When the other shoe drops, it’s not so much a shoe as a sheet of notebook paper. The torn edge at the top a ragged and uneven line graph of upward spikes of hope and steady plunges downward. The sunlight coming through the window at just the right angle to make the blue lines on the paper invisible, the heavy strokes of a blunt pencil faded to the flat gray of winter sky.
Paul throws the note in Stephen’s direction and stares impassively at the spot where it drifts under the couch.
“She says she’s going out of town for a while.”
Stephen takes a deep breath and blows it out noisily. He crosses his arms over his chest, hugging himself, fingers digging into his biceps.
“Fuck,” he says.
Paul is silent.
There isn’t anything else to say.
Neither Stephen nor Amy will remember the first time they meet each other.
They don’t really speak to each other that first day, the first time they’re introduced. He doesn’t hear her laugh, and she doesn’t try to make him laugh.
It’s unremarkable in every way.
He keeps to himself at the start. He’s sure he’s coming off as sullen and aloof, maybe even kind of a prick, but he doesn’t give a fuck.
He’s not sure if he’s funny yet, and that bothers him. He used to be funny; he knows that – making his Mom laugh, his brothers and sisters, the other kids in school. But that feels like it was forever ago. He’s barely twenty-four (too young to feel this old), so it kind of was. It used to be easier.
If he’s not funny, he will be.
He tells himself that. Sometimes, when he hears a sudden cackle from the wings, he believes it.
Amy plops down next to him in the van after they stop for gas somewhere in Indiana.
“Stephen, do you like girls?” she asks out of nowhere, after almost twenty minutes have gone by in silence.
He regards her coldly. “Are you propositioning me?”
Amy laughs like that’s the most ridiculous idea she’s ever heard, and Stephen isn’t sure if he should be offended.
“No. No. I’m with Paul. Dinello? You know Paul?”
She gestures over her shoulder, but Stephen doesn’t need to look. “Oh. I know Paul,” he says dryly.
Amy rolls her eyes. “What, don’t you like him?”
“I was always told if you can’t say anything nice, then…” he trails off.
“Then what?” she prompts.
“Then… you know. Don’t say anything at all.”
“Fuck that. What’s the fun in that?” Amy scoffs.
“Maybe so, but I’m not stupid enough to go saying it to his girlfriend,” Stephen shoots back.
She squints at him. “You’re clever,” she says in a funny voice.
Stephen breaks then, a hint of a smile turning up his mouth. He tamps it down.
“A little too clever, if you ask me,” she adds.
“Good thing I didn’t ask you.”
Amy scrunches up her nose and stares out the window. “Well, I asked you a question and you didn’t answer it.”
“Do you like girls?”
Stephen pretends to consider, watching highway exit signs pass in a blur. “I suppose so? I can’t give a general blanket endorsement to the entirety of the female population, though. It depends on the girl,” he finally answers.
“You took way too long to answer that,” Amy laughs.
He glares at her. “Why did you want to know?”
“Steve said he likes you and he wants to ask you out.”
Steve’s head whips around in front of them when he hears his name. “I didn’t say that.”
“Oh, no, I’m sorry, you’re right,” Amy says. “You said you liked him and you wanted to break through to his virgin love canal.”
Stephen bursts out laughing in spite of himself, and Steve snickers a little too.
“Um… I don’t want to disappoint you, Stephen. I mean, you do seem like a nice guy and all, but we really don’t know each other that well and I’m just not ready for that kind of commitment of… virgin love canal breaking into,” Steve says.
Stephen bites his lip. “That’s perfectly fine with me, Steve. Thanks for clearing that up.”
Steve turns his attention back to Amy and points at her. “I don’t like you,” he hisses, before whipping back around to face the front.
Amy pulls a face at the back of his head, and Stephen laughs again. He thinks it’s over when she turns her attention back to the window, until he hears her muttering, “Gay gay gay gay.”
Stephen pinches his own leg to stop himself from laughing and raises an eyebrow at her. “Excuse me?”
“What?” She turns to face him again. “I didn’t say anything. Did you say something?”
“I didn’t say anything.”
“Oh, I thought you did.”
They ride in silence again.
Little by little, she breaks him down and leaves him open. Open enough to put up with Paul, as a favor to her.
Open enough to let Paul in.
Open enough that he hardly notices he’s falling in love, and by the time he does, it’s too late.
It’s too late the first time Paul kisses him.
Paul kisses him first, not the other way around, because Stephen has promised himself he’s not going to do that, and Stephen takes his promises seriously.
(He takes himself seriously too)
So they’re in a scene, a scene they won’t exactly remember later, only that it’s tanking, it’s tanking bad, it’s the improv set after the rest of the show, after all the good stuff, the stuff they didn’t write, and a third of the audience has gone because they’re in Scottsdale and it’s Sunday night and people have babysitters and work in the morning and can’t hang around to watch these half-drunk kids tanking. They’re in a scene, and it’s going nowhere, and Paul doesn’t know how to get out of it, and Stephen doesn’t either, and the funny thing is, they don’t really care ‘cause this one is a lost cause and they both know it, and that’s kind of funny in its own way.
So Stephen sees something spark in Paul’s eyes, like a cartoon light bulb, and before he gets a chance to try to anticipate where they’re going next, to make an educated guess and another step forward, Paul’s grabbing him and then his mouth is on Stephen’s and he’s going for it, maybe just doing it to make Stephen break, or maybe just doing it to get the rest of the audience to leave, or maybe just doing it to make Amy laugh from the side of the stage, because those things are funny in their own way too.
Stephen goes along with it.
His heart is pounding and he’s never been more hyperaware of being watched than he is right now, stomach flipping and nerves buzzing and oh shit paul’s tongue is in my mouth and now mine is in his oh shit oh shit oh jesus god why here why now why why why now what now what’s next?
