"Listen, I swore when I took these kids that their childhood was going to be different from mine," John says, trying to explain.
Rodney pulls a face of mock surprise. "You swore?" he repeats, "You, what, you stood with one foot up on a boulder and held a sword towards the heavens and made a vow with Odin as your witness?"
"Pretty much," John says, not reacting to the sarcasm. "I just. Jesus. Would you just help me look?"
Rodney sighs and turns his attention to the bookshelf in front of them. A stark white-on-black sign on top of the display announces that they're in the "Child Development – Sex Education" section of Borders. "So your solution to avoiding a repressed adolescence full of Catholic guilt is to buy the kids a book and leave it for them to read?"
"It worked with the – the things. For Nora's swimming," John says defensively. "Besides, do you have a better idea? PJ's eight years old, god knows what he's heard at school by now."
"You could talk to him," Rodney points out, "do the birds and the bees thing." John makes a pained expression, and okay, John's not exactly the type to do that; he is, after all, the one with the repressed Irish Catholic upbringing. "Fine. Here. 'Where Did I Come From'? Didn't we all read this one in the 70s? It's earthy and all the cartoon people are fat."
John takes the book from Rodney and does a shifty glance around to make sure no one's watching before he pages through. "Jesus," he says, seeing the naked illustrations. "You had this in the 70s?"
"Well, by the time I read it I'd already read all the encyclopedia articles on sex and reproduction in our school library," Rodney admits. "But it's a decent summary and it explains the basics."
John is frowning though. "It only talks about straight sex."
"Well, it's a book about reproduction," Rodney points out, reaching over and flipping the cover closed to point at the naked cartoon baby crawling through the title lettering. "That's still kind of a hetero subject."
"Sex isn't," John says. "And could you lower your voice? There are kids around."
"In the kids' section?" Rodney says, feigning shock. "No!" He takes the book from John and replaces it on the shelf. "Oh, here's a great one: 'How God Makes Babies'." He picks it up, flips to a random page, and snorts. "Says here that sex is something God made for a married man and woman. Sure. Right after God made Republicans."
John grabs the book away and shoves it back onto the shelf. "Could we focus, please?"
They pull a few more books and power through them, mostly rejecting them for the hetero or Christian slant. John finally taps a page in one of the thicker books. "Look," he says. "Gay people!"
Rodney peers over John's shoulder at the illustrations of different families, including a biracial gay couple with two kids. "Hey, look at us! You can be the black one, I'll be the Asian."
"This is good," says John, nodding. "This is definitely the right one." He points at another paragraph where the book says that there are lots of ways to show love, and that one way involves a man and a woman and that they can make babies.
"It seems a little young for Nora," Rodney says, and hands John another book. "This one is for girls her age. It talks about boobs and tampons and masturbation."
John flushes magnificently, but he keeps the book in his hands and nods. "Okay, let's get out of here."
They make it through the check-out using the same sort of strategy they employ when they have to pick up pads or tampons or bras for Nora: grabbing lots of weird shit at the checkout to try and dilute the weirdness of their main purchase, which probably actually makes it seem a lot weirder.
"We can't just leave the book for PJ," Rodney says, reading the blurbs as they drive home. "It says here that you're supposed to read with your child in case they have questions."
"Sounds like a great job for you, McKay," says John, hiding behind his sunglasses, hands gripping the steering wheel.
"Ugh," says Rodney, but again, there's no way John would ever be able to do it, and like most things that John finds distasteful, it has to fall to Rodney. "Okay. God. Fine. But I'm not reading about masturbation with Nora. I'll just give her the book and tell her to ask if she has questions."
"And you'll, what, give her pointers?" says John incredulously.
"Hey," Rodney protests, "I may not have been married but I know a little about women."
"Don't say clitoris to my niece," John returns. "Jesus, we'll be arrested."
Rodney rolls his eyes. "I promise to avoid the use of the word clitoris." He frowns down at the page. "I'm sure she's got it all figured out already, she's thirteen after all."
"You think"—says John, and stops.
"Well, what did you do when you were thirteen?" Rodney asks.
"Yeah, well," John prevaricates. "I'm a guy."
"Girls develop faster than boys," Rodney says. "You do the math."
