‘Shit.’ Is all Simon can think of to say.
That one word sums up the entirety of his life, as far as he’s concerned. He’s almost thirty, unemployed, and his artistic juices have been completely sucked dry by the emotionally chaotic rollercoaster that is his family. And now, to top it all off, he’s well and truly scared away the one person who had emerged from the shadows as a metaphorical beacon of light, to guide him through the dark shroud of misery that was his very existence.
Ben Theodore. Upon reviewing the situation, Simon can honestly say it’s possible that he idolised him, but it’s entirely justified. Ben Theodore is, after all, undoubtably, the greatest actor of his generation. His entire persona reeks of this awkward, enchanting vulnerability that makes the whole world make sense, and Simon is so helplessly in love, and he isn’t even sure if he wants to be with Ben Theodore or be Ben Theodore, but fuck, it doesn’t even matter anymore.
Letting Ben Theodore anywhere near his grandma’s house was shooting himself in the foot, numerous times. Between his mother’s embarrassing attempts to get him laid and Adam’s pencil case story, it was a miracle that a gaping black hole hadn’t appeared in the middle of the floor and sucked them all into oblivion.
Ben left rather abruptly after that, mumbling and stuttering and fiddling with his gorgeous head of hair as he shuffled out the door like a frightened rabbit. He had the look of a man who had witnessed the horrors of war.
‘Shit.’ Says Simon. ‘Shit, shit, shit.’
He’s been staring at his own reflection intensely for the last half an hour, as if he can somehow rearrange his entire face into something far less…less big. He’s contemplated surgery. Or perhaps just doing away with his features altogether. Who needs a face anyway?
The sound of the doorbell rings eerily from downstairs, but he’s too depressed to even contemplate answering it. This isn’t something he can just repel with shitty jokes or his usual crude, tongue-in-cheek humour; this is real life, and it sucks, it sucks balls sometimes. If he had anywhere near the energy to feel angry, he probably would have flipped every table in the house by now.
He resorts to grudging acceptance. That’s what he’s been working with since the day he was so cruelly snatched from the womb.
The bell rings again. The house remains undisturbed, and he knows that he’s the sap who’s going to have to answer it; Liz took Tanya and Clive to Claybarns an hour ago and his grandmother is in the back garden staking her dahlias. Even if he wasn’t napping, Grandpa wouldn’t answer the door, because that would require movement. Simon closes his eyes, brings his hands up to his face and gives a loud, jaded sigh before dragging himself to the stairs.
As far as he knows, his grandparents aren’t expecting visitors, unless Bibby’s called round again with her tortoise. Given the mood he’s in right now, both woman and reptile are about to be subjected to the most awkward bout of inhospitable silence they have ever experienced. Simon fiddles with the lock, cursing under his breath when it jams, but eventually, eventually, it opens, and he finds himself staring down into the bluest eyes in the world.
‘Hello.’ Ben murmurs softly, fiddling with his delicate white hands as he shifts uncomfortably on the doorstep.
It takes Simon’s brain a few moments to process what’s going on. It’s always like that when the actor is around, like his whole body goes into system lockdown and needs time to reboot.
This is it, his second chance. Ben Theodore is here on his doorstep and he doesn’t need to know why. Be normal, his mind screams. Fuck what they told you at stage school. Don’t be loud. You can talk to humans. Hi. How are you? You okay?
He can do this. He can exist in real life.
For fuck’s sake.
Ben’s long lashes flutter in surprise at this outburst, but he doesn’t move, having grown accustomed to this greeting. He gazes up at Simon through a screen of brown hair, as vulnerable and beautiful as ever.
Simon starts speaking long before his brain catches up with him, ‘fancy seeing you here! At my grandma’s house! This is crazy! You can come in – or not, if you don’t want to. What do we do? Do we shake hands again? I love your scarf.’
Ben doesn’t respond verbally, but the corners of his mouth twitch upwards and Simon feels his heart do a flip, ‘I-I’m sorry. But I was in the neighbourhood anyway…and I wanted to…to ask you…’ he makes a strange, waving gesture with his right hand, before immediately bringing it behind his head to weave his fingers through his hair, ‘may I…?’
