Mike is in Danbury Correctional for exactly one year, seven months, and two days.
He keeps count.
Rachel visits him the first few times she’s allowed, but Mike can tell she doesn’t want to be there. He can’t blame her for that: he doesn’t want to be there either. But the choice is to implicate Harvey or go to prison, so there’s not really a choice there at all.
She gets increasingly uncomfortable every time she comes, and Mike winces internally every time she cringes, every time her eyes skitter across the guards, across the other inmates and their families, as if she’s looking for a threat to appear at any moment. Or as if she’s looking for a way out. He doesn’t blame her for that either.
It’s not really a surprise when her visits drop off entirely.
He calls, though, a few times a week, every week. And she always answers his calls. They don’t talk about prison at all - mostly it’s about how Rachel is doing, what new place she’s tried, her friends, her family. It goes on like that for a few months before the calls get shorter and shorter - it doesn’t take much to realize that this sort of distance between them is too far to meet. Mike calls her one last time to tell her he doesn’t think they should do this anymore, and stands there quietly as she lays into him, as she calls him a coward, as she cries and asks him how she can do this to her, to her family. Mike doesn’t say anything in response. That’s not what she wants, anyway. And Mike knows he isn’t what she’s really wanted - or needed - for a long time.
Jenny visits a few times - every four months or so. He’s pleasantly surprised to see her when he steps into the visitor’s room that first Sunday, her face lighting up when she sees him like a ray of sun has hit her face. The distance and time are too hard on her for her to make the trip more frequently, and she apologizes every time for that, but Mike waves her off. He asks how she is, and they share a bag of M&Ms from the vending machine as she catches him up on her life and he catches her up on his. He didn’t realize how much he’d missed her until he had her again, back in his life, smiling at him, confiding in him about the guy at work she has a crush on with a bashful, secret smile, like nothing ever came between them.
Harvey visits every single week, every Saturday, like clockwork. He never mentions the distance, or the time, and the one time Mike does, Harvey is almost angry at Mike for it.
Mike never brings it up again.
They talk about everything, and nothing, and sometimes it’s easy to forget where he is, why he can only see Harvey for a few hours a week. Harvey makes it easy. But little things pop in - a movie Harvey’s seen that Mike hasn’t, a mention of a case Mike has never seen the file for - and it brings him right back down to earth. Mike has a feeling Harvey is responsible for Jenny, if his lack of surprise at her initial visit is anything to go by. Mike doesn’t read people like Harvey does, but he does read Harvey like no one else ever has. That’s his badge of honor. Harvey would want to give him this, would want to make him feel like he’s not alone, like he has more than just Harvey. And he would have known Rachel wasn’t going to stick it out with Mike for long.
He’s been trying to tell Mike about Rachel for a while now, Mike just hadn’t been willing to listen.
The one thing Harvey never asks is what Mike is planning to do when his time is done, when he gets to put it behind him. He can’t be a lawyer again, they both know that, but neither of them wants to say it. And if they both keep themselves in this bubble, maybe the decision will never have to be made. Maybe neither of them will ever have to come to grips with the reality looming in front of them.
Still, Mike meant it when he said he wouldn’t change what he did for anything. And he knows Harvey meant it too.
Four months in, Harvey tells him Rachel has moved on to someone else. Mike isn’t surprised, but he is surprised that he feels almost nothing, only glad another farce is over. Harvey watches him intently, carefully, but Mike just smiles, steals a Skittle from the open pack Harvey had been closely guarding and asks him how the Yankees are doing.
He calls Harvey on the days he doesn’t visit, four...maybe five times a week. Harvey always sounds relaxed, grateful that Mike has called, and it makes him want to press closer to the phone and somehow closer to Harvey. Sometimes they don’t speak at all. Harvey will put a record on and set the phone down next to the speaker and Mike will close his eyes and listen and, for a moment, feel like he’s home.
Still, of the one hundred and sixty-eight hours Mike has every week, only three of them, at most, belong to Harvey.
The rest of the time, Mike is alone.
Prison is quieter than Mike would have suspected. There’s a lot of time to be alone with yourself, or really, no option other than to be alone with yourself. He makes his way through it. He shows up to his work assignment, he shows up to meals, he shows up for every count. He becomes an expert at routine.
Mike’s commissary account has more money in it than he could ever spend, and Harvey sends him boxes of paperback books every week, full of titles Mike remembers mentioning in passing to Harvey once, or things Harvey thinks he’d like. The guard hands them out every time with a crack about how attentive his boyfriend is, and Mike never corrects him.
(Mike’s grateful, but he wishes Harvey would stop trying to apologize for something Mike would never blame him for.)
He learns Russian, then Japanese, then French, then Spanish, then Swedish. He practices the new languages on the guards and other inmates. The guards stare at him. The other inmates mostly give him funny looks. He reads every paperback Harvey sends then gives them away to whoever wants them. He takes art classes and music classes. He plays a passable Claire de Lune, but everything he draws somehow ends up looking like an artichoke. Except his artichokes.
He spends a chunk of Harvey’s commissary money on paper, envelopes, pens, and stamps. He writes letters. A lot of letters. Some he sends. Some he doesn’t.
He writes a letter to Grammy first, because it feels long overdue. He apologizes - a lot - and thanks her - probably not enough. There were so many things he never got to say to her, things he was young enough to think he’d always have the time to say. He hates to think he might have let her down. He sends the letter, even though he knows she’ll never get it.
He writes one letter to Trevor. It’s ten pages long, front and back, and he rips it up when he’s done. He doesn’t need to send it.
He never considers writing a letter to Rachel.
He sends a letter to Jenny once a month and tells her stories, jokes, weird phrases in the languages he’s learning. She always writes back. In her first letter, she sends a selfie she took of them with her phone ages ago. In her second, she sends a picture she took of Mike and Harvey.
He loses count of how many letters he sends to Harvey, of what they say. Everything, he thinks. And nothing. Harvey’s letters to him always have some story he’s never told Mike before, about growing up, about his first year as a lawyer, about his dad, about Marcus. But there are other words too, precious words Mike is afraid he’s imagined, no matter how clearly written they are in Harvey’s unmistakably tidy scrawl.
