Chapter 1: Prologue
Dan sat in the blue velvet seat and pushed his hair back.
He shouldn’t have run. He should have checked the time, that’s what. Running a finger on his neck, he felt the familiar wetness of perspiration drip off and into his cotton wing tipped dress shirt.
The woman next to him wore a light pink dress, her collar of tulle seeming to blend into her finely powdered collarbone. It hung around her smartly, shoulders free except for two dangling strings of rose jasper that clicked against the metal lining of the seats. Strung on in the front in neat crescents were even more beads, and to Dan’s delight, embroidered peacocks sat on the skirt, as if posing for their coronation portrait.
Up on the stage in front of him a mass of trumpet was already blaring back at him, sliding and dancing against the piano. The pianist shook his hands as if his playing was determined by hair speed alone, languid at the soft parts and violent when blasted against the trumpets. His eyebrows too inched up as if unimpressed with Gershwin, shaking his head as any pedestrian would on the streets of New York. It filled Dan with momentary joy to see such a spectacle of sound and character, and at the whine of the trombone, his face blew into an unmasked smile.
The sweat was merely hysterics.
“Say, would you hear that,” he whispered as he shook his head in disbelief.
The blonde woman next to him nodded. “It’s all quite something.”
It was only a few weeks ago Dan had been down at the hotel, reviewing columns for the New York Journal when Harry Peters passed down the paper.
“Read that.” He pointed to a short bottom paragraph Harry had circled.
George Gershwin is at work on a jazz concerto, Irving Berlin is writing a syncopated tone poem, and Victor Herbert is working on an American suite.
Dan was confused until he looked back up the bespeckled eyes of anticipation. “I don’t care, Harry. Please, let me work on my editing.”
Harry ignored him. “Oh boy- you’ve just gotta go- at least to one- don’t you see-? this is the future of music right here!” He said this all in a single breath. Harry, Dan had figured out long ago, was a man who acted like the seconds coming was always just a strike of noon away.
“Er- Harry-” He doubted it. Whatever the future of music was, Dan didn’t much have the time for it anyways. His job at the Journal was what concerned him most. “Give me a few days to think about it.” That was Dan for please leave me alone until you forget.
“Oh alright, Dan.” The staunch tweed of his coat stretched uncomfortably as he hugged himself in disappointment. “But tell me if you want to go, alright?”
“Will do.” Dan put his fountain pen down to reassociate himself. Review the editorials. Put out a few new column ideas. Read the competition.
He still hadn’t left his position in front of the club’s lone oak table. “Is that all Harrold?”
“Oh-Yes. Sorry. Leaving!” Harry scampered off to the rest of the boys farther down in the wood-paneled room.
He looked back at the orchestra a tinge happier. The trumpets sure knew where life was taking them.
“We should go get a drink.” The woman whispered to Dan amidst the applause. “Oh- Your hair’s curled, Dan.”
He brought his hand up instinctively. “Oof, you’re right Alice.” He laughed “Probably should cut it again, huh?”
“Oh no, I sure like the length right now,” she attempted the press it down with thickly ringed hands. “Very Pretty.”
Dan smiled shyly at the compliment. Alice was an old society friend, her father sold life insurance to anyone and everyone with a clean set of teeth and less than a gram of dirt under the nails, even if the money in their pocket begged to differ. It provided Alice with furs that could turn heads and beading that hung in hypnotics, so uniquely oblivious to her father’s business Alice was the thousand dollar diamonds only seemed to shine brighter on her innocent little neck.
“Yeah let’s get out of here, I know a-” As the bowing stopped up on stage, Dan saw an unfamiliar man pass below the stage. His hair was long and parted, razor straight and pushed behind his ears. Furrowing out of the man’s bistre hair was a pair of delicate round tortoise shell eyeglasses, the bridge sitting on an equally unusual nose. It had the shape of a hawk’s beak, and he saw they were connected to thin nostrils. Through the glare of the glasses he caught just for a moment what he thought were blue eyes, and he marveled at the contrast the man was born with.
“Alice, do you know that man there- no see where I’m looking,” he furiously tried to point with his eyes to no avail. Alice only lightly tapped his shoulder to get his attention again.
“I don't see any tall man Dan.”
“He was just there,” he whispered angrily. “He had black hair-”
Alice tapped him again. “C’mon, let's go get a drink-”
“No!” He whipped his shoulder from her grasp. A few people looked at them curiously before turning back to clap, and Dan reddened from the scene. His dress shirt rose with a deep breath. “I'm sorry I snapped at you, Alice.” She nodded and smiled. He took it as his cue to continue. “That sounds lovely- honest. Where should we go?”
Alice continued to smile and pretended the outburst hadn't scared her the way it had. His sudden look of wild frustration had manifested in his eyes, wider than she had ever seen. She brought her gloved hands back toward her dress before continuing.
“I know a place down on Fifth just a few blocks away. It’s by the hotel so I thought we could go after that... “ She added as an afterthought, “will your father let me stay without a reservation?”
Dan allowed himself a moment to calm down before answering. “Oh, my father?” He laughed a little sardonically. “Please, even if he locked the doors and had the pigs out front I’d sneak you up the fire escape. He has a surprising eye for letting dirt get way if they happen to have the name Howell.”
The crowd was starting to file out now, thousands of little bespeckled and jeweled heads that swarmed among their money and were almost as glad to set foot onto 42nd Street, as their gowns and glitter shone briefly to the rest before retreating into their Rolls Royce’s. Dan didn’t see the black haired man among the shuffling bodies as they were leaving, and he felt a note of sadness play throughout his body.
Coming out onto the dark street the pair were glad for the overhanging tarp that hung down as a pummeling rain went down around them in sheets.
“Remind me to be a more prestigious guest when I go to events like this. Where’s Reynolds?” The chauffeur (and to a lesser extent, the Royce) was nowhere to be seen. Alice walked a little ways but came back shaking her head.
“I guess we’ll just have to come back for him.” Dan sighed and led Alice down 42nd Street, tapping his fingers against her silk gloved arm.
“Are you alright dear?” It was always Alice-like to coddle slightly, and though probably frightfully disapproved by someone, Dan– and he suspected everyone else– quite liked it. She was around 6 years older than him, and so at a comfortable distance of 24 and 18, Dan thought the dears and honeys were more of a sweet substitute for motherly affection than serious causes of worry. Alice had her beau after all, and Dan wasn’t going to get in the way of that if he could help it.
“Oh-” He hadn’t noticed his tapping. “Yeah, I’m fine. Just want to go work on the paper, that’s all.”
She turned right on 5th and attempted to shield her eyes from the downpour. “God, you know Harold would have an umbrella- You know it. Poor bird. He was so excited for tonight. You think his father could have a heart attack on a worse night. Stuck out in Nebraska, poor bird,” she repeated, as if the litany would make him appear.
“Password or card?” he asked expectantly as they neared what he believed was the stop Alice was taking him.
“Card, I can’t keep up with passwords with work. Only do passwords when I’m with the girls.” She rounded the pair at a mock delicatessen, slipping her pink beaded bag out from her fur as she made her way inside.
“Well, hello darling, who is this you’ve brought here?”
She smiled amiably before taking out an oyster color card and showing the man behind the counter. “Just a friend-”
“Wait- don’t tell me- you’re what's-his-name's son… Howell… You’re the Howell boy from across ain't ya?”
Dan forced a smile. He just wanted a drink. “Yes, sir.”
“Well, why didn’t you tell me? Come on in! New York Royalty you got here miss, wouldn’t let him go if the cat dragged him dead!”
Alice looked back as if in apology and quickly followed the owner, leading their way into a greenly lit room.
It was like the 1880s had never died. Rich tapestry lined the walls in mismatched and knotty squares, and the gaslight burned everything in it a rich green from the colored covering each wore. Women lay around, in oriental robes and bare breasts, handing customers drinks and touches amid the smoke and inebriation of men. Like angels, their lips stayed one clean color of dark maroon, their short hair untouched from the bustle of want. It was like a mix of a high-end brothel and opium den and was a haunt for the artistic types in town. Everyone fancied themselves a Van Gogh nowadays, and dissolving a sugar cube over an absinthe seemed to do it for them– Dan and Alice included.
“How poetic,” Dan drawled dryly, looking at the emerald surroundings. “I am as green as envy and the liquor can only bask in self-congratulations with it.” He was suddenly struck by how the cut flames in the absinthe spoon seemed to light aflame from the candles around him.
“Oh hush.” Despite Alice’s look of sobriety, the mean streak in her father only manifested artfully in his daughter, who could probably take more liquor than him.
Dan chuckled. “Give it here. I’m not getting any work done tonight. I want to get piss drunk.”
“That’s more like it.” Alice raised her crystal glass to his. “To our papers.”
“And to the sweet lull’s of the green fairy– I say we drink.”
When Dan stumbled out, he was surprised to find what he believed was the black Royce with
–Say– was that Reynolds?
“Mr. Howell. I thought you might be here. Forgive me for not finding you earlier. You gave no message of your whereabouts”
Dan tried to process a word of what his driver had said. A firm “take me home,” was all he could get out.
Alice got in after him without even trying to help her in, and though the hotel was quite literally across the street, they were happy to not have to navigate 5th avenue alone.
“Tired,” was all Alice could muster out, and Reynolds had to practically lift the woman off Dan to get her out.
“There there m’am.”
Once inside (and after a few scuffles), Dan let Reynolds take Alice to a guest room. While he waited for him to come back to work the elevator, he thought dimly of the work ahead of him. 1924 was going to be big year for him. These drinking stints were going to have to dry up.
“Ready to go up, sir?”
“Yes, Reynolds. Thank you.”
The floral carpet made a faint thump thump as he padded his way to his room. Dan almost ignored the mail on the little table outside his door had it not been for the mysterious gold ring and fresh gardenia strung into the hole that seemed to shine up and into his eyes. Like a miner, it struck him with a tremendous sense of energy, and instinctively he grabbed it. He inspected both lazily, even trying it on before putting it back and placing the flower in his front pocket. It must have been a mistake.
To Mr. Daniel James Howell
Dan blinked his eyes groggily at a plain, cotton paper calling card that looked up next to the ring. He took this one more carefully, eyeing the blue pen ink with a certain level of incredulity. He turned it around to see an equally unassuming print with only the initials P.M.L.
How archaic. Perhaps the absinthe is working, he thought to himself. He opened his door and placed the card on his bedside table next to a Cartier clock his coworkers at the paper had bought for him. He slipped off his tails and dress shirt and shed the black oxfords like they were skin, finally taking off iron creased black pants. The ring forgotten and the fresh flower spread against the clock, Dan dreamed a pleasant sleep of the successes of the paper and this new, black haired mystery.
Chapter 2: PART ONE: 1925 – I
1925 began with a cool breeze. It carried a sing-song note of optimism, the decade half spent and the general condition of things so through the roof many felt secure to submit themselves to it. And so like so many other natural occurring thing (the weather and stock two of them), the churches invariably blamed God, the farmers luck, and Dan Howell of the Howell fortune likened it to the zephyrs of hard work and dedication.
He had gotten the call 3 months ago, while out at Saks trying to find new ties for the summer season. The red ones were a bit too garish, the blue a bit boring, the yellow downright offensive. He settled on sober black ones, slipping in a white one when the man helping had left.
He expected a quiet night when he got home, but upon dropping his parcel on the table outside he saw a note from Reynolds had been left.
Papers called. Ross is the name. Left this number: Ross 3820
Dan quickly picked up the note and went inside, streamlining into his little study to use the phone.
“Yes, hello–is this Ross?” Dan leaned forward in his wooden desk chair, finding a bit of scrap and a pencil to write down everything and anything the man had to say.
“Yes, it is. And you must be Mr. Howell? I’m afraid I missed you earlier, how are things?” The man’s voice was cool.
“Oh fine. I was just at Saks actually.” There was a silence. Dan hated how awkward he was. With pencil poised, he bit his lip.
“Wonderful, Wonderful. Well anyways,” the man continued grainy against the line, “I’m looking for a columnist for a new magazine of mine. I stayed a night at your father’s hotel recently after a night out and if you could imagine, some help overheard my phone call. Told me to talk to the boss about you.” There were soft pauses where Dan figured was filled with cigar smoke. “I read some of your stuff in the Journal. You’re a regular newshawk kid. I want you.”
Dan leaned back in his chair. “You don’t happen to be the Ross that covered the Leo Frank murder?” He had read those papers as a kid cover to cover.
“The one and only.” Dan thought he took another puff. “I’m flattered that you even know. Alright, we’ll keep in touch. I’ll get your room number from your father if that’s okay and we can meet. I have some things to go over but I just wanted to tell you. The job’s yours if you’re interested. I’d be one lucky man if I had you if we’re being frank. Bye now.” He hung up and Dan was forced to let go off his pencil.
He shook his head. He couldn’t believe his luck. His days at the Journal were finally over.
Dan was sitting in his father’s office up on the 13th floor. The wooden chair beneath him creaked as he repositioned himself to fit his too-long legs against his father’s desk.
“Daniel. How are things?”
“They’re good.” Dan had to fight to keep his mouth shut at the sad attempt to start a conversation. His father only ever called him in when it was on the topic of his mother and brother or some long lost family death. Sitting in the dark cherry chair, he waited for a response.
“Wonderful.” The soft salt and pepper mustache crinkled as he smiled to one side. “I have some news, unfortunately.” He let his words ring as he looked down solemnly on some paperwork.
Dan felt his chest begin to rise and fall with unnerving pace.
“I know we’ve been talking about University with you, but you know, your paper–” The elder Howells hand stretched out as if his son’s future was a butterfly to land. “You know I’m very proud.”
“What’s wrong?” Dan couldn’t take it.
“You’re going to have to learn how to run things around here now.” His father continued to look at his papers rather than Dan.
“What do you mean?”
“—I–I’m dying, Dan. I went to the doctors, and– and they say I have heart problems. They say I have 3 years. Give or take.”
Dan hadn’t noticed the aging his father had done in the past decade. The graying hair stuck out like wire and the Armenian tan of his face was giving way to a pale sallow. Dan never hated his father, but he never particularly liked him either. The massive fortune his grandfather had made coming here from Ottoman Empire had always filled him with much more pride than his father’s gaudy business practices, a slave to keeping up appearances and a harborer of everything he hadn’t made. The one thing he had made though, was the hotel.
“I don’t know what to say.”
“Nothing, nothing is fine.” He had abandoned the paper to look sadly down at his desk.
“Does mother know?”
“No,” he sighed. “And neither does Addy. Let me tell them myself, Daniel.” He continued. “You can still work with the monthly, I’ve heard promising things about your work Daniel. Is that alright?”
Dan sat unable to move. If the whole world had told him it’d stop in 15 seconds he’d only to gawk that the thing could talk to begin with. Nothing was coming to him.
He settled on a half “mhmm” and a half “alright.”
The problem was was that it wasn’t alright. Dan wanted to try his hand at law– he wanted to be someone like his grandfather. He could never move to another country and start with nothing, it was too late to invest in anything of note or something reputable enough to not get a side glance... no, law was the noble thing. Dan imagined himself at the front of the jury, side stepping and hands up in conscientious theatrics to save some damned fool sentenced to the noose. It’d be he who saved him— perhaps he was also saving the man’s family from destitution, the workhouse, vice—
But it was over. His dream of the practice was over. All Dan could see in his future was the Agavni Hotel like a cage around everything he knew to be precious.
Dan brought his umbrella down. The rain had started slowly, but now as his walk to Greenwich Village, he heard the drips turn to bullets. It was Friday night, and the city was roaring along 5th avenue. The slick cars of the wealthy rubbed along Model T’s, and it was only in the tall, double bulbed street lights could you make out a difference. He could have taken Reynolds, but on a night like this he preferred walking alone. The business on hand was a rather shaky one as well, the particular club he had been given a recommendation to was in the more queer part of town. He had been around the Village but rarely stayed growing up, and he was ashamed it was going to be the first time in years he had gone.
Mr. Ross failed to understand what a solitary character Dan considered himself to be. When not working in the confines of his desk or the sitting room corners with newspaper buddies, Dan enjoyed a cheap book or a sneak to the art gallery’s, sometimes even a cheap book in an art gallery. The little irony always amused him, and though he was Homeric in his journalism, the reality lay in his passion for stories.
Dan had decided classics were far too often boring, and his education as a youth had always seemed to drill in the immutable legend of the damn tombs, creating a contempt he hid from his journalist friends at the fear of being branded a fake. It wasn’t the dryness per se, but the snobs that hung them up as glorified laundry that truly set Dan’s tastes in the opposite direction. Little escapades to the corner urchins to buy the latest copy of Blue Book Magazine with his allowance always made Dan happy as a child, and the hours after study in his carmine canopy traveling with the Japanese were a hundred times better than anything Dickens could pen.
And so when Mr. Ross had told Dan he was to champion an article on New York nightlife… Outside? Dan had brought his growing curled bangs up and pressed them flat against his hand. Why me?
The answer to that happened to be quite flattering.
“Your writing has flavor Howell, this is a modern magazine. The Claremont Monthly is going to be of the times– you see. You’re the only man for the job. Everyone else writes like Nathaniel Hawthorne’s watching. It’s a damn shame.”
Dan seriously doubted the validity of the praise but took it regardless.
How to seem cool, how to seem cool, repeated through Dan’s head as he sidestepped homeless and shoppers alike. He sensed that his walk was almost over and was glad when he saw what he thought was the club’s neon reflect happily into the puddles.
Dan looked at his watch. It was 7:56, a little earlier than he expected. He had been told the show started at 8.
He walked up to a small huddle of girls in bright pink boas underneath the awning. “Er– there is a show tonight? Right?” Dan showed them the hastily written directions from a coworker.
A young woman with short brown hair inspected it. “Oh! You’re here for Lester huh? He don’t play here yet, you’ll see him across.” She pointed to a darkly lit bar across the street with a fair amount of people outside. “He’s ritsy, that one is.” Her friends smiled knowingly. “He should be going about now, 8 o’clock huh Maude?” The note was given back. “You better hurry.”
Dan pocketed it and made it across the street, slipping inside where the girls had pointed out. Behind blue curtains of paisley, Dan came into contact with a wall of cigarette smoke. With burning eyes Dan blinked rapidly, trying in vain to make out the scene before him.
All along the walls were men– women too, now that he cleared his eyes. The bar on his left had the same kind of patrons, a few exuberantly dressed women with hordes of pearls down their flatten chests. He saw them sip with lazy fingers and a single eyebrow raised as they inspected the young men around them, one even smiled as she lay a hand across a man's arms.
Dan couldn’t make out the slightest noise with the clash of drinks and laughter rolling through, and years later Dan still didn’t know how the voice of the man on stage got to him. Perhaps it was the way the man was dressed, not in tails as others where, but in a long dress the color mint julep and a fur so white Dan fancied it was skinned from the Arctic. Everything about the man screamed to him that it was a lady, and it was only through his slightly off voice did Dan saw that two and two did not make four.
“Ladies and Others!” The furred entity on stage yelled above the clamor to a bit of laughter. “Another night, another performance at The Gypsy Peregrine. But alas, our wonderful show is at risk of never being performed!” A finger shot up to the dark ceiling before booming out. “We do not have a piano player at present! Are there any fellows out there whose mama so forced them to play as a child?”
Dan felt his collar start to dig in as he saw the woman’s- man’s? Yes, the man’s eye shadowed gaze fall on him. All around him a good 4 or 5 people raised their hands in jest, but the performer onstage ignored them. Still standing on the precipice of the stairs at their eye level, Dan knew the few steps down and to a table to escape their gaze would be rude. As he raced through options, other guests started to look at what so captivated the furred eyed.
“You,” the figure finally cooed out as a run out was becoming more and more appealing option. “Darling doe, tell me–” a hand spun lazily in a comedic fashion, “Did your sweet mother dear lay the ivories at your fingertips?” Their eyelashes moved up and down like butterfly wings in the night. “Can Chopin seize thee name?”
“I don’t know about Chopin, uh–”
“Madam dear, always madam here.”
“I -I don’t know about Chopin, madam.” Dan gripped his hat furiously. “But I do play a fair deal of Liszt.”
Cherry lips massed into a smile. “Wonderful. Absolutely smashing.” The crowd around Dan cheered as well, a few whistles soaring through. “The show is saved! I must go!” White gloves patted at a powdered forehead as if the ordeal had caused sweat. “The piano is over there darling,” they said before disappearing behind the curtain with a final swish of the gold velvet.
“These are the songs that are being performed tonight.” A tall man with a fashionable undercut handed him a stack of sheet music. Dan heard a tinge of an accent he couldn't place. “They should be in order.” He prayed to God that they were.
He looked through them, most fairly easy to play dancehall songs from the past 30 years. First up was Reuben and Cynthia, followed by My Man and a few more love songs he knew. He saw Those Wedding Bells Shall Not Ring Out and Waiting at the Church finished out the night rather ironically next to a piano version of a wedding dance he was familiar with from the society nuptials he’d attended over the years.
The man with the brown undercut came down the side stairs to the piano below to stage. “We’re ready when you are. Just start playing and the players know what to do. Don’t get too distracted, you can do it.” He patted Dan on the shoulder warmly. “You can have as many drinks as you want after, free of charge. Have fun.” He left leaving Dan feeling a little better.
E flats rang as Dan hit the first note, and by the second measure, a fashionable youth in a pink slip with white stockings and a single shoe had taken center stage with a woman in a full suit.
Dan almost messed up on the B flats as he saw the man in the slip. It was none other than the man he had seen that night at the Aeolian Hall at the Gershwin premiere.
The man’s hair was down, in a style longer than anyone he had seen on a man– darker too. The harsh lights on the stage next to him seemed to make it into a spectacle of sapphire, shining blue when he moved into its presence. It hung right above his chin, and as he started to pretend to argue with the woman across from him, each hair toss and quiver set Dan with intrigue.
Play right, Howell.
His hands started with new energy as he snuck glances at the pair. The man in the slip started.
Reuben, Reuben, I've a notion
If the men were sent away,
Far beyond the stormy ocean,
Female hearts would all be gay!
The few women in the audience laughed; one even yelled a yes, ma’am! The song continued for an another stanza before another band of lyrics caused the crowd to cry in delight.
Reuben, Reuben, I've been thinking
Will you tell me where or when
Women will be forced to stop this-
Doing things just like the men?
At this the crowd hollered, raising glasses with nods and laughs. It was a tight affair, and Dan got the impression that there was a number of in-jokes he was missing out on. He continued regardless, trying to catch the eye of the man in the slip.
Cynthia, Cynthia, I've been thinking,
And can answer with dispatch,
She must cease her mannish methods
When she comes to strike a match.
The pair on stage continued to argue, the tiny heel of the white shoe on the man caused him to hobble whenever he walked. Dan snuck more glances in the direction of the singers. He noticed a pink sash was tied around the man’s head like a Sikh, and his eyes were coaled black like women did. What he assumed were fake earrings hung like pearl tears from his ears, and his lips were cherry red too. The rouge on his marble cheeks made the appearance of a blush so subtly Dan wondered if it was real.
When the song was over, they bowed while still in character, pretending the other was the vilest thing to walk the earth. Dan laughed as the man brushed his dark hair from the front of his face with a lazy hand in a dramatic fashion.
This was going to be a hell of a write up for the magazine.
As soon as the last note on the sheet was played, Dan wanted to run backstage. Who was the man in the pink slip? He got up uneasily from the long sit and leaned against the wood frame of the upright piano, waiting for the applause to settle down.
“Great work!” The man with the brown undercut was making his way through the crowded tables. “You’re fantastic.”
“Thank you.” Dan repositioned his hair nervously as he leaned up. He wanted to go backstage but found himself too scared to ask.
“You want that drink now?”
“That’d be great.” There was no point trying to get back now with the man’s hand on his shoulder leading him to the bar. They sat at an empty corner, and Dan tried to not take too many glances to the slow stream of actors coming out of the side door.
“I’m Alessio Tessaro.” He brought out a hand to shake Dan’s. “I’m stage design and music here at theThe Gypsy Peregrine. Would have played tonight myself but the Madam sure had other plans.” Alessio took out a hand painted cigarette case and lit one. He offered Dan one.
“I let the players do the show mostly,” he continued. “I just handle the art for them. By day I help a filmmaker make his sets, but I need the money so I do what I can.”
Dan blew out slowly. He didn’t know how to answer. Money wasn’t really an issue for him. “Excuse me for being impertinent,” he settled on, “but I can’t place your accent to save my life."
Alessio laughed. “Italian. You’ve got me. I’m a filthy immigrant.”
“It’s really quite faint,” Dan assured him.
“I moved here when I was 6, but living in the district for so long you never really lose the melody of it,” he explained. “It’s nice. The Village has a lot of us.”
“Do you paint?” He asked awkwardly, remember the how he’d gone on about the sets.
“Yeah,” he nodded quietly now. “I love it. Art is everything to me— it’s—” He seemed to be grasping at the edges of his consciousness to explain exactly what art meant to him. Alessio tipped his cigarette in the ashtray to avoid answering at last. “So what brings you here? I’ve never seen you around.”
Before he could reply, the barman leaned over and took their order.
“A whiskey’s fine, George.”
Dan asked hopefully if a Sazerac could be put in place, but ordered a whiskey instead when he found out there wasn’t any absinthe.
“So what brings you here?” Alessio repeated as he got his drink. The whiskey in the glass shimmied as he spun it lightly in the air. “If you’d come here once you know we don’t carry that fancy stuff,” he joked lightly.
“I’m a reporter.” Dan nodded and took a sip. “The boss told me about his place. Said it could make a good story.”
Alessio straightened up suddenly. He set his glass down firmly. “What kind of things are you going to be writing about— what’s your name again?”
Dan felt himself start to grow warm. “I can’t say, uh, Mr. Tessaro. But only good things, just good things. I loved your show, honest.”
“No name?” He chuckled a little coldly. “You’ll fit right in.” The man’s wooden jaw set tight. “I don’t want you saying anything bad about this place, you hear? I’ll be the the first to tell you I have a girl, but you don’t talk bad about these boys– or women. These people are talented young men and women and the people who come here are fine people.
Dan was keenly aware of the queerness he had encountered but looked around again at what he thought was a relatively normal audience. With each badly lit eye strain, the pieces started to fit that the women at the bar were in fact not women as he knew them, but what he would consider a man dressed as one. They had strong makeup on and heavy perfume, and the men at their arms shared in Dan’s opinion, a love for their hair. The few women he did see were attached to women in suits. His head spun.
“A lot of them live outside a different way but a lot them don’t,” Alessio continued. They only have places like this. We’re small compared to the rest and we don’t have protection, so you just watch what you say.” Alessio took a deep breath and looked around the club protectively. “We all deserve a chance,” he murmured at last.
Dan sat stuck to his chair. Alessio’s voice had cracked near the end.
“My name’s Daniel. Call me Dan.”
The actors came out slowly. Dan eyed the side door with a tight hand on his glass, holding his breath every time the door would open, and letting it out in disappointment when he saw the absence of a slip.
By 11:30, Alessio had gone back to clean up a bit. His eyes stopped shooting at the door at this time too and instead laid on the barrage of actors around him.
“And you see—,” a young black performer swished his hair from his face while remarking, “we all take a name when we get in here. I’m Colette.” A white-gloved hand hit faux rubies on their dress in pride. “I will be the Caribbean Goddess.”
“You’re from Harlem.”
“Do you all wear dresses all the time?” Dan asked with real interest, jotting down a few points on a spare napkin.
“Oh not out there sugar,” another performer next to Dan burst out. This one was the most effeminate of the group and had taken to clinging to Dan’s arm since they saw his Cartier watch rather uncomfortably. “We only dress in here, police can’t take us if we’re quiet.”
Dan’s smile faded. He didn’t know what he expected as an answer, but the reality of a policeman taking the happy actors simply for some fake earrings made him sad. He looked at the troupe around him. Four of them had brown eyes, One blue and another green. Two had nice noses and Dan found himself thinking (rather sickeningly sweetly) all of them had wonderful smiles. Their lips with their delicate color were like candy canes next to their teeth. Dan continued.
“Do I call you by she ?” Dan scrunched his face in confusion. This definitely wasn't something he was taught to use for polite society.
“Not out there,” one pointed to the door, and Dan joined in the laughter around the bar.
All of this was so new to him. Perhaps it was the whiskey doing things to him, but Dan had to sit for a moment in awe at the beautiful souls, letting the clink of glass and small rainbow reflections from the light wash over them all.
“Dan?” It was Alessio. He had startled Dan slightly as he tapped his shoulder, causing a bit of his drink to spill. “Oh, I’m sorry.”
“What is it?” Dan ignored the whiskey dribbling down his arm.
“An actor wanted me to send this along to you.” Alessio handed him a card with PML printed in blue ink to him. The shock momentarily took him out of his drunken fog.
Dan flipped it over. It was written in pencil and looked like it had been erased and redone a hundred times along the single off-white line.
Can you make the show next week?
Chapter 3: II
Dan lay back on the red settee in reception. It was dead quiet besides his breathing. He stared at the marble crowning of the ceiling and tried counting all the inlets for decoration, but gave up when he lost count for the fourth time, settling instead to sleep against the somewhat stiff cushions.
What would have been a relatively nice nap was ruined by a shake of the heavy door and a push that startled Dan awake.
“W-What are you doing here? It’s not even 7 in the morning yet.”
Dan looked groggily up to see the also appointed Harry, boxes to his eyebrows and a paper clamped between neck and poplar. “Oh—Harry I’m just waiting for the mail.”
“That comes in around 9.”
“I know I just wanted to make sure I got it when it came,” Dan responded, a little ashamed.
“And why’s that?”
Dan ran his hand through his ear length hair. “The article– oh my new column. It ran in the issue yesterday. I want to see how people responded.”
“Heh–,” was the only response he got, before the small man shuffled away to his office.
“Howell, I’m proud of you.” Mr. Ross patted him on the back as he read through some of the letters that had come in that morning again. Most were positive. Dan noted that they all the positive ones had in common were written by people who didn’t get to go out much– adolescent boys and (mostly) girls. The few bad ones were from readers who’d be dead in a decade Dan figured, writing in how sinful this “glorification of vice” came to “ruin today’s minds.” He wasn’t writing to them though. He shrugged it off.
“I knew you had something. Boy am I glad we have you.” Mr. Ross looked up from his desk at Dan. “Not a bad lead either? What are you going to do next month?”
Dan paled a little. “I don’t know, sir.”
“I’ll come up with something, promise.”
Mr. Ross nodded enthusiastically. “Of course you will. I believe in you, Howell.”
And with that, Dan ignored it. He wanted to go back to the club and he wasn't going to have anything get in the way. Dan fidgeted with his tie. He was going to have to find other leads and fast.
He wasn’t going to lie to himself. Dan was nervous. About his career here, the hotel, and how the mysterious PML had taken up his thoughts in more ways than he wished to admit. Dan didn’t know if it was the hair– longer than any guy he’d seen. He remembered it swaying on stage like it was a dancer of its own, just touching the inside of his earlobes. Maybe it was the way he dressed up on stage, how he sang and made everyone laugh. He wished he could do that for people. Perhaps it was the complete mystery of him, grabbing tighter and tighter onto the tenterhooks of insatiable curiosity. Yes, nothing more, just a curiosity...
But what sat with Dan the most made him scared. Whoever was on that stage that night was pretty. He wanted, well– don’t lie to yourself–
The green tie pulled tighter at his neck. God dammit. Pull it together.
Dan straightened one last time before he left the office. It was now or never.
When Dan arrived, a short man in glasses was getting talked to by Mr. Tessaro. The man stormed off, shoving into Dan on his way out.
“What was that about?” He approached the tall man in tweed.
“Our former pianist apparently.”
“I told him we had someone else for tonight, ornery fellow.”
“Did they not tell you? One of the players wanted you playing again– they said they really liked it.”
Dan stopped. Did someone want him... specifically ? “W-Who?”
It was Alessio’s turn to stutter. He seemed to trip on his words. “Oh-” He shook his head, “no matter. You’ll see later, it’s really nothing. Your playing was really well received by everyone though.”
Dan didn’t buy it but kept his mouth closed.
“Is that alright? Can you play tonight?” He looked pleadingly at Dan.
“Great!” Alessio pointed to the piano across the hall. “It’s all yours!”
Dan played with the usual grace afforded to musicians with private lessons all throughout their life. There was an oriental theme tonight, Dan more than glad to play Limehouse Blues for the kimono signing troupe. He found the piece a fun tune to play. There was one Japanese youth in it, going by Hisako, Dan figured out as the show progressed, quite similar to Colette in that they never changed their names. He wondered why most of the actors he had met had two names, but he didn’t question it. He figured it wasn’t his place to ask.
By the end of the two hours, Dan felt his fingers start to go fuzzy, and was almost glad when the players left. It had been a charming show. He couldn’t shake the feeling of nervousness now that PML was backstage somewhere, getting undressed–
Dan put down the water glass Alessio had given him on the piano top.
“Excuse me.” He pushed past a few tables and slinked to the corners of the club, walking along exposed brick until he arrived at the dressing room. The door was off-white and a little dirty, and Dan had to jump out of the way when Colette came out.
“What are you doing here?” She asked smiling, pulling up pink kid gloves.
“Interview.” It slid out of his mouth before he had a chance to think about it.
“Oh.” She smiled knowingly. “Have fun.”
Dan stopped. What was she on about? He quietly opened the door and let a few others pass into the main hall before stepping inside, making his way up a few stairs.
He watched from the second door up into the room lined with tables. It was dark besides a solitary exposed light hanging down, making everything a tepid orange. The little mirrors along the table shone it back, bouncing and making a hint of it hit Dan if he wasn’t positioned right. The black of the performers hair shone golden as he bobbed his head back and forth beneath the light and in front of his small mirror. Dan smiled to himself and started to feel something burn in his chest.
At last the final player walked down, leaving the young man alone at his seat.
Dan hung onto the doorframe. He watched silently as the young man got up and took off the kimono, shedding his undershirt to reveal paper-white skin. The young man looked at his little mirror curiously, touching the inlets of his hips in a roundabout motion.
Dan found himself letting in a small gasp.
“Who’s there?” The young man instinctively brought the shirt back up to him; a vain attempt to cover himself.
Dan mentally kicked himself. He held his breath as the figure turned around to look where the noise was coming from. “Immy, is that you?”
When there was no response, the young man brought his shirt back down to his table.
Dan couldn’t hide any longer. he took his chance. “Hello?”
“ Ah!” The young man brought his shirt back up to cover his chest. “ You’re not Immy!”
“ Immanuel !”
“ Immanuel the cat!”
“ Our cat!”
“But I don’t have a cat with you!”
“ No – the club’s!”
“Oh.” Dan felt his face start to redden. He had been an idiot.
“Why are you here?”
“I-I wanted to see you.”
There was a painful silence as the young man registered what Dan was saying. “Really?”
“You’re PML, aren’t you?” Dan responded defensively.
“Look– I’m sorry I scared you,” Dan said softly. “But you’ve just been this mystery to me for so long and then you gave me this card again– and–” He couldn't find the words. “I’m sorry,” he added again. “I’m just going to go–”
“No–.” The young man suddenly looked very exposed. “Stay.” He smiled minutely. “I am. I’m PML that is. I’m a little shy.”
Dan noticed his accent. It was still British.“Your accent isn’t made up for the stage?”
“Hah, no. ‘Just how I talk.”
Dan looked at the young man with his undershirt pulled to his chest. He was beginning to regret coming up here at all.
When Dan didn’t respond, he continued. “Do you want to sit? Here–” he pulled out a chair next to him. “All yours.”
Dan took it cautiously.
“You probably deserve some answers. My name’s Phillip Lester. M is for Michael. Call me Phil.” He smiled cautiously.
“I’m Daniel. Call me Dan.” Out of habit or nerves (perhaps both), Dan took out his notebook and pencil. “But you probably already know that.”
Phil looked down a little ashamed. “Yeah... Alessio told me when you came. He knows everyone. Sorry.”
“It’s alright.” He noticed they both let a small laugh. “So why aren’t you with the other performers? Last show I never saw you.”
Phil shook his head. “It’s... complicated.” He seemed to shrink a little.
Dan waited for him to continue. When all he got was silence, Dan continued. “Well– um I don’t know if you know this, but I work for the Claremont monthly.” Dan tried not to look at his face but found it hard not to stare. “May I interview you?”
Dan’s heart did a little leap at the easy answer. “Well, what’s your stage name.”
“Philomena,” Phil shrugged his shoulders. “Easy to remember.”
“How old –”
“Oh wait, is this getting published?”
“Yes.” Dan felt a little scared.
“Make sure you say Philomena. I don’t want my real name in it.” He sat stock still. “Sorry.”
Dan sighed with relief. “Of course. That’s how I’ve done everyone, I understand.” It was still sad to Dan. Pity was meaningless, but sympathy rose up like water flooding a canal again as he sat across from the performer. “So how old are you?”
“I’m 24.” 5 ? 4 year age difference? Dan was turning 20 next week. He tried to concentrate on his notepad while he was sure Phil was looking on him. He’d always been a bit self conscious, but this was an entirely new level.
“What about you?” Dan looked up to see Phil nervously tapping his finger against his knee.
“I’m 19. I’ll be 20 next week.”
“Oh, you’re young.”
Dan felt his chest start to beat faster. Young for what? He couldn’t possibly be in the same train of mind as Dan... could he? He felt himself grow a little hot.
Phil sensed the tension. “Oh– I just mean– you know – in general. I’m sorry,” he shook his head stronger now. “You’re just a reporter, I shouldn’t be like this–”
“Like what?” Dan dared himself to ask. In his split second look up, Dan caught his eyes in a stronghold.
Dan stilled. He waited for the performer to break the gaze, but it never came. One second, two seconds, three... four... six ?
“I’m from England,” Phil looked down suddenly. “Moved here after the war.”
Dan felt his shoulders come down a little. He looked down, a little crushed, back at his paper. “Did you serve?”
Something struck Dan as off. “Hold on, I’m sorry, but you said you're 24 now? You wouldn’t have been old enough.”
“I lied to get in.”
“Oh.” Again he waited for Phil to continue, but nothing. “So why did you move to America?”
Phil crept his arms around himself as if to hide. “I didn’t want to go home.”
Dan felt guilty for bringing all of this back up. He hadn’t dealt with many veterans except for the ones at the office, and even though the gossip told him none of them had seen much, it seemed to have changed them in one way or another. He’d never talked intimately with a real veteran, but Dan bit his tongue. He didn’t want to hurt the guy.
“Can you explain to me how you came to be working here?”
Phil laughed a little. “Well, I moved away to New York. Y’know because I didn’t really want to go home. I used to sing for my church and I sang for the boys in the war. So when I came here I needed a job, and sort of just fell into the place.”
“Is it steady?”
There was an uncomfortable pause. “Not really. I don’t get veterans pay because I’m not in England anymore. I sell cigarettes on the side to neighbors and stuff though.” He laughed. “Want one? I have some in my bag.”
Dan bit the inside of his lip and smiled. “How much?”
“2¢ each. 18¢ for a pack.”
“I’ll take a pack– here, have a quarter.” It wasn’t a bad price.
“Are you sure?”
“My father hates these things, he’s more of a cigar fellow– you know the type.” He dropped the quarter into Phil’s hand and took the pack.
“Doughy then?” Phil got his lighter out but Dan shook his head.
“Some would say.” Dan continued quickly. “Um...” He tripped a little on his words. “Can– I need to describe your singing. Can you sing a little something for me?” He watched Phil’s reaction.
