The call came just after they went upstairs for the night. It was weeks since anyone had rung Gheorghe on his mobile, and even longer since the call had gone through. The reception outside was better these days, thanks to a new tower—“What do we need that for?” said Johnny and Gheorghe swallowed a smile—but the house was a bunker and most days his phone just sat on the dresser.
It rang and Johnny, who had just climbed into bed, muttered, “Better not be an emergency,” and pulled the blankets up to his ears. Then he shoved them down and sat up. “Unless it’s your mum?”
“She would ring the house phone,” said Gheorghe, but it was still with some degree of nerves that he hurried over. The number was unfamiliar, which wasn’t exactly reassuring, but it was a Leeds area code and there was a shop there set to carry some of his cheese in the spring. Or so he’d thought. “Hello?”
There was a brief silence on the other end and then, in Romanian, “Is that you, Gheorghe?”
Broad hands. Warm smile, fading away around some London corner. “Constantin?”
“I didn’t know whether you would have the same number. I’ve tried calling you before, but—”
“The reception. It’s—” Gheorghe cleared his throat. “Why…” He could go no further. He wasn’t even sure how to ask. Why are you calling? Why now and not before? Why does it matter?
There was a rustling behind him and then Johnny was there beside him, not quite hovering. Gheorghe flashed him what he hoped was a reassuring smile. Johnny’s Romanian was getting better, but it was still limited. He spoke to Gheorghe’s mother on the phone sometimes, only ever briefly and with terror in his eyes, and though they spoke English together most of the time, sometimes before passing the phone back to Gheorghe, Johnny managed a halting goodbye.
Still, Gheorghe held down the button to put Constantin on speaker because, well, it would be good for Johnny to hear some Romanian spoken. That, and they were both works in progress where jealousy was concerned, and Gheorghe wanted it clear from the beginning that Constantin was a story from the past, an inconvenient ache in his chest sometimes—not from yearning but from hurt—and nothing more.
“I thought I should apologize,” said Constantin. “I wanted to apologize. We came here together and then I left you.”
“If you no longer loved me, you were right to leave,” said Gheorghe, testing.
“Right,” said Constantin, “but not the way I did it. That was shitty, and I’m sorry.”
“Fine,” said Gheorghe. “Thank you.” Was there anything else he was supposed to say? What did people say in these situations?
Beside him, Johnny was chewing on a thumbnail and staring intently at the floor. Gheorghe reached over and took hold of his hand, ran his own thumb over the nail, which was reddened and too short. Johnny was still like this sometimes, reflexively pushing himself to the edge of pain when there was nothing else to do. He didn’t notice himself doing it, but Gheorghe did.
“Where are you?” Constantin asked. “Still up north? I’m in Leeds, if you ever wanted to—”
“I’m seeing someone,” said Gheorghe.
Constantin laughed. “I thought you might be. Someone like you doesn’t stay single for long. Anyway, what do I care? Bring him. I was just going to say, I’m working at a restaurant. When was the last time you had mămăligă?”
“Three days ago,” said Gheorghe. “I made it.”
“Well then,” said Constantin. “What about frigăruie?”
It had been a long time, not since Gheorghe was last in Romania visiting his sister. He’d tried to convince Deirdre to let him make some—it was easy enough—but she’d shooed him out of the kitchen. Something about eating meat on a spike, something about Normans. Gheorghe relented. He knew how to pick his battles, and the cheese had been a massive victory.
“We’ll think about it,” said Gheorghe, because he couldn’t say that his mouth was watering at the thought. It was October and there was a nip in the air, not only in the cold, dark morning but throughout the day. The days were slower, the busy season behind and ahead. They could maybe spare an evening away.
“Good,” said Constantin. “We shouldn’t be strangers to each other.”
After, after Gheorghe explained, after they were in bed, with the lights off, Johnny shoved his cold nose into Gheorghe’s neck and said, “Well? Are we going?”
“I did not think you would want to,” said Gheorghe.
“Want to see my competition, don’t I?”
“He is not your competition,” said Gheorghe. “He is a man I used to know.”
“What happened?” Johnny asked. Then, when Gheorghe was quiet, “You don’t have to say, only I was wondering. Before, you just said you broke up after you came here.”