He makes no friends, and doesn’t try to. There is a guy who comes into the prison a few times a week that Mike gets along with well, but he purposefully keeps his distance. His name is Luke, and he’s a law student at Yale, and Mike is sure that if they’d met in some other way, in some other place, they would have been easy friends. But they met here, and prison is not the start to any good, healthy, lasting relationship.
The guards are not his friends, the other inmates are not his friends, and Mike doesn’t attempt to convince himself otherwise. It seems that goes both ways.
The days slowly pass by as Mike bides his time, goes through the motions, does what he’s supposed to do. He paints avocados that look like artichokes and gets a little better at the piano and rereads letters, and every day he gets a little closer to Manhattan and a little further from Connecticut. At night, after lights out, he lies in bed and starts to make plans for the rest of his life. As the plans all start to take shape in his head, for the first time in a long time, Mike feels a sense of hope.
Mike is in Danbury Correctional for exactly one year, seven months, and two days. He keeps count.
He gets out early for good behavior. He takes the pictures with him, and Harvey’s and Jenny’s letters, and gives away everything else. He’s back in the suit he arrived in, like some two year long walk of shame. It doesn’t fit him quite right anymore.
The guard hands him all the personal effects he had on him when he walked into prison, and it feels weird to have his wallet back, the piece of gum he had in his pocket, keys that no longer open any doors he’s welcome through, save one. The guard opens the door for him, ushers him out back into the light, and tells him he never wants to see him again.
The feeling is mutual.
Harvey is waiting out front just where Mike left him last, hands in his pockets and ankles crossed as he leans against the car. Exactly where he expected to find him. When Mike exits the gate Harvey rises from the car and meets him midway, laughing softly at the scruff Mike is trying to pass off as a beard.
Harvey runs his fingers through it, rubs his thumb gently on Mike’s chin then slips his hand around the back of Mike’s neck to pull him into a tight hug. Mike melts into him.
Mike’s things are in Harvey’s home office, stacked neatly in one corner, the remnants of his last life. Harvey sold his apartment for him months ago, and Mike instructed him to give all the furniture to Rachel if she wanted it. He couldn’t keep it, any of it, not if he wanted to move forward. There isn’t much left, and Mike feels a pang at how insubstantial his life still seems to be, even after these last few years. He’s back at square one. And honestly it feels a little strange to be standing here now, in the middle of Harvey’s living room. He’s not used to being here anymore. He keeps thinking a guard is going to walk through the door and take him back to his cell.
Mike takes it gratefully and throws it back. He’s missed beer.
Harvey puts a record on and Mike wanders around Harvey’s place, trying to regain his bearings. Harvey hasn’t changed anything, and that helps.
No. That’s not exactly right. A lot of it - most of it, really - is the same, but a few things have been added including Grammy’s panda, now hanging on the wall in a prominent spot, a picture of Mike and Grammy hanging just below. He swallows around the lump in his throat.
“It fits there, don’t you think?”
He turns and Harvey smiles, leans in, and kisses him.
There are no hands roaming, no tight embraces, but Mike still feels closer to Harvey than he ever has. Even though it’s the first time, it feels like it isn’t, like this is just one of thousands of kisses they’ve shared since they met.
“You have a copy of The Proposal in your DVD collection.”
Harvey scoffs, his breath ghosting over Mike’s lips. “That’s your copy. I would never own that movie.”
“Please. A guy falling for his boss? You love it.”
“Well, the evidence of that is right in front of me, isn’t it?”
“Yeah,” Mike breathes as Harvey smiles at him. “You kissed me.”
“I did. We should talk.”
Mike nods. “We will.”
Mike takes a shower while Harvey starts dinner, and he loses track of time as he stands there under the water, hands braced on the tile wall, sagging under the hot water pounding down on his body. It’s this, more than anything else he finds, that makes him feel free.
When he gets out of the shower he finds Harvey in the kitchen, chopping tomatoes. Mike slips quietly up and onto the stool right in front of him. Harvey looks up and smiles, his eyes lingering on the shirt Mike is wearing - one of Harvey’s.
“What you wrote in your letters...you meant it.”
“Every word. I’m all in.”
“I can’t be a lawyer again.”
It’s the first time either of them has voiced this, and it’s like a release. Harvey’s sigh tells Mike he feels the same way.
“No, you can’t. But that doesn’t change anything, not for us. You don’t have to be anything if you don’t want to.”
“Are you offering to be my sugar daddy?”
He sets a bowl of salad on the counter in front of Mike, hands him a fork. “I’m offering you the chance to choose your own life. Whatever you want to do, I’m here.”
It’s something Mike has never had – the choice to be whatever or whoever he wants. It’s something almost no kid who starts off life the way he did has. Even so, Mike has long walked a tightrope, even before he met Harvey. He was always one step away from falling and failing everyone he knew. But he has a safety net now – no matter what he does, no matter what he decides, it doesn’t matter. Even if he falls, he’ll never come close to hitting the ground again.
Harvey sits down on the stool next to his, moves his stool over so their thighs are touching and rests his hand on Mike’s knee as he spears a piece of tomato. “You know, you could do almost anything.”
“Not anything. There isn’t exactly a long line of people waiting to hire ex-cons.”
“So don’t go to work for someone else, go to work for yourself. Or go back to school. Don’t let anyone start a conversation with you that you don’t want to have.”
The oven timer goes off and Harvey gets up, removes the dish from the oven. It smells incredible, whatever it is. Something Italian.
“Anyway, that’s not what I meant.”
“You have to know how incredible you are.”
Mike swallows over the lump in his throat. “What does this mean for you, Harvey? Me being in your life?”
Harvey looks up and says, a touch of warning in his voice, “Mike-“
“No, we need to talk about this. We can’t ignore it. You’re still a lawyer, a prominent one. You still have client dinners and...”
“And? I’m not ashamed of you. Period.”
“There are expectations for your position. We both know that. What if a client won’t sign with you when he finds out about me, about us?”
“Then they’re not worth having.”
“I am not going to sacrifice you for anything ever again.” He finishes dishing out the plates and brings them around the end of the counter, setting one down in front of Mike. He stays standing, so close to Mike that Mike can feel the soft brush of Harvey’s shirt on his arm when Harvey exhales. Mike looks up and into Harvey’s eyes, looking down intently into his. “I’m a great lawyer, but it’s just a job, Mike. You are far more important than a job.”