He grew a little pink from Dan’s words. “Yeah, um, anything?”
“Anything.” Dan’s heart pounded.
Phil brought his index finger around his lips. “Okay. Do you know Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair?”
That was an old one. He remembered his mother singing it (rather badly) to him as a child. “I do, actually.”
“Okay,” the performer laughed a little from nerves. “Here it goes.”
Dan sat transfixed. He had heard Phil’s voice down at his piano, but next to him it was something else entirely. The man has a good tone, he wrote. He sings Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair for me. Though antiquated, the charms of the past have obviously not been lost to our young veteran.
Phil looked down at his notebook until Dan felt his eyes and looked up. How does he do that? Dan thought, at a loss.
The singing continued. In the golden timbre of the solitary light, Dan saw little specks of dust float from the tops of shelves and dance wildly around the both of them. He noticed with a new wave of nerves settling over him how Phil was slowly but surely easing the white undershirt from his chest, settling it on his lap and staring at Dan as he sang. There was a ruddy pink color Dan guessed was rouge on his cheeks, and the shadows of his cheekbones seem to bleed gray and blue onto the peach. It was the same with his lips. They moved and molded to the words, the deep shadow underneath seeming to highlight the pink of his lips into something Dan never wanted to look away from. His hair was still golden, and by the end of the song, the dust had settled in tiny specks like snow up top.
“You didn’t take many notes.”
Dan had completely forgotten. He stumbled on his words, clearly embarrassed. “Oh—I-”
“Hah,” Phil laughed. “It’s fine. Did you like it?”
“I-I loved it.”
They stared at each other again. It was understood; each were daring the other to look away first.
“Philomena!” There was a shout from the stairs. “Are you–” A blonde haired boy came in with a tray of food. “Oh–” He saw the pair next to each other, Phil shirtless and Dan with eyes so big he could have been mistaken for a doe.
“Laurie,” Phil began, but he was cut off.
“I’m sorry sir. I’ll–”
“Laurie,” he said again, this time with force. “Is that for me?”
“Yes,” the boy said meekly.
Phil stood up shirtless and walked over to the boy. “I’ll take it from you. Tell Alessio thank you. And Dan– I can call you Dan right?”
“Would you like to come next Friday? We could talk more then. Without so much interruption.”
Dan found himself holding his breath and his cheeks flushing with color. “Yes si—Oh.” Dan felt disappointment start to spill into his body. “No, um, actually it’s my birthday. I’ll be with family and then I’m going out.”
Dan thought he saw Phil’s face fall too, but he couldn’t be positive. “Can you make it the week after?”
“I’m afraid it’s a trip to Europe. I’ll be back in 3 weeks.” It was like his shoulders were filled with lead.
“Do you want to see me perform in 3 weeks then?”
“Yes.” He didn’t need it asked twice.
“Then I’ll see you in 3 weeks, Dan–?”
“Howell.” Dan filled in for him.
“I look forward to seeing to you then, Dan Howell.” Phil smiled softly, leaving with a nod.
Chapter 4: III
3 weeks in Europe was supposed to be a dream.
For Dan, it was becoming a nuisance.
On board the RMS Mauretania , he couldn’t think of anything except Phil. The orchestra playing for him now at dinner was a small comfort, unless he looked deeper at the pianist and thought of his own playing for the singer that seemed to consume his ever waking thoughts.
“Oh Daniel, why must you look so dreary?” His mother tried to fix in place a loose curl on his forehead. “You’re 20 now,” she said, as if it was supposed to make him happier.
“You’re a real man now,” his father boasted proudly. “Except maybe more next year when you turn 21.” He laughed and it almost made Dan come out of his own dream about Phil.
“I don’t think I’ll ever be the man you’ll want me to,” Dan said honestly, toying with the crystal glass in front of him.
“I don’t either.” His little brother had come out of his silence to glare at him.
“Oh Addy!” His mother put down her knife. “Not here,” she shot him a disparaging glance, though Dan thought he saw a hint of a smile on her lips. “You will be, I’m sure of it Daniel.”
“You’ll make me proud,” his father beamed, and it made Dan more uncomfortable than being tortured in an act of war. Still, the gray clung to his face, in his whiskers and visage, until Dan felt he was looking at an entirely other person than who he grew up with.
And so here he was, 20 years old, forced to endure another awkward dinner with his family. He didn’t think 21 days could end fast enough. It hung with him dangerously that this was probably the last birthday with all of them like this, all four around a table healthy. He tried to sip at his water, but it only tasted dirty next to his tongue. It was fading before his eyes and he didn’t know whether to cry in excitement or despair.
Much to Dan’s delight, he found time alone to himself more often than not. His parents seemed to escape him and his brother and go about on their own, and Dan wasn’t going to complain. In Paris there a million things to do, and to his surprise, he was able to think about something other than Phil for at least a few seconds.
He wanted to buy some books and sheet music off the street vendors, but his years of French in school had materialized to null. His pronunciation was so bad he could barely ask for some water, let alone ask a price for a Tchaikovsky piece. It was a little disappointing, but he shook it off, staying around the more metropolitan areas where he knew he could find an English speaker.
It was especially hard when he wanted to go to some clubs during the night, as even though he had leave from the magazine for the trip he used any excuse he could to go out for a party, even if he was alone in a corner most times. There was a certain voyeurism Dan found in how other, more confident people, ran about their lives, drinking and dancing against the jazz, and getting just involved enough to write a story about it was how he liked it. The time at the Gypsy Peregrine had been a one off chance of forced luck and complete fortune.
Still, the language barrier threw him, and he was surprised not many French knew English. It shouldn’t have confounded him as much it did, but there was a loneliness in the country and in the room, not knowing a scrap of what one was saying. Paris was beautiful, but trying to find understanding proved hopeless more than not.
On one such occasion, it even led to some adventure. It was his 5th and last day in the city, and whilst attending to a breakfast at a touristy enough café, he found an Englishman he had seen on board the ship with. He was clean shaven and still relatively young, probably mid-30s. Dan was surprised to see him in his War uniform.
“Good morning,” the man smiled as he approached the table Dan had taken at the Cafe de la Paix.
Dan didn’t really know how to respond. “Oh, hello there.” He would never not be awkward, he thought as he tried to fix his hair.
“Down to see the Chateau-Thierry cemetery and some old villages,” he said with formality. A woman Dan guessed was his wife and another soldier hung behind him. “It’s a beautiful day, isn’t it?”
“Well, my wife and our friend are just going to eat before we go, but we had an extra train ticket to go as one of our party still seems to be seasick.” The other veteran laughed as he sat down at a table near Dan. “I ran into you a few times onboard and luckily saw you here too, so if you want, the ticket is yours.”
Dan put down his glass.
“You can think about it while we eat,” he continued when Dan didn’t reply. “Co–”
“Oh, yes, that would be fine. Fantastic, actually.” Dan smiled as he took the ticket from the man’s hand. “I was a little tired, sorry,” he lied.
“No problem. See you after breakfast son.”
On the train to the cemetery, Dan was welcomed with an onslaught of memories from The War. All three of them held flowers, mixes of wildflowers and poppies, tied up in little brown paper holdings pressed tightly around their fingers like they’d fly away at any moment. They all seemed to hide something from him, smiling, but with trouble, recalling only the good that came from those years. The stories of games and fresh faces and hope almost fooled him into thinking it wasn’t a War at all, but one long drawn out amusement, bloodsoaked and grand and imminent. Dan wondered if they would even talk about the bad of it. It seemed liked going to a cemetery in the first place was the closest they’d come to that in a long time.
The cemetery was more lonely than he’d imagine. It wasn’t abandoned, far from it as some flowers and little American flags adorned the thousands of neatly put marble crosses until the edge of the sky blurred with it, but it was very cut out and too proper for Dan to feel what his guests did. The other travelers on the train came out in rich coats and poor excuses for traveling boots, taking pictures and looking on with the equal passiveness Dan fought to inhibit. There were other veterans there, and as the group descended down the lawn to the respective graves, and Dan was left to watch everyone scatter to their respective spots away from him.
Only one man seemed to be taken aback, and he stood alone on crutches, unable to go much further than the entry. He was missing the bottom half of his right leg. At the sound of his beginning to cry everyone else had left him. Only Dan resided next to the soldier now.
“Nice day, isn’t it?”
The soldier only wept. Dan didn’t know what to do. He swallowed uncomfortably, watching the other travelers scamper down the lawn like ants. The sun burned hot and made the hair on everyone’s head flicker, blinding white and back to their natural coloring in a matter of seconds. He waited for the soldier to stop crying, but it never came. Eventually, Dan left.
They saw the destroyed towns around the countryside and what was left of their buildings, and Dan was surprised that some still lived in it despite the carnage. Weird empty shells of lives stared at nothing, sitting on country estates untouched and smoking like the last decade hadn’t happened. More cemeteries lined what was left of the streets, and Dan didn’t have the heart to go in them. The legless soldier was nowhere to be found. Dan kept as he always had then, around the edges, only blowing his cigarette smoke in smelling distance of the others. He didn’t know why he’d come out here. Everyone was silent and looked perpetually down, and Dan thought it odd he could look up at think very little compared to them. It was an ugly existence to be in war, but he didn’t know much beyond that, and he admitted it. He doubted this was what the men back at the office saw. They’d laugh and smile about it like they’d always done, and pretend it was terrible when the time came to look tough. He had very little doubt in his mind the crying soldier didn’t have to pretend.
When Dan got home that night, he was glad to be away from the burned out buildings and empty homes. He snuggled in the train car’s bed and looked out the window. He’d be in Belgium by the morning, and then it was off to Luxembourg and Germany, and wherever else his parents had planned after. Laying in bed he saw only darkness outside, flittered occasionally by the moon and the bright light that illuminated the tops of the blurred oak trees. He thought of Phil again, and he imagined him in bed next to him, as outlandish it was from the lack of space and the simple reality that he was in fact, not a girl. It made him feel a little ugly, but then he thought of all the happy faces at the club who kissed whoever they wanted to, and it settled his heart a bit. Kissed? Who had even brought that up? Dan sunk a little inside, thinking of Phil’s lips on his, and how soft they probably were and how much his heart seemed to burn from it. It was a terrible existence to want to kiss a boy.
A part of him didn’t care, because the world he grew up in didn’t satisfy him in the least. Society balls and dances and dinners were a dreadful affair, and finding bedizened up young girls to pretend to like for the sake of her parents took the life out of him one too small hand at a time. Maybe the real world was better– especially in those parts of New York City he knew Phil knew so well.
But then he thought of all the other things he wanted to do, and it made him want to scream bloody murder. It scared him and it entranced him and it made his mind run a thousand miles faster than he could keep up. I like girls, he rationalized to himself. I like girls and that’s that– And perhaps he did, but it didn’t matter next to having Phil take up his mind like the first snow on a rosebush. He thought back on the last time he sang for him, shirtless and still in his stage makeup. He had wanted to have been touched by him, then and there in that room. He was taller than Dan, and he liked that, the loss of control inevitable if Dan had been touched for even a second. It would be like that even if Phil did wear skirts on stage, and got called Philomena and wore rouge on his cheeks. He wondered if that was why he liked Phil, because he looked a girl up on stage, but then he thought back to the first time he’d seen him, hovering by the stage in his tortoiseshell glasses glasses and suit, and it was still the same feeling he got in his chest now.
There was the problem of friendship too, and he knew that if he could just shut his damn mind about all of this they could get on for years without trouble. He wondered if it was even worth the trouble, getting his feelings all mismatched in the pursuit of a person he wasn’t even supposed to like. There was little doubt in his mind Phil wouldn’t be against it internally, at least Dan thought he liked boys. The whole affair was too queer to be normal, but he could see with his luck making a move only to be shown to the world for a quick dollar.
The Hotel. It made Dan sick to think about. He had never wanted anything less, second possibly only to the name Howell. Maybe it was only in his circles and rich New York, but people knew the Howell’s for a reason. They threw some of the largest parties from before The War and could outdo an Astor or a Vanderbilt on a good day if they had to. It wasn’t by design that his mother had been a flower girl for Consuelo Vanderbilt’s wedding– she was from an equally respected family before she had married his father. Anything that got to a press would be certain murder. He needed to run away to a different country and change his name and cut his hair short so no one would recognize him again. It made his head spin.
Quietly he also wondered how Phil had found him to begin with. The gardenia and cheap gold ring where still an enigma to him, the paper calling card and blue ink stained to a drunken memory. Dan believed him when he said Alessio had helped find him, but when he thought about meeting Alessio, there didn’t seem to be a hint of foreknowledge on him. It was odd, but Dan pushed it away for now. It didn’t matter how him and Phil had met, as long as they’d be together as long as Dan wanted– and this rate, he wanted it to be forever.
The railway thrummed beneath him. Distance was going to have to lessen for him to get a wink of sleep.
Before he knew it, the trip had finished. 3 weeks grew to be terribly long, but he had found it sped up if he thought of all the little ways Phil continued to exist in his mind from the few times he had seen him. He had half expected to see him at the dock when they landed, but he cursed himself for being so naïve considering he hadn’t even told Phil when or where he was going off.
It was a blessing then when Friday came and Dan could finally see him again and play for the show. He played with his regular grace (maybe even an extra hop to it, but he wouldn’t have been able to guess it), and Phil did his act to a grinning crowd and with extra bows. The show had consisted of a funny slandering of Lady Be Good , and Dan didn’t question how or where the costumes and full script had been obtained. Phil had played the role of Dick Trevor tonight, and it was funny seeing Phil in a suit again, albeit with the same sultry makeup the boy who played his sister was wearing. He wondered how many shows they’d do of it, but Alessio was talking about a good few weeks run if they didn’t get in trouble with the police. Big crowds and music that wasn’t theirs was bad news, he had said, but great money.
The actors seemed to enjoy just as much as Dan had playing and watching it. Phil went out into the house that night smiling ear to ear, and it made Dan jitter when he sat with him at the bar with some of the other players. He was at the edge of their little conversation, drinking solemnly and watching Dan from the corner of his eye, but there nonetheless. Dan could feel him, his blue eyes rushing in and out on him while he had conversations with the girls.
It made him a little self-conscious drinking the dirty brandy, all of the liquor was a little cheap but it did its job and Dan was feeling bold. “ Hang On to Me was fantastic,” he told the group, “I thought Philomena and Georgia were divine.”
“You really think so?” Dan felt his shoulders weighed down by a pair of hands. He looked behind him to see Phil looming above him. He could smell his perfume on him, thick of lilies and other flowers he couldn’t even begin to name. “I thought I was a little flat.”
Dan tried to think, but it was hard as Phil hovered above him, smiling. “I thought it was lovely.”
“‘If you'll hang on to me–’ ” Phil brought his arms around him. He could smell the hint of alcohol beneath the petals now, but it didn’t stop the secret “ sing with me ” he whispered in his ear from setting his blood rushing.
“‘While I hang on to you– ’” Dan joined in, swaying slightly as Phil rocked his shoulders. He looked up to Phil still smiling, and he felt his cheeks start to burn when he caught his eye. “‘ We'll dance into the sunshine– out of the rain !” At this, Dan felt his cheek be pressed against something warm. Before the first words of the next line could be sung he realized Phil had leant his face next to Dan’s until they were touching. “‘Forever and a day– ’”
By the end of that night and the early hours of the next, Dan had gotten so drunk with the performers he couldn’t even begin to remember much after that, but perhaps it was the nerves creating a selective memory. He’d would swear it was Phil who got him home for years to come, but it could have easily just been his imagination granting wishes he had barely thought of to begin with.
Chapter 5: IV
“Dan. Daniel.” Mr. Ross snapped his fingers at Dan’s limp body at the meeting table. “Daniel, you’re positively spent.”
“Right. You’re going to stand up like the great man you are and say hello to my daughter. Lillian– Lily come in.”
Dan watched as the office door opened to a young girl. She looked 15, maybe 14. Her hair was in white blonde ringlets and her cheeks struck Dan as akin to a newborn baby’s, the peach fuzz glowing in the bright New York sun from outside.
“My Lillian, let me present to you Mr. Daniel James Howell, of the Howell Estates and Hotel.” Mr. Ross put his hand softly on his daughter’s shoulder and led her over to Dan.
Dan waited awkwardly for the girl to curtsy and smile sweetly up at him. He should have been the one to be introduced to her, after all.
Lillian’s eyes were blue, and her voice shone with an equal turquoise playfulness. "It gives me great pleasure to form your acquaintance, Mr. Howell."
So Mr. Ross had taught his daughter Victorian introductions. And forgotten that ladies weren’t supposed to be introduced to gentlemen. He decided to play along. “How do you do?”
“Very well, thank you.”
“May I ask what brings you to New York?” Dan asked, bringing his hands slowly together awkwardly.
The girl looked down at his hands. Dan saw the tiniest muscles of her mouth twitch. “I’m attending Breney School nearby, sir. It’s my first year.”
“And you’re excited, aren’t you Lily?” Mr. Ross cajoled.
She looked at her father before quickly turning back to Dan. “Yes, I am.”
“Well, I hope you have fun and study hard.” Dan didn’t really know where to take the conversation anymore. When nothing happened, he gestured to the mint bowl at Mr. Ross’s desk. “Would you like one?”
“Oh yes– please.” She giggled before catching her father’s gaze and sobering.
This was going to be a long afternoon.
CAN YOU MAKE IT TO YONGS TEA TONIGHT AT 8 PM RESPOND QUICK
Dan reread the telegram. He was standing outside his door, chesterfield half off and a want of brandy so thick he thought he could already taste it.
The telegram boy’s run had changed it though.
Pulling his coat back on and rushing downstairs, Dan made his way to the street and to the post office to reply. He wrote a solid WILL BE THERE. THANKS. and handed it to the boy under the grate along with the 8¢, checking his watch to see if he should go over now to the tea place now.
Dan combed through his hair absentmindedly. He was going to have to call Reynolds.
“I didn’t think you’d show up.” Phil sat cross-legged behind the low table and seemed to hang over his porcelain tea cup. Dan noticed that he was wearing glasses this time, the tortoiseshell frames fogging up as he blew to cool the tea down. He wasn’t wearing any makeup either, which Dan found odd.
Dan let Phil pour a yellow looking tea into his cup before speaking. He found it equally odd that Phil didn’t look at him, instead choosing to brush his eyes everywhere around the room as if to look for an exit. It made Dan a little angry, but he continued anyways. “I didn’t really have a lot to do. Work gets off at seven. Magazine and all.”
“We all thought you were lying until Alessio brought along the magazine.” His eyes finally landed on Dan’s.
“What do you mean?” He was confused.
“Everyone thought you were just another shy slummer making up excuses.”
When Dan narrowed his eyes Phil clarified. “Slummers are the normal folk that go to our places to have fun– or whatever.” He could sense the taste of discomfort these slummers had on Phil. “They just come watch us or whatever because it makes them think they’re being adventurous and keyed-up or whatever they have time for.”
Dan stayed silent as he looked around the tearoom this time. Nothing was that out of the ordinary. Their table was a strong, low walnut square, and the two sat cross-legged across from the other in sultry, off green lighting. There was a flutist in a corner with another musician playing a bowed instrument Dan had never seen, playing some traditional Chinese tune for tips. He noticed the various posters around the shop, the walls cluttered with images of men in rooms or the hefty shelves lined with contrasting fragile porcelain cups.
The patrons were mixed. In the corner were a few (what Dan believed to be) Chinese men, gladly chatting away in their language. He noticed an abundance of nods and table tapping in that direction, and next to them was a lonely older man, swarthy and reading a paper under a stiff golden pince-nez.
On the other side, Dan couldn’t help but look upon a small group of four boys sat on each side of their table. One was golden haired and most likely his age; eyebrow plucked and lips redder than a cardinal. There was a brown haired one similarly, a black youth in pearls, and a slightly older, but nevertheless handsome man in a red tie, enjoying their company.
“Do you recognize anyone?” Phil asked.
Dan did. “The blonde boy. He’s from the club.”
Phil nodded. “That’s Marty or Martha. Depends. They tell me they really like performing up there.”
“Why wouldn’t they?”
Phil shrugged his shoulders.
“Well do you?” Dan leaned closer to him without noticing. He gripped the tea cup as he went back to looking on Phil’s face.
He noticed the tiniest of a tick, a little jump at Phil throat that only served to confuse him. Dan could see his jaw was tight, and in doing so it only strengthened the resolve of the vein underneath. He felt himself grow a little hot as he looked at Phil’s neck, the smallest of stubble coaling it.
“It’s a complicated thing for me. I hate to have to bring all that up.”
“No– please do. I want to know.” Dan didn’t notice that he had moved ever so closer.
Phil shrugged his shoulders again and brought them in a bit. Dan was beginning to notice that too, how big his shoulders were and how awkward he seemed to fit them. He was always a little hunched, like he was a young boy unsure of a strange, new body.
“When I moved here Dan, I needed a job. From what I’ve gathered ‘round you’re impossibly rich, excuse me for being brash, but... I don’t know if you can understand.”
“I had no money coming here except some small veteran pay that I wouldn’t get any more if I stayed here,” he continued. “You didn’t serve, did you?”
“No, I was too young.” Dan grew ashamed. He wanted to understand him like how he wanted to understand the burned out buildings and legless soldier.
Phil nodded and continued. “Well when I was little I sang for my town and then the boys in the war like I told you, and that was really all I could do, isn’t it? I did some, excuse me–”
“You don’t have to excuse yourself.” Dan interrupted. “I may be rich but I’m not callous like the rest. I promise.”
Phil looked at him warily. He didn’t know how to go on. “I did some things I wasn’t too grand about but I ended up at the club stage, and I’ve made a home there.” Parts of his words slurred as if he wanted them out of his mouth as soon as possible.
“How long have you been there?”
“6 years?” Dan had to put his cup down. “Wow, that’s a long time.”
Phil smiled sheepishly. “Yeah, since 1919. I was 18. Crazy, huh?” He continued, a little more confident. “The boys there are so nice. All of us are really close. I love them, but– well my only thing is–well I don’t really like to powder myself, surprisingly.” He set his cup down. “I don’t really like doing that stuff much. I can’t explain it, I just don’t think it’s me– that’s all.” He was back to his high shouldered defensive, taking his cup with him.
Dan helped him. “Would you enjoy it if you didn’t have to dress up like that?”
It was the first time Dan noticed and questioned the authenticity of Phil’s hair. In the low, green light, it almost appeared blue to him as he hung his head over his tea. The roots of his hair seemed a little brown to Dan too, but he didn’t question it. He supposed hair dying wasn’t that odd, really. If anything was odd, it was its ear length straightness Dan figured.
“I-I just don’t understand why I have to wear fake pearls or rouge to be taken seriously.”
Dan wanted to put a hand out to comfort him. He didn’t know how without it looking odd though. He stared down his tea like it was a well instead.
“That’s why I was so awkward when I met you, sorry,” he continued. “I thought if I was dressed up like that you’d think it was really... queer . And that’s not me– totally .”
Dan felt his heart fall. There was a thickness in the air again. He could taste it through the silky coating of green tea. “I think it could be kind of fun to dress up,” he said honestly.
“It is, at times.”
“And I thought it was really interesting, actually,” Dan chanced.
Phil looked up with what Dan thought was timid curiosity. “Really?”
“Really,” Dan said. Because it was.
He didn’t know why, but Phil smiled, probably in pride. “That’s mighty nice of you.”
They finished their tea and made their way outside. The air was a foggy warmth, the summer seeming to seep through Dan’s cotton shirt. He had taken off his coat and was now being held by Phil, much to Dan’s protests.
“Where should we go?”
“There’s Mulberry Park down a bit awa–”
“Are you crazy ?” Phil stopped head on.
“What?” Dan turned around.
“Mulberry Park? Do you want to get killed ?”
“It’s just a park right...?”
He grabbed onto Dan’s shoulder. “I knew you were rich but I didn’t think you were that out of touch. C’mon, I know where we can go.”
Down the crowded New York streets, Phil lead the way, holding Dan’s coat and stopping minutely ever so often when they heard a commotion going on one of the larger intersections. He seemed to search when he heard something, and Dan found it odd.
He ended up leading the two to Washington Square Park.
“I go here a lot. It’s close to my apartment,” Phil explained.
Dan had been a few times, but not enough to remember its layout. They leaned against the railing of a wide circular fountain, the moonlight making the surface look like it had silk sheets blowing in the wind. It was so blinding to Dan. All around them was grass, mostly hidden by the trees along the concrete paths spindly shadows, and Dan suddenly wished for his coat back. It wasn’t creepy , but he just felt exposed.
“It’s pretty” Dan decided, looking at the huge marble arch next to them. It was squared off at the top and styled almost exactly like the Arc de Triomphe.
“Yeah. When I first moved here I looked at it for ages. There’s some Latin on the side of the Washington statue. I wish I knew what it meant.”
Dan started moving towards it. “Over here?”
“Yeah.” Phil caught up with him. “Wait– Do you know Latin ?”
Dan was glad he was ahead of him and could smile without him seeing. An education like his didn't have any stops. “Maybe.” They stopped at the arch. “Is this it?” He pointed up to the head of Washington. There Dan could make out a book held with the words Exitus Acta Probat on it.
“ The outcome proves, ” Dan translated aloud.
“I don’t know,” he said crestfallen. “It must be something or another lost to time I guess.”
They made their way back to the fountain. Dan still had a question for Phil.
“I’m still a little confused.” He let the railing to the fountain dig into his stomach. “You said you didn’t like wearing powder and dressing up much.”
“But...” He chanced a glance to Phil and saw the moonlight gave his eyes the exact same silk texture the water in front of them had. “How does that work?”
“What do you mean?”
“The boys at the club seem to really like it... and they...” Dan felt his heart rate quicken a fraction under his thin cotton shirt. “Well, they like other boys. Right? That’s just who you are then.”
Phil went to open his mouth to speak, but nothing seemed to come out.
Dan was a little scared. He didn’t know what he wanted for an answer. “Do you like boys... like... like most men like girls?” The air couldn’t have gotten any hotter around them.
He finally found words. “I do.”
“Then why don’t you like dressing like a girl?”
Phil shook his head violently. “I don’t know– Dan I don’t know why. It’s just not me.”
He let it go, feeling the blood rush through his head a million miles a second. He sat on the railing away from the fountain, instead choosing to stare down at Phil. “I sort of ask because the whole thing is really interesting to me.” Dan was treading on glass and he knew it.
He didn’t really want to explain. “Oh– the clothes and the manners. They just get to be whole other people. It’s terribly romantic.” Dan felt his voice go low.
“A-Are you that taken to the community?”
Dan didn’t want to look on Phil anymore. He was afraid. Afraid of himself and afraid of what he’d think. He swung his legs over the railing.
“Dan– what are you doing?”
He threw his shoes over to Phil and hopped over a few steps until he was ankle deep in water. He folded up his pants and continued in until it surrounded his toes in droves, the coolness making him shiver in the blinding moonlight.
“What are you doing?” Phil called.
“Come in with me.” He had his back to him, but heard him take off his shoes and throw their coats next to them.
“It’s a little cold.” Phil appeared next to him, pants folded up and shivering too. Dan looked at him.
“I really am taken with the group.” Dan kicked the water. “Gosh– I’ll take the damn pearls for you.” He looked up to Phil hesitantly.
It was Phil’s turn to look on Dan. He saw a boy, barely 20, hair curled in the humidity and a face desperately wanting to be accepted. His heart... Phil didn’t know what his heart was set on. It was young and dumb and free and careless, and Phil smiled at his luck to have seen it that night at the Aeolian, still sticky haired and bright eyed, no matter what the circumstances.
That terrible, unnecessary circumstance.
Rhapsody in Blue. He wondered if the pair would ever experience a rhapsody in this reality; this ultimately relentless world. There wasn’t a war anymore. There was only Dan below him, with brown eyes the age of antiquities, and whatever broken mess he was now that wanted to stare at them for the rest of time. That’s what he wished for more than anything. To stay there forever. It reminded him of a poem his mother had loved.
Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on; ...
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare; ...
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe ...
Oh what a death.
They were soaking.
“I can’t believe I followed you in!” Phil climbed over the railing, laughing audibly. “I’m dripping!”
“You were asking for it,” Dan called back, a high, shrill laugh over Phil’s throatier one. “I wasn’t the one to splash first. You were asking for it!” He repeated, shoving Phil in his dripping shirt playfully and running away laughing even harder.
“Hey– wait up!”
Dan caught his breath, holding onto his shoes by the heels.
“We should go back to my place. It’s a bit of a walk but we could dry off,” Phil suggested. “C’mon.”
They made their way under the arch and eventually to Canal Street, walking along the storefronts until they turned on 6th. It would have been cold if Dan wasn’t so warmed at the prospect of going to Phil’s apartment. There were people still on the street despite the time and one even said hello to Phil. This place was its own little community. As they moved, Dan found another qualm for Phil that had been beginning to creep up on him.
“I wish I wasn’t so high up in society sometimes. I don’t think if I can have people know I spend my time here.” He mindlessly swiped at his curled hair.
“You’d be surprised. Higher men than you walk the streets. You’ll see them, I promise.”
“But are you sure?”
“I can’t lie to you.” Phil turned them down another street.
Dan waited for an answer. He looked at him pointedly.
“No. Alright, I can’t promise it. But I’m sure you’ll be fine. If anyone sees you, I mean why would they be there too?” Phil laughed a little. “Blackmails always a little fun.” He smiled sarcastically. “Oh, here we are.”
In the dim streetlight, Dan saw a modest blue apartment, split into a duplex with three windows to each side. The door was heavy and dark, flanked on both sides by columns of the same material. Above the door was a pretty stained glass rectangle, in the pattern of petunias surrounded by a thick of ivy. In the middle of the thicket were two nightingales. Dan thought it was very pretty.
Phil unlocked the first door with a push and was met with a little room with two doors opposite. He opened the door to the right, putting his coat on its hanger as he moved in.
The room was small. Dan saw a wicker couch with a small green pillow back against the wall, and ferns hanging down and stuffed in so many corners they seemed to spill over every surface. On the table in front of the couch was a vase with lilacs. Dan went over and smelled them.
“You have a lot of plants.”
“Yeah.” Phil put up Dan’s coat as well. “I don't like when things smell bad. Even more upstairs.”
Dan wondered if that was why he wore such strong perfumes. He didn't realize he had started shivering.
“Here, how about this?” Phil smiled. “There’s towels up there. Come up with me.” He turned on a light next to the couch to see his way up the stairs.
“It’s a still a little messy I think. I have a lot of my costume stuff out still from last Friday’s show.” Phil turned on another light, this time on his nightstand. “Sorry.”
It was another small space. The walls were a pale yellow, and the entirety was almost taken up by the bed in the corner. In front of the bed was a wooden chest, and at a window to his left a tall, delicate vanity. Three windows looked across to the apartments on the other side and each held boxes with even more flowers, to Dan they looked like geraniums. He thought it must be lovely during the day to get ready with the blooms in front of you.
“The washroom ‘s just here.” Phil gestured to a small room right of the stairs. The cabinets were outside Dan noted, the room apparently filled with only a bath and a toilet it was so tiny. There was a washstand outside the door that Dan saw was filled with brushes and hair treatments.
“Do you want to take off your shirt?” he continued. “You look freezing.”
Dan noticed the quiver in his voice as he finished the words. He stood there, unable to think. He was going to take his undershirt off in front of him. He’d felt himself suddenly grow very warm.
“I-Is that alright?” Phil turned meekly to him, towel in hand.
Dan let out a breath. “Oh– yeah-yeah. I’m sorry.” The few pieces of hair not stuck to his forehead waved wildly as he shook his head. “I’m an idiot you’ll learn.”
He threw the still slightly dripping shirt over his head and handed it over.
“Here.” He tried his best to keep his voice steady. Instinctively he brought his arm over his stomach in an attempt to hide himself, gladly taking the towel and wrapping it around his body.
“I’m going to put it in the bath.” Phil turned to the small room opposite and dropped it in. Dan watched with bated breath as Phil took his off, the color of his skin and shirt so similar he wondered if he could have been this tittered if he hadn’t taken it off. Water droplets rolled off his chest and arms, and Dan bit his lip. He had to keep his thoughts in check, and fast.
“Maybe the fountain wasn’t the best idea.”
“Told you I’m an idiot.”
“Oh, bunk.” Phil got himself a towel and sat across from Dan on his bed. “The way you talk you’d be speaking with the Queen if we got you back home.” It was funny how he talked, Dan thought, a little jarring with his accent and the ease he used all this American slang. He continued to dry his hair, and Dan again looked like the stupid kid he was.
Phil gestured around the room. "It’s probably a lot smaller than you’re used too. And pretty messy. I haven’t cleaned up from the last show. Sorry.” He brought the towel down and placed it on his shoulders like Dan, looking off so he had a clear view of his exposed neck.
“Oh– it’s fine. I think it’s cute.” Don’t look.
Phil turned back to him. “Say– Everything’s a royal mess right now and I really do need to clean up. You still want to try some of this on?”
Dan felt his heart beat faster against his chest.
“Yeah, I would actually.” He couldn’t believe his ears.
Phil smiled brightly. “Great! Okay, so what’s your favorite color?”
“Oh, that’s so drab!”
“Is not.” Dan bit back, laughing. “It’s classy . I feel it in my soul. ”
“What, are you mourning right now?” Phil got up from the bed still shirtless and rustled through the trunk at the end of his bed.
“Mourning my time with you if you don’t shut up and show me a dress I like.” He padded his way to the end of the bed to look over at Phil and the chest.
“Okay, it’s no dress, but it’s one of the robes we wore at our last stage show. Hisako said it was too big for her.” Phil pulled out a simple black silk robe and held it up. “She put it on for us though. I don’t know how to wear it. It was so complicated. Here,” he waited for Dan to stand up. “Let me put it on you.”
Dan stood next to the vanity and held his arms out. The silk was smooth against his damp skin and he turned to the mirror to look at himself. “I don’t look too shabby if I say so myself.”
“Here, sit down.”
Dan sat at the vanity’s embroidered stool. He stared at himself in the mirror. Phil turned on a light next to him and it lit Dan’s face with an orange shadow.
“Your hair is so curly.” Phil leaned over Dan from behind and played with a curl on Dan’s forehead. “You want me to straighten it for you?”
Dan looked up, surprised. “How can you do that?”
“I may or may not own a hot comb.”
“Are you actually joking right now?” He waited for Phil to grin toothily. “And you say you don’t like feminine things...”
“I don’t!” Phil laughed as he made his way to the bathroom. “I just like straightening my hair, that’s all. It gets a little puffy without it.”
Dan continued to study himself in the mirror as Phil trampled out with the comb and made his way downstairs. “I have to heat it up. It’ll only take a minute or two. Try getting your hair as dry as you can.”
In the few minutes alone at the vanity, Dan got to thinking. He looked at the little drawers on the sides and played with their handles, then readjusted the boxes of powders and pastes on top. There was a Maybelline box, and a lot of Max Factor tubes and Rigaud. The vanity was dated too. Dan thought it must have been from the 80s, the wood intricate with designs and the handles a gaudy gold with swirls. It would have made a Victorian woman very happy all those years ago. He finished drying his hair the best he could and studied the mess on his head in the mirror.
“Okay, I have it. It’s hot– be careful.” Dan watched as Phil held the comb with a dish towel.
Dan was a little scared. “Will it burn?”
“Not if you don’t move.” He handed Dan the straightener to hold as he ran a brush through Dan’s tangled hair. “Your hair is actually pretty dry– which is good.” Phil took the comb back and leveled Dan in the mirror. “Okay. Be still.” He parted Dan’s hair in the middle and took it in sections, running the burning teeth through his curly, dark hair.
“Why do I smell my hair burning?”
“Shh. I do this every day.”
“ Every day?”
“If you move I’ll burn you.”
Dan sat quietly after that. He saw as bit by bit his hair straightened, evened out and much longer than he anticipated against his face. It was starting to make him sweat, the heat palpable and permeable. Phil’s fingers grazed against Dan’s scalp, forcing him to suppress a squirm with every fiddle. He was being dumb. Maybe burning himself once just for a–
Dan sat up. “Oh wow.” He was surprised with how good he looked.
“I can style it for you. Want waves?”
Dan couldn’t stop looking at himself. “I think I like it straight.”
“You know what?” Phil put the comb on the washstand outside the bathroom. “I want to try some of this stuff on you. Hand me the red Rigaud box there.” Dan did, waiting as Phil opened it up to a flume of pale powder. “Tell me how you like this. Close your eyes.” With his eye’s closed, Dan felt a soft material brush against his face. He tried his best to be calm, but he doubted it was successful.
Keep it together.
Every hair on Dan’s newly straight hair seemed to stick up from nerves.
“Okay don’t look yet. Promise me you won't look at the mirror until I tell you to, alright?’
Dan bit his lip. “Promise.”
Not a second after the word left his mouth, he felt a warm body press against his back.
“Sorry, have to get some other stuff.” Dan drew his legs together. The hot comb wasn’t the only thing making him sweat now.
“I have to clean your eyebrows– is that alright?”
Within a few minutes and a bit of cursing Dan felt his eyebrows thinned slightly, and then a cold cream being smeared across his face.
“This is cold cream. Makes things stick I’ve found.” Dan bit back the urge to laugh at the remarkably unimaginative naming.
A brush was applied to his eyelids next, slightly warmer and a little ticklish. “Oops.” Before Dan could think of a retort, Phil was blowing cold air his direction.
Dan scrunched up his face by reflex.
“Sorry! I messed up a little. Ok for the last part I’m going to turn you around.” With his eyes still closed he felt his body being turned by Phil’s hands so as to look the other way. The grip on his hands made Dan woozy.
“Now open up and look at the ceiling.” He opened to see Phil holding a little box with a brush and some color in a smaller box within. With steady fingers he brushed the the little comb against the box of color and raised Dan head a bit more from his chin. It sent shivers down his neck.
“Now don’t move.” He took the brush and scraped it along Dan’s eyelashes, doing each side before doing the bottom lashes as well.
“Okay close them again.” Dan felt a waxy coldness paint against his lips this time.
He heard the boxes get replaced on the vanity. “I’m going to spin you around again.” The familiar hands of Phil led him in the direction of the mirror once again, a feeling he was very keen to.
“I think that’s it. Open.”
He opened his eyes. Dan was speechless. His eyes were darker, kohled like the film stars but with pink lips instead. His lashes were darker too, this time longer and seeming to touch his eyebrows– yes– his eyebrows looked similar, still strong, just cleaned up a little.
“I tried something subtle. I think the eyeshadow works. It’s dark, but you have the skin for it.” He waited for Dan’s response.
He could only shake his head. “I look... amazing.”
“Excuse me for saying it, but you look dead sexy.” Phil smiled and leaned down on him again, this time resting his elbows on his shoulders.
“What’s that?” Dan had to get his thoughts somewhere else with Phil on him like this. He had noticed a golden metal circle hidden behind a brush– the same Rigaud name from the box earlier.
“Oh, I can’t believe I forgot– here let me put it on you.” Phil took the brass compact and got a brush from the table, rubbing it into pink powder. “This is rouge.”
“The name precedes itself,” Dan chuckled, trying to keep calm. “And how do you put that on?”
“I take it in circles.” He appeared next to Dan and started applying the brush to his cheek. “I make sure it’s even– make sure it’s calm .”
Dan felt himself grow cold. He tried to blink but his eyes only stayed glued shut. He could feel Phil’s breath next to him, hot and sticky.
Phil handed him the brass oval.“Do you want it?”
“Are you serious?” Dan took it. It was still warm from Phil's hands.
