pourquoi le monde
“The smooth folds of her dress concealed a tumultuous heart, and her modest lips told nothing of her torment. She was in love.”
― Gustave Flaubert
On this morning, the rain finally stopped. It had been falling for nearly a week – much needed after a scorching July – and now the scent of wet grass wove through the air, entwining with the threads of wildflowers, rosemary, and lavender to become an intricate tapestry of fragrance.
Andrew rose slowly to wakefulness, breathing in the garden through the open window. The tender breeze pushed at the curtains, letting the light spill into the room and over the rumpled sheets left where Neil had already risen. Andrew’s fingers reached for the dip in the mattress and flattened there. He breathed in and out, out and in, on the edge of wakefulness, feeling only a lightness in his chest and peace in the quiet morning.
He rose eventually, stretching languorously and slow, and scratching down his stomach, and playing for a moment with his cock before yawning and rolling out of bed. Neil had used him up last night. Today he felt sated and content, just like the world outside now it was watered and lush.
Glancing out of the window, he could see that the rain had washed away the last traces of silver-grey buds from the lavender fields, leaving them vibrant and purple and rich with perfume. Neil would be out there already – his hair shocking red, his skin freckled and bronze, his voice caterwauling into the morning without a care, singing to the flowers and the farm and the freedom he’d found here in the hills of Provence. Andrew stretched again and padded downstairs to find the coffee that his husband of eighteen months had no doubt left him.
He was still in the nude, sitting at the island in the kitchen with a pain au chocolat in one hand and the newspaper in the other when he heard offkey whistling from beyond the terrace. Andrew kept eating, not looking up until an arm curled over his shoulder and tipped his chin up for a kiss.
“Je t'aime nue,” Neil said. “You are so beautiful.”
Andrew hummed against his mouth, letting his lips quirk against Neil’s before pulling back. “I saw the rain worked its magic.”
“Oui, just in time for Katelyn and Erin too.” Neil turned so he was leaning against the island, facing Andrew. His expression was soft and warm. The smell of the fields clung to him. Or maybe that was the fresh sprigs of lavender poking from his gages. “You know, they have a surprise this year.”
Andrew’s eyes narrowed. “I hate surprises.”
“I know, which is why I’m telling you one is coming.”
“They’re arriving today.”
“Is it a good surprise?”
“You’ll be determined to hate it either way, so I’m not telling you anything more.” Neil chewed his lower lip, watching Andrew with amused blue eyes. “But I trust you to be on your best behaviour in front of Erin.”
“Nathaniel,” Andrew said, his tone low and dangerous. “What exactly about this surprise is going necessitate you telling me to play nice for the runt?”
Unfortunately for Andrew, it had been a long time since Neil bothered to take his warnings seriously. Instead, the flower farmer smiled again, a swift and sharp thing that cut Andrew as easily as it had all those years before. “Get dressed, let’s go look at the fields before they get here.”
Andrew slid off the stool and pressed himself up against Neil in his abhorrent dungarees. His fingers traced down Neil’s bare arm, slipped around his wrist. “How about you help me with that, monsieur?”
Neil’s pulse picked up below his fingertips and Andrew gentled them both back upstairs, back to the tangled white sheets and the room filled with soft golden sunlight. He pushed Neil back down on the bed, pushed the straps off his strong shoulders, and kissed him.
Despite offering to pick them up from Nice airport, Katelyn chose to take a taxi, which meant Andrew found himself listening for the tell-tale crunch of gravel from his perch by the pool all afternoon. He started to plan out dinner – crusty baguette with oil and balsamic, tapenades and unsalted butter, a salad full of tomatoes and sweet peppers, the crispy socca that Erin so loved. Maybe some fish, grilled on the barbeque, served with olives and garlic.
Perhaps Neil could make a lavender tarte tatin, he thought. Andrew was sure he could be persuaded. Then again, knowing Neil he’d already made something delicious, or asked the talented Anita from the boulangerie. Neil and Katelyn didn’t share Andrew’s love of all things sugar and cream, but Erin certainly did – turned out a sweet tooth was a Minyard trait (and didn’t that just make Andrew feel strange and warm).
She’s eight-years-old, whispered the voice in his head. Alive for nearly as many years as Andrew and Aaron had together, longer than they’d could each other friend as well as brother. Andrew adored her – Erin had her father’s intelligence, her mother’s ferocity, her own unique zest for life – and yet, sometimes, right before she arrived for a visit, Andrew would find himself counting the years. They would roll out in his mind like a vast cloth fluttering in the wind, sun-bleached but not frayed, each memory softer with time.
