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Promising

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It was a bright autumn day, the sort of day Simon loved, with its cool breeze blowing coloured leaves across the lawn and between the white columns of the portico. They crackled beneath his feet as he walked up the stairs.

It was a peaceful kind of day, but for Simon there was no peace. Not now. He kept picturing James Avery’s handsome face and dark hair, and feeling, or imagining, his touch on the small of Simon’s back. The memories brought butterflies to his stomach.

Well. They weren’t just memories. Simon’s brain churned with dozens of imaginings, acts that he could only half name, but that he tried to picture himself engaged in with James. Simon had always been more sheltered than he liked, though he didn’t seem it – Mother had tried to keep him close after all his siblings left the nest – but he wasn’t quite as sheltered as all that. He had a sense of what he wanted, and a certainty in his bones that it was all wrong.

And James – James couldn’t be like that, could he? He had a fiancée down in New York, attending a ladies’ college like the one Simon’s sister May had come to study at once Mother recovered from her illness. The future Mrs. James Avery was probably a charming girl. James was a charming young man, though it seemed strange for Simon to think of him as such when James was the older of the two. James was a sportsman and had struck up a friendship with Simon over their tennis matches. He had a lovely broad smile, too, and could crack a clever, sardonic joke about politics or their readings or whatever he liked (when the mood struck), though he was usually so quiet. Simon admired him. Actually, he obsessed over him and would have thought he was a little in love with the other man, only he wasn’t sure there could be that sort of love between men.

All wrong, Simon thought, gripping the racquet tighter and entering the high-ceilinged corridor leading to his rooms. He didn’t look the type to be – well – abnormal in any way. People said his family were the envy of the town, and Simon looked a promising young man himself. Girls were always fond of him. His friends’ sisters tended to blush and grow quiet around him, or sidle up to him and flirt shamelessly, as May’s more worldly circle of friends did. Simon had no interest in either type of girl, however.

He hurried up the spiral stairs to his rooms – the best his father’s money could buy, a private sitting room to go with the stateliest bedroom – and slid the racquet into its case before kicking it across the floor and sinking down on the sofa, miserable.

*

“It’s that James Avery again, isn’t it?” May asked, crossing her legs and smoothing her bright skirt.

Simon gaped at her. “I – what do you know about him?”

She reached forward to touch Simon’s arm. Her brow had furrowed into a look of worry, when she was usually so careless, and he knew he was not going to like this.

“I think the more–” she hesitated. Simon looked away. He could feel his face going hot; she had evidently guessed too much. “I think the more important question is what I know about you – and first, I want to promise you it’s all right; I’ll never tell.”

Simon shrugged his sister’s hand away. A stab of panic shot through him.

“What do you think you know about me?”

He got up and paced around the room, stopping when he nearly banged his elbow against the side table, and then again when he passed the door, to see that it was securely locked.

“I promise I would never – betray you or anything,” May repeated.

Simon’s mouth had gone dry. He kept his eyes fixed on the wall, though he could see through his peripheral vision that May was tossing her hair in that way she had picked up from a friend at the Ladies Auxiliary College. “Charlie and Harry won’t have noticed anything. You know poor Charlie could barely finish his degree; we’re both much smarter than he is, and with Harry off in Boston for so long – well.”

Simon made no reply.

May sighed. “Well anyway, I saw you looking at James when he was up at our house for that barbecue, and you’ve talked about him so much, and written about him so much in your letters, that I think your friendship seems awfully romantic for – well – a friendship.”

Simon’s stomach clenched. He dropped down into the chair across from May, still without looking at her, even as she got up to take his hand.

“You know,” she said, “some women can be that way too. One–” Another pause. Simon sat in obstinate silence, because he saw no need to condemn himself or make it easier for her to condemn him just yet.

May persisted. “I’ll just say that either one of the graduates or one of the girls at school with me now is like that, with a woman friend. I found out and – I mean, I’m glad we didn’t have any misunderstandings, she and I, and that she didn’t think like that about me, but you know, I really don’t mind, and I’d want to help this friend of mine if she ever needed it.”

Still Simon said nothing. He bit down on his lip until he could taste the metallic tang of blood. He didn’t even like to think this way about himself. It was at odds with everything a normal young man in his position was supposed to be. How could anyone know? To think that May had realized it was almost unbearable, yet he could hardly find it in him to be angry with her, either, and sat there unmoving.

An edge stole into her voice when she spoke again.