Mike nods, accepts Harvey’s kiss when his lips press softly against Mike’s. It’s over quickly, and so comfortable, so familiar, it makes Mike’s stomach clench.
Harvey sits back down and sets one hand down on Mike’s thigh as he cuts into the chicken parm on his plate with the other. Mike wonders if it killed Harvey as much as it did him, to be in the visitation room together every Saturday for two years and not be able to touch. To be so close. Harvey cuts into his chicken with the side of his fork and Mike shifts his body so that his knees are pressed up against Harvey’s thigh. He leans forward and presses his nose against the soft slope of Harvey’s shoulder, closes his eyes and breathes him in.
He’s exhausted, and it takes him a little by surprise.
He turns his face, rests his cheek on Harvey’s shoulder, mumbles out, “ ‘M sorry.”
Harvey gently squeezes Mike’s thigh and says, “For two years you’ve worried constantly about watching your back. Your brain just realized it doesn’t need to worry about that anymore. I’m not surprised you’re exhausted.”
“One year, seven months, two days.”
He kept count.
Harvey’s breath is soft against his forehead. “I know.”
Maybe Harvey kept count too.
Mike’s stomach grumbles and Harvey huffs a laugh. “You should probably pay attention to your stomach.”
Mike grumbles in agreement and lifts his head off of Harvey’s shoulder (even though it’s the most comfortable place he’s ever laid his head) and cuts into his chicken parm. It’s really, really good, and before he knows it, he’s polished it off. He looks over at Harvey’s plate, only half finished, and Harvey huffs another laugh and stands to re-fill Mike’s plate.
“I’m glad you like it.”
“I didn’t know you could cook.”
Harvey hums. “You should taste my waffles.”
“You can decide for yourself in the morning.”
They stay inside all weekend. Harvey makes some more amazing food, and they watch movies and TV and kiss. They sleep in and Harvey keeps his phone turned off, and it feels like a luxury but also a right, something Mike and Harvey earned long ago.
Still, the bubble can’t last for long, and it bursts Monday morning when Mike wakes to find Harvey sitting on the bed next to Mike’s hip, dressed for work save his jacket.
Mike reaches up, runs Harvey’s tie through his fingers. He doesn’t know this tie. He’s never seen it before. It’s such a stupid thing to fixate on, but it makes something inside of him itch and ache. His hand drops away and Harvey smiles down at him, amused. He probably has some truly epic bed head right now.
“There’s coffee in the kitchen.” Mike hums his thanks and Harvey holds out an iPhone for Mike to take. “I only put my numbers in. And Jenny’s.”
Mike nods and flips the phone over in his hand. He understands what Harvey isn’t saying: that whoever Mike brings over into his new life, into their life, is up to him. He appreciates it. He appreciates that Harvey knows him.
“You splurged. Fancy.”
“I shouldn’t be too late tonight. I’ll pick up dinner on the way home. Any requests?”
Mike shrugs, sets the phone off to the side, sits up and kisses Harvey. He can feel the heat of Harvey’s body on his fingers, bleeding through his shirt, and he resists pulling Harvey’s shirt out of his pants, slipping his hand under the shirt to meet skin. Harvey has no such qualms and Mike feels a cool hand sliding up his sleep warm back, his shirt sliding up to expose him to the fresh morning air.
He wonders for a moment what will happen when Harvey walks into work today, and then realizes he probably already knows the answer: nothing. Harvey won’t act any differently, and since his personal life has always been his business and no one else’s – despite what Donna may believe – no one will know what’s changed. But more than that, no one will care. Mike is no longer a part of their world. He’s a stain, a scarlet letter that they’re all more than happy to bury, to forget about.
It’s sobering. It all used to be so important, and now it’s nothing to any of them.
After Harvey leaves – more than a little regretfully, Mike is pleased to note – Mike picks up the phone and texts Jenny.
You working today?
Day after you get released from prison?
Asked off as soon as I found out.
Mike is slumped down in Jenny’s couch, legs resting on top of the ottoman in front of him, plate of eggs and toast balanced on his stomach. It’s not the most comfortable position, and shit for eating, and Jenny tells him as much as her hand appears above his face, holding a glass of orange juice. He sits up and takes the glass.
She sits down cross-legged on the sofa, facing him, her own plate in her hand.
“It’s nice to see you in something other than denim chambray.”
“Not my look, huh?”
“Prison issued uniforms shouldn’t be anyone’s look.”
She watches him a minute, then asks, “What is it?”
“It’s…I’m starting all over again. And that’s all I ever seem to do.”
“That’s not true.”
“Nothing in my life has ever lasted long.”
She sets her plate down and leans forward, grasping Mike’s knee with her hand. “And maybe what you decide to do now won’t either. But you can’t think about that. Maybe this time it lasts. You have one advantage this time: you have Harvey.”
“I’ve had Harvey before. That didn’t stop it from ending.”
“No, you had him as a boss. Now you have him as a partner. That’s very different.”
She’s right, it is.
“So do you have any ideas?”
He nods. “Yeah, a few.”
She nods back and the scrape of her fork on her plate is loud in her otherwise quiet apartment.
“Well, let me know if there’s anything I can do. If I can help.”
“Jenny, you’ve already done a lot for me.”
“Doesn’t mean I can’t do more, if you need it.”
He’s not sure what he ever did to deserve her.
Central Park is beautiful in the middle of the day. He used to know that, but it feels like he forgot it, and has to learn that all over again.
He doesn’t think, just puts the view finder up to his eye and starts to shoot. He lets his instincts guide him, moves from film to digital when he shoots the last frame in a vintage Leica, pulls a Polaroid Land camera out of his bag when he sees a few sunbathers making use of some of the last of Summer’s warm rays.
He’s had these cameras for years, some of them gifts – the Polaroid: from Grammy – some of them purchased from online auctions or thrift stores or garage sales. One he found in a dumpster.
Mike has always been into photography, but he always thought it was something he’d have to do in his spare time, and he never seemed to have much of that, not before when he was hustling to make rent and not after when he was hustling to make Harvey proud. But not now. Now, he has all the time in the world.
He spends a few hours in the park, buys a hot dog, and takes his time walking home. It’s only a few blocks away and he enjoys wandering the streets of the Upper West Side. He thinks he might go to Brooklyn tomorrow, or Chelsea or Greenwich Village, wander and get to know the city again. He’s out of touch with her and her people, her buildings and streets. He thinks it’s time he got to know her as she is now.