To distract him, he went for a swim and lay by the pool, working out the dinner menu until his ears finally pricked on the rumble of an engine.
The morning had turned into one of those lazy days in Provence where the temperature was high enough to discourage activity but not so cruel as to be uncomfortable. Andrew pulled himself from the warm stones and traipsed up to the terrace to welcome them. He left damp footprints in his wake, ready to be smoothed away by the sun.
He was ready for their usual routine: for Erin to come bounding towards him, all curls and smiles; Katelyn to follow with a velvet-soft greeting and the lightest of hugs.
“Uncle Drew!” came Erin’s familiar yell. “Uncle Nat! We’re here!”
“I’m fairly certain you just told the whole of France,” Andrew said, wrapping his arms around her shoulders as she barrelled into his chest. She was growing so fast. “Good to see you, runt.”
She pulled away, scowling, looking like she was going to say something when Neil caught her eye and she ran to him next. Neil laughed and she laughed and Andrew’s heart felt like a summer’s sky: clear and bright and happy.
And then he turned to the car, where Katelyn stood. Only she wasn’t alone.
A man stood beside her: tall and slim, with light-brown hair and dark blue eyes that had nothing on Neil. Next to him was another little girl with the same eyes but darker skin. A pretty thing, but not one that Andrew recognised. His stomach dropped, hairs on his arm prickling.
“Andrew,” Katelyn said, and her voice held a wariness he hadn’t heard in almost a decade. “This is Jonas and his daughter Lina. They are our very good friends.”
Andrew looked from Katelyn to Neil, Neil to Katelyn. Katelyn had the good sense to look nervous, her hands clasped in front of her chest and brows pinched despite her smile. Neil on the other hand wore a wide, lazy grin that told Andrew he had been expecting this all along.
“Thank you for welcoming us into your beautiful home,” Jonas said. He spoke in French, but his accent was thick, high German.
Andrew didn’t reply, moving only to cross his arms. He didn’t have any words. He couldn’t offer platitudes. Katelyn and Neil had done this together and the only thing he could do was clench his fists and stop himself from walking away.
“We’re happy to have you,” Neil said, stepping in with a roll of his eyes in Andrew’s direction. “Please, let’s get your bags inside and you can freshen up before tea.”
A surprise, Neil had said. Not a fucking ambush.
“Are me and Lina in the same room, Uncle Nat?”
“Yup, I made up two beds especially for you upstairs in your usual room. Do you want to rush ahead? We’ll meet you up there.”
“Yes! That’s my favourite room. Thank you! Liiiinnnnaaaa let’s go.” Erin grabbed the smaller girl by the hand and grinned a grin that was all Aaron. “You’re gonna love it.”
The girls bounced inside, leaving their backpacks on the terrace and their bags at their parents feet. Katelyn and Jonas shared a glance. Andrew’s knuckles nearly popped.
Anger, for Andrew, had always been easy – easier than loss or fear or vulnerability. With the kids gone, it scoured through him but he didn’t know where to direct it. At Neil, for hiding this from him? Katelyn, for not trusting him enough to tell him? Jonas for showing up unannounced, uninvited, and most definitely unwelcome?
“I left my book by the pool,” Andrew said, turning away before he could do anything that would be considered unforgivable.
“Andrew, wait,” Katelyn was the one who followed.
Andrew didn’t wait. Dimly, he was aware of her following, whilst Neil took Jonas’ elbow, guiding him inside with promises of cold juice and a shower.
“Andrew, I didn’t mean to upset you, I just –”
“Shut the fuck up,” he replied. “I’m walking away because I don’t want to do anything that might upset Erin, so give me five fucking minutes to compute what’s just walked into my house and back the fuck off.”
“I’m sorry, Andrew,” her apology was quiet but he heard it all the same.
He looked over his shoulder, sneering. Apologies like this meant nothing to Andrew. They were empty – asking for forgiveness that wasn’t yet earned. “You know what I think of sorry.”
She winced and dropped her head. She let him walk away.
He was wearing speedos.
Jonas – the snake in the grass, the changling husband, the usurper of brothers – was wearing speedos. And he was lying on Andrew’s deck chair.
He raised his head as Andrew grew close to the pool, “Good morning.”
Andrew raised two fingers and tried – failed – to make his mouth twitch into a smile.
