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Home is hard to tell

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"You think I just play bass because Mike and Bill needed a bassist, right?" asked Adam. He was curled up in the window seat with his guitar on his knee, tuning it up one careful peg at a time. Andy looked up from where he was lying on the floor, twisting his whole upper body to see Adam. The sun glinted off Adam's hair and found the merest touches of red in the black, but Andy was more interested in the shadows on his face.

"I guess that's not the only reason, since you could have decided to learn drums," he replied. Adam hummed and tweaked a peg just a little more. Andy squirmed round further so he could see Adam without getting a crick in his neck. Adam had been quiet all day, pensively curled up with a book or his bass, a ready smile in place if his attention was required. It looked a little thin, stretched over his lips, and it never reached the corners of his eyes. Andy wondered if Adam was ready to say what he needed to, to get the stuff in his head sorted. He lay still and kept his attention on Adam.

"I need to go home," said Adam. "Do you want to come?"

"Home to your mom's?" asked Andy.

"The Islands," said Adam. "To my grandparents, and my great-grandparents."

"Whoa, you have great-grandparents?"

"Doesn't everyone?" asked Adam. His voice sounded sharp and Andy held his hands up to ward off any other words.

"You've just never talked much about that part of your family, I guess," he said. "My great-grandparents died before I was born."

Adam shrugged and fiddled with the strings of his bass. It sounded sad and melancholy in the afternoon light.

"I'd love to come," said Andy. He watched a smile touch Adam's lips, a more genuine one than he'd seen all day. "When are we going?"

>>>>

It seemed like Adam didn't draw breath until they touched down. He was quiet, and that made Andy quiet. The people waiting - Uncle Horace and Jimmy, Adam said - were quiet too, pressing their hands into Andy's with a dry pressure, even while their fingers dug into Adam's shoulders like they weren't going to let him go. He wasn't sure what he was walking into, but the house they pulled up at was bright in the evening light and music came from inside with an insistent rocksteady beat.

"Yeah, he still can't be persuaded to turn it down," said Jimmy, turning to smile at Adam. He sounded louder now, more sure of himself. Andy wondered if maybe he didn't like airports. Then he remembered how Adam had been questioned as they arrived, how everyone seemed to look through him or past him unless they wanted to suspect him. It wasn't the building that was unfriendly, then.

"Some things never change," said Adam.

"And he's heard that your boy here is a drummer," Jimmy continued. His smile grew wider as Adam groaned.

"What are you talking about?" asked Andy. He felt like he had missed something important. The smile Adam answered Jimmy with was wry and resigned.

"You'll see," said Adam. It didn't sound reassuring, but Andy followed him as he pulled open the door and climbed out. Stretching the tiredness out of his spine, he felt better already. The afternoon light was clear and the gate to the front garden was open and the steps down to the house clear. He ducked under an overhanging hibiscus and followed Adam down the steps. As he slipped off his shoes at the door, the smell of food hit him, along with the noise of people.

Watching Adam get scooped up into the heart of his family was different than Andy had imagined. There were more people, for one thing. Adam rarely talked about his family, and Andy hadn't been expecting this plethora of cousins and aunts and uncles. Andy watched him go, standing in the doorway feeling superfluous. He breathed deep and watched Adam's shoulders get looser and his smile more genuine as he moved from person to person. Feeling out of place for a moment was fine, if he got to see Adam relax like that.

"Andy?" asked a voice at his elbow. He looked down to see an older woman with grey hair standing there with her hands on her hips. "You're Adam's friend? Come on, don't clutter up the doorway." He was tugged through the room and pushed into a chair at the kitchen table. He tried to find his manners and offer to help, but she waved him off. "Sit still, drink your tea. Adam will be back soon." Andy put on his most charming and grateful smile and accepted the tea and a slice of cake. His family would never have just taken Adam in and pushed him round and fed him, and it made Andy feel guilty. He remembered how his mother had been so icily polite the one time she'd met Adam. To be fair, she'd not been much warmer to Mike, but that wasn't the point. This felt different.

