The elevator in the Gender and Sexuality Studies building was out of order again, and Alexander was fairly certain it may be the result of the impatient way he bounced on the balls of his feet every time he rode it up to the third floor. Its wasn’t exactly his fault the rest of the world moved too slowly for him. Strands of his black hair slipping out of his ponytail (which had, for the record, been immaculate just hours before), he bounded up the staircase two steps at a time.
The halls of the university’s humanities building were as familiar to him as the lines on his palm. It hadn’t been his ideal plan, staying behind at Liberty University for a Master’s degree after having already completed his undergrad there the year before. But his student loans were piling up, he had a steady part time job at the library, and moving across the country – paying the tuition at the university he wanted to be at – would have bankrupted him before he had even boarded the plane. No, he thought, blowing a puff of air out of the side of his mouth as he moved at a steady clip down the hallway. It wasn’t ideal, but there was only one way to get a full ride to study at the Bersani Institute, and he’d be damned if he’d taken that shot before his hand was steady. Another degree, a publishable thesis, and few more community service projects wouldn’t hurt. So, here he was again. Another crisp fall morning to start the semester, this time as an interdisciplinary MA student in Sexuality Studies and Political Theory, somehow already bone-weary and over-caffeinated.
“Alexander!” Eliza’s chipper voice broke through the silence of the faculty offices as soon as he entered the reception area. A sunny grin broke out over his own face, and he slid Eliza’s favourite chai latte over the reception desk to her with a cheesy bow.
“Ms. Schuyler, light of my life, best thing about this department, savior of my unmanageable timetable,” Alex smiled, taking a swig of his own black coffee and leaning jauntily against Eliza’s reception desk.
“I would say I missed you, if you hadn’t been in here every week of summer break pestering me about breaking to assistant professors’ offices to steal you the overdue library books you wanted,” Eliza said with a glint in her eye.
“In my defense,” Alex started, raising a finger to begin what was sure to be a tirade about poor hiring decisions and the questionable work ethics of temporary staff.
Eliza grabbed it. It was nothing she hadn’t heard (weekly) before, Alexander knew. “I know,” she said. “Tell me about your application. Did you get it sent off? I knew you wanted to have it off of your plate before classes started.”
A parade of emotions crossed Alexander’s face, from wild hope to premature defeat to a determined resoluteness. Despite his bravado, he knew Eliza could see right through him. “Sent it all off this morning,” he said, recalling his shaking fingers and his first cup of coffee at his tiny, cramped desk in his tiny, cramped apartment. “My CV, my transcript, my personal statement, and all of the reference letters.” He made a show of wiping his hands on one another with a forced smile. “Now we wait.” For something that will inevitably end in disappointment and with me burying yet another dream, he added silently. He didn’t want to think about the scholarship application right now. He just wanted to do what he did best: keep his head down and work.
“So,” he said a bit louder than was strictly necessary. “You got the stuff?” he quirked an eyebrow to make Eliza smile, throw her off the scent of the panic that had been simmering under his skin. Eliza, to her credit, reached for a dossier that she’d had at the ready on her desk. Bless her, Alex thought. Always knows when to stop pushing it.
“Voila. Your office assignment, your final class schedule, your teaching assistantship information and your tutorial group and, most importantly, your thesis supervisor appointment.”
Alex ripped it open, grateful to have something solid under his hands, something concrete to prepare himself for the weeks ahead. He flipped through the stack of papers. He would be sharing an office with his roommate and best friend, John Laurens, and TAing for an undergraduate introductory class on the politics of sex ed. Score. He skipped past his class schedule (which he had already memorized), landing finally on the stack of papers that detailed his thesis supervision and requirements.
He scanned down the page, reading a mile a minute. 50,000 words, MLA format, formal defense scheduled for April 2nd, blah blah blah. He knew all of this, had sought out the information when he was restless and had started working on it already in his spare time. He continued flipping until he reached the final page. He froze.
Thesis supervisor: Dr. George Washington.
“Uhhhh, ‘Liza?” he stuttered, only partially realizing that his confusion was registering out loud. “Who approved this?”
Eliza tilted her head, scanning over the page from across her reception desk.
“I mean I know the department assigns supervisors but who…? Was it Dr. Schuyler – er, Angelica? Dr. Washington never takes MA students. Like, he rarely ever takes PhD students, never has the time, rarely has the interest, as he says,” Alex rambled, feeling heat spread along his cheekbones for a reason that he couldn’t quite pinpoint. “Has he been informed or do I have to…?”
“Ah, that. No, actually Dr. Washington requested you, Alex. He seemed quite genuinely interested in your idea, and in your previous work. And you know Angelica. She was only too happy to sign off on it, after all the extra energy that she usually has to spend convincing George to take supervisions.”
Alex looked up and searched Eliza’s face for some deeper meaning, but there was nothing but her openness and her annoyingly persistent compassion. He suddenly felt very young, remembering all of the moments during his undergrad when he’d interrupted Eliza’s workday mid-afternoon to complain about his exams or to beg for a spare office to catch a five-minute nap before he collapsed, bringing her a latte in return. Remembered how he’d sought out Eliza’s warm maternal energy, not even being able to name that which he so sorely lacked. “Right.”
He would do better this year. He would have to. No weaknesses, no interruptions. Head down. Work. Especially now that Dr. Washington –
“Don’t worry,” Eliza said softly, seeming to read Alex’s worry in his eyes. “I know he’s intimidating but once you get to know him, you’ll see. He’s going to love you.”
“Sure,” Alex said. He shoved the rest of the papers haphazardly into his cheap messenger bag, brushed a strand of hair away from his face, feeling a dark resoluteness settling behind his eyes. He’d been downplaying it before, even to himself. There was so much on the line this year, and he needed to ace this thesis. Work harder than he ever had before. Blow them all away, one last time. Blow Washington away. “I gotta go Eliza, thanks for everything.”
He was bounding back down the stairs before his mind could catch up.
When Alexander had walked through the door to his apartment after a day of running errands, buying books, and thinking about Dr. Washington, John had two take-out containers of Thai food on the counter and Netflix loaded on his laptop. Knowing that he’d have to start saying no as soon as the semester ramped up, Alex gratefully conceded to John’s offering of a relaxing night in.
He was happy like this – as happy as he figured he could be. He felt the kind of peace that you feel watching thunderclouds roll towards you – the feeling of knowing that, just for a moment, he was safe inside, could watch the storm pass from behind the windows. John sat behind him on the couch, his deft fingers massaging the knots that had already started to form between Alexander’s shoulder blades. As he listened to his roommate chatter happily on about his own thesis (an ethnographic study of the gay POC behind the grassroots protest movement in DC), he tried to get out of his own head.
“I just can’t believe that Dr. Schuyler herself agreed to supervise me. I mean, did you know she was one of the organizers of the immigration reform protests in 2006? This year is going to fucking rock.”
“Yeah,” Alex said half-heartedly. John halted his massage and spun him around, the forkful of noodles still hanging out of Alex’s mouth.
“Okay, what happened today? You left the apartment walking easily fifty miles an hour, but ever since you got back you’ve been killing me with the puppy dog eyes.”
Alex sighed. “Nothing happened. Well, I found out that Dr. Washington is my supervisor. But it’s nothing. Right?”
John slapped Alexander on the shoulder, and infectious freckled grin spreading over his face. “What! Why the fuck does that warrant puppy dog eyes? You’re telling me you just bagged the most influential queer theorist in the country as your supervisor and you’re, what, upset about it? The Alexander Hamilton I know would have burned through seven books right now in preparation for your first meeting… no, he would have just barged into G. Wash’s office and started a meeting! What’s the deal?”
“Okay, do you remember when you and I met in first year?” Alex quipped, desperate to wipe the smirk off of John’s face. “Remember how I decided that I was going to write an undergraduate thesis in second year just so I could start applying to present at conferences?”
“Yeah, and I remember how you did it.”
“On my own. Unsupervised. But before I started, I sort of… did barge in to Washington’s office. As a first year undergrad with absolutely no impulse control wearing a baggy sweatshirt that I hadn’t changed out of in about six days. Gave him an impromptu pitch about the politics of AIDs memorialization and how it intersected with the temporality of social media without stopping for breath. Yeah.”
“Shit,” John’s eyes widened. “Bet that went over well.”
Alexander rolled his eyes, sinking back into the couch cushions. “He gave me this look, like he could see right through me, and like he wasn’t seeing much of anything. After staring at me for a good two minutes, he told me to come back when I had ‘digested some of that knowledge’. And then he actually got out of his chair, came over to me, and escorted me out of his office. Definitely my finest moment.”
Alex remembered the burning shame that had lingered behind his cheeks for days afterwards, the anger that had settled in his clenched fists.
“So… so what? He probably doesn’t even remember you. It was five minutes, four years ago.” John ran a hand through Alexander’s hair, an old technique from before that always comforted him. “You’ve changed a lot since then, Alex,” he said gently. “Just walk in there, and show him who Alexander Hamilton has become.”
Alexander’s stubborn silence made his skin itch.
“What would you be doing differently if any other professor was your supervisor?” John asked.
“I wouldn’t be doing anything differently…” Alex trailed off. It wasn’t about what he had the capability of doing, he knew that. He knew he was one of the top undergraduate scholars in his field, he had fucking worked for it. And he’d done it all with Washington’s cursory dismissal plaguing him, driving him on like a cattle prod. He had spoken to the man once. And yet, for three years, it had been the searing memory of his dark brown eyes that kept Alex up at night, that had kept him going for one more paragraph, just one more chapter, just a little more than he thought he had to give. It had never been to impress Washington. No – that burning anger and the trademark clench of Alex’s jaw gave it away. He had built himself up to show Washington that he had been wrong for underestimating him. He wanted the man to feel the opportunity he had missed. He wanted Washington to not be able to stop thinking about him. And now, after four years of controversial papers, gratuitous public rants and inopportune campus protests, it was Washington that was requesting to work with him. And if he were being honest, he couldn’t parse how he felt about it. He didn’t know whether he could live up to the ephemera of himself that Washington’s lingering essence had made him into. “I just have a lot to prove.”
“So prove it,” John said simply. “You’re Alexander fucking Hamilton. You’ve blown everyone out of the water in every single possible way already, and this year is not going to be any different. You’ve always told me that the reason you gravitated towards queer theory is because it was the only field where fucking up people’s bullshit assumptions was the mandate, and pleasure of expression was the vehicle. So go fuck some shit up, and then write it so eloquently that the politicians you’re lobbying don’t understand that they’re having their own egos shoved up their asses. And you know that’s what Washington is good at too. You’ll be perfect for each other.”
John’s phone vibrated loudly on the coffee table, and he reached for it, Alex catching a glimpse of the Grindr logo as it whizzed by his head.
“Ooh,” John said, flipping the phone around to show Alex a photo of a well-built man with a buzzcut pulling a generic pose in front of a mirror. “Chris, 24, Beyoncé lyrics in the bio. I think he would look good on me, what do you think?”
Alex shoved a forkful of noodles into his mouth so he didn’t have to fake a smile, and nodded his approval.
“And he wants to go dancing at Jack’s first. Damn.” He looked up from the response he was typing to spare Alex a glance. “You don’t mind, do you?”
“Nah, go have fun,” Alex said, missing John’s closeness already. “I do have a thesis meeting to prepare for, after all.”
John was already pulling his hair up, shucking his sweatpants to replace them with skinny jeans. Alex watched as he moved through the apartment, making sure the eyeliner he had applied was perfect, and comparing two identically tight v-necks. It reminded Alex of the bright spots of their brief relationship, which had given way to a much more comfortable friendship after a few tense months. John’s beauty – that grace he knew he would never quite get over – still stunned him sometimes, and now it prompted a gnawing emptiness in his stomach. He couldn’t ask John to stay. They’d had this talk many times – if they weren’t going to be anything beyond platonic, there couldn’t be any jealousy or interference whenever one of the wanted to date, or fuck. And Alex liked that, really. He’d done his fair share of the latter over the years, one night stands to keep the edge off. Now wasn’t the time for separation anxiety.
He quietly disappeared into his room before he had to watch John leave. He pushed the books he had fallen asleep reading out of his bed, clearing the space for himself. His body felt numb – he didn’t know what he needed. Instinctively, he reached into his boxers and curled a hand around his cock, trying to mirror the deftness of John’s fingers and the care in his touch. His stomach recoiled at the idea, cutting down the timid beginnings of his arousal. The fantasy felt empty, because it was.
This wasn’t care, he decided. It was just the fantasy of it, and there wasn’t much more pathetic than that. He was missing something. He had been for a long time, he thought. He couldn’t articulate what it was, but he felt its absence looming over him like a thunderhead, threatening to crack.
He sighed deeply, freed his hand from his boxers and sat up, winding both of his arms around his knees. At the very least, the electricity crackling beneath his skin had propelled him out of his pity, and back into the pace his mind was used to working at. He flicked on his lamp, set himself up with a book.
He had work to do. He had someone to finally and unequivocally prove wrong.
The fact that people are reading this is giving me so much happiness.
CW for super brief mention of Harvey Weinstein (just his name).
Two days pass, the semester starts in earnest, and Alex sleeps three hours total, maybe. The closer he gets to Thursday – the day Eliza arranged for his first meeting with Washington – the more he realizes that it isn’t necessarily the thesis meeting he should be worried about.
It’s the vetting that immediately proceeds it.
Dr. Schuyler looks immaculate, as usual, in her dark dress and blazer. When she had replaced Abigail Adams (a staunch second-wave feminist who had been subtly discriminating against queer professors for decades under the safety of tenure) as the head of Gender and Sexuality Studies two years prior, the whole department had flourished. Alexander has a good relationship with Angelica, if he’s judging by the knowing looks she gives him whenever she has to extend a stiffly formal congratulatory letter to mark his achievements, or by the number of times they’ve run into each other at protests. Still, she has a wicked cold poker face (one that she’d had to sharpen into a weapon to make it through the world as a feminist of colour), and it terrifies Alexander just a little bit.
“Mr. Hamilton,” she says, the moment he steps into her office. “Welcome back.”
“Dr. Schuyler,” he smiles. “Pleasure, as always.”
“This is just a standard meeting to ensure that we have everything in order for your thesis, and to go over any concerns that arise,” Angelica begins.
Alex knows exactly what’s coming. It’s why he did so much work during the summer, and why he has three completed research papers in his messenger bag.
“As you know, Alexander, a thesis topic like this never would have flown in this department a few years ago. And while you know I am personally in support, I need to do my due-diligence to ensure that you are not, in fact, doing this for the pleasure of riling up our more conservative colleagues.” She meets his eyes, and reads the working title he’d noted on his proposal paperwork. “Cultural Representations of Intergenerational Desire in Among Queer Men and the Politics of Sexual Citizenship.”
Alexander sucks in a deep breath – enough, he hopes, to last him through the rant he’d prepared. “As you know, Dr. Schuyler, I’m a double major student in political theory – ”
“Is there a reason you’re not doing this thesis in that department then?” she interrupts.
“Yes. Because the political science faculty are all assholes and I’m using them for their books.” He sees the quirk of a smile creep onto Angelica’s face at that. “Political theory – or, whatever the hell those idiots think those two words mean – ground to a halt in the 80s. Systems have been stalling, there’s no new knowledge moving forward, not really. Doing something like this with someone who already sees the value of queer theory, while still slipping their techniques and frameworks into the background so its transferrable, that’s the only way to break into the old boys’ club over there. They faint as soon as you start talking about gay sex. If you throw age difference in there they have coronaries.”
