Going to the carnival was Llewyn’s idea.
He and Arthur had played a gig over in Jersey late that afternoon, and Llewyn said he wanted to go to the boardwalk at the beach after, so they went over to Wildwood. Arthur didn’t know why Llewyn wanted to go. Usually, Arthur had to struggle to get Llewyn to go to the beach with him, or anywhere that wasn’t a restaurant or bar, and he couldn’t imagine Llewyn caring about the boardwalk and especially not the amusement park there. They hadn’t gone out together in a while anyway, so why now?
Probably because I don’t want to go, Arthur thought, sulking, as Llewyn drove them to Wildwood. Arthur liked the beach, but he didn’t like the boardwalk, and he really didn’t like amusement parks. He hadn’t ever told Llewyn any of that, or said that he didn’t want to go, but he assumed Llewyn was acting so out of character just to spite him. Since when would Llewyn Davis like something like a carnival?
The gig had gone well, surprisingly enough. It was something Llewyn’s friends (“patrons,” he called them, so sarcastically that Arthur could hear the quotation marks around the word) the Gorfeins had told him about, some publisher’s party. They had it outdoors, in the garden of a house that probably cost more than Arthur would make in his entire lifetime, but he and Llewyn were paid well for it, and Arthur enjoyed himself. He and Llewyn sang together almost the whole time, the first gig where they’d done that, and when their eyes met over their guitars and the few feet of manicured lawn between them, Arthur felt like everyone else there must be able to see how in love he was.
But of course no one at all suspected they were a homosexual couple, and Llewyn didn’t act like they were even when no one was watching them, or after they’d gotten in the car and he started driving them toward the coast. Arthur had been mad on the way over to the party because he really didn’t want to go to New Jersey at all, and even though he forgave Llewyn while they were singing, he was mad all over again by the time they got to Wildwood.
After he parked the car but before they got out, Llewyn looked over at Arthur and asked, “Is something wrong?”
“No,” said Arthur.
“Are you mad at me?” Llewyn’s eyes went all wide and dark. Sometimes that look made Arthur feel sorry for him, and sometimes it turned him on. Right now, it just made him angrier.
“No,” said Arthur. “We didn’t come all this way just to sit in the car, come on.” He got out, and Llewyn followed him over to the boardwalk.
Llewyn had chosen Hunt’s Pier, maybe at random. Maybe, but it was the amusement park Arthur had the most memories of, although it had been Ocean Pier back then, before it burned down on Christmas Day in 1943. The owner hadn’t reopened it all that long ago, sometime in the late fifties, and it didn’t look the same at all. Nevertheless, Arthur still didn’t want to be there. Somehow, Llewyn did. Somehow, Llewyn was enjoying himself, despite there being kids everywhere—they never talked about it, but Arthur had always assumed Llewyn hated children, just like he would have assumed Llewyn hated amusement parks, if Arthur had ever bothered to think about it. But Llewyn was smiling a little as they walked past the wooden Flyer rollercoaster—“Thrilling Ride over the Ocean” a sign promised—and he actually grinned at a boy when he nearly plowed right into Llewyn. The kid was seven or eight, maybe, and he had a fat red balloon tied to his wrist. He was more concerned with watching the balloon to be sure it didn’t escape, than watching where he was going. A younger girl, maybe a sister, trailed him with a yellow balloon in tow, and she scolded him in a shrill voice.
“Sorry, mister,” the boy mumbled to Llewyn, casting a shy glance up at him.
“It’s okay,” said Llewyn. “Don’t let your balloon get away.” He smiled, and the kid smiled back, still shy.
“I won’t,” he said.
After the kids wandered off, Llewyn asked Arthur over his shoulder, “You don’t wanna ride the rollercoaster, do you? I get enough crazy rail-riding on the subway in New York.” He grinned, crinkling the corners of his eyes up in the way he did when he laughed at his own jokes. Normally, it made Arthur smile, but he didn’t this time.
“No,” he said. “I don’t like rollercoasters.”
Llewyn quit smiling and said, “Okay.” They walked further along the pier toward the ocean, past a snack booth. Llewyn asked, “You hungry? I thought we could get dinner later, but if you wanna grab some popcorn—”
“I ain’t hungry,” grumbled Arthur.