Stephen pulls away and holds it all in, reacts in some way he wouldn’t, reacts in some way that makes sense. He keeps going, they keep going, they find a way, they make a discovery.
The lights black out and they exit, and Stephen breathes again. Amy winks and slaps him on the ass when he passes back to the supply closet that’s passing for a green room.
“I knew it.”
He licks his hand and wipes it on her face. “I think that belongs to you,” he says, and keeps walking.
He hopes she didn’t feel his hand shaking.
Paul finds him later on, and it wasn’t that hard because Stephen wasn’t at all avoiding him.
“I’m impressed,” he grins. “You kept it together pretty well. You almost lost it though. You should’ve seen your face, it was hysterical.”
Stephen puts his hands on Paul’s shoulders then, gentler than Paul had been, and kisses him. He’s going for it, but this time nobody’s watching.
He pulls away and Paul stares up at him, lips parted and eyes bright.
Stephen smirks. “If I looked anything like you do now, yeah, it’s pretty hysterical.”
Paul licks his lips, tears his eyes from Stephen’s, and checks around the room.
By Paul’s twenty-seventh birthday, it’s far too late.
(Eight hundred miles away, Jon Leibowitz is turning twenty-seven too. But Stephen won’t know that until a decade later, and when Jon tells him what his birth date is, it’s the first thing Stephen will think of. Just for a split second. His mouth on Paul, Amy’s hands on him. Then he’ll smile too big and say, “Really? That’s so strange; I have a friend who’s the exact same day.”)
Amy throws Paul a party and everyone comes and everyone brings a bottle in lieu of a gift. Everyone drinks too much.
Stephen is buzzed, later it’ll all be a little foggy, but he’ll always remember Amy leaning down to whisper in his ear while he’s digging around in the cupboard under the sink, looking for something else to put ice in.
“I know that you and Paul want to fuck.”
He knows before he hits his head that he’s going to hit his head, but that doesn’t stop it from happening.
So he’s clutching the lump on the back of his skull and trying hold down a panicked and pained exclamation. He slumps on the floor and stares up at her. So casual.
“Stephen. Don’t. I know, okay? Come on – stay here tonight.”
He starts to protest again, deny and decline. But she holds up her hand.
“It’s his birthday. I’m too broke to get him anything he really wants. For me, please just take the stick out of your ass for one night and let Paul put his cock up there.”
She leaves him dumbfounded on the kitchen floor, holding the half full bag of ice to his head with a drip of water slowly creeping down his neck.
He stays, because the only alternative is going home and spending the rest of the night thinking about what would’ve happened if he’d stayed.
Stephen hangs back when Amy goes down on Paul. He’s not sure what else to do, but then Amy sees what he’s not doing and latches on to his arm, tugging him down with her.
He tries to stay out of her way, running his tongue over one side of Paul’s shaft, sliding down to his balls while Amy sucks the head into her mouth. Paul squirms against the bed, and Stephen gets lost in what he’s doing, Paul’s slight moans and the slide of skin against his tongue. Stephen manages to temporarily misplace the fact that this isn’t his solo performance, and he starts when Amy’s tongue slips against his.
He snaps back and sees Amy staring at him, eyes dark and wide. She guides him in to place, their tongues meeting at the head of Paul’s cock again, swirling around each other, and then before Stephen knows quite how things changed, he’s kissing Amy and Paul is abandoned beneath them.
“Hey... You... hey.”
Stephen breaks away and looks from Paul to Amy to Paul so fast that he swears he’s given himself whiplash. “I--I’m sorry...”
“N-No.” Paul’s voice cracks and he swallows heavily. “Keep doing that.”
They fall against Paul’s chest with their mouths locked together. Stephen’s hand drifts from Amy’s hair to her shoulder, down her arm and then across Paul’s stomach, fingers taking on his shape. Amy breaks away, her lips skimming over Paul’s chest, and Stephen tilts his head back to meld his mouth with Paul’s. He feels a smaller hand running over his ribs, a thumb pressed against his hipbone, and he jerks forward in surprise when it moves to his groin. There’s a quiet gasp in response, and Stephen opens his eyes and follows Amy’s hand on his cock to where Paul’s hand is wedged between her legs.
She smiles at him ruefully, and Paul groans against Stephen’s hair, and Stephen’s eyes slip shut.
He doesn’t have to keep looking.
They never fuck and they never make love. It’s more like they hang out a lot, and sometimes they take their clothes off. When that happens, hands go places, mouths go other places, and sometimes they end up inside each other.
“What about that one?”
Steve points his bottle in the direction of the pool table, a sneering blonde girl in acid wash leaning up against the wall.
Stephen snorts. “She looks like she’d jab me in the balls with the cue before I got one word out.”
“You could pull it off,” Steve insists. “Come on, you need a challenge.”
“Nah. I’m too drunk to step up to that.”
“You lightweight. I’m disappointed.”
Stephen shrugs. “Shoulda got to me earlier.”
Steve shrugs too. “Kind of impossible when they get you surrounded like they do.”
Stephen raises one eyebrow and tries to stare Steve down, but Steve isn’t playing, drawing smiley faces out of the rings of condensation on the table. “What do you mean by that?”
Steve shrugs again. “I don’t know, I mean… I mean it’s kind of hard to talk to you lately.”
Stephen huffs. “I’m too drunk to try to argue with you right now,” he says, every word perfectly enunciated.
“Hey, I’m not trying to argue – ”
Steve is cut off by Stephen’s shout of surprise as he feels something cold and wet pressed into his spine.
“You fucker!” Stephen cries as he grabs Paul with one arm and the freshly opened bottle of beer with the other. Paul’s laughing and Stephen is too as he presses Paul against his side.