"Tea already?" asked Adam. "I'd love one." Andy grinned and handed his over without complaint. Adam looked happier, and Andy didn't really care about anything else that happened. Adam slurped at it and looked longingly at the cake too.

"Don't give him that," said the woman again, reappearing by Andy's side. "He can have cake and tea when he's taken you in to meet Poppa and put your things away."

"I see you've met Aunt Ruth," said Adam. He quickly finished Andy's tea before she could remove it from his clutches.

"We've not been properly introduced," said Ruth.

"Sorry," said Adam. "I've been busy."

"Obviously," she said. Her voice was full of displeasure, but Andy was sure he could see a smile around her eyes somewhere. Adam grinned and tugged on Andy's shoulder to get him to stand. Shoving the last of the cake in his mouth, Andy allowed himself to be dragged up.

"Thanks," he said, somewhat thickly. There was definitely a smile now, and he relaxed.

"We'd better go and see Poppa," Adam said. "They say he'll be napping soon."

Adam led them through the small lounge and down a little hallway. Andy breathed a little easier as they left the noise of the kitchen and lounge behind.

"Who lives here?" he asked. He had no idea how they were going to fit, if this was the household. Adam's look was scornful and Andy held up his hands. It seemed like everything he said was awkward now and he didn't know how to get back to the easy familiarity he was used to. "Hey, I don't know how many people are visiting," he said. Adam sighed and smiled ruefully.

"Sorry, just... I'm not used to sharing this with people," he said. "Um, Aunt Ruth, who is actually my great aunt, my grandmother, my grandfather, my great grandfather and... my cousin Felix, maybe." He smiled. "Don't worry, we'll have somewhere to sleep. We're not complete savages."

"Hey," said Andy, reaching out to grip Adam's wrist. He wasn't used to this edge of embarrassment and frustration between them. He just wanted some ideas, something to give him boundaries so he didn't make bigger mistakes. He wanted Adam to be pleased that he'd shared this with him, not regretful. He softened his hand on Adam's skin, and his voice. "Hey, that's not what I meant, and I am sorry if you heard that. Okay? Sorry. I'm not... I'm not being a dick and thinking that you're savages."

"Okay," said Adam. He sighed and looked tired, the frustration fading only slowly from him. "Just. Look, I'll explain later." He pushed open the door at the end of the hallway and Andy's hand slid from his wrist. He followed behind and into the room. The man lying on the bed looked small.

"Adam," he said, starting the process of sitting up. "Someone should have come and gotten me." Adam grabbed his elbow; his hands looking big against the frailty of his arm.

"No, no, Poppa, we're just coming in to tell you we're here. You should have a sleep while we put our stuff away." Andy watched the gentleness of his hands as he eased his Poppa back to the bed again.

"Ah yes, your friend Andy," Poppa said. Andy moved forward and stood beside the bed. He felt helpless, and a little like an intruder too. Adam's hand on his hip grounded him and he smiled down at Poppa, hoping it didn't come out on his face as awkwardly as it felt. "I hope you brought your own drumsticks," he continued. "But we have bongos."

"Yeah, I brought them," said Adam. Andy just smiled and rested his hand over Adam's. It felt like an awkward triptych, with Adam between him and Poppa, a hand on each. Poppa's smile, though tired, was full of mischief and the moment of awkwardness passed. "We'll see you at dinner time." When Poppa's eyes closed, Adam's closed too, for a moment, and Andy watched the corners of his mouth pull down in an expression of almost perfect misery. Shifting, he wrapped his arm around Adam's shoulders and pulled him close. Adam felt tiny with sadness in his arms.

>>>>

Andy twirled his drumsticks in his hands and watched Adam as he sat on the window sill and looked out over the tiny back garden. He could see all the signs of Adam wanting to talk, and all the signs of him searching for the words somewhere inside himself. Andy could wait; he was going to be listening hard for the things that were important.