Alexander produces the first paper he had prepared, slaps it onto Angelica’s desk. Political Theory and the Erosion of Queer Intellectual Intervention: A Generational Study by Alexander Hamilton. Angelica nods curtly.
“Writing this thesis would have the effect of actually demonstrating how particular types of sexualization in public discourse effect political processes. If you re-read Gayle Rubin’s Thinking Sex,” Alexander barrels on, “you’ll see that queer relationships with age disparities remain the final taboo that our society refuses to engage with. Everything else – sex outside of marriage, interracial relationships, gay sexuality, transgender identity – has been at least taken up publicly in the past ten years. And yet sex that crosses generational boundaries remains a reliable phantom to summon when you want to send the masses into a moral panic, even it occurs legally between consenting adults. Why? That’s what I want to figure out.”
Angelica gives him another nod, motions for him to go on.
“And that leads to queer politics. The sexuality of gay men was historically linked to pedophilia” he says as he produces the second paper he’d written, A Historical Study of The Social Construction of Queerness and Pedophilia by Alexander Hamilton, “and civil activists worked to erase this for decades as they moved towards assimilation politics. It still lurks beneath conceptions of gay identity, though, paradoxically as the predatory behavior of straight men becomes more widely recognized.”
“If you say the name Weinstein in my office I will punch you,” Angelica mutters. Alex winces remembering the number of media calls she’d had to field when the story broke – the downside to being a recognized expert in feminist theory, he supposed.
“Right. The funny thing is, a lot of the new generation of politically queer people still won’t touch intergenerational relationships with a ten-foot pole. Openly, at least. It conflicts too much with consent-based analyses of sexual power dynamics, which prevail on forums like Tumblr. And of course, all this is happening just as straight people can’t seem to stop glorifying sugar daddy culture.” He lays his third paper in front of her. Discourse, Daddies, and Dirty Little Secrets: A Corpus Analysis of Intergenerational Sex on Social Media by Alexander Hamilton. Yeah, that one had been fun.
“That doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen though,” he says, pulling the only paper he didn’t write out of his bag. “These are statistics taken from a study from the Kinsey institute showing how many queer men had been in erotic relationships that crossed generational boundaries over the course of their lives. There’s this… eroticism about it that’s always been a thing in our communities.” Alex starts to talk with his hands, leaning forward until his elbows meet Angelica’s desk.
“That’s where you’re going to get pushback, Alexander. Nothing you’ve said has been wrong, and that’s precisely the problem. No one talks about it. There’s a reason for that.” Angelica says, her face expressionless.
Alexander tries to discern whether “there’s a reason” means Angelica thinks he’s asking an interesting question or whether it means that Angelica herself things it shouldn’t be talked about.
“Exactly,” Alexander ventures cautiously. “And my point is that this is having an effect on political processes in terms of the negotiation of identity within bids of sexual citizenship. Which then splits political alliances, undermines a hell of a lot of activism, and gives the religious right leverage over all of our communities. This research will expose that, and – if I can mobilize it – it will help put us on equal footing.”
Angelica sighs, but Alexander can sense that it’s a sigh of concession and not frustration.
“So you’re making the statement that – ”
“That consenting adults should be able to explore whatever sexual power dynamics and fuck whoever they want? Yes. And that it’s a highly political act that we can use to our advantage? Abso-fucking-lutely.”
“You’re shooting for the full ride at the Bersani Institute, yes? I wrote a reference letter for you.” Angelica meets his eyes fully. She doesn’t look exasperated like she sometimes does after his rants. She just looks concerned.
“Yes.” Alex gulps.
“Do you think a thesis of this nature will affect the legitimacy of your candidacy for that scholarship in any way?”
Alexander can sense the question that she’s really asking. If he thinks the topic might screw his reputation for the scholarship, there’s every risk of it damaging the reputation of the GSS department at Liberty.
“Not at all,” Alexander says, returning her stare with equal intensity. “I think it will show them that I’m willing to do the kind of work that it takes to move things forward. In fact, I think its exactly what they’re looking for.”
“You know I don’t make a habit of rejecting thesis proposals, Mr. Hamilton.”
Alex holds his breath.
“And I’m not about to start. If there is anyone with the mind to make this work, its you. But please keep in mind the internal politics that we have in a department like this. Not everyone is going to agree with you, and you’re diving into a moral minefield in terms of the political stances of this university. That being said,” Angelica hands him back his papers, trusting his work enough not to need to read them, “if anyone gives you trouble, send them directly to me.”
A smile breaks out over Alexander’s face, reaching right to his eyes. “I won’t let you down, boss.”
“Oh, I know,” Angelica says. Alexander begins to walk out of her office, glancing down as his watch. Five minutes until his meeting with Washington.
“And Alexander?” Angelica says as he leaves. “I can see why George wanted to work with you.”
He doesn’t have time to process what that means.
Alex lands in front of Eliza’s desk with four minutes to spare until Washington, rapidly pulling his hair out of its loose ponytail and reworking it into a bun, tucking stray strands behind his ears as he goes. Eliza regards him as he smooths his black blazer over his chest, tucks his shirt into his jeans for the third time, and repeats the process.
“Alexander, you look fine,” Eliza says. “You look great. If you needed to dress up for thesis meetings. Which you know you don’t.”
He tried to tamper the blaze of panic building like a headache behind his eyes. “First impressions,” he mutters, tugging at his collar.
Eliza chuckles. “Second impressions, isn’t it? And trust me, literally anything you could wear would top first-year-Alex, king of slouch, sworn enemy of laundry.”
Alex straightens his spine, raises his chin. “Ms. Schuyler.” Gives Eliza his most dazzling smile. “Kindly shut up.”
Eliza winks at him playfully. “Only if you stop worrying. You did just make it through my sister, after all. The worst is over.”
He tries to pretend that he doesn’t stand outside Washington’s office door for two minutes deciding whether to knock, having flashbacks to the last time he’d stood here and imagining every way he could get himself escorted out again. If I’m not good enough…
He breathes. Builds himself up. Reminds himself, in a quiet voice that most of him refuses to hear, that all the cockiness has ever been is an act, anyway. An act that he needs to slip into, quickly, no matter how small he’s feeling. Fake it till you make it had served him well, and he has to rely on it now. He squares his shoulders, finds his bite.
“Come in,” a deep baritone comes from behind the wooden door. Softer than Alex had remembered. Shit.
“Dr. Washington, sir,” Alex pushes open the door, walks into the office. He would have offered his hand to shake – that had been his plan, anyway – but the professor is seated behind his sizable mahogany desk, a pair of reading glasses mounted on his nose, lost in a stack of papers that he’s reading, tracing one line of text with a fingertip. Alex’s breath catches in his throat, and he fights the urge to cough. To overanalyze.
It’s a good ten seconds before Washington finishes his sentence, removes his glasses, and looks up. Something flashes in his eyes as they meet Alexander’s, holding his gaze for a beat too long. Seeing right through you, something in Alex’s brain broadcasts. Just like last time. But Alexander steels his expression, remembers to breathe.
“Sit down, my boy,” Washington gestures, his eyes kinder. “Make yourself comfortable.”
Alex obeys the former. He isn’t sure he could accomplish the latter if he tried. Washington isn’t dressed the way that most of Alexander’s stodgy political theory professors dress. Instead, the man wears an expensive looking black shirt under a fitted canvas jacket which betrays the muscle evident in his arms. The fit of the jacket reminds Alex of the fact that Washington had served in the army just out of high school, which he’d learned scouring Washington’s Wikipedia page for the eighth time last night. He reads the remnants of that lifestyle in the set of Washington’s jaw, too, and in his stoic shoulders.
Alex feels overly formal and underdressed all at once. Fuck. He fidgets in his seat.
“Eliza has been kind enough to inform me that you’ve done quite a bit of prep work already.”
“Yes, sir,” Alexander produces his stack of reflection papers, as well as the bibliography he’d started to compile. “I assume you’ve read the proposal, so what I’ve done here is –”
Washington cuts him off. “Relax, son. I’ve read your proposal. I read through most of what you’ve published. It’s been a while since I’ve taken on a Master’s student, let alone one with your accolades. I wanted to make sure that we would mesh.” He accepts the stack of papers that Alexander placed in front of him, skimming them. Alex thinks he sees an impressed look flicker across Washington’s features, just for a second, before he sheaths the papers in his desk drawer. “I’ll read them tonight. Now, I’m more interested in getting to know you, and getting a better feel for your goals here.”
“What’s your story?” Washington looks at him expectantly, so Alexander goes with the short version.
“I grew up in Nevis, my mom and I ended up coming to the U.S. as climate refugees after a hurricane hit. We got lost in the system, she ended up getting sick and we couldn’t afford healthcare. After she was gone I bounced around the system for a while. School was sort of my only stability. I made it out of high school with good marks, thought I wanted to be a lawyer. I decided to do liberal arts here as a pre-law, but couldn’t stop getting into arguments with the law faculty because they’ve all got identical homophobic sticks up their asses. Ironically.” He pauses, surprised, when Washington lets out an amused chuckle.
“I happened to be in a GSS elective at the time,” Alex continues, “and it was the only place I could find anyone with informed enough opinions to debate. Not to mention the only place other people were willing to actually get up and do something to fight for what’s right, not just sit and write policy about it. I figured it was the best place for me.” He looks up at Washington, realizing that he’s still listening. Alex is used to having to work harder for that, and it throws him.
“I would concur,” Washington says simply. “So the thesis?”
“Something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time.” Alexander launches into the spiel he gave Dr. Schuyler, explaining the intersection of politics and the cultural depiction of intergenerational gay desire. Washington listens.
“You’re missing something,” the professor says when Alex finishes. “You’ve got this sophisticated theoretical basis and your analysis has a strong political direction, but this feels like a political science thesis, not a queer theory thesis, son.”
Alexander can feel his hackles rise, his defensive nature come out of hiding. He opens his mouth, meaning to dig deeper into the theory, meaning to clarify the intersections. Instead, what he says is “I’m not your son.”
Washington watches him, a question etched into his face. He doesn’t ask it. Instead, he says, “You’re missing the lived element, and you’re missing the eroticism. If you’re going to write this as a queer theory thesis – under my supervision – that’s what has to come to the forefront. Because it’s clear to me, as it should be to you, that the fact of that eroticism is the crux of the issue here. Is it not?”
The fight is there, balled in Alexander’s fists again, but it doesn’t boil over. He needs this to go well. He has a hell of a lot to prove, and to assume that he knows more than Dr. Washington on the first day would be fatal. He nods. “Yes.”
Washington stands, and Alexander’s heart stutters, fearing another escort out the office door, a condescending hand on his shoulder. It doesn’t happen. Instead, Washington finds two books from the shelves that line the wall behind them. He hands them to Alexander. “You need to start with the history. It’s a community thing. Intergenerational sex has a lot to do with the passage of information through gay communities in particularly homophobic time periods. These should help.”
Alex glances at the titles. A historical survey, a novel by Edmund White, both Washington’s personal copies. He hasn’t read either. “Thank you, sir.”
“You’re ahead already, s-” Washington bites of the word before it comes out, seeming to remember Alexander’s request. “I’m quite impressed.”
As much as Alexander yearns for praise, he never quite knows how to respond to it. An empty beat of silence passes before Washington speaks again.
“Alexander, I would like if this could be more than just an academic supervision.”
“By which I mean,” Washington continues. “I’ve read through your application for the Bersani Institute. I knew the man who founded it, actually. And when you get invited to interview – and you will get invited to interview – I want to be able to help you with that. It takes more than brains to be an academic. It takes a bit of polish as well.”
Alexander wishes he could pinpoint the source of the blush spreading up his cheeks, if only so he could cut it off more quickly. “That’s incredibly generous, Dr. Washington, you don’t have to…”
“I don’t have to. I would like to.” Washington states. “I think that we should meet weekly, rather than biweekly, to give us more time. Would you be amenable? Does this time work for you regularly?”
“Yes,” Alexander breathes.
“Good.” Washington crosses the office towards him, finally offering his hand to shake Alexander’s, pulling him out of his chair. “Let’s cut things short today. I want to have time to go over your papers tonight. You go home, read those. Let me know your thoughts.”
“Yes sir,” Alexander lets himself be steered towards the doorway by his supervisor’s hand on his shoulder. It was the déjà vu he’d been dreading, but somehow it didn’t sting as much as he thought it would.
“Have a good afternoon, Alexander.”
Alexander nods, walking away as the door shuts behind him. He places Washington’s books in his bags, tugs his hair out of its bun, letting it fall around his shoulders. He exhales.
The warmth of Washington’s hand lingering on his shoulder, he runs to the university centre, buys a coffee, and reads until the sun goes down.
Sorry for the wait friends! I am, in fact, working on a thesis of my own (though not on anything as wild as Alexander's - I wish) and things get a lil busy. I really hope y'all enjoy this, and I promise there will be a ton more Whamilton next chapter! I seriously can't wait til this all comes together.
Quick cw for a brief mention of sexual assault in the context of a classroom debate.
If Alexander finishes both of Washington’s books the night he receives them, its because they’re good books. Nothing more than that. And if he makes his way through the library stacks afterwards, checking out another volume of Edmund White’s short stories, its because he’s taken off guard by how the narrative sweeps him up. He’d never really been one for novels, especially ones centered around relationships, and he much prefers theory he can sink his teeth into. But there is something about White’s steady prose, his unabashed honesty and the tangible desire that marks the pages that works its way beneath Alexander’s skin. It makes him think; displaces everything he thought he knew.
He supposes Washington was right.
He is missing something.
He stumbles home later than he should, and John is already asleep. He brushes away the pang of disappointment he feels; he knows he can’t expect John to wait up for him, and even if he had been – even if he’d asked about Alex’s day – Alex isn’t sure what words he’d be able to summon to tell him. Even worse, he can’t seem to pinpoint why it is that all of his reliable words have suddenly abandoned him.
Knowing he has a class to TA in the morning, Alexander strips off his clothes quickly, trying to ignore the fact of his body, which is stiff from hours sequestered in a crappy library chair and feels inexplicably warm, like there’s a low flame still being stoked beneath his skin. He showers, brushes out his hair, decides to leave the stubble. Lays in bed and forces himself not to read – he knows he needs sleep – but a narrative runs through his mind like a motion picture regardless. In it, there is too much soft skin against hard muscle, helplessness against calloused hands and a sharp sense of protection, possession. He recognizes its resonances from the novel, and remembers why it was that he stopped reading them in the first place.
In the morning there is coffee, an all-too chipper John rushing off to some fundraising board meeting, and Alexander desperately trying to memorize the names of the five students in his tutorial group before he heads off to his first lecture.
It’s Aaron Burr that Alexander is TAing under, which he had known going in but had conveniently forgotten until Burr starts his lecture by insisting that the students call him “Professor Burr”. He’s been in the department for almost 4 years now trying to finish his dissertation, and Angelica had finally caved and given him an intro class to teach. Fiddling with his pen, Alexander almost mutters to the student seated beside him that only nervous PhD candidates with imposter syndrome and multiple sticks up their asses want to be called “Professor”. He stops himself, barely. He is a TA now, after all, not the shit disturber he’d been the last time he was in this lecture hall. If there’s one thing he misses about being an undergrad, it’s that: not having to bite his tongue.
He plans on taking lecture notes to help him run his tutorial group – he wants to be good at this, wants to prove his teaching skills as a matter of principle. He doesn’t plan on everything that comes out of Burr’s mouth being so asinine that he can’t do himself the disservice of seeing it written on paper.