“Hey, Paul,” Steve starts. “I was just trying to get Stephen to – ”
He’s cut off again as Amy finds them and takes her place on the other side of Stephen, tugging his arm, catching Paul by his belt loops, taking them with her.
Stephen’s swept away with them before Steve has a chance to try to talk again.
That night, like most nights for weeks now, Stephen forgets to say goodbye to anyone else.
Stephen’s drifting somewhere between awake and asleep, somewhere between Grant Park and the stratosphere. He’s convinced that he can feel each individual blade of grass touching his skin, and he tries to start counting them until an itch on the back of his knee distracts him and he has to move to scratch it.
“Oh, wow. You’re alive,” he hears Amy say.
He cracks open one eye and finds her blurry face. “Huh?”
“You weren’t moving for so long I thought you were dead. You didn’t move at all for about twenty minutes.”
He stares up at the sky through his eyelids and thinks about counting sunspots. Then he wakes up and looks at her again. “You were just watching me for twenty minutes?”
“Yeah. I thought you were dead.”
“She was going to wait another ten minutes before she stole your wallet and we left,” Paul adds, and Stephen sees him now, his head in Amy’s lap.
“Huh. Cheap funeral,” Stephen says through a yawn.
“S’what I said.” Paul yawns too.
“No, you didn’t,” Amy pulls his hair, giggling.
Stephen watches them, carefully studies the way Amy’s hair falls across her face as she leans down and kisses Paul, and the way Paul’s lips chase her when she pulls away, and the way Amy’s hand lies in the folds of Paul’s t-shirt, her index finger drawing circles.
It all makes him think that maybe his heart and the sun have switched places without him knowing it.
“Don’t you think it’s weird,” he starts, and the part of his brain that listens to himself when he’s high is amused to note that lately a lot of his sentences have started with that phrase when he’s high, “that you guys can do that out here, and no-one notices, but if me and Paul did that, the whole world would fall apart? Or, no, if we did that, then people would just be yelling shit, but if all three of us were… then the whole world would fall apart.”
“This is something you’ve just now figured out?” Paul says, sarcasm thickly dripping from his voice.
“Fuck you. No, I’ve always known it, but… think about it. It’s just weird.”
“You think too much,” Amy says.
“Yeah, you do,” Paul seconds.
Stephen tears the blades of grass under his right hand out and half-heartedly throws it in their direction. The grass scatters back to the ground, hidden like invisible confetti.
“Fuck you,” he says again.
“God. Come here.” Amy pats the unoccupied part of her lap. When Stephen stares at her blankly she tries again and coos, “Here boy! C’mon!”
“Shut up,” Stephen mutters but crawls over to close the distance anyway, the grass tickling the palms of his hands. He collapses, his head bumping against Paul’s.
Amy shields her eyes with her hand and makes a big production of looking around. “All right,” she hisses, her voice making Stephen see pictures of fedoras and trench coats and rain on cobblestones. “Coast is clear. Do what you have to, but be quick about it.”
“You’re ridiculous,” Stephen starts to say, but he’s not sure he gets it all out before Paul turns and kisses him clumsily, awkwardly, and Stephen starts to laugh because they’re kissing upside down and they’ve done a lot of things together now, but never this, and it’s just really weird, and he’s all cottonmouthed and slow and Paul tastes kind of sweet and wet and cold, and a little like –
Stephen pulls away. “What’ve you eaten?”
Paul grins slowly. “Snow cone. Cherry.”
“You went and got snow cones and left me here? And you didn’t get me one?”
“Amy stayed here! And you were asleep; we didn’t want to wake you!”
Stephen’s protests are smothered by Amy’s mouth on his. She giggles against his lips. “I had grape.”
“This is unfair.”
“I only have two hands!” Paul cries.
Stephen sighs. “I think you owe me.”
“You think too much,” Paul mumbles, like this is a new idea.
Amy just sighs and pulls the newspaper out of her bag and opens it up, and Stephen pouts until the sunlight disappears a little. They’ve got the illusion of cover, so Paul kisses him again, and then Amy does, and he tastes the ghosts of sweet fruity syrup over and over. Cherry, grape, cherry, grape, he’s floating between them and counting their breaths until the taste is gone and he thinks it’s maybe time for them to find a better hiding place.
Backstage one night, Amy kisses Stephen for no reason.
Everyone around them looks up when Paul lets out a horrified shout as he grabs Stephen. “I loved you, you whore!” he screams and slaps Stephen across the face.
That wasn’t the plan, to slap him for real, and Stephen immediately breaks. “Ow! Jesus! You weren’t supposed to hit me, motherfucker!”
Amy laughs as Stephen lunges for Paul, and Paul takes off running, and they’re both laughing when Stephen catches up with him (or Paul lets him) and tackles him to the ground.
Stephen pins him and Paul starts screaming.
“Get off me!”
“No! You fucking hit me!”
“You’re crushing me, you fat fuck!”
“It’s domestic abuse, Paul! You have a problem!”
“Maybe I wouldn’t have to hit you if you’d put down the cake, fatty!”
Stephen can’t breathe, he’s laughing so hard, but even so he hears Amy running toward them, screaming “Are you guys fucking? Wait! Don’t start without me!”
He’s pretty sure everyone knows about them after that.
He doesn’t know what this is or where it’s going or what’s going to happen to them.
He just knows that he’s all right with letting it happen.
(And sometimes his ribs hurt from laughing and his lips hurt from kissing and sometimes he has to check if his feet still touch the ground)
He’s making out with Amy on the bed while Paul’s inside her when he tries to figure it out.
“I think it would make more sense… If… I mean, I’m here so much all the time lately, it just seems stupid for me to be paying rent – ”
Paul laughs out a groan and Amy shouts out her frustration.