“You sure? You didn’t eat anything at the party.”
Arthur shoved his hands in the pockets of his jeans and stalked ahead of Llewyn, not a difficult feat on his long legs. “I’m sure. I wasn’t hungry then either.”
As Llewyn hurried to keep up, he argued, “You didn’t eat anything, and you barely talked to anyone. You say I’m rude at your office parties, then you’re rude at our gigs—”
“I’m not rude at our gigs,” Arthur growled. He stopped walking and turned back to face Llewyn. “This was different, it was a party, and you barely talked to me when we weren’t playing. I get it, Al Cody ain’t good enough for you when you’re around all your fancy academic friends.”
Llewyn stared at him and stammered, “What the hell, Arthur—Al, where’s all this coming from? It’s not like I ignored you or anything, and you know we can’t—can’t just be together out in public. Like yeah, they’re in academia so they’re pretty liberal and they like to think they’re open-minded, but. . . .” He paused and raked both hands through his dark hair; one by one, the curls sprung free from between his fingers to bounce wildly around his face.
Finally, Llewyn went on, “But Arthur, they’re not my friends. They like watching me play because it makes them feel like they’re—I dunno, supporting the arts, or being benevolent or some shit, but they’re not my friends. And if they knew that we’re married. . . well, they’re not that open-minded. You want me to tell them, I’ll tell them, but we’ll lose those few gigs.” He paused, frowned, kept rambling when Arthur still didn’t speak: “I know we don’t really need the money, so it doesn’t matter them finding out, like it would matter if your boss found out, but. . . I like knowing I’m helping out. And I liked us playing together today. Even if they didn’t know.” He gazed up at Arthur with the other look that always got to him, not the needy one but the one that wasn’t at all calculated. The one that Arthur could see and be certain that Llewyn really did love him.
But Arthur didn’t want that right now. He wanted to be mad, and he wanted Llewyn to give him something to be mad at. Llewyn was usually very good at that, so why was he being such a perfect partner now?
Arthur scowled at him and snapped, “Of course I don’t want you to tell them, I ain’t stupid. I don’t care about any of that.”
Hurt flickered over Llewyn’s face, but he regulated his expression before retorting, “Then what’s got you in such a shitty mood? We sounded good—hell, we sounded great, and they paid us already. You said yesterday you had a good week at work, I got caught up on the fuckin’ laundry you’re always bitching about, the weather’s nice—” Llewyn gestured over at the sun, which was halfway below the horizon opposite the ocean by then, as if he wanted it to take his side in the argument. “—so the hell is wrong with you?”
“I’m at a fuckin’ amusement park in fuckin’ Jersey, that’s what’s wrong with me!” Arthur snarled. A perfect little family of four—mother and father both about Arthur’s age, and two little girls around the age of the kids with the balloons—were walking past as he spoke, and the parents overheard him. The father glared and looked as if he were about to have it out with Arthur over swearing around his little princesses, but the mother put a hand on his arm and shook her head. The tall rude man in the cowboy hat and boots might have a gun or something, she seemed to be thinking. Anyway, the little girls hadn’t even noticed the cursing and were squealing over a stand selling ice cream cones. The family moved on, and Arthur wondered how anyone could ever think he would hurt somebody, even if he did swear.
Llewyn hadn’t noticed any of that, and he was flailing his hands around and squawking, “What are you talking about? You’re from New Jersey! And you never said you didn’t want to come here—”
“You never asked!” Arthur interrupted. “You just assumed I’d do whatever you wanted to, just like always, because your opinion is the only one that matters, right?”
“Maybe if you told me your opinions every once in a while I’d know what they are!” protested Llewyn. He raked one hand through his hair again, then rubbed that hand up and down his other arm. Both arms were bare; he’d worn short sleeves since it was warm and he and Arthur were going to be outside all day. Llewyn’s skin had turned a golden tan over the summer, and his hair had picked up slight chestnut highlights from the sun. He looked beautiful.
