“Mr Di Genova, are you and Mr Kaysani married?”
Nicky’s hand hovered over the wipe-board, the dry-erase marker poised mid-air and felt his head drop. When he’d asked the class if they had any questions, he’d been referring to the looming test on World War 2. He hadn’t counted on the level of interest a room full of 16-year-olds might have in his personal life.
“We are, yes,” Nicky said as casually as he could, recovering himself enough to continue writing up what areas of the syllabus they’d need to brush up on. “And have been for a few years now.”
He gave his class a moment, grinning as he listened to the sound of hushed excitement ripple around the room, knowing the second he turned back around they would once again have to feign interest in the curriculum. He and Joe had made an agreement when they took up their teaching positions at the beginning of the year: they wouldn’t flaunt their relationship in front of the student body but if anybody questioned them, they weren’t going to deny it either.
This was the first time anybody had asked either one of them outright and it had only taken a little over two months. Nicky, having more faith that people wouldn’t care, thought they’d be at least be able to make it to the New Year. Joe and his more conservative estimate were right, again.
He turned back to his students and the whispers immediately stopped. With his 1st period History class now focussed and on task, Nicky continued the lesson, waiting until the class had filtered out at the sound of the bell before taking his phone from the pocket of the jacket hanging off the back of his chair before texting his husband 5 simple words:
I owe you 20 dollars.
It took until the afternoon before the rumour mill caught up with Joe. He’d been aware that the kids suspected s omething about he and Nicky – rumblings of an It Couple portmanteau surviving beyond the student grapevine and filtering into the teacher’s lounge. They were Kaysanova to anyone taught by both of them and “goals” to all who’d seen the subtle looks, casual winks and the car-pooling to and from campus.
The nickname would never die now.
Joe always maintained that art wasn’t a subject you could sit and study and apply logic or confines to: perhaps that’s why his classes had proven to be quite so popular. He allowed talking, music and more freedom than most other departments dare extend. He thought if anybody would have been approached about he and Nicky, it might have been him.
But during the last class of the day and in spite of the floral still life set out in front of them, resplendent in a spotlight Joe had spent most of lunch setting up to give the kids a lesson in chiaroscuro, there was only one subject his seniors were focussed on and it wasn’t light and shadow.
“Did you hear what Faiza said about Mr K and Mr G?” One of the girls, a notorious gossip, whispered conspiratorially to her friend.
Her friend, a boy who could not have been less interested if he tried, responded blithely, sketching away. “Emma, if this is another rumour you’ve heard through the lunch line’s game of Telephone, I’m not interested.”
Joe was. He discretely hovered some way behind them, under the guise of checking their work but the smirk he tried to hide was an instant giveaway.
“They are married.” Emma was far too excited. “For two years!”
“Five, actually.” Joe couldn’t help himself. Everyone turned to look at him, the two students before him visibly jumping. “Out in Italy. It was a beautiful day, remind me to bring in pictures next time.”
Still grinning, knowing how Nicky would berate him for having thrown fuel onto the gossip that was already running rampant through the school like wildfire, Joe returned to his desk, deciding that his husband’s ire might be worth it for the fun he was having.
They didn’t get a chance to speak until the car ride home. The Californian weather was warm and balmy in spite of it being December - something Nicky would never get used – making the walk from the main school building to the parking lot a more pleasant experience than it had been in their last posting in France. Joe was already waiting by the Hyundai, leaning against the driver’s side door, arms folded, keys in hand, his brown eyes playful, his dark curls gently buffeted by the breeze.
It didn’t matter how many times it happened: each sight of Joe would always catch Nicky off guard as much as the first view had almost 10 years ago.
“So, how do you want to pay me?” Joe’s gloating call floated over with the breeze, the grin on his face making it instantly forgivable.
“’Hello’ to you, too,” Nicky smiled as he opened the passenger door, dropping into the seat.
“’I think we’ll last until January, nobody will care...’ ” Joe chuckled, mimicking Nicky’s initial claim back in August as he climbed into the driver’s seat.
“This place needs more interesting teachers,” Nicky decided.
“I actually had a thought on that...” Joe was elusive as they finally left campus and hit the road.
“You know Anna starts her maternity leave in a couple of weeks?”
Nicky offered a nod in response.
“And they still haven’t found cover for her French classes yet...” He was enjoying dragging it out.
I married the most dramatic man on the planet, Nicky thought. “Joe?”
“I was thinking: what if Booker stepped in for a few months?”
Nicky took a moment for that thought to marinate, a smile beginning to form.
“Well. You like to make your workplace interesting, don’t you?” He joked.
“Bad idea?” Joe shot a quick, questioning look to his husband.
Nicky’s smile spread. “I’m not sure,” he replied. “But after everyone’s reaction to you and I, how do you think it will go if they find out about him?”
They’d met Booker, known to almost everyone else as Sebastien Le Livre, almost 4 years ago. He’d been a struggling writer back then, desperate to get his manuscript for a dark, almost sci-fi, “superhero” adjacent novel series published. Joe and Nicky had found him drowning his sorrows after rejection number 5 in the dark corner of a hole-in-the-wall in Paris. He was intelligent, endearing, and the way his dark blonde hair, cut shorter at the sides than on top, fell into soulful blue eyes had been all-too attractive.
He’d woken up in bed with them the next morning and the three had barely left each other since.
Luckily for all involved, the manuscript eventually got picked up and published and three novels later, it was a series going strong. Until now. Stalled, the characters not co-operating, Booker had complained he needed something different to focus on.