“Damn it, Stephen, just say it!” she cries.
His fingers walk over her chest and he smiles against her shoulder. “Say what?”
The bedsprings squeak in an off-kilter rhythm as Paul laughs and Amy tries to whack Stephen on the head.
“I’m not saying it!” she gasps.
Stephen smiles expectantly up at Paul.
His eyes roll and his hips move. “Live here, then.”
“Excuse me?” Stephen asks innocently, a grin spreading across his face.
Amy groans again, and this time it’s only partly frustration.
“Move. In. Here.” Paul says through gritted teeth.
Stephen pulls them both closer.
“Yes,” he says, and kisses them both at the same time.
(He’s getting good at doing that)
A week after Stephen moves in, they get a new couch.
New for them. New because it fits the three of them all at once. But it’s old, it’s ugly, all lumpy cushions and cigarette burns.
But it fits.
They spend three months of Mondays there, the only day when they never have anything to do. They get stoned and come up with stupid plans and tell each other stories. They get hungry and Amy bakes cookies and puts more weed in them, and in a while it starts all over again.
Much later, when Amy goes, the boys won’t sit on the couch together. When one of them tries, the other always stands up, goes to the other room, or just paces the length of the rug.
Later still, when Paul goes, Stephen calls Steve and asks him to help him move it. He doesn’t lie when he asks, but he omits the truth, just says “some stuff that Paul and Amy left that I don’t want”.
Steve’s face falls when he gets there and Stephen gestures to the couch without looking at it.
“Shouldn’t we wait for the others before we try to lift it?”
“I didn’t ask anybody else.”
Steve laughs, strangled and incredulous. “You’re kidding, right?”
“C’mon Steve, just... Please.” Stephen sighs wearily, the heavy slump of his shoulders like nothing Steve has seen on him in years.
So Steve nods and gets a hand hold and counts out loud to three. They both try to remember not to lift with their backs.
There’s a guitar and a notebook and a pen haphazardly abandoned on the living room floor, and Paul’s undressed and sprawled on the couch and Stephen is half-dressed with his head in Paul’s lap, indulging him in a leisurely blowjob, and that’s how things are when Amy gets home one afternoon.
“Do you two ever do anything else?” she says, sounding mad, but Stephen can hear the laugh in her voice, buried deep. He always finds it.
He doesn’t break his gaze with Paul as he draws his head up, tongue lingering, and Paul doesn’t look away either when he answers her.
“Yeah,” he says, strained. “Sometimes we do you.”
“Oh! Ha ha! That’s so funny!” Amy shouts, adding a muttered, “Idiot,” as she purposely shuffles out of the room, dragging her feet because they all know it bugs Paul.
Stephen has to pull away to laugh, hiding a smile against Paul’s thigh.
Paul’s fingers run through Stephen’s hair and he laughs too. “I thought it was funny.”
“It was,” Stephen confirms, and stretches up to kiss him.
He’s pulled away before he’s ready to go by fingers tucked into the back of his jeans and curled into fists, and he’s surprised because he didn’t hear Amy come back into the room.
So he’s caught off guard as she tugs his pants off and he realizes that she’s already naked, and then she’s sitting in his lap. Paul starts to protest the theft of Stephen’s mouth, and she just pokes her tongue out at him as she wriggles against Stephen, and now Stephen has to pull away to laugh and hide his smile against Amy’s shoulder, and he wonders why anything should surprise him anymore.
When the first shoe drops, it’s not so much a shoe as a glass of water. Jagged shards strewn across the kitchen floor, water splashing across their feet.
Amy filling it at the faucet, staring out the window, not noticing as it filled to the top and over, soaking her hand.
“Amy? I think you’re done there.” Stephen next to her, putting the dishes away, a tremor in his hand as he lifts a stack of plates. The dark circles around her vacant eyes. “Amy.”
“Huh? Oh! Oh, fuck it.” She slams the faucet off with the heel of her hand and turns to leave the room. There’s a tremor in her hand too, and the glass slips, falling to the floor, shattering.
She crouches on the floor, grabbing at the largest pieces, but she loses her balance and puts a hand out to catch it. Her hand slips in the water and the glass slices her palm open before Stephen can tell her to be careful.
Paul comes in then, so Stephen tells him instead as he presses a dishtowel to Amy’s cut.
“Careful, there’s – stay there.”
“You okay?” Paul asks.
“Yeah,” Amy says. She tries to flex her fingers, but Stephen stops her with a sharp, “Don’t. Do that.”
“I’ll go get the broom,” Paul says, but Amy stops him with a shaky, “Wait.”
She covers Stephen’s hand with her uninjured one. “You want to hear something funny?” she says through a laugh.
Stephen glances over at Paul, and sees the worry he’s feeling written on Paul’s face.
“Amy...” Paul starts.
“Three weeks late. I don’t know why I waited so long, I guess I thought it’d go away... or, well, come back, would be more accurate, and...” Amy laughs, full and forced. “Turns out I’m pregnant! Isn’t that hilarious?”
“That’s... hysterical,” Paul says tentatively, and Stephen’s hand tightens on Amy’s.
“We’re shit fucking broke, none of us has a decent job, we’re going to have a baby, and I have no idea which of you is the father! It’s funny!”
Amy’s laughter usually fills their home so easily, but now it’s too much, too loud for their tiny kitchen.
“Paul, could you get the broom?” Stephen asks quietly, and Amy sniffles and wipes her nose on her sleeve.
Paul bandages her hand and Stephen kisses her forehead.
She gets into bed between them, tucked against Paul’s front, with Stephen curled up at her back.
“We’ll figure something out,” Stephen finally says.
“You’re a liar, Colbert,” Amy murmurs.
