"Well!" said Jon's mother as soon as they were alone in the car, with a closed window between them and the driver. (Stephen and his own mom had gotten a second car to the restaurant. Apparently Mrs. Col-bert needed her space.) "Your boyfriend's mother is...really something."
"Yeah, I'm getting that idea," muttered Jon. Honestly, what had Stephen been thinking? It was fine for the guy to love his own mom unconditionally, but it was quite another to volunteer Jon for a whole evening of playing squeaky-clean platonic friend, not to mention gritting his teeth every time the woman got subtly anti-Semitic.
"We got to talking while you boys were occupied. I understand she sees Stephen even less than I see you. Am I right in thinking she doesn't know about you two? I made sure not to say anything suspicious."
"Thanks," said Jon. "And yeah, Stephen isn't even out to his mom. Or anyone else in his family."
Mom sighed. "That would explain why she seemed so earnest when she showed me those photos of Stephen with your friend Olivia."
"Well, to be fair, they're a very photogenic couple," said Jon, trying to shrug it off.
"Not as photogenic as you are, sweetheart," said Mom automatically. "But I'm sure it's nothing to take personally. She just wants to believe her son is happy. And I can hardly blame her for missing the obvious, considering...."
Jon tensed. "What? Considering what?"
"It's nothing to be embarrassed about," his mother assured him. (Not that Jon would be embarrassed! There was nothing wrong with being the kind of swishy dramatic fashion-conscious gay guy that Stephen was. Jon just wasn't that, okay? He was totally masculine. He played soccer and was uncomfortable with emotion and everything!) "It's just, in retrospect, you were so clearly starry-eyed over your seventh-grade science teacher."
"Mr. Tyson?" said Jon in disbelief. "I did not get starry-eyed! He was a good teacher. He made the material engaging! Just because that's the one class I actually paid attention in...."
"At the time, all I thought was that it was wonderful you were finding good adult male role models." She kept a careful eye on Jon as she said it — like she thought Jon might be too emotionally fragile for a little candor about his father issues. When Jon didn't burst into tears, or whatever she was worried about, she went on: "So I completely failed to connect it to the way you paid attention in Mrs. Goodwin's history class the year before."
Jon could feel himself turning red. At least he could blame it on still being bundled up in his coat.
Sure, at age twelve he'd had a massive crush on Mrs. Goodwin, but with Mr. Tyson it was totally different! All Jon had wanted there was to learn everything in the books about astronomy and geology...to ace all the tests and know what to say when he got called on in class...to get his teacher's approval, and attention in general, and to enjoy the warm fuzzy feelings he got when Mr. Tyson smiled at him, and admittedly the man had been pretty handsome, and....
Oh, god, at thirteen Jon had totally been crushing on his male science teacher.
Oh, god, two years later he had acted exactly the same way around Brian. Could Jon's manager tell the difference between a child of divorce eager for positive father-esque attention and a confused proto-bisexual driven by hormones he didn't even recognize yet? "When students...do that...I'm not saying I did, I'm just saying...do teachers, uh, notice?"
"If yours did, they were perfectly professional about it," said Mom. "Occupational hazard of working with young people. Part of our job is to ignore it."
And Brian had been working with young stars for a long time. Fuck. "Maybe I should just flee civilized society and spend the rest of my life in a nice little isolated cabin upstate," groaned Jon, burying his face in his hands.
"If you like, dear," said his mother. "I hope you'll at least wait until after we eat."
The little private room at the restaurant was wonderfully homey. Painted landscapes on the walls, upholstered chairs circling the small round table; live ficuses potted in the corners and a tiered chandelier hanging overhead.
Stephen finished telling Mama about his trivia-related triumph on the Hobbit set just in time for the four of them to open their menus. Jon's mother commented that she was impressed, which Stephen took as a good sign. He would have to share more stories that made him look good. Maybe after they ordered.
"So, Stephen," said Ms. Marion as the waiter left. "You're originally from South Carolina, is that right?"
"What was it like for you when you transitioned to Hollywood? Or were you young enough that you didn't notice?"