"You see," Adam said, breaking the silence as though he was continuing a conversation they'd only just broken off, "my Dad didn't want me to grow up here." He didn't look at Andy, but Andy watched his shoulders and the tilt of his chin. Adam paused again, for a long moment and Andy wondered about how hard this was for him to say, even between the two of them. "He said it was for opportunities, and for his career and all that, but really. He just didn't want me to grow up as another black kid on a tiny island with musicians and losers. And savages."

Andy didn't know what to say. He'd met Adam's father a few times, enough to be sure that he could call Adam's family savages. He was not the sort to feel the welcome here, Andy could tell. He watched Adam bend his head lower, folding in on himself like he was worried that Andy's next words would be a blow.

"And that's why he hated you being a musician," Andy said, keeping his voice as light as he could. It seemed like a logical conclusion.

"Part of it," replied Adam. "A big part of it. My grandfather played bass in a scratch band. Every weekend, they'd play at a party or a wedding, and I spent my childhood in and out of practices and meetings. There were always people, always family. We were loud, and, looking back, I could see how much they hated him."

"Are they going to hate me?" Even as Andy spoke, he cursed himself for being a self-centred idiot. This was Adam's story.

"I don't know, are you going to treat my family like feral idiots who can't speak English?"

Andy had to smile. "I already like your Aunt Ruth," he said. "She makes good cake. And I've always liked women who can push me round."

"If I tell her that, she'll make you dance with her tonight."

"It would be an honour," said Andy. "But I'd rather play music with you." The truth of that statement sat in the air between them and Andy stopped twirling his sticks and looked straight at Adam. Adam's face was unguarded and that look of misery was back. Andy wanted to gather him close and smooth it away, but he knew Adam hadn't finished speaking.

"My Poppa's dying, and I play music in a rock band and wear skinny jeans," Adam said. He said it like the two were causally linked.

"You could rock a sharp suit, if you wanted," offered Andy. "But I don't think the jeans are really the bit you need to worry about."

"No, I guess not," said Adam. "But something in there is important, and I don't know what to do."

"You think your Poppa doesn't approve of the rock band?" asked Andy. He was trying to make sense of Adam's dissatisfaction, but he knew that Adam hated being given answers.

"He would mock our songs and bass lines as being impossible to dance to."

"You're making a living from music."

"Yeah," said Adam. "I suppose. I just. I wonder if I'd be playing reggae if I'd stayed down here."

"Maybe," said Andy. He paused before continuing, "I'm glad you're with me in Chicago and playing rock music, but that's not important right now. You're a good musician. I think you could play whatever you wanted."

"I wish, sometimes, that I was playing that. The rhythms I learned as a child, when I used to dance with all my aunts and run in the garden with my cousins."

"Well, you can play reggae and rock music."

Andy watched Adam think that over. Coming back home was all about possibilities; sometimes about might-have-beens.

"We should have a side project," said Adam, finally.

"Yeah?" asked Andy. He twirled his sticks one last time and put them aside. His stomach was growling and Adam was nearly smiling happily. "Yeah, of course." Andy reached out his hand and tugged Adam up. "We can definitely have a reggae band as our side project. After dinner and dancing and playing, you can choose the name."

"But you can't have dinner. You haven't killed a chicken yet." Adam looked up at Andy, his face so serious that Andy had to laugh at his assumed earnestness.

"Your Aunt Ruth will take pity on me," said Andy. "I'm very charming, and you're really evil."

Adam laughed and leaned into Andy's space, slipping his arms around Andy's waist and hugging him close. Andy hugged back, arms tight around Adam's shoulders, face pressed into his hair. Downstairs, he could hear people singing along with the music, the clatter of plates and cutlery. He wanted to go down to them with Adam and watch him be part of this family and understand the pain and the pleasure of being here. But Adam felt good against him and the room was still light and warm. He held on tight and waited.