"Can we please change the subject?" asks John, pained.
Rodney flips back to PJ's book. "It doesn't use the word orgasm. Huh."
"Can we change the subject to something that doesn't make me want to kill myself?" John clarifies.
"Fine," says Rodney, and the discussion of sex education is put on hold.
Nora either doesn't have questions or doesn't want to ask them when Rodney gives her the book. Rodney tries not to let his sense of relief show; he really doesn't think he'd be up to discussing it anyway.
PJ, on the other hand, is his usual self – embarrassed by nothing. Rodney breaks the book up into five parts – it's quite long – and includes it in their usual bedtime story routine. At the end of each part Rodney braces himself and says, "Does that all make sense?"
The first night, when they've basically covered female and male anatomy and the very sketchy outline of puberty, PJ just says, "Duh, Uncle Rodney, I know most of that stuff already." He flips back to the page showing growth and development for males and females. "Wow, look how hairy his penis gets when he's old." PJ taps the illustration. "Uncle John has lots of hair on his stomach like this guy. Is his penis hairy too?"
"Pretty hairy," Rodney says, fighting back a surge of laughter.
"I guess it'd keep you warm when you're naked," PJ adds thoughtfully. He closes the book. "Can we read the next part of Artemis Fowl now?"
Rodney and John are both wiping away tears of mirth when Rodney relates the incident later as they're getting ready for bed themselves. "God, I love that kid," John says, stripping out of his pants and underwear, then pausing to look down at himself. "I never thought about it, but it probably does keep me warm."
"I decided not to explain about man-scaping," Rodney says, still chuckling. He drops his own pants and kicks them off, approaching John. "Not that you're a big advocate, clearly."
"Hey," says John, affecting a wounded expression. "I trim."
"You do not," Rodney shoots back.
"I do!" John insists. "Trust me, I really do!"
Rodney picks up on the sincerity and looks down, letting go of John's cock, which he's been stroking into erection. "I don't want to know what you look like au naturel, then, do I?" he asks.
"You'd be choking on my fur," John says flatly. "You're welcome."
Rodney tugs at his own t-shirt, getting stripped down, then shoves John towards the bed. "Lie down, I want to suck on your hairy penis."
"Oh, yeah," John says. "Talk dirty to me some more."
The next night is the one where they talk about the egg and the sperm and making love. PJ listens with his usual twitchy energy. "Questions?" Rodney asks, after the last page.
"How big is a sperm?" PJ asks. "Can you show me one of your sperms?"
"It's microscopic," Rodney says. "That means you need a microscope to see it because it's that small."
"Nora has a microscope," says PJ. "I'll go ask if we can use it. You get out a sperm."
Rodney then has to explain about how it's not that easy to get a sperm out. "It's, uh," he says, feeling himself blush a little, "it's not something you just do."
PJ sighs, disappointed. "Because you have to make love with a woman to get your sperm out and you only like doing sex with Uncle John, right?"
"Sure," says Rodney. "Okay." He's not ready have this conversation, and is willing to let it go at this. Then Rodney is seized by an unwelcome wave of honesty. Dammit. "No. Well." He sighs shortly. "I'm going to hold this over your uncle's head for all eternity," says Rodney grimly, and begins: "When the sperm comes out, ejaculation, that's part of sex for men. Whether it's with a boy or a girl."
"So when you do sex with Uncle John," PJ pursues, "you have your sperm come out?"
"Yes," says Rodney tightly. "We both do."
"Why?" asks PJ, confused. "Sperms make babies and you can't make babies with two boys."
"Well," says Rodney, choked. "Well."
PJ waits, patient but undeterred.
"Because," Rodney says, "it feels nice. When the sperm – when you – it's a very nice feeling, and you get to do that together."
"So that's why you do it," says PJ, getting it, "because it's nice? Even though the sperms aren't making a baby?"
"Yes," Rodney agrees, relieved.
"So it's for fun," says PJ. "Not making babies."
"Basically, I guess," Rodney says. "But it's not something you do with just anyone. Your uncle and I, we only do that with each other."
PJ sighs, satisfied. "I am sure glad I'm gay," he says. "It's way better to do sex for fun than babies, I bet."
