The first time Danny says it, Alex smiles. After saying exactly what people are not supposed to say, instead of politely chuckling or something, Alex tenses up. ‘It’s not that you won’t.’
Danny simply says, ‘I understand.’
Alex, still clumsy in his speech, tries to save face, ‘I’m sure you will.’
But Danny insists, ‘I understand.’
And Alex believes him. Danny does seem to understand. He has been incredibly patient with Alex. Shaking hands at the end of their first date, seeming nonplussed when Alex simply showed up at his apartment, going on this country walk despite Danny exuding not only the dark alleys of London, but also the energy of the crowds of London, happily shopping, walking for miles around London, going out for drinks at a pub – Danny seemed to contain everything inside of him, and it radiated from him. Alex gambled on this calculation, hoping the maths would add up. Danny understands. 1 + 1 = 2. The maths add up.
So Alex smiles. He looks away, because he must, not sure that he can handle looking at Danny’s face and fully accept Danny’s understanding. When was the last time that happened? It’s like staring into the sun, so Alex allows himself to look away but smile. Will Danny also understand this?
The second time, Alex cries. It’s his birthday, and he and Danny have been together for almost three weeks. Alex hasn’t celebrated his birthday since he left for university. At uni, there was no one to tell, and only work to be done. Celebrations at home weren’t much. Alex would get new textbooks, new maths problems, puzzles, logic problems, which he was always happy to do, if it meant he could be alone for a little while before Frances pounced and checked and re-checked every solution. Furthermore, there was no capacity for error at uni, so why let something like a birthday be a distraction? Why let a birthday with friends be a distraction? It’s best to get the work done.
Alex doesn’t want to tell Danny. Danny will ask what he wants to do, what he’s done in the past, which birthday was his favorite, and when Alex answers in the negative to all of Danny’s questions, Danny will mourn for him. Alex doesn’t want to burden Danny like that, doesn’t want him to try and correct everything, because being with Danny disconnects him from that life, and he’d just rather try his best not to think about it at all.
But that day, as if Danny had some kind of sixth sense, he asks, ‘You know, when’s your birthday? It’s been how long and we don’t even know each other’s birthdays. Mine’s the 10th of April.’ Alex can hear Danny smile as he says the date – he’s excited to eventually share the day with him, and excited to eventually share in Alex’s birthday. Thankful to be sitting between Danny’s legs, his back to Danny’s chest, unable to easily make eye contact, Alex responds by stroking Danny’s left forearm with his right pointer finger, and intently stares at it, going over the theoreticals for what could stop time. Danny hums, and rests his chin on Alex’s right shoulder.
To steel himself, Alex exhales slowly, and pushes down his diaphragm to allow for a bigger breath, ‘It’s today,’ and inhales.
‘What?’ Danny wrenches his arms from around Alex, and turns Alex’s body towards him. ‘Today?!’
Alex looks down at Danny’s hand that is now resting on the bed, instead of around his waist. In the few short weeks they’ve been together, it seems like they’ve talked about almost everything. Staying up late, getting up early, talking and talking. Alex never anticipated he could talk to someone the way he can talk to Danny. He also never anticipated the feeling of someone’s arms around your waist, hands splayed on your stomach, on your back, and the wordlessness of it all was also like staring into the sun, Alex would sometimes close his eyes tightly to hold inside of himself all of the meaning that was being built between him and Danny. And now, he wished for more wordlessness, because he didn’t want to bring in the baggage of what the past meant.
‘Why didn't you tell me? We should do something! Let’s go out! Go round the pub, or should I call Scottie to get us into some exclusive place or wherever? I do still want you to meet him one of these days, and this could be a great opportunity. What do you think?’ Danny’s words came out in a rush, bombarding Alex. All these years, Alex wanted to really talk to someone, for someone to want to talk to him, to break through the silence he had collected around himself, but it was still an adjustment. Danny was always brimming with words, and it overwhelmed Alex at times – he always felt two paces behind. But Danny understood, he said so himself. Despite being two steps ahead, Danny would always wait for Alex to catch up.
‘I…’ Alex began to speak, but still was unsure how to proceed. Give the whole back-story? Say he just doesn’t care about birthdays? Or be honest? The back-story didn’t matter, it was the fear, fear of the unknown. Alex didn’t know how to celebrate a birthday. Alex didn’t know how to psych himself up for something like this. He still felt his body adjusting to Danny, to the odd knot in his stomach whenever he was around him, the often overwhelming need to have his mouth on Danny’s, both wide open, breathing into each other.
‘It’s okay,’ Danny says, finally recognizing that Alex needed a moment, and began rubbing soft circles into Alex’s back, calling him back from any thoughts that would entangle him.
‘I’ve never … done much. I don’t know what to do. I’ve never been able …’ Sentences weren’t maths, and if they were, Alex’s weren’t adding up. How do you place word after word and make it clear? Alex didn’t know – he was learning.
‘So you’ve never really celebrated?’ Danny asks tentatively.
‘Yes, who would want … It’s never been special,’ Alex finally says, choosing what is hopefully an easier way out: a lie.
‘Has it never been special because you don’t think it is, or because others never thought it was?’
Finally, Alex couldn’t hide: tears are welling up in his eyes. He decides to stare into the sun.
‘I understand,’ Danny says, and he takes Alex in his arms, and places a kiss on Alex’s forehead. ‘I understand,’ Danny says, and places a kiss next to Alex’s left eye. ‘I understand,’ Danny says, and places a kiss on Alex’s cheekbone. ‘I understand,’ Danny says, and places a kiss on Alex’s jaw. ‘I understand,’ Danny says, and places a kiss on Alex’s lips, and tastes salt.
The last time, Alex tries to remain as calm as possible. The night before, Danny has told him about his past, his struggles with drugs and sex, and Alex can feel the future opening wide before them. It’s possible to know everything about each other and be okay. Would they be okay?
Alex is resting against the countertop, cuppa in hand, going over the final details: first, train to Wales; second, Danny finds the USB in the laptop; third, they will fake my death to cover up the fact that I’ve run away; fourth, they will try to frame Danny; fifth, I will go to America by boat; sixth, the American will meet me … and so it went on. Alex’s thoughts racing, knowing this would be the last time he would see Danny for who knows how long. Alex’s plan was risky, but he would do anything and everything he could to make sure he would see Danny again, that Danny would again make him eggs and bacon in the morning, that Danny would again, again, again …
‘What do you say we go away for the weekend?’ Danny can feel the future opening wide, too.
‘Sure,’ Alex pauses, gathering strength, ‘I have to buy a battery for my laptop. I can’t go without replacing it.’
‘I understand,’ and Danny places a kiss on Alex’s lips on the way to bringing the food to the table.
I hope you will. And for the first time, Alex will be two steps ahead, and will wait, and Danny will catch up.