The class is on the politics of sexual education, and the first lecture is – of course – on abstinence only education in the southern states. And Burr – fucking slimy-ass-won’t-stop-smiling Burr – decides this would be a great first topic for a group discussion.
The freshmen are mostly too terrified to speak up, especially on something as contentious as sex-ed that most of them had probably only just finished going through. It doesn’t take long, though, for the ends of the spectrum to emerge.
It starts with a smarmy white guy – the type who only takes gender studies classes to pick up girls – making an argument for religious freedom. “If our perception of sex is built on a system of morals, and morals are defined by the collective, shouldn’t their primary service be to the community? If coming together around a religious belief about sexuality brings a community together, that’s going to be in the best interests of everyone, economically speaking. You can’t just force people to defile their kids based on some unfounded secular morality.”
Just as Alex is thinking that he’d really like to wipe the smug smile off of the guy’s face, and before Burr can cut in, someone in the front row nearly jumps out of their seat. “Defile their kids, are you fucking kidding me? The Christian faith has a long history of sexual assault by clergy members, and if we were to do away with this mask of morality maybe people would have enough knowledge to actually understand and be able to defend themselves against literal rapists.”
A series of nervous titters go through the room. Alex remembers this kind of classroom debate. He had been, after all, usually the one on the defensive. This should be about when Burr steps in, the tension teetering just on this side of respectful for academic debate. But he stands there, looking impervious, that stupid blank smile on his face.
“That’s a little extreme, isn’t it?” the white dude shoots back, a snarl building in his voice. “First of all, that statistic has probably been blown way out of proportion by some liberal propaganda rag. Second of all, even if you could argue that comprehensive sex ed can be a protective measure, that doesn’t speak to the harms that would follow from exposing young children to lifestyle choices like homosexuality.”
The reaction from the class is mostly drawn silence this time, though the student next to Alex mutters a quiet “what the fuck” under their breath. Alexander stares at Burr, waiting for him to interject. He knows exactly what he would say were he standing at the front of the room, knows just how to redirect the discussion back to the lecture material, but it isn’t like he can undermine Burr’s authority in front of a hundred undergrads on the first week.
The girl in the front stands fully now, turning back to face her classmate. “Did you seriously just say we need to protect kids from homosexuality? So you’d rather just shove oppressive ideology down their throats than present a realistic picture of a free society?”
“If you call sodomy realistic – ”
“Okay!” Burr claps his hands like a kindergarten teacher. Still smiling. “You’ve both made great points,” he says.
What in the fucking world? Alex tightens his grip on his pen.
“Let’s circle this back around to politics. This gentleman is right that the meanings we attach to sex and sex education are culturally relevant. Even though most of us may hold more liberal views, does that mean we should impose those views on other cultures?”
What kind of centrist bullshit…?
“Compromising cultural autonomy is ultimately a disruption of choice,” Burr drawls on. “So how do we balance what may the in the best interest of a few kids, and what has proven to be in the best interest of the community?”
What are you even saying, Burr?
“Excuse me, Mr. Hamilton?”
Shit. He hadn’t meant to say that out loud. He’s about to apologize when he catches the insufferable look on future-southern-congressman’s face and forgets how to keep his mouth shut.
“I said you’re not saying anything. If you’re going to mount that argument, isn’t absitance-only education also an erosion of the free choice of the students? Empowerment can only be accessed through knowledge, and constrained choice is never fully choice, so if we’re talking about safety and best interest, its hard to see how this is even up for debate.”
Burr looks like he wants to bore a hole straight through Alex’s skull. That paired with his terrifyingly constant plastic smile isn’t exactly a good look.
“Well, that’s what this class if for,” Burr beams at the room. “Learning through friendly debate.”
“Friendly debate?” Alexander scoffs. “I’m all for debate, but before we do that we need to recognize the ideologies that are framing our comments here.” He glances around quickly. All eyes on him. It fuels him. “You’ve also left unacknowledged an openly homophobic comment in a class on sexuality, which seems a bit worrisome even for you, Burr. Good debate can only happen on equal footing and that doesn’t seem to exist right now, so may I suggest we return to the lecture?”
What he’s said is tame, by Alexander Hamilton standards, but it definitely wasn’t his place. He knows he’s overstepped, but fuck does he love seeing it written all over Burr’s stupid face.
“A good suggestion, Mr. Hamilton. But may I remind you – ”
Alex doesn’t plan on sticking around to have his ass handed to him in front of these students. He grabs his bag and starts towards the door. He can see Burr’s hackles rise.
“I’ll see you in my office after class, Hamilton!” Burr shouts, an edge to his usually schooled tone.
Alex stops in the doorway. Turns back. “You don’t have an office, Aaron,” he says with the smarmiest fake smile he can muster. “You have sad little room that you share with all of the rest of the PhD students whose funding has run out. See you next week!”
He leaves, his heart pounding. He knows, deep down, how royally he’s fucked himself, but the adrenaline keeps him mercifully numb to it.
Alexander is really not one for the gym – its usually John’s game, and he’d gone once or twice to spot him – but after his exchange with Burr he desperately needs to blow off steam. He needs to not think about walking about into that classroom next week, or ever. Needs to completely erase the possibility of being chastised by Angelica. Of this becoming somehow blown out of proportion before his scholarship application goes through. He figures his choices are either running on a treadmill or running into moving traffic, at this point, so he walks briskly to the rec centre, grinding his teeth the whole way. He doesn’t notice himself picking at a hangnail on his thumb until there’s a small smear of blood rushing towards his palm. He hadn’t even felt it – all he can feel is the pounding of anger in his head and the numbness of his frustration.
He remembers he really does hate the gym the moment he steps inside the locker room. Alexander knows he isn’t unfit, per se, but he’s no work of art either. He shoves his bag in a locker, takes off his sweater, and heads upstairs, ready to scream. He eyes the machines but feels like mounting one of the shiny, overstated stationary bikes would feel a bit too much like surrender. He just wants to run. To move. Wants to feel the potential of running away, pounding out his indignity on pavement.
His fitted khakis and the black t-shirt he’d been wearing under his “I’m-a-real-academic-I-swear” sweater aren’t exactly proper workout attire, but he can’t bring himself to care. He heads for the running track that loops around the skating rink, liking the feeling of the chilled air against his hot skin. He runs. He runs hard, faster than he probably should, having not even bothered to stretch. He knows he’ll be sore tomorrow but he stops giving a fuck once his breath surrenders to its own control and he feels his mind begin to clear. He doesn’t mind the pain, really. He wants to hurt.
He doesn’t know why he closes his eyes. He doesn’t even really notice that they’re closed until he hits something hard. Then he’s flat on his back with a hurdle he hadn’t noticed looming in front of him, and embarrassment creeping up his cheeks. Wonderful. He can’t bring himself to look around to see if anyone noticed. So he just lays there on the track. Absolutely amazing first day. You’re a fucking champ.
“Oh my god, are you okay?” the warm, slightly-accented voice comes from above him. Alex reluctantly squints one eye open.
Alex had only ever taken one Classics class, but the man kneeling next to him causes his brain to rapidly start rhyming off the names of Greek gods.
“Uhh…” Alex tries to sit up. His stomach flips (probably from the head rush, he justifies). “Yeah. Sorry. Yeah, I’m okay.”
The man cracks a brilliant smile, highlighting the creases around his eyes. He stands (jesus christ he’s tall, Alex notes), offers Alexander a hand. As Alex stands he can’t help the eyeful he gets of the man’s body, clad in black leggings that are tighter than they have any right to be, and a muscle shirt which is extremely well suited to its purpose.
“I’m Gilbert,” the man says, as Alex finally pins down his provincial French accent. “I appreciate your Danny Zuko moment. I’ve always wanted to wear a poodle skirt.” He winks and chuckles to himself, which has the effect of washing away Alex’s embarrassment in one fell swoop.
Okay, he thinks. So maybe bad days can get better.
“I’m Alexander,” he says, squeezing the hand that had pulled him off the ground because a full handshake feels too formal. “And I appreciate it. Does this mean I get to take you to the big dance-off?”
God, it’s been months since he’s properly flirted with someone. He hadn’t realized how strangely tense he’d been since the whole Washington supervision had started, how unmoored he had been feeling. Gilbert – with his accent and his shining eyes and his friendly eagerness – seems to ground him somehow. Not to mention those muscles… but Alex barely lets himself look, keeping his eyes fixed on the taller man’s.
“Only if you’ve got a pretty car outside,” Gilbert winks again, releasing his hand but holding his gaze. “So, Alexander, do you come here often?”
Seeing the way that Gilbert casually leans against the track’s fence, the easily beautiful arc of his spine, the angle of his sharp hips beneath the thin fabric of his leggings, makes Alexander want to say yes. “Just blowing off some steam, actually,” he settles against the fence, tugging a bit at the messy ponytail he’d pulled his hair into. “Rough day at the office, I guess you could say.”
The taller man regards him for a moment, his eyes gently sweeping over his body (which Alex wishes he could mask, or fix, or make harder, somehow). The hint of a smile plays on his lips. Finally, seeming to consider his words carefully, he says “I am just heading to a yoga class, Alexander. Would you like to join me? Perhaps it would help you unwind a little.”
It’s not a good idea. It’s really not. It doesn’t stop Alexander from wanting to follow this man wherever he feels like leading, from wanting to delve into that intoxicating ambiguity, the sense of something he’s not quite able to pin down. He’s fascinated. But he really can’t do yoga, and doesn’t feel like falling flat on his face again. And he does have a lot of work to do. And, mostly, he can still feel his anger simmering under his skin, and he’s been known to make historically bad choices when he’s worked up like this.
It’s hard but he forces it out anyway. “I can’t today. I would like to. But.”
Gilbert almost looks disappointed, but shrugs good-naturedly. “Perhaps another time? I come here quite often.”
He doesn’t offer a phone number, or anything beyond a loaded look which pierces through Alexander. It’s enough, somehow.
“It’s a date.” Alexander smiles, grasping onto the last vestiges of the high of the other man’s energy. “I’ll bring the poodle skirts.”
“I’ll see you around, Alexander.”
There’s no schedule set, but it doesn’t seem to matter. It couldn’t be about that for Alex anyway. Gilbert – whoever he was – was astronomically out of Alexander’s league. Which isn’t to say he can’t appreciate the interest. He does. But he knows potential disaster when he sees it, and Greek gods aren’t really supposed to sleep with mortals, anyway.
Alex packs up quickly after that, wanting to get home, to bury himself in some distraction that has nothing to do with Aaron Burr’s attitude problem or gorgeous men at the gym. As he’s walking out of the rec center he catches a glimpse of a green army coat and tries not to ignore the whiplash in his heartrate that seems to follow from the sight.
Since when do I fucking care if Washington goes to the gym? Alex presses two fingers against the pulse point on his neck, an old technique he uses to ground himself back into his body. Unmoored.
There’s less than a week until their next meeting. It’s the nerves, Alex decides. They’re still not fully under control but Alex knows he’s getting there. He knows that flying feeling in his stomach whenever he thinks about his supervisor will stop, eventually. He picks up the pace, suddenly driven to get back to the stack of books sitting next to his mattress.
And if he can’t stop picturing how Washington’s muscles would look in the tight muscle shirt Gilbert had been wearing, it’s probably some weird fucking psychoanalytic juxtaposition bullshit. Nothing more than that.
Just a note to say that y'all are wonderful and your comments truly keep me going; writing this brings me so much joy and I'm so happy to have other people enjoy it too.
And I'm totally going to start a list of the books I'm referencing in this fic in case anyone wants to read 'em.
I really hope you like this chapter, it was fun to write. Thank you for reading and I hope everyone has a good week!
By the time Thursday rolls around, Alexander has molded himself into a state of perfect focus. Since the Burr incident, he’s had good enough reason to avoid campus (and his inbox, which is full of multiple emails from Angelica requesting a meeting, requesting he apologize to Burr, and requesting any sort of response at all, as well as one from Eliza asking if he needs anything). The repulsion he feels when he thinks about dealing with that particular mess propels him into working on his thesis non-stop.
He continues working through his reading list, organizes outlines, writes down discussion points he wants to take up with Washington. Damn if he’s going to be caught speechless in front of him again. This time, he’s going to be eloquent, he’s going to be Alexander Hamilton, even if he has to spoon-feed himself his own words ahead of time.
He dresses in the nicest pair of navy slacks he has, a white button-down, his favourite belt. He had bought them in second year, after he’d realized that looking halfway professional did in fact grease the wheels if he wanted more seasoned academics to take him seriously. They’d served him well, and he doesn’t exactly have the money to buy new ones, so he forgives the fact that they're just on this side of too-tight. He pulls his hair up into a bun, determined that there will be nothing messy about this, not this time.
He doesn’t let himself think about the meeting beforehand. He doesn’t wait around on campus. He blasts stupid music into his ears at dangerously high volumes and only strides into the GSS building a handful of minutes before his scheduled meeting time. Eliza isn’t there (which part of him is grateful for, because there’s nothing he wants to talk about less that Burr right now), so he leaves her usual latte on her desk with a hastily doodled sticky note with a lion and a heart on it. He doesn’t let himself stop moving to feel the chaos of his heartbeat – just adjusts his messenger bag over his shoulder and strides into Washington’s office.
His professor is sitting at his desk, cell phone in hand, seemingly waiting for Alexander. Alex doesn’t allow his movement to stutter this time – he just projects the confidence that has almost entirely abandoned him and slides into the chair before Washington’s desk without greeting.
“Well, if it isn’t Liberty’s rogue teaching assistant,” Washington smirks, and Alexander is fairly certain he reads approval somewhere in there.
“In my defense!” Alexander starts, but doesn’t feel the need to continue when he’s met with a warm chuckle. It’s the second one he’s earned, he notes somewhere deep in his brain. It feels like an accomplishment.
“No need to defend yourself, Alexander. Seeing Burr break down even peripherally is quite enough of a reward.”
“Oh my god, did he cry?” Alex leans forward, rests his forearms on Washington’s desk.
“No, unfortunately,” Washington shakes his head. “But he did pace around our reception area for about half an hour muttering to himself furiously about how you’re relentless and have nothing to lose, or something in that vein. It was quite amusing.”
Alexander snorts. “Mission accomplished, then.”
“From the buzz I’ve heard since, it sounds like you were doing the right thing, in any case.”
Alexander nods, doesn’t give into the temptation to rehash the scene in front of his supervisor. Washington already knows, sounds like he’s on his side, and Alex remembers that while it may be cannon fodder for bonding here, not everyone in the department sees it in a humorous light. “I hope so, sir.”
“Don’t worry about Burr,” Washington adds. “He can be unbearable and persistent, but in the end he’s harmless. I once turned him down for a supervision and, while I’m told he’s still stewing about it, he’s been decent enough to do his stewing at a distance. And, between you and I,” Washington leans in closer, softens his voice, “Dr. Schuyler finds this whole thing hilarious. She has to follow department protocol, but she told me that she’s having Maria cross-stitch your office quote to hang on her wall.”
Alexander’s entire body relaxes with the relief that, while he might have to suck it up and apologize, he won’t be ostracized from the department. It’s a relief that he’s sure he might enjoy more fully if he hasn’t realized, in the moment, that he and Dr. Washington are mere inches from each other, having both leaned in. He feels the gentleness of Washington’s breath, threatening to draw him in.
