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Almost cousins

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„Hello, I am back!“

„Hello, dear!“, Richard called in direction of the hallway.

Francis‘s face appeared shortly in the doorframe while he struggled with his scarf.

„This was the weirdest engagement party I have ever been to. You really missed something.“

Richard heard the sound of a metal hanger chinking in the cupboard, followed by shoes being kicked onto the floor.

„What happened?“, he called. „Did the bride elope with her former lover?“

„No. Much better.“

„Really?“

Francis came to Richard‘s desk and leaned down to kiss him.

„Oh, your nose is like ice!“

„It‘s still snowing. Everything looks like right out of a fairytale. New York in the winter is so lovely.“

They kissed once more.

„Besides, it‘s so cosy and warm in here. I will thaw immediately.“

„Yes, come here“, Richard said and slipped his hands under Francis‘s jacket. He drew him closer and leaned his head onto his stomach while Francis snuggled into him.

 

The generous living room was only softly lighted. A Tiffany-lamp on Richard‘s writing desk in the corner, another small one beside the sofa and the sparkle of fairy lights on the mantle of the fireplace – Francis loved them for christmas and often let the string of lights stay until the days got noticeably longer.

„How is the essay coming along? Did you have a good evening of writing?“

„Yes, actually I did. I didn‘t even notice it snowed.“

„No! How can you! It‘s so pretty, you should have a look!“

„Soon. Let me just finish here checking this quote and getting the footnote right. And then I am anxious to hear about the strange party.“

„Hm.“ Francis leaned down to kiss Richard onto the head. „Would you care for some port?“

„Yes, why not. Thanks.“

 

Francis disappeared into the vast expanses of their old-fashioned luxurious apartment. Richard heard the door to the bedroom closet, another hanger clinking, and then muffled sounds from their turn-of-the-century kitchen – 19th to 20th, that is – with the checkered floor. Francis reappeared, having his suit jacket replaced with a grey cashmere sweater and carrying two small crystal glasses. He put them on the table, graced Richard‘s shoulders and went over to the floorlength windows to gaze silently into the still slowly falling snow. He crossed his arms and remained motionless until he heard a loud sigh from Richard:

„So, that‘s enough for today. Sweetheart, come here. Tell me all.“

Francis strolled over to the desk, raised an eyebrow – he enjoyed quirky, weird stories, and the truer the better – and arranged himself onto the desk in front of Richard.

„Wait, let me move this stuff...“

Making himself comfortable on the cleared desk, he put one foot on the side of Richard‘s chair and groped for his hand.

„So. There was this really beautiful bride. Blond, goddesslike, a bit on the frosty side maybe, but one of the prettiest girls in Manhattan, I would say. She wore an adorable light blue dress. I asked Anne and she said it was custom-made. You know Anne de Larmessin?“

Richard nodded. He was glad he had had a good excuse not to put up with the society set.

„Then, the groom. Theo, you know. The kid James took in about ten years ago. Remember?“

„Of course. I might not be interested in the upper crust, but of course I remember Theo.“

Francis slapped him lightly.

„Wonderful suit. I will have to ask him if it was Gieves and Hawkes. Rather modern, tight fit, you know, but wonderful material.“

Richard grinned.

„Don‘t grin like that!“

He slid nearer to Richard and graced him with his stockinged foot.

„Where was I? Yes, the groom. You know, the strange thing is, I don‘t think he loves the bride. He couldn‘t even pretend to for one evening. They look like children who are forcedly fond of each other. Like siblings. But – nothing of this radiance or romance you usually see. Not only didn‘t they look into each other‘s eyes – they spent almost the whole evening as far apart as possible. There were some forced photographs – you know Anne and her connections – and the children smiled bravely, kissed even once for show. But besides that – nothing. No touching, no kissing.“

„Well, maybe they are not of the extrovert kind? Don‘t want to pet each other in public?“

„I don‘t know… Theo always seemed a warm person. A bit inhibited maybe, a bit too controlled, but basically, there is warmth in him. As for Princess Snowflake, I cannot say. But still...“

Francis looked pensively over Richard‘s shoulder.

