at least three puffs from his inhaler and everyone had to pretend they didn’t notice it happening.) All the women were arrayed in pastels, or florals, most looking ten years older than they actually were in the severe, pinned up styles the occasion demanded. One of the coach horses ate the fascinator Kay’s girl cousin had talked about incessantly over the summer. But seeing my stepfather trip over his words, bursting with happiness at his new life and new wife was truly one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. In short, it was a perfect family wedding.
And then it was over. They were off on their honeymoon, backpacking in East Asia as if they were 22 and not 62. I’d seen my stepfather off. I knew he would always be part of my life, but that I wasn’t meant to live in his. I finally understood why they call it a flat: that’s all I felt walking around that apartment.
I wanted Kay to say: “I love you. Move in with me. Marry me, when it’s finally legal.” He didn’t ask. He was still caring, and attentive, and sweet, but we never talked about love or a future. Maybe that’s why I invited the Swede back to the flat on the last night before I left. Why I forgot that Kay was coming over to cook me a farewell dinner. Why I didn’t lock the door.
Turns out, he’s not as good as a poker player as I’d thought. I saw it all. Shock, dismay, pain, but never the anger. He left, never saying a word.
It wasn’t until the next day, somewhere 10,000 feet above Chicago, my suitcase full of a bunch of fancy clothes I’d wear only to auditions that I realized he always got quiet when he was angry.
*names, dates, and details have been altered to protect the innocent