Alexander sits back, quickly, something in his throat tight. His fingers itch to find his pulse point, old habit, just to ground himself, but he keeps his hands in his lap.
Washington regards him for a moment before sitting back in his own chair, adjusting to the distance. “So, how did you find the books I lent you?”
“They were excellent, sir,” Alexander says as he fumbles to produce them from his bag, laying them on the desk between them. “The historical survey was very helpful, it grounded a lot of my thinking in terms of how the progression of sexual culture aligned with the progression of politics and civil rights.”
“If you put that in dialogue with the reflections you’ve already written, I think you’re really getting somewhere,” Washington says. “And the White novel?”
Alexander pauses. He’s not sure what to say. He could stay completely literary, or he could admit how deeply it had made him think about why bonds like the ones White had described had almost completely ceased to resonate in younger gay communities. Or he could try to describe the emptiness it had left deep within his stomach, a kind of gnawing hunger for something he hadn’t known he’d needed before that book had offered it back to him.
He isn’t sure what Washington wants from him, so he says “Enlightening,” and hopes that whatever he leaves out is still there, somehow. Judging by the way that Washington’s eyes linger on his lips for a beat after he says the word, Alexander is sure that the man is seeing right through his opacity.
“There are several more like it,” Washington says, after a moment. “If you found that you connected with the narrative I would be happy to share them with you.”
“I would like that very much,” Alexander says, unsure why he has to work so hard to steady his voice. To break the thickness of the moment – whatever it had been – he pulls a paper out of his bag. “I wrote this as a reflection on the historical work, weaving through the concepts I used in my earlier stuff… I just wanted to make sure I was on the right track.”
Washington takes the paper from him. “You did this in a week?”
Washington’s gaze is steady but betrays a clear interest as he flips through the paper. “This is good, Alexander. Let’s go through it, shall we?”
Alexander breathes, forces himself back into the focus he had so carefully cultivated. “Absolutely.”
They work through Alexander’s paper for almost an hour, Washington stopping after nearly every paragraph to recommend a text that Alexander should read, or to work though a concept that Alex had been employing. Alexander keeps pace with most if it – this is what he loves, after all, what he stays up to do every night – but every once and a while he stumbles over something. They work their way though Rubin, Sedgewick, most of Berlant’s work, weaving them in through Alex’s political claims and feeling their way through the results. The sun sets through Washington’s office window as they work, and Alex watches the distinctive late-fall oranges streak through the sky as he realizes over and over again the scent of Washington’s skin. It focuses him.
The conversation between the two of them is sharp, quick, and full of theoretical turns that remind Alex’s mind of the joy of movement. Working with Washington like this feels good, he realizes, in the way that theory had felt good when he first started reading it. Like streaks of wild colour over the grey background of the institution. Like the life of it. He starts to feel relaxed by the end of the hour, and a little more sure of his own mind.
“You’ve got a masterful grasp on most of this, Alexander,” Washington comments when their discussion naturally loses its vigour. “You’ve got many places to go from here, but I’m very happy with this so far.”
Alex still can’t hold the praise closely, so he tries to distance himself, focuses on Washington’s grey v-neck and the indent it exposes at the top of his sternum.
“I don’t want you to lose that thread of experience, though. It would be a shame if this became a dry theoretical treatise – it needs that spark it in. I’ll give you the rest of the novels I’ve got. I think it might help with knowledge translation in terms of turning your analysis back into an active part of a queer politic.”
Alexander mentally writes off the rest of his week as Washington walks around the stacks of books in his office, pulling several by White, and some by older writers like Isherwood and Forster. It’s a lot, but Alex feels only hunger for it. Washington sets the stack in front of him, and Alexander absentmindedly runs his hands down the spines of the books.
Washington sits back down. There’s a drawn-out moment where Alexander wonders if he should go, if he’s overstayed his welcome already, and if he’s taking up too much of Washington’s already in-demand time. He fidgets under Washington’s gaze, which feels heavier than it had before. Feels all-encompassing. He wonders whether his stuttering might be better than these silences that seem to eat away at the space around them. He opens his mouth to speak, but Washington beats him to it.
“Do you have anywhere to be, son?”
The title makes his skin prickle, as it had last time, but he can’t bring himself to buck it. He lets it settle over him, like something that Washington is offering to him. He knows that if he asked again, Washington would stop. He had stopped last time. But Alex suddenly doesn’t want him to.
He isn’t sure if it’s the right answer.
He waits for Washington to give him direction, to either kick him out or start a new discussion, but he doesn’t. He just watches Alexander with soft eyes and an aura of something which Alex can feel radiating through the room but isn’t able to name.
The silence weighs on him so much that he opens his mouth again. What comes out is, “How did you get into this field in the first place?” Something he hadn’t realized he wants to know about Washington’s life, but now that the question lingers between them, he isn’t sure he could live without the answer.
“Why do you ask?” his professor says, removing the glasses from the bridge of his nose and revealing, more deeply, the brown of his eyes.
Alexander reminds himself to stay relaxed, as he had been when they were talking through the theory. There’s nothing strange about this, he reminds himself. Everyone you know is close with their advisor. You’re building cred. This is allowed. This isn’t wrong.
“I’m just curious. I’ve always wondered about the people who defined the field, before it was something you could really “do”. I know you were in the military before.”
Washington tilts his head.
“Wikipedia,” Alex explains. “I swear I wasn’t stalking you, I just wanted to know your background before walking in here.” The ‘I wanted to impress you’ is implicit, and he’s certain it doesn’t escape Washington. It’s a lot for Alexander to admit, but there’s something about the orange sky and Washington’s soft praise that makes him feel safe enough.
“I was in the military,” his professor says, letting the sentence out with a long sigh. “I grew up in Virginia, and I didn’t come from means. I knew I wanted to go to college, but there was no way I could afford it. So I enlisted the summer after my graduation.”
He pauses and looks at Alex, as if he’s gauging interest, calculating how much to offer.
“I served for 4 years,” Washington says. “I did a few short tours in Libya in the early 80s. There was a group of us – and this was before Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was ever instated – who were in the closet. Had we ever been caught there wouldn’t have even been a discharge hearing. When DADT was introduced in the 1990s it actually seemed like progress because, at least for those who were happy in the closet, there was harassment protection. Back then, though, it still didn’t stop us.” Washington smiles fondly.
“Why did you leave then? If there was a community, even a provisional one.”
“I hated the job. I hated the culture. And at the end of the day, the sneaking around was only a thrill in the moment, and hell in the morning when you weren’t allowed to look each other in the eye.”
Washington pauses here. Alex can see the edges of discomfort on his face, and he wants to interject, wants to somehow let the older man know that he doesn’t owe Alexander anything. But at the same time, he wants to hear this. He wants to know as much about George Washington’s life as he will allow him to. He stays silent, leaning in just slightly to try and convey the genuineness of his interest.
“There was the beginning of a movement stirring to try to organize from within the forces – form recognized groups, fight for rights, and all that. But most of us didn’t believe in what we were doing there, anyway. And at that point I was just coming into myself, and I had been reading about how a lot of the men who served in the world wars would live out their sexual fantasies overseas and not bear to return back home to their wives and kids and small towns. Throughout the 20th century, military transport ships docked in San Francisco. Anyone who didn’t want to go back would get off the ship, change his name, and settle down there.”
“So that’s how it became the gay mecca,” Alexander concludes.
“Exactly. I figured I wouldn’t be happy with whatever gains we were able to make if I stayed, so I left. Moved to San Francisco, because I wanted to feel connected to that tradition. I didn’t change my name and I wasn’t exactly leaving anything behind, but…”
“A fresh start.”
Washington has leaned forward on the desk again, but it’s a tired gesture this time. It’s the most prominent that Alex has ever seen the subtle laugh lines around his eyes. Its not an age thing so much as it is a bone-deep weariness sort of thing, Alexander thinks. But he doesn’t comment on it.
“I didn’t stay there long,” Washington continues without Alex’s prompting. “I got my heart broken a few times, and eventually got sick of the place. I moved to New York on a whim, at the end of 1989. I had just turned 23, I didn’t know a soul, and I walked right into the firestorm of the AIDS crisis.”
“Jesus,” Alex breathes.
“That’s what really changed me, I think. I got involved in ACT UP, mostly because I didn’t know what to do with my anger, and also because I wanted to feel some sort of connection to somebody. Anybody. I worked a lot with the artists there, but I had absolutely none of the skills to carve out a place in the art scene, so I became a culture writer for some of the independent magazines down there. I worked freelance for long enough to finish my degree by putting myself through night school, but most of what I learned about what we’d eventually start calling ‘queer theory’ I learned in those ACT UP meetings, or at demonstrations. Those were probably the hardest years. I had worked my way up to sessional instructor by the mid 90s, worked on my PhD at the same time. I’d give lectures in the afternoons and organize at night. And after that I just never stopped.”
They’re close again, closer than they probably should be across the span of the desk, but Alexander doesn’t move away this time. He wants to say something meaningful, something that will make Washington understand how much these small admissions have meant to him, but he hadn’t prepared for this in his script.
“Anyway,” Washington undercuts the moment deliberately. “None of that has anything to do with your thesis, and I’m sure you don’t want to waste your evening listening to me blather on about my life.”
“No,” Alexander says, a bit too forcefully. “I want to hear all of it, I…” he stops himself before he can say what he wants to. I want to know everything about you. “It has everything to do with it,” he settles for. “The time and the places that Edmund White writes about, you lived through that. You walked those streets, you had those conversations.” Alex clasps and unclasps his hands, channelling his nervous energy into finding the words. “You keep saying that you want this thesis to be connected to some sort of experience, to the lived reality of this type of eroticism, to a deep understanding of why people have these relationships and, sir, I could learn that from you just as well as I could from any book.”
He sees Washington stiffen before he fully processes the words that have come out of his own mouth. His hot blush blooms over his face at the same time that Washington casts his eyes down onto the desk, and clenches his jaw so noticeably that Alexander can see the muscles move. I didn’t mean it like that, he wants to add, but it seems futile, or unnecessary. Or like he would be breaking something of the careful intimacy that had come with Washington letting him in as far as he had.
So he doesn’t say anything. He lets the heaviness of the moment hang in the air. He rests his fingertips over the pulse on his wrist.
Washington raises his head and, to Alex’s surprise, he’s smiling as if he’s about to tell a joke. “You want the rest of the ‘back in my day’ stories,” he says, on the edge of laughter. “I guess I just never thought about myself as being old enough to tell those. And no one has ever really bothered to ask for them.”
The smile he gives Alexander breaks the tension like a wave. He returns it. Sees something longing in Washington’s eyes and feels it paralyze him.
“Well, back in my day,” he starts, maintaining his humour. He leans back in his office chair, stretching both arms above his head. Alexander feels his eyes involuntarily flash to the strip of skin it reveals beneath his sweater. “Back in my day, it was a sign of low social standing to sleep with people your own age.”
Alexander quirks an eyebrow. He knows this, he’s read the ethnographies, but it sounds different coming from Washington’s mouth.
“Having sex in the backseat of your high school sweetheart’s car was considered the most naïve thing you could do.” Washington’s still smiling, as if reliving some distant memory. “If you really wanted to be known as good in bed, you’d find someone older to ‘teach’ you, and you’d make sure everyone knew it. It was fascinating – there was still that judgement, but that illicitness was so tied to queerness that it became completely subcultural. But it was the best kept secret. I think a lot of it died out when – ”
Alexander’s rapture, the stirring in his veins he had been trying to ignore, is interrupted by a knock on the door. Eliza appears on the other side.
“Hi Alex! Dr. Washington, it’s past 7 so I’m locking the department doors, would you be able to use the side door when you leave?”
Alex hadn't even realized how long they'd been sitting there. Washington sits up straighter, composing himself. “Of course, Ms. Schuyler. Have a good evening.”
“You, too. And thanks for the latte, Alex!”
He waves as she leaves, wishing he could somehow rewind, salvage the rest of whatever Washington had been about to share with him. His mind is full of messy images of backseats and warm skin.
“It is after 7, Alexander. We should probably call this.” Washington says. Alexander guesses he doesn’t hide his disappointment sufficiently, because he follows up with “We always have next week.”
“Of course. I’m sorry to have kept you, sir.”
“It was my pleasure, Alexander.” Washington turns to pull another book off of the shelf, and says so softly that Alex can barely hear him, “I think you know that.”
At this point Alex can’t ignore the throbbing of his own heartbeat in his ears. His blood is running too hot again. Washington places a leather-bound volume in front of him.
“I’m sure you’ve read this already,” he says. “I’d assume that if you’re applying to the Bersani Institute that you’ve probably taken the time to read through his corpus. This is an original, I had it bound myself. For next week I want you to start thinking about the discomfort and repulsion piece at a psychological level. One of the reasons intergenerational sex makes people so uncomfortable is the power dynamics inherent in it, but that’s also what can be most erotic about it. Bersani’s discussion of self-shattering – ”
“The ecstatic suffering into which the human organism momentarily plunges when it is pressed beyond a certain threshold of endurance,” Alex recites from memory. The words echo strangely in the office, with an electricity that hadn’t been there when he’d read them off of the page. It was one of the first queer texts Alex had read, and the poetic account of gay sex and erotic penetration had lingered with him, coaxing his body towards a different kind of knowledge.
“So you have read it.”
“It’s foundational. Movement between a hyperbolic sense of self and the complete loss of that self – in opposition to everything that defines what men are supposed to be in this culture – it helped me understand a lot.” He swallows. “About myself.”
Washington speaks slowly, choosing his words. “I think a lot of this has to do with that moment of shattering. It’s known but never acknowledged; it’s a moment of intense power, and a whole politics unfolds around that. But ultimately we always come back to the same thing. Being undone by someone.”
Washington’s eyes meet his and something jolts through Alexander’s body, through every single one of his nerve endings. He looks away, not quite able to sustain the intensity. That, for whatever reason, disappoints him more than anything.
Washington moves closer to him, and his mind blanks. But all he feels is the light brush of Washington’s hand against the small of his back as the professor guides him towards the office door, just like the last time he had exited the office. This is beginning to become a habit of theirs, he supposes. He finds he doesn't mind.
“I’ll see you next week, Alexander. Email me if you have any questions.”
Alex promises that he will, even though he knows that he’s leaving with questions that he’s not sure Washington will be able to answer.
THANK YOU for all of your comments, they literally make my day every single time one shows up in my inbox and they keep me going through all of the boring shit I have to write for school when I'd really rather be writing this. Y'all are the best.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
There’s a gnawing feeling in the pit of Alex’s stomach.
Its harsher than butterflies, but not as destructive as the thick dread that sometimes plagues him. Rather, its the feeling of the floor dropping out from beneath him, the feeling of falling fast, of wanting to brace for impact and not being able to find a foothold.
He wakes up with it every morning after his second meeting with Washington. The feeling has a voice, too, and it sounds like longing, sounds like whisperings of undoing and a soft baritone repeating “I think you know that” until Alexander feels ready to break apart.
So he throws himself into his work. If he’s going to hit the ground, he figures, he may as well make the biggest impact he possibly can.
He rises early, does his seminar readings, writes essays in his and John’s shared office. John isn’t there often – he’s usually caught running between class and organizational meetings for the plethora of activist groups he’s involved in – so Alexander has one place on campus that is blessedly quiet.