Llewyn dropped both arms to his sides and looked up at Arthur again and said, “But really, you didn’t want to come out here? I—I thought you’d like it.”
“Think harder next time,” said Arthur.
Llewyn stared at him, and his wide brown eyes shone. Then he blinked, turned his head so he could rub his upper arm over them, and muttered, “Maybe there won’t be a next time,” before he trudged away from Arthur, down the pier toward the ocean.
Seeing Llewyn close to tears made Arthur quit being angry. It made Arthur want to follow Llewyn and apologize, but he hung back instead. If he followed Llewyn, Llewyn might demand to know why Arthur didn’t like amusement parks, and why Arthur hadn’t told him sooner. Why he’d waited until they were there, and so angry about it he blew up at Llewyn and made him cry a little (although Llewyn would probably deny tearing up at all). Llewyn might demand to know those things, and Arthur didn’t know how to answer him.
He walked back to the car because Llewyn had the keys, and Arthur was afraid that if he didn’t wait at the car, Llewyn might decide to go home without him and leave him there on the boardwalk. After fifteen minutes of leaning on the back bumper, watching the sky go completely dark and the colored lights come up around him, Arthur realized how stupid he was to worry about that. Llewyn might be an asshole, but he wasn’t that kind of asshole.
And this time, Arthur thought, I’m the one who’s being a jerk. Llewyn’s been so good to me today, and I’ve treated him like shit. He pushed himself off the car’s trunk with both hands and strode back up to the pier, swallowing back the lump of teary guilt that had risen in his throat.
Arthur had never been to Ocean Pier, or any amusement park, at night; his mother wouldn’t let the family go after dark because she said it might not be safe. Twinkling lights laced buildings and attractions, and each letter of the word “FLYER” lit up in white on the rollercoaster’s sign. Lights outlined the length of the coaster’s track too, reminding Arthur of Llewyn’s lame joke about the subway, and he suddenly wanted Llewyn with an ache that shook him to his core. The crowds were picking up, so Arthur walked faster and elbowed his way past people as he tried to find Llewyn in the twilight.
Then, as he neared the far end of the coaster, Arthur spotted the attraction where he knew he’d find Llewyn waiting on him. At the end of the pier closest to the ocean, past a boat ride called Jungleland and across from a pirate ship attraction, sat a little replica of a wild west mining town complete with faux cacti, building facades, and runaway mining car tracks. In spite of the anxiety gnawing at his (empty) stomach, a little smile twitched over Arthur’s lips.
Llew knows I’ll wanna check out the western ride, he thought, so that’s where he’s gonna be.
Arthur skirted Jungleland and came up to the western attraction on his right. A sign proclaimed it to be “The Golden Nugget Mine Ride.” A line of patrons, many of them hyper kids, waited to board the mining cars, but he didn’t see Llewyn anywhere. Arthur frowned and passed the Mine Ride; then he finally spotted Llewyn leaning against the railing on the edge of the pier just beyond the attraction, facing southward down the coast. Arthur’s heart clenched in his chest with equal amounts of love and nervousness. He swallowed hard and went to stand beside his husband.
“I’m sorry, Llewyn,” Arthur murmured.
Llewyn was quiet a moment; then he muttered, “Yeah,” without looking up. He had his bare arms braced on the railing, hands dangling off. None of the people down on the beach could have seen them clearly even if they’d looked up, so Arthur reached over and took one of Llewyn’s small hands in his. He thought Llewyn might pull away, but he didn’t.
“You tried to do something nice for me, and I’ve been horrible to you,” said Arthur. “I should have told you how I felt instead of assuming you knew. I’m sorry.”
He looked at Llewyn and saw his bearded jaw jut out to the side as Llewyn ground his teeth; then Llewyn turned his head and looked up at Arthur and asked in the most beseeching voice Arthur had ever heard him use, “But why? This—this carnival shit is so you. I thought you would’ve, like, lived on the boardwalk as a kid or something. Why d’you hate it so much?”
Arthur floundered for an answer he didn’t have. “I don’t. . . I don’t know, I just. . . do. We did come a lot when I was a kid, my family, I mean. We came to this same pier even, except it was called Ocean Pier then.”