“No, he’s right,” Paul says. “There are three of us, so already we’re ahead of the game.”
“He has a point,” Stephen says. “I am right.”
Amy snorts. “God, you guys are stupid.”
“And now we’re breeding,” Paul says, and Stephen can hear the smile in his voice.
“Oh, God,” Amy groans.
Stephen laughs, and holds them closer.
He daydreams about meeting their baby.
He imagines what a scene it’s going to be at the hospital, trying to explain why he and Paul both have to be there. He pictures trying to pass himself off as Amy’s brother, or telling them that he and Paul are gay life partners, Amy their paid surrogate mother. Paul sitting on his shoulders with a long coat over them, going in there as the world’s tallest man. Two halves of a horse costume. Any of that would be easier than trying to put the truth into words.
He doesn’t care whether it’s a boy or a girl (secretly though, he’s hoping it’s a girl, because that will give their family more balance), and he tries not to care whether it’s his or Paul’s (secretly though, he’s hoping it’s Paul’s, because he can’t imagine loving something more than a person made up of both Paul and Amy). Just as long as it’s healthy, and the three of them are there to love it and raise it.
He begins drawing up plans to build a crib, and after erasing and re-drawing for the fourteenth time, half jokingly wonders whether a baby-sized futon would be completely inappropriate. He imagines the birthday parties that Amy will insist on every year, every year a new theme. He and Paul will put on puppet shows while Amy’s baking. Cupcakes spelling out their child’s name that span the length of the kitchen table, iced according to that year’s favorite color.
Stephen tells Amy all of this. (Secretly though, he’s not sure who he’s trying to convince more, because sometimes when he’s alone he’s so seized by panic that it hurts to breathe and he can’t stop moving his limbs)
She smiles at him wanly. It’s the kind of smile you might see on somebody trying to swallow a mouthful of horrible food in order to appease the cook, a dear friend who invited you for dinner and you can’t bear to offend.
It’s a strange sort of smile to see on Amy. Normally, she’d be spitting the food into her napkin and falling to the floor choking, flopping around like a dying fish, kicking her shoes into the air. Lying still as they come crashing down onto the dinner plates.
Stephen tells himself it’s just the morning sickness.
He doesn’t tell Paul anything.
Paul plucks the drink out of her hand and passes it to Stephen without a word.
She’s in the middle of telling Steve’s new girlfriend about that one time when they were in Tennessee and Steve was drunk and he took his shirt off and tried to convince a guy that he was proof that evolution was real, and then Stephen was leading him around on a leash and doing a carnival barker spiel about the Amazing Monkey Boy, and she wasn’t sure but it really looked like Steve was kind of into that sort of thing if you catch her drift, and she has to finish telling the story before Steve gets back from the bathroom so she can’t stop, doesn’t stop, just flicks her gaze over to Paul, and slides it over to Stephen.
Her eyes narrow, briefly, and then she’s gone, back with Nancy, back inside her story.
Stephen brings the glass to his lips and knocks it back. It’s strong, it burns, more than he was expecting. He’s coughing and his eyes are watering and Paul takes it from him before he spills it, and thumps him on the back.
Amy keeps talking.
“Are you not… terrified? At all?”
Stephen lifts his head up from Paul’s shoulder and looks up at him, but he doesn’t look back, just keeps staring at the TV. Stephen settles back down and shrugs, their clothes rustling together.
“Trying to ignore it.”
“Don’t you think this is too much of a big deal to be ignoring stuff?”
“It’s the only way I can deal with it being a big deal.”
Stephen feels Paul’s head come to rest against his own.
“This is too big for us,” Paul says. “Trying to make this work as it is is too big for us. But now…”
Stephen sees now, and after now, and years from now all stretched out before him, an endless span of years hurtling onwards and outwards and upwards. It does seem too big. It seems too huge. Too much for three mere mortals who scrape together change from under the cushions to pay for the bus and always come up four cents too short, who once spent a week eating nothing but marshmallows and stale cereal, who do what they do because they didn’t want to have to grow up.
He forces air into his lungs and takes Paul’s hand in his. He can’t tell whose palm is sweaty; he thinks it might be both of them.
“We’ve come too far to back out now,” he says.
Paul sighs and Stephen squeezes his hand.
Stephen’s running late, going crazy because he hasn’t seen Amy and Paul all day, and he goes looking for them the second he gets to the theatre.
He doesn’t have to look far; they’re in their usual place backstage. But he stops short and stays back – Amy’s pale and slumped over in a chair, Paul crouched beside her and stroking her hair, Amy’s hands white-knuckled, clutching the wig she needs for the first scene in her lap.
He sees Paul talking, their heads close together, but can’t hear what he’s saying, just sees the way Amy’s eyes squeeze shut and she nods a little, then turns her head, desperately searching him out for a kiss.
He wants to go to them, whatever’s wrong he should be there, but he suddenly feels as sick as Amy looks.
There’s a call from somewhere behind him, “Fifteen minutes!” and Stephen turns to go, to get ready, hurry up, the show must go on.
Thirteen minutes later, Amy squeezes into the space next to him in the wings and smiles at him brightly. “You’re a talentless sack of shit, Colbert.”
Stephen grins back at her. “Have a good show, you worthless hack.”
She flashes him the OK sign and Stephen looks out onto the darkened stage and just tries to keep breathing while the clock ticks on.
Stephen falls into bed alone and wakes up to Amy straddling his chest.
“Hey faggot,” she whispers when he squints up at her.
“’Bout midnight. Where’s Paul?”
“Work.” He brushes the tips of his fingers against her stomach and smiles. “How are you?”
She grips his wrist and pins his hand back onto the bed as she leans forward and nuzzles his neck.
“Oh, I see,” he chuckles.