“That is what happened,” said Gheorghe. It was easier than telling Johnny the whole story: the months of waiting up in the London guest room of one of Constantin’s childhood friends, thin walls, the day Constantin left him, the move to Yorkshire they’d plan, making the journey alone. Gheorghe’s English was good, but it wasn’t good enough to explain the precise combination of fear and anger and grief he’d felt at Constantin’s leaving. Though, he thought, if he somehow could explain it, Johnny might just understand.
“Broke your heart?” Johnny asked, almost casually.
“Not permanently,” said Gheorghe. He rolled over and slid his arms around Johnny. “Even when I met you, I had gotten over it.”
“But it still…” Johnny trailed off, hunting for words. Somewhere outside a fox screamed. “Hurt feelings take longer.”
“Yeah,” said Gheorghe, and he settled closer to Johnny, imagining the hot breath against his chest gathering in whatever void Constantin had left, sealing the cracks, whole and warm again.
The evening they went to Leeds was overcast and blustery, small drops of rain pinging against the train window. Arrived, Johnny made eyes at every pub they passed. They had an hour before they were due to meet Constantin, and while Gheorghe had thought they might spend it walking around the city, Johnny clearly had other ideas.
“I won’t be off my face,” he said, stopping in the middle of the sidewalk. “It’s just to take the edge off. I wouldn’t want to—” Gheorghe waited for him to go on. Johnny cut his eyes over to the door of the pub. “I just—I know with a pint in me I’m more… And I wouldn’t want—” He stopped again, frustrated. He kicked a wrapper away down the pavement. “This Constantin has to know he made a big mistake, letting you go, and if he doesn’t know, we’re going to show him, and we can’t show him if he thinks you’re shacked up with some fall-down-drunk sad sack. Or worse: some bloke who can’t… I heard him on the phone; he was chatty. You must’ve been the quiet one and all.”
Gheorghe opened his mouth to respond—did Johnny think…—but Johnny was off again.
“At any rate, let’s get one in me and I’ll be about as charming as a garden fence, which is up from a brick wall, so you’ll look all right. You won’t have done too badly for yourself.” He looked up and met Gheorghe’s eyes. “Right?” Then he turned and marched into the pub.
Inside, Gheorghe fought through a group of men to find Johnny at the far end of the bar, already speaking to the barman. “And anything he wants.”
“The same,” said Gheorghe, shrugging out of his coat.
The barman nodded and walked off.
“Sorry,” said Johnny. “It’s embarrassing.”
“Saying that much at one go.”
Gheorghe fought a smile off his face. He glanced around the room then reached over to squeeze Johnny’s hand, letting it go just as quickly. “Not embarrassing. Brave.”
“Eurgh,” said Johnny. “Don’t be soft.”
“All right,” said Gheorghe. “But also I do not care what Constantin thinks of me. Or of you. We came here so that I could show you what it is like to eat good food. All that matters is that I am happy with you, and I am.”
The barman came back with their beers and Gheorghe thanked him, still looking at Johnny, who had turned a pleasant shade of pink.
“Jesus,” said Johnny, once the barman was gone. “Next you’ll be telling everyone how much you, you know, love me.”
“I can do that,” said Gheorghe. He turned and cupped his hands around his mouth.
Johnny wrenched his arms down, laughing.
They drank their pints in companionable silence, watching people come and go. Johnny finished his quickly, but waved the barman off, choosing instead to clutch the empty glass.
Gheorghe had about a fourth left. “Do you want the rest?”
Johnny glanced over, hesitated, then said quickly, “No. I mean, yes, obviously, but no. I’m trying to—it’s got nothing to do with Constantin, I’m just trying to be more careful.”
Gheorghe knew that he was. Some time over the summer, there had been a shift. It coincided with nothing particularly significant as far as Gheorghe could tell, though he also knew that Johnny’s mother had a summer birthday, so maybe she was on his mind. He got a particular look on his face when he was thinking about his mother. It was a version of the look he got on his face when he was busy convincing himself that Gheorghe was going to leave again.
“I should give it up full stop,” Johnny said to his hands on the bar. “Probably so. Only last time I tried it made things worse. Sitting in my room, starin’ at the wall. Fucking weird. Before you turned up, though. Maybe it’d be different this time.”
“Maybe,” said Gheorghe. “If you want, you should try.”