“I don’t need it. I’m not going to wear it in public anymore.”
“It suits you.” He took a thick piece of carmine fabric from the trunk he assumed was some kind of belt and tied it around Dan’s middle, tying it badly behind him. “I think you’re something...” Phil trailed off.
Dan looked to Phil in the orange lamplight.
He shook his head. “Something– Something beautiful.”
It was almost totally black. The only light was the moon coming through the open windows.
Phil lay next to him. He had fallen asleep almost as soon as he turned off the light.
Dan found himself studying his breathing. His lips were parted and drawing in breath... was it every two and a half seconds? Three? His eyelids quivered from it. He wondered if he was dreaming yet. He studied his face. The black of his hair still wet and messy against his forehead. He saw in the moonlight his skin was even whiter– if it was even possible.
What Dan liked the best about him was his warmth though. His parted lips breathed out hot air and his body radiated heat the more he lay next to him. Dan moved his body as close as he could without Phil being able to notice, the sheets moving beneath his legs.
It was peaceful.
When Dan couldn’t sleep, he stretched out his hand and lightly touched Phil’s cheek. He was so... beautiful .
At the touch, Phil stirred. Dan lay, horrified at his impulse.
“Hmmhm,” Phil mewed in a groggy state of half sleep. He brought his hand up from beneath the sheets and took Dan’s hand above his cheek, pressing it to his chest like a doll.
“P-Phil,” Dan chanced.
He didn’t respond. So he was asleep , Dan thought. He started to calm.
My hand’s in your hands. You took my hand. You are literally sleeping with it next to your heart. Dan’s mind raced a million miles a second and he was surprised Phil wasn’t waking up from the thum thum going through his blood now.
The summer heat was nothing to what he knew to felt in his heart now.
He hated it. He also loved every breath of it.
Chapter 6: V
Warnings: (skip if you don't want spoilers/don't need etc.)
-The first half of this chapter is set around the Harlem weed culture that was present in jazz and entertainer circles in the 1920s. It'd be pretty ridiculous if they hadn't come across that tbh, and it was a lot of fun to write :") If drugs ain't ya deal, skip to the line "Dan didn’t know whether to be happy or be haunted..."
-There's some reference to past prostitution and abuse near the end. Be careful.
-There's also some calling out by other gays for being a gay that uses some modern day pejoratives. I think the word fag is used like 4 times this chapter, twice in a humorous way and the other two in a more disparaging way. Also some talks of internal queer culture that can get kinda heteronormative and sad.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The next couple of days had consumed Dan. Every chance he could he thought about that Saturday night; the tea, playing in Washington Square fountain, the black kimono, and the Luxor rouge…
Those few days turned into weeks, and gradually the two came to know one another until the dependable snows of December rolled around. It had been a slow but steady friendship that started to consume Dan, and at times he could almost trick himself into believing that he didn’t want to get with him at all.
It was easy when Phil stopped wearing all the costumes and makeup, and even though it made Dan sad, he knew he couldn’t make Phil into someone he wasn’t.
But it stored up and consumed him one day at a time. One could only push those feelings away for so long, and there could only be so many drunken touches and teases until it made a man mad.
And this madness pushed Dan into the strangest places he could imagine.
The place wasn’t much different than the club, except that it was bigger and better lit, and served food instead of just a cheap gin. Really, the front was stone and decorated, and it was in such broad daylight Dan didn’t even think places like this existed. It was sunset, and the same blonde boy from the tea shop previously was on stage, and Dan was caught at how convincingly they could play a woman.
“Welcome to Paul and Joe’s ,” Phil smiled, lighting a cigarette as they finished eating. “How about that for your column?”
Dan almost spluttered. Of course, this was for his magazine. “Oh– It’ll be a riot,” he settled on. “Have you performed here before?” he chanced.
“Too many times,” he ashed his cigarette on the crystal blue tray between them. “It’s a strong place for us. I owe my life to Alessio though, so I stay with him. But shows are dough,” he added sagely.
As the acts disappeared off stage, Dan saw none than Colette and Hisako coming up towards their table. Phil wasn’t wrong when he said this was a strong place. Nobody seemed to bat an eyelash at their dress.
“Heyo Phila– Oh, hi there Dan!” Colette hugged them both and took a seat next to Phil, Hisako next to Dan. “I hope I’m not early, I was just too excited to get out I suppose.”
“Early?” Dan was confused. “For what?”
“Did Philomena not tell you? Oh, she don’t tell no one anything, ” Colette brought a compact up from her purse and started dabbing in motherly on Phil. “You look so pale I think I see God herself in these veins. You sure you ain’t been snowy?”
Phil signed in half annoyance and in half amusement. “No Colette, I don’t mess with that anymore.”
“Shame.” The words made Phil laugh despite. “But looking at you, that’s probably good,” she continued.
“Snowy?” Dan couldn’t keep up with their wording sometimes. It was like a different language.
“Snow,” Colette tried to explain.
“Cocaine,” Hisako answered for him when there was no register. “These music-types know no bounds.”
“Hey there,” Colette fixed Phil’s hair and pointed a finger at Hisako. “Go look in a mirror.”
Hisako rolled her eyes, and before they could contain the scene to sobriety, all of them were laughing. It was a soft moment, only tempered by the cold air rushing in and out as patrons opened the front door. At last, Colette got up.
Dan still hadn’t gotten a straight answer. “May I ask what this is about?”
Phil feigned ignorance, but badly. His hands shot out in an beats me sort of way, and finally at acquiescence. He was more lively and less serious among their friends, Dan noticed.
“I’m playing at a teapad up in Harlem, but it looks like someone either didn’t invite you, or wanted to keep that little fact a secret,” Colette busied out.
Dan looked up to Phil, who was chewing his lip. He turned to Colette. “You think he’d like it?”
“I ain’t ever met a person that didn’t,” she countered.
“Okay, well–” He could see Phil struggle for words. He wanted to be annoyed at being left out, but he kept his mouth shut. “Come on.”
They got a cab outside on the corner of 6th Avenue and 9th, and packed together in the back. Dan tried to do his best to not have his body touch Phils, but it was useless. Between the cold open window and Phil’s warm cheek was where he stayed.
“So Dan,” Phil moved quickly to look at him the best he could. It was like being next to him was just as uncomfortable to Dan as it was for him. “What are your thoughts on… um… tea? ”
Dan brought his shoulders down the best he could. “What are you playing at?” he was half annoyed.
“Weed,” Colette said simply.
“ Cannabis ,” Hisako explained from the other end of the seat. “You’re guys are terrible to him. You think he knows your words?”
“Oh.” Dan had seen it in little green bottles at cheap pharmacies, powdered and tinctured. He didn’t think much of it. “I had a nurse give it to me on a spoon once when I had a cough,” he remembered. “I think my mother fired her after that.”
Phil laughed, like the pent up energy in him finally let loose. Their other friends joined in, and Dan had to too before he asked what the fuss was about.
“Do you remember what it made you feel like?” Phil chanced, his smile still young on his lips.
“No,” Dan said truthfully, “I went to bed.”
“Well,” Phil continued to look on him, a tiny bit of concern replacing the smile. “I didn’t know if I was going to bring you so I sort of just forgot about it. You don’t have to go, but Colette–”
“Don’t drag me into it–”
“It’s fine,” Dan interrupted them both, using the little extra room to get closer to Phil. “It’ll be a hell of a write up for the column,” he smiled to try to get Phil to relax. He didn’t think it worked.
“It’s really not that wild,” he said truthfully. “You just take it like a fa-cigarette.”
“A fag? ” Colette caught. “Oh Freud is really loving your pretty little mouth right about now.”
“Shut it,” Phil countered, but laughing regardless.
“ You just take it, ” she mimicked, mocking Phil’s accent. “ Like a fag ,” she pretended to swallow the cigarette suggestively, and Dan watched, trying to hide his amusement behind his nicely straightened hair.
It was a little like a dream, as the cab made its way down Lenox Avenue, and even though the air was cold and biting, Dan could feel Phil begin to press against him again. He could hear music already in the dusk, the same brassy tings and whines, and hordes of people out in the streets, enjoying the time and the people and the lights.
“131st and 6th,” the driver called as he neared a darker corner. “This it?”
“Yes sir, thank you,” Phil paid the driver and they labored out, the sun rapidly descending on the steel high towers and glass windows.
“Oh there’s Connie’s Inn a block away and The Savoy. God remembers the rest,” Colette took Dan by the arm and led him to the alley behind an abandoned oriental rug shop. “We’ll have to take you there and see what your pen can get,” she knocked on a metal door with a bright strip of light illuminating their shoes and an odd smell permeating, “But this place sure is something.”
A man peeked through.
“It’s Colette. I have some friends.”
“Yeah, and I planned on taking a room after if that was alright.”
And like that, Dan was lost.
Colette could sing. There she was, amongst the band, swinging her hips and spilling another religion into the crowd. It was slow and drawn out, and the smoke from people’s mouths spilled out in equal measure– like both depended on the other for survival. There was probably 40 people in the place, and they sat crossed legged and sprawled like it was an opium den. Dan thought back to his drink with Alice at the absinthe club, and how as much as that felt bohemian, this was something else. There was a bar at the back manned with jars of the stuff, and rolled into clean sticks, two for a quarter.
But it was a queer place first and foremost. Most of the patron were colored, but he couldn’t find one strikingly normal person either. It made Dan feel really warm, like he belonged, and it was embarrassing, but he liked that feeling. There were women here too, with other women, and Dan thought it was really quite lovely. Across from them a couple smoked and hung on one another, their bodies lazy and listening to Colette sing, both wearing makeup but with the solitary exception of one in trousers. They threw their heads back and laughed and kissed like there wasn’t a care in the world.
“We call those lesbians now ,” Phil whispered in his ear. The act had startled him, and he looked over at Phil, still wide-eyed. “Ladies who like ladies. It comes from a Greek poet Sappho," he continued. "She was from an island called Lesbos. Thus, their name.”
“That’s really pretty,” Dan admitted. “What were they called before?” he asked.
“They didn't really have a name,” Phil realized. “It seems like we're just trying to figure out names for everything. I don't think there's a name for who Colette and Hisako are or who I am,” Phil admitted quietly. “We're all shades of different, aren't we?”
Dan nodded, feeling something sad pass between them. He watched them for a bit longer, and before he knew it, the thick smell of the place started to cloud his mind. “Do we have some of these at home?” Dan asked nervously about the tea pad. Home. He hadn’t meant it like that.
“In The Village?” Phil corrected, and it made Dan internally cringe. “Yeah, but I think they’re sort of crummy,” he continued quickly. “I don’t smoke these much unless I’m with friends, and then we just do it wherever. The club players do it sometimes after shows though.”
“This is normal?”
“For musicians and players,” Phil shrugged his shoulders. “Makes things a bit softer in the tenterhooks of life and all I suppose.”
Colette had wanted them to wait for her to stop singing until they lit up, and they passed the time watching her go along with the jazz and the performers, steady and sure. There was a different flavor to the music, and they used more words Dan couldn’t even begin to imagine what they meant, but it made the patrons laugh, and so Dan couldn’t help but join. Before long Colette finished, and throwing her lighter in Phil’s hands, she sat down across from them, cross-legged and sweating.
“You better buy a damn muggle or two so we don’t get the boss angry, but I brought my own stuff. Ask for some leaves.”
“I have some paper,” Hisako took out a Rizla packet and set it on the table. “Don’t worry about it.”
“ Rizla ? Damn Hisako, you take me back to France nightly. Where’d you get these”
“Nightly?” Colette caught him on his wording again. “Hisako, baby darling come here, don’t let this dirty man touch you,” she joked, and Hisako collapsed in her arms, laughing. Phil was a lady to her, and then he was a man when the joke permitted, and it didn’t make sense to Dan, but he hoped one day it would.
Phil rolled his eyes and got the bare minimum so they didn’t look stingy. When he came back, Colette had taken out a plain metal snuff box and was waiting to show it off to them.
“Northern Africa. Africa. I am in this tea you three.”
“Where you’d get this?” Phil brought the box up to his nose. “It smells rich.”
“You betcha.” She stayed silent as the rest of them waited for her to elaborate. “It came through dubious means,” she finished exasperated.
“Here,” Phil took the Rizla paper and began rolling the sticks. He was good at it, from his recent stint of cigarette selling, and it was mesmerizing watching him do it so precisely and tactfully. His thin white fingers edged along the black of the wood, and before Dan knew it, he was getting handed one just for him.
“It’s just like a cigarette, but I recommend keeping it in your lungs a little longer. You’ll get used to it, smells as odd as the rest of the place– here.” Phil lit his own and took a drag. He released the white smoke above him, the act only seeming to accentuate his neck, the hint of stubble palpable and the occasional accent of a blue ribboned vein catching Dan’s nervous eye. “Take one from mine first,” he moved closer to Dan and brought it to his mouth.
He didn’t want to be this jittery, and he wouldn’t have been, but Phil’s body was closer to him than allowed his mind to be anywhere near calm. The bottom of his lower lip dragged dangerously across Phil’s thumb as he positioned the stick to his lips.
“Oh–” Dan couldn’t help but cough the stuff out. Phil’s damn fingers had to get in the way.
“Here, breathe this in. Don’t worry.” Phil took another pull and inched closer to Dan. Without any warning, he took his fingers to Dan’s chin and made him open his lips, blowing a steady stream of the smoke into Dan’s mouth.
Trails of it cascaded around their eyes, and it momentarily blinded him to the shock that was Phil’s fingers and Phil’s lips so close to his own. Dan felt his face grow hot. He didn’t choke this time, and he secretly thanked God the place still had gas light, with the red flames hiding the immaculate blush left on his cheeks. The smoke was more caustic than cigarettes, and it made his eyes water. There was nothing calming about the vapors yet either; it smelled strong, a piquant aversion in his nose to it all in the beginning.
“How was that?” Phil looked on him, the same gas light obscuring any trace of heat on his face too.
Dan felt the overwhelming urge to kiss him. It made his stomach burn, and he bit his lip and smiled to make the feeling go away. “That was lovely,” he settled on, trying to convey everything he wanted between his lips.
“You think you can do it yourself now?”
Dan wanted to say no, but he nodded, taking the one left for him and letting Phil light it for him. He set his gaze on the musicians for as long as his mind let him, but his eyes trailed dangerously over to Phil’s way more than was normal.
After a short bit, Dan felt himself start to lose himself. It was gradual, the music rolling into his head softer and softer until only the trumpet clinging against his head. The singer was sharp too, her voice higher than Colette's, but only the voice. The rest grew into a wave that made Dan want to sleep.
“Pass another one.”
And so they were at it, to the point Dan had forgotten how many times he’d taken it. Maybe it wasn’t smart, but it sure felt good.
Dan wanted to dance. Life was too damn short.
Colette beat him to the game.
“I love this song,” she was on another stick, and she handed it to Hisako, the reefer’s orange flaming end illuminating the softness of her face. “Now Daddy, ain't we got fun,” she began singing along, dancing with herself at first. Hisako took a hit and passed it to Phil, who didn’t even have the time to bring it to his lips before Colette was bringing him up to dance with her as well. “I need me a man,” she laughed, bringing him into her arms. “Will be that tonight? You in trousers in all–” she laughed. “ My man rocks me with one steady roll,” she crooned, “ain’t that what I need?” Phil smiled, and something in Dan’s chest fell.
Dan liked his head foggy. It was muted, and he watched in a trance as Colette danced alone, her shawls and beads orange in the gaslight. She went around and around, Everything was perfect . Dan watched with heavy eyes as Hisako took the stick back and dragged angrily. Dan didn’t quite get it, but it didn’t take long until he did too.
“ There's no slippin' when he once takes hold,” He saw Phil smile again, snaking Colette in front of him to dance behind her. “— the clock struck three I said ‘Now Daddy, you a-killin' me!’” There was a slow black bottom step to it, Dan thought, as Phil took her hands in his until he was reaching her hips. It stayed there and he swung, keeping his body away from hers, but just. Dan knew exactly what Hisako was on about now. He felt the inside of himself burn.
Colette had her eyes closed. Their feet moved in tandem with the trumpets. He almost didn’t want to know what was on Phil’s face.
Every odd and consuming thought he’d had on the train in Europe seemed to come back and burn. Phil’s shoulders moved along with the music, the broad, awkward lines hovering over Dan in his infinite imagination all over again. The sway at which he directed Colette was heavy, and he wanted nothing more than in that moment to be where she so rhythmically continued the bluesy syncopation, like a bird caught between the power lines before safety came.
“I think I want to leave,” Dan said out loud, but to no one in particular. It hurt too much to see the fingers that grazed the delicate makeup on him twisted and rough against her waist. He got up and took two steps before Hisako grabbed him by the arm.
“What are you doing?”
Dan couldn’t think of a good enough answer, so he stayed silent.
Hisako got up and took him next to their friends, falling into similar steps, albeit with the space between themselves farther. She was small, barely over 5 feet, and her hair metallically black in the light. “That was probably for the best, thanks,” he told her quietly.
“I can’t stand seeing her dance with men either.” She brought the space between them closer and closer to the back of her black silk robe until it touched his chest. Bringing his hand to her waist, she jolted. “Play along,” she whispered in his ear.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean I don’t think either of us are dancing with who we want to be.”
Dan was glad the effect of the smoke had got to him, or he’d be a lot more freaked out than he was now. He didn’t really understand how Phil was a man and they weren’t, but he gladly leaned against her, dancing in time with the music. He was a foot taller than her, and he found he could rest his head on hers and block out whatever was going on next to him. I want to dance with him, Dan thought hollowly. I want to be pressed against him in the heat and in the snow and the stars—
Hisako brushed against him. smiling and taking Dan’s curling hair in her hands behind her until their necks touched. She smelled like the inside of a church in the fog, Dan thought. It was almost holy than when she pressed him closer to her neck, letting his lips knock against her neck as she let out a low laugh.
Dan felt a hand on his shoulder. It was Phil. Colette was laughing again, taking Hisako in her arms like it was nothing. Phil had only a hazy look of disbelief on his face before Dan took his hand to dance. This drug was a miracle, thought Dan. Nothing mattered in the world and he could do whatever he pleased. It was almost unreal then as Phil resumed dancing, only this time taking Dan with him.
“You’re dancing needs work.”
Dan laughed to assuage the embarrassment. “Well, I only did waltzes for the first 19—”
“Here—” Phil put his hands on Dan’s, which happened to be on his waist. He moved his body even closer to Dans. “ Feel the music.”
Every sense left in his brain lit up. There was a tightness in his throat that traveled soon enough to his stomach. He let Phil move his hips behind and sway him, letting not only the haziness of his mind take over but the warmth that was Phil’s chest on his back. It was intoxicating, all of it, and he liked how nice their bodies fit in the fog. Dan brought his head back to say something but forgot what it was, and instead, Phil leaned in, whispering the words in Dan’s ears.
“— the clock struck six, I said ‘Now Daddy, you know a lot of tricks!’” His shoulders were above him finally, and he found Phil’s hands straying from his waist down to the front of his hips. If consciousness was 1000 stings, Dan was only using 3 with the smoke in his brain now. He wanted to know how Phil doing this to him could get him down to one.
“ He kept rockin' with one steady roll,”
Dan relinquished the power from his hands and let Phil guide them where he pleased. They edged the inlets of his hips, and it was odd to feel himself move like this, this circular warmth and smoke hard against his hands. Phil was on his neck now, and Dan wondered if passing out was possible. He didn’t realize how nice it felt to have even his breath there. It was sticky as their bodies brushed against one another in the semi-darkness.
“So this is how they dance here?” Dan chanced. He felt one of Phil’s hands leave his waist and snake itself back up.
“Things are a little bit different in Harlem.”
Dan didn’t have the energy to respond. Every long second that seemed to pass only left him more languid and soft. He felt himself push against Phil again, not only from want, but sheer exhaustion.
“I’m so high,” Dan admitted. He could have gotten arrested and he wouldn’t have cared. Lock him up, take him, everything was secondary to the movement behind him. He wanted to fall asleep on Phil and kiss him and keep the hot breath on his neck going on forever— he wanted to push himself against him until the knot his stomach was gone.
“Good, isn’t it?”
Dan laughed. It was a laced question. “Mhmm.”
“You’re tired, aren’t you?”
Phil placed his head on Dan’s shoulder. “And warm.”
Their feet continued the drowsy, back and forth motion that swept themselves together.
Dan felt the warmth close in on his ear again, to the point Phil’s lips were touching it. “You’re pretty like this,” he whispered.
He smiled. “You think?”
“I know.” Phil brought the hand still on Dan’s hip up against his body again and to his neck before threading it through his hair.
Dan was glad the music was loud. The space where they could hear each other was so minute Dan used it as every excuse to bring Phil’s head closer to his ear, the slow jazz surrounding them as heavy and warm as they were, hiding them in plain sight. Sometimes the only light he could find was the flame against the trumpet, the only smell a lily-infused with musk. His hair was mussed and hot, his mind in heaven, and Dan didn’t think it could end. It just going and going like this— both together in an ebb and flow of their bodies, together pressed to one another until they didn’t.
“There’s a practice room upstairs I wanted to rent for the night,” Colette held her’s like a queen. “You think we can pitch in and take it?”
The music was still loud, and Dan found himself back to their spot, his vision wrapped in gauze. He tried to keep up with the conversation, but they wouldn’t keep up for him. His mind still sat with the feeling of Phil on him. It was so warm he wanted to sit in it forever.
“Room upstairs… to rent for the night? ” Phil shook his head in mock disapproval. “Oh my. ” It was his turn to get back at her pedantic wording. “Danny, baby bear come here, don’t let this dirty woman seduce you so lasciviously ,” He pulled Dan closer to him as if to save him from Colette, Dan’s head against his chest and his neck surrounded by Phil’s arms. All Dan knew was that he was warm again and that it was Phil doing all the warm. He wished he could fall asleep like this.
“Are you proud of that word, lascivious ? It’s French,” Phil bragged. “Je pense que tu es trop lascive, Colette, trop lascive.” Dan thought it was funny how much Phil talked all high. He thought it was cute how he spoke French, all giddy like that.
“Ai,” Colette laughed at the jab but continued, “How dare you not say vous with me.”
“What did I just say?”
“No matter, I know a tu when I hear it.”
“Alright Josephine Baker, what about this room?” Hisako asked. She had a funny grin on her face. Colette burst into hysterics with her.
“Honey, I be Baker—”
“I’m in,” Dan cut in, laying deeper in Phil’s chest. He took the stick in Phil’s hand and inhaled again, the dry burning smoke intoxicating. “You know I can just pay it, I don’t care how much it is. But oh, I’m so tired. Just take my money.”
He saw Phil slowly shook his head. “We couldn’t do that. Come on, let’s get it before that couple over there does.”
The room was small. Dan thought it was funny. There was a vanity and a piano, along with a bed. He figured it wasn’t really a practice room after the acts had performed.
“Phil I want to sleep,” he pressed his face in Phil’s jacket. “Wouldn’t that be nice?”
Hisako pulled on Colette’s collar and whispered something in her ear.
“I thought you guys would be a more vibrant bunch,” she admitted.
“I’d dance for you, you know that, but I think Dan did too much. I need to stay with him.” Dan continued to lean against him until he felt himself be lead to the bed. “Lay down.”
“Hisako wants me to go to her place, I think we’ll scram for the night.”
“Here—” Dan heard Phil get coins out his pocket and cling against Colette’s ringed fingers. There was a little bit of whispering Dan couldn’t make out and then finally the door closed.
“I’m so tired, I think I could sleep for 3 years.”
“3 years?” Phil asked jokingly.
“Mhmm, and then I wouldn’t sleep anymore.”
“You shouldn’t sleep in your jacket.”
“Oh you’re right,” Dan sat up closed-eyed and began taking off the black coat. He found it getting stuck on his arms as he couldn’t shimmy the fabric away.
“Do you need help?”
Dan laughed as Phil helped take off his coat. It was funny to not be able to take off your coat.
“And your shoes?”
“Under the bed already.”
“Your mother raised you right.”
Dan laughed. “Don’t talk about my mother, she never saw me growing up anyways. That was the nurse.”
“It’s okay, we all make mistakes.” Dan quietly put his head down on the pillow and thought it was the softest thing he’d ever felt, maybe second only to Phil.
And then the best Dan could remember was Phil fiddling with the makeup on the vanity, doing Dan’s cheeks and eyebrows and everything else he could imagine as he lay there in the calm stupor. His only thought was that he was going to be even prettier.
“Do you think I’m still pretty?” he asked Phil, only so he could fall asleep hearing the words. He was too tired and scared to reach out and touch him again, even if he wanted it more than anything.
“Do you think other guys like you would find me pretty?”
Dan felt Phil’s fingers graze his cheek. “Definitely.”
The fingers on his cheek lifted. Dan found himself very sad.
“Phil I don’t think I can fall asleep good again unless you keep doing that, I’m so sorry.”
He heard Phil laugh quietly. “Of course I can keep doing that.” Phil sat cross-legged next to him in the bed as Dan drifted off to sleep, the mute noise of jazz lifting through the walls from downstairs and Phil’s warm hands on his face, brushing the sparse freckles and red spot that grew in the wake.
"May I sing you a song?"
Dan wanted that more than anything. "Mhmm."
"Remember when you were dancing with Hisako out there earlier?"
"You reminded me of a little Musetta. Will you sell your coat for me one day?"
Dan didn't know what he was on about.
"Just when I'm sick, you can keep the tailored thing until then, I promise."
Deep beneath the blankets, Dan heard Phil begin to sing. He didn't think it was in English, and it was so different to what he usually sang. There was no edge to it, or shininess or slickness. It was just soft. Soft.
Dan began to fall asleep under Phil's touch.
It was almost like a dream, in fact, with the reverie unfolding Dan didn’t know what was fingers or even lips. Maybe it was a kiss on his forehead before the light went out, maybe it was a thumbed X underneath his curled hair. Perhaps it was almost a dream, but Dan figured he was already in one.
When I walk alone on the streets,
people stop and stare
and examine my beauty
from head to toe...
When I taste the slight yearning
which transpires from their eyes
of which is able to perceive from manifest charms
to most hidden beauties.
The scent of desire is all around me–
It makes me happy!
And you, while knowing, reminding and longing,
you shrink away from me?
I know it very well:
you don't want to express your anguish,
but you feel as if you're dying–
Dan didn’t know whether to be happy or be haunted that he didn’t remember much from the night before.
So it didn’t help when Dan got another telegram from Phil, this time asking him if he had time to go to a bookstore with him that afternoon. It was benign, but after that night he would do anything to know what exactly went on that night, and to be sure if— well that was a question for another day.
At lunch, he wrote a telegram back ( IN MIDTOWN BE THERE LATER.), and returned to a full meeting with the editors.
“Daniel– are your eyebrows plucked?” Harold looked keenly up at his face.
Dan stirred for a second. He had been too high last night to register what Phil had messed about with his face. Think fast, he told himself.
“A girl I was with did it last night. We were a little primed, if you get my drift.” He smiled like he was letting them in on a secret. “The night got better, I assure you.”
“I bet,” Simmons said from the corner, looking back proudly. “But tell me, how good? Silk or just a smile?”
Dan coolly took a cigarette from the tray in the middle. “Just a toothy grin.”
Simmons laughed annoyingly. “Didn’t think you had it in you kid. Harry–” he stuck his hand out to the short man. “My 25¢ please.”
Harold shook his head angrily and pulled out a few nickels and dimes. “You better not be lying kid.”
He tried to smile but was only met with a stony expression. Harrold needed to do better things in his life than get worked up over if Dan screwed a girl.
When Dan got there, Phil was already inside the shop. He saw him through the window, looking at shelves of books and going over their masses of color. The sign read FRANK SHAY’S BOOKSHOP and was a pleasant warm blue, surrounded by other bohemian intricacies that let Dan know the patronage wasn’t going to be the fellows he wrote the magazine with.
“Oh Dan, you’re here!” Phil put the book he had been looking at down and turned to him. He was wearing khaki knickerbockers and a blue and green argyle, how in this weather, Dan didn’t know. His hat was in his hand, a tweed flat cap, with the look what completed with a solid red tie around a collared white shirt.
“Oh–” He smiled. “You’re wearing a bit of the rouge,” Phil noticed.
Dan couldn’t help but blush a little as he felt Phil’s eyes rest on him. “Is it too much? I tried to make it really subtle.” He hadn’t actually, and he was glad Phil finally noticed it.
“I love it.”
Dan sighed a breath of relief.
“Fits you better than me, I think. My skins too much like a ghost. Oh yeah!” Phil took Dan by his arm and brought him to the back of the shop. “This is why I wanted you to come. Look at this.”
In front of them was a solid, wooden door, three-paneled and painted the same deep blue on the sides. Only the three middle panels were left unpainted, all scratched and drawn on in various inks. It was tall too, and Dan had to look up to see the top.
“See there.” Phil pointed to the third panel. “There’s Sinclair Lewis. Cute picture next to it huh? And there’s Frank Conroy– he does theater here in the Village, I’ve seen his plays. I got to meet him once too. Nice fellow.”
Dan let Phil ramble on, interested but ultimately not as invested as him. It was still fascinating though, that there was an entire world he had not been privy to, amidst his wealth and power the bohemian wasn’t something that touched him much in his gilded enclave.
“Oh, I know that name.” Dan pointed to a scrawly name in a corner. “They wrote some of the stories I read as a kid. Oh, and it’s Mr. Morely. I’ve met him a few times while working.” Dan had surprised himself.
“Isn’t it great?” A young blond man in glasses walked out of an aisle, dusting himself off on an apron. “It’s a pity I have to close it.”
Dan got up from kneeling beside the door. “Close? What do you mean?”
“I sold it off last year but I just got word it’s closing up for good. I came by to say my last farewell and help clean up. I’m the Frank Shay, don’t know why they keep that sign out there if we’re being honest.”
Dan noticed he was a cheery man, a little somber at the edges, no doubt from the news that his old shop was closing.
“Why don’t you buy it back?”
The man shook his head. “It’s just not the same as it used to be. I don’t see a point in trying to prolong the life of a doomed entity. Especially when that entity pays rent.”
Dan chuckled a bit under his breath. “What a shame.”
“What a shame.” Mr. Shay repeated. “Would you two like to sign the door before we take it out?”
Phil lit up. “You’re serious?”
“As serious as a man can be.”
“Oh, that’d be lovely.”
“It’s all yours.” He handed them a black pen.
Phil took it with a little laugh and signed carefully, putting the date underneath. He gave it to Dan who penned his own signature underneath.
“Thank you.” It was clearly something important to Phil. “I was really sad to hear you moved last year, I’ve been coming here since it opened.”
“I remember you.”
“Of course.” Mr. Shay put the pen back in a pants pocket that looked deeper than Niagara Falls. “Some faces you never forget. You were always quiet. You served in the war, did you not?”
“I did.” Phil got quiet. People didn’t ever think he did, what with his career choice and long hair. It was wrong, but Phil liked when people forgot he was ever there in the first place.
“Well, I’m glad you call Greenwich your home. Us artists, we need each other. I’m afraid I don’t know how long it will last, but I hope its spirit will never leave you. Stay true to your art— and stay true to yourself.” He bowed his head in respect of Phil.
“Oi, pretty!” A little gaggle of youth interrupted the scene, standing in the doorway of the shop. The boys had redder cheeks than him, and he suspected they were drunk. “Pretty one with the black balmacaan! Fancy a fag outside?”
Dan froze. They meant him.
“Get out,” Phil warned, his voice rising. “Lay off and don’t talk to him again–” Dan felt Phil's hand rest on his shoulder protectively.
They shrunk from the door as they looked at the height of Phil, but continued, a little farther back. “Well fellas, guess we can’t touch this guy’s gal. And you’re a real English folk by the sound of it. I bet you know plenty about fagging then.” They laughed before slowly losing interest, Phil’s look of rage deterring them off to the next abuse.
Was that because of– him?
“The fairies love to find trade around here. It’s worse now than ever– I hope you know I mean no offense. You’re an honorable sort and I’m sure your friend is here too.” Mr. Shay looked sadly out the large window to the street where the boys had left, stumbling. “I think things are getting tighter– if I’m making any sense. There’s a restlessness that comes in being hunted. You’re never really safe even when you have four walls and a lock... Those things run deeper... You’d think this decade would just get better, but some things that need to flourish seem to fade.” The man was speaking as if in litany, words strung out like the prayer of the dying. “I hear there are more raids at the clubs?”
“There is,” Phil answered quietly. “But I’ve been spared so far.”
“I wish you luck. And your friend here too— I didn’t get your name.” The old bookshop owner extended a hand out to him. Dan was glad his hair straightening was masquerading his true identity as a Howell.
“I’m Dan.” He smiled warmly.
The man returned the generosity. “Welcome to the Village, Dan.”
They walked back to Phil’s apartment. It was only 2 blocks away and yet Dan found the walk excruciatingly long. Was that because of him? It ran through his head like a broken record.
His thought was interrupted as Phil hung up his coat for him on the rack and did the same for his own.
“Do you want some cold tea?” He was trying his best to sound natural. “I bought some new kind at a little shop down the way. It’s Darjeeling.”
“What was that all about?”
Phil put down the tea tin down heavily. He looked down, coming to terms there was no escape to the conversation. “Dan, those were some ugly people.”
“Was it because of how I had the rouge on?”
There wasn’t an answer. Phil looked heavily down onto the counter, avoiding Dan’s gaze.
“I said, was it because of how I had the rouge on?”
Phil shook his head like he didn’t want to believe what the answer was either. “Alright, yes, it was.”
“I’m sorry,” Dan said earnestly, because it was embarrassing to cause all that trouble.
“There’s nothing to be sorry about Dan. They were drunk, and they weren’t good people,” he tried to explain to him. “And though some people not in the community are good, like Shay, most of them aren't worth knowing."
“Do you really?” It hadn’t meant to sound harsh, but to Dan’s ears, it grated like a knifepoint. “You can’t trust everyone if you continue this. It’s shit but it’s true. You wear rouge and get to act like you want and people will tolerate you because you fit into a mold, but they’ll still hate you. I think a lot of them don’t understand that,” he didn't specify who them was. "And normal men will just abuse you. You aren’t a person to them.” Dan noticed Phil’s voice starting to go out.
“I don't know what you're going on about,” Dan admitted helplessly.
Phil stayed silent before shaking his head in defeat. “I don’t want to get angry,” he whispered under his breath, as he tried to even his breaths. “I have–” Phil stopped himself and frowned for a second before continuing.“–Scars from normal hands, Dan, I can show you,” he said quietly. He was starting to cry now too, fist clenched.
Dan looked on, perplexed. Phil cried so openly. He was the only man he knew to cry so easily. Growing up his mother always told him it wasn’t becoming of a young man to cry, that he shouldn’t let his father know of his trifles or the emotional pendulum that swung so easily in his psyche. He learned to cry alone, or not at all.
“I don’t want you to be disappointed, that’s all. You know, I saw the way they looked at you Dan– they didn’t want you, not really.”
Dan walked over to the green tiled counter where Phil stood behind it, deep in thought. “Saw the way they looked at me?” he asked.
“Yes Dan, how they looked at you. I saw another man at the store that did the same but I didn’t tell you. I didn’t want you to be worried about it.”
Another? “Why would they want me?”
“Because you’re pretty and they're ugly people who want to ruin it.”
“Oh.” Was it jealousy? It made Dan sick to think about. He looked at the figure behind the counter, shrouded in half sunlight from the setting sun and an odd, broken disposition of utter absolution. He could not –no did not– believe it was because of him. And yet, what else? What else would cause Phil to act like this?
Dan knew Phil was just 24. He was still young, the skin on his face shaped like ivory and his voice still bright like the mornings. But this half sunlight was aging him. Maybe it was the war that did it, underneath the skin and in the bones and the blood– that’s where the war aged. Dan never fought, and so he’d never know. Phil was just out of his reach.
It confused him. The truth in the manner lay that he believed Phil cared about him. He didn’t know why yet though; maybe it was just his face. Maybe it was the money. He pushed the ideas down. That wasn’t for tonight.
To Dan’s astonishment, Phil continued. “And they know you’re new around here. They’ll use you like you didn’t exist to begin with.”
It was care. Phil cared about him. In the 20 years Dan had lived he had never felt such a grand opportunity to know someone, not a friend he could trust like Phil. He wasn’t like the society boys he played with growing up, he was realizing now. He didn’t have a house with more rooms you couldn’t go into than not or respectable parents that only saw you on the weekends. He cried and wore makeup for money and didn’t make fun of Dan for reading or not finding a girl to tease, Phil just liked Dan for Dan. Not his money, not his power either: the hotel, the wealth, the connections–
Dan put his hand on the one Phil hadn’t clenched. It was the simplest gesture Dan could think of for everything going on in his head right now. He was terrible when emotions and words came together. A touch was all he could give.
At the touch, Phil livened. “Wh-”
Dan couldn’t help but feel his face grow warm. “Thank you.” He kept his eyes down. “That was really nice of you.”
He looked up. Phil was staring off behind him, like he was trying to find all the exits as he had done at the tea shop. He started, Dan’s hand on his, waiting, willing–
The lashes moved first, and then the hair, the head, and finally his eyes.
They stared at each other for what each felt was an eternity. Dan moved his hand to hold Phil’s, but Phil froze.
“I-I c–” Phil threw his hand back. “I have a headache.” He turned away from Dan.
Dan drew his hand back, perplexed. It wasn’t hard to feel ashamed as Phil looked down now, almost hurt.
“I think it’d be best if you go.”
Dan opened his mouth to retort well you could have said you didn’t like me before you came on to me all this time, but bit his tongue. He knew Phil hadn't really done anything out of what queer friends did. “What do you mean?” he finally asked.
“I mean I think you should go. I don’t feel good.”
“Do you want me to get you something from the pharmacy?” he asked almost mockingly.
Phil looked down even more forlorn, as if each nicety Dan communicated only furthered the head ailment. “No, thank you but I have some Aspirin.”
He turned his back to Dan to clean something in the sink.
Dan was on the verge of yelling. “Alright. See you around,” he said coolly, trying to abate the anger in his throat. He took his coat from under Phil’s on the hanger and made his way through the wooden door, the pretty stained glass shaking as Dan slammed the door.
The red of the rouge came off in thick marks, his tears mixing to make hot splotches come across his cheeks and onto his hand. What did Phil want? What was this game? Clearly not him. Maybe what Phil saw in him was only a friend. Maybe his gesture had been too much.
But then he thought of every other damn thing they'd done, and he couldn't help but be mad. People didn't wait for you to fall asleep under their hand unless they loved you. That's how things are in the world.
I’m such an idiot.
When Dan got back to the hotel he took the stairs, bypassing the lift man and heaps of guests to go straight to his room. His footsteps were fast and loud against the marble steps, and when he got to his room he locked the door behind him. Maybe he'd call Alice for a drink later. Maybe Simmons. Anything to forget this.
A glass was taken down from its rack and a drink poured, a lone draught of rum that tasted bitter and stung with sleepiness. He drank even though it burned.
Dan figured drunken dreams were better than deceit.
As always, everything mentioned here is a real thing. This chapter had a lot of little tidbits lost to history I love, so I hope if you're into these kinds of things you'll find all and enjoy them.
Thanks for reading and sorry for the late posting.
Chapter 7: VI
Chapter warning for in-depth talk of war violence.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“Oh I think it’s time for you wake up, sir!” A dark-haired young woman shook him cautiously. Her hair was puffy and her little maid’s hat ruffles slipped down her forehead as she looked down on him in bed. “I think you’re late for your job!”