„Something just seemed strange.“

Richard took a sip of his port and smiled:

„But that‘s not the whole story, I guess?“

„No! No, no. Now I am coming to the good part.“ Francis smirked, leaned forward and kissed Richard messily onto the mouth. „The really interesting part.“

He slid back a bit onto the table, sat up straighter and seemed to enjoy his role of narrator. Richard leaned back and smiled – he loved it when his lover was animated and happy like this:

„Suddenly, there appeared this rumpled looking dark haired chap. About Theo‘s age. In a classic chalk-stripe suit in which he looked completely out of place. Gorgeous in a dishevelled way, you know, like – I don‘t know, a savage trying to wear European clothes…

„Please, avoid such comparisons! Are we in a bad Victorian novel?“

Francis chuckled.

„But – can you see him? Really gorgeous, wild, untamed, floppy hair, burning eyes...“

„I see. Did you ask him for a drink in private after the party, or did the bride elope with him before that?“

„No, not the bride, you see!“, Francis cried delighted. „Theo!“

„What?“

„They disappeard together, very suddenly, leaving more than one of the guests puzzled. Anne de Larmessin looked as if she needed a doctor, Samantha Barbour sat down and was very pale.“

„And the bride?“

„She bit her lip and continued in her forced gaiety, behaving as if it was the normal thing for an engagement party to end.“

„I see. No, I don‘t see. Could you tell me again what was so special about the two leaving together? Maybe they got the car? Or, I don‘t know, some sort of surprise?“

„No, I stayed for more than ninety minutes after they disappeared, and – nothing.“

„Well, sounds harmless to me.“

„No, not at all. You interrupted me, I hadn‘t a chance to tell you all. You interrupted when I described this gorgeous cutie“ - Richard pinched Francis‘s leg and Francis squealed - „and the effect he had on the groom. You remember, no touching with the bride, distant, polite, weary gazes. And now? Theo was on fire. He couldn‘t take his eyes off the chap.“

Richard put his hands on Francis‘s thighs: „You think they knew each other?“

„Oh yes, they did. Definitely. Most certainly in a biblical way.“ Richard moved his hands up on the lean thighs in front of him and raised an eyebrow. „Theo hung on his lips and eyes as if tied to him by a magnet. They touched ALL the time. Really, all the time. I mean, just on the arm or a hand on a hand or what else men are allowed in public, but they couldn‘t keep their fingers off each other. And I forgot: they kissed when they first saw each other.“

„On the mouth?“

„No, both cheeks.“

„Well, Europeans do.“

Francis said dreamily:

„Yes, he could be a European. A foreigner, to be sure.“

„And a gorgeous one, I got you. And very probably he is fucking Theo right now until he doesn‘t know his own name anymore, that‘s what you want to tell me?“

„Yes“, Francis sighed, smiling blissfully.

„Darling, what bullshit.“

Francis opened his eyes offended.

„Sorry, love, but I mean – don‘t ship everyone with everyone. Only because they are chums from school or whatever. You will get yourself into trouble some day with your ebullient phantasy and your matchmaking.“

„In bed, you like my stories...“, Francis pouted.

„Of course I do. And I will gladly make up a story with you about the two later if that‘s what turns you on tonight. But – really. Theo intended to marry. Why ever should he be interested in a man?“

„Wouldn‘t be the first one, would he?“

„No, of course not“, Richard admitted with a pained look. „But I am sure there is another explanation.“

„But, darling – I know this look. This longing and wanting and devouring the other one with the eyes. There used to be a boy in college who looked at me like that...“

„Really? Who?“, Richard asked startled.

„Sweetie. You.“

„Oh.“ Richard let out a breath.

Francis cupped his cheeks and kissed him gently.

„Theo looked at this bad guy the way you looked at me back then. And I knew: he is lost.“

Richard hugged Francis‘s lithe body.