Rodney takes the coward's path and decides to let that one go without comment.
"So do you think he's really gay?" asks John, hair sticking out in all directions as though expressing his shock. He's frozen with the bottle opener hovering over the cap of his beer. He hasn't even taken off his jacket, having just gotten home from teaching Tuesday night ground school.
"How should I know?" Rodney returns. "He seems to think so."
"Well, you have to find out," John insists. "Maybe it's just because he doesn't like girls. Eight-year-old boys just don't like girls, right? You have to tell him that he'll like girls when he gets older."
"Well, maybe he won't!" Rodney says, reasonably.
"Do you think he thought he was gay when we got him?" asks John. "Or does he think he's gay because"—and he waves his hand back and forth between them, frantically.
"I think we definitely made him queer with all our gay radiation," Rodney says, rolling his eyes.
"Well, he's confused," says John. "No one's gay when they're eight."
"Says the guy who wore orange Daisy Dukes when he was six years old," Rodney smirks. "Come on, you didn't have an inkling when you were his age?"
"Well," John says, abashed, "maybe a little. But I didn't have a word for it."
"So," says Rodney, "PJ does. Good for him. Maybe he won't wait until he's pushing forty before he lets himself fall for another guy."
"Maybe," says John, but he's clearly still troubled. He sits down, pops the cap of his beer, takes a long bracing swallow. "Just, you have to talk to him."
"Homosexuality is next up in the book anyway," Rodney assures him, grabbing a beer for himself. "Are you seriously upset over the possibility that PJ might grow up gay?"
John rubs the bridge of his nose, staring blankly across the room. "Jesus, that's fucked up, isn't it?" he admits, a little sheepishly.
"Homo," Rodney says, and kicks John under the table, lightly.
"Faggot," John answers back, but now he's smiling shyly, snapped back out of his troubled contemplations.
"Queerbag," Rodney says, and leans across the table to kiss John's mouth.
The next night they get through conception, sexual orientation ("Different kinds of love", they call it, and Rodney manages to read the words with minimal eye rolling), and the stages of pregnancy. PJ asks questions as they go, mostly simple ones that Rodney can answer with a few words, and mostly to do with the baby-making part of the reading.
"You know, even straight boys don't like girls until they're older, closer to Nora's age," Rodney says, apropos of nothing.
"I like girls," says PJ. "I'm friends with lots of girls at school."
It's true, actually; PJ's easy charm and perpetual good spirits have made him a favorite with his classmates, male and female alike. "I mean, like like," Rodney corrects himself, then makes a face at his own poor effort. "As in, want to kiss and hug."
"I don't want to kiss and hug girls," PJ says. "They're okay, though."
"Do you want to kiss and hug boys?" Rodney asks, pretty sure the answer is going to be another negative.
"Sometimes," says PJ with a shrug. "I guess that's why I'm gay."
"Oh," says Rodney, a little taken aback. "Well, being gay or straight is fine. You can even like both boys and girls. They don't talk about it here, but it's called being bisexual."
"Like Uncle John with Aunt Nancy and then you," says PJ, and Rodney agrees, because he's not ever going to be ready for the conversation about John's repressed past and the American military and how PJ's uncles spent nearly five years having illicit sex before anyone knew about the two of them. "I think I just like boys, though," says PJ.
"Well, you don't have to make up your mind for a long time," Rodney assures him.
"Okay," says PJ. "Nora likes boys, too. It's funny how we all like boys in our family."
"It's certainly going to make for interesting family gatherings in future years," Rodney nods.
John is watching ESPN in the living room when Rodney finally emerges from PJ's room. "Well," says Rodney, flopping down on the couch next to John and sagging onto his shoulder. "PJ is pretty sure he's gay."
John's body tenses quickly, then relaxes. "H'okay," he says, as calmly as possible, and reaches for the popcorn. "I guess that means Nora's the only one who might make us great-uncles before our time."
"I still think we should just put birth control in her cereal," Rodney says.
"Believe me," John says, "if I thought we could do it without her noticing, I would totally be on board with that plan."