Amy giggles and digs her knee into his side as he pulls her down against him. He feels the brush of her lips against his deaf ear, the stuttering exhalation of breath registering in his sleep hazed mind.
“Hm? Did you say something?” he murmurs.
She leans over him until they’re forehead to forehead, nose to nose, cross-eyed trying to look at each other. “I didn’t say anything. Did you say something?”
He chuckles as he kisses her clumsily. “I’m tired, Amy. Just… just gimme a minute.”
Amy climbs off him with a grunt. “I smell like meat.”
“Mmm. 'Cause you are.”
“That’s funny. I’m gonna go take a bath. I know what a minute is to you.”
“So, like… in an hour?” Stephen laughs sleepily.
She snorts. “Yeah, like an hour.”
Stephen drifts off again, and later he’ll think he remembers Amy kissing his forehead and mussing his hair and saying goodbye, but he’ll never be quite sure.
When Stephen wakes up next, the bed is cold and empty, the comforter streaked with weak morning sunlight.
He finds Paul in the living room and his stomach clenches when he sees the walls in Paul’s eyes and the ragged edge of the sheet of notebook paper in his hand.
“Paul? W-where’s Amy?”
“She says she’s going out of town for a while.”
The note floats under the couch and Stephen’s fingers press bruises into his own arms.
“Fuck,” he says, and then there’s silence.
They’re together backstage the first time somebody asks.
“Family emergency,” Stephen says quickly, and Paul kicks a chair.
Almost a month goes by.
It crawls by, coldly and quietly.
They jump every time the phone rings. They stare at each other with hope-blasted eyes as the ringing jangles like their nerves. At first they trip over each other in the race to answer the call, but after a week they trip over each other to not answer it, to not be the one who has to shake his head and close his eyes, no, not her, not this time.
Not this time.
Almost a month goes by, and they don’t know how to act around each other anymore.
When they’re together, they fuck, and it’s rough and desperate and nothing like it ever was before.
Stephen thinks that Paul blames him, but he never says anything. The way Paul pushes him up against the kitchen wall, clumsy and graceless, the way he pulls Stephen’s head back by his hair – that says enough.
Stephen lets him do it, because he blames himself too.
They start spending less and less time together, Stephen going home when he sees Paul staying behind at the theatre, staying when he sees Paul leave. He doesn’t want to try to figure out how they’re supposed to arrange their bodies together now; he hates it that he spends his nights pacing and sleeping alone, hates it that the only time he sees Paul smile now is in a scene and it isn’t really Paul’s smile at all.
Stephen blames himself too.
Almost a month goes by before Stephen comes home from his shift at the restaurant and finds Paul in the bedroom, packing.
“Did she – ”
“Yeah. She’s in Raleigh. She said she’s gonna stay there a little while longer.” Paul won’t look at him, just bunches up his shirts still on their hangers and folds them into his suitcase.
“But she wants to see us?” Stephen’s voice cracks on a note of hope.
“Just me. She just asked me to go.”
Paul moves from the closet to the bed again, folding and shuffling, his shoes squeaking on the bare floor.
“Did she say what... I mean, did she... is – ”
“She didn’t say.”
“Did you ask?”
That makes Paul stop. He doesn’t bother folding the last of his clothes, just bunches them up and shoves them in, quickly zipping the bag closed. “I was glad to have her on the phone. I didn’t want to push her.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Stephen snaps, defenses shooting up.
Paul sighs. “They were just words, Stephen. Doesn’t mean anything.” He picks up the bag and makes for the door, pausing as an afterthought. “I’ll call you, all right? I’ll tell you what she’s doing.”
Stephen tries to think of some message to give him, to pass on to Amy, that he misses her or that he’s sorry or that he just wants them to be them again.
But words are failing him, and Paul’s gone and the door has slammed shut and he still can’t think of what to say.
He doesn’t quite sit by the phone, but he doesn’t like leaving it for too long either.
It’s two weeks and three days before Paul calls him (not that Stephen was keeping track, he just happened to notice). The line is faint and crackling, Paul’s voice drowning in background noise.
“Where are you?”
“New York. I’m on a payphone, and I don’t know how much time I have.”
“I thought she went to Raleigh?” Stephen sits on the couch, two long empty spaces on either side of him.
“She did. But now she’s here, sleeping on David’s floor. We – ”
Paul’s voice is swallowed up by the sound of car horns.
“What? Paul? I didn’t get that.”
“Stephen, she’s not pregnant.”
Stephen is silent.
“Stephen? Did you hear that? Are you still – ”
“Yeah. I’m here.”
“Did you – ”
“I don’t think we’re – ”
Stephen talks over him in a rush, his voice high and tight in his throat. “So, what’s the deal? Was the test wrong? Did she miscarry? Did she get rid of it? Did she just think it was really fucking funny to tell us that? Was she – ”
“Jesus Christ, calm down. I don’t need you wigging out on me too.”
“I know, okay? I know. She hasn’t told me what happened. She’s fucked up, Stephen; I don’t know what to do. I don’t want to pressure her. I’m scared she’s going to disappear again.”
Stephen scrunches his eyes closed and presses the heel of his hand to his forehead. He suddenly feels very cold, and very tired. “When are you coming home?” he asks, his voice purposefully measured.
The noise swells again and Stephen hears Paul’s voice from far away telling somebody to wait a fucking second.
“Stephen, we’re not coming back. Not right now. Maybe not for a while. I don’t know. She wants to stay here.”
“What? I – well, should I come and see you? We can talk about – ”
“Don’t come here. She doesn’t want to talk to you.”
There’s an insistent shout, someone needs the phone, because the world keeps turning even when yours is ending. Stephen knows that, and it’s the only thing he’s sure of.