„What a crazy time it was.“

„Yes. And those two – I think they are going through the same sweet hell. You didn‘t see them. The flashes between them. The barely hidden desire. The heat...“

„Come here, gorgeous!“ Richard tried to scoop Francis up in his arms and, when he failed, pulled him to the sofa. „Let me see how the idea of those beautiful boys possibly giving it to each other turns you on. Are you – oh.“ Richard let his inquiring hand rest between Francis‘s legs. „You naughty boy. Tell me more...“

 

 

****************

 

Theo saw the flamboyant figure seeking shelter from the wind inside the entrance of Sotheby‘s and knew immediately it was Mr. Abernathy: tall, thin, a dramatic long black overcoat flapping around him, a purple silk scarf flipping in the other direction. The wind played with his flaming red hair while he desperately tried to light a cigarette, hunched over so the thick glossy catalogue which he had pressed under one arm wouldn‘t slide.

„Can I help you?“ Theo stepped near and offered a hand around the flame. Francis looked up surprised:

„Oh, Theo! Hello! It‘s a shame you are not allowed to smoke inside buildings anymore. Seems politically more correct to die from pneumonia caught in the cold than from that what gives you pleasure.“

Theo cupped both hands around the dying flame, but the wind was too strong. Francis sighed:

„Well, damnation. But Theo – you look awful. Are you allright?“

„Always charming, thank you“, Theo remarked drily.

„No, sorry, but it‘s true. Are you sick?“

Theo shook his head. He was translucently pale, had dark shadows under the eyes and looked haggard.

„Do you eat?“

He shook his head.

„Do you sleep?“

Theo snorted.

„How long is it we met the last time? Your engagement party – three months?“

„About“, Theo shrugged. He shivered.

„I am sorry it still affects you. James told me it was you“ - Francis saw the pained look on Theo‘s face and the need to be subtle - „listen, why don‘t we go for a cup of something? I am cold.“

Theo seemed more displaced and lonelier than ever. He always had had a sort of asking, questioning look, already as a skinny fifteen-year-old when he first turned up in Francis‘s world, accompanying James on business visits. The clouds of melancholy drifting around him had thickened, but now Francis was concerned for the first time: there was a raw, biting quality to his torment. Francis only knew that it was on Theo‘s initiative that the engagement had been broken up, therefore he had assumed Theo as the active part would be better off than the jilted one. The contrary seemed to be true. Theo nodded feebly, shivering once more. Francis took his arm and ligtly led him across the street:

„Let‘s go over there, it‘s quite nice.“

 

Inside the café, Francis laid the large catalogue onto the table between them. Theo raised an eyebrow:

„Are you looking for something special?“

„Sorry? Oh, no, no, it‘s not for pleasure. I am working at Sotheby‘s, you know?“

„I didn‘t.“

„Translating. Publications like these“ - long, elegant fingers lightly touched the catalogue - „but also for private showings or telephone bidders.“

„I never knew“, Theo mumbled.

„You are early American, I am 19th century France – our fields don‘t overlap“, Francis said amiably. He cocked his head, thinking about how to make Theo at ease when the waiter came.

„An Earl Grey, please“, Francis ordered.

„Double espresso“.

„Are you sure? You seem jittery enough already.“

„Kind of you, but I don‘t need a nanny“, Theo snapped.

Francis leant back. “Please bring us a bottle of Evian as well“, he smiled to the waiter. After he was gone, Francis looked at Theo:

„You need to dilute the stuff you are throwing into you, you know. You‘ll feel better if you are properly hydrated.“

„What stuff?“, Theo flared up.

Francis looked at him silently, then went on:

„You can deceive good old James. You cannot deceive me.“

Theo remained sullen.

„I‘ve taken various substances myself, believe me. But I never ended up in such a bad way as you.“

Theo sighed. His hands trembled when he tried to rearrange them on the table. His eyes were large and slightly unfocussed, and he seemed deadly tired.

„We didn‘t have a chance to say good-bye at your memorable party“, Francis tried to chat on innocently. „I wanted to tell the – well, bride or whatever – how much I adored her dress. I told Anne and hope she passed it on?“

Theo‘s smile was forced and weary.

„But“ - Francis got Theo‘s attention with the dramatic tilt of his voice - „there was another girl you seemed close to, and I hope you are not offended if I say she was even more beautiful than your – whatever. The red-haired one? In a wonderful light green dress?“ Theo‘s eyes shot up. „I went over to tell her that she is exactly the type Morgane‘s dreaming of when she designs her pieces. The perfect fairy. I think green looked lovely on her, but I encouraged her to try bolder colours as well, like purple or even dark red. The times redheads are constrained to green should be over, I think.“

Theo looked at him with a glaring expression. Francis sighed:

„Please, Theo, give me something. This feels terribly onesided.“

In this moment, their drinks arrived, and after the waiter had left Theo said:

„That would be Pippa. She was in the explosion that tore my mother to pieces.“

„Oh my god. I am sorry, Theo.“

Theo looked him straight into the eyes.