The rest of the book goes fairly smoothly: fetal development and birth, followed by a very unscientific and badly written explanation of genetics, and the next night it's new-age odds and ends with stuff about HIV, modern family units, bad touching, adoption, and adding new babies to a family.
"Did you and Uncle John adopt me?" PJ asks.
"No," Rodney says. "Your uncle had legal guardianship of you and Nora because that's what your dad wanted, and after I moved in we got a lawyer to extend the guardianship to include me. Adoption isn't really necessary in this case."
PJ nestles in close. "But if you adopted us, we'd have you for new dads."
Rodney clears his throat, which has gone abruptly froggy. "We look after you just like your dad would have," he says, "but we can't ever replace him."
PJ is quiet.
Jesus Christ. Rodney would call John for back up but John is even more terrible at this stuff. "We love you just like your dad did," Rodney says all in a rush, and dives in to kiss PJ's head. "Okay?"
"Okay," says PJ. "But I think maybe you love me even more than my dad did."
"No, no," says Rodney, "your dad loved you a lot. He might not have said so, but he did."
"I love you more than my dad," says PJ, with an awful dark confessional tone. "I do."
"You might feel that way now," says Rodney, helplessly, "but"—
"Uncle Rodney," says PJ, firmly, "I do."
Rodney doesn't see a way out of this argument, and he can't possibly convince PJ that his dead father left him unwillingly. He can't possibly argue that Dave Sheppard was an exemplary parent when PJ had been sent off to a boarding school at age 7 years and 3 days. "Don't ever say that to Nora," Rodney sighs, and rubs PJ's head. "Or Uncle John. It's different for them."
"I won't," says PJ. "I already told Dr. Ruby and she said it's okay."
"Then it's okay," Rodney says, relaxing at the apparent approbation of PJ's grief counselor. "I'm glad you love us so much."
"I'm glad you're my dads now," says PJ in a very quiet voice.
Rodney puts away the sex book, torn between horrible guilt and a weird pride. "Okay," he says, and clicks off PJ's bedside lamp. "Goodnight, kiddo."
"I love you, Uncle Rodney," says PJ, which is completely new.
"I love you, too," says Rodney, finding that it's easier to say with every repetition. "Go to sleep. I mean it."
Rodney doesn't tell John anything about this conversation with PJ.
Though the book is done, the questions keep coming, popping up naturally during bedtime stories now and then. Rodney finds that, much like 'I love you', repetition makes these discussions much less difficult, and soon enough he's able to tell PJ about menstruation and erections with little hesitation. Much as he hates to admit it, it helps to have the plain language of that damned sex book already hanging in the air between them. It keeps Rodney from using overly scientific terms and burying the facts in their safe mysteries.
Once in a while, though, PJ pulls out something that throws Rodney for a loop all over again. One time it's, "How long does sex take?" (Rodney's fumbling answer: "Uh, at least a few minutes, I guess. But usually longer.") and another time it's, "How many times have you done sex?" ("Not as many times as I'd like," Rodney'd tried to quip, and then added, "It's not the sort of thing you count, but it's a lot of times."). And tonight, out of nowhere, PJ says – all bright and adorable inquisitiveness – "How do you make sex without a vagina?"
"Whoa," says Rodney. He had been halfway through standing up, ready to say goodnight, and now he slams back down onto the edge of the bed with a heavy sigh. "Oh, man. Really?"
"Well," says PJ, "it says in the book that you can kiss and hug, but the part about sex needs a vagina. Oscar says you can't do it without a vagina either, but I told him you and Uncle John do sex. How do you do sex?"
Rodney swallows, drums his fingers on his thighs, and coughs. "For my own comfort," he begins, "can we please take me and your uncle out of the discussion? Let's just talk about how people have sex, regardless of gender."
"Sure," says PJ, generously.
"Okay," says Rodney. "Okay, there's sex like the sex in the book, where the man puts his penis in the woman's vagina. But there are lots of other kinds of sex, and most of it you can do no matter who has a penis or vagina. You can use your hands on, on the private parts of your partner, or sometimes you can use your mouth."
"On their penis?" PJ says, shocked. "Gross! That's where you pee!"
"Yes, well," says Rodney, "you wash it first, obviously." He scrubs a hand through his hair, thinking. "So hands and mouth, boys and boys can do those things, or girls and girls, or boys and girls. It doesn't matter, because everyone has hands and mouths."