“Oh– Mary. What time is it?”
“Near 11:30 sir, but I’m not Mary. I’m sorry sir.”
“What happened to Mary?” Dan shook his head as he tried to calm his nerves from the sudden wake. Mary had always been there for the sheets. “Who are you?”
“I’m Clara, I’ve been in service 3 years and Mary’s inconvenienced sir, she’s with a baby.”
“I know sir, it was a shock–”
“I meant the time, it’s so late,” he looked at the Cartier clock frantically. The new laundry maid wasn’t wrong.
Dan rushed to get ready. His head more than he’d care to admit, a dull thrum against his skull like a hoard of bees had gotten stuck and couldn’t escape. He drank some water from the basin in the corner and threw the water up in his face in vain. Today just wasn’t going to be a fun day.
“You look terrible,” was the greeting Dan got at his arrival at the office
“Thanks, you look swell too.” Dan put his leather briefcase down and started pulling papers out to work on.
“Rough night?” Simmons strolled over, coffee cup in hand.
“Can you tell?”
“I can smell it. You need a bath. Careful or the patrol will be on you.” Simmons touched the side of his nose with his forefinger. They shared a glance of amusement, knowing full well whatever Dan did he’d get away with. You didn’t own a hotel with the most distinguished guests without having a few strings in place.
“Hey,” he continued, leaning in a bit so only Dan could hear him. “Get a load of this... Lillian was by here this morning for some reason. Asked for you.” He raised his eyebrows and gave Dan a wink. “You got a little admirer by the looks of it.”
Dan entertained the idea for all of three seconds. “She’s a little ditzy,” Dan settled on.
“She’s also like twelve.”
Simmons laughed. “Well, fifteen, but you’re right.” He turned to leave but stopped midway. “Oh yeah, do you know what’s up with Harry?”
“No,” Dan answered honestly. “Why?”
“He’s got a real bug in him seems like. Can’t stop following Mr. Ross around. Shady fellow that one is.”
Dan knew what he was talking about. Harry (or as Dan had come to call him by his full name, Harold), had a habit of slinking about. He was normally cherry, overenthusiastic and a bit brash, and only annoyed Dan when he had a lot going on. Harold was just Harold.
“Do you think... Do you think it has something to do with his father’s death?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean after his father died last year– he came back different. I don’t know what happened, but he doesn’t seem the same.”
Simmons narrowed his eyes, nodding. “You’re onto something kid.”
Dan internally rolled his eyes. Simmons was only 31.
“I’ll get back to you on that.” The blond man shook his coffee. “Got some advertisers coming in at 1:30. Gotta run.”
On that Friday, Dan contemplated going to the club at all. He had gotten half dressed, undressed, dressed again, and was in the process of taking off his tie for the final time when he realized how terribly petty he was being. The rest of the performers need you. Stop being so selfish.
As usual, he took the subway, checking his outfit in the reflection the window happened to make with the little yellow lights up above like always. The carriage shook and made it difficult to make out details, but by the end of the ride, Dan was confident in how he looked.
As he walked to the club, he saw a mother and son walk in front of him slightly. They were arguing about something or another he had done to make some adults angry.
“You don’t understand Ma,” he huffed. He was probably 14, and the edges of his trousers were a centimeter or two too short. “That’s just how things are with the boys.”
“I don’t care how things are with the boys. You’ll treat people how they want to be treated.”
“But she wanted to be treated like that! It’s not too shot to think–”
“You’ll use proper words with me,” and with that, she somehow slapped him upside the head as they continued to walk. Dan heard the boy yell back, and he was glad to turn the corner and get away from the scene. It made him feel a little gross inside. They only lived in a different reality because of age and experience and desires.
He made his way to the Gypsy Peregrine.
“Oh Dan, I’m so happy to see you.” Alessio held a stack of sheet music as he walked in. “We’ve had some change of plans. It’s December now and it seems that everyone wants to hear some Christmas tunes. I’ll pay you extra.”
“Oh, Alessio I don’t need the money. Save it for someone else. Tell the owner I appreciate the gesture though.”
Alessio eyed him, skeptical. “Alright. Here’s what we have planned. Seems alright?”
In the stack was Twelve Days of Christmas, What Child is This?, and a few more he didn’t really know. He did know that the songs would be butchered for some humor, and he could only imagine what they’d do to the poor babe of Jesus. It was a normal, if not a little festive, show.
Throughout the performance, Dan noticed how little Phil looked at him. It was like he was consciously trying to avoid him, and it set Dan’s teeth on edge. It’s for the rest of the performers, he told himself.
He almost dreaded the show ending. At the end, Phil would have to interact with him, either by the other actors or in the main room—
Dan stilled with his glass mid-air. What if he didn’t speak to him at all? Since the incident last Saturday he hadn’t gotten one message from Phil. It was entirely infuriating.
“Colette? Where’s Philomena?”
Colette peered around the club and shook her head. “Don’t know. You could try the dressing room.”
He did, to no avail.
“Colette, I think she left me.”
“What’s the matter.” She patted the seat next to her. “Is there something wrong between you two?”
Dan didn’t know how much to tell and how much to hide.
“Is that rouge on your cheek?” She interrupted. “Oh baby, you a cute one.” Dan smiled to show his appreciation as she pinched his cheek.
“So what’s Ms. Philomena got you all into?”
Dan stepped into open water. “H-She,” he found himself correcting. It didn’t sit well in his mouth though because he knew how much he hated it. “They,” he settled on “and I had a bit of a fight last time we saw each other.”
“She your baby?” Colette asked point blank.
“I-I don’t know,” Dan admitted sadly.
“You want her to be?”
“More than anything in the world.” He took a sip from his glass.
“You think you two can love each other?”
“I’m afraid I already do.”
Colette tsked. “Then I don’t see why you two ain’t together.”
“I don’t think he likes me the way I do. I-” Dan didn’t know how much to share. He didn’t care if he said “he”. That’s what Phil was to him. “I put my hand on his the other night and he freaked out and made me leave. I don’t know Colette.”
“He sounds like he’s afraid. Have you thought about the possibility that he’s scared?”
“Why would he be afraid of me? I’m just some spoiled brat that has a crush.” It was pointless. “He’s been in a damn war for God’s sake, what am I to him?”
“There’s something in you he see’s that you don’t, that’s all I can think of. You’ve made him rethink things–” Colette stopped in her tracks. “You know what? I’ve been here 4 years, and I ain’t never seen Philomena with her own darling. She’s always been the quiet type but I’d think she’d get a beau like the rest of us.” It was like she was just putting together the pieces.
“I should talk to him, huh?”
“I think you should.”
Dan set his glass down. “Thank you so much.” He meant it. “I’m-I'm going to go find him now.”
It took an embarrassingly short amount of time to find him this time. Phil was walking towards the back exit, a flask in hand and his head wrapped in shawls like he was about to go out. Dan caught up to him in no time.
“Phil.” Dan tapped him on the shoulder and waited for Phil to turn around and run, but all he did was sigh.
“What do you want?”
Dan was taken aback, again, at the callousness that seemed to hang on Phil’s lips. He refused to look Dan in the eye. “What has gotten into you?”
“Nothing,” Phil lied, badly. Dan could see his neck twitch. “What’s the issue?”
“You know what the damn issue is,” Dan spat bitterly.
Phil’s shoulders slunk. It was like he was carrying the weight of the world on him and Dan’s remark only added another stone to the burden.
It was enough for him though. Phil didn’t want to fight. “Come outside.”
Dan was jealous of the scarves around Phil’s head. He also had a nice jacket, leaving Dan unprepared for the sunless, snowy night.
Against the brick wall of the club Phil leaned. He took out a cheap cigarette of his and Dan lit it for him the best he could, the cold wind biting the flame and their faces in equal measure. It was the first time they’d been that close since the night he’d plucked his eyebrows too much. He could feel the warmth from it and it took everything in him to retreat back into the cold.
“Thank you.” Phil took a slow drag. “I don’t know how to preface this.”
Dan shook his head in confusion, defeated. “If you don’t like me just say it. Come out with already, I can take it.”
Phil looked down. “No, that’s not why we're out here. I like you– a lot actually.”
In his chest, Dan felt a tiny flutter, the beginning notions of relief washing over him. “Then what is it?” he ventured.
“Y-You didn’t serve in the war, did you?”
“I’ve already told you I was too young.”
Phil nodded. “I knew that. Thing is I was too. You know that too.” He laughed half-heartedly. “When the war started I was 13. My brother was old enough to be drafted in 1916, 2 years later, I was 15 and I just said I was 19 like him to go. A lot of us did, it’s not that grand of a thing, to be honest. The recruitment officers got money for every boy they enlisted so it wasn’t like they were going to turn me down, especially because I wanted to go so badly.”
“That was really brave of you.” Dan knew he had lied about his age to get in, but for some reason, it was a lot more real as he looked at him in the snowfall. Their breath was smoke against the frost.
Phil continued like Dan had said nothing. “I remember a recruitment worker telling me to stay home. He said my mother wouldn’t want two dead boys. I told him I was going to protect my brother and my country and he just gave me the saddest look, like I was already a dead man.”
Dan moved to lean against the wall next to him, still listening.
“When I first got in it was a lot of fun. We just trained for a few weeks and then they sent us off. We were in the East Lancashire Regiment. 7th Battalion. Bit late, but they needed men, and Rawtenstall was enlisting. That’s where I’m from,” he added. “It’s a quiet town. But yeah, the battalion was stationed in the north of France by that time.” He scrunched the ash of the cigarette against the wall and watched it sizzle on the ice. “I got put in the trenches eventually like the rest of our company. I was with my brother so I thought it was going to be okay.”
It was Dan’s turn to take a cigarette out, Phil gladly lighting it for him. “You were saying?” He was intent on hearing what Phil had to say.
“I ended up making a friend, a boy named Adam. He was just a year older than me. We became really close through it all. Dan, you can only imagine how terrible it was out there.”
Dan had heard stories, but he was sure they were at least in part censored. Most people held the consensus it was the worst war the world had seen. Dan didn’t doubt them.
“We’d hear stories along the lines that boys would just get cut up by the guns like– like they were toys, but–” He stumbled on his words. “The worst part about every day was knowing there just– wasn’t an escape. Sometimes we’d maroon on a nice weekend for a night or two to a nearby town but it was scary. The older boys would go find women or whatever– I just looked for some alcohol in the beginning. It made everything pleasanter. I can’t explain it– it just made everything into a hazy fog, you know?” He shook his head. The hand without a glove holding the cigarette was white with pressure. “It just made things into a place where death was an idea. Not a reality.”
“I met a boy named Adam,” he repeated. “He was lovely, you know? We came from the same town but I hadn’t ever met him before. It was like we were kids. We’d share our food and drink, we even shared fags, just one between us.” Phil smiled at the last part. “Adam was my best friend down there. Everyone was close, you had to be when you didn’t know if you’d live to see the sun rise again, but Adam and I were different. He was special.”
“He had brown hair like me at the time. I dye my hair, did you know that?” He raised his voice at the end as if it was only an inconsequential tidbit of information.
“I had a suspicion.”
“Yeah, I started dying it after the war when I got to New York. I needed to start over. Anyways,” he brought his voice down again and finished his cigarette before lighting another one. “One time when we escaped to a neighboring town we stole a bit of ribbon from an abandoned house. We hadn’t seen stuff so pretty since we’d been home, it was the richest red– like Christmas time. Made us think about our mother’s. He had a little sister too. Took a foot of it so he’d have something to send to her.”
“What did you do with your ribbon?”
“Oh we tied it on each other.” Dan was noticing how easily Phil got off topic. It was like he couldn’t focus on the matter entirely. “We made little bows and put them on our uniform, so if we died they could bury us together.” Phil clarified. “We made a pact that night– that if the other survived we’d tell their mum about how we much we loved them.”
“And–” The words stalled in Phil’s throat. “You don’t understand– nobody understands.” He wiped the gloved hand across his face like he expected tears, but the kid collided with nothing. “I loved him,” he said finally. “And he loved me too. It was pure. There wasn’t fake pearls or girly names or dressing up. We just- just loved each other.”
“The War was like this world away from the world. Everything was different. There are no conventions when you’re surrounded by death. No social rank, no boundaries. We we’re all humans waiting to die.”
“It was June when Adam and I were able to sneak away again for the last time. We didn’t know it was our last time. I mean, Somme had already begun but– It was a small town, Albert I think it was.” Dan noticed how he pronounced it with an accent, a throaty r and no t sound to be heard. “By the time we were there, a lot of it had been destroyed. There were only empty houses and an abandoned church, the one with the leaning Mary. I don’t know if you’ve heard about it. I think it’s rather famous.”
“Oh, I’ve read about that.”
“It was astonishing to see, even in the moonlight.” He smiled a bit before growing somber again. “So Adam and I went off that night and got drunk, that’s what we did. We were able to tell each other things soberness just can’t seem to do. I remember kissing him a lot. We pretended we were our mum's at first, like we were finally home, but I don’t think we ended it like that. We pretended to be each other’s girl like we had a sweetheart back home after a while and I remember laughing a lot– and then not. Then I got lost. He had the most brilliant green eyes Dan–”
“What do you mean you got lost?” Dan interrupted.
“I mean I lost myself in him...” Phil’s voice faded into the icy air. “Just us. We had never been with anyone. It was exceptional– It was pure.”
Dan thought he knew what Phil was referencing. He didn’t press him.
“And we were so tired afterward... but we had to get back before the sun rose so we made it back. We slept together in the mud and nobody questioned. That’s what I mean Dan, nobody questioned anything. It was alright. We all thought we were going to die.” His second cigarette had burned out and he stood empty handed against the brick. He ended up taking a third cigarette out.
“And then we fought in Albert or whatever and then High Wood and Pozières–” He shook his head. “It slowed down after that. My entire July was death.”
Dan stayed hard against the wall. The words had stilled him.
“Adam got sick. Just fevers and stuff. Flu. He was nice to take care of. I’d bring him coffee every morning and give him my food. I’d kiss him on his forehead a lot like his mum would. He got better.”
“In November we fought at Ancre. That’s what they call it now but we just thought it was a bad fight. Still Thiepval. We were put in the front-lines. I thought one of us was going to die that night, I don’t know why. We’d fought in so many others and yet I swear to you.” Dan saw Phil’s jaw clench. “John Mathers next to me got his face fire torched off by some Hun. I heard him scream next to me and I couldn’t do anything about it. Nothing. He gave me some of his coffee one time. He had a wife back home.”
“It took days but it finally ended for us. It ended on the first snow of that year, can you believe that? The 17th of November. It was like God himself had ended the fight. And I was too tired to be angry– I hadn’t slept for 2 days. In my delusion, God was still great. Neither of us had died. I thought maybe that prostrated Mary on the church had seen something in us that night.” He shook his head angrily. "We could go home and be together away from dirt and–"
“And God–,” In the sallow lamplight of the street, he saw Phil begin to cry. “God really wasn’t great, you know? Adam was so tired. He was so tired. He cried in my arms that morning because he missed his mum so much and he was so happy when he saw snow. He said it reminded him of being home.” Phil brought the cigarette dangerously close to his face as he tried his best to bat away the tears. It lit his irises to flames. “He got up,” his voice was trembling, “and went to see the snow. Just to think of home. He climbed that trench and looked out for a few seconds, just taking it in. I still see him, he was smiling. And then there was a shot–” Phil could only shrug his shoulders. “And he fell backward. It had been some dumb German. We heard them yelling, it was some stupid, war-heady boy. Like he’d get a cross for shooting an unarmed boy looking at the snow.” Phil flung the cigarette on the ground and stomped it out in the snow. “Idiot.”
“It caused everyone in the front-line to freak. There was more shooting– I don’t even know. Some skirmish. They started yelling at me to go attack, but I just stayed with Adam. I was so scared–" Phil started to mumble. “... but it didn’t matter.”
“He was so scared, Dan. People don’t die like they do in novels. His eyes were so large... he kept tugging at my uniform like I could stop the bleeding... tugging at my ribbon... but I couldn’t. I stuck my hand on top of where bullet went into his stomach, but his blood just went through.”
“And then he started to look far away, like he couldn’t see me anymore. I kissed him. I kissed him so many times– but nothing happened. I told him ‘stay with me Adam, I can get you help but you have to kiss me back.’” Phil turned quiet before the bare hand grabbed helplessly at his lips. A sob wracked his body. “I got angry then, because he wouldn’t kiss me back, I said ‘kiss me, god dammit, kiss me like your mother would. Kiss me like you did in Albert, kiss me like your sweetheart’ but he didn’t do anything. He did absolutely nothing.”
“I don’t know when he died. Maybe when he couldn’t see me anymore. Maybe it was when he started to get cold. His eyes were open through it all.”
“I know I should be happy. He didn’t die that badly. He had it so nice compared– he wasn’t burned or blown to bits. I just thought– I just thought we could survive it together. Like we’d always had.”
Dan didn’t know how to respond. He had no idea a reality like this existed. Before he knew it, Dan felt his chest start to fall. He had started to cry as well.
“It was so cold getting into that winter. September, October, November... we used to put old newspapers in our uniforms but it didn’t do anything. We slept as close as we could together for warmth, all of us. It was so cold... and he was so cold now too.”
“We couldn’t bury the bodies either because the ground was too cold. They piled him up with the rest in an old trench until they could bury them in Spring when the ground got soft. My brother took him from me. He did as much as he could to make me happy again, but that just doesn't exist down there. He was gone within the year too. Gas. The whole lot of the group in their section done like toys. Floated on the dirty rain water.”
“He got buried,” Phil added, like he had to show there was good left. "The ground was soft enough."
“That Spring before we were supposed to move to Messine I saw an old trench that had bodies dried in it. Nobody talks about the dead. It was like Hell had come to Earth. When it warmed...” There was a silence. “–So did the dead. It smelled like nothing Worldly. I mean it never did, but this was worse. We used to have to clean them up. Not one person got the job you know, we all had to bury them. After a day or two of it everyone would start fighting. You'd share a card game and then they were blowing you to the ground. They became monstes– and the bodies we bury. They turned different colors and bugs grew in their eyes and we always hoped that that week we got corpses from people we didn’t know.”
Dan listened, horrified.
“I saw Adam again. He was bones. I saw his uniform sticking to whatever was left of him. Sticking out of the mud... There was a little red ribbon on it... The one we stole and tied on each other—”
Dan watched, helpless. He felt like he was in a dream.
Phil turned his face to the exposed brick and laid his head on it for support, tears flowing freely onto the hard packed snow. “Nobody buried him. Nobody on this Godless Earth knew who he was besides me.”
“And then I got to thinking too much. I mean, we were all just bones. There wasn’t anything in us to last. Nobody would know who I was when I died and nobody would remember me. In a hundred years there wouldn’t be anybody that cared.”
“I stopped sleeping. When I did sleep it was just nightmares– the others started to complain. I started having nervous ticks, the sort. I got put in a hospital at the end of March. They told me I was a Not Yet Diagnosed (Nervous) patient, and then when I didn’t get better a shell shock (sick) write up, and that stupid thing meant I couldn’t get a pension. The doctors tried to tell me nothing was really wrong, that it was all in my head. Of course it was in my head,” his voice was acerbic.
“I slept like they told me to, in a bed, but I couldn't get better. I just–," he shook his head. "I couldn't. Then I couldn't get my tongue to work or my face and it scared me to hear my voice. It was so ugly. That’s when they sent me back home to Royal Netley."
"It was terrible. The other’s that had physical hurts... they said I was nothing but a coward. I could feel it in the nurses too, they were testy with us. Said we weren’t real men if we didn’t go back. It just kinda got to me in the end, y’know?”
Dan was starting to understand exactly what Phil was getting at. After Adam, any hurt could get to a man.
“They sent me to Seale-Hayne in April. I got better after that. I don’t know how, but the Doctors were nicer. Seemed like they cared, but...” Phil wiped his nose roughly.“I thought that when I got better I could go back home and go to Adam’s mum or something, but when it was all said and done I didn’t have the heart. They were all right– I was a coward.”
“Don’t say that.” Dan was shocked he could even entertain the idea.
“It’s true. I went to London after being discharged but it just wasn’t the same. I had no home. My parents didn’t want a coward coming home. And my brother–” He was starting to calm down. “God, I couldn’t look my mother in the eye and say I’d lost him. I got some money and got a ship to New York and never looked back.”
Dan wondered how he got the money without a pension, but didn't ask.
“When I got to New York I thought it’d be different than London, but it was the same. It was so different in the war. I thought I’d be able to touch my friends in public– but I couldn’t. My new friends and I– we didn’t touch anymore. There wasn’t a pat on the back, there wasn’t hugging, there weren’t–” Phil stopped himself. “I was so confused. How was I to know I was supposed to be ashamed of that? That I wanted to kiss my friends when we weren't about to be killed? Everybody was so close. I got back in the real world, and the real world spit in my face.”
Phil looked solemnly down in the snow. In the soft lights, Dan could see the glistening trails of wet left on his cheeks from the tears, shiny and raw in the frosty air. There was a silence between the two. He went over and placed his arms around him. He was surprised to find Phil jump slightly from the gesture.
Dan drew back, but Phil brought him in again.
“I’m sorry. I–”
Phil settled, bringing Dan into him as close as he could. “I needed to tell you that. There's a lot more but– I can't lose you. I needed you to understand– If you don't–"
"I do," he consolled. "Of course I do." Phil looking around whenever they were out and never at him finally began to make sense.
"-I’m just afraid to love I guess. I’m a coward and I'll always be,” he repeated into the crook of Dan’s neck.
“Don’t say that.” Dan kissed the top of Phil’s black hair lazily. “Phil, you’re the bravest person I’ve ever met.”
“I still get ticks sometimes, it’s not gone,” Phil tried to rationalize. “Sometimes when I’m stressed it just gets too much and I lose it Dan– I’ll never be normal–”
“Good.” Dan hugged him tighter. “Good, because I like you just the way you are. Every brave part of you.” He felt a warm wet start to grow on his chest and knew Phil had started crying again. “Shh,” he whispered to him. "You're here with me, that's something, right?"
Dan was unsure of his words. "You just– you have the courage to exist. You're here and that's something."
Phil relaxed into the hold. Together they stood in the snow, each holding onto to the other like their life depended on it.
“Come back home with me. I’ll pour you a drink and light a fire and it’ll be nice, I promise”
Phil nodded the best he could in the embrace, mumbling an alright. Slowly but surely they let go, Dan wiping a tear from Phil’s cheek. “C’mon.”
By the time they made it to the hotel, the main floor was empty. The night manager nodded at Dan as he took Phil up the main marble stairway and to the top floor.
He ignored the mail that was starting to pile up on the table next to the door and let the two of them in, locking it behind him and turning on the light in the middle.
Dan stood a bit uneasy as Phil surveyed the entrance hall.
“It’s a bit much. Sorry.”
“This is– amazing.” Phil walked along the marble hall and admired the various paintings, ending in the main sitting room. He marveled at the grandeur of it all.
Up above the two was the closest you could get to a Byzantine ceiling on the East coast– or so Dan was told. It shone with pounds of gold leaf and rows and rows of tiny lapis-lazuli tiles, the middle a circle washed with the silver paint of a million delicate stars. Dan saw Phil’s neck crane to look at them, like he could count each one if given the chance. Around the dome were doves, both tiled and painted, flying to and fro, unaware they would never see outside the confines of the plaster and the paint. There were two doves by the stars in the middle, one on either side, a pink ribbon in each of their beaks.
“I’m told it was based on the Hagia Sophia. Bit smaller of course.”
Phil circled around in awe.
“My grandfather replaced the Arabic for stars and angels for doves instead. He didn’t want to offend the public with his ‘heathenism’.”
Phil continued to look around, the carpet a deep burgundy, the walls a mix of blue and gold. The fireplace was to the left of them, almost the height of Phil and of thick stone. On the walls were various drawings and ephemera by authors Dan had liked as a kid, framed and suspended by a triangle wire next to the ceiling. Nothing really fit a theme.
The windows were large too, but mostly veiled by heavy gold curtains. Phil walked over to them and lifted one up to view the city.
“It’s so pretty.”
Dan didn’t know how to respond. He tried explaining it. “I got my own place here when I turned 18. My parents and little brother still live here, across the floor at a bigger suite.” Dan moved to the liquor bar below the window and poured a glass of brandy for Phil. He handed it to him, still looking out onto the city as he moved to light the fireplace.
Dan moved to the liquor bar below the window and poured a glass of brandy for Phil. He handed it to him, still looking out onto the city as he moved to light the fireplace.
“I’m not going to lie to you, I’ve never actually lit a fireplace like this before. And I only have one match.”
“Mary usually did it, but I was just told she was fired, so now I have a new one. She always warmed the room.”
Phil chuckled a bit under his small, bulb-shaped glass. “Want me to help?”
“Please.” Dan got up from where he was kneeling and relinquished the lone match he had found on the mantlepiece.
“Do you have any wood?”
“Yeah, let me get it.”
Dan came back with an armful of firewood, dropping them quite literally next to Phil. “Oops.”
Phil picked the biggest ones and put them on the grate, balancing a few slightly smaller ones on top. “I’m guessing you have some paper around.”
Dan got some old paper from his office and scrunched it up like Phil said to, placing it around the stacked wood.
“Okay, this should work.” In a blinding swoosh the match lit up, Phil dragging it carefully along the paper to catch a spark.
“Are you sure it’ll work?”
“Shh.” Phil was right. Within a minute the paper had caught and had transferred the flame to the firewood. It cracked warmly against the tepid air.
“You really did it.” Dan was impressed. “Need to have you around more often. Wouldn’t give myself a week if I had to live by myself.”
Phil laughed softly at what was most likely the truth. “You want to drink anything? I'm the only one with a glass.”
Dan eyed the bar by the window. “Don’t think so. I need to work tomorrow.”
“Are you sure?”
In reality, he really did want a little. “Oh, alright. I’m going to get you some clothes to sleep in first though. Don’t finish without me.”
Dan went to his room and looked through his drawers for a night shirt and some pants that were slightly too big. He figured Phil was at least and inch, if not two, taller than him. He ended up with a pair of silk light green pajamas his grandmother had gifted on his 18th that he had yet to grow into.
“Here you go–” Dan stopped as he neared the couch. Across the heavy red sofa lay Phil, passed out, his glass on the tea table next to him. “Phil,” Dan put the pajamas on the ground next to him as he tapped him lightly to see if he was awake.
“Oh–” Phil woke instantly, a little startled. “Oh, I must have fallen asleep.”
“I was only gone 5 minutes.” Dan laughed. “C’mon, let’s get to bed.”
He noticed as he was helping Phil up that he had poured Dan a glass already. It lay, amber dark on the tea table. Dan found the gesture unbearably kind.
“It’s down the hall to the left. First door.” He followed him to his room and got his own pajamas, changing in the bathroom across the hall.
As he changed, Dan started to wonder. He looked himself dead in his mirror. His hair was curled, his face a shade paler than he had been in the summer from the lack of sun, and his pajamas a tad bit too tight. Had he been growing? Maybe the clothes he had given Phil would fit him sooner than he thought.
Phil. Could they ever be together? The water from the tap was icy against his skin. He hadn’t known Phil had suffered that much. He had felt grimy just hearing the story; he couldn’t imagine having lived it.
He made his way to his room, glad to see Phil already under blankets and fast asleep. He looked at him like he did the first night he met him, from his door, peeking at the boy in the sheets. Dan knew he was 4 years older than him, but it didn’t matter. He was still a boy.
He figured he was one too, both a bit lost in their own way on Earth. Their lives were entwined no matter how you argued it, for better or for worse, Dan was yet to know. He desperately wished it was something more than a friendship. He didn’t know another human being he cared more about in this moment than Phil.
“Are you coming to bed?” Phil murmured. His eyes were still closed, but he turned his ear a bit towards the door for a response.
“Mhmm.” Dan got off the door frame and into bed, leaning his head on his elbow to look at Phil for a few moments before he turned off the light. In repose Phil looked more real than he ever did, vulnerability etched into the sleep worn face. He wondered how it ever saw a battlefield. Fondness burned his chest.
Fond. Dan looked at him with a silly smile. He fought back a few tears.
At last, he turned off his light.
“Thank you.” A momentary shock came over him as he felt his hand get taken in the dark. Phil squeezed it slightly before placing it by his neck, cuddling it like an infant with a toy. Dan resisted the urge to kiss him right then and there.
“Good night,” Dan whispered. “Bravest man I’ve ever met.”
There was a silence before Phil brought Dan’s hand to his lips softly.
“Good night– Love."
Hey, I know some of you might think my talking about side characters or what not is off track, but like, trust me on this. I got the plot handled and I swear everything comes together, i promise :")
Chapter 8: VII
warnings at the end, so there aren't any spoilers for people to accidentally read, sorry! (no violence, abuse, bad stuff; promise)
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Christmas 1925 was the best holiday Dan had ever have.
In reality, it was the Christmas time that made it worthwhile, as he had had to spend Christmas Day with family. But it didn’t matter. The last 3 weeks of the month had been a blessing.
After the night in Dan’s room, neither mentioned what had transpired between them with the talk of bravest man, and especially– love. It wasn’t awkward though, like Dan had expected, but instead like some invisible string had been wound around them, causing the peculiar condition of wanting to spend every breathing second with the other to rise and float to the surface of their minds. Dan found himself actually hurting a tiny bit when work got in the way and couldn’t see Phil that day.
“I’d like to place an order for a watch please.” Dan was at Saks again, this time Christmas shopping. He’d already gotten his mother a new dress and some earrings, his father the new Sorrell and Son novel and a raincoat, and Addy a little journal he could write in and some personalized stationary– but for Phil, he was at a loss. He entertained new clothes, but thought it was ultimately a little hollow; Phil had such a unique bohemian way of dressing himself he knew anything he picked out would be scrutinized to hell and back.
So at the counter of the watch department, Dan showed the man the catalog with the circular Minerva watch on the page.
“It might not come in time. It’s shipping from Switzerland.” The man was a thin fellow with an outdated mustache. “You still want it?”
“Yes please.” He figured he could always get him something small until it came. “And may I have it engraved?”
“It’ll cost more.”
Dan resisted the urge to throw his hands up at how difficult the man was being, but uttered a calm “that’s fine” instead.
“Fill this out.”
He settled on a something relatively short.
“This is a lucky fellow.”
He hoped that’s what Phil thought.
That Christmas Eve performance at the club was single-handedly one of the most fun nights Dan had ever had in his 20 years.
The players were all a little drunk, the patronage united in a sadness that metamorphosed into equal part hidden contempt, and equal part joviality.
“We’d close around the holiday except for the fact that everyone here hasn’t a family except us,” Alessio told Dan before he accompanied for the night. A girl was by his side in a pretty red coat who Dan assumed was his girl. She had short dark brown hair that curled like his and brown eyes, so round and happy looking she seemed to smile even when her lips rested.
The show was relaxed and fun. If the players could be even more at ease, it was during that night. He saw Phil dance with the Christmas tree, laughing hysterically, the baubles shining in the dim light like diamonds. Dan didn’t know which one he couldn’t take his eyes off.
At the end of it they sang Auld Lang Syne, and Dan was surprised to see a lot of the house with wet eyes. He got a little teary himself watching the few unknown guests leave.
“Gifts!” Colette called out once it was only the players and close friends. She was wearing a little Santa costume, so sexed up he almost wanted to avert his eyes.
“This is for you baby.” Dan was surprised as Colette came over and handed him a little package.
“Oh– You shouldn’t have. I didn’t get anything for you.” He felt beyond guilty.
“Don’t worry.” She waved her ringed hand. “Just a little parting gift.”
The usual look of carefree optimism on her face fell into confusion. “I’ve got a deal down in Harlem now. Some of us got signed... Philomena didn’t tell you?”
“No.” He didn’t know whether to be hurt or confused.
“No matter, we’ll see each other, I’m sure. I’ll come back here plenty.” She smiled and her old sense of ease was back. It comforted Dan.
The gift was wrapped with cheap newspaper and some twine, but Dan opened it like it was from the Queen. He was happy to find a little charm in the shape of an eighth note.
“Didn’t know if you were the bracelet type so I just got the charm.”
Dan smiled widely. “Thank you so much, Colette.” He meant it.
Dan knew it wasn’t. Pay here was dreadful. It made him even more thankful.
For the rest of the night, he stayed pleasantly buzzed on some cider, watching the performers and their adopted family give gifts to one another.
“You want to come home with me?” It was nearing one in the morning. He noticed that Phil had changed back into his winter coat and scarves and wasn’t as drunk as the rest of them.
“I can’t stay the night though. I have to have Christmas morning with my family.”
Phil tried to not look hurt. “That’s fine, I just have your gift at home. Come on.”
“I may or may not have a surprise for you.” Phil unlocked his door with a sly smile. When he turned on the light, Dan was greeted with an upright piano in the corner by the stairs. “I’ve saved my money since the beginning of the year to get it for myself. Look, I can already play something.”
Phil went to the seat and stumbled out a twinkle twinkle little star, looking back when he finished with the silliest grin he’d seen on him and the look of desperate approval. “What do you think?”
“I think that the last 3 minutes of my life have been the Christmas blessing I’ve been looking for.”
“No Dan,” he smiled anyways at the compliment. “How did I play?”
“The technicians of a complete beginner. The soul of—”
“A complete beginner?” he answered for Dan.
“I wasn’t going to say anything.”
They laughed, Phil obviously unhurt. He was just happy to have Dan with him. “I want to be the best performer I can, that’s all.”
The scene with Colette played back at him. “Are you changing clubs by chance?”
The smile laxed on Phil’s face. “How’d you know?”
“Colette said she and a few others were leaving. She seemed surprised that I didn’t know.”
There was a heavy silence as Phil’s shoulders fell like he was a reprimanded child. “Yeah, I am actually.” He scratched at the side if his head. “I didn’t know how to tell you. There was a man interested in me, said a club down the way needed a new player. They’re paying me a lot more– I couldn’t turn it down.”
“Do you still want to play at the first club?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, I can’t just take you from the club–”
“I’ll play for any space you want me to.”
Phil looked taken aback. “Really?”
“Of course.” It wasn’t even a question.
Phil continued to look at him, gratitude spilling from his smile. He shook his head. “I have your gift. Let me get it.”
The living room didn’t have a hint of Christmas decorations, now that Dan was able to look around. It didn’t surprise him, considering how he lived alone and the extra cost it would entail. It made Dan’s heart hurt a little. His parents probably spent a month's rent on the private family parlor on the top floor.
“Okay, it’s right here.” Phil made his way downstairs with a sloppily wrapped mound and a red ribbon, infused with delicate gold threads that shone in the soft lamplight in front of him. He handed it to Dan.
“This is so ugly. Except the ribbon. That’s a nice ribbon.”
“Oh shut up.” Phil pushed the gift playfully into Dan.
Dan took it and unwrapped the gift. Inside was a simple stuffed animal, a brown teddy bear with black bead eyes, and a small, cute snout.
“It’s a bear.”
Phil waited with apprehension, a silly grin starting to play on his lips.
“Why a bear?” Dan was touched, if a little confused. It was such a specific thing to give.
“Well,” Phil started, a slight blush edging his cheeks, “I thought about that night in the snow, when we were outside talking outside the club, and you called me brave.” He was starting to laugh, clearly embarrassed. “Well, you called me brave, okay, like a lot, and I just felt really...” he shook his head, “safe.”
Dan sat listening, intrigued as to why such a gift could make Phil splutter so much and a warmness starting to seep into his chest.
“And I was trying to find you a gift that would be special,” he continued, clearly stumbling on his words, “and I thought, well, you just kind of protect me... I guess.”
The sheer sincerity of the thought made Dan limp. He didn’t know what to say. His shoulders, his jaw– everything felt deferent to his notion. The fact Phil had connected those incidences into something so meaningful made Dan... Phil had such a beautiful mind.
“So I’m your bear?” It was a little ridiculous, yet Dan took the opportunity anyways. He was his.
Nodding softly, Phil spoke a barely audible yes.
Dan brought the bear tightly into his chest. “Oh, my gift is shit compared. I’m so sorry.” He took a pristine package from his coat pocket, just small enough to fit in the palm of Phil’s hand.
“What is it?” Phil turned it around and shook it.
“You have to open it.”
“Alright alright.” Phil slipped off the ribbon. He undid the wrapping paper and took the lid off a small box. The faintest glimmer from the moon outside shone onto it, lighting Phil’s face with a soft reflection.
“Oh my God.” Phil held up the silver watch like it was made of glass in front of his eyes. His eyes raked over it, his mouth slightly open from the shock. “You shouldn’t have.”
“Look at the back.”
He turned it around, running his thumb over the engraving before reading the inscription aloud.
Phillip M. Lester
a friend and brave
“A friend and brave companion...” he repeated. “Oh, Dan–” he was speechless. “Dan you shouldn’t have. Oh, it’s beautiful.”
Dan glowed watching Phil fawn over the watch. “Do you want me to put it on you?
He crawled over and put the strap in the appropriate measure, happy to have an excuse to drag his fingers across Phil’s wrist. They were warm against his own.
“Where did you get this?” Phil asked, still amazed.
He didn’t know how to answer without coming off exuberant. “Uh, at Saks.” Best not tell him how much he paid for the Minerva watch.
“It’s gorgeous. Oh– are you sure?” Phil almost looked uncomfortable. "It must have been so much."
"I'm sure. It's fine. I wanted to get you the best."
Phil smiled softly to himself before looking down.
“I also got you this, I didn’t know if the watch would come in time,” Dan added awkwardly, handing him an unwrapped packet.
“Freesia seeds.” Phil took the packet and smiled. “Thank you– oh these will be so pretty when they bloom...” He continued to look at the packet, surely imagining how they’d look in the front garden.
There was a silence as Phil took in the gifts.
“It’s too quiet,” Dan thought nervously. “Can I play a piece?”
“You don’t even have to ask.”
On the wooden piano bench, Dan ran his fingers over the new keys without making a noise. They were cold under his touch. “I can’t believe I’ve never played you a song.”
Phil got up to sit next to him on the bench, closer than usual. He could feel Phil’s warmth through their sweaters.
“But you play for me every Friday,” he scrunched up his eyebrows in a way that Dan found unbearably adorable.
“Yeah, but I’ve never played you a song just for you.” It was true, but Dan knew he was being risky. He didn’t know if Phil even thought of him like this. They’d been friends for almost a year, and the one time he’d tried to change it had been the one time he didn’t think they’d ever speak again. “Like, without anyone else hearing. Just for you.”
“Oh.” Phil grew quiet. “You’re right.”
“You’ve sung for me...” Dan reminisced at the time of Phil shirtless in the dressing room, singing the horribly sappy, horribly outdated parlor song. “I guess it’s my time to pay it back.”
Dan thought to himself presently about a song. He decided on something a little cliché, but nonetheless special to him.
The first E-flat sat heavy in the air. As he began, Dan thought nicely how the music made a sleepy ebb of waves, rising and falling on one another, the few notes that did play alone a starkness to the timbre. Like a waterfall, a cascade of tremolos led Dan at the cadenza, growing more and more forceful as he wore on.
I wish I was more to Phil. I think that’s what I’ve always wanted–
Soft. He lightened up. It was pretty again.
He felt his right shoulder start to dip. In the corner of his eye, he saw Phil had leaned his head on his shoulder. It burned him.
Come off it.
He slowed. The simple chords dragged along each other nicely, and Dan let the ritardando seep into the silence, to pass away into the night as he played the last note.
Dan let his fingers float above the keys. He breathed in the silence.