He downloads the digital pictures he took, and is still going through them when Harvey walks in the front door with burgers for dinner. Mike’s stomach growls in appreciation.
“How was work?” Harvey is quiet, and Mike gets up, follows him into the kitchen. He leans against the counter, watches him take ketchup out of the fridge. “You can talk about it, you know.”
“Thanks for the permission.”
He turns. “There’s nothing to say, nothing you don’t already know. I’m not keeping anything from you, unless you were dying to hear about the two hundred pages of Hunter Manufacturing bylaws I went through today.”
“What happened to your associate?”
“Nothing happened. He’s just not you, and Jessica needed a rush job.”
“I haven’t been your associate for a while.”
“Believe me, I know that.”
Mike opens the Styrofoam container of fries and onion rings, and accepts the easy kiss Harvey gives him when he steps behind him.
“Did you expect anyone to know? To ask?”
Harvey’s voice is almost gentle, and Mike is embarrassed that yes, he wanted to matter to them, even if he knows he doesn’t. It shouldn’t hurt, but somehow it does anyway. He can’t admit that to Harvey, can’t say it out loud. It doesn’t matter that he already knows.
Harvey goes to change and Mike grabs them both beers. “Hey, so I want to set up a darkroom in the condo. Can I do that?”
Harvey’s response is muffled by the shirt he’s pulling down over his head as he exits the bedroom. Mike asks him to repeat himself, handing him the open beer. “Photography…that’s it?”
“That’s what I’m going to do.”
“Okay…we’ll make you a darkroom.”
“Do you want to see some of my shots from today?”
They sit at the table and Mike hands over his small stack of Polaroids and his laptop after he’s cued up the pictures and then he sits, nervously nibbling on a few fries as he watches Harvey’s face. It would be one thing if some rando off the street thought his work was shit, but if Harvey did…well, Mike thought that might cut deep enough to scar.
It’s ridiculous to feel that way, since he’s never shown Harvey any of his pictures before, since today is his first day getting serious about it. But at this point it’s still a fragile little aspiration, and Harvey is the single most influential person in Mike’s life. If Harvey thinks Mike’s pictures are just okay, he knows his hopes will dry up, and he’ll have to find something else. But he felt focused on the streets of Manhattan today, the weight of the camera felt good in his hand. He liked the way people looked at him, right through the lens, as if they were unafraid to give him their souls for a single passing moment. He doesn’t want to give that up.
Harvey flips the computer around and on the screen Mike sees one of the last pictures he took today – Katie.
A teenage girl in ripped jeans and a Ramones t-shirt with a lip ring and Sharpie tattoos, she stares right through Mike’s camera defiantly, as if to say to the world, I’m still fucking here.
“Katie. The light was just amazing behind her – it gave her this halo, so I asked if I could take her picture.”
“How much shit did she give you?”
“Not nearly as much as you would’ve.” Harvey’s lips twitch but he doesn’t disagree, and he flips the laptop back around and returns his attention to the screen, scrolling through more of Mike’s pictures. “You would’ve liked her. She was like a boxer.” Harvey looks up. “Bold, cocky, but with her fists up…always ready to protect her face from the next punch.”
“Sounds like my kind of girl.” Mike hums and picks up his burger, takes a bite. He can see them getting along, snipping at each other and giving each other a hard time. He’d recognized some of Harvey in Katie. Maybe it’s why he’d been drawn to her. “You had a good day today.”
Mike looks up and nods, and from the way Harvey’s forehead smoothes and eases, he thinks Harvey might be relieved to hear that. “I did.”
Harvey has the Polaroids in his hands now, computer pushed off to the side, and he flips a couple of them down to the table in front of Mike. “Fareed?”
Fareed is the best hot dog vendor in New York, or so Harvey claims. Mike thinks once you’ve had one dirty water hot dog you’ve had them all, but he gets why Harvey thinks otherwise. Getting a hot dog from Fareed is less about the hot dog and more about Fareed. He carries the sun with him, and that came through in Mike’s Polaroids.
One, smiling directly through Mike’s camera as if Mike was the only person Fareed wanted to see today, the other, head thrown back with his boom of a laugh. If a picture can laugh, this one does.
“So day one is a success.”
Mike smiles into his food, nods. It had just been an idea, something he’d been thinking about for a long time, and it was only one day, but Mike had a good feeling that this time it might stick. This time he might not have to worry about succeeding at something, only to watch it be ripped away. Thinking about the last time that happened, thinking about what he’s lost, makes his stomach ache and his throat clench.
It makes him think about Harvey, and everything he’s lost too.
“Working with you was incredible. It changed my life. And I hate that it’s not going to happen again.”
Harvey looks down at the photos on the table, moves them gently with his fingertips, then looks up at Mike. “I wouldn’t count us out just yet.”
Mike walks through Greenwich Village, through Harlem, through SoHo, he wanders and gets lost in the city he loves. Harvey surprises him by converting the second bedroom into a darkroom, and he loses more time than he probably realizes developing. Every day he meets someone new on the street with a story to tell, and every day he takes their picture and hopes he does them justice. Every night he lays the photos out for Harvey to see, to hold gently in his hands, and every night Mike waits for Harvey to single out the most interesting, to ask who they are.
“David. He lost his left arm in Iraq, and when he got home, his fiancée left him for someone else.”
David’s pit bull, Betty, had sat there patiently, grinning and panting at the camera as Mike took their picture, her red leash held tightly in her owner’s right hand. David had looked through the camera, almost searchingly, as if expecting to find an answer to something on the other side.
“Maria. She always wanted to dance when she was a kid, but her parents couldn’t afford it. She takes four classes a week. Her ballet teacher says she has great feet.”
Maria is older, in her mid to late 40s, but her radiant smile makes her ten years younger, easy. Her hip is cocked, her tote bag is slung over a shoulder, and her water bottle dangles from her fingers. She’s sweaty and flushed and happy.
Mike’s toes twitch under Harvey’s thigh and he grabs Mike’s feet, pulls them to rest on top of his lap. He takes one foot in his hands and digs his thumbs into the arch, rubbing up and over the ball of the foot, massaging the toes. Mike throws his head back and moans.