"Oh, I never actually lived in South Carolina," explained Stephen. "I mean, there have been vacations at the old house, but by the time I was born most of the family was living in L.A. already. So that's where I grew up, except for the years when I was in Texas taping Barney and Friends. There was one time when it looked like I might move to New York, but then I got a part on That's So Rachel, and the rest is history."
Jon perked up at the mention of his favorite city. "You never told me you might have moved to New York."
"I was doing Broadway auditions," said Stephen proudly.
"When he was eight, he made it to the final round of callbacks for Chip in Beauty and the Beast," added Mama.
"Uh, wow," said Jon, in the middle of buttering a roll. "When I was eight all I sang in was the elementary school choir."
"Perfectly respectable," Stephen assured him. "Besides, if nobody lived boring lives, how would we know to appreciate the people who have interesting ones?"
"Back up for a second," said Ms. Marion. "You've never lived in South Carolina?"
"Being a proud South Carolinian isn't about living there," said Stephen patiently. He was always having to explain this to people. "It's a state of mind."
He ended up laying out the whole SparkNotes version of his soon-to-be-ghostwritten autobiography. His family was originally from Charleston, of course; he vaguely remembered vacationing there once or twice, and some of his siblings had even lived there in person.
But by the time Stephen was born they had already moved. Up until he was seven he'd lived in the L.A. house with a crowd of brothers and sisters — the exact number wasn't constant. Sometimes one of them would get a role across the country and Papa would take them to live there for a while; other times they would go on personal vacations or private retreats; and of course the older ones kept going to college, then moving out entirely.
It all changed after Stephen got the job in Texas, where it was just him and Papa. When he got back, Mama moved to the Charleston house permanently — followed by his two next-oldest brothers, given that after 10-year-old Stephen got his big break Papa no longer had time to work on advancing their careers. That was why it was just him and Papa now, too.
When he was a kid, though, it had been Mama who held down the house. She made sure Stephen always got to auditions, for commercials and for his earliest tiny TV roles. She managed his piano lessons, listened when he sang, and taught him her favorite acting tricks.
"I still remember the first thing she taught me," he said proudly. "Want to see?"
Jon's mother, who had been listening with interest, said, "Sure."
So Stephen pushed back his chair and got up. Good thing the room was carpeted; that would make it easier. He took a few steps...
...and tripped over nothing, tumbling in a perfectly-staged fall to sprawl painlessly on the ground.
Jon sucked in a gasp. "Stephen! Can you get up? Forget the trick, just sit back down, all right?"
"That was the trick!" said Stephen, swinging easily to his feet again. "Was I convincing, or what?"
Mama and Ms. Marion clapped, both beaming. Stephen soaked it in.
Jon, though, glowered at him. "Give a guy a little warning, will you? I thought you'd collapsed again."
"Collapsed?" echoed Mama. "Sweetheart, what's he talking about?"
Stephen broke into a nervous laugh. "Nothing! Nothing at all. I had a little unplanned fall on the set one day earlier this year, and Jon here is such a worrier, aren't you, Jon? Total hypochondriac. He's got like ten different medicines in his coat pockets right now, I bet."
To his relief, Jon didn't say anything else that might tip Mama off about Stephen's less-than-perfect health. Instead he went along with the subject change. "Five. And if you happen to come down with a headache, sore throat, congestion, upset stomach, or mild-to-moderate aches and pains while we're here, you'll be thanking me for it."
The food, when it came out, looked delicious. Jon and his mother had both gotten the turkey course; Stephen went with the salmon, while Mrs. Col-bert had the foie gras. That last one was technically an appetizer, prompting Stephen to try to add some of his own meal to his mother's much-smaller plate. "You have got to try some of this ratatouille, Mama. It's delicious," he said, while shamelessly swiping Jon's cornbread.
Jon let it go. Mom raised her eyebrows, then nudged her own cornbread in Jon's direction. "Would you like mine, honey? I'm never going to eat all this."
"Don't mind if I do."
"Good to see the boys with such healthy appetites," said Mrs. Col-bert. "They grow up so fast, don't they?"