“Are you feeling better this morning? A good night’s sleep is so good for the soul.”
“Sure,” Andrew said. His stomach had ached since he returned to the house yesterday afternoon, twisted into a knot of anger and betrayal and hurt. Focusing on Erin, he’d made it through the evening and the dinner he’d so meticulously planned, before excusing himself early on the pretence of feeling a little heat stroke. He’d ignored Neil when he came to bed, too stung by the day’s surprise to speak to him. Neil had sighed and pressed his mouth to Andrew’s shoulder, before putting space between them for the night. He couldn’t say he’d slept well. “Just dandy.”
The morning, which seemed so welcoming and fresh moments before, now soured. Andrew’s ears snagged on the buzzing of wasps, the stench of the garden felt oppressive so early in the day, the sun glared across from where it had rise above the red-stained Alps. Everything felt wrong.
Jonas was wearing speedos.
Slipping into the pool, Andrew let himself sink to the bottom – ears filling with the muted silence of the water, eyes stinging as he opened them and pushed off. He went back and forth, back and forth, pushing himself and pushing himself, making himself forget everything in the ache and strain of his strokes.
The quiet inside his skull was ruined by two small bodies slamming into the water. Lina and Erin spluttered up to the surface, cackling their heads off as Andrew jerked to a stop. They paddled over to him, and Erin reached out to cling to his shoulder, whilst Lina lingered a little further off. She was younger than Erin, as he’d learnt the night before, but had Jonas’s height and they were now competing on the same swim team. That was how Katelyn and Jonas met, the swim meets.
“She loves swimming,” Katelyn had said, knowing that Andrew had also found a love for the water since arriving in France all those summers ago. “Don’t you Lina?”
There had been no response from Lina, but Erin – faithful and lovely Erin – turned to Andrew with a proud smile. “Lina started even younger than me. She’s been swimming since she was two.”
“I swam with you when you were less than a year old,” Andrew had grumbled.
And in that typical way of children trying on the idea of adulthood, Erin had corrected him: “Yeah but you did the swimming not me, duh.”
Andrew hadn’t said much else at dinner and he didn’t know what to say now that he was accosted with two girls. Jonas sat up, took in the scene, and stood to approach the pool.
He was lean in a non-athletic way, limber rather than built; long-limbed, olive-skinned, and the speedos did nothing to hide what was clearly an immodest endowment. Andrew wanted to find him ugly or lacking or unkind or unpleasant. Unfortunately for him, so far Jonas had been none of those things – and he hated him for that.
The taller man joined them in the water and Lina went to latch onto him just like Erin to Andrew. For a second, Andrew felt fury burn through him – because if Aaron were here then there’d be no need for this stranger to be intruding in Andrew’s pool or stealing Andrew’s chair. If Aaron was here, he’d look just like Andrew, and Katelyn wouldn’t be bringing speedo-wearing anaesthetists with their precocious children into his life with Neil without saying anything.
Shoving the anger down until it was only a simmer, Andrew looked to his niece. “So I hear you’ve learnt butterfly. Want to show me?”
Katelyn and the girls (and Jonas) took their third day in France to do the lavender tour with Alfonse, Neil’s farm steward. It gave Andrew the house to himself, so he grabbed a beer from the fridge and another croissant (that he really didn’t need) and slumped on the terrace. He was tempted to smoke, but realised he was out of cigarettes.
He tipped his head back to watch the clouds. He needed to sort his head out. Yesterday had been awful, he’d snapped at Jonas repeatedly throughout the day and the other man was clearly beginning to lose patience. Plus, Erin could tell something was off and he couldn’t let her think that his problem was with her.
“Figured I’d find you here, mon coeur,” Neil said, his presence filling in the space at Andrew’s side and making everything feel at once a little easier.
Andrew huffed; he was still angry. Only a couple of days had passed since he and Neil were last properly alone together – but that lightness and hope he’d felt back then now seemed like a dream.
“As if I was going to subject myself to more of the happy family,” he said. “You lied to me.”
“I delayed telling you the truth.”
“You really didn’t think you should tell me about this? That you should have asked? Prepared me? Anything?” Andrew wasn’t looking at Neil. He couldn’t. Not when he had the overwhelming urge to explain. “I’m the spitting image of Erin’s dead father but here is this fucking asshole coming into our life, living in our house, wearing the smallest fucking speedos, and you didn’t tell me.”