“Dunno if I need to, though. I’ve been good and all.”
“You have been good,” said Gheorghe. “Very good.”
Johnny blushed. He looked at Gheorghe, then away. “Reckon we should go.”
“Yes,” said Gheorghe. “It’s almost time.”
He took Johnny’s hand, exiting the pub, and Johnny let him.
The restaurant where Constantin worked sat on a residential street, tree-lined and wide. Gheorghe and Johnny made their way through wet, fallen leaves to the door, which opened on a warm gust of fragrance. “Oh,” said Gheorghe, involuntarily.
“Smells good,” said Johnny.
“I’m glad to hear it,” came a voice to their right. Just inside, beside a decorative fish tank, Constantin stood waiting. He was wearing a blue jacket. He was a little bulkier and his hair was a little longer. He looked good, the sight of him and the smell of the food combining into something like homesickness.
“Hello,” said Gheorghe, in Romanian.
“Hello,” said Constantin, his eyes crinkling.
“Hello,” said Johnny, shoving his hand out. “My name is John Saxby. Pleasing to meet you.”
“Not bad!” Constantin exclaimed. He shook Johnny’s hand energetically. “But, please, we can speak English. If I speak too much Romanian at work, my English suffers.”
“It’s hard to switch back and forth,” said Johnny, nodding.
“Like patting your head and rubbing your stomach,” said Constantin.
Gheorghe stood and watched them. Johnny would seem completely at ease to anyone who didn’t know him. Gone was the man gripping the empty pint glass. Gheorghe felt suddenly overwhelmed with the knowledge of how hard Johnny was trying, and for him.
“Thank you for the invitation,” said Gheorghe, trying not to sound too choked up.
“I put you at the best table,” said Constantin, leading them through the restaurant to a quiet place in the corner, overlooking the street. “And I have chosen what you will have to eat. On the house,” he added with a flourish. Gheorghe understood. Idioms deserved a flourish.
“We can’t—” Johnny began, but Constantin waved him away.
“Please,” he said. “It is a gift.” And he turned to Gheorghe. “For you both.”
They sat, and for the rest of the night Constantin brought out dish after dish. He brought out the cook, with whom Gheorghe got an a brief, good natured regional disagreement that had Johnny nodding vigorously along with Gheorghe, instinctively loyal.
At the end of the meal, Johnny listed to the side, leaning against the window. “I’ll explode any second now.”
“So you liked it?” Gheorghe asked. He was sure that Johnny had, for all his suspicious poking, but wanted, all of a sudden, to hear it.
“Yeah,” said Johnny. “I wasn’t sure about that beef salad thing. It looked like something Nan’d make in the 50s. But it was dead nice.”
“Maybe I will make some of these dishes for her,” said Gheorghe. “Do you think?”
“Good luck,” said Johnny, pink and smiling.
Too soon, it was time to catch their train. Johnny shook Constantin’s and said a surprisingly fluid goodbye in Romanian, then gave Gheorghe a look and went outside for a cigarette.
“I don’t know what I expected,” said Constantin, “but it wasn’t him.”
“What does that mean?” asked Gheorghe, his face flushing. It had been such a nice evening. Of course Constantin would—
But, “Nothing,” said Constantin. “Nothing bad. I think I thought, I don’t know, you’d find someone flashy. Back home you were always like that. You could talk to anyone.”
“I’m different here,” said Gheorghe. Different in English. Different because things were hard. Different without you around, making me feel I had to be a certain way.
“I can see that,” said Constantin. His smile faltered, then blazed back up again. “I’m happy for you.”
On the plane from Bucharest, Constantin had grabbed Gheorghe’s hand, afraid. On the ground at Heathrow, he’d denied it.
“Thank you,” said Gheorghe. “I’m happy, too.”
Constantin gripped Gheorghe’s hand. “Be well,” he said, and went to tidy their table.
In the doorway, shrugging his coat on, Gheorghe took another look back at the restaurant. He could almost imagine himself back home. His mother asked, sometimes, when they spoke on the phone, especially on long winter nights. She never pushed him to return; it was more that she asked in the spirit of generosity. She wanted him to know that, if he wanted, she was there for him.
The door opened and Johnny poked his head in. “Are we going or what?”
Gheorghe laughed. “Yes,” he said. “Let’s go home.”