Harvey massages his foot for a few minutes before he sets that foot down and picks up the other. He looks up and says, “There’s a client dinner in a few days that I’d like to take you to.”
Mike’s eyes pop open and he lifts his head to meet Harvey’s eye. Mike just…isn’t sure. He doesn’t want to disappoint Harvey, but he isn’t sure it’s a good idea.
“You don’t have to go, but I’d like you to. I want to show you off. And I think you’ll like this client and his wife. But if you don’t want to, I won’t force you.”
“You want to show me off?”
“I’m proud of you. I’m proud to be with you.”
Mike slips his feet out of Harvey’s grasp, rises to his knees and straddles Harvey’s lap. He rests his hands on the back of the sofa on either side of Harvey’s face and Harvey’s hands come to rest on Mike’s hips. He looks down at him and says, “Okay,” before leaning in to kiss him.
They exchange slow, lazy kisses for a few minutes, one of Harvey’s hands rising to cup the back of Mike’s head, but soon they start to intensify, and Mike breaks away to pull his t-shirt off. He hasn’t initiated anything more than kisses yet, and neither has Harvey. Mostly they’ve been making out like teenagers. What’s happening now is coming up on entirely new territory, but a territory Harvey is comfortable with, judging by how quickly he shucks his own shirt. Harvey’s lips move to Mike’s throat and his hands to Mike’s hips, and he encourages every roll of Mike’s body towards his. Mike’s stomach is clenching and his heart is racing and his mind is chanting I’m proud of you, I’m proud to be with you over and over and over again.
I’m proud of you, I’m proud to be with you, I’m proud of you, I’m proud to be with you, I’m proud of you, I’m proud to be with you.
I’m proud of you, I’m proud to be with you.
“I got you something.”
Mike looks up from the cutting board in front of him, sets down the knife he was using to spread mayo on their toasted bread. Harvey is a more talented cook than Mike is, but Mike is learning, and now he makes more than half of their meals. Mike’s work is much more flexible, and anyway, Mike enjoys the look on Harvey’s face when he takes a bite of something good, something Mike made for him.
“Yeah? Is it a pony?”
“You’re too big for a pony.”
“A boy can dream.”
Harvey sets a box down on the counter next to him and Mike laughs softly, wipes his hands off on a kitchen towel before picking it up. It’s a camera, which is not surprising – it isn’t even the first camera Harvey’s purchased for him. That was a Diana, a vintage 1960s plastic camera that Mike mentioned once to Harvey when he was talking about experimenting with light bleed on his film. This is a different animal: a very, very expensive SLR that Harvey probably thought nothing of handing over the money to purchase.
He sets down three lenses in varying focal lengths, each with a big red bow. Mike feels absurdly like he’s stepped into one of those ridiculous Christmastime car commercials. Any moment Harvey is going to hold up the keys to a Lexus too.
It feels like so much, maybe too much, but at the same time, Mike knows it’s coming from a good place. Money is good, money is great, but what the money can buy, what it means Harvey can provide Mike, is far more valuable to Harvey than the money, and it always will be. It’s important to him. So Mike bites down his objections, and thanks Harvey with a kiss.
“There’s a few new pictures on the table.”
Picture 1: Two men, hunched over their chessboard, seated on cement benches. One has a tentative hand out, poised over his knight, not entirely certain it’s the right move. The other man has a hand pressed to his forehead, staring intently down at the board. The light is harsh, throwing them into sharp relief, making them look like time worn statues of Greek philosophers.
Picture 2: A trio of high school boys, two of them glaring sullenly at the camera, impatient and aggressive, hoods pulled up over their heads. The other one, the one in the middle, is grinning wickedly, cigarette hanging out of his mouth, his eyes alight with fire and purpose.
Picture 3: Harvey, lying in the middle of rumpled white sheets, asleep, the sun coming through the window and cutting a beam across him like a stained glass window in a cathedral, setting him aglow.
Mike finds an online amateur photography forum and starts posting his pictures for feedback. The results are largely positive, but the best feedback comes from a user named mamarosa23, who isn’t afraid to come right out and say what his pictures lack. She’s brutally honest, and at first it smarts a little, but Mike quickly gets over his ego and starts to take what she’s saying and apply it. And his pictures do get better. While before they were well received, now members of the forum rave. So he decides to set up his own website, and starts selling prints of his pictures. It’s slow at first, but they start to sell pretty steadily, and Mike feels like this is finally tangible evidence that he’s moving forward, that he’s found something else he’s good at.
He signs up for Instagram and starts taking shots with his phone along with his other cameras: outtakes, detail shots, behind the scenes info he mixes in with his regular photos to give his customers and followers an insight into his daily life, into his work.
And he has a lot of followers. Before Mike knows it, he has 50,000 followers, and the number keeps climbing. And he gets recognized on the street now, which is still a strange, almost overwhelming feeling. People stop to take pictures with him and ask him what he’s working on, to comment on which pictures are their favorites, and Mike always asks to take their pictures in return. He creates a separate page on his website just for their pictures, and that page alone acquires an almost cult following. Apparently, it’s something special to the Instagram set, so he starts posting clues to where he’s planning to shoot for the day, and is always a bit disappointed when no one figures it out.
Every day he makes something beautiful, and every day he goes home to someone beautiful, and he never would have guessed this could be his life when he was standing outside of the door to his cell, waiting to be counted.
“You’re one of them. That’s why it works, you know.”
mamarosa23 is sitting in front of him now, looking through some of his newest pictures. Her name is actually Rosita, but she prefers Rosa because there’s no way she wanted to share her name with a homophobic, waste of space aunt when she can share it with someone who actually did something with her goddamn life. At least, that’s what she said to Mike when she introduced herself.
Rosa rhythmically drums her chipped black nails against the café tabletop as she looks through the pictures, pausing now and again to look more closely at a picture before setting it down and starting up again. She has a lot of nervous energy, he notices, which he wouldn’t have guessed based solely on her online messages.
“You could have been one of them.”
He thinks she’s probably right, though how she knows that, he doesn’t know. He’s not always good at reading people, just Harvey.
“You think I should do a self-portrait?”
She nods. “Yes, but not until you know what it should look like, not until you know exactly what it is that makes you one of them.”