“That was from Liszt’s Liebesträum,” he said at last, whispering when he thought Phil would fall asleep if he didn’t make another noise. A part of him didn’t want to speak at all. A part of him wanted Phil to stay on his shoulder for the rest of eternity. “The third one to be exact, called ‘ O Lieb ’.”
“What does O Lieb mean?” Phil propped his head up on Dan’s shoulder slowly. Already he missed it.
“It’s taken from a German poem. The full part says ‘O lieb, so lang du lieben kannst’ ,” he said in butchered German, “Which means ‘ O dear, as long as you can love.’ ”
“Why did it sound so angry?”
So Phil had heard what was on his mind.
“I suppose,” Dan ventured, “It’s about the pain the man felt from his love. It’s suppose to invoke mature love– maybe... maybe he never got what he wanted. Maybe he’s in his own Liebesträum– his own love dream .” He looked on Phil affectionately.
“I don’t think I’ve ever heard something so beautiful,” Phil admitted.
Dan felt his face get hot. “It was for you.”
Phil opened his mouth, but before he could utter a word Dan had taken the silence. “I have another one– here.” He was afraid of what Phil was going to say, happy to fill the silence.
“Here, play the A there. I’ll tell you when.” With a B he started, careful to not look at him. Up and up the notes went, getting to the chord with the F. “Now.”
Phil played the single note and looked at Dan, but the latter continued to look down and play. It went like this a few more times.
Stronger– Dan play well–
He kept playing, highlighting the softness in between chords of small cacophony, dancing the tones into a waltz of wonder...
Dan saw Phil’s fingers leave the key and edge themselves onto the hem of his yellow sweater sleeve.
Like tiny pinpricks of hot ash, Dan felt his arm start to coat with the sudden warmness that was Phil’s fingers.
At this moment in the piece, Dan gave it his all.
Bombastic– brash– unapologetic– needy– he went at it all in a rolling fury.
Phil’s fingers swept themselves along his arm. Dan could barely contain himself at the gesture.
I want him so bad.
Quieter... quieter...As it started to slow Dan welcomed the empty air. He played as delicately as he could, the little pounces of sustained silence vibrating into a complete calmness. Dan wished he could partake in it.
Does he want me?
“And what was that piece called?”
Dan forced himself to look into Phil’s eyes, tension rising to his throat as he saw his hand on his arm.
“ Seliger Tod,” he managed to force out. He was at an utter loss of words.
“And what does that mean?” Phil ran his hand down Dan’s arm and rested his fingers on his hand, thumbing the slight tan of his skin into tiny shocks.
“I had died,” he said simply.
The game was up.
Phil withdrew his hand slightly. “What do you mean?”
It was all left out.
“It’s from a poem,” he said, choosing his words carefully. “It’s another German thing... when it’s translated it says
I was dead from love's bliss;”
Dan begun, taking the opportunity to take back Phil’s hand. It was warm.
“I lay buried in her arms;”
The yellow sweater sleeve on Phil had a finger on it now, tracing the knit in a silly motion.
“I was resuscitated by her kisses;”
Up and up Dan dragged the tips of his fingers, letting them slide off the ochre cardigan and onto the pale marble that was Phil’s collarbone.
“I-I saw heaven in her eyes.”
he finished, feeling himself trip on his words. He looked at Phil. He looked at his eyes like they were every breath he had yet to take and every day he had yet to live.
To his surprise Phil mirrored. He brought his hand back to Dan, this time bypassing his hand in favor for his face, starting to caress the side of his cheek.
Dan could hardly fathom that this was happening.
Kiss him, you fool.
“I had died simple means...” He focused his attention on Phil’s lips. “It’s what the French call la petite mort. ”
“ La petite mort,” Phil corrected, pronouncing the last word without the t. “I didn’t spend my time in France just killing.”
Kiss him, kiss him already–
Dan felt his body start to succumb to adrenaline, a thousand nerves taking over and pushing him closer to Phil. He still had his hand on Dan’s cheek, a pleasant red starting to bloom under his touch.
“I picked the first song because I wanted you to know that I love you, in everything we are.” He brought his hand up and cupped Phil’s on his face. “You are my dream.”
In the dim light Dan thought he saw the beginnings of a tear leave his eyes.
“And the second one–”
“Was to say I’m greedy...”
“What makes you think you’re greedy?”
“Liszt wrote Seliger Tod to invoke... the erotic. ”
He let Phil sit with the word.
“I love you as a friend foremost–”
On the piano bench, Dan felt his body get pushed towards Phil. He found himself closing his eyes, a passionate kiss with lips passing along each other and sending Dan into a headspace he hadn’t believed existed until he pulled away to catch his breath. Phil had kissed him.
“As a friend,” Phil parroted, his eyes wide, just inches away. Dan stared back, taking in his parted lips, his blown pupils, the flush high on his cheeks.
“Foremost,” he corrected. His breath was unsteady, but he forced the stumbling words out anyway. “But—were you to be receptive to those—less platonic—”
Dan didn’t get to finish his sentence; Phil had taken the opportunity to lean in again, and their lips brushed gently enough that it stole what remained of his breath. As the kiss deepened, Dan felt himself leaning back, letting Phil push him until his elbow jostled the keyboard and sent a resounding clamor through the room. Phil seemed to barely notice, his eyes closed into the kiss and his hands resting lightly above Dan’s ribcage.
The pounding of his heart could be fear, Dan reflected, but it could also be arousal. He kept his eyes open while Phil kissed him, while he let himself be kissed, in some torturous reminder that this kind of affection—the affection that had fueled the angry chords of Seliger Tod —was not what he had ever expected from himself. But Phil’s eyelashes were soft against his cheek, and Phil’s lips were soft against his and barely chapped, and Dan felt himself relax into the hold.
Yes, Phil had kissed him. But Dan was now kissing back, and he was reaching around Phil’s neck, and both of their chests were heaving inches apart. Phil’s thigh was an urgent heat against his, and Dan wanted nothing more than to be closer, and so he let himself surrender into Phil’s embrace.
“You’re incredible,” Phil breathed when they finally broke apart. Their foreheads leaned against each other, the tips of their noses brushed, and when Phil spoke the warmth of his breath felt almost like another kiss.
Dan suddenly remembered the order of the songs he had played. He had wanted to tell Phil about it. Their friendship came first. O Lieb before Seliger Tod.
It didn’t matter now. He closed his eyes and went back to kissing him. It made Dan feel light despite the weight between his thighs.
He was kissing him he was kissing him–
“ I-I want you to know I don’t care if you wear rouge.” Phil came up a little, deciding to take off his glasses before they got in the way. He balanced his nose on Dan’s and thumbed a little of the red that was on his face in passing. “But you shouldn’t feel like you have to wear it to be accepted. It doesn’t matter what they think.”
Dan could only smile and nod in thanks. He wanted to be kissed again, badly. Phil ran his tongue over bottom lip subconsciously and went back to kissing him, this time edging his lips around Dan’s jawline before replacing them on his lips.
“You make me feel things,” Dan admitted. “T-Things I never thought I could feel.”
The corners of Phil’s lips quirked.
“ Erotic things?”
“Yes.” He could feel the pressure of Phil’s hands moving from his ribs to the slight curve of his waist, and Dan’s fingers twitched against Phil’s neck. “What are you doing–”
Not a question. Not really.
“I just thought,” Phil whispered, lips inches away from Dan’s own. “Maybe you’d like to feel some of those erotic things.”
Dan felt his breath catch, and then Phil was kissing him again, softer than before. This time, he managed to clamber off the piano bench, his hands trailing down Dan’s frame the whole time, smoothing over the wrinkles in his shirt. When they broke away that time, Phil sank to his knees on the carpet, tugging Dan’s hand until he turned to face away from the piano. Dan gripped tight to the bench’s edge, unable to take his eyes off of Phil kneeling before him.
“What are you doing?” He whispered, this time tinged with an edge of hysteria. He ran a hand through his hair wildly, letting it get caught in his fingers and pull. Phil just offered an easy smile and placed his hands on Dan’s thighs.
This was perhaps easier said than done, because when Phil started to undo Dan’s slacks, his fingers brushing against the hardness underneath, Dan jerked. His elbow hit the keyboard again, but neither of them paid the clang much mind. Phil was still looking up at Dan with his eyes wide, shining blue-grey in the dim light.
“Trust me,” he said, and Dan nodded. What else could he do?
When Phil tugged his briefs down, releasing him from the constricting fabric, Dan gasped. He tore his eyes way from the sight, Phil’s lips inches away from his throbbing erection, and he trained his eyes on the outdated paisley of the wallpaper, cracked with age. Against it was a picture of Louise Brooks, her round porcelain face gazing at him with her knowing kohled eyes. When Phil’s hand started stroking him, long and tight and with practiced ease, Dan finally gave into the urge to clench his eyes shut.
He’d never felt anything like this before. He was leaking all over Phil’s hand, and Phil was using it as a lubricant of some kind to make his strokes smoother. When he thumbed over the flared tip of Dan’s cock, his hand flew up to stifle his gasp, teeth digging into his own palm.
“Good?” Phil asked, his voice warm. All Dan could do was nod frantically, trying to ignore the tightening in his stomach. God, he wanted to make this last.
Phil finally slowed his strokes, until his fist was still at the base of Dan’s cock. Don’t look, Dan told himself, don’t look, but when he felt the hot pressure of Phil’s lips sliding around the head of his cock, his eyes flew open–
Phil was on his knees, lips spit-slick and red around him, eyes open and looking up. It was such a sight.
Their gazes locked. As Phil’s lips slid down his length, Dan could feel a low moan escape him, and he dropped the hand from his mouth and buried it almost involuntarily in Phil’s black hair. It took a moment for Phil to get into a rhythm, just quick enough that it sent Dan gasping for breath.
“Phil— God —” He broke off, teeth clenched as Phil hummed and blinked and did something with his tongue that sent him tumbling over the quickly approaching edge. Dan clenched his fingers in Phil’s hair as he came, his head thrown back and his damp hair flicking into his eyes. Phil kept sucking him through the aftershocks, until Dan hissed and tugged at his hair again, and he drew off.
“ Did you... ” Dan tried to ask, watching as Phil wiped the edge of his mouth with one hand. His eyes were locked onto Phil’s lips, red and slightly swollen and beautiful. He wanted to kiss him again, but the thought made his stomach turn as he tucked himself back into his slacks. Phil watched him with hooded eyes, his hands palming at the clearly visible bulge in his own trousers.
“ Do you want– ” Dan seemed unable to complete a full sentence, but Phil just smiled again, that familiar quirk of his lips soothing something in Dan’s chest. He climbed back onto the piano bench, sitting thigh-to-thigh with Dan, and started to undo his pants. Dan reached out, tugging down his zipper, and Phil gripped his hand tightly.
“You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to,” he said, and somehow, that only strengthened Dan’s resolve.
“I do want to.” He glanced down, then back up. “I don’t—I don’t really know how, though,” he admitted, a blush furious against his dimpled cheek.
“I’ll show you,” Phil promised, a smile in his voice. When he tugged himself out of his own briefs, Dan could feel his breath catch in his throat. Phil was longer than he was, nearly as thick, and flushed red with blood. It was stupid to feel intimidated, so Dan shook off his hesitations and reached out, wrapping his fingers around the base of Phil’s cock.
It really wasn’t that different from touching himself, Dan noted, except for the angle. And the low, dirty moan that Phil let out, quickly wrapping his own hand around Dan’s made him flush with excitement.
“Like this,” Phil murmured, stroking up and guiding Dan’s hand. His cock was smooth and hot to the touch, and Dan’s stomach turned in– was it nerves? No, arousal– that had nowhere to go, it had been too soon after he’d spent himself. The act of pleasuring Phil, of watching his hips hit hard and his eyes languor, made Dan feel powerful– almost, in a way, he’d never felt before.
“Faster ,” Phil urged, letting his hand fall away from Dan’s own and letting it through his hair this time, succumbing to the touch Dan was yielding. He was too enraptured in the look on Phil’s face to notice when the first spots of come landed on his hand, but he did notice the next several that stained his cuff and sleeve. He couldn’t stop the horrified look that briefly crossed his face, and Phil’s next moan was tinged with laughter.
“It’s not funny,” he protested half-heartedly, but when Phil looked at him again, cheeks flushed red and a fond look in his eye, Dan couldn’t form another argument.
“Maybe next time this should happen– with considerably less clothing,” Phil suggested, sly and earnest. Dan blinked. Surprised, but eager.
“Next time?” He asked. Not really a question.
“Next time,” Phil agreed and leaned back against the piano. The resulting sound was discordant and jarring, but Dan laughed anyway. After a moment, Phil joined him.
Dan smiled lazily and nodded his head over to the wall above the fireplace. “Did a poster of Louise Brooks just watch us have sex?”
Phil laughed, a rasp hitting across his throat. “I suppose so,” he said matter of factly.
“Merry Christmas,” Dan smiled, unbuttoning his stained shirt before throwing it on the couch and walking over to the window.
“Merry Christmas,” Phil replied, bringing the red curtain back so they could see the snow begin to fall. “Oh– you’re a comfortable height.” He had placed his arms around Dan from the back and had rested his head on his shoulder, sinking into his neck with a warm sigh. “I like this.”
“No silly,” Phil smiled, “all of this– all of you. ” He uttered the last words with a small hug. “This is the best Christmas I’ve ever had, Dan.”
Dan felt himself blush underneath the shining white of the gaslight outside, and he found the snow illuminate almost to inconceivability as looked out onto the street. Phil began to sing a little under his breath, and he didn’t know what it was, and he didn’t even know what language it was in.
“What are you singing?” he interrupted, but without any malice.
Phil dug his head deeper into Dan’s shoulder to kiss it. “It’s an old song I learned with my mother,” he whispered out. He kept it at that.
Phil didn’t tell him what it was about, instead he continued to sing, the low, unfettered timbre so unaccustomed to arias. It was his song for the world now, just his. The white on the sidewalk piled resolutely. It was almost calm.
One good day, we will see
Arising a strand of smoke
Over the far horizon on the sea
He will call
"Little one, dear wife
Blossom of orange"
The names he called me at his last coming
All this will happen,
I promise you this.
END OF PART ONE
warnings: smut ? oral sex the lot. pretty vanilla though.
song is un bel di vedremo from madame butterfly. take of it what you will...
Chapter 9: PART TWO: 1926-1929 – VIII
Warnings for ptsd, a reference to sexual/physical abuse, blackmail, and bad communist sex puns.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
1926 began with a cooler breeze. It hugged Dan Howell, of the ever-expanding Howell fortune, with an air of unending optimism. The Claremont Monthly was in a giddy syndication, his writing on the nightlife still fresh and exciting all around the country. Letters would still pour in, and he could barely keep up with reading them, and it was hard not to feel indebted to Phil— it was because of him for such a start.
The Agavni existed, it shone on the corner of 5th Avenue and lapped up its wealthy guests, and all stayed the same. A predictable hub of a city working in its confines to produce and cater to the owners of the rare jewels and family names.
And so the only change was as Phil started at the new club early in January, and they both became obsessed with how he’d succeed. A little change went a long way in making things interesting.
“Oh you’re really going to run them down—” Dan shook his head seriously between his fingers. “What part of this is just for me then?” Dan asked in jest setting his champagne glass down (because that’s what you drink when you’re in love; you use any excuse to celebrate).
“Why are you always so jealous?” Phil smiled behind his low voice, reserved for just him. “You already have me, last time I checked.”
“Because I love you,” Dan said defiantly. He got up and spun Phil around himself next to their piano. “The real sheik of Greenwich,” he lauded.
Phil pushed up his glasses and laughed with him. “Oh– don’t get ahead of yourself,” he resisted the urge to roll his eyes. “I’m not anything.”
“Yes, you are. And we’ll show that tomorrow, won’t you?”
“I will. Promise.”
It was his turn to spin Dan around, his black kimono shining next to the phonograph playing Yes Sir! That’s My Baby just loud enough that they were almost asking for a noise complaint from the lady next door. He let Dan fall into his arms, sweaty, a little drunk and rouge nipping at his cheeks like frost on a baby.
“And they call me the actress,” Phil smiled, kissing Dan’s closed eyelids lightly. “What a pair we are,” he whispered.
“What a pair.”
It was surprising how easy it was for Dan to take the piano job.
“Who are you,” the new director had asked, cigar in transit from finger to kisser.
“Your new pianist?” he asked cautiously.
“Now why would i do tha–”
“I ask no pay.”
“How are you doing?” Dan sat next to Phil as he began doing his hair for the show. It was a cleaner and nicer room, with real lights and a tiled floor. Dan couldn’t help but notice how white the performers were with an inside chuckle, but then he wondered grossly if they didn’t allow colored people. It wouldn’t have surprised him, but after all that time at The Gypsy Peregrine he’d forgotten how rotten people could get. People were just people. There weren’t very many women either, but it’d always been like that, and he hoped they weren’t lonely over in the corner. The group getting ready around him then just seemed more polished, maybe even a little more cutthroat. He unconsciously moved closer to Phil.
“I’m nervous,” Phil admitted.
He wanted to say “ Yeah, I’d be too ,” but sighed instead, running his hand over Phil’s back to try and comfort him. “I think you’ll be amazing.”
“Thank you.” Phil smiled as he finished waving his hair and held up a lip stain. “One more kiss before I get this muck on ‘em?”
It was an easy night. Phil did a rendition of Masculine Women! Feminine Men! and similar staples, this time in so many costume changes Dan couldn’t keep up. Every so often Phil would look like he’d seen a ghost though, and it scared Dan a bit. He didn't wear his glasses on stage, and you could see his eyes clearly for the pretty blue they were. He had his black hair in finger waves as well, a deep burgundy lip, and eyeshadow that set his whole pale face in contrast. It made Dan a little jealous despite the anxiety that ran through it, and he was going to have to ask Phil if he could do it on him once they got home.
But Capitalism was all that Phil could berate on him that night in the lounge.
“You just take a job from another man like it’s nothing?”
“I wanted to perform with you.” Dan got up from his seat and sat in front of him, who above him on the couch looked up to avoid eye contact, smiling in earnest. “Is that so bad?” They both knew how this would end; Dan tried to run his hand on his thighs, but they got pushed off easily. It was their little game and they knew it. He had completely forgotten how nervous Phil had been.
“Oi– no,” Phil tried to contain it. “I should start a communist revolution, that’s what I should do. Keep the jobs for the masses.”
“Oh really, and lose me to the rest of the bourgeoisie?” He continued to sit suggestively below him, his hands once again grabbing for Phil’s hips.
“I forgot, you're one of those scum.”
“Me and all my money ,” he punctuated the last words with a pout. “Swallowed by the revolution–” With a little head shake that made Dan’s hair fall across his forehead, he succeeded in finding Phil’s pants button. “–Obliterated by your comrades.”
Phil shook his head with a laugh, letting Dan go about with the unbuttoning.
“An uprising would just exhaust me, I think– ”
“You’re piece of work, aren’t you? Ah– ” Phil took to the back of Dan’s head to steady himself as he continued. “You want to spend the night?”
“That,” he slid a bit of the black silk off his shoulder, “would be lovely.”
The man was sulking in his chair. He was encased, the shadow of the fire closing in around him. Dark brooding flickers fell heavily over his form as he waited.
Phil thought he’d seen this scene before. It was a memory. Back on him like sweat.
“I told you to get information of him, not fall in love with him.”
Phil stayed tucked behind the corner. He didn’t want to leave and be seen, he wanted to melt into the wallpaper and stay like that forever. He was tired of seeing him. Tired of hearing his voice and his touch and his everything .
“I gave you that ticket for a reason, why would you do this to me?”
“I’m not a part of your life anymore,” he heard himself say, but was that his voice? It didn’t sound like his. It was too strong. Too sure of itself. Phil thought his voice should crumple like a paper to flame.
Dan. It was Dan bringing his voice up for him. The thought of him–
“After everything I did for you? The money, the clothes, the games?”
“That’s not me anymore –” Phil couldn’t voice his name. “I don’t need that anymore.”
“I can see that, leave me for the millionaire. Famous one. Connections and all sort. Wouldn’t want that getting out, would we?” There was a silver edge to his voice. Jealousy.
The hairs on the back of Phil’s neck stood up again, and he wanted to throw up. There were words there, actions alluded to– He didn’t want to do that anymore. Never again.
But to save Dan–?
A thought came to him, darkly.
“You forget your own past. Years of it. My friends before me. Wouldn’t want that getting out, would we?” Again it wasn’t his voice, it was like a quiet lion, silently surrounding its prey.
And then Phil wanted to stop it, stop the moving picture clicking in his brain, the whack whack whack of a metal ring against his head. Normal Hands.
I have scars from Normal Hands.
“You wouldn’t say anything.”
“Not if you don’t.”
And he was in a bad place again, a very bad place. Being hit was not in a good place, it was in a bad place, it was when he was young, when he saw dirt and blood, when people screamed and died and fell over frontwards with their insides out . Being reminded of nerves was not in a good place either, that was shaky cigarette smoke of cigarettes and bombs and gunfire, the trembling of breath and stink and death. Nerves ate at you. Nerves clawed against your body like paying hands in a rented room.
“Don’t fall in love with him.”
Dan was awoken by a shout.
It shouldn’t have jolted him as awake as it did, but the yell– throaty and terrified, was too Phil. It scared him. He turned over to see Phil, his face contorted and sweaty in the darkness.
“ Don’t leave me– Please don’t leave me – Oh God –” he begged, pity lacing his throat.
“Phil–” Dan shot up, trying to coax him awake. His fingers did nothing on his side but cause more convulsion. “Phil, wake up!”
“ I need to get out of here, Oh God I don’t know why I’m alive– Chris why are we alive? I think I need to die already I need to die– ” He was breathing fast now, trembling under Dan’s touch.
“Phil!” he shoved him hard enough to almost go over the edge.
“Ah–!” Phil jolted awake, hitting Dan across his cheek hard. He looked around the room wildly, finally finding the object of his swinging arm. There was no processing though, and he looked through Dan like he was glass.
“ Ow– God ar e you okay?”
The side of Dan’s face burned warmly. It was a dumb question. Phil was still breathing fast, the sweat on his forehead dripping off in droplets. At the sound of Dan's voice, he only turned over and threw up off the side of the bed, numb and unthinking.
There was a good minute of silence. Dan could do nothing but watch Phil hunched over the side of the bed, trying to contain his stomach and slow down his breathing. He was starting to cry too. Dan was helpless as the sound of his breath tore raggedly at the air, ugly and laced with utter shame. At last, Phil moved his hunch body toward the middle of the messed sheets in the direction of Dan. If it was possible, he looking even more pale than usual. He looked like he was about to pass out any second.
“I’m– sorry,” he breathed out, a hitch taking the first word with it.
“You don’t have to be sorry.” Dan brought his hand out to comfort him but Phil shook his head and recoiled.
“I hurt you— I— need to put myself together and maybe you should leave, you know–”
“I’m not leaving.” Dan had to be there for him.
“You don’t get to tell me what to do,” Phil sat up coldly. “No one tells me what to do,” he spat, “except me .”
Dan froze. He had never heard that tone of voice come from him. It was icy and so unlike who he knew Phil to be. It scared him.
There was another silence as Dan looked at him softly, trying to understand. They stared at one another for what felt like an eternity until Phil sighed, resigned to cry again.
“May I stay?” Dan asked this time, tentatively.
Phil nodded, making his way across the bed to Dan. He leaned his head in ever so small to signal for Dan to wrap his arms around him, and he did, bringing Phil close to him so he could calm down into his chest.
“Nightmare–” he whispered like glass, like he was still ashamed of it.
“It was—” He didn’t want to think about the man. He wasn’t going to tell Dan about that in a million years. “—S o bad. So bad ,” his voice petered out. “I was– I was back in it all– Again, like I was there.” Phil clung closer to Dan’s chest and tried to slow his breathing again, but he was still shaking from it all. He could tell him about the war— he knew about that, even if he didn’t understand it a bit.
“I’m sorry,” Dan’s voice was barely audible. He stroked his back, glad he was finally calming down. “You’re here now, with me. You’re safe. You’re safe,” he repeated.
“I hurt you,” Phil sighed. “I can’t believe I did that—”
“It’s fine, it’ll heal. It wasn’t your fault. None of it is your fault.”
Phil didn’t believe it, but he held on. Dan was warm.
For a while they stayed like that. Phil pressed himself tighter, like he was afraid Dan would vanish if he didn’t hold strong enough. “I’ve never had someone who cared about me be with me during one of these,” he half laughed, but it was shallow; anyone could have been able to tell how grateful he was for Dan next to him.
“That’s fine. You have me now.”
Phil loosened a bit and sniffled. “Well aren’t I just a mess?” He tried to laugh again, but Dan only smiled half-heartedly. Phil could cry about almost anything expect The War. It made Dan’s head spin.
“Can I make you some tea?” He wiped the last tear from Phil’s face off and onto the bedsheets.
“Yeah, that’d be nice.”
Dan got up and put on his black robe, making his way downstairs to the little kitchen. He lit the fire for the kettle and checked the clock: 1:37 a.m.
There was a thought of how to continue as he leaned against the wooden counter. The kettle whined as it grew hotter, and Dan ran a hand through his hair like the two were connected. He didn’t know how to help Phil other than being there for him. I know nothing about the War. All I know are what the damn papers tell me and I know they lie. He knew Phil wasn’t the person to talk about it with either. It had scared him when Phil told him to get out, and now standing in the kitchen half clothed Dan felt an underpinning of unease take hold of him. If he couldn’t calm down Phil one time? He pushed the thought down.
The scream of the kettle broke Dan out of his thoughts. He poured the green tea over a little metal strainer to catch the leaves and into the two tea cups, deciding to give Phil the larger of the two. They wobbled in his hands as he went up the stairs.
He was surprised to find the mess beside the bed clean as he came up, but couldn’t seem to find Phil in the small room to save his life. “Phil?” he called out tentatively.
“I’m in the bath.”
Dan went to the little adjoining room and sat down beside the porcelain tub, the two cups of tea in hand.
“Thank you,” he took the larger of the two Dan had planned and sipped at it, running his hands over the burning warm sides. “I felt a little gross after that.”
“I didn’t even hear the water run,” Dan admitted. He must have been too caught up worried about Phil to have noticed.
“Don’t say sorry. You don’t have anything to say sorry about.” Phil’s bottle of Mulsified Cocoanut Oil fell over as Dan moved in protest. The amber of the bottle was unnaturally cheery against the white ceramic tiling.
“But I think I do,” Phil rationalized, his head leaning against the tub to look at Dan. “I hurt you—”
“I’ll survive,” Dan cut in. “I’m fine,” he reassured him again.
“–And then I want you to be with me, but I act like a child and get angry at you for nothing and those ticks just don’t go away. It’s been 8 years, Dan,” he pleaded, like it was supposed to change how his brain worked after everything he’d seen. “You’d think it’d leave me already, but I’m still just as worked up as ever… A civvy and everything.”
Phil chuckled a little, and this time Dan felt it was real. He held out his hand for Dan to take momentarily. “It’s what we call ‘civilians’, mostly about old soldiers though.”
“There’s a whole life that you’ve lived I don’t even know about.”
The smile on Phil’s face faded and he let go of Dan’s hand. “Yeah, I guess so.”
Dan didn’t mean to say it like that, but he felt helpless amongst this. There was a silence as Dan finished his tea and put the cup down. “May I ask why you think it happened tonight?”
Phil shrugged his shoulders. “It was the show. It was a whole new place and I didn’t like the crowd or the players much and I think it got to me– At least that’s what I think it was,” he lied.
“No, that makes sense.”
“Lousy, huh,” he bit the inside of his cheek to try and stop feeling so guilty.
“Maybe,” Dan countered, wanting to be truthful with him. “But you’re not the only one going through this. I’m sure of it.”
That made Phil laugh a little again. “Oh, you don’t know the half of it. I’ve ‘some friends that never got work again they were so bad. Took me awhile to adjust back, Saint Joseph knows,” he shook his head like it was a reverie, slipping back into his familiar and yet distant slang. “Couldn’t get a proper job or even work singing because of the ticks. Holed myself up on the streets and did lots of bullshit for a bit. Alessio was the one to help me out of it.” A tiny bit of water from the tub dripped off the side of Phil’s cheek and onto Dan’s lap. “And some would say that was far too little far too late,” he rushed out, “But that doesn’t matter .” He motioned for Dan to take his tea cup and rested his head on the side again, clearly trying to change the subject. “What now?”
The look of ease that had taken Phil as he retold the story slid off his face in half a second. “How about–,” he let his shoulders inch up. “Not–?” he suggested hesitantly.
Dan didn’t know what else to do. “We could–”
“Go downstairs and sleep? Listen to music and relax?”
Dan smiled. “That sounds–”
Phil got dressed and together the two set up a little bed on the ground next to the phonograph. All the wireless stations were off the air by this point, and he didn’t like the graininess of it either. The sound of a good record (when you couldn't hear it live that is) had always been his soft spot; his parents had taught him that.
“Dan?” Phil came up behind him just as he was about to put on one of the shellac discs, suddenly cautious to touch him. There had been too much of his own failing to annoy Dan when he didn’t want to be bothered, especially after whatever that scene was making him get up and hold him in bed.
“Could you–?” He motioned to the piano by the stairs. “Maybe play something? I like when you play. Just for me and all that.”
Dan could sense the unease in his voice, but it warmed him regardless. He likes when I play for him. Damn was he cute. Maybe being forced to learn all those years ago had been worth it. “Of course, Phil. Anything for you,” he promised, because it was true. He wasn’t going to get much sleep tonight anyways.
Phil settled down into the blankets and listened.
“This is a piano transcription of Tchaikovsky’s first string quartet, the slow pretty part.” Adagio? Andante? He didn’t know the technical name right now and he didn’t really care. Slow and pretty was all that counted.
“I know this piece,” he could hear Phil say the words almost out of amazement, maybe from sleepiness. “My father used to play it with us,” he admitted.
The comment caught Dan off-guard. He almost asked about it, but turning his head sharply to see a huddled Phil broke it away. It was late and he was glad Phil had finally calmed. “It’s one of my favorites,” he agreed.
And so he played.
Under the piece, it wasn’t long before long Phil stilled. After a while, Dan joined him under the big blankets. He leaned over to kiss him on the forehead one last time before he drifted off to sleep. Bravest man I’ve ever met, he thought again to himself.
“Dan?” Phil’s voice was so thick with sleep it almost didn’t sound like him. He almost didn’t want to respond so he could sleep
“Are you sure you don’t hate me?”
The question was ridiculous. “Positive. Quite the opposite.”
“And you don’t resent me?”
There was a small silence. Phil took Dan’s hand in his and moved it closer to his chest.
“Then do you want to just move in with me?”
Dan leaned forward. “Are you sure?” he whispered.
“I think we spend so much time together as it is, it wouldn’t change anything. I wouldn’t mind just having you around every day, if you’re not so freaked out by me.”
Dan was left speechless.
“You don’t have to make your mind up now–”
“Of course– Of course I will. Are you sure?”
Phil took back Dan’s hand and kissed it sleepily. “Super sure.”
Dan lay down, unable to think much besides the event of that night. He had never seen Phil so vulnerable like that, scared and uneasy and childlike. Phil was supposed to be the one that showed Dan everything and kept in together, a cool glance and patience and everything Dan seemed to lack. He didn’t know anything about veterans and he needed someone desperately to tell him things would be alright, not the other way around. He’s an enigma, Dan internally shook his head. All these secrets and I can’t begin to keep up. I guess this is what it’s like to be in love, Dan thought, I need to be someone to him now despite all that. The fact scared him a bit but he ignored it, reveling in the fact he’d actually be living here finally. His apartment in the hotel had been so lonely without Phil. It was a new chance for everything. Dan tried to contain his smile as he slept, but he was pretty sure the muscles there ached in the morning.
What a world we’re in.
They went to shops and spent time together, Dan playing Phil songs late into the night until he fell asleep on the couch, to nights listening to the phonograph until both of them fell asleep— never the wireless.
A particular song they had grown to like was The Prisoner’s Song , oddly enough, though Dan thought it had to with the fact they bought it together at an after Christmas sale down at 28th and 6th. It was a soft song, a little melancholic, that sang of a man that was to go to jail without their love. It was a weird reality to think about, and he didn’t want to believe he could very possibly relate, but the emotions were there– Dan could feel them. He didn’t question it.
With the phonograph and radio downstairs, the habit of camping out there for the night grew, and falling asleep together with the music and waking up in a nest of couch cushions became commonplace. It was at one of those time near the end of January, as they listened to The Prisoner’s Song for the umpteenth time, that Phil reminded him he should probably tell his father the news.
January had come and went and the heir apparent had not shown up to talk to his father not once, even briefly, since Christmas. His father had appreciated the raincoat and was a little more than halfway through Sorrell and Son when his eldest son decided to finally show his face again.
“Daniel, how are you?”
His son sat neither uncomfortably nor comfortably, but more like he was a different entity altogether than anyone else that had sat in the chairs before him. He also looked like he wanted to be anywhere but the cherry wood chair right then. Dan remembered awkwardly that he had forgotten his hat at Phil’s place. He had nothing to take off and fiddle with.
“I’ve decided to take an apartment in the Village.”
“The Village?” Mr. Howell leaned back. “Why the Village? Is your place here not good enough?”
Dan looked down. He had expected a bit of a row. “No, father, it’s fine. I just want to get out more.”
His father nodded, thinking. “Well, a man your age, I’m glad you’re socializing more. I know you weren’t really allowed the traditional path because of the hotel.”
Dan almost balked. He hadn’t thought about his dream of going into law in ages.
“But–” He took a deep breath. “I wish you would talk more with the other young men in our society. The journalist boys I’ve talked to all seem like decent folks– but at the Village?” He gave his son an ‘ is this really what you’re asking? ’ look before proceeding. “Art is fine, but the Village in my day was just a hotbed of scandal. Only slightly better than the Bowery... If it’s art you’re after you can always live in the apartment we have on 5th Avenue. The museum is just a block away.”
Dan’s heart hurt a little. His father was trying so hard. He hadn’t been in the apartment on 5th in years, now that he thought about ut. It was currently being lived in by his nana and grandad from his mother’s side, and he knew the family was probably just waiting for them to die in the upstairs drawing room so they could take it back. It made Dan sick.
“What about Nana?”
“Would you mind living with her? She might enjoy your company.” Mr. Howell perked up at his son’s interest. “She loves you dearly.”
No no no. All this talk of his grandmother made him sad. He was here for one thing.
“I’ve already found a place father. I’m sorry. I just came to tell you.” Dan sat perched at the end of his chair. Mad amounts of courage and a strong kiss was what was allowing him to have the mind to do this now.
It was a bit of a lie though. He hadn’t found a place yet. He was just betting on staying with Phil and getting away with his father never visiting if he had any say in the ordeal.
“Daniel, as your father I want to see this place first. The Village is just rife with the bohemians and the degenerate lot...”
Dan internally winced at the derision his father employed on the word so easily.
“Oh Daniel, it’s college all over again... They really aren’t as fashionable as they let on. Trust me, I know you’ve always been the quieter type but they can’t offer you anything good you can’t get in nice society.”
Good. The word sat like lead in his mouth.
“Perhaps I can strike a deal for you with the owners as well.”
Dan was stuck. “I suppose.”
“Very well. I’m going to keep the place here if that’s alright with you,” his father continued when Dan didn’t say anything. “I don’t want anyone out of the family taking it. Your grandfather put his soul into its design. That room— it is the top cage for our Agahvni– ”
“Oh, I understand,” Dan said, not understanding. His voice rose in relief despite. “I’m only moving the things I use daily to the new place.”
“Very well,” his father repeated. “I’ll let you do this–”
“Yes,” he interrupted. Dan was already a mile ahead of his father.
“–Under one condition.”
Dan’s shoulders sank. “And what is that?”
With a ruffle of papers, his father got up from his desk and to the breakfront bookshelf behind him. He took out a heavy book he knew was the hotel's ledger, solid black leather and almost two feet tall. With a thud, it fell onto the table between them.
“Your Sunday’s are with me now.”
Dan thought he knew what his father was referring to. “What do you mean?”
“I mean,” he tapped on the ledger, “that you are going to be here Sunday’s to learn how to run things. Do you even know the city hotel tax rate?”
“No,” he admitted, falling back into his chair and wanting to shrivel up and die. He couldn’t imagine doing this for the rest of his life.
“Well, you will. Daniel this is important to me. The Agavni was your grandfather’s and I’s darling...”
With heavy eyes, Dan realized how much thinner his father had become. It wasn’t terribly scary, but the old portliness he knew of him relaxed into a more fit version of himself, his jaw squarer and his suit a little loose in the stomach. He thought with hope in his heart that he was actually getting healthier. Perhaps the year would do him well.
“I hope you understand,” he finished.
Liar, Dan wanted to shout. It was all his father, he knew it.
“Alright.” The wooden armrests were gripped uncomfortably in his hands.
He smiled sadly at his son before standing up and leading him to the door. “I’ll see you this Sunday.” Dan feigned he even heard some warmth in it.
I realized I never really comment on my story as I post, so here's me just saying hi! In this chapter we finally see the first instance of the underlying main plot... watch out kids...
As always here is the playlist here and even if you're like "bitch wtf this sucks" the music is 100 times better I swear forget this just hang out with New York and New Orleans jazz for all I care that's worth your time
(lmao and remember if you enjoyed, kudos/comment/share to your friends it really helps ;;) you can't even begin to imagine how much it helps and i appreciate all of it)
Clara’s hands were full. Her feet ached as well. It was tireless, really, having to wear heels and run up and down the million stairs and collect laundry from all the millions of passing faces that came through the hotel. She could feel sweat start to ball up on her forehead as she went down the steps for what she hoped was the last time for the day, and she hoped she didn’t look too bad – she was seeing Albert today.
Clara almost tripped on the last of the steps. There, across from her through the window was a man on the fire escape. The servant's stairs were small, but she got a good look, and right outside was a man trying to scale the third floor.
She almost lost the laundry basket.
“By Jove,” she whispered under her breath. She didn’t want to have to see someone die. It would be too much to have a see a man die and then have to answer a million questions about it with the police. Once was enough , Clara thought.
She rushed out the door from the stairs and onto the third floor, dropping the laundry in a corner by a fern. She looked around quickly, and seeing no patrons, went down the hallway across the grand staircase.
“By J–” Clara almost fell on the floor and onto her face as she slammed into a body going down the stairs. She was grabbed by her elbows and kept up, her heeled shoes sliding fantastically under the slick tiles. “Oh excuse me s– sir.” Clara almost fell back down. It was none other than the face of the owner’s son, Mr. Daniel Howell, and his immaculate black tails next to her starched and lye stained apron.
“What’s wrong? Oh, sorry,” he became presently aware of their awkward embrace and let go of her arms quickly, leaving her room to get up by herself.
“Sir, I am so sorry, I’m just on my way to–” she couldn’t find the words. There was still a man on the fire escape to get taken care of.
“You’re on your way to–?”
The woman’s ruffled uniform headband sunk on her forehead. “Oh Mr. Howell sir, there’s a man out on the fire escape and I’m afraid he’ll quite surely die,” she voiced out in earnest. “I really don’t want to see that, oh Mr. Howell sir come quick–” It should have been wrong to run and lead him anywhere , but she didn’t much seem to care with this guy climbing outside. Desperate times called for desperate measures.
“You see sir!” She opened the large bay windows overlooking 33rd street and pointed.
Dan closed his eyes and ran a hand through his hair before laughing.