"Tell me about it," sighed Mom. "Especially when they're away from you so much. You see them on TV in the meantime, of course, but it isn't the same....You've gone through this with a lot of your kids, right? How do you adjust?"
"Hey, I see Mama plenty," said Stephen, punctuating it with a firm gesture of his fork. "When you consider that she has eleven of us all around the country to keep up with, a few visits a year is practically all the time."
"It never really gets easier," added Mrs. Col-bert. "You just have to resign yourself to the knowledge that they all have to leave the nest eventually."
It sounded to Jon more like the nest had left Stephen. And when he was ten, no less. Not to mention, Stephen's estimate of "a few visits a year" was seriously high as far as Jon could tell. He only remembered Mrs. Col-bert coming around once before in the entire tenure of the band.
Apparently Mom wasn't convinced either. "I was resigned to them leaving at eighteen, at the earliest. I still wonder if I did the right thing, throwing Jon into the middle of all this when he was barely fifteen."
"Mom!" protested Jon. "You didn't 'throw me into' anything. You've never had to push me if it was about music, remember? I practiced, I signed up for auditions, I took the bus to lessons...I bought my own guitar, for crying out loud."
It was Mrs. Col-bert's turn to raise her eyebrows. "You made your son buy his own guitar?"
"He was eleven at the time," pointed out Jon's mother. "I wasn't going to spend upwards of a hundred dollars on something that, for all I knew, he would get bored with in the next six months."
"When I was eleven, all I had for instruments were hand-me-downs," put in Stephen. "If Jon had had ten musical older brothers and sisters, I bet things would have been different."
"And I did get him a harmonica," added Mom. "That was the other instrument he wouldn't stop talking about. Springsteen plays it, you know."
Jon nodded. "Mom was plenty supportive once she figured out I was serious." Pulling together the money for guitar lessons and musical summer camp, comforting him after his first few failed auditions at local theaters, insisting he wasn't crazy for wanting to try again — she'd eventually backed him up as much as any kid could ask for.
(Because of that, he refrained from pointing out that the first harmonica she got him had turned out to be a four-inch-long plastic toy.)
"What do you mean, 'emancipated'?"
Oops. Stephen hadn't meant to mention that. "Just a legal thing," he told Jon. "No big deal. Hey, did you tell your mom about how you did a guest part on —"
"As in, emancipated minor?" interrupted Jon. "I knew your dad could be pretty rough, but I didn't know it was that bad!"
"Papa isn't rough! He's firm and disciplined," added Stephen, horrified. Had he really come across as so disrespectful of his parents that Jon thought he would throw them off for real? "It's nothing to do with him."
But now Jon was glaring at Mama. "And where are you in all this? You can't even bring yourself out of parenthood-retirement long enough to take custody?"
"Well, I never!" exclaimed Mama.
"Jon, stop it!" said Stephen. "Nothing's going to change! My parents are doing a great job, and they're going to keep right on doing it. I told you, it's a legal thing."
In his coat pocket, his phone played a couple of notes. He ignored it. Whoever was texting him, it could wait.
And now Jon's mother had latched on to the idea. "What kind of legal thing? If there's a contract you want to enter into that your parents won't sign for, I'm sure it can wait a few more years."
"Neither I nor my husband would ever hold our children back like that," said Mama testily.
"Oh, I didn't mean — of course you wouldn't hold him back. But the boys have their whole working lives ahead of them. They deserve the chance to be kids while they can."
Stephen wanted to jump to Mama's defense, but found himself at a loss for words. How could he explain to Ms. Marion that she had it backwards — that his parents, in fact, were more excited about the emancipation than he was — without sounding like a bad son?
His phone chimed again.
"And no child deserves to have his talent repressed because of his age," countered Mama. "Stephen's going through this process because we want him able to enter into more contracts. He's looking forward to being able to work enough hours that he can write that memoir, aren't you, sweetheart?"
Oh, good, something Stephen could say with a clear conscience. "I'm really excited about the memoir, Mama. Gosh, dessert sure is taking a long time to get here, isn't it?"
