John opened the door to the flat he shared with his boyfriend, Stephan, and was greeted by the usual ecstatic chorus of barks. There was Strudel, the elderly dachshund they’d had adopted after seeing a Facebook post from the local shelter about how he’d been there for six months with no interest. Then there was Nudel, also a dachshund, who after a year was slowly coming to the realization that John was not a murderer who broke into the flat every evening.
Today there was a third bark, lower than either of the dachshunds. What could best be described as a freckled blur burst down the hallway, jumped up on John, shoved it’s head into the bag of groceries he was carrying and then bounded away, floppy ears and flagged tail wagging furiously.
John looked censoriously at both dachshunds. “Have you got a friend over?” He asked them, giving them their evening head pats. Emboldened, Strudel tried to shimmy his way into the grocery bag as well, forcing John to walk into the kitchen with it held high above his head. Further back in the flat he heard the sound of his boyfriend frantically whispering before a door shut and the man appeared in the doorway of the kitchen at an unusual speed.
“Oh! Hello John!” Stephan said cheerfully, moving to take the bag from him. “Strudel! Nudel! Gehs in betts!” He ordered the dachshunds, who obeyed, if slowly. He leaned down and kissed John on the cheek. “How was your day?”
“Oh, fine. A new pallet of record requests got delivered to the office, so we’ve been combing through them, looking for anything interesting.” He said, watching Stephan putting away the eggs, spinach, and milk one handedly, admiring his grace. He didn’t often wear his prosthetic at home. (“Ack! Who will see me?” he’d said, soon after John had moved in and commented about it. “It’s not a surprise to you? That it’s fake?” He’d asked, taking off the hot pink poly-carbon arm he’d worn that day, before they’d both dissolved into giggles.)
A suspicious scratching sound arose from the direction of their bedroom. Stephan jolted and then tried to pretend he hadn’t, trying not to catch John’s eye. “Did you want to get pizza?” He asked.
John shook his head. “No, remember, I told you I was making my pasta tonight, and then we were going to watch Bake-Off.” He replied, smiling, pretending that the scratching hadn’t been joined by a plaintive whining. He bumped Stephan in the hip as he crossed the kitchen to grab the pot and put it on to boil. “What did you get up to, today?”
Stephan looked blank for a moment. “Oh. Um. I um, went to the gym?” He said, taking the colander down from the overhead pot rack to hand it to John.
“Oh good!” John replied, enthusiastically. “And then afterwards?”
The scratching continued. Stephan looked off into the middle distance. “Oh, I went to work. We’re finalizing the wheelchair basketball league marketing, I told you about that.” Was it just John, or was he talking a little louder, and more quickly?
“You did!” John replied, who had taken down a smaller pot to throw butter, a can of tomatoes, and an onion into for the sauce. “That is very EXCITING.” He said, over the persistent yip, yip, yip now emanating from the bedroom.
Stephan, John had concluded early in their relationship, looked like someone had brought some old Gothic archangel to life. And he looked particularly like that when he was guilty. It was something about the frown, and the anguished set of his eyes. He was currently looking particularly angelic right now. He took a deep breath.
“It is worse, you know, when you do this.” Stephan said at last.
John looked up from putting the sauce together. “When I do what?” He asked, barely able to keep the laugh out of his voice.
“When I have done something naughty and you ignore it in such the way where you know I have been naughty, but you never say so.” Stephan replied, turning pink.
John softened, turning from the stove to wrap his arms around the gigantic German, who now was looking heavenward. “I disagree. I cannot think of a time when you have been, as you say, naughty. It escapes me.”
Stephan sighed, and begrudgingly returned the embrace.
“However, ” John added. “I would enjoy being enlightened on how our flat suddenly has an English Springer Spaniel infestation.”
Chapter 2: Strudel, Nudel, and Jeff
Stephan and John attend a family party. John gets cornered by his mom and sister in law.