The way Joe saw it, taking over in the teaching of a French class would be a nice change of pace.
“The lessons will all be planned, everything will be outline. All you’d need to do is speak French. You’ll be fine.” Joe said over the dinner table later that evening, the easy sell he thought he’d close quickly proving to be a little more difficult than he’d imagined.
Booker sighed. “It’s not the difficulty of the job that bothers me,” he began.
“What is bothering you?” Nicky asked, concerned.
Booker was uncertain, picking at the label on the beer bottle he’d been mindlessly fidgeting with for the past five minutes. “They know about the two of you, right?”
Joe cast Nicky a hesitant look. “Yes.”
“But they don’t know about the two of you and me?”
“No.” Nicky offered confirmation.
“Huh.” Booker became quiet once more, avoiding eye contact.
“They don’t need to know,” Joe was gentle. “If you don’t want them to. Nobody does.”
Booker laughed a little. “How are you going to tell your boss that you know me?”
“You’re a friend. We’ve known you for years. You’re good with words...” Joe was vague. He hadn’t accounted for Booker’s reticence. “We’ll work something out. C’mon, it’ll be good for you.”
Booker could feel he was being worn down. He threw Nicky a searching look. “What about you?”
Nicky pondered for a moment, wondering how best to describe how intoxicating the idea of having both the men he loved working with him was; how the secrecy of nobody knowing who Booker was to either him or Joe excited him.
“I think it might be fun,” he said coyly, reaching over the table for the half-empty bottle of Rioja, grinning as he filled his and Joe’s glass.
It took Booker about a week before he decided that Nicky had been wrong. It wasn’t as fun as the Italian had intimated.
It was more fun.
Not that life as part of a three-way relationship wasn’t interesting or entertaining, constantly keeping Booker on his toes. Working with them, being around them in an environment where absolutely nobody else knew about it was kind of exciting. While he was still intensely protective of their relationship, he found he didn’t mind the way Joe winked at him in the corridors or the warm, knowing smiles Nicky gave him across the teacher’s lounge.
They’d kept it as professional as they’d planned: no making it awkward or weird or giving the student body anything else to chew on during free periods. A student body that, despite all the warnings during Booker’s orientation would rip him to shreds for merely being a stand-in, were actually beginning to warm up to him. Unfortunately, any illusion of professionalism came crashing down around their ears by the second week.
The winter holidays were looming. Poster for the “Snow Ball” that had plastered the halls for weeks advertised that the date was fast approaching. If the students had clocked out on even pretending to focus on their work, the staff were much the same. The collective concentration had diminished.
At least that was Nicky’s excuse for being the first to slip up.
A bleak and endless Thursday loomed. His second class of the day were otherwise occupied, ostensibly working in groups to dissect the impact of Pearl Harbor on America’s involvement in the second world war and a dim concern that had been bothering the Italian since he’d hurriedly dressed that morning finally made its way from Nicky’s head to the computer on his desk.
I think I’m wearing your underwear by mistake.
Across campus in a similarly lax classroom with students ‘practising how to ask for directions’ in pairs, Booker’s email pinged. Confident he could check without appearing inattentive, he opened Nicky’s missive, fought a losing battle against smiling, and without missing a beat replied.
T o: firstname.lastname@example.org
R E: [no subject]
Thanks for letting me know. Can’t do much about that now. I’ll take them off of you later.
The two learned a valuable lesson that day: the staff email server was monitored.
It was almost worth it, Booker noted on the drive home, if only to watch Principal Miller flush bright red with abject embarrassment while the two of them explained to her that no, they weren’t having an affair, yes, Joe was also involved and “flirtatious and lewd messages probably aren’t appropriate during school hours”.
Joe nearly cracked a rib from howling with laughter when they told him.
“You could have waited to tell Book that when we got home,” Joe wiped a tear of mirth from his eye.
“I was simply letting him know,” Nicky sulked, still more bitter about Miller’s close-mindedness than at being caught out. “I didn’t know that’s how he’d respond.”
“Nicky, love, you’ve known me for 4 years,” Booker chuckled. “You should have known that’s exactly how I’d respond.”
Deep down they all knew, which if Nicky gave it a lot of thought was probably why he had felt so compelled to send that email in the first place.
They were flying a little closer to the sun than they’d planned but as long as Principal Miller and the IT technician who’d found the emails kept both their word and their mouths shut, nobody else need know.
If the rumour mill ran fast when mundane news passed under the grindstone, it worked overtime when the gossip was juicier. Friday had passed without incident, the weekend had been a blur of peaceful domesticity and making holiday plans with respective family members and in-laws. So blissful was it that Booker didn’t mind that he had to get to school early to catch up on grading the 9 th grade tests he’d forgotten before Saturday rolled around.
The corridors were quiet. The almost acrid smell of mopped vinyl tiles filled the halls. There was peace in the liminal, Booker’s footsteps the only sound that rang around the walls and the sunlight of a winter morning fighting through the windows.
He approached his classroom feeling almost meditative, ready to get the final week before the winter break started, knowing there’d be little conversation or work done at all with the formal on Friday. As his door got closer, his steps slowed and his heart, light only moments before, filled with lead and began to slowly sink: someone had defaced his door.
Frowning, getting closer to view the damage, the letters became clearer.
He stopped, his bag dropping from his shoulder to the floor, his heart seemingly joining it by his feet.
The lettering was an aggressive, haphazard scrawl of capitals etched through decades of paint and into the grain of the wood itself. Carved with either a blade or the point of a mathematical compass, the message was clear for all to see.