He apologizes to Burr in an email as dryly as possible, cc’s Angelica to prove that he’s done it, and continues to attend Burr’s lectures. The man doesn’t so much as acknowledge him (probably afraid I’ll make him look like a blathering idiot again, Alex suspects), and once they move into policy and similarly benign topics, Alexander manages to keep his mouth shut during class. His tutorial group – the five students that he meets with for an hour on Tuesday afternoons to go through questions about the readings – usually get an earful, but they seem amused and interested, and Alexander is more than happy to inject a bit of passion into their educational experience, as they certainly aren’t getting it from Burr.
The freshmen in Alex’s tutorial are bright and opinionated, and they remind him of how he’d been in his own first year. Knowing it was the one shot he’d been given to rise above his station, Alex had never once turned down an opportunity to debate, to write as much as he could, to publish his rants, to talk his professors’ ears off, or just to read constantly and widely, everything he could afford to get his hands on. He hadn’t focused on much else that year – not his growing reputation or his dishevelled appearance or his general unpalatability in social scenarios. His friends had to force him to eat. He’d tried to hack himself out of sleep with coffee (he is, if he’s honest with himself, still trying) and spent manic days with bags under his eyes and exhaustion biting at his heels.
He’d masked it with overconfidence – that feeling that he wasn’t alright, that he was just barely on the precipice of surviving. Washington’s rejection had been his first failure. Whether he’d known it or not, the man had begun to tame Alex’s frenzied energy before they’d had a proper conversation. He remembers forcing himself to slow down, forcing himself to stare at his own face in the mirror, and to start thinking about what impact he could make outside of his own chaos. About how much more he might be able to gain with a little discipline.
He doesn’t think he’d recognize his present self if he’d met himself all of those years ago. But now, he feels pent up again. He feels himself edging back towards pandemonium. He feels too big for his own skin, and everything that touches him seems poised to rip something open inside him.
In the evenings he reads Washington’s novels. He usually sits in his office, avoiding the implications of bringing the shred of intellectual intimacy that Washington offered back to his bedroom, into his bed. In his office, he can at least pretend that he can distance himself from the subject matter – pretend that he can’t feel every single description in those books, that they don’t linger on his tongue long after he whispers the passages into the empty room, that he doesn’t imagine things all too similar every night as he tries to trick his body into sleep.
One of the nights that Alexander stays late, John bursts into the office unceremoniously, carrying a gigantic shipping box full of condoms, lube packets, and dimebags.
“Jesus,” Alexander jokes. “You could have told me we had plans, I would have brought candles or something.” He sets down the book he had been reading – Christopher and His Kind – and tries not to feel interrupted. Exposed. It is John’s office too, after all.
John rolls his eyes, drops the box of supplies down on his desk. “You wish,” he scoffs. John runs a hand through his hair, sending it sticking up in several directions. John’s stress has always looked good on him, Alexander thinks. He wears it like a rush, looks satisfied even as he books it from meeting to meeting, seems to gain energy from it. His stress isn’t dark and suffocating, a black hole that leaves him constantly gasping for air, like Alexander’s. It had been something they’d never been able to understand about each other.
“I’m stuffing safe sex bags to hand out at the AIDS Walk for Life tomorrow,” John explains, shrugging off his jacket and throwing himself down into his desk chair. “The connection centre is short on volunteers so I said I’d help out.” He regards Alexander, taking in the discarded book and the darkness under his eyes. “Wanna lend a hand? Get out of your head for a while?”
His words are gentle, but Alexander knows John sees more than he lets on. He has always been able to.
“Yeah, sure,” Alex says. “You know I’m a sucker for safe sex.”
He stands up, stretches and hears the vertebrae pop in his back, groaning a little after several hours in his chair. He walks over, follows John’s lead, and starts filling the bags with two condoms and two lube packets each. They work in comfortable silence for a while, the rhythm of their breathing the only real sound in the empty halls of the department.
“You haven’t been home a lot lately,” John says out of the blue, and its true, Alex hasn’t. More than any other year he feels magnetized to campus. When he’s here, he feels a spark of possibility. If he’s being honest with himself, it’s the one place that he and Washington share, the one place where he chances running into the man who seems to have taken up permanent residence in his thoughts. He likes being close to that feeling. “Is everything okay?”
“Yeah, yeah,” Alexander waves a hand in the air to brush of the notion in between stuffing bags. “Everything’s great. I’m just busy with this thesis. It gives me a lot to think about.”
“You’ve always been busy,” John gives him a tired smile. “It just seems like something is… I don’t know, like you’re off somewhere else a lot of the time. You’re usually so present. Like, you stand at the edge of things waiting to throw yourself into an argument any chance you get. Now you just hole yourself up in the office and only come out for coffee refills. You didn’t get home until, like, two this morning.”
There isn’t any judgement in John’s voice, just a smothering kind of concern, but the whole thing pisses Alexander off anyway.
“I’m fine,” he says curtly. “I need to do well on this. You know that. And it’s better if I’m somewhere that I can’t stop and relax.” He’s better when he’s somewhere he’s forced to focus, where it would be inappropriate if someone walked in on him with his hand down his boxers, slowly jacking himself off to the thought of Washington reading the same erotic descriptions laid out before him and thinking of Alexander, thinking that Alexander might enjoy them enough to warrant a recommendation.
He needs to be somewhere where he has a reason to stop himself from that.
John looks disappointed in him, and gives him a look full of all of their history and all of their usually-unproductive ways of caring for each other just a little too much.
Alex can’t hold his gaze. He casts his eyes down, keeps his hands busy. He and John are no strangers to arguments, and he’s usually not one to hold back. What the fuck is wrong with me?
John sees this, changes the subject. “So, how are things going with Washington? Have you completely wooed him yet with your magical brain powers?”
Alexander sighs, pushing away the memories of all of Washington’s small bits of praise for his work, pushing away the sensation of Washington’s hand low on his back that clings to him.
It makes him angrier, somehow, that he’s let himself get so caught up in this. And his reaction to John’s wording – the fact that he so immediately lets himself get lost in the images of Washington’s large hands against his body –seems to confirm something that he’s been pushing back against all week. Something that he really, really doesn’t want to think about right now.
“I haven’t ‘wooed’ him,” he says, spitting out the word. “And I’m not trying to. I’m trying to get through this thesis, get an impossible fucking scholarship, and maybe make something of myself. Washington is… convenient. He’s smart, we work well together. But that’s all it is. That’s all I need from him.”
“Jeez, Alex, I didn’t mean…”
“I know. I know you didn’t mean it like that.”
John looks at him warily. It hurts.
“Look,” Alex pinches the bridge of his nose. “I’m sorry. I’m being ridiculous. Its just that… I’ve been reading all day and my mind is swimming. And I’m already kind of in shit because of the Burr thing, and I have this irrational fear…” he pauses, almost stops.
He doesn’t know why he’s saying this, doesn’t know where its coming from. But at the same time, he does. And he figures he owes John at least this much.
“I have this fear that if Washington and I work too well together, on a project that eroticizes power differences, in a context where, well, you could leap to those conclusions. I’m worried that… people will leap to those conclusions. And that it will fuck things up for me.”
I’m worried that I’ve already leapt to conclusions, he doesn’t add. And it’s fucking with my head.
“I can’t think,” he does add, in a broken voice that he doesn’t realize emerges from him until the words have been spoken. “I’m worried that I’m going to do everything, give everything I can, and that it still won’t be enough.”
John’s arms are around him before he’s finished speaking, and a big part of him wants to break out of the gentle hold, but a bigger part of him wants to be held.
“Is this about the scholarship?” John asks. Alexander feels queasy. He hasn’t been thinking about it, purposefully, and everything that hinges on it. He’s supposed to hear whether or not he’s been offered an interview by the end of the week. He hasn’t heard anything.
“No. Yes. I don’t know, I just…”
He lays his hand overtop of John’s arms, encircling him. He feels the throbbing edges of a breakdown building in his temples, and is grateful that John is here, that he can trust him. But he hates that John is the only person that he can trust. He hates relying on it. And he doesn’t want this right now.
He pushes away. “I’m fine,” he reiterates. He swallows the ache in his throat. “I just want to get some more reading done tonight. Okay?”
“Okay,” John nods. “You want the office? I can take this shit home. I don’t mind.”
John doesn’t wait for Alexander to answer, and Alex is grateful that he doesn’t make him kick him out. He bundles the safe sex supplies up in his arms, giving Alex a peck on the forehead. “Just… talk to me, Alexander. Whenever you want. About whatever. You know I won’t judge you.”
“I know,” Alexander croaks. John shuts the office door behind him, leaving Alexander alone.
The silence hits him like concrete hitting his open palms. It stings. He thinks about what he’d said to John – that connection that he had never let himself think out loud. But its always been there, since the moment Eliza had handed him his orientation package.
A man that he barely knows, at least not in any meaningful sense. The one person who is, for so many good reasons, absolutely an impossibility. He wants Washington. He wants so viscerally that it swirls like a sickness. He wraps his arms around his own waist, drops his head, and waits for the feeling to pass.
He stays in his office that night.
Alex gets through the rest of his week, trying to avoid the volume of his own thoughts. He signs up for the late shifts at his library desk job after his talk with John, adding to his list of excuses not to be home have several similar ones. He knows he’s isolating himself, but he also knows that he deserves it.
He’s mixing his feelings with his work, which he knows is a one-way ticket to disaster. He knows its wrong – not objectively or morally, but personally. Preoccupied isn’t a good look on him. He needs to find a way to get over it, as quickly as possible. He needs discipline.
He works the library’s front desk Wednesday night, closing shift. Not too many people usually check out books when its late, so he hides his own book behind his computer monitor and reads. He gets so caught up in it that, when someone approaches the desk and drops a stack of oversized hardcovers in front of him, he nearly jumps out of his skin.
“Shit, sorry,” he mumbles, scrambling to grab the barcode scanner. “Find everything you were looking for?”
“Oui, merci. And I’m quite happy with what I’ve found here, too.”
Alex looks up, the voice instantly tweaking his memory. It’s Gilbert, from the gym, leaning against the desk in an impeccable wool coat and tight black jeans, his collar upturned and hair pulled back in a way that highlights his cheekbones. He’s got a smile on his face, as if he’s genuinely pleased to see Alexander again. Alex can’t take his eyes off of the laugh lines around his mouth.
And maybe, he thinks, this is exactly what he needs.
“Gilbert,” he slips back into the lull of the language he’d spoken as a child. “ça va?”
The taller man doesn’t answer, just says “You never came back to the gym. It is nice to see you again, Alexandre.” There’s a heat to the way he speaks, beneath the effusive eagerness that seems to characterize his personality. A fire low in Alex’s belly is stoked at the fact that Gilbert remembers his name, that he rolls it around on his tongue as if he wants to make it his own.
Alex knows he doesn’t have much going for him – that he doesn’t have the looks or the tact, really, to have a similar effect on Gilbert. But he angles his head anyway, looks up at Gilbert sweetly, relies on the expressiveness that he’s never been able to keep out of his eyes. “I haven’t. Mais il semble que j'ai raté.”
The corner of Gilbert’s mouth quirks up, and slides his library card forward for Alex to scan. Alex notices that it’s a guest card rather than a student or faculty card.
“You don’t go here? Or work here?” Alexander asks. He’s not sure what he’d assumed either about Gilbert’s (rather ambiguous) age, or about his standing at the university.
“Non,” he answers simply. “Mais my work is… how you say… unpredictable, and I know many people here. When I have free time, I come. It is more interesting than sitting at home. I meet interesting people.” He winks.
Alexander can feel himself blush, and he looks down, ashamed of how easily he’s been letting people get under his skin lately. He scans the books that Gilbert has selected, which include one that is almost entirely photographs of Greek statuary, several collections of contemporary photography, and one Roland Barthes text.
“You’re a photographer?” Alexander gleans.
Gilbert tilts his head and looks at him quizzically, and Alexander has the distinct feeling that he’s missing something. “Yes, you could say that.”
And he can’t get over the fucking perfection of Gilbert’s face. He can’t get over the way that he’s still smiling at Alexander so generously. He can’t get over the fact that he’s being flirted with by this gorgeous man, purposefully, for the second time, so he swallows his insecurities and says, “Well, if you’re ever practicing your nudes and happen to be looking for a model…”
He grabs the due date slip that’s printing beside him and scribbles his number on the back, sliding it over the desk before he can lose his nerve. Gilbert’s fingers brush his as he takes the paper, and Alexander’s heart hammers in his throat.
He looks up in time to see the look on Gilbert’s face: a nearly unreadable combination of pleasant surprise and something that threatens to devour Alexander whole.
“I would like that, Alexandre,” he says, with a quiet intensity, his voice low and gravelly. “I would like that very much.”
Gilbert’s phone goes off before Alexander is forced to come up with a response, before he’s forced to fight the thrumming in his veins and the stirrings in his cock that the force of Gilbert’s gaze had wrought.
Jesus, he thinks to himself. He shouldn’t be this worked up over a conversation. He needs to be fucked. He needs someone to fuck him so hard that he finally, finally, stops thinking. Through the fear of being entirely out of his league, he suddenly hopes beyond hope that Gilbert calls.
Gilbert finishes his conversation, makes a show of slowly tucking Alexander’s receipt in his pocket, and picks up his stack of books. “I have another engagement, I apologize. But I very much hope to be seeing you soon, Alexandre.”
He strides out of the library, and Alex feels just as wrecked as before, but a little less trapped in his own mind.
He sleeps well that night, for the first time in a long time. He wakes up on Thursday morning, the day he’s set to meet with Washington, feeling like he might be able to hold things together. Like he might finally be regaining control.
That cushioned feeling lasts through a quiet breakfast with John, through his walk to campus, and right up until the moment that his phone dings with an email notification. He flicks the app open with one thumb as he strides into the GSS building, opening doors with his elbows, a coffee in his other hand.
Dear Mr. Hamilton, it reads.
I am pleased to confirm that the Bersani Institute Scholarship Selection Committee wishes to invite you to interview on Saturday, December 1st at the University Club, San Francisco…
He can’t read the rest.
He closes the email, the mix of elation and fear and nausea hitting him like a hurricane, making him realize the fragility of whatever naïve semblance of control he thought he’d had.
"Mais il semble que j'ai raté" = But it seems that I missed out.
Thank you for the comments friends, you make me really happy.
Here's some Whamilton for your trouble <3
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Alexander sits on the first-floor landing of the stairwell in the Humanities building, his coffee sitting neglected beside him, his thumb hovering over the email in his inbox. Flag. Delete. Forward it to someone who would actually know what to do with something like this, like Eliza. He’s glanced over the rest of it, telling him that he’s responsible for booking his own travel to California for the interview weekend, and that he would be expected to attend a formal reception the evening before his hour-long panel interview in front of seven of the country’s leading academics.
He thinks, for some reason, of his mother, of whether or not she’d be proud of him. Because there is something bursting in his chest like pride, but its swallowed by the vastness of Alexander’s own inadequacy. It can’t get enough oxygen to sustain its own flame. He aches for his bravado, wishes that it was as simple to slip on as his ‘professional academic’ clothes, wishes that every single fucking success he had didn’t feel like a knife sinking in deeper, pushing him forward further, never letting him be satisfied.
So they’d liked his application enough to want to meet him. So he suddenly stands a chance to get what he wants. And now he has that much more to lose.
He wants to talk to Eliza, but at the same time he doesn’t want her excitement or her gentleness. He wants to be pushed, and wants someone who will understand that. He has over a month to prepare, but so does every other candidate, and he wants to outshine them all. Needs to. Doesn’t think he’ll be able to live if he can’t.
Before he fully processes what he’s doing, he bounds up the remaining flights of stairs, slips in the side door of the department, and knocks on Washington’s closed office door.
