So I decided to cook dinner for J that night. Whether that had anything to do with what Carynne said is… Okay, I admit, it had everything to do with what she said about me doing the bare minimum.
I still didn’t have a car–I figured I’d rent one whenever the next gig was that required me to drive somewhere–so I walked to the convenience store. The one nearest our house was better than a gas station quickie mart, with a modicum of actual food in it. And as it turned out it was a place I could get most of the things I was actually good at cooking anyway. I knew I could make a decent garlic bread, and pasta wasn’t something I screwed up often. I wondered if I should try to make a salad, too, but there was the problem that a head of lettuce was too much for the two of us and whenever we tried half of it ended up going rusty in the drawer. I came home with various things: ziti, sauce, et cetera. And a candle for the table.
The weather had warmed up again, by which I mean after two days in the seventies it was back in the mid-eighties like usual. I put the table into the courtyard and while rooting around in the closet I even found a red and white checkered tablecloth. That sent me back out to buy a bottle of Italian red wine as I realized, of course, that was what was needed to complete the picture.
I was putting the folding chairs out when a voice from the driveway interrupted me. It was one of our upstairs neighbors, but I didn’t know if it was Jerry or Robert. They were both mild-mannered, middle-aged, gay white men. “Special occasion?”
“Oh, um. Not really. Just a change of pace,” I said. “Since I didn’t have a gig today.”
“That’s nice of you. Jonathan seems like he’s working very hard these days.”
“He is,” I agreed.
“May I be nosy and inquire as to what’s on the menu?”
“Oh. Sure. Ziti with meat sauce, grated cheese, and garlic bread. And wine.” Saying it aloud, I felt the list sounded a bit thin. “I’m still deciding whether to try to add a salad or not. Salad for two is hard to manage.”
“Have you considered a tomato basil salad? We grow fresh basil in a window box. Chop the tomato and basil, and sprinkle with oil and vinegar and voila. Or if you want to get fancy, slice it in thin wedges and place the basil leaves between each one.”
“That’s a good idea…”
“I’ll bring you some.” He gave me a quick smile and then went upstairs to get the basil. Until that moment it hadn’t dawned on me that he was suggesting it because he intended to actually give me some. I was still thinking that over when he came back down.
“Thanks.” I must have seemed a little bewildered as I took the sprigs of basil from him.
“Something wrong?” he asked.
“No, just… thanks.” I couldn’t very well say that what was puzzling me was that up until then I’d had the impression they didn’t really like me.
I got artistic with the basil, as suggested.
That left the only thing to dither about whether I should call J to warn him I was cooking or whether I should keep it a complete surprise. The main thing was I didn’t want us to run into a situation where he worked late and turned the whole thing into a tragedy. I decided I could maintain an element of surprise if I didn’t tell him what I was making. I called the office. Fortunately a human answered, and they put me through to him.
“Hey, what’s up? Everything okay?”
“Everything’s great. I’m cooking dinner, okay?”
“And I realized I should ask what time you thought you’d be home so I can try to time it right.”
“Well, since I know you’re cooking, I’ll try to be home right at six. But rush hour being what it is here, better say 6:30. How about I call you before I leave here?”
“Perfect. See you later.” I hung up before he could pry into what or why.
Then I had a couple of hours to kill before the actual cooking would have to take place, so I sat in the living room with a portable cassette recorder and worked on themes for documentary soundtracks until J called to say he was on the way. Then, zoom, I took a quick shower, put the water on to boil, browned the meat while it was heating up, got the bread into the oven… and managed not to burn or undercook any of it.
I almost forgot to get the tomato salad out of the fridge, but I didn’t. I lit the candle while he was pulling into the driveway.
The smile on his face was worth the effort. He was pleased, tickled, bemused, and touched all at once. Say what you want about the flaws in our relationship, but it was something to be able to affect a person so directly.
He kissed me and said, “You have sauce on your forehead.”
“Oh.” I swiped my hand across my brow and licked my fingers. “Hm, needs cheese. Go sit. And open the wine.””
He sat in one of the chairs outside and picked up the wine bottle while I went back into the house to get the last few things. And to point the speakers of the boombox out the front window, volume turned low on some Tangerine Dream.