Stephan pulled the couple’s Ford Fiesta up the circular drive, in behind and assortment of Land Rovers and Volkswagen vans. John got out and stretched in the sunshine, before opening the back door so Strudel, Nudel, and Jeff could hop down and take off for the garden, where voices and the smell of smoke carried. Stephan joined him, wrapping an arm around his waist and they walked in together.
It was the usual family madness. Football had broken out in the back field, what looked to be a boys versus girls match. John could see the red glint of his cousin-in-law Malcom’s hair. His wife, Olivia, had cornered Minnie and Maude near the herb garden. John heard Olivia rhapsodizing about something called moondust and kept walking, ignoring Minnie’s ‘Please Rescue Me’ stare . George and Edgar were standing over the grill in outmost concentration, both trying to outdo the other’s deep understanding of how to make a burger. And the telltale scent of a certain plant meant his brother Hal had retreated to the sunken garden for “quiet time.”
John found his mother in the kitchen, decanting Pimms into a large punch bowl. She hugged him one armed in greeting and gave Stephan a continental kiss. Her blue patterned caftan and silver bracelets made her look like the High Priestess of some cult, and John found fitting.
“Oh John, I’m so glad you were able to make it. I trust work hasn’t been too busy?” Benedicta asked, with added emphasis that implied that the excuse was getting old.
“Nice to see you too, mum.” John replied. “What potion are you making here?” He asked, looking at what seemed to be the varied output of a farmer’s market slowly begin to float in Pimms.
“Oh, it’s from a new cookbook we’re copyediting right now, a summer cocktail. Basically enough Pimms to knock down a horse with some seven pound an ounce fancy juice.” She rolled her eyes. “I wanted to try it out and see if people actually liked it.” Benedicta ran, and had run a highly successful publishing company for nearly forty years, and there was always a new recipe or author at the dinner table.
Stephan’s phone chimed with the Facetime noise, and he slipped it out of his pocket and took it, grinning and waving at the yelling voices on the other end. “Leibchens!” So it was Louisa calling with their sons (Louisa’s from a first marriage and the one she’d had with Stephan). He grinned abashedly at John and Benedicta and moved off into the family room, beginning an animated conversation in German.
Benedicta set the Pimms aside and handed John a small shot glass and a wedge of lime, before taking up her own. They both downed them in a smooth motion, slamming the shots down and biting into the lime wedges. Benedicta pointed to the compost bin. Her next question made him gag as if the tequila had been replaced with grain alcohol.
“When are you going to give that nice man a baby, John?”
He sputtered and started, and began to grow red, but not from the liquor. “Mum.”
“I’m serious. Don’t think I notice him trying to fill that tiny flat you have with dogs.”
“The first problem being that neither of us lack the necessary fac...”
“Adoption. Fostering. Surrogacy.”
“Our lives are extremely complicated right now.”
“You’re thirty six. Your life will continue to grow ‘extremely complicated’ and then you will be in a nursing home.”
That forced John to subside into silence for a moment. “It’s not as if you don’t have grandchildren of your own.” He countered. “You can’t be greedy.” He peered out into the sunshine. “Certainly, a few short of an association team...”
“We are talking about you, John.”
“I see. I think you’re also missing the crucial step where Stephan and I are … married.” The word felt odd to say, as if it weighed more.
“Nonsense, when have I ever been concerned with that?” Minnie, of course, was several months pregnant when she and Hal had eloped, Benedicta hadn’t even batted an eye and simply asked if she wanted help to decorate the nursery.
As if summoned, Minnie appeared with an empty glass. She eyed the punch bowl warily but let Benedicta take her drink and fill it up anyways. “What are we talking about?” She asked, taking a sip and smiling.
“John needs to have a baby.” Benedicta said succinctly.
“John prefers not to have his private matters discussed with an audience.”
Minnie glanced between the two and then shrugged. “With Stephan? It would be cute.”
“That’s not possible, it wouldn’t look like us.” John said.
Minnie took a sip. “Well, you’re both blond. I guess if you both, you know, tossed your hats in the ring,” She suggested, waggling her brows. “You wouldn’t know until he either got tall or stayed short.”