He’s started to form the pictures he’s been taking of these people into a series, and when he mentioned that to Rosa via online message, she said they should meet. Mike would say she isn’t what he expected, but he didn’t have a clear image of her in his head, so that’s not right. But somehow she still surprised him when she walked up to his table in ripped jeans, an off-white peasant top, and messy, tied-back black hair. Maybe it’s that she wasn’t as young as he imagined she would be. Or maybe it’s that he expected her to be less…famous?
He didn’t expect her to be Rosa Suarez, famous fashion photographer, is what he’s saying.
“What do you want to call it?”
“Gods of New York?” She looks up, eyes him, and he quickly adds, “There’s this Kate Tempest quote, part of her poem Brand New Ancients, that goes, ‘The Gods are all here. Because the Gods are in us.’ And…that’s what I see, when I look at them.”
He wants her to like it; he wants her to get it. He thinks she might, but he can’t force it out of her if she doesn’t. Still, he’s beyond needing her approval, or anyone’s. Her advice, he’ll take in spades.
She just nods, once, and says, “Okay.” That’s it.
“Why do you hang out on an amateur photography forum?”
“Why do you hang out on an amateur photography forum?”
“Because I’m an amateur.”
“No you’re not.”
He’s quiet for a minute, then says, “Because I get honest feedback.”
She pulls a few photos away from the stack, sets them to the side. “I like to find new artists who haven’t been sullied by the rules of art school.”
“You don’t like art school?”
“I don’t think it’s a necessity for all artists to be successful. It’s good for some, it hampers others. I like to find artists who thrive without it.” She finishes arranging the photos on the tabletop and sits back. “Those are your strongest. And I’d feature him.” She points to David and his pit bull Betty. “He’ll evoke the strongest emotional response.”
That’s what Mike had been leaning toward, and it feels good to have it affirmed.
Rosa pulls a small notebook and pen out of her purse and writes a bit before ripping the sheet out of the book and sliding it across the table toward Mike. “These are the galleries who would be most interested in your work, and who you should talk to. Drop my name. You’ll get your show.”
Mike stared down at the list in his hand in shock.
“Don’t.” She shakes her head and wags her finger at him. “Take that look off your face. You’re not lucky, you’re good. I wouldn’t have given you those names unless you were good.”
“You think I’m ready.”
“You made art. You made a lot of good art. You’re fucking ready.”
When Mike was growing up and there was something to celebrate, or he had a big test, or something didn’t go right and he needed a little cheering up, Grammy made lasagna. He’s not sure she meant for it to become a tradition, but somehow it did anyway, and he’s glad he has a copy of her recipe to make for Harvey now. The condo smells like Grammy is here with him, and as he cuts a cucumber into evenly sized half rounds, he wishes she really were.
The front door opens and closes and Mike calls out a hello, sweeping the cucumber into their salad bowls with the flat of his knife.
Harvey is quiet as he walks by, rolling his shoulders, and Mike doesn’t have to know Harvey to know that he’s tense. “Rough day?”
He turns and looks at Mike, slipping his jacket off. He seems to think about something for a moment before he nods, loosening his tie. “Not the best. Let me go change and then we’ll talk.”
Mike resumes chopping tomatoes, adds them to the salads, looks up when Harvey comes walking out of their bedroom.
“Something smells good.”
“Grammy’s lasagna.” Harvey sits down at the counter and Mike asks, “Glass of wine?”
“Please.” Mike pours him a glass of Merlot and sets it down in front of him. “Varner got off today.”
Mike asks, a little cautiously, “That’s what you were aiming for, wasn’t it?”
“And you were hoping you’d fail this time?”
Harvey takes a sip of his wine, stares at the glass. “I’m too good at my job.”
“I could’ve told you that.”
Harvey huffs a soft laugh, more an exhale of breath than anything else. “He’s just a really shitty human being. And the whole time we were prepping no one said that. No one. And I kept thinking you would have. You would have said it, while the rest of us were thinking it. And it made me even more pissed off.” He looks up at Mike intently. “What kind of a system lets Varner off and sends you to prison?”
Mike doesn’t know what to say. He doesn’t know if Harvey is expecting anger or sadness or frustration or commiseration. It wasn’t the outcome that either of them hoped for, that’s for sure. But at this point, it is what it is. Mike served his time. Varner won’t. Life is shitty like that sometimes.
“The victories don’t feel as sweet without you there.”
“And this one doesn’t feel like one at all.”
He sets the glass down on the counter, spins the stem. “I’m wondering if this is something I want to keep doing.”
Mike doesn’t know what to say, other than what seems most honest. “Whatever you want to do, I’m here.”
Harvey smiles at him, wide, cocks his head. “I believe that’s what I said to you.”
“The words are just as true for you as they were for me.”
Harvey just nods, slowly. “You must have had a better day than I did.”
“I met Rosa today.”
“Did you? What was she like?”
Mike thinks for a minute, pulls a few bottles of salad dressing out of the fridge, holds them out for Harvey to choose. He points at the balsamic and Mike returns the rest of them to the fridge.
“Mid forties…Latina…super cool. And apparently a famous fashion photographer.”
“Yeah. Super famous. And she gave me a list of galleries and people to contact. I think I’m going to have my own show soon.”
Mike nods repeatedly. Hours later, and he’s still a little dumbfounded. He never would have thought this was possible at Danbury. It was just a far off hope, a possibility, when he was counting the days, hoping to get by.
It only now occurs to him that he has no idea how many days it’s been since he walked through those gates.
He stopped counting a long time ago.
It turns out Miles Kerr of the Steinman Gallery feels just as strongly as Rosa does about his work, because Mike now has a solo show.
He calls Harvey from the sidewalk and Harvey steps out of a meeting and makes Mike promise to come by so Harvey can take him out to lunch to celebrate. He calls Jenny, he calls Rosa, and he posts a message on his website telling his visitors to come back soon for a special announcement.
He knows what Rosa said, and after today, it’s easier to take it to heart that he’s talented, he’s good.
But damn if he doesn’t feel lucky right now too.
“I think you’ve moved that picture back and forth five times now.”
Mike drops the picture on the coffee table and settles back against the couch in between Harvey’s legs with a sigh. “I probably have, but they start the installation tomorrow, and I have to be sure of the order.” He motions toward the pictures, spread out in front of him. “Does it make sense to you? Do you see what I’m going for? Do you like it?”
“Don’t just say that.”