"Hang on," said Jon. "You're only doing this so Stephen can work more hours? You know he —"
"— can't wait for that pie!" said Stephen loudly. "Pecan, oh boy! Haven't had that in way too long."
Jon sat back in his chair, folding his arms. "Nobody except Olivia is genuinely that enthusiastic about pie."
Another chime from Stephen's coat. This time he grabbed for it. "Better see who that is. It might be important."
<3 Olivia <3
well bb i hope ur fam8ly dinnr is goin ebtter than mine
<3 Olivia <3
mom tihnks im some kinda corprat whore + sarahbeth says i hqve a pblm
<3 Olivia <3
yeah i have a problm, whch is: f7ck alll this w. a rusty spoon, ok?
Uh-oh. "It's Olivia," said Stephen, without elaborating. "I think she really needs to talk. Do you mind...?" He was already getting up. There had to be an unused room around here that he could duck into for a private conversation.
"For that sweet girl? Go right ahead," said Mama with a warm smile. "You tell her I said hello."
In the cabin of the Small Wonder, still at the dock but with the doors safely bolted, Olivia was mixing an impromptu cocktail in preparation for sending another text when her phone rang.
"Stephen, babyyy," she crooned into the receiver. "Whassup? Does your night suck? 'Cause my night, my night sucks."
"My night could be better," said Stephen on the other end. "Olivia, where are you? Are you with anyone?"
"Me? Onna boat. I mean, not just any boat, I mean my boat....What was the other question?"
She managed to explain to Stephen that she was alone, that she'd had a few drinks, that she was pulling from the stash that had been concealed in the Small Wonder this whole time. (It was probably a bad idea to tell him that, but she was so proud she'd kept the secret this long, and someone ought to appreciate it, dammit.)
"Is there food out there too?" asked Stephen. "You should eat something. Do you have something to eat?"
"Already ate plenty," said Olivia. "We had the big dinner early. Worked out real well, that did. Ugh, I'm so full...." With one hand on the inner hull to keep herself steady, she walked herself over to the recessed bed and collapsed onto the mattress. "I'm okay. Sitting down now. So how 'bout you? How's your night?"
"Great! Fine! Absolutely perfect," said Stephen. "My mom says hi. Did you know that my mom showed up?"
"Uh-huh. Saw your tweet."
"And sure, it's hard work keeping up the façade for Mama that you and me are a happy heterosexual couple with a total of zero chemical dependencies between us...plus I'm pretty sure Jon's mom has spent all night judging my lifestyle — I mean the Hollywood one, not the gay one...but other than that? Everything is wonderful."
"Well, congrats on that," said Olivia. "Nice work on the...façade thingy. Shoulda kept that up over here, maybe."
On the other end of the line, Stephen sounded hopeful. "You told your family?"
"Not everything. Not about Kristen yet. Just told 'em you an' me are faking it." Olivia sniffled, fighting a fresh upwelling of tears. "That's when Mom said the thing — how I was selling myself. Said it wasn't how she raised me."
"Olivia, that's terrible."
"I know!" wailed Olivia. Her stomach was acting up; she carefully slid herself into a lying-down position, which helped. "I mean, I mean, what the fuck, right? I don't even wanna do it! She could at least try to understand!"
"Shhh, c'mon, it's going to be okay," said Stephen. "We're going to stop soon, remember? The movie drops in three weeks. We can stop right after that."
Olivia gulped hard, scrubbing at her eyes. "Mac said we can't. She says it'll look too — too tranpar—, transap—, too see-through. If we stop right then. We can't." Besides, even after the premiere there were more sales to think of, and the DVDs and Blu-Rays, and the sequel Mac had hinted about a few months ago, and, and....
"We can too," insisted Stephen. "I'll do it. I'll break up with you. That way your manager can't get on your case about it."
"You promise?" sniffled Olivia.
"I promise! Cross my heart, I will dump you as soon as I can."
"You are the best," said Olivia, and meant it. "I love you so fuckin' much, Stephen Col-bert. I mean, like...in a platonical fashion."