“But – Paul, can you – ”
“I’m really sorry, man, I have to go. I’ll call you again soon though, okay?”
“Paul! Wait! Can you tell her – ”
The connection breaks.
He paces, for a while.
He goes to the bedroom and gets a second sweater, unable to stop shivering. The emptiness of the closet makes his stomach hurt.
He paces again, until the room gets too small, the trip from wall to wall all too brief. He wants to sit down, but all there is is the couch. Their couch.
He imagines what might be hidden there, buried under the cushions, what noxious fumes could seep out and suffocate him.
(Sliding his hand undearneath, cautious, looking for the feel of raggedly torn notebook paper at his fingertips but expecting to feel teeth sinking in instead. But there's nothing at all, just a nickel, a pen cap, and a condom wrapper that he humorlessly crumples up and throws over his shoulder. He guesses that Paul took the note, but he doesn't know when, and his chest hurts when he realizes that he never actually read it)
He sits on the floor, the track-worn rug hard and unforgiving, and calls Steve. He asks him to help move some stuff that Paul and Amy left that he doesn’t want.
Stephen wants to burn it. Find an empty lot somewhere, and pour gas on it, throw a match and go. Let Steve drive him home, and not talk the whole way there, still smelling the marijuana under the gasoline.
He takes it to Goodwill instead, and pretends that he doesn’t notice the disdain on the woman’s face when she sees the blotchy stains and burn marks across the cushions, like maps to faraway lands that he doesn’t know how to read anymore.
“I suppose it can be re-covered. Someone might just want to throw a sheet over it.”
Stephen is already heading for the door. He hears Steve, his voice rich with apology.
“Maybe. That’s a good idea.”
The bell over the door tinkles brightly as Stephen hauls it open.
Stephen hates being alone now.
He crashes on Steve’s floor a couple of times, sometimes when he’s too drunk to get home, and sometimes just to wake up near another warm, breathing body.
One night Nancy is there, and she says she doesn’t mind if Stephen stays. Stephen just looks at them and sees how happy they are, how functionally normal. He sees nothing but a new disaster.
It’s one of those nights where he’s too drunk to get home. He sleeps in his car parked outside Steve’s building, and wakes up the insistent clink of a cop tapping on the window.
He doesn’t spend any more nights with Steve after that.
Paul sends him a postcard with a picture of the Empire State Building lit up in red, white and blue on it. The back is filled with his tiny, lopsided scrawl, but it doesn’t say anything.
Stephen puts it on the fridge where it stays for one night, until he gets up the next morning while it’s still dark and rips it in half. The torn pieces lie on top of each other in the trash.
He starts looking for a new apartment that afternoon.
Stephen hates Chicago now.
He hates Chicago more than he’s ever hated anything in his life.
He tells himself to wait until spring, convinces himself that it’s just the cold that’s making him miserable, that come April or May he’ll feel better again.
Stephen turns twenty-nine and gets a card from Paul, sent to him in care of the theatre. He never told Paul that he moved.
It’s like they never knew each other. Just a hasty “Happy birthday Stephen, love from Paul”, a return address that he knows is David’s, and he knows they wouldn’t still be living there. No note. No sign of Amy. Like none of it ever happened.
He thinks about sealing the envelope back up and mailing it return to sender. Maybe faking his own death. He could get Steve to call David and track them down that way, maybe tell them that he’s moved to California, or Belgium, or the North fucking Pole, and he doesn’t need them either.
He shoves the card in a drawer with his winter clothes and tries to forget about it.
He wants to go home. But he doesn’t want to see the look in his mother’s eyes when he isn’t able to pretend like everything is okay anymore. He can’t do that to her.
So he stays. Trying to see the city through new eyes, he wanders the Loop and buys lemonade from a street vendor and loses count of the bridges he crosses. He finds himself wishing he had somebody to get into a screaming argument in a made-up language with, just to see the looks on the people’s faces.
It’s summer, and he still hates Chicago.
Sometimes he hates being on stage now, too.
Doing their old scenes with new people feels wrong; it makes him inexplicably furious and throws him off.
He blanks out a couple of times – forgets his lines, and forgets to make something else up. It scares him, to lose that too.
They make him take a week off, and he spends it thinking about quitting. But he doesn’t know what comes after that. That scares him more.
He’s come too far to back out now.
So he stays, and he goes back out there every night, and switches himself on and off until it comforts him again.
He tries not to fall back into himself, because that would be too easy.
He just keeps going. All the nights start to bleed into each other, and his friends learn from the way he falters to stop asking him what Paul and Amy are up to now, and before he knows it, nine months are up and he tries not to think about it.
He thinks about it anyway.
He thinks too much.
He doesn’t know how they get his new number. He doesn’t doubt that she has ways.
Like nothing has changed.
“Who else would it be?”
Stephen could think of at least a hundred other women he’d expect to find on the other end of the phone more than her. Many of them are women he’s never met.
He doesn’t know where to start. “How?” or “Why?” or “What the fuck?” might be good places, but she gets to him first.
Nothing has changed.
“Come stay with us in New York, Stephen. We’re putting on a show.”
He goes, because the only alternative is staying and spending the rest of his life alone, wondering what would’ve happened if he’d gone.
When he gets off the plane at La Guardia he almost expects her to be there at the gate waiting for him, dressed like a sweet old grandmother with a giant penis-shaped balloon hovering above her on the end of a string.
But it’s just Amy, standing on her toes and craning her neck, and Paul behind her, his eyes searching. He sees Stephen the same time Stephen sees him, and a smile breaks over his face, and it’s everything Stephen can do not to break into a run, to vault over a row of plastic chairs to get to them.
He lifts his backpack on one shoulder, shoves his glasses up his nose, and smiles back.
“Hello,” he says quietly when he reaches them.