We had a nice meal sitting out there, watching the candle burn down and talking about all the things we usually talked about: pop culture and politics and people. Then the CD had run out long before, and when we ran out of wine, we took it as our cue to move back inside. I carried the things in while J started the washing up.
I know I can be oblivious. But I didn’t live with him for almost four months without learning some of his cues. The way he glanced at me while I loaded the dishwasher signaled desire. The way he fussed his hair out of his face and breathed, though, that was tension.
I figured I had about five minutes–the amount of time it would take to wipe down the counters and put the table back in place–to figure out how to defuse, deflect, or deal with whatever was brewing.
Sometimes honesty and openness isn’t a relationship style or a strategy. Sometimes it’s just you can’t think of anything else.
I waited until he dried his hands to ask. “You doing okay? You seem tense.”
He took my hands in his. “And sex would be a great way to relieve tension?”
Here we go again, I thought. That was not what I was asking. Or implying. It took me a few seconds to get on track. “Um, well, it usually is…” A lightbulb went on in my head. “Unless it’s the source of the tension.”
J wasn’t the type who burst into tears. He was too WASP-y for that, he said, no matter how hard he tried to shed his upbringing. So when hugged me, sagging from the sudden release, I knew I’d hit a nerve. Hard.
The couch was too far and was up and over the raised section of the first floor, but the bedroom, which was right there, seemed too charged. I leaned him against the counter, counting his breaths.
When he spoke, he had already figured out a bunch of the stuff I thought I was going to have to say. “You didn’t make us a romantic, candlelight dinner because you’re trying to get me into bed.”
“No. Not on purpose, anyway.”
“I’m such a dick for assuming you did.”
“You’re not a dick–you’ve got something going on, J.” I loosened his grip on me and looked into his face. His eyes were red-rimmed. “Let’s sit, okay?”
We moved to the couch as if we were sensible people. I sat crosslegged facing him. He made himself take a long breath.
“Okay, wow, sorry,” he said. “I’ve gotten kind of into this spiral of worrying about it, and assuming… Just plain assuming too much.”
“You don’t have to assume anything with me, J. You know I want you, but you have to believe that I’m okay with rationing.”
“I hate that you think of it as rationing, though,” he said.
“All right, maybe that’s a bad word for it, but trust me, I don’t feel like I’m starved.” I wasn’t sure I could convey the world of scarcity I was used to. I don’t think Jonathan ever lived through the kind of dry spells I used to have. Before I was out to anyone in my life.
Which got me wondering why I still thought like that when that was in the past. But right now I was focused on figuring Jonathan out. “Do you feel pressured to put out? Honestly. Am I pressuring you and I don’t realize it?”
He shook his head. “No. No, you’ve been great, actually. But somehow I get sensitive about it. I worry I’m not holding up my end of the deal.”
“And I worry I’m not holding up my end, which is why I made dinner!” I grabbed him by the hand then, trying to make him see how that fit together.
He chuckled. “We’re like something from an O’Henry story. So if we just worry less, everything will work out?”
“I don’t know, but worrying less seems like a really good policy, doesn’t it?”
“When you put it that way, yeah. But seriously, thinking about it that way… maybe the problem is that my worry level is just… too high. I’m too… too…” He stared at the corner of the ceiling while he searched for the right word. When he didn’t find it, his gaze dropped to the floor. “I haven’t wanted to burden you with it. You already gave me the best advice there is.”
“Burden me with what?”
His voice was small. “I don’t know what the hell I’m doing at work.”
I refrained from saying I knew it! or I told you so. “It’s been a really long time since I heard you talk about the ending of the novel.” Which as far as I knew he still hadn’t actually written.
And maybe he wasn’t going to. He rubbed his face. “I think… I think what we’re going to end up with is going to be a very good TV series. And I can be proud of a lot of it.”
“That sounds a lot like a disclaimer, though, J.”
He nodded. “I know. I’m proud of it but… it isn’t the story I wanted to tell.” He had that tight sound to his voice like he was totally crushed but was trying really hard not to sound like he was. “It isn’t my novel.”