Then he remembered there was a laundry maid to worry about now, and probably the rest of the staff, and if God wanted a cruel joke– some of the patrons. He stopped laughing soon after that.
“Phil– Phil what the hell do you think you’re doing?”
The man sat comfortably on the third level fire escape now and played with a hat. “I think you left this?”
“What are you doing here?”
“You left your hat and the telegram office was down. I wanted to see a picture show with you too.” He was smiling boyishly, the breeze from uptown blowing the long hair on his forehead into his face and tortoise shell glasses.
“He’s right sir, we haven’t been able to deliver anything and all the boys are going stark mad downstairs,” Clara interjected. Her hat was still sliding down her forehead and she was sweating. Dan thought the poor girl looked like she needed a break.
He didn’t have the time to be mad with either of them though. “Phil, get in here– now. Oh–” He signaled for the girl to come help. “What’s your name again?”
“I’m Clara Fremont sir, but you just can call me Clara. I take your sheets every morning after Mary got discharged last fall. She had her baby sir, but madam won’t let her back in service. She misses your company, sir.”
Dan wanted to kick himself. He’d only seen the woman– girl briefly every morning he stayed at the hotel. She probably came every morning to even see if he slept there, and he thought of her sweating up the 32 odd floors to get to the top every day just to get nothing. He didn’t deserve someone like Clara.
The sound of heavy steps descending the staircase brought Dan to the sharps of his senses.
“Clara– take Phil down to the laundry cellar. Phil–” he took an exasperated breath and forced himself not to get annoyed at Phil’s continued mischievous smile. “You listen to every last damn thing this girl says, alright?”
“Yes sir,” Phil said brightly.
Dan wanted to deck him.
“What’s going on here Daniel?”
Dan turned around to see none other than his father turn the balustrade.
Clara looked as if she was about to faint.
“We– We have–”
“We had a bit of spiritual rut with a man outside, sir. He talked an awful lot of ending his life, but it sure is all under control now. You know how tough these modern times are,” Clara proudly showed the man on the fire escape looking longingly down to traffic.
“Yes!” Dan cried, being a bit too enthusiastic at the lie. “An unfortunate situation of near self-slaughter.”
Mr. Howell neared the window and looked passively at Phil. “Are you feeling better there young chap?”
“Oh yes sir,” he shook his head earnestly. “I needed only your kind maids words on our Good Lord God Christ Jesus above,” Phil acted perfectly forlorn. Dan had to bite the inside of his cheek to stop from bursting out laughing at the abundance of Jehovah’s names. He sure hadn’t been to church in a good while.
Phil continued twisting Dan’s hat a bit in his hands and looking down. “It’s just a painful world out there sometimes, good sir, I’m sure you understand.”
“Is that my son’s hat you have there?”
It was Dan’s turn to want to faint.
“Oh no sir, I bought this hat of my accord, my late mother’s wishes for me to be a respectable gentleman. I thought to go out in my best sir, I hope you understand.”
Dan’s father pursed his lips and nodded. “Very well. You better get going if it’s all right by me. I don’t want the police involved. May God have mercy on you.” He turned and continued back to the grand staircase. “Daniel, follow me for one second, please. Get away from this.”
“Yes, sir.” Dan looked like he was about to cry.
Clara stood up straight and gave a little two finger salute. “Oh don’t worry, it’ll all be under control sir,” she whispered. “This man will be a tip-top laundry maid by the next time you see him, if it’s fine with you.” She helped pull Phil out of the landing and into the hotel, her hat coming askew even more.
“I’m depending on you, Clara.”
“You don’t have anything to worry about, sir. Servant stairs and all.” She glad to be of some actual use finally. Dragging Phil over to the corner and making him pick up the laundry basket, she turned to Dan one last time. “His training starts right now, if it’s all fine with you.”
Dan shot Phil a dirty glare. “Don’t hold a single thing back from him Clara.”
“Oh, you’ve made Mr. Daniel angry I don’t know why you’d do something like that,” she reprimanded. She directed Phil down the tiny servant stairs one step at a time until they were out into the basement laundry hold. “And you don’t have a uniform so I suppose I’ll have to get you one of those and oh—” She finally put her hat back on correctly and took a deep sigh. It was always falling off and she knew it had something to do with her energy. “I was supposed to see Albert tonight and the telegrams aren’t working so I can’t tell him I won’t make it and it’s just a lousy job isn’t it?”
Phil peeked over curiously at the frazzled girl behind his shoulder.
“Mind your business!” She whacked Phil on the head lightly to make him turn around again. She had no trouble talking with someone that wasn’t worth a million dollars, and it sort of made Phil like the girl a lot more than when she was stuttering over Dan and his father. He’d never pretend to understand the point of a class system.
“So where do I put this?”
She made him dump the sheets in the processing bin and take the basket back to its spot as quick as he could. “ You, ” she emphasized, “are hiding in the same bin that rotten laundry went to. You’ve caused quite a little ruckus. Get in,” she hissed.
Phil obliged, laughing at the scenario he had gotten himself into. He had been looking for an adventure with Dan and to see him one last time at the place he’d called home– but to get into this? It was going to be a story he’d tell for a long time, he thought amiably amongst the old bed sheets.
Clara meanwhile found an old white laundry uniform in the clean pile waiting to be pressed and gave it to Phil. “You won’t be seen dead in the main hallways or rooms, but this will get you by downstairs. Don’t talk to anyone but me.”
He eventually got out, giving the laundry maid his personal effects and a winning smile.
“Am I to shape Clara?”
“Wipe that grin off your face.”
It was three hours before Phil got a break. He did laundry, but he had never done it to that extent. The large vats and acres of starch and chemicals made his head spin. He didn’t know how someone did it every day.
“I suppose we never proper introduced to one another. I’m Clara Fremont,” she stuck out a hand to shake. Phil took it gladly noticing the toughness to them. “I’m not usually that angry or mean I swear to the heavens. I just didn’t like how you treated our Mr. Daniel if we’re being honest here.”
“I understand.” She made him guilty about it. “I’m Phil by the way.”
“Nice to make your acquaintance Phil.”
She had cooled down since the confrontation on the fire escape, it was true. Whoever she was, she was fiercely loyal to the family. He supposed it had something to do with—
“What did you say earlier about a maid getting sacked with a baby?”
“Oh that was Mary, madam doesn’t like mother’s working, she thinks they should be at home raising their young, that’s all.”
“Was she married?” Phil implored. He didn’t know if he wanted the next question answered. If his suspects were right—
“Oh of course, oh–” Clara looked at Phil, a little shocked. She stumbled out the next words in earnest. “Mr. Daniel isn’t like that with us, oh no. He’s a respectable master— he doesn’t do that sort—”
Phil believed her. She was going a little red at the words. “Don’t worry, my mother was in domestic work,” he divulged. “She told me how men can be, and I’ve had my fair share of experiences, you’ll have to trust me on that.” Phil liked how safe she made him feel, despite her bold streak earlier. She had a good heart.
The sentiment made Clara relax a little. She was portioning off the meal she had gotten from the kitchen for them to share, stealing an extra plate so Phil could eat a little something from hers without having to share the entire plate. There was still a bowl for soup, but they were going to have to share that. She didn’t know Mr. Daniel had normal working class friends either, and he was a nice man Clara realized, the more they got on talking. Maybe he was a little mischievous, but she could get on with him if she wanted. If was nice to have a new friend.
“You’ll have to excuse me for not calling you sir, but you didn’t strike me up as a high-up individual and you’ve still got me beat on how you know Mr. Daniel.”
“You’re right, I’m a dirty working class slave,” he joked with her.
It made her bouncy dark hair swish as she laughed. “You have an accent too,” she noted.
“England, a dirty foreigner to boot.”
“Oh, I see why Mr. Daniel would like you— here,” she handed Phil a plate with some dried apples and a spoon for the oxtail soup.
“What does that mean?”
“I mean he only ever used to read books up in his room from what I heard from the other maids, and you’re not so up as he is. Mr. Daniel doesn’t talk to any of his high society men or lady friends lately, I keep up with the social magazines. I knew he was a good man.”
“Dan’s in those things?” He thought that was reserved for Lady Astor or whatnot.
“Well not anymore now that he doesn’t hang around those folks.”
They began eating the food. They were both starving from all the laundry work— Phil more so. “It’s like being back in the War,” He said matter-of-factly.
“Oh, did you serve?”
The soup was ruddy and warm against his throat. The two spoons clicked at the bottom like a dance. “Yeah, from ‘16 to ‘18. Somme and all. But I shouldn’t have brought it up–”
“Oh, it’s fine.” Clara nodded, understanding. “I served there in France as a nurse with my mother.”
Phil was taken aback. “How were you able to do that?” He didn’t think she looked nearly old enough.
“Well my mother was a nurse back home anyways, and by the end of it, they didn’t care if you were married or not. I just lied and said I was 20 and would be a volunteer because I didn’t have any of those credentials, they really liked the crying bit I did about not wanting my mother to go off alone, oh boy did I get 'em.”
“How old were you really?”
“15,” she shrugged her shoulders. That made her about 24 now, only a year younger than him. “I don’t regret it though, I helped a lot of people.”
Phil laughed darkly under his breath. “I wish I could say the same. I lied about my age to get in too.”
“You too?” She sounded surprised, but not with vindication.
“Yeah, 15 as well, but back in 1916.” he said simply. He didn’t want to get into it.
“Who thought going there as teenagers would be a good idea?”
“At any age,” Phil replied.
“My older brother fought too, but we never saw him,” she started. “Seeing the soldiers–” she shook her head without coming to words that matched the gravity of what she was trying to convey. “Doesn’t leave you, huh? No matter how many years pass it seems like.”
“Like an ugly scar inside and out.”
Clara looked up to his eyes. They were dark, hooded and piercing with the little light in the room shining on them. “Exactly.”
An uncomfortable silence passed between them.
“He told me there was nothing to live for and nothing to die for by the end of it,” Clara began again, happy to break his gaze. “He told me all that mattered, in the end, was who was left to love and hold, and I reckon he was right. Put my words to shame.”
Phil put his spoon down. “He sounds wise,” he admitted.
“He’s dead now,” she said bluntly.
Phil’s heart sank. “I’m sorry.”
“Hunting accident back in Omaha in ‘21. Wife and a baby and everything.”
“You’re telling me.”
Another silence passed between them as they stopped eating and looked at the table, this one more comfortable. They both tried to take in each other's words. She was a good ear, and he was hoping he was too. He knew how little people liked to talk about it, just hide it and go on like nothing. She deserved her time to mourn.
“I lost a brother too, he had a lady too, no baby though,” he confessed. “Lady’s name was Cornelia, she made him really happy. She wrote the sweetest notes for him during it all. I haven’t spoken to her since I left my town a decade ago. God knows what happened to her.”
Phil couldn’t help but smile softly.
“I like to think my brother was right,” she said, hugging herself a little subconsciously. “He loved me and that’s all that matters now, at least that’s what I try to convince myself when I get all sad again. He told me all that mattered was loving who was left until their last days. Only reprieve from the loneliness of dying I suppose.”
“I thought that myself a lot but I figured I couldn’t find anyone left to love and hold until—” he let his voice falter in the muggy soap-smelling room.
“That’s the trouble, isn’t it?” She filled the uncomfortable quiet, ignoring his awkward stutter.
A quick click signaled the end of their conversation. Dan stood awkwardly in the tiny room.
“I found you guys.”
Clara quickly stood up, head down and bowing. “How are you, Mr. Daniel Howell?” She had been trained since her first day how to interact with a Howell.
“Oh—” Dan realized uncomfortably this was what servants did when a main family member came in. He told her there wasn’t a need for show between them anymore and to sit down.
“Are you sure, Mr. Howell sir?”
Phil continued to eat the oxtail soup and she gave him a dirty glare.
“It’s fine, really, I owe you my life for that up there. You’re more than equal with me at this point.”
“Thank you s—” she caught herself. “Thank you.”
“So why did you come here exactly?”
Phil put on his best beats me face and shrugged his shoulders.
“If I remember correctly, it was for a hat and a movie.”
“If I was to suddenly regain my workload amnesia and say the picture show was showing in an hour, would there be half a possibility in going?”
“What is it?”
“Oh, the Arc Theatre’s replaying Seven Chances tonight only! I saw that film 5 times when it came out, oh it’s something special, oh please.”
Dan rolled his eyes. “You almost got me disowned.”
“It wasn’t really that serious.”
“Yeah, only thanks to Clara here.”
She beamed blithely, putting her hat back on the best she could.
“What are you doing that for?” Dan asked in earnest.
“I’m going back to work. I still have an hour of pressings.”
Dan looked at the girl. Her dark hair was all disheveled and hung puffy around her round face. She was still young, and already she had the saddest bags under her eyes. She probably hadn’t had a decent night of sleep since she had gotten here.
“You’re going to the picture show with us.”
“Oh, I really can’t take off work—”
Dan took his pocketbook out and thumbed a 20 dollar bill. Clara's eyes grew at the amount he held between his fingers. “I’m going to go out there and give the head matron another 20 to shut up. You’re coming. Go change into something else if you can.”
Phil got up as well, but Dan dragged the stained white uniform back to the table. “No, you’re going out in that.”
“In this?!” Phil looked down, horror-struck.
“You don’t get to put me through the wringer and expect me to forgive you all in one turn.”
“But this is the most ghastly thing I’ve ever had to wear,” Phil tried to reason.
“I don’t care .”
Clara bit back her urge to laugh. “I’ll be back. I think you two really need to sort out your differences, if I’m being honest.”
“Me too,” Dan glared. He looked back up at Clara and gave her one of those two finger salutes she had done when she’d taken Phil from the fire escape. It was his way of saying thank you . He turned back to Phil. “And I’ll talk through Keaton if I must.”
“Never!” Phil faked extreme astonishment. “All is forgiven here.”
He’d see about that.
The Claremont Monthly was close to its first anniversary. They were planning a special issue for that month, a few color pages and extended articles for the magazines favorite columns, and as Dan sat waiting for Mr. Ross to begin the final meeting of what would be included or not, he wished down in his heart it would finish fast so he could go write up some plans. Harold was to the right of him, going through a little portfolio of work and happily penning away, and Simmons to the left, swirling his coffee around and staring in like he wished it could transport him anywhere but the meeting room.
Finally, Mr. Ross entered, a blonde girl with a white dress in tow.
He sat down at the head of the table and pointed for Lillian to go sit at an empty chair near the end.
“Well look at that,” Simmons elbowed him a little and smiled slyly before a tiny step step nearing them made him sober.
Dan did his best to avoid eye contact, but it was hard. She sat amiably, a little yellow cloche stuck to her head and a yellow necklace dangling on flat breasts. It made Dan think embarrassingly of how much Phil liked that color. As he looked she took it off with a smile, Rudy taking it for her gladly and putting it on a hat stand. Like a second skin she peeled off white gloves, and in a very womanly fashion put the pair in her purse, a smart click signaling her to nod at Dan. Her eyes seemed to say how are you? and Dan was impressed with the entire spectacle.
Unsurprisingly, everyone else was too. Mr. Ross broke the spell by clearing his throat uncomfortably, and all the men in the room whipped back to their boss with eyes down.
“As you may see my darling Lily is here,” he drew his right hand out to as if someone would actually need help finding her. “She’s interested in our magazine, boys. Wanted to see how things worked around. Maybe when she graduates she might even help with fashion portion, right Matilda?” He nodded to a woman a little closer to him than Dan, the head of the department.
The meeting continued dryly. Every so often Dan would catch Lillian looking out of the corner of her eye at him, smile a minuscule amount, blush, and then go back to looking at her father. Dan found it charming, if a little disconcerting. She wasn’t here for him, was she? He hoped not.
As it concluded, it became clear. She was waiting next to her father as everyone filing out, hat in hand, gloves over her purse cooly, and gave Dan a winning smile as he passed. “Good morning, Mr. Howell.”
“Good morning.” He nodded politely and did his best to get to the door as fast as possible.
“I can not believe you.” Simmons put his arm around him as they made their way out and walked to the stairs up to their offices. “That girl really has a fancy.”
Dan laughed. “I mean, I don’t know what she wants. I’m almost 21.”
He took his arm off Dan and mocked a waltz. “I think she wants to be wooed, Mr. Howell .” With arms pretending to embrace, he hummed a tune to go along with it.
“Are you humming Peg O’ My Heart? She’s more American than I am.” The song was not only ill fitting, but also extremely sappy.
“Oh don’t shy away from her Howell. You’ll be walking down the aisle sooner than you can count your father’s inheritance!” Simmons mimicked twisting a ring on his left hand before leaving Dan to chase after him up the stairs at the jab. “ Ha– You can’t escape the truth, Howell!”
“So this is the place.” Dan held up his hand to the building.
After his talk with his father, Dan had had to consult his father with the acquiring of the flat. Mr. Howell didn’t want his son living in less than the most reputable area of the Village, and so after a few minor spats about the allowance of the word reputable , Dan had been given the keys to a small, but fashionable townhouse with a wide sidewalk and even wider windows.
Phil stopped dead in his tracks. “This is yours?” His eyes spoke of disbelief.
“You mean you’ve never seen this building?” Dan was surprised. “With all your years here, surely you have?”
Phil stared solemnly at the three story connected house. “I don’t go around here much.”
“Oh.” He was a little awkward. “Here, the key’s right here.” Dan went forward ahead of him and up the concrete steps, unlocking the solid wood door and marveling at the deep click it made as he pushed it forward. The pots on either side of the marble door frame held columbines, and Phil brushed his hand across it as he made his way across the threshold.
“So it’s technically mine now.”
They both walked into a modest entry hall, painted a light pink with light marble floor tiles. The living room was on the left, a circular room with large bay windows overlooking the street and the bright sun beginning to shine in. On the right was what appeared was a dining room. The hall was long, and at the end of it, Phil spied the stairs.
“What do you want to do?” Dan asked.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean if you want we can both move into here.”
“Oh.” Phil hadn’t expected the proposition. “I was wondering why you took me here to begin with.”
“I bought it just so I could have an alibi, but I’m starting to really like it.”
Phil stayed silent.
“I don’t know.” Phil paced the empty main parlor room, going by the window to look out of. “I can’t accept something like that.”
In all the time he’d known Phil, he didn’t know money was that touchy for him. He didn’t push it.
“It’s also a lot riskier, for you at least. People here are nicer, you might run into someone you know.”
Dan hadn’t thought of that. “You’re right.” He pulled on the back of Phil’s yellow sweater to take him back to the middle of the room and away from the window. “Still have to decorate it so my dad thinks it’s used. Which means we should spend some time here...”
Phil turned around and took Dan’s hand in his. “And how many stories is this place?”
“ Just 3,” Phil noted, smiling at Dan’s words.
“With a basement.”
“ With a basement.” He repeated, shaking his head in mock disbelief. “How did I meet you again?”
“You sent cryptic messages because you were too shy and got information on me by friends, I think?”
Instead of answering back Phil leaned in for a long kiss.
“Not in view of the window. We don’t have curtains yet.” Dan leaned his head away and smiled with insouciance. He could get away with it at 7 a.m.
“Guess we should take it to the basement.” Phil took the hand in his and kissed it.
“You sure you don’t want to live here?” Dan joked.
“Yes, I’m sure . We have curtains. And Louise Brook’s posters to watch us have sex.”
Not a few days after the rent papers had gone official had Dan already finished moving the little he had over to Phil’s. It had been pretty easy compared to the task that seemed to grow from trying to convince his father he was living alone in a 3 story, but even now, as Dan helped water Phil’s plants, he knew it was worth it.
The business of moving had made Dan start to think about everything that caused it. He knew it was easy to blame it on them just getting together, but as he watched the water spill out of the metal can and onto the geraniums, he realized it was a lot more complicated than that. Dan thought they would have moved in eventually anyways, the way things were going he didn’t doubt it. They were friends. Best friends.
And so now, almost midway into February, the pair finally made their way to the R.H. Macy & Co., confident in their ability to buy a mirror. The sidewalk was as wide as a street, the commotion of Herald Square around them pushing them into the bronze chandelier of a building.
In recent years the department store had gradually shifted from the food market Dan knew as a kid and into a more home based seller, and even though it’d probably be much easier if he rang the hotel's mirror supplier, it wasn’t nearly as fun– or economic. Inside Dan thought it was just as grand as it was outside, especially as they leaned against the banister on the third floor, just to look down in vertigo from the sheer size of it all. He’d never get over how great the city was.
“Okay, mirrors.” They stood in front of a selection of them on the fourth floor. “Which one grabs your eye?”
An ornate gold framed one hung on the wall directly in front of them. “I like that one.”
Phil sighed. “It’s pretty gaudy.”
“Okay, then what were you looking at?”
Phil moved in front of him and pointed to the corner. “That one there. It’s a little plain but it's small and will fit next to the bed I think.”
It was too plain and small. Dan didn’t like it all. “We’ve slept in the bed maybe twice,” he tried to rationalize.
“That’s not true and you know it.”
“Alright.” He sighed. “What about that one.” This time it was a good mix of the two. It was tall and rectangular, gold with subtle molding on the top and a clean cut on the bottom.
“I can see it... Yeah. Let’s get it.”
That night as they hung it up and Phil cursed as he hit his finger on the hammer (“ I am not manly enough for this. ”), Dan watched fondly on like a mother to a newborn, some tea warm in his hand.
It hung suspended on the wall, the gold shimmering dimly around them and the reflection sharp and clean. It was stately, a little regal but reserved. He got up and looked at it.
“I love it.”
Phil studied it for half a second before pointing a finger up in discovery. “Hold on.” He rushed downstairs and made his way back up with a plucked pink peony he had gotten from the garden. He placed the flower to drape over the frame, the petals touching the mirror and creating for a second the illusion there was two.
Phil pulled Dan into a hug from behind as they marveled at it. Their mirror. Their mirror. It made Dan all light inside.
“We did it.” Phil leaned around and kissed him on the cheek and smiled, his glasses coming half askew from it. Dan helped them back to normal and smiled back at him.
“Look at us.” Phil shook him lovingly as he looked back to the mirror. “All in our little place...”
It was hard to not feel the same, if not more. It’d been exactly two years since they’d seen each other for the first time, Dan a fresh faced 18 year old eager to drink and write articles– and Phil, a cabaret singer stuck with the memories of a lost love, and whatever else Dan was yet to figure out. The phrase it was terribly romantic played out in his head again and again in the night, and he didn't even care.
Dan looked into the mirror and saw Phil with his head on his shoulder, his arms tight around him. It was warm.
“You’re getting taller. Stop growing.”
Dan had barely noticed, but with his head on his shoulder, he saw the tiny bit more of a stretch Phil had to exert to be comfortable it was apparent. He blushed. “I’d stop it if I could. I want you to still be able to hold me.” It was only a minor cause of worry to him at this point.
“Oh Dan, I’ll always hold you.”
“I’d like it better if I wasn’t a damn bear in size next to you.” He brought his head up to kiss Phil’s forehead at the terrible joke.
They went back to the mirror for a few minutes, just looking it, gazing at the other... themselves...
The dull light falling on them...
The curve of the shadow on Phil’s neck...
The softness of his sweater...
The warmth of his skin...
“I want to live like this forever.”
He felt Phil start to kiss on his neck and he watched himself grin silly at the reflection. He wished he could stay in this moment forever.
Dan didn’t say a thing about the issue with that. He let himself get lost in Phil as he pushed back the crippling reality of The Agavni— that his father would die and he would have to run it. When his forehead started to get hot he ignored the fact he couldn’t live like this much longer, when he had to take over things from his father one day. And as he finally turned away from the mirror and to Phil instead, he wondered hollowly if he could even balance a double life ten times larger than the one he kept now.
Clara is important I swear this wasn't me running out of ideas I just needed to introduce who she was as a character and explain how she becomes close to them you'll see why in the end k cool thanks.
Chapter 11: X
warnings for like a (consensual, albeit rough) sex scene ? if you're not into that i'll have a summary bc it touches on some character development. also some nitty-gritty historical sex info at the end notes bc lmao this is my life.
I also opened a ko.fi page, just in case anyone was so inclined to spare a few dollars for all this my way! I'm far from popular or famous or even good, but it would be a lie if I said less than hundreds of hours went into research and writing, and as any writer knows, it's some hard work! You know I appreciate even comments way more than you may think, so any donation would be so appreciated I think I would burst (but no guilt if it's not up your alley!) My page is here if you can help support :"))
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Phil sipped at his coffee, one leg under him and the other draped across the green pillows that adorned the wicker couch. Spring air sunk into the lounge, and the lilacs that bloomed on the window adjacent perfumed the air until the both of them could relax in peace. It was quiet except for the taciturn buzz of bees, and the occasional jostle from the busy street opposite. There was a nirvana in the space, from the outside world and from the stage and the hotel, and it made them never want to leave.
Dan had finished his cup and went over to lean on Phil, the silk black kimono from Hisako cool against his skin. It was noon.
“I feel like I should have told you something when you moved in.”
Dan started. His hair was still mussed from last night. “Like what?”
“I don’t want you to be annoyed with me.”
“With what?” Dan hated when he beat around the bush. He curbed his voice to stop from yelling. It was true, Phil had taken another aspirin than usual for his headaches, and he had a little cut by his ear from a stage necklace, but it was normal. Phil would always have a bit of a hurt head.
Phil put down his cup and took Dan’s hands from behind him. “That with all that War stuff I don’t sleep well sometimes. You saw that a few weeks ago.”
“I know that.”
“Yeah but if it happens again –and it probably will– I don’t want you to like–” He grappled for words but Dan intervened before he could finish.
“It won’t bother me and I won’t leave you. Is that what’s got you all worried?” Dan could barely believe what he was hearing. “I love you,” he said simply.
“Okay,” Phil smiled, loosely but still present. “I’ll believe you this time.”
Dan tried to ignore it, but all this talk of his past bothering Dan was starting to bother Dan precisely for the fact that it didn’t . He was wondering if he was missing something, or there was something he wasn’t being told. Their relationship was normal, he tried to tell himself. Normal as it could be, he supposed more accurately.
Dan waited for Phil in their dressing room after the last show of the week at the new place. The ritzy little establishment was called The Golden Arc , and he thought sarcastically how much it seemed to contain the lot, suffocating the players and keeping them over for practice like a prison. Phil didn’t complain much so he kept his mouth shut, but the mood here was drier and scarier than the old place. Everyone wanted to break out and be a star. They didn’t seem to care about family to enjoy themselves with.
“I can’t wait to go home–” Phil stopped as the new director, Johnny, called for Phil from back behind the door. “One second,” he assured Dan.
After a while, he came back.
“What did he want?”
“He said I need to improve my tap dancing. He said it wasn’t good enough for the next big show,” Phil sat down next him, his shoulders slumping.
“What show are they doing?”
“He got a copy of Tip Toes he wants us to do. Lot’s of the step dancing. Ugh . ”
“I thought you loved step dancing,” Dan countered.
“Not when I get told I’m a second-rate schmuck.”
“Did he say that to you?”
“No, but I felt it.”
Dan rolled his eyes. “What is it with these seedy establishments and their illegal musical scripts,” Dan moved the conversation gracefully, smiling up as he bent down to help take off the tap shoes on Phil’s feet. “You could get jailed for that you know.”
“Maybe,” Phil admitted honestly. “There’s probably hush-money involved.”
“True.” He handed Phil his shoes. “How are you going to practice then?”
“He told me there’s a dance school for Broadway dancers on some street by us. Lousy this job is.”
“It’s more professional, I’ll give them that.”
Phil leaned back in his dressing room chair and seemed lost in thought. He absentmindedly wound a bit of his hair before responding. “You think I could ever dance for a real Broadway show?”
Dan was taken aback. “Of course.” It wasn’t even a question. “You’re amazing at everything you do.”
“Apparently not tap dancing,” he murmured.
“We can work on that. Come on,” he started to put on Phil’s normal day shoes for him. “Let’s go look at the dance school. Before you know it you’ll be in real Gershwin shows.”
Phil smiled lazily. That was a dream.
The thought entertained them so much, just flashy enough was it, that is got them to the dance school before it closed.
“Hello there,” Phil took off his hat and introduced himself. He handed a little card to the instructor he had been given.
“It’s late,” the woman tried to reason. She was pretty and blonde, her red dress small and short on her pale knees.
Dan handed her a twenty.
“It’s all fine, perfectly fine– Show me what you got.”
Phil shot him a dirty glare. “ We’re talking about this later,” he seemed to tell him with his eyes.
Dan ignored him. “I can play piano, what song do you feel?” He went over the upright and waited.
“I think I got the routine for Fascinating Rhythm pretty good.” He quickly put on the tap shoes from his bag and tied them up, his long hair obscuring his face from Dan as he looked down. It was damn hard not to be in love with him.
“Do you remember it?” The woman implored, looking him over.
“Let me see it.”
Dan remembered the piece from when he played for their Lady Be Good production, and all the times Phil had asked to play it when they were home alone. It was one of the few dances he could show off, except maybe the one for Hang On to Me that only Dan got to see. That always seemed to end the same way too, Dan thought snarkily. He’d keep it that way if he played his cards right.
Phil began the dance, his arms a little wild but his footwork there. He was wearing white striped slacks with a little blue band on the cuff, and every time he brought his foot down it bustled up and broke, the blue line swishing and blurring as Dan continued to play. The hair that had freed itself from the gel of the earlier show danced with him, but it was a mean partner. No matter how good he looked with it long it only continued to blind him, and Dan could chalk up his small mistakes from the simple fact of being unable to see where he was placing everything.
The lady smiled, a little hum of surprise as she nodded in approval. Phil was singing with the music.
She edged herself over to Phil, stepping in with him to copy him. Together they danced, a sweet little duet that tipped and tapped the wood floor in hysterics. She gradually got Phil to copy her hand movement, more spatially aware than what he was doing aware. There finally was some real art to it, Dan mused, caught up in their synchronicity.
As the song ended, the woman smiled up at her new student.
“How did you do that?” Phil was out of breath, sweat shining on his forehead. “Just copy me?”
“I may look young but I dance. I also happened to be in that very production, and whoever taught that choreography had a mighty fine memory.”
Phil looked at her earnestly. “The real thing?”
“Astaire and all,” she bragged. “I was just a backup dancer but we can’t all be Adele, can we?” Phil shook his head, still trying to catch his breath. She had barely a sweat on her. “You from one of the Pansy Clubs?” She held up the card his boss had given him.
Phil hadn’t heard that one before. “Oh– I guess I am, yeah.” Pansy wasn’t a bad term, but he wasn’t really a pansy back in The Village. She was decidedly normal. The jam. A lady for the men-folks.
“I’ve gotten some of my best performers from there. The boss didn’t send you because you were bad– I can tell you that much.”
Phil balked. “Why would he care if I got any better then?”
“Johnny might seem like a cold one but he doesn’t bite. There’s a heart in there somewhere, but if you’re cynical enough it’s because you’ll bring customers. How long have you been in cabaret?” she asked, taking off her shoes for the night.
“7 years now, I think.”
“Well, you’ve had enough practice for a lifetime. Why didn’t you try out for other places sooner?”
“I got scouted by Johnny,” Phil answered honestly. “I didn’t even think to try out anywhere.”
“I’d tell you it was a shame if I didn’t think you’d get somewhere big in the next couple years.” She didn’t tell him as big as you can for a Pansy performer. “I’m Joan,” she extended a small red-nailed hand to shake, suppressing the thought. The performance art world wasn’t a nice place and she wasn’t going to lull him into any false sense of security.
“I’m Phil,” he took her hand and smiled, bright and strong. He could use his real name, he thought proudly.
“Nice to meet you, Phil.”
The lessons happened after day practices at The Golden Arc , his whole day set about to singing and dancing and acting– it was exhausting. It was a whole other world, Phil learned, these professional musicals were so much more than the cabarets he’d done. It simultaneously floored Phil at the grandeur of it all, and he liked how he got to wear slacks and keep his hair loose. It was sexy to him, his shoulders proud and wide, and it made things more fun with Dan at home; it’s like they had switched bodies. Dan in those damn slips he hated so much and the rouge making him glow in the dirty sun that flooded from the lounge window and him in the stuffy work pants Dan had to wear to work every week day. As Phil practiced his routine for the thousandth time, Dan would play and get to look at him dance, the wood floor hollering at the metal and snapping it up ever so much against the keys playing the music.
“One more time!” Dan insisted.
“But I’m so tired,” Phil complained, breathing heavy. There was a hint of a smile on his lips though, so Dan took his chance.
“You going to fail Tip Toes?” Dan played a few chords of Chopin’s funeral march in jest. “Is this the end of Phil– not-Philomena– Lester?”
Phil continued to pant, the hint of the smile now full on his face. “I should get you for that,” he said, but without any acrimony. The thin, button down henley shirt sticking to his chest in rivulets despite the suspenders and his long hair still stuck in his eyes made the bottom of Dan’s stomach burn.
“What are you staring at?”
“Your unbearable long hair,” Dan ventured, coyly running his hand through his own to divert attention.
“That’s something, coming from you,” he turned to Dan at the piano. “Your hair– is it touching the tip of your chin?” he asked sarcastically, taking it in one hand and positioning himself over him until Dan’s stomach turned.
It made Dan smile. It was so easy to get him. “Is this you asking an unnecessary question so you won’t practice? I see right through you. How will you ever land a spot on Broadway? ”
Phil was too tired to think of something witty. “Oh come here,” he leaned in to give Dan a kiss but he was too slow– already Dan had got from beneath him and was running up the stairs.
“You better not trip!” He yelled, noting the tap shoes clicking away at the steps. “We can’t have the star all smoked– Ah–!”
Phil was up the stairs faster than he’d thought, and the two of them stood across from one another, each daring the other to move first. Left – Left – Right – Right–
Phil ran at him, taking hold of Dan with both his arms to catch him. Dan shrieked gleefully as the skirt rode up against his thigh, silky and messed and hot. He clutched at the back of Phil’s shirt and suspenders so he didn’t fall completely like an idiot; alcohol might have been a weak spot for them, but stress drove them to even wilder demands. Show business , Dan thought dryly.
“You gonna get off me?” he toyed, as Phil brought him to the bed and hovered over him once more. “Make me play another song until you get the moves just right?”
“Why d’you always do this to me?” he smiled, taking his shoes off and resuming his heavy presence on Dan. “I give you my costume clothes because you like them and they only seem to drive me off the edge every goddamned second I look at you–” His voice grew low.
It made Dan laugh, and demurely he rose his shoulders up until Phil could see the outlines of his collarbones plainly. “I didn’t think big slack wearing guys messed with fairies like me…” He bit his lip in feigned thought. “You a trade or something?” He smiled knowingly. He knew that would set Phil off.
“Oh–” Phil’s eyes narrowed.
Maybe it was tinge of abasement in his voice, perhaps the sharp little way Dan could carve his fears right out from under him without Phil even knowing what they were to begin with– but before he knew it he was being pinned down on the sheets, the silk ruffled up from beneath his legs in hot, sticky strides.
“You a man ?” he continued to tease, grasping at Phil’s hair as his shorts came off, one raspy sigh at a time.
“You have a nerve–” Dan tried to contain his breaths as Phil finally took off the damn shirt and suspenders, leaving his pants tight and visible.
“You gonna leave me?”
Egging him on like this was dangerous, but it was so much more fun the rowdier it got. Picking on him for wearing pants was cheap, the talk of being a man only slightly better, but the jab at trade? He knew Phil had some history with it– he wasn’t stupid.
Dan felt both sides of his face grow stiff as Phil held him there by the jaw, getting ever so slightly off of him to whisper something in his ear.
“You want to be– like this– ?” The words weren’t malicious, but they were forceful, almost guilty. There wasn’t a word that fit who Dan wanted to be in this moment, but whatever it was, it was different. Dan didn’t want to be a woman —but he didn’t feel like a man sometimes either— and all that stupid business came up between them when Dan fell like honey onto Phil. Dan wanted to be kissed as much as possible with Phil above him, and he ached for his head to snap back on sheets from white pleasure, his arms pinned tight down with nowhere to go. To the outside world with their words, he had become something different, an undefinable existence for the time being.
It didn’t matter much to him though.
Dan strained to get a word out. “You bet,” he hissed. He tried moving his hips up in response but Phil got off before they could make contact.
“I’m not letting you go that easy,” Phil whispered, starting to kiss his way up Dan’s neck instead.
Dan smiled as felt Phil’s hand press on the sides of his throat. He liked that, and Phil knew it. The other hand crawled gladly between his bare thighs in the hot silk.
“Do you like that?” Phil tightened his grip with each stroke of his cock, finding Dan’s strained smile the hottest thing he’d ever seen.
“Yeah, fuck, ah-” Dan struggled to breathe as the continued motion brought him more and more strain against Phil’s fingertips. He felt himself start to get fuzzy, the only sensation in the world between his legs. Everything seemed to filter between bliss and the nagging sensation of complete and utter loss of control. It went on like this until he couldn’t.
“I don’t think I can last longer,” he admitted after a while, wanting to get Phil’s pants off as well but only being able to lock his hands in Phil’s hair. They hadn’t gotten off in almost a week from all the work, and he was what— 20? He hadn’t touched himself for this very purpose, and so Dan got his wish— the blinding pleasure of his head against sheets and Phil above him causing it all.
They moved with the regular dexterity they had assumed with this sort of thing: The slip’s shoulders fell messily down as Dan felt his shoulders being pulled back, the familiar smell of oils in the air as his hair fell forward in strides until he could take Phil in him fully. It was more urgent than usual, and Dan delighted in the loss of control, their breaths continuing to heavy. Without meaning to Phil grabbed and the bit of dress still on Dan to bring himself closer, causing Dan to arch his back violently.
Phil grew confident at the sudden noise. “You're going to have to learn how to shut your mouth,” he whispered between his own moan, remembering Dan’s words. He brought a hand down to move a piece of Dan’s hair from his face, but could only grip onto it as Dan succumbed beneath him.
“I will,” Dan acquiesced in a panted earnest. ”I will,” he repeated without realizing it.
“Are you a fairy? A lady? A dreamy lotus-eater?” Phil asked, finding Dan’s growing lack of control almost unbearable at this point. The whines issuing from Dan where high pitched and needy, and it was all he needed to continue.
“I dun’ know,” Dan’s words were slurred from the growing tightness in his stomach. “I don'- know—” he whimpered drunkenly.
“I’m glad you are,” Phil admitted, enjoying Dan around him. “Are you?” The tiny bit of his face he could see was flushed ruby, his messed hair having gone to its natural state of curls, obscuring the rest.
He brought himself in again, fuller and faster.
The move made Dan’s head spin. “I don’ care–” he said honestly, his breath stopping short from the feeling below him. “I don’t care what people think of me– what I think of me–” His mouth crept open with circular moans.
“You and your pretty dresses and rouge–” he seemed to curse under his breath, his voice turning hoarse with every second of Dan writhing beneath him. “Always teasing me–”
Dan wanted to respond, but he couldn’t. The once rhythmic breaths began to speed up against the back of his throat, and before he could form an answer the tightness in him began to spread once and for all over him.
Phil finished with him, a low, guttural moan scratching Phil’s throat. Their deep sighs alternated in the air as they calmed, like two birds in a murmuration.
“I love you,” Dan panted, wanting Phil’s lips on him. He turned himself over lazily on the sheets and brought Phil close to him, whispering the sentiment over and over again between breaths until he thought he was dreaming.
Phil kissed him back slowly, finally moving the damp curled hair from his forehead. The familiar red spot stayed flushed beneath and he took to kissing it when they had settled, pressing his nose into the slight rouge on his cheeks that was left over from earlier.