"Same here, Olivia Munn," said Stephen. "Look, your sister's at the house too, right? She didn't call you a corporate so-and-so, did she?"
"Uh-uh. She jus' called me an alcoholic."
"The nerve! I don't know where she would have gotten that idea." Without a hint of irony, Stephen went on: "Anyway, will you call her to come get you? I can't stay long, but I don't want to leave you alone in case you pass out again."
"I've drunk this much without passin' out," protested Olivia. "Done it plenty. You know that."
"Yeah, I know. But if I hang up, you're probably gonna drink more."
Couldn't really argue with that. "How come you can't stay? Maybe you could put Jon on too. Maybe we could all watch a movie or somethin'."
Stephen hesitated. "Jon and I are both still in the middle of dinner."
"Ohmigod, really?" Now Olivia felt awful. "An' your mom is there and everything! I'm so sorry. I'm the most terrible person."
"You are not at all a terrible person," said Stephen. "Just get your sister, okay? And have her contact me after, because I can't spend all night worrying about you! I have a show to do tomorrow."
"Uh-huh. Okay. I'm gonna text her now." Olivia swallowed. "Thanks. An' good luck with the show. An' the dinner. An' everything. You know."
They said their goodbyes, and soon enough Olivia found herself struggling to focus on tiny lines of text, wincing against an oncoming headache. She double-checked that it was Sarah Beth's name at the top, and hit send.
<3 Olivia <3
in the cabin of 6he boat can u cmoe get me? i think i have a problm.
Dessert came while Stephen was still out. Jon's mother managed to redirect the conversation to a comparison of her and Mrs. Col-bert's childhoods, freeing Jon up to pick at his slice of chocolate cake and worry in peace.
He sat up straight the instant Stephen finally came back in. "What took so long? Is everything okay?"
"Fine! Olivia's...." Stephen had his phone cupped tightly in both hands; it chimed with one more text as he sat down, which he scanned before relaxing. "It's cool, she's fine."
"It's perfectly normal for a young man to talk for a long time with his sweetheart. Doesn't mean there's anything to worry about," Mrs. Col-bert admonished Jon. To her son, she added, "Especially when it's your first love! I'm sure you and Olivia would talk for hours if you could."
"You'll understand one day, Jon," added Stephen's mother. "Or...maybe you have some idea already? Is there a young lady you have your eye on? The magazines name a new one every other week, but I don't take any of that too seriously. They'll print anything if it sells."
Jon had to bite back a whole lot of sarcastic answers about all the (essentially) Stephen/Olivia fanfiction the magazines were churning out. "Nope! No young ladies here," he said brightly. "I'm perfectly happy where I am."
"Ah, you say that now," said Mrs. Col-bert. "But just wait. One of these days you'll meet a girl who turns your head, and the next thing you know —"
"Or a guy," said Jon.
Stephen's mother looked blank. "Come again?"
This might be a bad idea, but what the hell. It wasn't like Jon had anything to lose — when it came to Mrs. Col-bert's extremely conditional respect, he could take it or leave it — and he wanted to be honest about something after sitting through this faceful of aggressive heterosexual propaganda. "I could meet a girl or a guy. You don't know."
A dark cloud of disapproval settled over the woman's face. "I know it's the big thing these days with young people to be politically correct about homosexuals, but that's going a little far, don't you think? It's okay to be straight and proud."
"Listen, I have no problem with straight people being proud," countered Jon. "Some of my best friends are straight. I'm just not one of 'em."
"And I'm very proud of my bi son," added Mom, with a gentle hand on his arm.
"Well!" Mrs. Col-bert blinked several times; you could almost hear the clanging as her train of thought jumped tracks. "Stephen, did you know about this?"
Stephen's hands were folded in his lap as he looked away from her, back straight and face carefully blank. "Yes, Mama."
"Well!" said his mother again. "I do hope you and Olivia are setting a good Christian example for him."
"You're so — I'm sorry, what?"
"I'm gay, Mama."
There went the full-blown screeching of mental brakes. Jon held his breath, fiercely glad his own mom was there with him. Not to mention there for him.