He barely waits until he hears Washington clear his throat before he throws open the door. Washington looks surprised, glancing up abruptly from the document he’s typing.
“Alexander,” he says evenly, glancing at his watch. “You’re three hours early, we aren’t meeting until four.” Alex watches as his professor examines him from behind the desk, Washington’s face still expressionless. Alex is amazed at how simply the man’s proximity alters his sense of his own body, but he pushes all that away. He came here for a reason. “Is everything alright?”
“Are you free?”
“Well… yes. I suppose I am.”
Alex takes that as all the invitation he needs to sit down in the wooden chair that he usually occupies, watching the beginnings of concern creep into the corners of Washington’s eyes. He needs, he decides, to cut that off as quickly as possible. He doesn’t need concern, he needs to be put through the paces, and he knows Washington is the only one who can do it.
“What are you working on?” Alexander asks bluntly. “As in, what are you researching right now? I know you got a big grant last year but you never talk about your project.”
Washington looks puzzled but willing. He removes his glasses from the bridge of his nose and places them on the desk in front of him. “Queer kinship structures,” he says simply. “Family.”
“Your argument?” Alexander volleys back.
His professor hesitates, and Alexander can tell he’s trying to read the situation, but Alexander schools his face into nonchalant interest until Washington finally gives in. “That ephemeral queer familial models were forced into being during the AIDS crisis, in terms of the structures of emotional labour and care that were established between lesbians and gay men, and that the neoliberal queer family today rearticulates these structures while adapting normative reproductive practices to suit queer desires.”
Great, Alexander thinks. Something he knows absolutely nothing about – just the kind of curveball that might be thrown at him in an interview and he would be expected to engage with.
“Don’t you think that ignores an entire branch of queer theory? Queer negativity, the idea that queer people having kids just means we’re assimilating back into what straight society expects of us?” He’s talking a little faster than he probably should, his frantic energy winning out over the torrent of other emotions clashing in his chest.
Washington knits his brow together. “Not ignores, Alexander. Critiques.”
“But, sir, you can’t use a political term like ‘neoliberal’ and then totally ignore the economic and social imperatives that make queer people want to start families, there’s an entire ideology – ” he rattles off, the coldness of his own voice making him sound distant and tinny in his own ears.
“That’s a reductive reading,” Washington interrupts him.
Alexander just keeps talking, needing desperately to get Washington to cede to his view, just to prove that he’s articulate enough, that he knows enough. “ – surrounding the reproduction of culture, and to think that can be recreated within the world of playgrounds and soccer practises is just – ”
Washington stands, his face sterner now. “Alexander,” he says, the command of stop clear in his voice. “What are you doing? What are you hoping to gain from this?”
“I just wanted,” he begins, but the command in Washington’s eyes stops the words in his throat. “I wanted to test my knowledge. Sir.”
“By barging into my office and trying to tear apart my research?” the hardness has dropped from Washington’s voice, but the concern remains an undercurrent.
Most of Alexander still wants to push, just keep pushing Washington and pushing his own ideas until Washington snaps and starts pushing back. But the more he talks, the more he can feel the quiet intimacy he’s become used to in the office breaking apart, exposing its fragility. Talking a mile-a-minute, citing ideas that he doesn’t fully understand – it’s exactly what he had done when he’d walked into this office in his first year. He’d shown Washington that he wasn’t ready, that he wasn’t mature enough to shut up and think, and that he wasn’t worthy of working with. And now, here he was, repeating his mistake.
Fuck. What the fuck am I thinking?
If he’s stupid enough to do this again, knowing what sort of reaction it had earned him last time, what’s to say that his hot-headedness won’t make an appearance at the interview – like it usually does when he feels threatened – and lose him his one shot at having a future in this?
I can’t do this, he decides.
Washington walks out from behind his desk, crosses behind Alexander, and closes the heavy office door that Alex hadn’t realized he had left open.
Wonderful. The whole fucking department heard that.
Alex drops his head into his hands, leans his elbows onto his knees, feeling his breath work itself into an uneven panic. He hears Washington sit down again across from him, and hears his voice, almost painfully gentle. “Let me be clear, Alexander, that I am more than happy to have you critique my research at any time. I value your thoughts. But the process does generally require… a bit more patience. That’s something you develop, and if you – ”
“I got the interview.”
Alexander lets the silence hang heavy between them, not lifting his head from his hands.
“Ah. I see. Congratulations.”
“You don’t have to say that,” Alex says, the back of his throat thick.
“We should start preparing.”
“I don’t want… You don’t have to…”
Washington huffs out a breath of air, betraying an impatience of his own, breaking his careful demeanor. “Alexander, do you want this scholarship?”
Alex wants to raise his head, to look Washington in the eyes. His hands, though, are getting wetter with silent tears that he hadn’t realized he was crying. And he can’t – he can never – let Washington see that. “Yes,” he keeps his voice as steady and poised as possible. “More than anything. Its my only chance at being able to afford my PhD, my only shot at making something of myself.”
Alex feels warm fingers brush his wrist, just for an instant, before they’re gone again. He stiffens. He fights the urge to move his hands from his face just to touch the tingling spot left behind, to trap the feeling there.
“Do you think you deserve this scholarship?” Washington asks, and Alexander can’t stop a sardonic, wet laugh from bursting out of him. He sniffles, needing to breathe, even if it gives him away.
“Are you really going to make me say it out loud?”
Washington sighs deeply.
Alexander can’t stand sitting at the desk anymore, feeling Washington’s eyes on him. He stands quickly, so that Washington can’t see his face, and moves to stand in front of the office’s single pane glass window, gazing out over the rest of the campus through the blur of his own emotion. He leans the heels of his palms on the window ledge.
“Sometimes,” Alexander starts, and his voice is so small that he knows he should stop, knows that throwing all of his vulnerability at Washington is irresponsible and pathetic. He can’t though. He knows he can’t just leave, not at this point. And something about Washington makes him feel like he won’t be hurt if he opens up. He trusts that feeling. “Sometimes I feel like it all clicks. Like I get it, you know? Enough to have something important or intelligent to say. But most of the time…” he loses his breath, staring at his reflection in the window, at his pitiful red-rimmed eyes.
“I don’t know if I can do this,” Alex continues, pressing his fingertips harder against the ledge. “I’m either obnoxious, or I can’t form an articulate sentence, just like every time I walk into your office, and I don’t want to have to watch myself fuck this up. Watch everything slip away, just like always. And I don’t want to waste your time, sir, on trying to help me when I have nothing to give.”
Washington doesn’t answer his confession, and he tenses, worrying for a minute that he’s said too much or exposed a part of himself that Washington doesn’t want to see. The man rises from his desk again, crosses to the small coffee machine he keeps in the corner, and sets a cup to brew. Alexander watches him in the reflection of the window as he finishes his task and then slowly walks to stand behind Alexander.
Alex’s breath hitches in his throat, but its quiet enough to hide as Washington seeks out his eyes in the glass. Washington stands only an inch, maybe two, behind Alexander, and doesn’t touch him – Alex can only feel his body heat radiate against the backs of Alexander’s thighs as Alex watches their reflection. Washington, a full head taller than him, his face almost unreadable but something intense in his eyes. A hot, swirling desire settles over the mess of Alex’s feelings faster than he can curse it away, and he prays that the embarrassing redness of his cheeks isn’t readable as anything other than the results of his crying. He’s already embarrassed himself more than he wants to admit, but – as if he’s drawn to them – he stares into Washington’s eyes in the glass.
He watches as Washington settles his broad hands on Alexander’s shoulders, watches the thoughts that play openly on his face as he makes the decision to, but his body still stutters at the contact.
“You,” Washington says, his voice low and close to Alex’s ear, “have a beautiful mind, Alexander. One of the most impeccable and inimitable minds I have ever had the pleasure to engage with.”
The sounds of the coffee dripping into the mug in the other corner only punctuate the intermittent silence. Alexander feels his heart jump into his throat.
“You,” Washington continues, “are the only one holding yourself back.”
Alexander feels Washington’s thumbs press into the curves of his shoulder blades, sensing the tenseness of the muscle there in the ghost of a massage. He winces as Washington hits a knot that’s been bothering him for months.
“You’re tight,” Washington breathes, and Jesus, Alex’s cock twitches at that. He digs his fingertips into the concrete of the windowsill, hoping to nullify that sensation, hoping that Washington can’t sense the dirtiness that Alexander is reading onto his act of kindness.
Washington works his hands over Alex’s back in earnest, slowly and steadily, and Alexander chances a glance up at the window only to see himself – a mess, his face red and blotchy – and Washington, composed as always, with a darkness in his eyes. He can feel the heat pulsing in his groin and he drops his head, looking away, willing himself to think of literally anything else. He wants to turn around, face Washington, do something absolutely stupid.
He doesn’t. He bites his bottom lip, hard.
“You need to trust yourself, son,” Washington’s says, his voice low. “You have so much to give.”
Alexander barely hears him, lost wondering if Washington can see, over his shoulder, the outline of his hardness, or the man can sense the effect that he’s having on Alexander. He doesn’t have to wonder for long. Washington works his hands gently up over the knobs of Alexander’s spine, coming to rest on either side of his neck. The moment his thumbs press into the tense bundle of muscle there, Alexander lets out a helpless moan, his nerve endings alight with Washington’s touch and his entire body craving more pressure, more contact.
Washington freezes as the sound of Alexander’s moan cuts through the room, a broken sort of cry, giving away far too much.
“I’m sorry, I…” Washington seems to struggle for the words, the warmth fading from his voice. He takes a step back.
“No, I…” Alexander swallows. Curses his lack of control. “I don’t mind.”
The coffee finishes brewing, and the silence is deafening as Washington walks away to pick up the mug. Alexander takes his chance to sit back down while Washington has his back turned, crossing his legs and begging his body to stop crying out for more of… whatever that was.
Washington sits too, his features pointedly blank, as he places the coffee mug in front of Alexander. Alex raises it to his mouth, just to have something to do with his hands.
“What I… meant to express,” Washington says, “is my unwavering belief in you. And my willingness to help you prepare for this, in any way I can. I am here for whatever you need, Alexander.” He clears his throat, looking down at his desk, distance between them.
Alexander marvels at the whiplash – how they’d gone from stilted debate to massages and whispers to the poorest semblance of ‘normal’ that Alexander has ever seen. He grips his coffee mug tighter.
“I think you should take today off. Cancel our meeting. Go home, relax.” Washington says. “You certainly need it.”
“Yes, sir,” Alexander breathes.
“Are you free tomorrow, around noon?” Washington asks suddenly. “I know Friday isn’t our usual meeting day.”
“Absolutely,” Alexander answers a little too quickly, grasping at the offering of a comfort zone. “I have everything ready, but I’ll go over it again tonight, and then when we meet – ”
“Not for that, Alexander. For lunch.”
“If you’re comfortable with that, that is. I don’t want you to feel as if we’re crossing any boundaries you would rather not cross.”
“Oh, um.” Alexander says stupidly. Is he really asking me to lunch? “No, I don’t – I’m not concerned.”
“Good,” Washington says. “Because there’s someone I’d like you to meet.”
Ah. Not that kind of lunch. Alexander bites the inside of his cheek. Maybe that’s for the best.
“Let’s say we meet at noon, on campus, at Einstein’s. There are usually fewer students there, we may have more luck with privacy.”
“That sounds good,” Alexander says, his wit having abandoned him beneath the layers of anxiety and lust. He only vaguely wonders who it is Washington wants him to meet. “I’ll see you then, sir.”
“I know you’ll make me proud, Alexander,” Washington says as he leaves. His certainty sits on Alexander’s shoulders, lurks in the places where he’d touched him.
He starts to walk home, barely making it two blocks before his phone buzzes. He expects it to be John, asking him to pick something up for dinner, but it’s a number he doesn’t recognize.
alexandre, mon petit, is there any chance you are free tomorrow night? i have an opening in my modelling schedule I am desperate to fill ;)
Gilbert. He deliberates for a while, before he eventually shuts the message without responding. He wants to, and god knows he needs to. And he might, still, later. But he’s barely processed the look in Washington’s eyes as he touched him, hasn’t stopped thinking of the tone of his voice next to Alexander’s ear, and he decides that it’s probably safer – for the time being – not to text Gilbert back if he can’t guarantee whose name he’d be moaning in his bed. He knows he has no chance with Washington, but he’d be stupid to fuck that up too.
He tables his desire, shoving his headphones into his ears and setting a crisp pace. He has a lunch meeting to prepare for.
Next up: the lunch.
Happy early mass-market-heteronormative-romance day! As an antidote, here's some pre-poly emotion porn + Washette backstory. <3
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Alexander dreams of a hard body pressed up against his back, of the strength of gentle hands, of unbearable heat. When he wakes up early, covered in sweat, he showers, scrubbing the feeling of dirtiness off of his own skin. He pulls on the outfit – white dress shirt, grey pants, his leather belt – that he had decided on the night before, hoping that its proper enough to impress whoever it is that Washington wants him to meet.
I don’t want you to feel as if we’re crossing any boundaries you would rather not cross. Washington’s words play on repeat in his head, along with his professor’s expression, the hint of uncertainty in his eyes.
And yet, it isn’t as if they are going to be alone. Not like Alexander so desperately wants. Those boundaries that Washington had brought back into existence, the ones that Alex’s own mind had been slowly chipping away at, must be more stringent than he thinks, if Washington’s concerned about meeting in a public place for a purely academic lunch.
Or maybe he knows how you feel, and he’s trying to protect himself, something in Alexander says. Pushing you away as gently as possible, without having to say the words.
He puts an end to that line of thought, replacing it with the things he knows he should be worrying about as he heads to campus.
He’s never actually been to Einstein’s. A small eatery with a distinct coffee shop vibe, it’s shoved away in the back of one of the life sciences buildings (which he generally does his best to avoid). As Washington had guessed, it isn’t crowded, full mostly of exhausted graduate students nursing coffees and professors wrapped up in their own work. Alex walks in, his nails digging into the leather strap of his messenger bag as he scans the crowd. He sees Washington first, already in conversation with someone, and continues to walk towards him, taking in the stretch of light blue fabric across the muscles of his back. He allows himself this, this one glance, before he shoves that feeling down where it won’t embarrass him any more than it has.
It isn’t until he gets closer, until Washington’s companion looks up, that he realizes who it is. And by then, its too late to turn back, to run out of the café and away from the uncomfortable juxtaposition that his life seems to delight in throwing at him.
Gilbert’s eyes widen the moment that he sees Alexander, but there’s only mirth there, none of the panic that’s coursing through Alexander’s body. He can’t imagine what his own expression looks like, but he knows that his mouth is open, a half-formed question on his lips. But he said he didn’t work here? Why would Washington…?
Before either can say anything, Washington turns around, a slight smile on his lips that falters almost unnoticeably when he sees Alex.
“Ah, Alexander. I’m glad you made it.” Washington stands, pulls out the free chair for Alexander to sit.
He doesn’t, frozen in his own bewilderment, not sure who he should be greeting or how. Washington doesn’t seem to mind, instead circling back around the small table to stand next to Gilbert’s chair, looping his arm around the other man’s shoulders and letting his large hand come to rest over the breast pocket of Gilbert’s shirt. “I’d like to introduce you to Lafayette. My husband.”