Neil hovered on the edge of his periphery, a red and gold blur in the corner of his eye. Yet no matter how blurry or fragmented Neil’s edges were, Andrew could still feel him – the yearning to reach out and touch, the frustration with the situation, annoyance with himself.
“I wanted Katelyn to tell you,” Neil said. “I hoped she would and when she didn’t… I figured it was for a reason.”
“Yeah because I wouldn’t have been ready. I don’t want him here, Neil. I don’t know how to have him here like this.”
Neil didn’t apologise because the two of them never did – regrets didn’t work for people like them, crooked and broken as they were – but he reached out at last, knuckles brushing Andrew’s chin and said, “I should have told you. I will ask Jonas to go.” He was offering to take the hit.
“You can’t now. Not with Erin and Lina,” Andrew said and followed Neil’s touch so that they were able to look each other in the eye. “No, we get through this. I’ll call my therapist, figure something out.”
Neil was quiet for a moment, his brow furrow and lips downturned. “Perhaps you could try speaking to Katelyn. I know you’re angry right now and maybe this week you just need to give yourself time to let that settle but… she spoke to me about this guy and he seems to make her happy, treats her right…”
“Dresses like a nightmare.”
“You dress like a hippy who discovered the world’s largest free wardrobe. He wears speedos.”
“You keep mentioning those.”
“They’re an abomination.”
“I don’t know, they show how much he has to hide.”
“Are you fucking with me right now? You’re fucking with me.”
“What? you can’t keep a knife in those. You can’t hide any gang tattoos.” Neil genuinely looked confused. “It’s useful to know that he’s unarmed.”
Andrew’s lips curved upwards for the first time in days. “You’re not fucking with me.”
“Non? Wait. Were you about to be jealous?” Neil’s eyes blew wide, mirth springing to life in his face. “I swing for you and you alone, mon coeur. I married you.”
And yeah, okay, hearing those words never grew old. Andrew doubted they ever would. He lifted his hand and curled it around the back of Neil’s head. His fingers tangled in auburn curls and when Neil closed the gap, Andrew felt like he was coming home.
Andrew did take the week. He let himself be angry. He let himself feel the grief that swept through him every time he saw Jonas in the space beside Katelyn, the place where Aaron should have been.
He spoke to his therapist.
He spoke to Wymack, calling across the ocean because he knew that the old coach would listen and understand better than anyone else.
There were days when he felt absent and numb, like his body was going through the motions but his mind wasn’t really there. He smiled for Erin. He stopped himself from shoving Jonas into the pool. He made sure to be polite to Lina. He knew that Neil had had words with Katelyn because she was giving him space. He needed it. In the mirror, his eyes were bruised.
The sun rose and the sun fell. On the eighth day of their three week trip, Andrew plucked the car keys from the shelf and went down to the kitchen. Breakfast was already on the table – the sight of warm, buttery croissants and fresh fruit made his stomach grumble – but he had a plan and it was now or never.
“Katelyn and I are going out for breakfast,” he announced.
Jonas and the girls frowned. He could see the concern crumpling the edges of Jonas’ smug face.
“But we have breakfast,” said Erin, clueless to the tension now simmering in the room.
Katelyn stared at him. She was standing, holding a bowl of berries and yogurt, dressed in a flowing white skirt and a blue top that flattered her narrow shoulders and petit waist. “Oh, I forgot we had plans this morning,” she said, forcing smile. “Give me a moment, Andrew, and I’ll grab my basket.”
He waited, studiously not look at Jonas despite the other man boring holes into the side of his face. When Katelyn came back, floppy hat on her head and basket on her arm, she dropped a kiss on Jonas’ cheek and another on Erin’s head before following Andrew silently out of the door.
They drove in silence, parked in silence, wended their way down Antibes’ cobbled streets and ended up in their favourite café. This was where they’d had their first proper conversation after Aaron’s death, where Andrew had found out that Katelyn was pregnant with Erin. He ordered a coffee, a croissant, and vaguely wished that he’d chosen lunch time so he could order something stronger as well. She copied him, French a little less smooth than his own but enough to appease the garçon.
“So,” he said. “Talk.”
A sea-salt breeze blew through them, lifting her curls and reminding Andrew of the warm, wine-filled afternoons they’d spent here in the past.
“I know you don’t want to hear it so I won’t apologise,” she began. “I know I should have spoken to you about this first. I wish I’d handled things differently… I just didn’t know how to talk to you about it.”
“You could have started by telling me you were dating someone.”