Amy jumps up and throws her arms around his neck. Stephen catches her, just barely; he’s trying to keep them both upright when he hears her take a deep breath like she’s going to say something.
She blows a raspberry against his neck instead.
Paul folds his body over Amy’s and puts his arms around both of them. He touches Stephen’s hair, and kisses his cheek, close to his mouth, and says, “I wasn’t sure you’d come.”
Stephen closes his eyes as they start to sting. “I wasn’t sure either.”
Amy won’t look him in the eye as they navigate their way to baggage claim. But she won’t let go of his hand.
Stephen sleeps in their bed, because there’s nowhere else for him in their tiny apartment, but also because he wants to.
He’s wrapped up between them and things feel right until Amy’s hand sneaks under his clothes to rub his hip, and Paul kisses him on the mouth.
“No,” Stephen chokes, and immediately he wants to take it back. But he keeps going, he’s said it, and he’s come too far to back down from it. “I-I think… this will be a bad idea.”
Amy’s hand retreats and she tucks it under her chin. Paul moves back and rests his head on Stephen’s shoulder.
“I love you. Both, I still – but I don’t think we can.”
“No, you’re right,” Paul says, at the same time Amy mumbles “Sorry,” and rubs her eyes.
Awkward seconds stretch to minutes as they lie together in silence.
“We should make a scene out of this,” Paul finally says.
Stephen laughs with relief. “Too soon, Dinello.”
“Maybe tomorrow,” Amy muses.
They talk about the show, and their ideas, and everything, nothing, everything except what’s been happening in their lives this last year, until their voices get slurred with sleep.
When Stephen wakes up late in the morning, his head is on Paul’s pillow and Amy’s arm is around his waist.
He feels like he’s been asleep for months, but it’s only been about four hours, and he’s exhausted.
The next time Paul and Amy pick Stephen up from the airport, it’s a month later and he’s moving to New York for good.
He stays with them for a week and a half before he finds his own apartment.
He sleeps on the kitchen floor on a folded up comforter, curled up with his knees to his chest to fit in the small space. His back aches, and he shivers, but he doesn’t complain.
Amy kicks him awake on her way to make coffee every morning. She smiles and rubs his shoulder as he struggles to sit up and she pours him a cup. He doesn’t complain about that either.
One morning she leaves the cup on the counter and sits in front of him on his awkwardly folded legs.
She brushes some lint from his sweatshirt, her eyes fixed on the spot on his chest as she takes a deep breath.
“Stephen, I – I’m sorry, about – ”
Her troubled expression crumples and she covers her face with her hands.
“Hey, shhh,” Stephen puts his arms around her and pulls her against him. He rubs her back as she cries and when she’s quiet, his heart asks a question before his head can overrule it.
“Did you want to tell me what happ—”
“No.” Her head shakes against him. “I can’t… not yet.”
“Okay,” Stephen whispers, his voice refusing to get any louder. He takes her hand, runs his thumb over the palm, over the thin, straight scar he knows is still there. He’s glad that Amy keeps her head against his chest. She doesn’t see his eyes well up.
He’s not sure how long they’re there, holding each other on the kitchen floor, before Amy abruptly gets up and busies herself with the coffee again. Stephen wipes his eyes when she’s not looking, and when she passes him the cup she kisses his cheek, close to his mouth.
“Thank you,” she says quietly.
He doesn’t breathe as he sadly smiles up at her, and she goes to wake Paul.
Years later, Amy tells him.
Years later, when Amy and Paul have given up on trying to be Amy and Paul. When Stephen puts his day job on hold, just as Jon is starting to make things interesting, starting to make him think that this is it, this is where he’s supposed to be. He gives it up to go put on a show with Amy and Paul again.
She tells him. They have dinner, and they all drink too much, and Paul goes home one way, and Amy goes home the other, and Stephen walks with her because somebody should.
She tells him.
“I always kind of thought it was yours, y’know.”
He feels like he should stumble, trip on a crack in the sidewalk. React, somehow. But he doesn’t. He’s been holding his breath, preparing himself, for five years.
He just says, his voice steady and strong, but soft, “Is that what happened? You got an abortion because you thought it was mine?”
She smiles, sadly. “Does it even matter anymore?”
Stephen still doesn’t have an answer for that by the time they get to Amy’s stoop.
She sniffs and brushes her hair behind her ears. “That isn’t what happened.”
“Do you want to know?”
“Is it something you think I’d want to know?”
“Why do you think I never told you?” She starts to smile.
“Why are you answering my question with a question?” And so does he.
She grins. “Why are you such a fuckhole?”
He shakes his head, can’t help but chuckle a little as he drops the game. “It’s your decision, Amy. It always was.”
“Yeah,” she says, mostly to herself, and puts one foot in front of the other up the stairs.
Stephen watches the street light winking off the sequins on her shoes. It blinks out when she pauses.
“Hmm?” He looks up at her and holds his breath a little longer.
“Thanks. For walking me home.”
He lets it out in a shaky rush. “Yeah. Hey. No problem. I’ll see you tomorrow?”
He waits until she goes inside, pulling a face at her when she pulls a face at him just before she closes the door. He waits long after he can’t see her anymore, long enough that she’s probably walked the three flights up to her apartment and locked herself away from the world again, kissed Tattletail hello, and changed into her pajamas.
He waits, and tries to see what he should do next.
So he turns and goes back the way he came. He keeps going past the end of the block, past the subway station that will take him to his own empty one-bedroom across town, past the restaurant; he keeps going, until he’s at Paul’s door.
He still can’t see what comes next.
Paul buzzes him up, surprised, not expecting to see him again tonight.
“Stephen? What’s wrong?”
He doesn’t know what to say.
So he doesn’t say anything, and Paul understands.