“Tired?” Alex asked, following a long silence.
Michael took the question as a cue to keel over sideways. He allowed his tongue to loll out of the side of his mouth, and his eyes rolled back into his head.
“...I’ll take that as a yes,” Alex said, with a cautious laugh.
Michael made an effort to smile as he righted himself and sank back into the bed’s pillows. It was past midnight, which wasn’t late by his standards, but he hadn’t exactly been sleeping well lately. He’d spent the last week trying hard not to panic; it had been a gargantuan effort.
“Fucking exhausted,” he said, and it was a relief to tell the truth after a week of benign lies.
Beside him, also seated on the bed, Alex nodded, and they drifted back into silence.
It was a comfortable silence – not like the recent silences with Kindly Parisian Twitter Users. In theory, Michael subscribed to the ‘strangers are just friends you haven’t sung bad karaoke with yet’ philosophy of life. However, in practice, it was exhausting to have to rely on strangers, and find yourself in a situation where any lapse in conversation felt like a failure. His week had been filled with awful moments of silence, when he was forced to realize that he’d stopped being an entertaining houseguest and become a burden.
It was good to be alone with Alex and not have to be funny or interesting or anything except himself.
The hotel room that Alex had rented for the night seemed to have been decorated in a hundred slightly-varying hues of brown, and the comforter on the bed clearly dated back to the reign of Marie Antoinette. Periodically, Michael felt the shivering vibrations of the Metro line that ran beneath the building. The floor felt unstable, like they could be carried away and emerge somewhere new entirely. Still, for the first time in a week, Michael felt at peace.
They’d been watching TV on the tiny, smudged screen attached to the wall, until they’d remembered that watching Friends re-runs dubbed into French sucked almost as bad as watching Friends re-runs not dubbed into French. Since then, the conversation had meandered aimlessly, finally turning into silence.
Michael sensed that Alex was trying to find a way to broach more serious subjects, but Michael was worried that if he let the facade of “okay, totally okay” drop, he’d end up curled in the foetal position, with the 200-year-old comforter clamped over his head. Instead, he tried for levity.
“Maybe I’ll just learn French and stay here,” said Michael. “I’ve already picked up some.”
“Mayonnaise. It means... mayonnaise. Café. It’s a place where you go to eat and drink. You might not know that...” He snapped his fingers, pantomiming deep thought. “Bric-à-brac... Chauffeur... Vol-au-vents... Actually, I take that one back. I have no idea what vol-au-vents are.”
Alex smiled thinly. “You’re quite the expert linguist.”
Michael made his grin extra toothy and ironic, but Alex gazed back at him with veiled, uncertain eyes. Michael looked away.
It was terrifying, really – how quickly his life had come apart at the seams. Being alone and friendless in a country where he didn’t speak the language had definitely never been on the cards for him. He’d never been a restless traveller; he was completely unlike his peers who’d spent their twenties addicted to cabin crew drills. He’d done the boring things, instead: bought a house; adopted cats.
Now those things seemed distant; almost unreal. He felt rudderless as a refugee. It was terrifying, but he could almost believe it was exhilarating, too. He felt the vibrations of another Metro train running below them. Maybe he could hitch a ride – ride until the tracks ran out. He could reinvent himself as anyone. He could go anywhere.
(He could go anywhere, with one notable exception – England, baby, I always loved you best. What went wrong? Why can’t we make it work?)
“Michael, listen…” Alex said, taking a deep breath, “it feels shitty that I’m leaving you here like this. I keep thinking there must be a solution. But then I can’t come up with anything. Except maybe something involving the TARDIS. Like, maybe we could go back in time. You’d say, hey, let’s go to Paris! And I’d say, nahh, let’s stay in England and go to B&Q instead. And we’d circumvent it all... by going to B&Q instead.”
“B&Q? That’s like Home Depot, right? You imagined us time-travelling in order to go to B&Q?” asked Michael.