Simon doesn’t realise he’s been staring gormlessly into Ben’s eyes until he hears this question, and immediately steps back to let the smaller man in. It’s only when he’s closed the door and heard the lock click that his heart starts beating again.
He’s not sure that he’ll ever get used to having Ben Theodore in his grandma’s living room. It’s like having the Queen, or Patrick Wolf, or…some other person of immense importance. Ben takes a seat, still fussing with his hands, nervously mussing up his hair until it sticks up at an end, but that just makes him even more enticing. Simon plops down next to him, hands going clammy.
‘So…did you want anything? Tea? That’s what people usually have, isn’t it? God, this is so weird.’ Simon rambles, unable to stop his mouth from moving, ‘Ben Theodore in my grandma’s living room. Sorry – you wanted to ask me something, didn’t you? Is it bad, is something wrong?’
‘Um…’ replies Ben, trying to catch up with him, ‘…no, nothing wrong. I was just…I-I’m not really sure how to ask…I was wondering if, maybe, you’d want to…’ he swallows, hard, like a child that’s been caught doing something they shouldn’t, ‘you see, when I saw you the other day…with your family and you showed me your cat…I-I can’t really describe it, but I seem to have…developed feelings…for you. And what I came here to ask is…would you like to have dinner with me…tonight?’
It’s strange, because, Simon’s been mentally preparing himself for this moment for the last three years or so, even before he had met Ben Theodore in person. But now that it’s happening – in real life, not the risqué fantasies he cooks up while he’s in the shower – he has no idea what to say. His entire brain is wiped clean of any appropriate response and he can’t even muster the strength to start warbling the Lion King again. He just stares into Ben Theodore’s timid blue eyes, opens his mouth and then closes it again.
It remains that way for at least two minutes, the longest one hundred and twenty seconds of Simon’s entire life. He’s can only ever recall being this speechless twice before; namely his conversation with Mel C about condoms on Buzzcocks and the first time he ever met Clive. But this moment surpasses them both. He might have misread the situation entirely but he’s almost certain that Ben Theodore has just asked him out.
‘Y-you don’t have to,’ Ben’s calm, hesitant voice brings Simon back down to Earth and he realises that he hasn’t given a verbal response yet, he’s just been staring blankly at the young actor for the last two minutes, ‘I mean, if you have other plans…’
‘Yes. No.’ Simon blurts out, and he’s not even sure if he’s just accepted or declined. ‘I mean…shit.’
That seems to be the only word in his vocabulary that’s working for him.
Ben lifts his hand, ready to touch his hair again, but changes his mind and lets it drop back onto his lap, ‘maybe, um…maybe I should-’
Simon leaps to attention like a meerkat, ‘no, no, I’d love to. Yes. Jesus Christ, yes. What – you mean, like dinner as friends or…?’
Ben’s cheeks cloud with colour, ‘if you want. But I was…I was hoping that…that you would want to…be a bit more than…’
Simon blinks. Once he starts, he can’t stop. It’s like the more he blinks, the more the information begins to sink in and he can come up with a response that won’t send Ben Theodore running for the hills.
He opts for a simple, ‘okay.’
That’s alright, isn’t it? That’s normal. He hasn’t even raised his voice, which is odd. Usually once he starts off loud, it feels too awkward to get any quieter.
Ben smiles again, shy and so bloody vulnerable as he looks up at Simon with those gorgeous eyes, ‘good. Wonderful. Um…so…I’ll pick you up at seven?’
‘Seven. Seven, yes, seven.’ Simon repeats, like it’s a mantra, ‘right. Brilliant. This is brilliant, isn’t it? So…what now, do we-?’ he cuts off as Ben carefully edges forwards and pulls him into a feather-light hug, ‘yes, wow, okay. This is weird. Dear God.’
It takes a moment for Simon to realise that he hasn’t hugged back yet. He does so gently, as if the actor is made of glass, pressing their thin bodies together until he feels like his entire head is going to explode. He’s holding Ben Theodore. Holding him. It’s like holding royalty or the bloody pope, or…well, Ben bloody Theodore.
‘Shit, sorry.’ Simon realises he’s been holding on just a bit too long and releases Ben before he suffocates him, ‘right, yes. Seven. Seven is perfect. See you at seven, for some eating and talking.’