“I’m not. And stop using me as a diversionary tactic. What matters is how you feel about it, and you already know how you want your show to look. You’re just second guessing yourself.”
Harvey jostles Mike’s shoulder gently with his knee and Mike stands, falls onto the couch next to Harvey with a sigh. “Yeah, you’re probably right.”
“I usually am.”
“Ah, the Specter modesty at work.”
Harvey just smirks and flips the channel as Mike picks up his laptop. He writes an update for his website, checks the photography forum, and starts browsing around. He responds to some comments on Instagram, checks twitter, scrolls through Pinterest.
Harvey looks down when Mike places the laptop in Harvey’s lap, browser open to a clothing website. A clothing website that seems to be selling a shirt with what looks like one of Mike’s photographs on it. “Isn’t that yours?”
He takes the laptop back, brings up a picture, then sets the laptop back on Harvey’s lap. Harvey compares the two, but it’s pretty obvious that yep, it’s Mike’s picture. It’s from a series of pictures Mike was working on of New York landmarks, in this case a picture of the Coney Island boardwalk.
“You have disclaimers on your website?”
“Your images are all watermarked?”
“It’s small, but it’s there.”
Mike enlarges the picture on his website and brings up his posted picture alongside the picture of the t-shirt. There is definitely a watermark there, one the clothing company took care to crop out.
“Yeah, okay.” He hands the laptop back to Mike and stands with a grin. “This is going to be fun.”
“I’m going to eviscerate them. And I’m going to enjoy the hell out of it.”
Mike turns around on the couch, arms resting on the back as he watches Harvey stride across the condo. “It’s Urban Threads. They’re a major clothing manufacturer, Harvey.”
He pauses at the doorway to his office. “Yes, they are. And they shouldn’t have fucked with you.”
Mike is nervous. If Harvey were here, he would no doubt comment on the number of times Mike has adjusted his tie, or the cuffs of his shirt. Or he’d lay a calm hand on Mike’s wrist, stopping the motion entirely. He’d make Mike feel a little more settled in his skin. But he isn’t here.
He called earlier from work, said he’d be running a little late, but that he would definitely be there before the show began. He sounded good, better than he has in a while. Lately his job has been draining him, and Mike wishes he knew how to help. Mike wishes he had a little piece of what Mike has now.
“Mike, this is incredible!” Jenny slides her arm through his, giving his upper arm an affectionate squeeze. “I’m so proud of you.”
She shakes her head. She’s actually in awe, a little speechless, and she rests her chin on his shoulder. He’s humbled by her pride.
Rosa is far off to the side, partially hidden by the turn of the wall, quietly staring at a piece Mike decided to add the night before. He doesn’t want to interrupt her – she’ll find him later if there’s something she needs to tell him. He didn’t run this picture by her – in fact he’s never shown anyone this picture before. It’s so achingly personal that he’s a little surprised he decided on it, but his show felt incomplete without it. Rosa would probably tell him that says as much about him as it does about the subject, and she’d almost certainly be right about that.
“Sorry I’m late. Hi Jenny.”
Jenny smiles and says, “Hi Harvey,” before giving Mike’s arm another squeeze and drifting away to look at some more of Mike’s work.
Harvey looks around, slowly spinning to take in the entire room, a smile on his face. Mike watches him for a minute.
“It amazes me what you’re capable of.”
“There’s one in particular I want to show you.”
Harvey follows as Mike leads, and they come to a stop in front of the picture Rosa was so fixated on, the one Mike had yet to show to anyone, even Harvey.
Harvey, getting ready for work, his Oxford shirt open, a tiny, shiny scar visible on his chest. He’s just finished shaving, and there’s a bit of foam just below his earlobe that he hasn’t seen yet. He’s holding his tie in one hand, looking straight through the camera. No one else will ever look through Mike’s camera that way, and Harvey will never look through anyone else’s camera that way, but if Mike took a thousand more pictures of Harvey, he’d see that look over and over again. It’s a portrait of two people, not one.
Harvey stares at the picture for a long time, and Mike watches him. Finally, he smiles at the picture and says, “I quit today.”
If Mike sounds incredulous, it’s only because this is how he’s always known Harvey. This is such a huge part of who he is, in some ways it’s difficult to imagine him doing anything else.
Mike quickly realizes he’s staring, open-mouthed, and shuts his mouth. He licks his lips, then says, “Okay.”
Harvey, amused, says, “Okay.”
Mike may have been the one who went to prison, but he isn’t the only one who’s had to deal with the consequences of what they did. And if Harvey can’t do it anymore, Mike more than understands that.
“Before you whip out an inspirational speech about how I can be anything I want to be, let me stop you. I’m still going to be a lawyer. I’m just going to be your lawyer.”
“Mine? I doubt you’ll have much to do.”
“I learned something interesting today when I stopped by the main offices of Urban Threads with our demand letter. The shirt with your picture had been up for sale for two weeks, and in those two weeks, it had already become one of the top ten highest selling shirts they’ve ever produced. I think we’ve just scratched the surface of what’s possible with your work. Let’s see where it takes us. I’ll work on the business side, and you’ll handle creative.”
Mike laughs, scratches his chin.
“A few months ago you said you wouldn’t count out working together again.”
Harvey grins. “Well, there you go. I’m prescient too.”
Mike rolls his eyes and Harvey’s grin grows. “Okay…we’re doing this.” He pulls him in for a quick kiss. “So we’ve got two reasons to celebrate tonight.”
“We’ll celebrate for me tomorrow. Tonight is about you.” Miles catches Harvey’s eye and he nods, asks Mike, “You ready? They’re about to open the doors.”
Mike takes a deep breath and grabs a glass of champagne off the tray of a passing waiter, downing it in one swig. He adjusts his tie one more time and says, “Ready.”
Mike wanders, he mingles, he covertly listens in on people’s conversations, but most of his time is taken up by the subjects of his photos who are all here at Mike’s invitation. Maria is emotional, hugging him tightly, telling him no one has ever taken a picture of her so beautiful before. David is quiet, and stares at his picture a long time. Mike thinks he sees him wipe away a tear, but he might have been imagining it.
Miles pulls him here and there to meet various people, and before he knows it, more than half of his pieces have sold, including David and his bulldog Betty. Harvey keeps him fed, and he’s grateful for that, since he doubts he’s eaten anything since the night before. He’s just been too anxious.