„Pippa was badly injured herself and possibly unconscious, so she didn‘t see Mr. Blackwell dying. As I did. I held his hand when he went.“

Francis covered his mouth and winced audibly.

„Theo, I am so sorry. I – I just didn‘t know that. Please excuse my insensitivity.“

„That‘s allright. You wanted to know about Pippa.“

They stayed silent.

„And you are right. I am fond of Pippa, very much so, but she won‘t have me. Claims I see the last connection to my mother in her, and that‘s not really her I love, and that it would be kind of therapy if we ended up together and that it‘s unhealthy. She learned stuff like that in the Swiss sanitarium where she spent the years after the accident.“

Francis pursed his lips as if he wanted to share something, but then he bit them and remained silent. Theo took a nervous sip of his coffee and shrank back from the heat. Francis filled a glass with water and pushed it in Theo‘s direction. They looked at each other, Theo exhausted and white.

„But it happened long ago. As you know“, Theo sighed.

„Is – is it still the aftermath of the explosion you are suffering from now, or – forgive me for being intrusive – is there something else bothering you?“

Theo took off his glasses, grunted and rubbed at his eyes violently. They were pink-rimmed.

„Oh, Mr. Abernathy...“

„Please call me Francis. We would almost have been cousins if you had gone ahead with the wedding. Four or five times removed, but – cousins.“

Theo smiled feebly:

„I should have liked to have you as a cousin. Even five times removed.“

Francis smiled. Theo looked at him:

„Oh Francis, I am in a muddle. A terrible muddle.“

„Muddles are the worst.“

Theo nodded. He rubbed his nose, once more at his eyes, and put the glasses up again. He looked straight at Francis:

„You live with a man, I heard?“

„Yes, I do.“

„And – is it difficult?“

„How do you mean?“, Francis smirked. When Theo gazed at him with large eyes, he added: „It‘s not difficult at all to live with the love of your live. But I guess you mean – the rest? Society? Parents?“

Theo nodded.

„It was easier for me because I always knew I liked men better. Richard had to find out first, and it was sort of a – longish process. He got estranged from his family, sadly. His mother always tried to keep in touch, but she died rather early. We don‘t see his father anymore. He doesn‘t want to.“

Francis took a sip from his tea.

„I got disinherited in the process“ - Theo looked up amazed - „but I didn‘t mind. I knew my grandfather is choleric and homophob. Richard and I managed quite well without his money. When he died, I was around thirty. He left everything to my mother, his only child, and she shared with me. She adores Richard, you know. She gave us the apartment we live in, and – some money. I am – not poor now.“

Theo smirked: „So I heard.“

„Looking back, I regret nothing. It was the best decision to follow my heart.“

Francis looked Theo straight into the eyes. Theo blinked several times and let his eyes roam the café nervously.

„And – you would do it again? Follow your heart?“

„Of course. It‘s the only way.“

„What a romantic you are.“

Francis cocked his head and smiled:

„And you, what are you?“

„Scarred. Intimidated. Frozen.“, Theo replied slowly and gravely.

„No, Theo, don‘t say that! You are not frozen. Please.“

Theo looked at him with such disturbing, heartwrenching pain in his eyes that Francis decided to come to the point he had always aimed at:

„I saw you so alive. So glowing and radiant and alive. You are not frozen.“

„When?“

„At your party.“

„At the party? Are you sure?“

„Yes, absolutely. There was this rather dishevelled looking guy in a chalk-stripe suit – dark hair, dark eyes?“

„Oh my god“, Theo groaned. He covered his face with his hands.

„You know whom I mean?“, Francis nudged gently when Theo remained silent and bent over.

Theo nodded and lifted his head. With despair in his eyes, he mumbed softly: „It‘s Boris.“

„Who is he?“, Francis asked.