“I was mean to you,” Phil whispered sadly.
“I wanted it,” Dan insisted, in his low, happy voice they kept for each other. “I love that when we’re busy.”
Phil couldn’t help but smile with him. “And I love that you get to be yourself here.”
Dan felt himself grow warm. It was about everything he couldn’t be out there. The slips. The occasional rouge and powders. The rose-colored nail varnish against the piano keys before he’d have to take it off for work so no one could suspect anything. It was enjoying having expensive silks, and liking white roses on the vanity, and his doing his hair as nice as it would let him until it was almost perfect in front of the vanity. They weren’t girl things in his head, they were Dan things —and it would hurt if he thought about it too much– because they weren’t boy things to normal people either. He’d have to put it away when he wasn’t with Phil in the Village, and that’s when he had to remember that his normal wasn’t the rest of the worlds normal, and the clothes he wore for everyone else weren’t always what he truly wanted to wear. It made him feel a bit lonely, because even the guys on stage that dressed like ladies and took their names did it with ease, but Dan never found himself to be a lady, even if he liked the softness of their clothes and of their manners.
And Phil liked that. I love that you get to be yourself here. Dan let himself feel absolutely perfect for the first time in his life.
“Want to hear a song I learned in France?” Phil leaned up on one arm and looked down at Dan, who was still laying down, thinking about what he had said.
“No, I wish I could never hear your perfect voice again.”
Phil smiled and started anyways, poking Dan in the side playfully at his snark.
Dan started laughing when he heard what he was singing. His own French was dreadful, but he knew the words je cherche un millionnaire could only mean one thing.
“You’re not—” he interrupted, still laughing almost beside himself. “I hate you, you know,” he said without any malice.
“You don’t even know what I’m saying,” Phil smiled back, fully aware of the humor of the song. Dan was a millionaire, and the lyrics spoke of a woman looking for one. He was glad Dan had caught the joke.
“Joli garçon, vous m'plaisez—” he quoted from the song.
“Stop it,” Dan pushed him away playfully as he leaned in for a kiss. “Something else.”
“I don’t care, I just don’t want to be able to understand any of it.”
Phil began singing it, except in English, the sappy Fanny Brice way.
Dan was happy he drifted off to sleep before he could seriously hurt someone.
Dan had never expected Phil to have a breaking point about his career.
But here in the kitchen, with a dishtowel over his shoulder, Phil was in tears. He hated how this was becoming the primary source of any resolve between the two.
“I just don’t know if I can do this anymore.”
Dan leaned against the counter, ready to listen. “What do you mean?”
Phil sighed heavily and shook his head. “These roles at the new club– they’re terrible.”
“This is your job.” It wasn’t a question. It was fact.
“I know, and I like singing, I do... I just hate what they want me to do.”
“What’s so different? I don’t see much change from the last club other than they have a bit more money. And maybe the players. They’re a little intense.”
“I just don’t play roles that are for guys anymore,” Phil explained. “And when I do they tell me I have to act more feminine. It’s so fake Dan.”
“I had noticed that.” Dan mentally kicked himself in the foot not catching onto that earlier. It was such a soft spot for Phil and he should have known that.
“And the raids. Alessio told me our old club has had 2 the last month. Colette tells me she was almost arrested when her place got raided. I just don’t know what to do.” There was real concern in his voice.
Dan thought about how well it had been going for Phil recently. The small contract he agreed to at the new club was good, better than they both expected. He only had to be there a year and he was getting close to $20 a week from the house. Phil could make more if he did a little extra for tips, but thank God a lot of the patrons weren’t looking for it. Even at the old place where it was common (well, common enough that the poor boy who had walked in when they first met thought there was more going on), Phil had told him starting to sell cigarettes was the reason he was able to get away with saying no financially.
Since Dan had moved in earlier that year, they’d split the rent evenly. It was easier to do that than bring up the fact Dan could very well sign off a check for the whole year, and it made things seem like they were normal, at least normal for them. The added income was making things a lot easier for Phil, and Dan could see it. By the way of only having to pay half of what he did before to live where he did, he was glad to see Phil stop his hours long absence to sell his cigarettes on a corner and start to become so unencumbered by the concern of paying for basic needs.
“And your column has been doing great– I read the letter’s you’ve gotten and they’re glowing, aren’t they? I’m glad I’ve had a part in it in the beginning, if you don’t mind me saying so,” he began again.
“Of course not.” Dan could almost be outraged at the idea. “You’ve had everything to do with helping me find spots to write about. I owe you for it.”
Phil wrung the dishtowel in his hand in deep thought before giving it to Dan’s insistent outstretched hand to put away. “We’re really in this together now, huh?”
“It looks like.” In the tiny kitchen, Dan finished hanging up the cloth on the dryer line above before turning back around to listen.
“Am I being a child? Please tell me if I’m being a child about this.”
“No, honestly, I don’t think you are. If anyone is going to be a brat it would be me and god knows even though I love the magazine, I’ve cooled down the past year. It doesn’t matter that much to me.” It was a feeble attempt to make Phil less guilty. They really had built a little something together, there was no denying. This very conversation’s existence confirmed it.
“Dan don’t lie to me. I see how much you light up when you get their letters. You’ve even told me that you feel like you're showing these people, not much younger than us, a way of life they could never experience. What did you call it?”
“’Nightlife for the Nowheres’,” Dan uttered reluctantly. “Oh, alright, you’ve got me. I just want you to be happy, that’s all.”
Phil went to grab the dish towel on his shoulder, and upon discovering it was no longer there, instead moved his hands to his belt loops for something to grasp onto. “Thank you,” he said meaningfully. “You know this changes nothing how I see our friends or you, right?” he continued. “I’ve talked to a lot of them, and some hate to be without all that dress. It’s why Colette can’t take a day job. She says it’d make her too sad being in trousers. I think that’s something that’s got to be real for her.”
Since they’d first known each other, he’d always seen Phil as a guy. He didn’t know how feminine he used to present himself, but by the way their old performer friends acted with him, Dan suspected it was heavy. He had stopped wearing even the smallest of powder outside despite the need for eyebrow plucked for his shows (after the first incidence at work Dan had never done it again), and as they grew to find each other’s comforts, Phil’s dresses and robes were outright given to him.
“I just don’t understand why we have to be seen like that,” Phil began. “I hate that people think I’m— fake. Why can’t what I feel be enough for people? Why do I have to play some game of expectations for people to accept me?”
Dan understood what he was getting at. If anything he benefitted from the fact. Here in the Village he could wear rouge and be done up a bit more, and after settling down and seeing the arrangement of people, he saw a little more of the feminine nature in himself than most normal men. Rather than bothering him, he saw his new home as a safe haven for that. With not exactly fitting anywhere perfect, he saw a similar struggle in what Phil was going through now, if not a bit differently. He didn’t find an issue wearing men’s clothes because he also wore other clothes, but for Phil, that’s what was giving him a headache.
“I don’t know Phil. Let those people be damned. You do exactly what you want to do.”
On the cusp of a belt loop, Phil pushed his wrist out in his peculiar fashion, the one that signaled only pain in onlookers eyes and that Dan had grown to find oddly endearing. It was his way of saying I am nervous!
“I love you. I love you, I love you, I love you and please never think me being like this changes that.”
“Why would you think I would think that?”
“Because I’m not like the other— guys that go out with boys. I look like those terrible men that come to fuck people like you and leave.” Trade culture.
He hadn’t even thought to doubt Phil’s feelings after they had gotten together. “And what about Alessio or Shay? They don’t dress much different than you.”
“Yes but they only like girls. Sometimes I think I’m wrong when I want to look like them and be the person I am, but then I think about everything we can’t explain with science yet and know it’s probably just a small part of that. It’s like the shell shock. They say it’s trauma, but I thought our brains were supposed to work. Or Colette. She’s more of a woman than most and she’s stuck with a body like ours. What’s to say I’m just a man? Just a man who likes guys like me, or women, or everybody else I seem to know who’s mix of them both. That’s all I’m saying. I don’t understand why there’s this eternal third choice. You’re a man, you’re a woman, or you change yourself to make normal people think it’s fine to love whatever you are the “same” as. Oh it’s all terribly backwards. Tell me, you consider yourself a man.”
“I do, mostly.”
“Then we are in the complete breach of anything normal people seem to understand.” He heard Phil’s voice start to rise, a little clipped. “They will let young boys who dress like women together, though they truly prefer only one to play that role, but two boys dressed as boys? It sends their world into a shock. It’s like to be a man is all that is holy. How dare people like us sully it.”
Hearing it now so thought out Dan had to agree. He considered himself both, as he didn’t think much when he wore Phil’s old dress clothes. It was just a bit of clothing after all. He couldn’t keep his painted nails or anything so lasting because of work, but he found his concern of clothing the most feminine aspect he carried that he could get away with, besides perhaps the natural smoothness of his jaw and the thin upper lip passed down from his mother, if those things even existed to be feminine.
“And so when I get these roles where I have to enforce these ideas even more, I feel like I’m personally hurting everyone out there like myself. We become caricatures for people to set aside, and it’s all too easy because of what we show them. We aren’t human anymore.”
There was a silence until Dan took his hand. “You’re right. I don’t know why I hadn’t thought of it like that but you’re right.”
“I don’t know what to do.”
“Do you want to quit?” He was half afraid of what the answer would be.
Again Phil shook his head and had a lost look in his eye. “No. I love singing. I love making people laugh. The friends I’ve made in this mean everything to me, I mean, it was what got me off the street, isn’t it?”
“Just remember yourself.” The words were full against his lips. He meant every word of it. If Phil was happy, he figured everything else could be too. “Don’t get lost in what people want you to be, okay?”
Phil nodded thoughtfully. Somehow Dan knew this wouldn’t be the last time they had this conversation.
Drinks were a special thing for them. From the outrageous tea night at Yong’s last summer to Phil’s implacable thirst for coffee and the inevitable shops he was dragged to, it was a relatively nice affair to go out together and spend time.
Today was no different. The spring air was dying and the stickiness of summer pulled at Dan’s straightened hair until the ends where all wavy again, and the now cooled coffee to his left sat on top of the sheet music for Pictures at an Exhibition . They didn’t talk at every moment they were together, but it was a comfortable silence as they sipped at their cups.
“I think we’re running out of bread. We should get some tomorrow morning.”
Phil looked up from his paper and put down the spoon he was absentmindedly using to stir his coffee with a c link. “Yeah, thanks for reminding me. I can get it while you’re at work.”
“You know what else we need?”
Phil fell into a smile. “That would be something to pick up on the way to the markets.”
“I miss my dog as a kid. You had one when you were a kid too, right?”
“I didn’t," Phil admitted. "My parents wouldn’t let me."
"But my grandparents did, his name was Bundle, I miss him so much."
“The apartment owner doesn’t allow it,” Phil said, ignoring but enjoying Dan's sass.
“But my place on Greenwich Avenue does,” Dan tried to reason, but only half-heartedly. They weren’t going to move for a long time if they could help it.
“One day,” Phil promised, taking a sip of his coffee.
Rather than going back to what they were doing alone, Phil set his cup down and started touching the tips of Dan’s fingers. “How’s the piece coming along? You play it pretty well from what I hear.”
Dan smiled at the compliment. “Yeah, it’s just about the interpretation at this point. I haven’t heard much of Mussorgsky. I think I may need to get a recording of it.”
“Is it long?”
With a knowing nod, Dan held up the book the piece was contained in. “Only an hour.”
Phil was impressed. “I thought that had more than one song in there, crikey.”
“I’m only learning the pretty parts. I think a lot of it is boring for the piano. The transcription–”
He stopped mid sentence. On the street corner was a man, sunglasses glaring and body frozen as if he was in some kind of meditation. Everyone around him was moving except him, creating an image of a man almost glued stuck against the cacophony in the street. Through the tinted glasses, Dan thought the man could see right into him then, before doubt shadowed the reality that the man was most likely blind and lost. They stared at each other for what Dan thought was forever, until the specter finally stirred and in a feat of total blackness, disappeared into the crowd.
Phil narrowed his eyes, waiting for Dan to continue. “What is it?”
“This man... he just looked at me... I think... I think someone I know just saw me.”
Phil put down his mug quickly and tried to hide his concern, though Dan thought he was doing remarkably well compared to himself. “Surely they didn’t look long?”
“I don’t know. I honestly don’t know. They looked at me... oddly.”
“Who did it look like?” There was a little clink from the spoon against the coffee mug as Phil leaned over the table to whisper to Dan. He would have found it endearing seeing the threat was already gone, but he couldn’t seem to find that luxury right now. “Maybe they just recognized you from the papers.”
“Dark haired– you know it may have been one of my old society friends. Oh–” Dan put his hand on his forehead for support.
“Okay, calm down.”
“You’re one to talk!” Dan spread his hands out in bravado. “You were the one leaning over the table like we’re bloody Holmes and Watson!”
“You got that from me.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I say bloody sometimes. You got that from me.”
“Is this really the time?”
Phil continued anyways. “I think that’s sort of cute if we’re being honest.”
Dan wanted to be annoyed but found himself starting to give way to Phil’s covert comfortings. Phil was distracting him from the matter at hand and it was working terribly well. Already he was beginning to breathe again.
“I wonder what else you’ve gotten from me.”
“Probably being an annoying idiot, that’s what,” he joked, stealing Phil’s coffee cup to drink some of it. “Oh, this is nasty. How do you only put two spoons of sugar in this?”
“Nah, I think you’ve always been like that,” he said, ignoring Dan’s remark on his coffee.
“And they say opposites attract... We literally have the same hair now as well.”
“Only because you stole my hot comb and grew it out.”
Dan laughed, forgetting the man on the street. “Stop exposing me like this. I’d have thought you were better than the society gossip rags.”
“Then apparently you were wrong about me.”
On they talked. Imaginary or not, the man on the street corner stayed in Dan’s mind like it was a seed, and that was all that mattered. Once there was doubt and suspicion and fear, it only took time until it watered the idea. There was always an eye or two growing up his back now.
It was never really the same for Dan after that.
character development //
Dan uses Phil's history of sleeping with straight men as a way to rile him up, and there's a discussion between the two of who they are as men, each differing from what it is to be not only straight and "normal", but also the traditional gay male image for the time of being regarded as a woman. It highlights Dan's love of being inbetween; neither female nor male when in their apartment. He uses it as justification in wanting sometimes to be very submissive, but that there really isn't a gender to those kinds of feelings, it's who Dan just is.
The somewhat strained and uncomfortable nature of asking who Dan is and the riling up from name calling, juxtaposed with the fact both of them feeling there isn't a word for who they are was done to show the linguistic gap and personal lack of self-confidence that I think must have been present at least in an industrial, word-specific English speaking place, where semantically we place value on definition. This along with the idea that we learn there is not exactly animosity, but something akin to it common when they are overworked and have sex was done to show what the stage/paper makes of them, and the shift to softness after (in the total "duality of man" style) was written to show who they are when they aren't being demanded of from everyone. I don't want to give much more away, so watch out kids *eyes emoji*. Themes are always a blazn'.
sex talk //
Ok so like I'm sure you're wondering why there isn't explicit lube/condoms and I'm just gonna give you the straight talk– neither were really used this early in the 20th century, nor can I find any reliable sources for participants in anal sex. For this, I played it safe and used what I found most universal in history: oils. Men weren't circumcised en masse in America until the 1930s and of course, less so in the U.K.. Condom usage was basically irrelevant except for birth control, as they could be expensive and was still relatively new and unpopular. Because of this, its usage was honestly pretty nonexistent in the queer community until the AIDS epidemic. (So please don't listen to this if you're going to have sex... It's not 1926! Wrap it up!)
I am aware Je Cherche un Millionnaire came out in 1938... It was an accident I didn't have the heart to change but please believe me when I say this is the only glaring anachronism I can think of in all of Aria ahkjfh
Dan Howell would look back at 1926 and smile.
He would look at the date and remember the quiet year he lived with Phil. It was the year he had the most photographs of, when Phil had gotten a small Kodak box camera halfway through the year with the extra money from his shows, and used it at every opportunity to take photographs of Dan. He tried to take as much as Phil but it never seemed to work– in the tin they kept them in there were always more of his dumb smile and the single dimple to the left.
Phil took a million of them of him on his 21st birthday because he stayed with him all day by telling his parents of a convenient cold that had sprung up. They went to the old club with their friends and drank until they couldn’t see a foot in front of them, and they kissed a lot that night too, and he was happy to be half-drunk and half-fogged from the after feelings of sex when he smiled for a camera above him for one last time that night. That was a photo Dan knew was probably the most beat up out of them all, and he couldn’t even care.
Dan finally saw Phil’s old portrait as a soldier too, amongst the mess and papers Phil finally dug out (after who knows how many years). There he was, proud almost, his cap snug against short brown hair, his eyes bright and rimmed with wire glasses against the sepia paper. Dan smiled at it, and Phil growled only slightly menacingly, and so Dan put it up on his nightstand. “I don’t care if you don’t want it. I do.” There was no use arguing with Dan and the aesthetics of his portion of the flat.
They took photographs of the ticker tape parade for Trudy Ederle that spanned Broadway that late summer, and the miles long of stock market paper that covered the street afterwards that only served to trip Dan on his way home ( “You’re just getting taller! You’ve got to grow into your legs!” ). They took a photograph of the woman who developed the pictures down the street and her scowling wife, and they took a photograph of Phil and a stray dog that they ended up finding the owner only 3 hours later.
They also took photographs of the Hamilton Lodge and Webster Hall drag balls, happy ones of Dan in one of Phil’s old black dresses and done up to oblivion, in Hisako and Colette’s arms laughing. He would be Darlene those nights, and Colette would comment on how nice his burgundy nails were, Hisako begging for one more dance (to which Colette would huff at). Phil would wear a colorful suit and they’d dance together until their feet were numb, and they never won a contest because they were only half as flamboyant as most– but it didn’t matter. They’d see all their club friends and shop owners they saw around the Village, and even when they’d leave stumbling and get called a riot of faggots, it didn’t matter a bit to anyone. There were so many of them down 11th and 4th avenue, they’d take to yelling it themselves, the self-professed flaming faggots of 1926! having the time of their lives god dammit. Dan would smile through the photograph with dark lips and dark eyelids, and Phil would joke that if he’d only thinned his eyebrows regularly and perhaps his nose, he would be a regular Louise Brooks. He never believed Phil, but it made his cheeks warm regardless.
Dan took photographs of Phil tending to his plants mostly though, and he liked to pretend he was as good as a photographer as he was a writer. There were ones of him watering the peonies, or clipping lilacs to put inside, there was even one of him showing off how dirty his hands got a laugh when Dan told him he’d have to wash them off before he went upstairs. Dan would sometimes pick a white gardenia or two to place behind his ear and let the window filter in just the amount of light to evoke that there was a forever in these contrasts. He’d have him sit outside on the steps, or when they had time, the sunsets at Washington Square Park, and Dan wished when the light faded to pink on the irises of Phil and set him ablaze with the last breaths of the sun that he had a scrap of talent in painting, just to capture the colors he seemed to emit. The photographs he made were brown and gray and black, and Phil was so so much more than that.
They had a single photograph of all of them and their friends at the club Christmas 1926, with the two of them and Alessio, Colette, and Hisako smiling around their gifts on the stage floor. There were some from the first Christmas tree they were able to get, and the decorations they’d got to make things even better than last years. (Dan had even snuck a photo of Phil’s backside when he leaned to get some wrapping paper, much to the delight of himself and the spluttering of Phil when they had received them.)
So 1927 rolled unknowingly into their lives. The summer of those days was lazy, as picnics at Coney Island left them sunburnt and warm against each other, their friends drowning in the sun. The jazz was getting stronger, the tide leaving them scrambling for footing as it got faster and faster, turning them in circles until they couldn’t see the water in front of him. On the pier until the sun set, that summer horns and brass were lulling, a New Orleans Black Bottom Stomp skirting them closer to the edge without a relief in sight. The music grew on their feet like the waves, ebbing on blank toes until the tide swallowed them whole –and it was a dizzying summer– full of hot breathy practice and the slow exchange of heat.
And then 1928, like they had been forgotten before the first strike of January 1st on the calendar had even struck. With it came not immediate pain, but a lulled sense of comfort in everything, the one that had the power to trick a butterfly that it was safe below a hungry bird.
The very old friends Dan had made as a kid and adolescence in the society had all but disappeared from his life. Since graduating High School and going into journalism most of his friends had gone to their own universities, and among the ones that did stay, Dan was glad to have an excuse to not meet up with them besides the annual elites functions and other mandatory dinner parties.
Every Sunday though, without fail, Dan had made his way up the marble steps to the 13th floor. Within the ensuing hours the heir would be put up to date with the hotel, the number of guests passing through and the income acquired weekly. Throughout the dull drone he thought his father emanated, Dan found himself wanting to fall asleep with every ensuing business practice laid at his feet. He didn’t know so much paperwork even existed, and he worked for a damn magazine.
At one of the usual Sunday lessons, Dan was caught by a bust of Washington that resided in a corner of a common room on the ground floor. He had been taking accounts for an appraiser to come (done every 10 years he was told), and though absolutely spotless he doubted no one but the maids knew of its existence. In the ledger, he described the object, and making his way to his father’s office, remembered the mysterious adage on the Washington Square Arch.
“Dad,” he asked, a softer word than father he had begun to use. “Do you know about the bust in the conservatory?”
Mr. Howell put the newspaper he was reading down. His coat hung looser on him than Dan had ever seen, his face a tiny bit thinner around the eyes. It was starting to scare him. “The one of Washington? Yes, it was your grandad’s idea.”
“Hold on– Do you know what Exitus Acta Probat means?” If his father knew—
“Yes. It’s a Latin phrase–”
“The outcome proves, ” Dan interrupted. “But proves what? ”
“It’s the Washington family motto,” Mr. Howell began, smiling. “It comes from Ovid, in his Heroides . Some take it to mean the result justifies the deed." He stayed quiet, waiting for Dan to say something. “ The more common translation though is the ends justify the means.”
“Oh.” Dan didn’t know what else to say. He knew nothing about history next to his father.
“I have come to believe this end justifying the mean is the Revolutionary war,” he began solemnly. “I think we forget how unpopular it was at the time, heaven knows poor Franklin must have been proud of finally seeing his Join or Die in print again... England was our father. We thought we owed everything to him, our safety, our choices— everything. Washington saw that. He also saw the outcome if we won this war– self-representation, liberty, freedom. With that in mind, he could justify the deed. A terrible war— but with a tremendous outcome. The ends justify the means. ”
Dan sat listening. It sounded cruel to him still. To justify slaughter– well that was just it. The ends justified the means.
“And if we had lost the war?”
There was a small silence. “Then I suppose there would be blood on our hands and a darkness in our hearts.”
1928 also brought Alice from Dan’s shadows, a bright, fading light in his life.
“How are you doing Daniel? It has been far too long.” Alice punctuated the words with a smile. “How are you?”
“I’m fine,” he smiled back earnestly. “Things are great.”
They were sitting up on the balcony at her mansion overlooking Manhasset Bay. It was a grand house, and even grander view, a millionaire sort of establishment privy to nothing below perfection. The deep upholstered divan’s sunk calmly around Dan, expensive import plants lining the spaces away from the bay and in intricate holdings. A butler was periodically seen shifting to and from in the main house behind them, his old, burly figure the only movement on the champagne bucket.
“I like your place,” Dan said awkwardly. It was true —it had style— but Dan couldn’t help but feel wrong surrounded by this. He wasn’t used to it much anymore and it definitely didn’t feel like him.
“Oh yes, me too. Fitzy and I could have gotten something just as big on 5th, but what’s the point?” Fitzy was her husband, short for Fitzroy . “It so loud out there and one can’t do anything without the neighbors knowing,” she accentuated her words with an annoyed look. “At least I have the trees to hide my business— they can’t tell a soul.” She laughed under her champagne glass and Dan didn’t know if it was her pearls or her teeth under the crystal baubles of liquor.
They gossiped for a bit, but Dan could partake half as much as she wanted. It felt a little wrong to talk about other people, but it wasn’t anything he hadn’t already heard. Troubles with the Mathers. Jakey Astor into some trouble. The Social Register with a horrid typo. He let the summer sun shine brightly on him, the bay water flitting from dark blue to white in the sun’s glare. He saw a few yachts out, and swimmers dotted the water and docks in fine points all bobbing up and down in their swimwear to escape the heat.
“I have something to tell you, and you can’t tell anyone.” She smiled, putting down her glass and leaving her teeth bare.
“I’ll gladly be a tree for you. May I be an oak?”
“Oh you’re funny, no you must keep the tightest of lips,” She was really smiling now.
“Oh, I’m expecting a baby!” she exclaimed at last.
Dan smiled immediately. “Oh my god, congratulations!”
Alice beamed, her cheeks full and giddy. “Yes it’s all a little hush at the moment, but I wanted to tell you anyway. I want you to see him when he’s born, you’re practically prime godfather material already. I think Fitzy will come around— I miss you so much. We could always be there for each other and I’m afraid I get zilch when I’m around everyone else.”
“You don’t have anyone else?”
“Oh, of course, I do, it’s just that I never get to see any guys alone anymore. Fitzy won’t let me. I made him let me see you because we’ve been friends since we were 14, I was going to have my way and he knew it. Also, he’s not much afraid of you– you’re not exactly a casanova no offense.”
Dan laughed. “None taken.”
“Oh, you’ll never guess what I’ve gotten into,” Alice said with a flick of her wrist, as if the news of her baby already bored her. Dan was still caught up in her relative male house arrest, but he ignored it.
“High-end Illegal liquor,” Dan answered without pausing.
“Daniel, you know those days are behind me,” she smiled sarcastically. “No, social reform.”
“Why would you ever do something like that?” Dan joked, but his eyebrows knitted.
“Oh I don’t know, to fill the time I suppose,” she breathed out in an honest, sad little huff. “Have you heard of the Committee of the Fourteen? Fifteen? It’s a thing Fitzy does to look good, he wants to go into politics, beats me. It’s also a dry thing, but ignore that.” She poured herself another glass of champagne and leaned across her outdoor divan to hand the bottle over to Dan, letting her diamond rings click against the green glass of the bottle. “Imagine me a governor’s wife.” She shook her head with some incredulity.
Dan almost dropped the bottle. He knew about the Committee of the Fourteen and the Fifteen. They were like every anti-vice committee. They sponsored raids and arrests and liked to target their clubs like no tomorrow.
Dan looked at her. She was a different sort of blonde than the girl that ran after him at the Claremont Monthly— Lillian was it? Alice was brighter, more assured than her. He also thought Lillian a bit brighter in the head, and a little quieter, but Alice wouldn’t have cared. Alice could play this game. She wanted to lead a comfortable life, felt entitled to it, and she’d tell herself as many lies as it took to get that. It didn’t ruin her charm though, or her love for others. But Lillian— who was Lillian?
Dan internally shook himself awake. He didn’t know why he was comparing the two. He barely knew Lillian. He supposed he just wanted to understand society women for once.
“I understand what they’re going for, but it sure makes the city boring locking up all those street women and fairies. Fitzy hates poor loose women and the invert lot, and I won’t argue I suppose,” she said with another sigh. “I think I’d cry if my baby ended up like that. Makes you wonder what happened to them, you know? I wouldn’t be able to forgive myself.”
Dan had never heard her speak like this. He shouldn’t have been surprised, but it still he felt something in his chest fall. It wasn’t malice speaking, it was ignorance.
“I guess depravity runs through all classes.” Dan bit his lip.
She nodded her head slowly, in agreement. “You should be a poet,” she said at last.
Alice was quiet after that. She had a wild streak in her, but she also had brilliant moments of peace inside of her as well. Dan thought that was probably why they’d clicked so well when they were in their teens. It was like all the hours she spent reading others and discerning and manipulating their culled interests, opinions, and thoughts were not only for her social prowess, but also for herself, her true self. There was something about reading and understating all these bored people, to figure out herself and her place, and only partaking in the good of it if she could help it. Only partaking in the good left her a precipice of unknowns though, and she’d only learn what she wanted to learn about and hid the rest away. She hoped she could keep telling herself it was worth it.
Dan realized in waves looking across the bay that he could never tell Alice about his true life. She would never fully understand, nor did he think she quite wanted to know. If there was gossip spilled she’d ignore it, and maybe that was the best thing for them, even if it hurt him. Was there anyone he could tell in his old life? Who in a million years would think Mr. Daniel I-Spend-All-My-Time-In-My-Room Howell would be friends with her? He had met her because of her charm, the gravity of charisma, and stayed with her when he saw she was the most understanding girl in the society he had met; fun and exuberant, but kind— deeply kind. Despite her ignorance, she was thoughtful, in a vain little way that didn’t leave room for Dan to come to himself but rather her, and he should have been angry, but he found himself happy to have seen it. He had met Phil after all, and that could make up for 19 years of having nothing.
And yet even this was uncrossable. The diamond rings glared up at him, uninvited and blinding. It left him with an ugly feeling in his chest.
“Open another bottle, will you?” She asked at last.
Dan took an unopened bottle from the ice, accidentally cutting his finger on the end of the wire muselet in the process.
Phil had had his audition for a new play the day before. It was being called Pleasure Man and was written by the same woman that had put on the play Sex. There’d been a scandal a few years back that Dan hadn’t kept up with as much as others, but he’d gone and seen it with Phil, and it was something. They were looking for actors all through the Village it seemed like, all shades of performers in the pansy circuit and cabarets. Someone had found out about auditions at the club and it had spread like wildfire among the Village’s actors, each one taking themselves as a Marilyn Miller (and getting appropriately bratty with anyone who called it into question). Phil figured it was one step closer to a Broadway stage, and he couldn’t pass it up. He didn’t let the egos of the people at his club get to his head, but then of course, it never had to begin with.
Dan hadn’t been to his apartment in over 3 weeks. The townhouse on the block with the wide street was rarely lived in to begin with, and at most, Dan spent time washing up or writing letters there, when the apartment got a bit stuffy and deadlines pressed on him. He tried to make it there at least once a week for mail, which always stacked up uncomfortably when he opened the door to a pile spread across the threshold.
Today was no different. It was the summer of ‘28, a few months after his father had told him about Exitus Acta Probat, and Dan Howell walked down the crowded streets in the Village, key rattling in his pocket.
I wonder what’s up, Dan thought, as he neared his door and saw 3 messily hung Western Union notices.
This Telegram: has been returned to office indicated below where it may be had upon presentation of this notice, or it will be telephoned to you upon request.
it read, as Dan pulled them off their thin adhesive and into his hand, unlocking and jamming his door on a stack of letters.
“What the–” He kicked the paper to the side, resting the notices on a side table and picking up the envelopes. In it were mostly unmailed ones, dropped doubtless by relatives or friends. As he thumbed through to find one to open, the single phone in the hallway rung.
Dan picked up the dark wooden receiver cautiously. “Hello?” he said across the line.
“Dan- Daniel is that you?” It was his mother. She sounded frantic, confused.
“Yes, mom,” the word slipped out before he could correct himself. It felt flat against his tongue. “It’s me.” He heard her heavy breathing across the line. “What’s wrong?”
“Where have you been? Daniel, I can not believe you– three days– three days I’ve been trying to find you!”
“No! Daniel, you listen to me..." Her voice shook. "Three days... Daniel ...” Her voice finally faded from her ear. “Daniel... your father had a heart attack.”
The line seemed to die. There was only a muffled crackle against his ear, sputtering into oblivion as he looked dead on through the hallway and the little square window that lay in the center. It was supposed to be bright outside, but Dan didn’t see it. His mother’s voice continued like a pitiful, dying animal against his ear.
“Three days ago while at breakfast. Daniel— This morning— Your father is dead.”
Hah... long time no see. The wrath of college search has taken over me and it's been a wild few weeks, forgive me. If you haven't been following me on tumblr, you won't know this summer has also been particularly rough. I pretty much lost my best friends in successive weeks of each other in late June and July (not dead thank god, just left me out of the blue; one I've been close with for 9 years and shared practically my whole unstable life with, but I won't get into that) and I'm going through a lot. I'm trying my best to keep my head up but things are really hard for me at the moment. I've yet to get any explanation or apology and I've never felt so unwanted, and this is coming from someone with a grade-A childhood sob story. I treat and love my friends like family because they are that to me, and having them leave me and continue a friend group I once felt so loved and supported in hurts more than I can seem to bear. Who knows, maybe this will drive me to write more, but for now, I've been so lost these last few months I can't do much except read passively or cry– and it's pitiful and I'm ashamed. I shared so much of my creative passion with this work with them and it almost feels dirty at this point, in fact, the character Clara shares a name with one of them, but then I guess I have to remember all the lovely readers I get and forget that. I truly feel like everything I was before they left is somehow some vastly different entity that wrote 90k words of this, and that I'm almost unworthy of it all now. I've never felt so beaten and miserable it's like it's gotten stuck in my veins, and I suppose I'm a harder person now, but I hope not. Time will tell. This story seemed to be the only thing my friends were truly at awe with in me, and even that couldn't save me from their leaving. I guess what I'm trying to say is I hope you get something out of this, and I hope I can live with that too.
On my search for colleges, I ended up in New York City for a day actually! I was able to visit a lot of the spaces I wrote about (in the west village at least), and it was the BEST feeling in the world. Definitely had a moment in Washington Square Park, you don't research a city for a year and a half and not shed a tear or two. The city was a little too hectic for me and who knows when I'll be back, but it was definitely a sight to see! I don't have photo of me there right now, but when I do I'll share :")
Anyways I hope you enjoy. My life is so dizzyingly bleak at the moment but I hope this makes yours a little brighter.
There was nothing to prepare him for the phone call. Like that, his worst reality was on him. He should have been prepared for it. 3 years and months of learning. 4 years of seeing Phil. 3 years knowing Phil. 2 years of living with him. He thought he would have come up with something in all that time, but he realized now in the clean, unused hallway that it had been absolutely fruitless. Barren, even.
He wondered how his father could be dead without him knowing. If his mother had never called, Dan would’ve kept on with his life, like his father was alive. There was no sign from the other side, no heart-stopping realization, just a phone call. How could someone so close to him... be so gone?
They’re simple question for people who have gone through death, but for Dan, in his 23 years on earth nothing had even left him so bare. He felt exposed, the tiny bit of sun from the door mocking him. It would live on and shine on young faces for eternity, and here he was— left to age and love and lose.
To die. To die.
There was nothing to do now but to go on with the motions.
Dan hailed a cab and got to their apartment as soon as he could. He found Phil in the corner of their kitchen, doing laundry.
Dan stopped dead in the room. He had run, he didn’t know why. To see Phil faster? To get this over with sooner? Trying to catch his breath he shook his head without rhythm. “My– My father–”
Phil got up, leaving the wet shirt in the tub and taking Dan’s shoulders. His fingers were wet, and it made Dan’s shoulders feel like ice against the air.
The hands on Dan’s shoulders fell off slowly. He looked up, and saw Phil pale slowly, the eyelashes on his face as still as a corpse.
“I’m sorry,” he said simply.
There was sympathy in his look. It made Dan want to shrink. He took a deep breath instead.
My father is dead. He let the words roll over him like a wave, the freshness that his father was gone taking over him for a second time. Just like that. He didn’t realize how a few tears began to edge his cheek, and he figured he must have loved him– that was the only explanation of it.
“Oh, Dan,” Phil put his arms out and waited for Dan to fall into them, and before he knew it they were on the ground together, next to the steaming laundry pot and cracked wood flooring. Phil pushed his hair out of the way and held him, as Dan began to relive his existence with his father.
“I didn’t think I’d care,” he mumbled honestly. “I just thought about the hotel and I never thought about him.”
Phil held tighter, allowing him to calm down. “Losing someone is rotten,” Phil confessed.
“I don’t ever want to deal with this again.”
The comment made Phil laugh. “I think I used to pray those words every night back in France.”
Dan sobered, feeling a little uneasy at the mention back to his time in the war. “This is nothing, huh?”
“He lived a decent life. Didn’t die before he was 20. Million–” Phil stopped mid-sentence. He cocked his head and opened his mouth, the latter failing to come back up no matter how many seconds prevailed. His eyes shone with amusement.
“You– You’re a proper millionaire now,”
Dan had forgotten. He let out a sardonic huff. “God, that’s nothing.”
“I mean yeah, but like–” Phil shook his head.
“Honestly I’d give it up if I didn’t have to deal with everything that’s going to happen.”
“You don’t know what’s going to happen, Dan.”
“Yes I do!” He pulled back, running his hand through his hair. He didn’t like how Phil had mentioned the money. It wasn’t really his — maybe in writing and power— but he hadn’t made a cent of it compared to his father and grandfather. He didn’t even want it. Phil bringing it up had shaken him. “That’s been the plan since I was born– I’m supposed to take care of the hotel and run it like nothing happened– It’s just–” he tried to explain.
“What’s the issue?” Phil wasn’t grasping it.
“I won’t be able to see you as much, that’s the truth— the honest truth. My mother and the whole legal team will pull me in and lock the damn doors until I get it right. It’s going to be my life .”
“The Clairemont?” Phil tried to argue.
“I can still work at it, my father said I could,” he had gotten him. He supposed it wouldn’t be all doom and gloom. And yet—
There was another silence as Dan tried to calm down. It was useless though, he wanted to curl into himself and die. Even Phil’s hand on his back felt foreign, as he thought about the idea of dying, so abstractly and infinitely alone. “Oh, I think I need to get over to the hotel. They’ll all be expecting me,” he said at last.
“Let me go with you.”
“How would that help any?” Dan’s shoulders fell again. He wasn’t angry, but sad— exasperated .
Phil fell back with an equally heavy look, shaking his head. “What can I do for you?”
Dan turned away from him, biting his cheeks to try and stop crying. “Nothing. There’s nothing you can do.”
“That’s not true, It’s–” Phil wanted to protest, but didn’t know what else to say. “I’m sure there’s something.”
Dan shook his head. He needed to be strong. “I have to go.” Without looking back, Dan got up and made his to the door, inadvertently shaking the stained glass nightingales on his way out.
Dan was at the family reception room of the hotel, a floor below his old rooms and stuffed in the main parlor with other relatives, close friends, and business partners that somehow found it in their best interest to comfort the Mrs. Timothy Howell.
The next day they were to go to Newport, a city on the coast of Rhode Island. Dan had spent a few of his boyhood summers there, playing (until he was inevitably teased away because of his curly hair or lack of male friends by the other boys) as his parents and the rest of society had their season. He remembered his mother’s long green gowns and pearls, and his father’s perpetual rotundness before they went out to a party— how odd they had looked as a couple but so bright despite. He remembered wishing to be a part of that happiness, but he was shy compared to his brother, and he had outgrown their affection by the time he realized they were capable of it. The little kisses and long boat rides with them felt a century away, and even when he had been at the bow blinded by the sun, it was his nurse to keep him from falling in, his mother and father and brother safely in the stern. Apparently it was where his father had wished to be buried, and the fact didn’t surprise him. They had stopped going when the war started, and Dan hadn’t seen their cottage in over a decade. It was a gorgeous place to live and die in he supposed.
But today extended family that could come visited them, like a parade of penguins their mourning dress fitting perfectly to their white faces, almost all of them exclusively from his mother’s side. It was a stifling affair that made Dan want to run out anytime an I’m sorry was uttered. Each one only seemed to highlight how little he had known his father and how nothing would change it.