The breath all but leaves Alexander’s lungs, and he tries to remind himself that he knew this, he knew Washington was married, somewhere in the back of his mind. The Wikipedia article, and the heavy gold ring on his finger…
But it’s Gilbert who shocks him, the easy way of leaning his head back against Washington’s chest and meeting Alexander’s eyes with his own, and Alex can’t stop thinking of his suggestive smile, of the way he’d drawn him in at the gym and the library with his accent and… fuck. Now, Gilbert’s eyes are less obviously hungry, and seem to be reflecting the confusion that Alexander knows is characterizing his own.
Alex gulps in a breath, and realizes four things in rapid succession.
The first, that Gilbert – or whoever he is – had lied to him. Washington had used another name, meaning that the man had obviously given him a fake one, meaning that he evidently spent his days prowling the campus for people to pick up right under Washington’s nose.
Which meant, secondly, that Washington was being cheated on, and that Alexander now knew, had proof of it on his phone, and could singlehandedly destroy his advisor’s marriage. Or protect it.
The third, that Washington had set up this lunch so Alexander could meet his husband, which was the clearest rejection Alexander could fathom, if Washington had begun to suspect any part of his feelings. That one stings more than he has the time or capacity to deal with, standing silently in front of them both.
And fourth, that the two men whose names he had been dripping off of his lips as he came in his own fist last night are both incredibly, undeniably off limits, for more reasons than he can now articulate.
For some reason he can’t name, it’s the first one that trips him up.
“You – you said your name was Gilbert,” he stutters slightly, his eyes stuck on the place where Washington’s thumb is stroking over the fabric of his shirt. Alexander feels sick.
“You’ve met each other?” Washington asks.
“At the gym,” the seated man explains. “And it is Gilbert, mais – ”
“He gets tired of English speakers calling him Gilbert,” Washington says, overemphasizing the ‘t’, bastardizing the French pronunciation that had rolled off of both Alexander and Gilbert’s tongues.
“I started using Lafayette to avoid that, when I got to America. It’s an old family name,” he explains, his accented voice gentle, as if he’s trying not to scare Alexander off. “But I pride myself on being able to tell when someone speaks French, someone who I can share my name with. I figured you did. And I was right.” Lafayette offers him a small smile, a peace offering, Alexander guesses. “But George here, he sticks with Lafayette. It is who I was when we met, so…” He shifts his gaze to Washington, above him, and offers him the same warm smile.
“Oh.” Alexander says.
Washington steps back from the table. “Shall I get us some coffee?”
“Oui, mon cher, merci,” Lafayette dispatches him with a squeeze to his upper arm.
Alex waits until Washington is out of earshot before dropping down into the chair that had been left open for him. His emotions are swirling, beating against his chest in patterns that he can’t interpret. Lafayette is still smiling at him, creases around his bright eyes. “Look,” Alexander says quietly, even though he can see Washington standing a good distance away in the line. “I know we’ve only met a couple of times, and I know that I probably have no right to be asking you this, but what the fuck is going on here?”
“What do you mean?” The look of sweetness, of innocence, on the taller man’s face makes Alexander grind his teeth.
“Did you know this meeting was going to happen? Did you know I’m his student?”
“No. I didn’t, not before now. He just asked me to come and meet the student he is supervising. He talks about you often. He does use your name, but I never put two and two together.” Gilbert raises his hands as if in surrender. “I swear to you that is the truth.”
Alexander shoves that fact that Washington talks about him to the back of his mind, focuses on the issue at hand.
“And does he know you’ve been hitting on me?” Alexander hisses, coming off harsher than he means to, but not willing to sit through a lunch without answers. “Or do you expect me to just pretend I don’t have a text from you on my phone inviting me over tonight? He’s my thesis advisor, Jesus Christ. You’re married.” Alexander presses his palms against his eyes, removing them in time to see Gilbert sigh deeply, cast a glance over to Washington’s position in the line. He’s barely moved. “Look, Gilbert – Lafayette – whatever, I can’t be caught up in the middle of this, if there are issues between you and Washington, just… find someone else to fill that because I can’t – ”
“Alexandre, stop,” Lafayette lays a hand on his forearm. “Just stop talking and listen. Yes, George and I are married. We’ve been married for almost ten years. It has been an open marriage since the moment it began. It is what we both want.” Lafayette pauses until Alexander nods, conceding. Prompting him for more. “Our arrangement,” he continues, “is that – if ever we feel the urge – we may approach others. We tell each other when we want space, or time. It is only ever casual, and always with permission. It never goes beyond sex, or the occasional coffee. If either of us has questions, we answer them honestly. That is the whole of it.”
“So you’re not…”
“Cheating?” Lafayette laughs, a sound as bright as the rest of him. “Non, non absolument pas. Just living as we wish to. Living a fulfilling relationship alongside other things that fulfill us both. Do you understand?”
Alexander wants to say yes, but instead he asks, “Does he know it was me, specifically? That you tried to pick up?” He doesn’t want to imagine what that conversation might have been, and he isn’t sure if its because he doesn’t want Washington to know that his husband had all but completely seduced him, or if its because he doesn’t want Washington to think about him being interested in someone else.
“‘Tried’ to,” Lafayette chuckles again. “No, he doesn’t.” He raises one of his long fingers to his dimple, closes his eyes in thought. “Though, he would have, if you had come tonight. You may have run into each other at the door. Or perhaps he would have come across your photograph, after…”
“Stop,” Alexander says, something like want thick in his voice. He hadn’t realized how hard he’d been digging his fingernails into the tabletop. Knowing that Lafayette had meant to bring him into his home, into Washington’s home, maybe into their bed, to sleep with him. Knowing that he could have had this man and still left traces of himself for Washington…
It didn’t matter now. None of it mattered now.
“Why does he want me to meet you?” Alexander asks hoarsely.
“He told me you needed time outside of your books. Some interview you are preparing for. And he said that some of the work I do may be helpful to your research. I don’t know.” Lafayette releases his hold on Alexander’s arm.
“Okay. Let’s…” Alexander heaves an exhale. “Let’s keep it to that, then. I don’t need this to become any more complicated than it already is.”
“Do you find my attraction to you complicated, Alexandre?” Lafayette asks disarmingly. The heat is back in his gaze. Washington is paying for their coffees at the till. “It is not complicated for me.”
“I…” Alex swallows. Fights back the bursts of desire that explode beneath his skin. “I just can’t… I understand why this is okay for you, Gilbert, but I can’t put myself in the middle, not while I’m…”
“Not while you’re his student. Yes.”
“It would be…”
“You’re right. I understand,” Lafayette says heavily.
Alexander stares at Washington, in conversation with the cashier, a casual air to him that Alexander only rarely glimpses in his office. He watches for a while, savouring a rare moment of getting to look without Washington seeing. He allows himself, finally, to feel the disappointment that he had been staving off with fantasy.
When he turns back to the table, Lafayette is still looking at him deeply, as if he’s seeing something of Alexander for the first time.
“Just promise me that he doesn’t know,” Alex pleads, as he sees Washington start to walk back towards their table. “That he won’t know.”
“Oh, Alexandre,” Lafayette murmurs softly. “George does not know. It appears he does not know the half of it.”
Seconds later, when Washington returns to the table with a tray full of coffee and plate full of pastries, Alexander has brought down a barrier between the reason he’s here (interview prep) and the reason why, in another lifetime, he might want to be (the way that Lafayette’s still staring so intensely at him with the corner of his lips quirked, the way that Washington fixes Alexander’s coffee so carefully, as if it’s a precious act).
He distracts himself by running over his script in his head, the lines he’d prepared for an ambiguous meeting, describing his thesis work, his career goals. None of it seems pertinent anymore.
There’s small talk, the usual asking about each other’s weeks and workloads, but Alexander goes through most of it on autopilot. It isn’t the way that he had wanted things to go – he wants to be present, to fully experience what its like to see Washington outside of their usual four walls. But he can hardly hear himself speak. His attention is entirely caught up in the way that Lafayette’s hand rest on Washington’s thigh, and the way that Washington’s fingers trace lazy circles where they come to rest over Lafayette’s collarbone. To anyone else, Alex figures, it must look so casual. They certainly aren’t making a show of themselves – its nothing more than the comfortable, well-worn affection of people who have been in love with each other for a long, long time.
But Alexander can feel every single touch.
And he wishes more than anything that he could just sit back and enjoy the view, the radiance of the room when these two men are in it, the literal gorgeousness of the way that their bodies take up space, the warmth that radiates from them. He wishes he were impartial to it. But he can’t stop his heart aching for what he never had, for what he now never will, and he can’t stop wondering why the hell either of them would ever choose to seek anyone outside of the perfection they already seem to have found in the other. He can’t fathom it. He knows he can’t, because he wants it too much.
Its everything he can’t have, and everything he’s ever lost, bundled up in one.
“How did you meet?” Alex blurts, realizing too late that he’s cut off a story that Washington had been telling about a university senate meeting. His cheeks redden, not wanting Washington to think he hadn’t been listening, and not wanting either to tell him that the sight of Lafayette leaning slightly into his broad frame is deafening. Alexander plasters on a smile, desperately trying to corral his own thoughts. “It just seems like there’s a story there.”
“Not much of one,” Washington says, an easy smile on his face. So much of the tension that usually keeps his back ramrod straight has left his body, and Alex wants to drink in how relaxed he is. Wants to bottle it and use it to fuel fantasies he knows he shouldn’t have. “We met in New York, in the spring of 1999. I was teaching, then, but I still had connections to the art scene. The world was finally waking up to what we’d been going through, and some of my friends were getting gallery showings. I went to an opening one night, saw Lafayette from across the room, and the rest is history, as they say.”
“Oh god,” Lafayette moans, “could you make it sound any more boring? You left out parts. Let me tell it.”
Washington looks amused, rolling his eyes and eventually letting them settle on Alexander while Lafayette speaks. Alexander burns.
“I ran away from France when I was twenty,” Lafayette explains, leaning forward out of Washington’s arm, towards Alexander. “My modelling career was, how you say… at a peak. But I was tired of everyone knowing my face, and dreading the day they decided I was too old for magazine spreads, and wanted to be somewhere where nobody knew my name.”
“So you were a model, then?” Alexander asks.
“Oui, did you doubt this?” Lafayette tosses his head playfully, campily.
“So humble,” Washington says under his breath, shooting a secret smile at Alexander. He returns it, his body not giving him much of a choice, completely captured by the rarity of it. Like Washington is letting him into something.
“I wanted to do something else with my life, and I fell in with an avant-garde crowd and began to train in photography. I wanted to see what other people saw behind that lens. But I had no way to earn money, so occasionally I posed for shoots. All underground, never commercial again. I never assumed they would go anywhere. And they didn’t, for the most part.”
“I was teaching a seminar on contemporary erotic visual culture at the time, and was searching out works as case studies,” Washington adds, his eyes still on Alexander. “I had purchased a set of portraits from an amateur photographer, and among them were a triptych of Lafayette.”
“Completely nude,” Lafayette adds with a wink, dragging out the words. Alex feels like he’s about to break, both of their attention laser-focused on him even as they tell their own story.
“Yes. And, well, I was quite taken with them. I ended up publishing a paper analysing their composition. They even hung in my apartment for a time. Eventually, they were replaced by some other piece, and I forgot about them. But the evening I walked into that gallery opening, almost two years later, it was as if I was seeing an illusion. Some sort of phantasm made flesh. I had to talk to him. If only so I could know the voice behind the face I’d been staring at for months.”
“That’s… wow. That sounds really sweet,” Alex says. He tries to hide the fact that, through all of it, he’d been imagining himself in Lafayette’s place. Imagining Washington’s eyes on him more intensely than they were now. All over every part of him.
“It really wasn’t,” Lafayette laughs. “I was seeing someone else at the time. George had more emotional baggage than either of us could carry. I was immature. Neither of us could figure out what we wanted.”
Washington finally turns away from Alexander, giving Lafayette a look somewhere between fondness and admonishment. “That may be a bit beyond the scope of this conversation,” he says.
“Nonsense,” Lafayette says. “Alexandre asked. He wants to know.”
“He asked how we met,” Washington says, turning back to Alexander. “I’m sure he doesn’t want every sordid detail of our life together. We do have more worthwhile things to discuss, after all.”
“I think you would be surprised what Alexandre wants,” Lafayette responds, quietly. The words hang in the air for a few seconds too long. Washington goes still, and Alexander looks at the table, suddenly feeling more like an intruder than someone who had been invited in so generously.
Desperate to avoid whatever threatens to come out of the silence, Alexander says, “Yes, Lafayette mentioned that you thought he might be of some help?”
“He specializes in depictions of the male nude in ancient Greek art.”
“The only academic thing George could ever interest me in,” Lafayette smiles.
“All self-taught, but he has been published. I thought it might be something interesting to dig into in terms of an historical literature review. Homoerotic art in this period would have been one of the first public representations of queer relationships where age differences were a factor. Contextually, of course, as background knowledge.”
“Et je pensais que c'était parce que j'étais ton garcon,” Lafayette says with a smirk. Alexander almost chokes on his coffee, but notes that Washington doesn’t seem to have understood the French. “Mais je suppose que nous ne sommes pas l'exemple ici, non?”
“A lot of Lafayette’s photography now works with capturing the essence of that erotic energy in contemporary form.” Washington looks proud. It’s a look Alexander has seen before, once. It’s one that he’s been craving ever since.
“Yes,” Lafayette says. “I would be more than happy to discuss this with you, Alexandre. But I left my portfolio at home, so perhaps we should meet another time? I would much rather show you.”
“Yes. Yes, I’d like that.” Alexander says, ignoring the suggestiveness that rang in Lafayette’s words, reminding himself of every possibility that had been closed off the moment that he Washington had put his arm around Gilbert’s shoulders, called him his husband.
Lafayette’s phone starts to ring. “Ah, its Adrienne, I must take this.” He gets up and walks outside of the café’s doors, speaking in rapid-fire French, leaving Alexander alone with Washington at the table.
“His agent, back in France,” Washington explains. “He goes back about once a month. He may have fled but he’s still the darling of the fashion world there, on the other side of the camera. He tries to balance that with his more artistic shoots but, at the end of the day, it does allow him to live a certain lifestyle.”
Washington’s body is still relaxed, making Alexander realize how uptight his own posture is. He hasn’t relaxed since he walked in, he realizes. He breathes, focusing on the calming sky blue of Washington’s shirt.
“This may not have been as useful as you were expecting,” Washington says, his tone still warm, still a vibrant ghost of intimacy between them, even thought Lafayette had left the table and Alexander knew it was all echoes, nothing that was actually being given to him by Washington. Just echoes of something real, that Alexander was decidedly not a part of.
“It was,” Alexander says, reaching up to tuck a stray strand of his hair behind his ear. “It really was, trust me. He’s very charismatic. I know I can learn a lot from that. Need to learn a lot from that.”
Washington smiles at him, all soft brown eyes and chiselled jawline, and Alex almost can’t take it. “Lafayette can be… all-consuming. Sometimes. It’s a beautiful quality. And sometimes, when we find it in others, its hard to know how to react.”
Alexander knows exactly what he’s saying. “I was too quiet.” If only you knew why, he adds silently.
“You have that too, Alexander. You have a way about you that fills up every crevice with light. But you don’t see it, and you don’t always use it when you could.” Washington brings his hand to Alexander’s back. He leaves it there. “You’re going to need to. It will get you places you can’t imagine.”
Alexander can’t think of a way to respond to Washington’s words, to the assignation of something as glorious as light to someone as insignificant as him. He shivers.
“You don’t need to quiet yourself in his presence. Or anyone like him, for that matter.”