Alex gave an embarrassed shrug. “If we’d gone to B&Q, at least we’d have been able to leave together.”
“Don’t worry about it, mon ami,” Michael said bracingly. “C’est la vie.”
When Alex didn’t smile, Michael tried, “Que sera sera.”
“I don’t think that’s French,” said Alex.
Michael thought for a moment and then asked, “Voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir?”
In response, Alex finally made a huffy little noise, halfway between a sigh and a laugh.
They were both quiet for a few more minutes. Michael began counting the stains on the comforter. Then, when that became too depressing, he leaned over toward Alex and used his forefinger to draw invisible patterns on the inside of Alex’s forearm. It was an idle gesture: partly intended to irritate Alex; partly to assuage his paranoia that Alex might be a figment of his imagination.
He drew a smiley face. Then a sad face. Then he drew the Dodgers logo. Then some barbed wire. Then he began a rendering of the Mona Lisa – at which point, Alex reached out to grasp his wrist and said softly:
Alex looked at him for a long moment – and Michael realized he must have interpreted the pattern-drawing as a come-on – before he leaned in to kiss him.
Hell, maybe he had meant it as a come-on.
Either way, his stomach flipped and he accepted the kiss gratefully. He realized that, though he’d been pretending otherwise, he’d been waiting for this all day – ever since they’d hugged at the station and Alex had rubbed the back of his neck with his thumb and it had felt like a promise.
Michael had to admit – the absolute shittiness of the situation aside – it was good to have a hotel room to themselves. The comforter might be disgusting, but the bed was big, and it would be nice not having to worry about Charlie hearing through the walls, like they did at home.
He caught himself. Home?
Home was Diamond Bar, he reminded himself. Home was a whole ocean away. Home was purring kitties and the best coffee and the smell of eucalyptus on the breeze.
True, his real home might be in California, but the entire stretch of his (can’t-call-it-a-)relationship with Alex had taken place in that tiny apartment (flat, whatever) in London. It was where they’d had their first kiss, full of bravado and nervousness and saying anything except how they felt. It was where every memory of him and Alex began and ended. Cocooned inside white walls and laminate flooring and a lingering smell of mold, Michael had found a new version of himself. In London, he’d glued together the broken pieces and figured out ways to be better. That flat, in that city, was important to him. Why wasn’t he allowed to call it home?
Michael pushed the thoughts away and concentrated on the ease of sex: Alex’s keening noises; his sharp hip bones and warm skin.
Later, irony of ironies, Michael found that he still couldn’t sleep. Usually, fucking Alex was like instant Ambien. Now he thought back to all of those easy sleeps in London and he wondered if he’d used up his quota then and he was paying for it now.
Alex slept soundly beside him and Michael contented himself with aligning their breathing. Inhale, exhale. Inhale, exhale. If he could just concentrate on breathing, surely time could slow down. He tried to retain his earlier feeling of peace, but he found that anger was lurking there, just beneath the panic.
He’d thought they would have three more months together.
Three more months to figure out what this thing meant. Stamp a name on it. Work through these feelings. Just spend some goddamn time together. Now they had... a night. It was long past midnight now, so they didn’t even have that. Just a few hours. He was stranded in Paris and counting down the minutes till he had to say goodbye. It was too romantic for words and it made him want to puke.
Finally, Michael fell into a fitful sleep.
He didn’t awaken until the manager began hammering on the door. He heard rapid, incomprehensible French, but the meaning was clear: check-out time had come and gone. It was a rush to make it to the station for Alex’s train. There was no time for long goodbyes or meaningful talks. Instead, there was just another hug; another thumbstroke on the back of his neck to substitute for all the things they couldn’t bring themselves to say.
Stay, Michael didn’t say.
Let’s just leave together, he didn’t say. Budapest. Prague. Vienna. Anywhere they’ll accept my passport. You and me, let’s just go.
He said nothing. He just waved goodbye and tried to smile.