"Brandon at school," says PJ, all in a rush, "he says that boys who are gay together put their penises in their bums."
"Oh my god," says Rodney, stricken. He was seriously hoping not to have to address this, ever. He was wishing for PJ to learn about this as an old, old man in a seniors' rest home, long after Rodney's dead.
"I don't think that penises are long enough to reach around to your own bum," says PJ, "even when they're erectioned."
"Oh my god," says Rodney again, even more heartfelt. "Okay. Okay. Yeah, we have to clear this up. What you're talking about is called anal sex. And you don't do it to yourself. It's when a man puts his penis in someone else's – well. Up their. Bums, I guess. Yes. But it's not just gay men who do it, men can do it to women too." He deliberately leaves out the ways that lesbians can do it because he only has so much strength and eight year olds do not need to know the phrases 'strap-on' or 'dildo'.
"That is so gross," says PJ. "Maybe I'm not gay either. I'm not anything. Yuck."
"It's not gross," says Rodney. "It's just another kind of sex."
"Your bum is where poop"—begins PJ, aggrieved, and Rodney quickly jumps in.
"I know, I know," he says, holding up his hands in surrender. "It's okay if it doesn't make sense to you now. Actually, I'm totally fine if it never makes sense to you. But trust me – it's not gross, it's nice. It feels nice for the man doing it, and it feels nice for the man or woman he's going inside. But it's only for grown-ups. Very very mature grown-ups."
"Ugh, I want to stay a kid forever," PJ moans, distressed.
"You don't ever have to do it," Rodney promises, starting to laugh. It's kind of fun being the one causing discomfort and embarrassment for a change (which is something he and John have recently discovered, to their delight, with Nora.) "I promise."
"Ugh," says PJ again, shuddering. "You and Uncle John don't do that, do you?" he asks, and Rodney decides that there is a time and a place for a little white lie.
"No," he says, completely deadpan. "We don't ever do that."
PJ sighs a huge sigh of relief. "I will never do anal sex," he says resolutely.
"Can I get that on tape?" Rodney mutters quietly, rising and switching off the lamp.
John is thoroughly amused when Rodney relates the whole story later that night, the bastard. "It's not funny," Rodney says, getting under the covers. "You owe me, like, one billion blow jobs. I can't believe I'm the one taking all this flak when you're the one who swore on Odin's sword to spare the kids your repressed Irish Catholic upbringing. You're a hypocritical shit."
"Hey, you did a great job," John sniggers, completely unremorseful. He rolls towards Rodney, sticking his arm under his pillow to prop his head up a little. "He really thought you could fuck yourself?"
"Gives a whole new meaning to the phrase," Rodney returns wryly. "When he asks about pegging or rimming, you are so going in."
"God, he probably knows more about gay sex now than I did when I was twenty-two," John says, a little impressed. "Did you draw him some diagrams so he'd know a few different positions, too?"
Rodney rolls onto his side to face John. "I told him you'd do that," he says. "Don't forget about the lotus position."
"I'll just pick up 'The Child's Kama Sutra' the next time I'm in Borders," says John. "It's probably next to that book, 'How God Wants You To Screw'."
"Hey," says Rodney, wriggling closer, kicking off his boxers, "I like the missionary position. I'm all for the missionary position. Go, missionaries."
"I'm a fan of the leapfrog, myself," says John, getting naked too. "Better viewing angle."
"We could just set up the home video," says Rodney, and by now John is laughing and kissing him, rolling on top of him, "and do a little educational film reel for the kids."
"Yeah," says John, settling between Rodney's legs, thrusting a little, "instead of 'Where Did I Come From' we can call it 'Come In My Bum-Bum'."
"That's terrible," Rodney groans, but he's got John's ass in his hands and he's squeezing it, pulling it closer. "Hey, would you really do a video? For archival purposes, not educational?"
John's ears go pink, but it's clear he likes the idea from the reaction Rodney gets under the covers. "Oh my god, it'd have to be under so much lock and key," John says, which is practically a 'yes' already.