“Ah, yes, thank you, Minerva, for that observation.” John rolled his eyes.
Minnie shot a look at Benedicta. “How did this come up? Is it because Stephan got another dog?”
Benedicta nodded, sliding a carton of berries into the punchbowl.
Minerva nodded back. Something passed unspoken between them and John did not like it.
“We’re both exceptionally bus..” He started, but the founder of a publishing company and the linguistics professor stared at him so intently he felt the words shrivel up and die in his mouth.
“You just hire help, if you need it.” Minerva replied. “God knows you have the money. Are you worried about being a father? Because you’re a very good uncle and a generally good person, so I don’t think you’d make a bad father.”
“This… this is an unhelpful extrapolation from flawed data. Stephan likes dogs. He saw another one, and brought it home. His need for canine companionship does not correlate to our need, or lack thereof, to procreate.” The collar of his shirt felt rather tight, even if he was wearing a polo. “Stephan has a son, he visits him all the time.”
Benedicta looked up from stirring the literal bowl and nodded. “Our family blended together just fine.” She stated, as if confirming a fear John hadn’t even been aware of five minutes before.
Minnie rubbed his arm in sympathy. “We just want you to have a full life, John. No pressure or anything. But if you want to be dad, it might do to start thinking about it now, since so many of the options take time.” She said, gently, but firmly.
“Thank you.” John said to both of them, picking up a ladle and pouring himself a drink from the bowl. “I appreciate it, even if I don’t appreciate your ambush tactics.”
Hal popped into the kitchen, tucking his vape pen into his shirt pocket. “George and Edgar have cooked all the meat in the county, if you three are ready for dinner.”
“Bring the punch, John.” Benedicta ordered.
John leaned against the car door, stomach full of hamburgers and Pimms. The countryside flipped by like one of those old films, just fields and fences and sometimes the moonlit body of a cow. Stephan was humming along happily with the music, some new pop sensation. All three of the dogs were slumped in the back, fast asleep.
“Mom cornered me, while you were on the phone with Siggy and Sascha.” He said, to break the silence.
Stephan grinned. “Are you telling me you don’t enjoy doing tequila shots with Benedicta?” He asked, making John laugh.
“No.” He said after a moment. “It was about us. She thinks that because you got Jeff, it means… She thinks we should have kids. Together.” It all came out in a rush, and he looked straight ahead at the road.
Stephan furrowed his brows, thinking. Everyone thought Stephan was endlessly cheerful, because that’s where he usually ended up, emotionally. John knew him better, knew that Stephan was in touch with all of his emotions, moreso than most people, which made it worrying talking about big things. Stephan was always so vulnerable and open, while John was always more reserved. Cracking himself open came naturally to Stephan, and John was always a little afraid he was going to disappoint him.
“Do you want children?” Stephan asked.
That had thrown John for a loop. His first instinct was to shout “Of course! Doesn’t everyone?”, but part of him never really considered the possibility.
“I mean…” He tried. “I don’t… not… want them.” He answered.
Stephan smiled. “I have Siggy and Sascha, yes? And they bring me joy. I would love any child we had.” He added. “I think we should think about it.” He finished, excitedly.
John sighed, somehow relieved and still as confused as he’d been a minute before.
Both men lapsed again into silence, watching the car eat up the lines of the road and the fields flicker by, turning slowly to busier and busier roads as they made their way back into the city.
They were ten miles outside London when Stephan spoke again.
“You know, if we are going to have children, we’d have to get married first.”
Chapter 3: Three Specters
John commutes to work and walks down memory lane. I mean, more like memory train.
It happened, less and less. He’d be on the tube, at a soccer match, or watching tv while scrolling Twitter and he’d see him in a flash. His heart would squeeze, his belly would flip. Tall redheads, tall curly brown haired men, tall black haired men, though that one less and less. They were coming up on the twentieth anniversary of Hector’s death. He wondered, idly, if Hector had lived, would they have married? Would he already have children? Stephan would have some word in German for mourning what never was. Not even mourning now, he supposed, something different. Because of Stephan.