“I wish you’d acknowledge me–”

“I wish you hadn’t said any of this,” Simon began, at last. “You know it’s – it’s against the law.”

May squeezed his hand harder.

“A lot of things are,” she countered, “and I don’t care; you’re my brother and I don’t mind having to lie for you or help you, or whatever.”

“And you’ll become the first woman lawyer in the whole country and change the laws?” he asked, caustically, with a sigh of his own. She was almost two years older than he was, and fancied herself very worldly. She also babied him worse than Mother or either of his brothers did, for all they were so much older. It was absolutely ludicrous at a time like this – all of it was.

Neither spoke just then. Simon pulled his hand back.

“I don’t want you to be confined or afraid to be yourself,” May went on. She seemed determined to take the high road. “I mean, I wouldn’t want you trying anything with someone you could only trust to blackmail you – a waiter, or someone’s butler or something.” She smiled. Simon felt sick and shaky with anger, that she could joke about a thing like this. “Although I guess to be someone’s butler, you’d have to be quite an old man, so I don’t think that –”

“Would you stop it?” he snapped. Her chattering was intolerable; he rose from his seat to pace the room again.

“Well, you’re free to look me in the eye and say I’m all wrong about it,” May said, after a moment. Her voice was strained and lacked its usual brightness. Good, he thought.

Then he told himself that she was trying to help –Bohemian thing that she was, or tried to be, anyway – and that she’d treated him with a sight more decency than most people would.

“Well, I couldn’t do it,” he admitted, keeping his voice very low. He was reluctant to let his anger with her go, in case he would be left with nothing but sick, pathetic knowledge about himself, but Simon wasn’t one to be angry for long, and certainly not with his favourite sister. He sat back down.

“Well, I’m sorry if I did get it wrong,” May said. He looked up at her, this time; she offered him a crooked smile. “And I’m sorry if I sounded mean-spirited or callous – but I wish I could help, you know.”

He bit his lip again. “Thanks, I guess.”

“I know I really shouldn’t tell you what to do about something so personal,” May added, “but I think I’d risk it if I were you, you know, with a friend I trusted.”

Simon stiffened.

That’s enough.”

“All right,” May said, then took his hand again and patted it. “I won’t pester you, and I’ll certainly never tell anyone else, but you know I’m across the campus if you ever do need me.”

She stood up. He did likewise, turned around to get her coat, and handed it to her. His palms were damp with sweat; he hoped she wouldn’t notice just how much the past half hour had unsettled him.

“I’ll see you,” he said, putting his hand on her thin shoulder. She beamed at him before taking him into an awkward hug.

“I’ll, um, escort myself out.”

“If you’re sure, May,” Simon murmured. She nodded, and turned, leaving him to his thoughts and the empty sitting room.

*

It hurt him for a while, what May had said to him. She’d meant well, but the thought of her or anyone knowing would come to him unbidden over the next days and make his stomach heave or his palms start to sweat.

Then he got a hold of himself, sort of. It was at odds with the way he and his family looked – and God forbid anyone else in his family should learn this about him – but he was young, and the blush that sometimes crept into James’ face when they talked, or his long, lingering touches to Simon’s back or arm made Simon dream that he might just try. It might just work.

*

Another Saturday morning, then. James’ and Simon’s tennis match. Simon’s heart started to pound as if he’d been running as soon as James approached, bare arms gleaming beneath white shirtsleeves in the bright sun. The sight of him sent a shiver down Simon’s spine.

“Morning,” James said. Simon wondered if the redness of his cheek was just the September sun or whether it might be something else. He looked down, wondering what he or anyone in his position should do.

“Good morning,” Simon replied.

James drew closer to shake his hand. Simon hoped his friend wouldn’t notice how his palms had started sweating.

“Fine weather we’re having, isn’t it?” James asked, letting go of Simon, but not stepping back.

Simon tensed. Not the weather, he thought, paralyzed for a moment and unable to think of a reply. Then something came to him.

“You should come up to my sitting room,” he blurted out before he could forget. “After the match. I have it and may as well use it, you know. We could have a drink.”

James furrowed his brow. Then he grinned and tucked a lock of his flat dark hair behind his ears.

“I’d like that,” he said. “Thanks.”

Simon’s heart leapt. They stood quite near to one another in front of the court, hands still close enough to touch if they’d wanted, just smiling and looking at each other for a long moment before starting their match as the sun rose higher and higher in the sky.