"What's this about, Stephen?" asked Mrs. Col-bert at last, peering at her youngest son with tender concern. "Are you having some kind of trouble with Olivia? Even if she's not the right girl for you...."
"It's been a fake relationship for publicity purposes since day one, Mama," said Stephen, still quiet and deferential and expressionless. "And for purposes of covering up the fact that...again...I'm gay."
His mother was shaking her head. "Don't say that."
It struck a nerve; Stephen turned to her, eyebrows arched, hands tensing. "Why is it so hard to believe?" he demanded. "I'm crazy about musical theater. I can coordinate my own outfits. When I was six I told you my life's ambition was to be a Disney princess!"
"You like other things too," protested his mother. "Like those Lord of the Rings books, remember? When you were seven you had switched to wanting to be a Ranger."
"Mostly because I was madly in love with Aragorn!...It's a guy's name, Mama."
"Honey, you can't confuse a little fictional admiration with —"
"I've been going steady with Jon since May."
Mrs. Col-bert looked with a start at Jon, then at his mother. "You didn't think it would be appropriate to mention this to me?"
"I thought the boys should be allowed to tell you when they were ready," said Mom, with laser-guided serenity. Her grip never left Jon's arm.
Now that everything was on the table, Jon took a deep breath and tried to make the best of it. "I'm really crazy about your son, ma'am...."
"Yes, yes." Mrs. Col-bert was already pushing back her chair. "Excuse me. I need to go re-powder my face."
And she was off, heading for the door without even bothering to shoulder her purse first.
(How many times had Stephen deflected a conversation by announcing he needed to, say, re-gel his hair, then taking off without the hair gel? Now Jon knew where he got it from.)
As for the younger Col-bert, he was still tense all over, lips pressed tightly together, eyes bright behind his glasses. Jon didn't think twice about finally pulling away from his mother to scoot his chair up next to Stephen's. "You okay? C'mere."
Stephen threw his arms around Jon and clung, chin digging into Jon's shoulder. He was shaking now. Maybe it was another bout of withdrawal tremors, but somehow Jon doubted it.
"Shhh," he murmured, rubbing Stephen's back. "It's okay. It's over! And, look, you got through it."
"I — I was rude," choked Stephen. "At the end. I should've been — should've done —"
Oh, no, guilt. How was Jon supposed to talk Stephen out of it? Obviously Mrs. Col-bert was going to be offended by the gay thing no matter what, but if Stephen couldn't see that, if he was stuck on the idea that he could counter his parents' homophobia by being "good" enough in other ways....
"You didn't do anything wrong, Stephen," said Mom. "You gave her a shock, that's all. I've never been in your shoes, but I've been in hers, and I can tell you that it takes a while to adjust — longer for some of us than for others. It doesn't mean she won't come around eventually."
Stephen gulped. "Y-you think?"
"I think you're a remarkable young man, and your parents should be nothing but proud of you. Try to give her some time."
"Uh-huh." Stephen's grip relaxed; he was able to sit back, though he kept one arm locked around Jon's shoulders, rubbing his eyes with his free hand. The diamonds of his purity ring glittered on his finger. "Thank you, ma'am."
"Would it help if I talked to her?" added Mom. "I won't push if you don't want me to."
Jon vaguely recognized his own tendency to follow a problem around and keep hammering at it, long after it was obvious he wasn't making any difference. "C'mon, Mom, what could you say?"
His mother smiled. "Well, for one thing, I could finally have a chance to show off all these handsome photos I've been collecting of you two."
Stephen thought it over, then said slowly, "Could you...show me, instead?"
They dragged the chairs back around, and Mom pulled out her tablet.
(She hadn't been kidding about the collection. The photo folder she opened had a couple hundred items. What had she done, raided the entire Zimbio archives? Jon didn't know whether to be flattered or mortified.)
"I'm still not always sure this job was the healthiest thing for Jon," said Mom to Stephen (as if Jon wasn't sitting right between them!) as they scrolled through images from a Gap photoshoot. "But, honey, I don't regret for a minute that he got to meet you."