“You don’t need to quiet yourself in mine, either. I don’t think it needs saying by now, Alexander. You don’t have to call me ‘sir’.”
Alexander swallows back the honorific. Wonders what would happen if he told Washington that he wanted to. Before he can stop himself, before he can think it through, he brings his left arm to rest across his chest, his fingers coming to brush Washington’s where they sit upon his shoulder.
The moment they touch, Washington jumps, withdrawing his hand as if he’s been burned. Alexander isn’t surprised. Can’t find it in him to feel hurt. He knows he’s been burning too hot all day. He knows, now, where the boundary rests in Washington’s mind. He forces himself to accept it.
“We should do this again. Soon,” Washington suggests, not acknowledging what had just passed between them. “I know Lafayette really enjoyed meeting you.”
“I would appreciate that,” Alex responds. “Only if you both have the time.”
“We make time for important things,” Washington says steadily. But there’s something in his eyes that’s still fumbling, still grasping for purchase, still searching for something in Alexander’s face. “And we both enjoyed this.”
Alexander watches Washington shrug on his coat and collect his things. “I’ll see you on Thursday,” Alexander says. “I’ll have another reflection paper finished.”
“I’m looking forward to it, my boy,” Washington smiles. He leaves him in the café, goes to meet Lafayette in the hallway as he finishes his conversation. They walk off together, Alexander watching as Washington’s hand comes to rest on Lafayette’s lower back, like it was meant to be there.
Alexander spends the rest of the afternoon trying to figure out why that makes him feel both meaningless and luminescent at the same time.
Tldr: Washington and Alex are oblivious, nervous infants. Alex needs to hardcore process some shit. Lafayette is my bae.
Non, non absolument pas - No, no, absolutely not
Et je pensais que c'était parce que j'étais ton garcon – And here I thought it was because I was your ‘boy’
Mais je suppose que nous ne sommes pas l'exemple ici, non? – But I guess we are not the example here, no?
what, another pal-entine's day update? i must really love you guys.
thank you for the comments, you make me happier than store-bought chocolates! <3
(also, sorry for the angst... i promise i will fix everything i break)
The weekend is a blur of research, marking, writing, and fighting off sleep. Alexander stays in his room, sustaining himself as minimally as possible on granola bars and mugs of coffee that he leaves to cool for too long. John knocks on his door, invites him out, pleads with him to take a break. He doesn’t. John goes out anyway, bringing back a different guy each night. Alex doesn’t really mind. He fishes out his earplugs and pretends to wear them until he hears John’s second hookup moaning something in a pitch of voice that’s just a bit too familiar. One that still sits right beneath his skin.
He tosses the earplugs under his bed. If anyone asks, he’ll pretend that he lost them in the clutter. He’s quiet as he closes his eyes to the glow of his reading lamp, finds the well-used bottle of lube in his bedside table without having to look. He tunes his senses into the sound of the moans coming through the wall, compartmentalizing them away from the familiar sounds he can hear John making, focusing on the depth, the darkness of the other man’s voice, as he imagines it coming from another set of lips. He’s painfully hard already by the time he presses his slicked fingers against his hole, his other hand teasing at tip of his cock, playing at being someone else’s fingers. As if his body has been waiting for it, has no other function than to be ready for it. He presses his eyes closed harder, lets his mind find its way to the image of Lafayette’s lips around his cock, of Washington’s fingers breaching him, of both bodies surrounding him, filling him up, taking apart his borders.
Everything throbs, his pulse hard and erratic, his mouth forming a single syllable over and over again, a name that he’s never called Washington out loud, only in his mind, only in these moments. He imagines the plushness of Gilbert’s pretty lips, their heat, their devotion. His hips stutter, arching off of the sheets and into his grip as he listens to the sounds of whoever’s pleasure he’s decided to co-opt as his own sex toy (and that’s all this is, isn’t it? he thinks. Using them as something they’ll never be). He’s leaking into his hand, trying to steady his rhythm, to keep the last shreds of control over his body. He scissors his fingers, gasps, wishing he’d taken the time to grab one of his dildos so he’d have a hand free to stifle the edges of the cries threatening to escape him. Wishes he could truly feel full. He bites into his bottom lip, hoping its enough, hoping that the restraint stifles the broken sound that comes out as he comes. Hoping that it distorts the name on his lips enough that it can’t be recognized.
And then its over. He lays there, catching his breath, listening to John and whoever he’s brought home continuing in the other room. He wishes he hadn’t thrown the earplugs. He doesn’t want to hear it anymore.
Because its not enough. Never enough. He can’t make it into anything more than the lonely desperation that it is. Not really.
And, like every time before, it leaves him feeling emptier. He cleans himself up sluggishly. He falls asleep thinking of a bed he’s never seen, but imagines constantly. Expanses of warm skin, hands resting over thighs and backs and quiet conversations no one else needs to hear. The two of them, Washington and Lafayette, perfect, together. Comfortable. Safe. Everything Alexander remains outside of, and everything he knows he doesn’t deserve.
John wakes him up early on Monday morning, making Alexander wonder how, after the weekend he had, he still has a seemingly endless supply of energy.
“Rise and shine, sleepy head, its midterm week and you know they always run out of coffee on campus during midterm week!” John throws himself on Alexander’s bed playfully, and Alexander groans.
“Fuck off,” he mumbles, pulling the blankets up over his head. The familiar pang of anxiety that he gets upon waking up – the endless reiteration of interview-thesis-funding that twists his stomach into knots – hits him full force.
“Ooh, looks like someone had a little fun last night,” John laughs, plucking the bottle of lube off of the table and dropping it onto the covers.
Fuck. He’d forgotten he’d left it out.
“Shut up,” Alexander whips the covers off, grabs the bottle, shoves it beneath the blankets where it can’t be seen. “You’re one to talk, you whore,” he shoots John a look that’s overplayed enough to know that he’s joking. John shoves him.
“Let me live my life, killjoy. Shouldn’t a fucking sexuality studies major be a little more sex-positive or whatever?” John says as he lowers himself down onto the bed, presses himself up against Alexander’s back, making himself the big spoon. Alex recognizes it as an offering. Its one that John isn’t usually in the space to give. He shifts back, curls into John as his arms wrap around Alexander’s stomach, his chin on Alexander’s shoulder. They both sigh.
“Midterm week. Goddammit,” Alexander mutters, remembering the test he has to proctor for Burr’s class, and the frantic emails he’s been fielding from first-years all weekend. “Can we just sleep through it?”
“We could,” John says, pressing his nose into Alexander’s hair. Just like before, Alexander thinks. He doesn’t say it. But nothing like that, at the same time. “I mean, if we want to flunk out of our MAs.”
“There is nothing I want more,” Alexander groans, the sunlight through the blinds stinging his eyes. “Can’t we do it dramatically though? Walk in and set Burr’s fucking non-office and all of his PhD draft work on fire? Wouldn’t that be more fun?”
“Yeah,” John nuzzles him again. “But then we wouldn’t get to sleep.”
“You’re right. You’re a fucking genius.”
They lay still together for a few minutes. John’s hold is tight, secure, just like knows Alexander likes, but he can practically hear John thinking, recognizes the way that he gets when he’s trying to figure out how to say something important. Alexander curls his fingers around John’s hands, seeking out the warmth, and tries to pretend that the moment is something that it isn’t. Tries to forget the reasons that he and John had ended things – because John couldn’t always be what Alexander needed him to, and neither could Alexander for John. Because what they needed was too similar, and often cancelled out what either of them were able to give of themselves. And yes, there were moments. Moments when those desires overlapped, fit together in the right way.
But neither of them could sustain themselves on moments.
There’s some sort of joke, Alexander remembers, about what happens when two power bottoms try to sleep together. He can’t remember the punchline, but he thinks he found it funny, once upon a time. Now he just understands it in a way that kills the humour. He couldn’t ever satisfy John because he was never quite happy pinning him down, never the best at giving pleasure in the way he wanted it to be given to him. Never really felt like he was giving the parts of himself he wanted to give. And it killed him that he couldn’t, sometimes. But it had also revealed what was missing.
“You never text me anymore,” John says, moments later.
“We’re roommates,” Alexander says. “We see each other every day.”
“We don’t… talk, though.” John says, a twinge of sadness in his voice. “Did I do something wrong?”
“What? No. I’m just busy. Like I told you.”
“You always used to talk to me though, Alex. Even if it was just ranting about the latest idiot in poli-sci. Never just… radio silence. I’m just worried about you.”
“You said that before. And I told you before…”
“I know, I know. You need to focus. I get it.”
It stops John for a second, but Alexander can tell there’s something left unsaid. He presses John’s hands into the softness of his stomach, just to feel the pressure there. Just to avoid thinking about what he knows John is going to say.
“It just seems like your focus isn’t on your work.”
“I’ve been working all weekend,” Alexander retorts. “I literally haven’t stopped.”
“Alex, I’ve known you for four years now. I can tell when you’re distracted. You’re working but… but its like your gears are spinning and all they’re producing is friction, they’re not moving you forward.”
Alex can feel the anger building behind his temples like a headache. “What are you saying?”
“Nothing. I just… I miss you, and I want to see you succeeding in the way that you want to, and I want you to be happy. And I can tell that you’re not happy. If there’s something wrong… You know you can tell me. I won’t judge you, Alex, ever.”
Alexander pushes himself out of John’s arms, rolls away from him so he has enough room to step over him and get out of the bed. He feels cold immediately. “I’m fine, John.”
“Is it Washington?”
Something inside Alexander snaps. “Why the fuck would this have anything to do with Washington?” He knows its an overreaction. A transparent one, at that. The coldness curls itself into a ball inside his stomach, makes him feel nauseous. He prays, prays, that John doesn’t bring up the broken cry of ‘George’ that had echoed through the room last night. Prays that he hadn’t heard it over his own act of chasing the emptiness away.
“I just know that he’s intense, and that he’s probably pushing you harder than you’ve been pushed before.” He sits up too, following Alex out of the bed. “I want to make sure its not… you know, too much. I want to make sure you’re okay. That you’re taking time to breathe between all those books.”
“I need to be pushed, John,” Alexander says, his voice louder than he’d intended, but still not able to contain the frustration rolling off of him. He doesn’t think before he says, “I’m sorry if it makes you uncomfortable that I’ve found someone who is finally willing to do that.”
The look of shock on John’s face twists a knife in Alex’s gut, but he pushes it away, tries not to feel the chasm between the warmth of John’s arms and the pain in his eyes. This is, he remembers, what he’s good at. Pushing people away.
“You know that’s not what I mean, Alexander.” John’s voice is low, hovering on the edge of a breaking point.
“Isn’t it?” He remembers their conversation in the office, remembers admitting to John his fear of how he people might see him, how his work with Washington might be interpreted. How he had hidden his own hypocrisy behind fear. “Isn’t that kind of your MO, John? Making things into more than they are?”
He feels like an asshole the moment he says it, the moment he sees John hear it. He feels even more disgusting knowing exactly what John’s getting at. What he probably sees written all over Alexander’s face, what he probably sees as a blow he has to cushion.
Protector. He always has been. But right now, he’s one that Alexander doesn’t want. Because maybe he wants to feel that blow, just once. Just to feel it, let it land, move on.
He can’t deal with John, not right now. He grabs his jacket, his unpacked bag, and slams the front door without looking back.
He avoids his and John’s office for the rest of the day, just in case. He bounces from coffee shop to coffee shop on campus, willing himself to focus, biting down on the word and trying to forget how it was used against him. It still stings. He and John fight, but Alexander knows this time he’d gone too deep. He knows exactly what he was trying to prevent John from seeing, and at the same time, didn’t know if his attempt at self-preservation had been worth it.
Alex also knows that John would understand, if he admitted how much he wanted Washington, his confusion over his lust for Lafayette, and how it was driving his motivation to work even as it left his head spinning. And that was the problem. John would understand too well. He would see right through Alex. He would try to soothe the pain, and that would make it too real.
It’s this that he’s thinking about as he moves on from his latest café, cutting across the courtyard towards the humanities library at a brisk pace. He climbs the concrete steps, so fully inside his own head that he misses the last step and goes flying forward.
He collides with something hard, his hand catching on grey wool to keep himself from falling, and it isn’t until he steadies himself that he catches the familiar scent of spice and woodsmoke that makes him think of Washington, and…
“Alexander,” Washington is looking down at him, half surprised and half amused. Alexander is mortified. “Are you alright?”
“I am so sorry, sir, it must have been black ice or something, I – ”
“Looks to me like you were thinking too hard, son,” Washington says. Alexander’s hand is still clutching his peacoat. He thinks about letting go, but Washington isn’t moving away, his hands in his pockets, their bodies close but not close enough. They stand there for a moment, Washington the solidity to Alexander’s unsteadiness. “May I ask what about?”
Alex’s brain scrambles. Pulls something up from the weekend. Anything but the truth. “Foucault, sir. They sent out the list of committee members for the interview, and Thomas Jefferson is on it, and he’s a Foucault scholar, you know, knowledge and power and personal freedoms and everything. So I started rereading his corpus, just to,” he swallows, worries the wool of Washington’s coat between his thumb and forefinger without realizing he’s doing it. It’s rough against his fingers. “Just to know it. Inside and out.”
His mind is fighting his body, the urge to stay close fighting the knowledge of the impropriety. The looks he can feel them getting from passersby. The echo of wrong wrong wrong that persists even among the want in Alexander’s blood. He decides he should step back, just as Washington takes his hand out of his pocket and rests it on Alexander’s upper arm.
“That’s a smart thing to do,” Washington says, softly. His thumb brushes across Alexander’s coat, a smooth gesture, gentle enough that Alex can’t feel it. But he sees it. Sees, seconds later, the condensation of his breath in the cold air.
He drops his hand from Washington’s lapel, just to see if Washington, too, will move, or if he’ll hold on. Show his hand. Show Alexander what he needs to know…
He lets go of Alex’s arm, shifts himself back slightly. Alexander regrets the space between them.
“I’ve got a copy of his subjectivity and truth lectures, the library doesn’t have it.” Washington says. “I can give it to you when we see each other next. Or, just drop by my office. Any time.” He raises his hand again, an uncertain gesture, a reaching out that’s aborted halfway through. He drops it back between them, an unreadable look in his eyes.
Alexander nods, not sure whether he’ll be able to speak with the sudden dryness in his throat.
“I have to get back to my class,” Washington says, giving him a smile that seems, to Alex, to contain just a hint of the regret that has arrested his own speech. “But I’ll see you soon, Alexander.” He makes it halfway down the steps before he casts a glance back, and says “You’re doing good work, son. Keep it up. Just remember to take breaks sometimes.”
And then he’s gone. He’s gone and Alexander is still flying.
He leans back against the brick pillar outside of the library doors, still needing the steadiness. Being in Washington’s presence for less that thirty seconds shouldn’t be doing what its doing to Alexander’s body, he knows that. He’s starting to feel like he can’t hold this any longer, not without it starting to spill over. Not without him giving himself away.
He pulls out his phone, opens up a text that he’s read at least a hundred times, and finally responds.
What does he say about me?
Lafayette texts back right away.
Yes. You said he talks about me. I want to know what he says.
A read receipt pops up, but no response.
Please, Alexander texts. I need to know.
This time, Alexander watches as the ellipses ripples across his phone screen, Lafayette typing on and off for over a minute. He expects a paragraph, expects the answer that he’s craving, but when the reply finally pops up, it’s a single line.
meet me at 4, einstein’s again.