He’d just started dating Stephan, maybe five years before. He’d been excited to attend the fancy dinner for the veteran’s nonprofit Stephan worked for. And then he’d seen Hector’s mother across the room. Of course. After her son died in Afghanistan, she’d thrown herself (and her money) into these causes. He’d grabbed a plate of canapes and retreated to the darkened patio, finding an iron wrought bench to make camp at.
Stephan had of course followed him.
“What are we doing here?” He’d asked, tilting his head gently.
John guiltily lowered his plate of canapes. “It’s this.., the mother of an old boyfriend.”
“Come to chastise you for breaking his heart?” Stephan asked.
John let out a breath he didn’t even know he’d been holding. “No, he’s dead.”
Before he knew it, Stephan had sat beside him and pulled him close. His hair was too short to be pushed tenderly behind his ear, but that didn’t stop Stephan from trying. “Oh, John,” He clucked, concerned. “I’m sorry I teased, please forgive me. If you want to leave, that’s all right too, I’ll call you a car.” Stephan leaned down to look John in the face, his big blue eyes full of sympathy.
John found himself blinking back tears, not because of Hector, but because of the decency and care Stephan was showing him. “Oh… I’m fine. She just always… corners me, and wants to reminisce.” He heaved a sigh. “It’s been fifteen years. It shouldn’t feel like this, but it does.”
“Feelings do not care about shoulds, or woulds. They just are. You just have to listen to them, feel them, then sometimes they go.” Stephan had said, still petting him.
“Ha.” John said thickly, wiping his eyes. “I’m afraid your annual fundraising night isn’t the time to feel this though.”
Stephan paused, and shrugged. “We accept checks and cash and even online donations, every day of the year.” He said, making John laugh for real, before adding, quietly. “However, tonight, I would like to enjoy seeing you write a check in your well-tailored suit.” Stephan had kissed him then, sweet and unhurried, brushing away his tears with a flick of his thumb. They sat quietly, together, until John’s feeling had passed on.
After that evening, they’d talked more about Hector, in fits and spurts, until John had felt something ease in his heart. And tall dark men had slowly stopped giving him that jolt.
Today’s jolt, though, was a redhead. John peered at him, and realized he wasn’t even tall. His hair was receding a little too. As the logical side of his mind pointed out, Jamie was currently across the Atlantic Ocean and at this hour of the morning, asleep. In the arms of his beautiful, brilliant, surgeon wife, his less logical brain added. What was it about that unrequited crush that sparked him still?
The train pulled into the station and the rush to get off before others got on, adjust his bag and push toward the stairs pulled out of his reverie. The redheaded man stayed on the train, turning into a blur as he left the station.
It was another oddly lovely summer day, all cool paleness before the sun was fully up. He pulled in a deep breath of what he told himself was fresh air and started the walk to work, enjoying the flashing warmth and light between the cool dark shadows. He found himself even enjoying hearing the blaring podcasts and music from the younger people who’d surely be deaf by 40 as he waited for the crosswalk sign at a busy corner.
A bus drifted by, slowly taking the corner John was standing on, allowing him to see the advertisement on its side. It was for some new television show or movie, he supposed, covered in photoshopped feathers and birds, with RAVENGLASS HALL in a gothic font. He noticed the man in period costume on the end, his brown curly hair just touching the snowy linen of his cravat. His brows and mouth were quirked sardonically, his golden brown eyes glimmered in a come hither stare. John didn’t need the text below to identify him, but it was helpful none the less: PERCY BEAUCHAMP AS LORD RAVENGLASS.
“Fuck me.” He said, causing a young woman with earbuds on to turn her shoulder and give him a glare before quickly crossing the street away from him.
Chapter 4: A Family Affair
This chapter is a LITTLE DIFFERENT. It's an in-universe article written by some dude called Percy Wainwright and maybe helps explains John's reaction in the last chapter. Since it's not super spelled out the events mentioned take place in 2007/2008, even though the article is written in 2017.
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