“And you hated it then too?”
“Yeah,” said Arthur, automatically. Then, “Well—no, I mean, I was a kid, I liked some of it. I never liked rollercoasters, but I liked the junk food, and I liked the dark rides. They didn’t have this.” He gestured at the Golden Nugget Mine Ride. “It was called the Witches’ Forest back then. If they’d had a western ride I probably would have just. . . moved in here and refused to leave. Never would’ve gone home again.”
Llewyn laughed, a shaky post-crying kind of laugh, and the anxiety clutching Arthur’s heart let up a little. Llewyn still held on tight to Arthur’s hand.
“You came here with your parents?” he asked. He had gone back to looking out over the water and the beach, and the people who were still down there even though it had gotten dark.
“Yeah, my parents and Dawn—my cousin Dawn, and her dad, my mom’s brother. His wife died when Dawn was real little. My uncle never remarried, so they did a lot of stuff with us.” Arthur looked back over his shoulder at the Flyer and frowned. “I’d forgotten about this, but she always wanted to ride the rollercoaster—Dawn did, I mean. When she was eight, her dad finally said she was big enough. She’s a year younger than me, so I had to have been nine. Well, he didn’t want her riding it by herself, but he didn’t like coasters either, so my mom said I had to go with her. I didn’t want to, but Mom made me.” He sighed and turned back to the ocean.
“I screamed the whole time until I got sick, then I was too busy trying not to puke,” Arthur muttered. “I managed not to throw up until after we got off, but Dawn made fun of me and I felt like shit the rest of the night.”
“There you go,” said Llewyn. “That’s why you hate amusement parks. Childhood resentment toward your cousin.”
“Oh come on, that’s too easy,” Arthur protested. “It was just once. After that, my dad always rode the coasters with her—he wanted an excuse to go anyway, he loved ‘em—and my uncle made her apologize for laughing at me. It wasn’t that bad.”
But Llewyn persisted, “So now she and her dad are tagging along on all your family trips, and she gets your dad spending time with her instead of with you.” He turned to face Arthur again and leaned against the railing, on his side this time. “Let me guess, she was also the daughter your mom always wanted and never had, and you had to treat her extra nice because she was younger and a girl and she didn’t have a mother, poor thing. Am I right?”
Arthur groaned, “For God’s sake, Llew, all I said was that I had one bad experience on a roller coaster.”
“And twenty-five years later, you still hate the boardwalk, and you don’t talk to your family—not just ‘cos of that one thing, but it all adds up, hunh?” Llewyn gave him a surprisingly gentle smile. “Look, it’s okay. I got my own issues with resentment—we never even went to fuckin’ Coney Island because my sister didn’t like all the lights and crowds. All the other kids got to go, but not me, and I wanted to so bad. I can understand, and I shoulda asked first, instead of just saying we were going. I’m sorry, baby.”
Hearing Llewyn apologize when Arthur was the one who’d acted like a shithead made Arthur want to break down, but something else Llewyn said distracted him from it: All the other kids got to go, but not me, and I wanted to so bad.
“You wanted to come out here for you too, didn’t you?” Arthur murmured. “‘Cos you never got to go as a kid.”
“Hunh?” Llewyn blinked, then shook his head. “Nah, I just thought you’d enjoy it, and we were out this way anyway, so. . . .” He trailed off before amending, “Well, maybe. I didn’t think about it that way, but maybe so. I guess I was pretty excited, until. . . .”
“Until I ruined it,” Arthur sighed. “Llewyn—”
“No, no, it’s okay. Look, let’s just go,” Llewyn interrupted him. “If you’re getting your appetite back, we could grab dinner somewhere before we head home.”
“Llewyn.” Arthur squeezed his hand, then rubbed the back of it with his thumb. “Let’s stay, all right?”
Llewyn stared up at him and asked, “You sure?” Arthur nodded.
“Yeah, I’m sure. You’ve never been to an amusement park, and here we are,” he said. When Llewyn smiled, Arthur smiled back and mumbled, “Um, and maybe it’s time I made some new memories here. With you. Since there is a western ride now and all.”