"Encrypted file on my work computer," Rodney says, "with a 10-character password. And maybe a self-destruct protocol for more than 3 failed attempts at opening it."
"Okay," says John. "Give me five minutes."
"What, now?" Rodney asks, but it's too late, John's naked ass is already out of the bed and wriggling into a pair of sweats, tented out in front. "Oh, fine," says Rodney with an air of resignation. "The flip video thing is by the computer in the living room. And there's a tripod in the closet with the digital camera."
A few nights later they gather their courage and watch the footage together, huddled around Rodney's work laptop on their bed, door locked and volume turned way down. It feels like the old days on Atlantis in a way, the secrecy and the nerves.
"Huh," says Rodney. "That's a pretty good angle, actually."
"I told you," says John. "Leapfrog."
They watch for a while longer.
"I've never seen it like that before," says Rodney, voice a little cracked and dry. "Wow. No wonder you're such a pervy voyeur."
John's breathing has quickened a little and when Rodney shoots a glance over, he sees John's blown pupils, his clear arousal. A quick look down confirms it. "Not a perv," says John, fixated on the screen. "God. Look at you."
"Look at you," Rodney says, shifting a little to accommodate his own growing erection. On the screen, John is moving, his hips snapping up and in with perfect liquid motions, his hands gripping Rodney's sides, the blood-dark base of his cock slipping in and out of view, wet and slick. "You have such a hairy penis," says Rodney, very seriously. "Wow."
John slaps Rodney upside the head, not bothering to break his gaze. "Okay," he says, "is it weird to jerk off to yourself having sex?"
"Only if it's not weird for me to jerk off to you jerking off to watching yourself have sex," Rodney says, leaning back and pulling his cock out. "If we recorded this," adds Rodney, as John follows suit, "that might start to get weird."
Much as Rodney hates to admit it, he thinks John was on the right track with insisting on the sex education of PJ when he did. By the time PJ is ten, the questions have all but stopped, and PJ has started to show the first blessed signs of being capable of embarrassment. When Rodney asks him once if he has any other questions at bedtime (storytime having been retired some months earlier), PJ rolls his eyes and says, "No," only with about three extra syllables in the word. "All right," Rodney says, rolling his eyes back at PJ. "Goodnight. Love you."
"I know," says PJ, long-suffering, and Rodney has to bite back his smile as he leaves the room.
"And – we have pre-pubescence," Rodney announces grandly, sweeping into the living room downstairs. Nora, who's doing homework at the computer, looks up and makes a pained face. "Yes!" says Rodney, snapping his fingers at her and pointing. "That's the look! John, PJ is turning into Nora!"
"Really?" says John, sadly. "Uh. Not that there's anything wrong with that," he backpedals hastily. "Just. He's not our little guy anymore."
"Yeah," says Rodney, feeling a little of John's sadness now. "You're right. That's kind of depressing."
"You know," says Nora, typing and resolutely focused, "if you guys keep trying hard enough, maybe one of you will get pregnant and you can have a new baby to replace Peej."
"Ha ha," says Rodney, dryly. "Wait. You're kidding, right? You know that"—
"Oh my god," says Nora. "Rodney. I'm almost fifteen years old."
"Right," says Rodney. "Because I've been told I'm very good at informative talks about the birds and the bees if you have any questions."
"Ask him about the clitoris," says John in a stage whisper, and Rodney tackles him, horrified, because there's embarrassing Nora for entertainment purposes and then there's taking Rodney down with her, and that's just not playing fair.
"You know about the clitoris?" says Nora, swiveling on her desk chair to look at them, and both Rodney and John freeze with surprise. "Oh my god, you guys are so easy," she says with a wicked smile, and turns back to her work. "Almost. Fifteen," she says again, slowly for their benefit.
Rodney looks down at John, still pinned under him with a shocked expression – Nora said clitoris and then laughed about it like it was no big deal, like she knows about the clitoris, like she knows too much about the clitoris, oh god oh god oh god. "Oh, this one is all yours, my friend," Rodney says earnestly, and smacks a noisy kiss onto John's open mouth.
"Gross," says Nora. "Please keep the gay baby-making in your bedroom where it belongs."
"How else are you going to learn?" Rodney says pointedly, and John starts to laugh.