“It isn’t the thing I dreamed of. It isn’t ever going to be the great American literary statement I imagined it would be.”
I wondered if now would be a good time to give him a supportive hug, but it seemed like once he got started confessing, he gesticulated and waved his hands and I figured I should not get in the way of him getting it all off his chest.
“The book I wanted to write will never be written. The show cannibalizes too much of it. And the show, okay, it’s going to be good, but do I want to be doing this the rest of my life? I don’t like or trust any of the people I work with. None of them care about the story or characters like I do. Most of what they care about is impressing the higher ups so they can move on to the next job and the next. They depend on me for the creative drive on the project but then they do the stupidest shit to it and I have to be the one to fight and scream, and then when I do they tell me I don’t know anything about writing for television and what if they’re right and the entire thing is going to fail because I don’t know what I’m doing?” His voice rose and he drew a shaky breath, staring into the middle of the room. “And none of them appreciate that I gutted my baby to give them this idea, not a one. Their attitude is, so the fuck what? Write another book the next time you go to Puerto Vallarta. Oh by the way we made this character twenty years younger so this hot actress can play her. Rewrite her to be a next door neighbor instead of his mother.”
I couldn’t help but hear Sarah Rogue’s voice in what he was saying. So much of it sounded the same. “They want you, but at the same time they make you wonder why you’re even involved in the first place.”
“Exactly. And then you’re supposed to be grateful for having the gig! You’re supposed to thank your lucky stars you’re one of the few, the blessed, who has a gig at all!” He rubbed his eyes. “Aaagh!”
“And you’ve been keeping this all bottled up?”
“What good does complaining do? I dug this hole for myself. I can’t change it. You can’t change it. I just… I try to concentrate on the good things.”
“Like this gig gave me a chance to have this relationship with you, for example,” he said, focusing on me at last.
Oh. “You mean the relationship that has you tiptoeing around on eggshells because you’re afraid I’m not getting enough?” That’s right. I called him out about it.
Long sigh. “Yes. I mean, now that we’re talking about it, it’s obvious to me it’s not you. It’s the fact that all day long I feel like people with hidden agendas are asking me to put out, put out, put out, making me feel like a whore, and when I get home all I want to do is curl up in a ball in a corner.”
“Well, speaking as the person who actually DOES curl up in a ball in the corner, I sympathize with that feeling.”
“Oh, Daron.” He scooted closer and put his arms around me. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. Thank you for making me see the light of day. I promise I’ll leave my work problems at work from now on. It’ll be better now.”
Remember what Carynne said about the bare minimum? I knew at that moment full well that what a real boyfriend should have said was this: no no no, Jonathan, that’s the problem. If we’re going to have a real relationship you have to talk to me about this stuff and work it out and stop trying to keep it from me in the first place.
But I also knew better than ever I wasn’t there for real. I was playing house with him. It was nice, in its way. It was good, by a lot of measures. So I didn’t say that. What I said was a cop out. “I’m sure it will.”
“God. I feel so relieved realizing that.”
“Do I get to say I told you so now?”
“Hah. Well, you did keep asking me if something was wrong at work and I kept saying no. Did you know I was lying to myself so much?”
“No. But I’m getting good at realizing denial is not just a river in Egypt.”
He held me close and with the night air turning chilly by the uninsulated windows that felt really nice. “So now I’m really relieved about you, but I’m dreading going to the office tomorrow. How am I going to put that face on again?”
I didn’t have anything I could say to that.
“Maybe I’ll go in late tomorrow.”
“I don’t have to be anywhere until Friday.”
He nuzzled me then. “You didn’t mean that as a hint. But what if I took it as one?”
“You mean, what if I was hinting that we’d have plenty of time to have sex in the morning?”
“Or now, and sleep in.”
“How about this, no hints. J, you want to? You tell me when.”
“How about now.”
Now’s good. Just keep thinking that.
(Site news, in case you missed it, Volume 5 of the DGC ebook is now live! Get it here on the DGC site, or from Amazon, or from Smashwords… other retailers coming soon!)
(The original “angsty eurogirl” version…)
(For comparison, here’s a live version from BBC Radio1…)