Theo sighed loudly and seemed even more tantalised. Slowly, he raised his eyes, looked at Francis and started very softly, almost like reciting a poem in trance:

„Boris is – everything. He is the friend of my heart. My despair and my greatest joy. The one who makes me feel alive. A livegiving mess. An outcast. Pulling me down, lifting me to paradise.“ Theo looked at Francis, undone and all his guards down. „The love of my life“, he added helplessly.

He stopped, exhausted and with misty eyes. Francis, who had held his breath during the short speech, let it out and whispered:

„You claim once more you are not a romantic...“

They looked at each other, Francis overwhelmed, Theo on the verge of tears. Francis tried to guide the confession into more conventional paths:

„Where did you meet him?“

„In Vegas. My father took me there to live with him, but he was absent most of the time. Boris and I practically lived together. We used to share a bed. He“ - Theo hesitated - „used to hold me in his arms all night.“ („So much for conventional paths“, Francis thought.) „There was – more“, Theo added almost inaudibly. He looked at Francis, vulnerable and devastated. „It was the best sex I ever had. Ever“, he added.

„Oh Theo“, Francis sighed. „And where is Boris now?“

Theo let his head sink:

„In Antwerp. That‘s where he lives.“

„Is he Dutch?“

„No, Russian.“ Francis nodded.

„I went to see him there after christmas. We talked about Vegas, and we had a terrible row.“

„Why?“

Theo put his forehead into his hands and let a finger run over his mouth. He looked around at the mostly deserted café and continued softly:

„We remembered Vegas. What we did there. And Boris said – he said“ - Theo took his glasses away again and shook his head - „he said I was the gay one. Just me.“ Francis nodded. „I mean, what‘s this bullshit?“ Theo‘s voice grew louder. „He enjoyed it as well as I did! He couldn‘t lie to me about that, I felt him! I know he liked it as much as I did!“

„I am sure you are right, dear“, Francis whispered. „I am sorry.“

Theo became even more agitated and talked louder:

„And then, he had the guts to come here last week. Right to Hobie‘s. And he told me right into my face that our fucking was the only fucking that didn‘t leave him feel numb. Can you believe it?“

„Theo, please...“ Francis looked at the waiter and some other patrons who perked their ears. Francis put one of his hands onto Theo‘s. „He came all the way from Antwerp to tell you that?“

Theo nodded, tears in his eyes.

„And what did you reply?“

He sniffed: „Nothing. I cried. Then he left.“

Francis handed him a handkerchief.

„Sorry, I think I have to cry again“, he sobbed, hiding his eyes behind the soft cotton. Francis drank the rest of his tea and crossed his legs. He waited until Theo looked up again.

„Did you hear from him since?“, he asked sympathetically.

„No.“ Theo wiped his eyes once more. He looked worse than ever, his delicate nose pink and his cheeks flushed.

„So, what do you plan to do?“

„Do I have to do anything?“

Francis gave him a stern look:

„Yes, you do. This guy came all the way from Europe to tell you that you were right, actually. That what you shared was an extraordinary, life-altering experience for him as well. Now it‘s your turn.“

Theo gazed onto the table.

„I love him“, he whispered.

„Go tell him. Don‘t tell me.“ Francis raised his eyebrows.

When Theo looked up, his face was changed. Still blotchy and undone, but here was a glimmer of hope in his eyes at last. He sniffed once more and nodded slowly.

 

 

*******************

 

 

Six weeks later, Francis found a letter in their mailbox with a foreign stamp. He read it, leaning on the kitchen counter where a magnificent vase of yellow tulips stood next to his steeping tea.

„My love, you smile?“

Francis went to the dining nook in the bay window and handed the letter to Richard:

„Read this.“

Richard kissed his hand before adjusting his reading glasses:

„Dear Francis,

Antwerp in spring is prettier than I ever had imagined. There are budding flowers and bursting blossoms everywhere. The air is full of scents, and everything is vibrantly alive and getting more so every day.

I will stay for a while, but we hope to see you and Richard when we get back.

And – thank you. You know what for.

 

Fondly, your cousin-in-love T.“

 

Francis and Richard smiled at each other.

„Is it just me, or is this a fairytale?“