Llewyn’s eyes got all shiny again, but he was still smiling, and he said, “You might as well, since you’re wearing a fuckin’ cowboy hat on the beach, you dork.” He let go of Arthur’s hand, and they walked back through the crowds to get in line for the Mine Ride. As soon as they were seated alone in their mine cart in the dark, Arthur put his arm around Llewyn’s shoulders; then Llewyn wrapped both arms around Arthur and leaned up and kissed him; then they ended up having to go on the ride again to see what was happening because they made out the whole time on their first trip through. What was happening was mostly skeletal miners and haphazardly-placed TNT and more very fake cacti, but Arthur liked it all the same.
They also rode the pirate ship attraction, which was pretty much the Mine Ride with pirates replacing the skeletal miners, and Jungleland, which replaced them with crocodiles. Llewyn kept up a mostly sarcastic monologue about how fake the attractions’ effects were, but Arthur saw him smile more than he had all week—and Arthur realized he was smiling too, even when they waited in lines or trudged through crowds or passed by the rollercoaster that had convinced him his parents loved his cousin more than they’d ever love him. He was smiling because he was with Llewyn, and the past didn’t matter any more for either of them. They had each other now, and they could be silly and have fun, together.
Llewyn bought them hot dogs and Cokes, and they ate standing near a ride called the Astronaut, where kids were piloting little red, white, and blue rockets around a central column in circles. Llewyn looked at the ride, then looked at Arthur and raised an eyebrow.
“Wanna try that one? Or would it just make you puke like the rollercoaster?” he teased.
“That’s beside the point,” Arthur replied haughtily. “I thought I made it clear the day we met, I have a strict ‘no going into outer space’ policy.”
Llewyn snickered, then broke down into laughter so hard, he nearly dropped the last bite of his hot dog. He finally managed to get out, “They probably couldn’t fold you up enough to get those stilts of yours in the capsule, anyway”; then they left the pier and wandered down the boardwalk in the general direction of their car.
On the way, Llewyn lectured Arthur about how all the midway games they passed were rigged, and Arthur tried to argue that they weren’t, until Llewyn stopped at a “test your strength” game to prove his point. He could hardly lift the heavy mallet, much less hit the lever with enough force to win anything.
“See?” he gloated at Arthur, as proud as if he’d succeeded—until Arthur paid for a try and was strong enough to ring the bell at the top of the machine.
“Fuck,” muttered Llewyn. The operator smirked and told Arthur he could pick a prize, so he chose a stuffed animal. He was pretty sure it was supposed to be a cat. Once they’d walked a short distance away from the game, Arthur handed it to Llewyn.
“Here,” he said. Llewyn took it in both hands and glanced up at Arthur, wide-eyed.
“For me?” he asked.
“Yeah,” said Arthur. “Ain’t that what I’m supposed to do at the carnival, win a stuffed animal for my girl?”
“Fuck you, Al,” said Llewyn. He was grinning, and he tucked the probably-cat into the crook of one arm.
“Besides, it looks like that cat you brought to my place that time,” Arthur added.
“Yeah,” Llewyn murmured. “I guess it does.”
When they reached the car, Arthur got behind the wheel since Llewyn had had to drive all day. As Llewyn settled into the passenger seat with the stuffed cat on his lap, Arthur asked, “Do you want to go all the way home tonight, or see if we can get a room here in town? It’s pretty late, and it’ll take us a couple hours to get back.”
“Well if you put it like that,” smirked Llewyn, “and since you’re obviously angling to stay—”
“—let’s find a motel,” Llewyn finished. “I was planning on it anyway, originally—take you to the boardwalk, then out to dinner, then to a motel. Nice romantic evening.”
“Oh,” said Arthur. He looked at Llewyn unhappily until the smaller man reached over and shoved his arm.
“Except for ‘taking you out to dinner’ becoming ‘buying you a hot dog,’ it’s going according to plan, so don’t fuckin’ ruin it by being all sorry. When you pull outta here, head north, and we can look for the place I wanted us to stay at.”