He runs into Jenny again, who gives him another bright smile, and Rosa, who gives him a warm nod, and when he turns around, he catches Benjamin staring at one of his photos, and finds himself wondering how long he’s been there.
“You’re really talented.”
He doesn’t even look away from the photograph as he says it.
“Your website needs help, though.”
“I set it up myself.”
“I can tell.” It’s so matter of fact Mike can’t help but laugh, and Benjamin gives him a small smile in return, finally looking away from Mike’s picture. “Work isn’t the same without you.”
“I haven’t been there in more than two years.”
Mike pauses. “I’m glad you’re here.”
Benjamin nods. “I could redesign your website for you.”
“You don’t have to do that.”
“Of course I do. You need better workflow and organization. I almost missed the time for your show tonight because you have no idea how to properly utilize widgets. I’m assuming you set it up via wordpress.”
Mike has heard enough and he holds his hands up in surrender. “Okay, fine. You’ve got the job.”
He nods once, turns to look at the picture in front of him. “This one’s my favorite.”
Mike smiles. “I’ll make you a print.”
It’s the least he can do.
“So I got a call back from Urban Threads.”
Mike sticks his head out of the bathroom. “And?”
“Production has been halted on the shirt, it’s been pulled from their stores and their website, and they’ll be sending a check with the profits that are rightfully yours.”
“That must have been one hell of a letter.”
Harvey grins. “I’m one hell of a guy.”
Mike walks over and takes the laptop off of Harvey’s lap, tossing it gently off to the side on their bed, climbs onto the bed and straddles his legs. He leans in and, right before he kisses him, says, “No argument here.”
The day was too long, and Mike is too tired to do anything much, and he shows it by yawning halfway through a kiss. He groans and falls off to the side, and Harvey laughs. “Tell me how you really feel.”
Mike laughs at the ceiling, drops his hand onto his stomach. Then he turns his head and asks, “So how was it? Walking out of the office for the last time?”
Harvey will have to go back to get his things, or send someone to pick them up, but Mike can’t help but feel like an era is over, something he never saw happening when he talked Harvey into offering him the job that day a little over four years ago.
“Louis gave me a nod when I left today. I think it was supposed to mean something, but it’s Louis, so who the hell knows.”
Mike shifts onto his side and props his chin up in his hand and asks, “How did Jessica take it?”
“She was pissed, but I don’t think she was that surprised. And for all of that, she was gracious about it.”
Mike is almost afraid to ask. “And Donna?”
“She started with the cold shoulder and then progressed into anger. She wanted to know how I could do this to her.”
“I’m not. I allowed her a lot of liberties, and now that’s ending.”
“Because she’d known you for so long?”
He nods. “And because for a while, she knew things about me no one else did. About my dad, about Marcus, about you. The people who matter.” He turns onto his side. “The next person she works for won’t allow her those liberties.”
“She’s in for a rude awakening.”
Mike reaches out a hand, traces the shape of Harvey’s jaw with one finger. “It really is us against the world now, isn’t it?”
“I think it always was.”
Mike breathes out, breathes in, finally lets the day catch up to him. He shuffles a little closer to Harvey and says, “You really believe that.”
Harvey’s voice is soft, sleepy. “I do.”
“Harvey, this cheese is like thirty bucks.” Harvey eyes him and takes the cheese out of his hand, dropping it into the shopping cart and walking away without comment. “Okaaay.”
Zabar’s isn’t all that crowded, and it’s oddly nice doing this together. Mike never imagined grocery shopping to be a bonding activity, but it’s been fun, though Harvey’s tastes run far more expensive than Mike’s do. He’s still getting used to that.
“You know, it’s possible to make a great meal without thirty dollar cheese.”
Harvey puts a bag of apples in the cart, leans in and says softly, “I’m betting I can change your mind about that.”
No way is Mike taking that bet, and judging by Harvey’s shark-like grin, he knows that.
“Can you go grab a pint of heavy cream?”
Mike straightens up, salutes, and says, “Aye aye, captain,” before turning on his heel and walking toward the dairy case. He helps an older woman get something down from a top shelf before grabbing his own pint of cream and she tells him he’s ‘such a nice boy’ and pats his cheek. Mike asks if he can take her picture, and she agrees, but only if he takes it with her.
He’s posting their selfie on Instagram when he hears someone say, “Mike?” He looks up.
It’s not that he never thought he’d run into her. But there are a lot of people in Manhattan, and she hasn’t entered his thoughts once since he left prison. She is before, and Mike now lives in the after. The now.
Her voice is soft, guarded. “I didn’t know you were out of prison.”
She sounds hurt, but this is the first time he’s heard from her in two years, and as cruel as it may sound, Mike is done with that part of his life, with the person he pretended to be. Rachel wouldn’t have wanted to be part of this new life, and more importantly, she wouldn’t have fit. It took almost nothing to convince her she was better off without him, and they’re both better off for it.
“So what are you doing now?”
“Buying heavy cream.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
They stand there, in an awkward stalemate, and Mike wonders how long it will take before Harvey comes looking for him. It only takes about thirty seconds to grab a pint of cream.
“Hey babe, I’ve got the-” A man stops next to Rachel’s cart, sets a box of pasta in the basket. “Who’s this?”
Mike looks at Rachel, notes how tense she is, how her hands clench around the handle of her cart. And for the first time, he also notices the ring on her left ring finger. Mike would hazard a guess that her new fiancé knows nothing about him, and Mike isn’t going to be the one to burst that bubble.
“Uh…no one.” Mike gives him a smile and holds up the pint. “Your fiancée was just pointing me in the direction of the heavy cream.”
“Oh,” he says easily. “That was nice of you, honey.” He smiles at Rachel, then turns his smile on Mike. “Have a nice day.”
“You too, thanks. And congratulations.”
Mike turns with a smile and heads back to Harvey and his $30 cheese, feeling Rachel’s eyes on his back the whole way.
One final picture: Mike’s self-portrait.
Mike, standing barefoot in Central Park, backlit by the setting sun, a flare of light peeking out just above his shoulder. He’s staring directly through the camera, unflinching, as a slight breeze ruffles his hair. His hoodie is partially zipped up and underneath, he’s wearing a gray t-shirt with red lettering.