“How are you, my dear?” A middle-aged woman crossed the couch and took him in her arms. The act startled Dan, and he drew away unsure of what had just happened. She patted him on the sides of his coat as she tried to straighten it from her embrace. Mrs. Howell’s auburn hair shook messily as she looked to bring it back to its former crispness, it was clear to him and probably everyone else that she hadn’t brushed it in days. Her hands stayed on her son’s arms, and it it was obvious that she was using any excuse she could to touch him again. It had been months since they had last spoken face to face. She looked unsure and out and place, and it was unnerving to see her as thus now. Even more so how warm she was with him now. “I am not doing so well, as you can imagine.” She let out a watery smile.
In reality, Dan was not taking it well either. He wanted to comfort his mother as well but felt lost. What could he do? How could he love her? How could he when all he wanted was to give everything away she had made? It was like his life was falling slow motion onto hard packed snow and there was nothing on earth he could do to save it.
“I’m– good,” he forced out, trying to smile in reassurance.
She nodded her head, though Dan knew she wasn’t buying it.
It was now or never. He had to mention it now if he could ever convince her. “I’ve been thinking, and I don’t know if I’ll live in the hotel.”
“W-” She looked up. “What do you mean?” Confusion tore at her face. “Who will run the hotel?”
“I will,” he assured her, “but I think I’ll work from my apartment, you know? We could always hire our friends to help manage.”
“This is a family business, Dan,” her voice began to rise. “ Family— ”
“Mother–” He tried to keep his voice quiet. Everyone was starting to stare. “Not here. We’ll talk later.”
She ignored him. “You will live here.” Her previous coldness had returned. This wasn’t going to end well. Nothing like this ever ended well.
“Mother I’d rather not–”
“I can’t believe you are my son,” she let out quietly. There was disbelief on her face, a cold, unnerving derision in her raised upper lip. “You selfish—” Before Dan could realize what had come into his vision, he heard the sound of skin hit skin and a wincing black striking his eyelids shut.
Dan brought his hand to his face. His mother had slapped him. In front of everyone. He heard what he thought was his little brother gasp from the couch.
“Your family builds this to be the best hotel in America and you tell me you won't live here?” she let out helplessly. She was crying now, obviously embarrassed and heartbroken. “I— sacrifice , your father— sacrificed , you— must sacrifice as well. Do you think this is easy?”
The comment hit Dan full on. He wanted to run. His mother’s brown eyes were wide and alive, like a cornered animal in a fight. “I say it every day, I told your father— Addy should have been the firstborn. At least he comes to talk to me on occasion and has some hope of finding a wife. What do you do besides god knows what in the Village?” she whispered, letting only Dan hear the derision. He saw tears start to rise in her eyes like little pearls. “You will always disappoint me,” she said sadly before bringing her hand to shield her face and walk quickly out of the room.
Dan stood stunned. Never had he seen his mother so alive. He thought he was going to pass out if one more eye turned down to the carpet like he didn’t exist, and he quickly left the room as well, making his way to his old apartment to go hide.
On the train to Newport, he had the comfort of sitting with his nana and grandad. They had made their way out of the 5th avenue apartment for the first time in what felt like forever and into the compartment with their eldest grandson. Grandad was asleep (after a sip of congou tea he had passed out) and it made Dan want to laugh. He vowed to himself never to get old.
Nana was awake, talking away. She seemed to blend into the car’s tapestries, her thick burgundy hat fading any lines of distinction until it was only her bright, pink face shining up at him against the brocade. Dan thought she looked sweet amidst it.
“I never really knew him well. But your mother loved him. That was enough for me.” She brought a beaded bag around to her by the tea tray and opened it up, taking out an old pocket watch. “This watch has a long story.” She rubbed it in her hands as she looked at it fondly. “I’m aware you don’t exactly want to take over the hotel.”
He laughed. “You’d be right there. Hard to miss that one after my mother let that one slip in front of everyone.”
“Karen’s always been a passionate one.”
“If you want to call it that.”
His grandmother laughed. “Well, she’s also always been terribly stuffy. I guess we shouldn’t complain catching someone like your father, but she was certainly not going to get this,” she said, shaking her head. “You think your grandad is asleep?”
“ I can’t believe Karen had a child with Mr. Mather’s! ” Dan’s grandmother feigned surprise and looked at her husband. When there wasn’t a response, she went on with her story like nothing had happened. “I’ll keep this short. I stole this watch from a man I used to be in love with. I was married and I love your grandad now, but at 19 I didn’t want to even look at him. Not one bit. This watch's previous owner was an escape from that. When I became pregnant again I had to end it. I had already had your mother from your grandad but it was too risky, so I took his watch.”
“Didn’t you tell me a million times growing up I can’t steal?”
“Well yes, but his pants were not on as they should have been and he was too embarrassed to go back to me to look for it. I want you to have it. I’m old now and my days of escapades are over. Let it remind you of youth and of love.”
“Nana–” Dan was a little shocked at this news of his grandmother's sordid affairs. “Wh-”
“You forget I married up Daniel. And I was from San Francisco. I’ve seen it all.” She flicked her hand like it was nothing. Dan had forgotten about her upbringing, adopted by a dubious land speculator and sent to New York to make a fortune. “Us bad children had just as many secrets as you do. We just had to be more secretive about it.” She let out a coy smile. “You know the Mather’s children? Henry is not John’s. Nowhere in that family do they have a strand of blonde...”
Dan let the watch tick in his hand as he listened to his grandmother go on about the society gossip, the cool metal warming in his hands as he listened. She knew more than he could even begin to imagine.
He squeezed the watch. He loved his grandmother with all his heart.
The train ride had just gotten a little less dreary.
Dan hadn’t realized how hard funerals could be. There were so many people in the church he didn’t know, and it felt false, wrong. Maybe he should have known them —but it felt like a society event at this point— expensive georgette crêpes and handkerchiefs with all their eyes tracing on him as he made his way down the aisle as a pallbearer, boring his back constantly. He felt like everyone could count the tears that fell down his cheeks even though they couldn’t see his pale face, and it was invasive and stifling. Maybe Dan should have known who these people were, but he found he didn’t care.
There was the usual haunting sun at the burial, the veils drawn tight as curtains to block out their mocking light. Dan would have liked one himself, in all its hidden and expensive beauty. There was something protective and feminine about it.
Eventually, the family made it back to the cottage. The same day Dan sat in the rose garden. He thought he was alone until he heard small steps behind him.
Ms. Lillian Ross was still in her black cashmere dress, a stiff summer coat hiding most of it. Her blonde hair peeked out a tight-fitting cloche, framing her face like a halo. The Ross’ had been invited for their connections and proximity to Dan. That was why most of the people had been invited, now that he thought about it.
“The flowers are very nice,” she said not looking at him.
Dan didn’t want to listen to her. He expected his pretending not to hear would offend her, like every other society girl he’d done that too, but she only continued to sit still. “I never knew your father, but he seemed like a good man.”
“I didn’t really know him either, and now that he’s gone I’m starting to think he was.”
She didn’t know what to say. She pulled at her gloves until they came off, setting them beside her on the bench.
“You sure you should be doing that all alone with a man?”
She smiled, and he was surprised to see her not blush or stutter over herself as much as she used to. “It’s not 1890, you know.” She bandied her head about, and Dan noticed how much she’d grown since they last saw each other. He thought back to the horrible introduction her father had given them back when she was 14 and thought she seemed much more sure of herself. She was no longer awkward— she was plain elegant now . Even new money could make an American princess.
“I keep trying to tell myself that too, but—” He shook his head at the neatly trimmed red roses and back at the mansion behind him. “I look and I just can’t convince myself that’s true.”
Dan was tired. He got a few sheets of stationary and an ink pen out from his bag, slouching on this the wooden desk chair. He had thought about calling Phil, but it’d have probably raised a question at the switchboards, not to mention the entire house possibly listening in. A letter would do.
I have made it to Newport safely. I sat with Nana and grandad. She told me the most bizarre stories about society people back them... I won't bore you with it now but I almost choked on my tea several times. It’s definitely a story for when I get back.
I’m sitting in our old Newport cottage. It would easily be the biggest house you’d step in your life if I could have taken you. My grandfather had it built in the 80’s when everyone would come down here for the season, and I’m told a lot of parties took place... Probably a bore compared to what we do now though, huh? It’s three stories and has 30 rooms and in my humble opinion the best view of a countryside you could get. My room is on the second floor and overlooks a garden. It makes me think of you. I’m going to ask the gardener for some rose cuttings and try to send them if that’s alright. If not I’ll cut and press a rose. Just for you.
I’ve had to leave my hot comb at home because of how odd everyone would find it and I hate every living second of it. I can’t wait until I can straighten my hair again. I can’t believe I used to wear it like this every day. Please send a prayer.
Dan laughed as he wrote that last line.
My Mother and I have had a bit of a falling out. She made a scene in front of everyone yesterday morning about me having to live there at the hotel and I know everyone is saying something or another behind my back.
Dan wavered on writing the next couple of lines. He skipped a line and made an ellipse to make himself continue.
...and she struck me. In front of everyone. She... Well, she called me selfish or something like that and a disappointment because I can’t seem to find a wife and how much better it would have been if Addy was the eldest. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do Phil.
Nana told me the funeral is in Newport because my father had his best memories here. My mother didn’t even tell me, it had to be my Nana. She said that’s where my mother and father met and where he learned how to sail and all that. Why didn’t I know any of this?
It’s gaudy. You wouldn’t believe it, I already told you about the place but it’s smaller compared to most of them. The Vanderbilt’s cottage is just down the street from us and you can see it from the windows it’s so big. I’ve never been in it but my nan says the marble in their entry hall was so shiny when she visited it you could see your own bloody reflection in it. My mother must have been in it once too, I always forget she was Consuelo’s flower girl. (I doubt she’d tell me about it though.) Ours hasn’t been open since summer of ‘14 and we had to hire extra help to clean it up for us to even live in it without breathing in cobwebs. I’m not here to complain though. If I ever get this place I want to show you every god damned room. Hell– maybe when we’re old we could live here. There’s a nice music room with a piano that’s just got to be tuned. I even have old gross parlor music just for you.
I was able to get Clara to come as one of the laundry maids with us as well. I haven’t had a chance to speak with her, but I hope she’s enjoying Newport the best she can despite working. I don’t think I can bribe anyone without my mother knowing though, but I’ll see what I can do so she could have some time off. I still think about your damn run in on the fire escape. We don’t deserve someone like Clara, that’s for sure.
For some reason, Harold is with us as well. I think my mother has something to do with it, I don’t know. He told me he was here because he was the “only reporter your family trusts.” Surely my father wasn’t that important? It made the society newspaper and a few big ones but really that should be the end of it. My father’s funeral? How is that interesting to anyone? A few relatives crying their eyes out and a few probably passed out in the back from boredom? Sounds like a riot. Harold’s probably only here for all the halfway decent bootleg champagne.
He didn’t think to mention Mr. Ross or Lillian being there either. It was so obviously for appearances. There wasn’t much to say about the incident with his daughter if he was being honest.
I think it’s sort of interesting that my father wants to be buried here. My grandfather’s buried back in some town he grew up in whatever’s left of Armenia. I’ve never been. Apparently, my father got to visit a lot and he wanted to be buried there up until The War... You have heard of the death there? It was... well the papers called it extermination. We just knew that every one of my grandfather’s family disappeared. My father said there wasn’t really a chance he could even go back to see his father’s grave. He sent letter after letter... but nothing. We don’t think anyone survived. The Soviets have it now and God knows no one wants us going there.
And so my father’s buried here instead,
Dan wrote. He was at the end of the page. He got another page from a container.
The War really messed things up, huh? (I’m laughing a little bit at that last sentence, of course it did. I hope it makes you laugh a little as well.) Anyways, my grandfather thought he’d be with his family forever. My father thought he would be buried there too, forever. They were betting on a forever they never knew never existed to begin with. It’s where they thought they belonged.
I guess when we’re born we don’t get a choice of our lot. I was born in New York and into money and I think I was born to like every kind of person there is on Earth. Through it all I know I was born to love you. I think that’s a pretty good lot.
Phil, where do I belong? I don’t know. I honestly do not know. I’ve never been to Armenia and I barely remember my grandfather and his family as a kid, so I don’t think it’s that. I don’t even know if I belong in New York at this point. Who’s to say the city won't come crashing down in another war we’ll have to throw ourselves into. Then where would I belong? What even is to belong?
Dan felt himself start to get a little teary-eyed. He hadn’t meant to get this emotional in his letter. Everything surrounding his father was closing in on him finally. It had been a disgustingly taxing 48 hours and he just wanted someone to talk to that cared what he had to say.
I had to see my father at the funeral. He was... so pale. I know this is nothing and probably dumb compared to everything you’ve had to see and I’m sorry. I’ve never done this. I think I loved him. He wasn’t terrible to me, he bothered me to high hell sometimes and left me with a mess, but he wasn’t bad. I don’t know how to feel. Why is everything so confusing? I hate this.
I hate this I hate this I hate this.
I wish you were here. All the mansions are empty now and it’s just the bunch of us in the house mourning. I can hear my mother cry at night through the walls and it makes me want to stuff my ears so deep I deafen myself. My brother just talks to our mother. He’s always crying whenever I see him. He’s 16 and in the past 2 days I think more tears have passed down his cheeks than I learned how to do in my first 19. I don’t know if I should be jealous of that fact or the reality that he was close enough to our father to allow it.
At the funeral both of them were... just hysterical. I couldn’t bare to watch it. I cried, of course I did, but when your mother’s leaning over a casket and won't let go no matter how many people try to pull— you feel inadequate when you can’t come to that. My father and mother and brother all seemed to get along better without me. It’s always been like that. When I was born I spent most my time with my nana and it wasn’t until Addy was born that it was fashionable to raise your own child. I think I missed out on so much. Here I go making it about myself, Gosh I know you’re rolling your eyes. Don’t worry, I hate myself too.
I wish you were here with me. The mansion's lonely, Dan wrote again. He meant it.
I’ve heard talk that they might sell the place. It makes me sad. My father spent his best memories here. He thought this place was forever. Everyone thought this place was forever. The people who built it and had all the balls and people learning how to sail– they thought that world was forever. Now the balls are nothing and the cottages are half empty and the servants are almost all gone.
I don’t think we’ll go back here after this. When I told you we’d move in together, it was just me dreaming. I tend to do that a lot. They probably will sell the place, I don’t see a point in keeping it besides the memories. We’ll have to find some other abandoned mansion to go explore I guess.
Everything is a mess right now and it feels like I haven’t seen you in 10 years but I want you to know that nothing will get in the way of loving you. I’ll have the hotel and I’ll run it like everyone wants me too and maybe I’ll learn to love it– but I will love you most of all. Nothing can get in the way, okay?
All this has me thinking. I guess when we die we do get a bit of choice of our lot. I’m not saying everyone does, I can only think of Adam and his story and he had no choice. But there is a chance– a bigger chance than how you’re born. We have to take that. My father was able to choose where he was buried– That’s something. When I die I want to be somewhere I belong, and that’s not Armenia or the Newport cottage, maybe not even New York City.
When I die I want to be next to you. I don’t care where, It doesn’t matter. All I want is to be a place where I belong, and I think that’s by your side, I really do.
The slow sadness of days and the infinity of death is on our side– Think about it. If we were together I don’t think things would be half bad. It’s something that can’t be bought or sold away. These places and objects people lay themselves in forever... they wither.
I believe together we can’t.
Your Love Forever,
Dan sat quietly looking at the letter. There was so much of himself in it. It was sappy and so out of character to how they usually lived. His father’s body not even cold in the grave yet and his mother’s slap burned against his brain. The white of his undershirt pressed against him softly as he imagined Phil hugging him, his arm loose around his waist. They had never been separated for more than a week. Dan would be lying if he said he didn’t miss him with everything he had. The scariest part was that is actually physically hurt him.
He took another piece of paper from the pile and started to write everything and anything that came to him. It was messy. He looked down to little grammar.
Phil remember when you told me in the kitchen about how there were just some things science couldn’t explain like how your head doesn’t work sometimes or Colette being a woman I think you were right I wonder how genetics can explain why I don’t feel deeply about my father’s death I wonder how science can explain why you can love a person so much it doesn’t matter if they’re a boy or a girl I wonder how biology can explain the physical pain you feel in your chest when all you want to do is be with someone i wonder why you can’t be by my side forever
Before he had a chance to reread and overthink the mess he had penned, he folded the letter into an envelope marked Phillip M. Lester and poured a thick red wax over the flap. In the lone yellow electric light next to him he watched the tri-bishoped Howell family insignia burn the paper closed.
He stuffed the letter in his coat pocket. It had been a night.
A new chapter... what is this madness?? What's up with Lillian ? Harrold/Harry ? Mrs. Howell? TIme will only tell...
Thank you for all the kind messages on the last chapter, it means a lot to me as I'm going through all of this. On another note, school has started as have my college applications! I'm super busy but send good vibes, I'm applying early admission to Smith College and fingers are crossed! This SoCal girl may start writing in the Massachusettes woods... Who's ready for the DnP stuck-in-a-small-town-snow-in AU ? (kidding)
But seriously, I hope to have this published by the year-end. I think that would make me eligible for the phanfic awards right ? I don't keep up as much as I used to but I'd love to be in the running for that with how much work went into this tbh I'm such a hoe. Happy reading :")
The next day wasn’t any better.
In fact, the night was just as rotten.
He didn’t know how else to spend his time. The past few days replaying like a terrible moving picture, so Dan just drank—and he had become good at—ending up on the third floor throwing up the table wine in a fern after.
“You need to sleep, Daniel.”
“Shh–” Harold pushed him out of the atrium. “ Be quiet or you’ll never hear the end of it. Do you want that? You’re drunk. Go to bed.”
Dan couldn’t seem to keep his feet on level ground, and once or twice almost fell fully on the journalist.
He eventually made it to bed.
Throughout the days left, Dan noticed that everyone was waiting around the mansion like a pack of caged animals at a zoo. He saw the house go about the meticulous motions– a black chiffon collar pressed to a point and heads falling from the spectered weight in hallways, to entertain who– he knew not. Funerals, he decided, were an investment for the seen and to be seen. When he died he figured a clean ditch and a quick prayer would suffice for everyone involved. He tried not to think of the letter he’d sent to Phil. It was as good as an engagement the more he let himself dwell on the words. “ When I die I want to be next to you.” If Phil had been Lillian it would have been as good as a will you marry me? It was different because he wasn’t a girl.
The last few days at the house were stifling. He took every opportunity he could to go for walks, and he started to bring a notebook around for when he had time to sit and think. When he thought, it traveled through his head and into his hands, and underneath the ancient Newport trees, he started to write stories again. He hadn’t written for fun since he was a teenager. He’d almost forgotten how good it made him feel.
Nature was rife in the area, and green wound around his vision almost as much as dirt did in New York City. It was a pleasant change of scenery, and Dan found himself able to enjoy it when he divorced it of all the money it had backing it. He even let himself think that maybe he and Phil really could live in a place like this— away from everyone and able to breathe something fresh for once. Phil could even garden here until he got sick of it. It wasn’t that bad of a proposition. He was starting to sicken of New York.
But then he remembered their careers, and the insatiable curiosity their neighbors would exude on the fact two bachelor men were living together in their middle age, and the idea fizzled away as soon as it had come. It was pointless. Dan would just have to write about the views and remember as much as he could for Phil. He broke his pencil when he wished he could paint something to save his life again. He crushed the lead underneath his bare foot and ground it into the grass until it dissolved.
“Your feet cold there, sir?”
Up above him stood Clara Fremont. She was out of her uniform, and her clothes matched badly. With a red checkered shirt and yellow sweater, Clara puffed uncertainly at a cigarette. Her hair was still frazzled, but there wasn’t a maid cap on her, and she seemed to Dan akin to being bald. She was a real woman to him now, not just a worker. It made him deeply ashamed that he didn’t see it earlier.
Dan looked passively at his bare feet, the right one’s sole smudged with graphite to try and push the thought away. She’d always be too good for him and Phil. “I guess so.”
“I’d loan you my shoes, but I don’t think they’d fit, sir.”
“Please don’t call me sir,” Dan said hurriedly. The word grated against his brain like it was a brand. Before he could stop himself he had let the sentence slip. “I’m sorry,” he said quickly. He hoped he wasn’t being rude.
“It’s fine, I'm sorry it's a habit.” she shook her head uncomfortably. “May I sit down with you?”
“Of course.” He already knew something was wrong. Clara usually spoke much more than this.
“I need to tell you something, I think I have to tell you something.” She was glad of the cigarette in her hand. She took another drag. “I came across something taking out sheets on the third floor and I just wanted you to know about it–”
Dan felt his heart fasten.
“You can’t get mad at me.” She looked as if she were about cry. “Here.” From the inside of her sweater pocket, Clara revealed a bent piece of paper. “I don’t know– I just–”
Dan paled. It was the last page of the letter he had written earlier. He thought he had sealed it in the envelope. He suddenly felt incredibly dirty next to her in the impeccable green grass.
Dan took it. For a long while, he looked at it, the thick paper illuminating in the sunlight. He stared at the watermark below his frantic penwork, focusing on the shadows of it and the little emblem it made when only exposed to light. He looked up to see her gaze already on his.
Clara’s eyes were soft. They were brown like his, a familiar warmth he thought he saw when he looked at his reflection in the mirror. There wasn’t really anything to say, Dan thought. With the tiniest breath, she invited Dan to talk.
“Thank you.” He moved his gaze away but she held still. He thumbed the letter uncomfortably above the grass. “Has anyone else saw it?”
“No,” she shook her head. “I found it this morning at 4 in the atrium.”
“It must have fallen out of my pocket when I was up there last night,” Dan admitted.
There was another silence. She didn’t like it. “I know I shouldn’t have read it, I’m sorry.”
“Oh god, Clara,” he shook his head. “You didn’t do anything wrong. I just hope you won’t– that you won’t hate me, that’s all.”
“Why would I hate you?”
“Because I’m writing silly little love letters to—” He couldn’t get his lips to work the word boy. “And that’s not what you do.”
“How could I ever hate you for loving someone?”
The words embraced Dan head on. It was like he was a child again, the words fitting like he was around his mother’s arms, whenever he was scared or hurt and needed comforting. It was a dream though; he couldn’t remember an instance of being held by her. Clara’s cigarette had finished. She placed the end of it in her sweater pocket.
“I didn’t want to tell you like this.”
She laughed. “I’ll have to say hooey on that, why would you tell me anything like that? I’m only your laundry maid.”
“Because you’re my friend.”
She stilled, unable to believe the comment.
“I don’t know why Clara, but I trust you,” he continued. “I trust you more than almost anyone. Nobody in that big house gets it– they’re suffocating themselves without even realizing it. I don’t trust their judgment. They live for someone else.”
“Thank you,” she said. It scared her a little. If Dan could trust her so easily, who else did he trust that had worse intentions? “I didn’t think you’d ever think of me as a friend,” she admitted.
“You think I would give those little bribes to the matron so we could go and talk if I didn’t think you were my friend?” They had seen each other a handful of times since the fire-escape incident, whenever he was around and could get her away from all the work. It was always nice to hear from her, her cap messed but spirits bright.
She smiled at that. “Everyone thinks we're doing something very much different up there.”
“Let them,” he smiled at the image of downstairs gossip inadvertently help hide his relationship with Phil. The scandal. “Phil really likes you, when he has the chance to see you. I think I speak for us both when I say we trust you.”
“Thank you,” she repeated. “I don’t know, I sort of just always thought I was some oddity for you to feel good about yourself with, you know—when you talked to someone poor like me. I care about you, but I hope you know you can’t buy people’s trust or love. There– Oh don’t be unkind, but I think there will always be some kind of invisible fence around you because of your wealth. Please don’t forget that. There’s s a power you can’t forget.”
Dan turned suddenly. He had never thought of that.
“I don’t want you to get hurt by other people Daniel,” she said honestly.
“I won’t,” he tried to convince himself. “I didn’t think my money mattered when I made friends.”
“It doesn’t really, I think anyone can love anyone money or not— but you know it’s the society where people tear at each other. Too many rules. Too many expectations and awkwardness and greed on both sides, I think. That’s why people only live with others comfortably when they have the same figure number in the bank. You can’t live in both worlds without it breaking into ugly pieces.”
“Do you want to walk with me to the cemetery?” Dan began to re-lace his shoes. He wanted to see where his father was buried again. He figured it was about 2 miles from the house, and even though it was beginning to chill, he still wanted to go.
“Your mother is probably awful shrieking that you aren’t at dinner,” she reasoned, laughing slightly. She knew it wouldn’t stop him.
“You’re right, which only strengthens my resolve to go.”
Beech trees lined the road like soldiers. He took advantage of the setting sun and walked on the roots with her, balancing their shadows on them like he was a kid again and laughing at himself quietly when they started to fall. It was a distraction. He enjoyed it.
“What did you do as a kid, Clara?”
“Oh, whatever I felt like. They didn’t call me Ms. Fremont for nothing. I could outrun any boy at school, oh boy did they not like that!” She remembered, laughing. “I once went ‘exploring’ with my brother when we were kids and we didn’t come home for three days. Near caused my mother a heart attack. It was a right bit of fun.”
Dan suddenly felt very envious.
“It was a good time, now that I look back on it.”
“The work is fine, I just wish I could do something else. Travel or something. Everyone keeps telling me I need to get married so I could stop but I don’t know. Plenty of women still have to work once they’re cuffed, I don’t think that’ll change any.”
“You have any special talents you can exploit for the circus?” Dan joked.
“I can damn near take out any stain in existence, and I can keep a secret,” she smiled at him, pressing her forefinger to her nose. “But I don’t think the circus would take me just for that.”
“It doesn’t hurt to try.”
“You want me out of your life so bad?”
“I want you to be happy,” he said simply.
By the time they had made it to the cemetery, the sun had almost completely fallen. The lot was empty, and the tiny bit of orange left on the horizon dropped its shadow on the surrounding plot. He took out his lighter and lit it so they could see.
His father’s plot wasn’t far from the entrance. It was still fresh, and the headstone so shiny the flame from his hand seemed to glow back even brighter. He could almost feign their pale reflections staring back at them on the deep grey marble.
He wanted to tell her how much this was scaring him. He was good at suppressing thought, bred for it in fact. The nerves stitched into his head seemed as if they were beginning to fray, confirmed by the fact of leaving an entire dinner for the inevitable gossip to begin and overshadow any semblance of who he was to begin with. Pluck pluck pluck–
“Would you like me to leave you for a bit?”
Her voice was unnaturally warm. He nodded, hearing her fall away. Dan was left with the sultry flame flickering on the freshly engraved marble. I don’t even have flowers, he thought dishearteningly, feeling another stitch come out, this time in his chest. There were dozens or so cut blooms already on it, and Dan toyed with touching one for support.
He didn’t know to say. He hadn’t planned anything, in fact, he didn’t know why he was here anymore. It was cold now, and the fresh dirt under his shoes flew uncomfortably up against his nostrils.
He supposed his father was a good man. The life at the Agavni was good for him, he’d always loved it. He’d obviously loved his mother, or else she wouldn’t have been this depressed around this whole affair. There wasn’t really anything he could mad at his father about, and it made him hurt the more he thought about it. All those years running from him, and from what? Fear? His father was probably more afraid than every terror Dan had ever had combined.
Exitus acta probat. The end justifies the means. That’s what his father had told him was on the Washington Square Arch, the one that had confounded him and Phil the night they first went out. Did his grand house up the street and expensive tombstone justify the years of social polishing? Maybe.
Was this freedom? Death? Being 6 feet below, cold as ice and ready to rot?
He hoped to God not. The thought brought his head to fissures.
Predictably his mother was livid, but Dan was leaving the next day anyway, and so he was able to escape her intimate wrath. Sometimes having to put on airs in front of rows of servants and guests had a insulating effect, and in this moment, Dan was fine with that. He tapped his black shoes against the white marble in the grand entrance awkwardly as his bags were taken by some of the footmen.
"Have a good journey, Mr. Howell, my father and I send you the best feelings." Lily smiled and nodded her head next to her father, letting her pale eyes rest on his face longer than other guests usually dared. It felt more caring than erotic, and Dan found the sentiment warming.
"Thank you, Lily, you and your father have been beyond kind to me." He smiled minutely at Mr. Ross and let them back up against one of the guilded and reliefed arches. Most of the other guests had already said their goodbyes, and the few still remaining waited amongst themselves behind them, one of them being his mother and brother.
"I hate to see you leave so early." His mother was crying, even though she was obviously trying everything in her will not to. It made Dan feel guilty.
"I can't be here, for my wellbeing, I think it's making me—too sad," he said honestly, hearing the words ring too clearly for his liking next to his ear.
"You leave me and your brother and your father—"
"I love you, I just have to go," he lied.
She nodded, hugging him like a statue. His brother only shook his hand, not even looking at him.
And like that, the goodbyes were done. He made his way ou the immacualte entry hall and down the familiar marble front steps to the waiting automobile for the last time in his life then, the headache pounding against his skull. He also found himself holding in his breath, his sight suddenly only on a car and masses of trees. No people. No marble. The chauffeur took his bags smartly and placed it on the space at the back, and Dan watched him strap it in place and walk to the driver’s seat like it was nothing. Perhaps it was nothing. Perhaps it was the headache making him so anxious.
“Are you coming, sir?”
The chauffeur startled him back into sense. All the while Dan couldn’t seem to find the urge to move his legs the few feet it needed to get into the automobile.
“Yes, excuse me. Sorry.”
There was another car waiting behind him for the servants that were leaving with him as well, and he saw the now unfamiliar lines of the downstairs help on either side of him as he walked the distance of the car. He knew Clara was behind him somewhere, ready to go as well with the few others that were allowed leave.
He willed one foot forward after the after. He hoped her feet moved better than his.
Newport was no more.
Dan took the train back alone, or he thought he would take the trip back alone. He’d left a full day before everyone else was scheduled to go, (except some of the help) and in his honest to God self, thought he would enjoy the solitude of an empty carriage. Nana would have almost made it better , he thought.
But it didn’t end up like that, and instead, Dan felt the familiar tug of his mind come unstitched and stitched again and again whenever he was left by himself. It was nerve-wracking, so he was secretly glad when there was a light tapping on his car door.
“Yes, who is it?”
“It’s me, Clara–”
Dan ripped open the compartment.
“Oh thank you,” she came in. “You forgot these with the gardener, but lucky for you,” Clara handed him a tiny pot with two rose cutting in it. “I saved them from their deaths.”
“Nothing like a little care from Clara to save the day,” he said, making her raise her eyebrows a little. “That’s a little wrong, isn’t it? I meant company. Always company.”
“Of course,” she agreed, laughing.
“Thank you though.” He’d totally forgotten about them in the mess of coming back. He closed the door quickly, hoping no one saw her come in. Even if he brushed off gossip like a macintosh in the rain, he didn’t know how Clara would fare. This trip was almost as confirming to some as innocuous it was to himself.
“May I sit? You look lonely.”
He nodded, happy to have her across from him. “I don’t think anyone wants to sit with me if we’re being honest, surly thing I’ve become,” he added under his breath. “How did you get up here? This is a first-class carriage.”
“I was hoping you could vouch for me, on account of bringing you your beautiful little roses.” She was out of her uniform again, but she was in poorer clothes than anyone else was wearing in the compartments around them. It didn’t fit her completely right and they were a bit dull, but Dan didn’t care. He just hoped no one else would see and make fun of her.
“Are you free after we get out?”
“Yes until tomorrow. I have the whole day off on account of unreliable train times, it is a happy day.”
“Would you like to come over to mine and Phil’s place?”
She perked up. “Oh, you live together!”
Dan nodded. “Yeah, we do.” Her enthusiasm was heartwarming, and he couldn’t get a better response if he’d begged for it.
“We can just sit and talk if you’d like. We could go down to Coney Island if you’d like too if it's too hot, anything,” he said, even if he didn't like going out there much in recent times.
“Oh just talking with you guys would be nice, I think you’re swell people.”
“It’s a date then.”
“It’s a date.”
As the train moved into the station, he saw Phil waiting for him through the small sliding window. He was carrying his camera and saw he had a small bouquet of flowers wrapped in newspaper in his bag.
Phil waited until the 1st class crowd had relatively stopped gawking at Dan and the ones who knew him had left, until he shouted out. “Welcome back! Wait right there!” Phil made Dan stop amidst the white smoke of the locomotive and smile. “Amazing!”
Dan continued to smile as he walked over to Phil.
“These are for you.” He handed Dan the newspaper wrapped peonies. “Hope it makes you feel a little better.”
Was this a response to his letter? “Thank you,” he said a little shakily. “They’re beautiful.” He took a second to smell them and look into Phil’s eyes like he could find an answer in them. He was almost disappointed when he found nothing but Phil’s usual blue eyes.
“Clara’s with me, I was wondering if she could come? I still need to get my bags though–” he said the last sentence to himself.
Phil looked hesitantly at her. “Um–”
Dan moved closer to him, so no one else could hear. “She knows.”
Phil’s eyes widened. “How?”
“It doesn’t matter.”
Phil’s brows furrowed. He seemed lost in thought.
The recently widowed Mrs. Howell sipped graciously at her tea. She straightened her back and looked directly at the man beside her. It was a sunny day. The curtains in the parlor shone in a soft purple and the lilacs on the table between the two moved from the wind blowing through the window. Fragrance weaved between them like soft ribbons at a may day festival. “I’ve asked you here because of a certain issue I think we are both familiar with.”
The man nodded solemnly. “Of course.”
“My son, Daniel. I don’t think he’s ready for this.” She sucked in her breath like the words hurt her with every syllable. “In the past year or so he’d become so disagreeable.”
“I have had issues with him,” he agreed.
“I’m afraid any word I speak against my son will only serve to hurt myself.”
“You can trust me with anything.”
“Oh–” she interrupted, ignoring him. “I can’t believe I hit him. He deserved it,” she said suddenly, a glimmer in her eye. “He’s just turned 23 and I’ve never even heard a rumor of him with a girl, except that laundry-maid, poor girl. I’m told they just talk and I could only wish it was something more, Heaven knows. He needs to marry.”
“And he needs to take care of this hotel,” the man said wisely.
“Precisely.” She set her cup down with a small crash. “Tell me, before I regret these thoughts, is there a way we can somehow change Timothy’s will? I fully believe with everything in my heart that Addy would be the best. He works hard in school and has a girl, and I trust him. I don’t believe I trust Daniel. I’ve barely seen him in the past 3 years after he took that awful career at the magazine. He’s barely been around.”
“What you speak of is blasphemy.”
Mrs. Howell let out a long sigh. “Don’t remind me.”
“I have means,” he drawled. “I also have a price.”
The widow shook her head sharply. “I will not stoop down to you.”
“Then I will leave.”
“What can you do?”
“You’ll know soon enough. It shouldn’t cost you too much trouble if your son plays his cards right. Good day, Mrs. Howell.”
Dan was greeted at their apartment by a chorus of voices.
“Welcome back!” Dan saw it was some of their friends from the old club. In a circle sat Colette and Hisako, along with Alessio and his new wife, the same girl he’d been with when they first met. They were playing a board game and each had a glass of wine full in their hands.
“How are you?” Hisako asked.
“Good, good!” Dan answered. “Wow, thank you for coming.” He had missed him. “What made you guys get together?” He smiled at them and let Phil take the peonies to put in a vase.
“We haven’t seen you in forever!” Colette said. “Phil invited us over for a late birthday get together. Here’s my present. Sit down already.”
Dan looked at Phil expecting an answer but only got a sly smile. “Alright.”
“This is Clara by the way, don’t be afraid of her, she knows all our tragic secrets. Couldn’t keep them from her, the spark.”
“Bless your heart,” Colette put a hand on her heart dramatically. “You must have the largest heart of all of us, you’d need it.”
They were already playing an old game left over in the closet called Game of the Telegraph Boy. Phil put on some of their jazz records and let the Victrola rule the room, sitting on the couch above them to take a few photos. It was fun, especially after a few drinks had let them laugh a little louder than usual and the hyper-competitiveness Dan tried to hide finally coming out.
“Dan, you’re savage . How could you?” Alessio asked as he moved his piece back. “Give me back your birthday present, you don’t deserve it.”
“Never,” Dan laughed, finishing the last of the wine in his glass and pulling his telegraph boy up a few spaces.
“So does this take your mind off the funeral?” Phil asked as he crouched next to Dan, camera sat between them.
“You idiot, you’re just reminding him asking him,” Colette laughed.
“Oh yeah.” Phil looked at Dan apologetically. “Sorry.”
Dan was happy enough to laugh. “It’s fine. And yeah, it did, thank you.” He looked at him and smiled softly before looking away. They weren’t ones for public displays of affection.
“You guys are saps.” Colette shook her head jokingly. “And to think there was a day when little Mr. Journalist here thought you wouldn’t go out with you. Look at you guys. Saps.”
The sentiment made Dan warm. “It’s a bit crazy, huh?” Life had taken him in a direction he didn’t even know was possible. It was amazing.
“You’re telling me. Need me a man, uff. ” They all laughed with her as she continued to shake her head. “You two lucky. Hope you realize that. Of all the people in the world, you two meet each other. All the millions and millions of people. You two.”
Maybe she was drunk too, but it didn’t change the warmth Dan was starting to feel in his chest that came from her words. Dan felt his throat start to hitch as a hand placed itself on his back. Phil had begun to rub his back slightly at the sight of Dan starting to tear up.
“Oh, don’t cry,” Phil cooed.
“You idiot, he’s crying because he’s happy.” Colette corrected.
“I’m positively plastered, don’t look at me,” he laughed through the tears. Colette was right, they were happy tears.
“One more glass surely can’t hurt?” Alessio brought the bottle back to the circle with a sly smile.
“I suppose it can’t hurt.” Dan handed him his glass and sipped at it in the warm light. He felt against his lips that it was colder than the muggy room. Phil’s hand continued to inch across his back amidst the noise and the moistness of his vest, and with the jazz music playing and Dan’s telegraph boy almost to the end, everything was perfect.
He could almost forget the Agavni existed.
It was starting to become a pattern. A deadly, deadly pattern.
Phil caught Clara in the kitchen. She was attempting to open the electric fridge when Phil appeared behind her.
“Do you need help with that?”
“Oh yes please, I was just getting another bottle for the group, thank you.”
Phil unlatched the broken metal lock and pushed open the door of the refrigerator. “So um, you’ll have to give me a break for wondering, but how did you find out about–” He brought the bottle to the wooden counter to open it without looking at her. “–Us.”
Clara tried to ignore it, but it suddenly felt like she was under interrogation.
“I um—,” it was an ugly truth. “I found a bit of a letter Daniel was going to send out. I was the only one that saw it up there, so you shouldn’t worry about it, I promise.”
“You didn’t get it from anyone else?”
The cork popped.
“No— No one else.”
Phil turned to hand her the bottle. His eyes shot into hers. “You have to tell the truth to me, Clara.”
Phil squinted his eyes before nodding, believing her. He brought a hand to his face awkwardly, rubbing his cleanly-shaven chin. “Don’t mention this. Please,” he implored.
“Good. Now how about this sherry?”
Oof, love some moral ambiguity with Dan's relationship with his dad. Maybe... Dan was a bit of a bitch ass kid...
Anyways thanks for the dealing with wait as always, you'll be happy to hear I sent a selection of this in to the National Youngarts Competition as a novel submission!? I don't really expect anything from it because I've heard it's a bit political and tbh the beginning they asked for doesn't show the breadth of like... character development it has (Dan's a spoiled brat in the beggining, let's not lie) but I just had to send it in for shits and giggles after all the work. Send good vibes!
Also...Enjoy this chapter... because it isn't getting this happy again until the end... :(