Arthur had never been crazy about following Llewyn’s directions while driving, but they managed to find the motel without too much trouble. It was called the Ranch House Motel, and Arthur knew right away why Llewyn had picked it out. Wagon wheels decorated the railings lining the second story’s sidewalk and the roof’s patio, and Arthur could make out teepees and a covered wagon—and, of course, the requisite faux cacti—up there on the patio too.
“This is the dorkiest shit I’ve ever seen,” Llewyn said as Arthur pulled into the parking lot. “The last time I saw Jim and Jean, she was talking about a vacation one of those new mommy friends of hers took. Her family came up here to Wildwood, and they stayed here—Jean kept going on about how much their little boy loved it, and how she wanted her and Jim to bring James when he got old enough.” Llewyn chuckled and finished, “All I kept thinking about was how much Al Cody would love it.”
Arthur put the car in park and reached over to squeeze Llewyn’s knee. “You were right, Llew—I do love it. We gonna sleep in the teepee?”
“No. We’re sleeping in a bed, and you’re not allowed up on the roof until tomorrow morning—I’m too tired to go exploring.” Llewyn plunked the stuffed cat down on Arthur’s lap and opened his door as he ordered, “You wait here while I go get us a room.”
He got the room, then came back to the car to give Arthur one of the two room keys. Llewyn went on in with his guitar and the stuffed cat, and Arthur waited five more minutes before he followed. He was used to the routine, going in places separately to avoid suspicion, making sure no one realized they were lovers. . . partners. . . husbands. It made Arthur feel a little sad, usually, but tonight he mostly just felt love for Llewyn, who had gone out of his way—his normal, grumpy, slightly self-absorbed way—to plan a surprise mini-vacation around the things Arthur liked.
Finally, Arthur got out of the car and took his guitar to the room. Llewyn had put the stuffed cat on the bed, and his clothes were piled on the floor next to his guitar case. He was in the bathroom with the door open and the shower running. Arthur put down his guitar and set his cowboy hat on the dresser, then stripped and joined Llewyn in the shower.
Llewyn wasn’t as tired as he had let on, and while they didn’t go exploring on the roof that night, he and Arthur explored each other in the shower for quite some time.
Afterwards, they went to bed where Llewyn lay in Arthur’s arms and they kissed, slowly and softly. Llewyn had kept the stuffed cat in bed too, up on his pillow to his left with Arthur on his right. When Llewyn’s kisses got slower and the clutch of his arms grew laxer, Arthur realized he was close to falling asleep.
“Llew?” Arthur murmured, before that happened.
“Yeah?” mumbled Llewyn.
“I’m sorry.” Arthur brushed the damp curls of black hair back from Llewyn’s forehead and kissed his brow. “I’m so sorry I hurt you, baby. I was awful to you today.”
“It’s okay, Al,” said Llewyn. He tilted his head back to look at Arthur through his eyelashes; they could just barely see one another by the motel’s outer lights leaking in past the curtains.
“No, it’s not,” whispered Arthur. “You got us a great gig, and it was so good singing with you. We were so good together.”
“We are so good together,” Llewyn corrected him. “Even if you fuck up once in a while, we’re still good together.” He reached up a hand to stroke Arthur’s cheek as he yawned and added, “And I owe you a whole bunch more fuck-ups, as much shit as I’ve put you through. So it’s okay, cowboy—we played a good gig, and you apologized, and we had fun tonight, right? We had fun?”
“Yeah.” Arthur turned his head to kiss Llewyn’s palm. “We had fun. I think I like amusement parks after all, as long as I’m there with you. We’ll have to do this again sometime.”
“Yeah, we will,” Llewyn agreed. He snuggled closer to Arthur, then yawned again. “Knew you’d have a good time. Bet I know what your favorite ride was, too.”
Arthur chuckled. “The Mine Ride?”
“No? What then?”
Llewyn grasped Arthur’s hand and tugged it down to rest against Llewyn’s backside. “This right here.”
Arthur chuckled and squeezed him and said, “You ain’t wrong, little darlin’.” He kissed Llewyn’s forehead again and hugged him close. “G’night, Llew. I love you.”
“Love you too, Al,” mumbled Llewyn. He drifted off to sleep, but Arthur lay awake awhile holding the man who knew him and loved him so well.