Katelyn smoothed down her skirt and closed her eyes. “Yes,” she said. “I suppose I could.”
“So why didn’t you?” Andrew watched her, sipped at his coffee, started tearing his croissant into tiny pieces whilst her eyes followed his fingers instead of meeting his gaze.
“It’s been nearly ten years, Andrew. And Jonas understands me, us, this.” She sounded frustrated as she swept her hand around Antibes. He knew what she meant – that gesture encompassed her new life in Germany and his on the farm, it included Erin and the holidays they spent together, the birthdays they celebrated, the turning years and the grotto in the garden where Aaron’s urn sat eternal.
“Our complicated little family,” he said.
It was as if she hadn’t heard him, barrelling on now that she'd started. “Jonas is a good man. And it’s hard. Trust me, I know it’s hard. But he lost his wife and his daughter is only a little younger than Erin. He’s been brilliant for us in Germany and this… this relationship is truly the first time I’ve even wanted to look at someone new. He makes me feel wanted and loved again. He’s a good guy, Andrew.”
“I think you’re missing the point.”
She let out a frustrated sound and raised her eyes at last. They were flashing and dangerous.
“You know I’m not angry because you’re moving on,” Andrew said, words slow and steady. “It’s this situation. It’s the fact that you brought him here and I had no warning.”
“I know, I realise that. I just…” Katelyn trailed off, swallowed, took a long blink and looked up at the sky. Each motion was an attempt to gather herself, but it didn’t work. Her eyes glittered with tears.
“It’s just… I feel guilty. All the time. For so long it’s been just me and Erin, and of course you and Neil, and Nicky and the Foxes. I haven’t wanted anyone else since Aaron. Part of me keeps asking why our family isn’t enough? Why I need to feel this way? Why now?” She paused, lips and voice trembling. “If I’d spoken to you, everything would have felt so real. I miss him so much. I miss him and I love him and love that he gave me our incredible child. But I am falling in love again. I’m in love with Jonas too. I don’t know how to have both.”
“How am I meant to do that without giving Aaron up?”
She was crying now, fat tears sliding down her cheeks unchecked. Andrew was vaguely aware of the nearby tables glancing their way. He reached across the table and let the tips of his fingers touch her hand. “Falling for Neil was like that. I kept wondering if I deserved him, whether I was allowed to be happy when Aaron was gone.”
She glanced down at their hands, sniffed.
“You were the one who told me it was ok to go after want you want, even though he’s gone. You were the one who said Aaron would want us all to be happy. So, for a while, it was enough to be you and Erin and all of this,” Andrew mimicked her gesture to the sky and the café and the enormity of their new lives. “But it’s ok to have that be more now. You’re allowed to have Jonas.”
“I didn’t mean to hurt you, Andrew.”
“I know that.”
“I never thought I’d love anyone like this again.”
“I know that too.”
“Do you think you can ever tolerate him?” She didn’t need to specify who.
Andrew drew back, huffing and assessing her tear-bright eyes, the unhappy line of her mouth. “Jonas makes you happy.”
“Yes,” she said. “Yes, he really does.”
“Then okay. I can tolerate him.” Once upon a time, before France and Neil and the lavender fields, Andrew would have needed to broker a deal. He would have made her bargain for this, made her hurt like he hurt in the process. Now, he may not want her to suffer - but he hadn't changed so much to not at least demand something in return for his forebearence. “But there’s one condition.”
Katelyn looked terrified and for the first time in days, Andrew’s mouth crept up into a grin: full and teasing and smug.
“Let’s get the bill,” Andrew said, patting her hand. “We have some shopping to do.”
Andrew sipped at his rosé, keeping one eye on Erin and Lina who were practising their handstands in the pool.
He had commandeered back his favourite lounger, the one with the perfect view of the garden path so he could easily spot Neil coming and going from the barns and the fields.
Beside him, Katelyn was perched behind Jonas, rubbing sun cream into his shoulders and back. Glancing across at them, she caught Andrew’s eye and looked pointedly downwards. He returned the look with a thumbs up.
“They suit you,” Andrew said.
“Danke,” Jonas replied, though he looked a little disgruntled in his brand new board shorts.
Katelyn looked like she was about to giggle, instead she shook her head and buried her face in Jonas’ shoulder for a second.
Andrew sat back again, feeling light and satisfied. After all, his one rule was very simple and now it was being obeyed. There would be no more fucking speedos in this garden.
It was turning into a beautiful summer.