SELECTED SCENES FROM A LIFE
Michael probably should have started his shopping earlier. Mother’s Day was less than a week away, after all, and he had to send the package from England to the United States. But procrastination was an art form for Michael, and four days in advance was actually pretty good for him. Of course, just because he began his shopping today didn’t mean he’d actually buy anything today.
His mother had a penchant for jewelry, the tacky stuff made out of glass and wooden beads. Michael was doing fairly well these days so he figured he’d help upgrade his mother’s taste in accessories. Trimmings was one of London’s poshest jewelry stores, catering not to the super rich but discouraging the riffraff element. Michael thought he should be able to find a suitable Mother’s Day gift here.
Glancing into a glass display case, he spotted a delightful pendant. Small, tear-shaped diamond in a silver casing. Not overly large or gaudy. Tasteful. Elegant.
Michael raised a hand to get the attention of the salesclerk. “Can I take a look at this one, please?”
The salesclerk unlocked the case and laid the pendant in Michael’s hand. The casing was attached to a thin, delicate chain. The overhead lights caught the diamond and made it sparkle.
“How much is this?” Michael asked.
“Twenty-five hundred pounds.”
“Hmm,” Michael said, thinking, Too much. I love you, Mom, but that’s much too much.
“It is an exquisite piece,” the salesclerk said. “The casing is pure silver.”
“Well, it is pretty, I’ll give you that,” Michael said, taking a moment as if he were actually considering it. “I’m gonna need to think on this one for a bit longer.”
“Of course, sir,” the salesclerk said with a knowing smirk, taking the pendant and replacing it in the case.
Michael scanned the case for something that looked more around the five hundred pound mark. Suddenly he felt that itchy, tingling sensation on the back of his neck that alerted him that he was being observed. He turned to find a young man, short and rather pudgy with a mop of curly brown hair, leaning on the counter a foot away, a strange smile twisting his lips.
“Yes?” Michael said.
“You’ve got a funny accent,” the man said in a thick English brogue.
Michael turned his attention back to the display case. “I’m American.”
“For an American, you’ve got a funny accent.”
Michael cut his eyes toward the man then away again. “I’m Southern.”
“Oh, how exotic.”
Michael couldn’t suppress a laugh. “I’ve heard South Carolina called a lot of things; ‘exotic’ is a new one to me.”
Michael turned and headed for a display of watches. The stranger followed behind him and asked, “Looking for a Mother’s Day gift for your Mum?”
“Mmm-hmm,” Michael said without making eye contact.
“I like your tattoo.”
Michael glanced down at the tattoo visible on his left forearm. An upside down pink triangle, a gay pride symbol he’d gotten immortalized onto his flesh in his younger days. “Ah,” he said, thinking he had this stranger’s motivations pegged.
“I’m not hitting on you,” the man said, correctly guessing at Michael’s assumption.
“No, I’m not gay.”
“Okaaay,” Michael said, drawing the word out. “So what exactly are you doing then? Because you’re starting to creep me out more than a little bit.”
“Well, my older brother is gay. Good bloke, but shy, you know.”
Michael rolled his eyes and told the salesclerk, who had been watching this exchange with discreet interest, “I’ll come back some other time,” and left the store.
The would-be cupid followed him out onto the street. “You’d like my brother. He’s funny, sweet as they come. Real salt of the earth.”
“Let me guess, he’s a Quasimodo?” Michael said without slowing his pace.
“Well, if he’s got his younger brother trolling jewelry stores for him, my guess would be that he’s not all that attractive.”
“I’ve got a picture of him, if you want to see,” the man said, digging his cell from his pocket and scrolling before holding the phone screen-first out to Michael.
“That’s really not necessary; I’m not interested. I’m sorry but … oh!”
Michael stopped in his tracks, eliciting angry stares and mumbled curses from those behind him, when he saw the picture. The man in the photo was tall, creamy skin, mischievous green eyes, thick wavy hair, and a smile that would charm the devil.
“This is your brother?” Michael said, taking the phone.
“Yes, that’s him.”
“Is this like a really old picture?”
“Taken just last week.”
Michael handed the phone back, trying not to seem as interested as he was. “And what makes you think your brother and I would be a good match?”
“You’re gay, aren’t you?”
Michael barked a laugh of disbelief. “You know, it may be hard for you to believe, but every gay man in the world is not necessarily a good match for every other gay man in the world. If that were the case, things would be much simpler—or much more confusing—but that’s not how it works.”
“Well, I know you’re good to your Mum. The baubles in Trimmings don’t come cheap.”
“Or maybe I send my mother expensive presents for Mother’s Day out of guilt for never calling or visiting.”
“Perfect, so I know you’re not a mamma’s boy.”
Michael couldn’t help but smile. If this man’s brother was half as charming as he was… “You don’t even know my name,” Michael said.
“True enough. What’s your name?”
“Nice to meet you, Michael. I’m Gerald. My brother is Ferguson.”
“Are you serious about this, Gerald?”
“Very much so.”
Michael stood for a moment, chewing on his bottom lip. “Let me see the picture again.” Gerald held up the phone and Michael looked over the photo once more. Still handsome. “Does your brother know you’re doing this?”
“And what makes you think he would be agreeable to going on a date with some stranger you picked up on the street?”
Gerald turned the phone around, tapped at the screen, then a click and a flash let Michael know his photo had just been taken.
“I’ll show him your picture,” Gerald said then held the phone back out. “Type in your number.”
“This is crazy,” Michael said, but he did as Gerald instructed.
“You won’t regret it,” Gerald said, taking the phone back from Michael. “Hopefully Ferguson will be calling you soon.”
“I’ll be waiting anxiously by the phone.”
Michael shook hands with Gerald and watched him walk away. The whole encounter left him feeling slightly dizzy, like he was on the verge of drunkenness. It was a strange feeling, but nice.
* * *
Ferguson glanced at the door every time someone entered the pub. His stomach was cramped and he was twisting his napkin in his lap. He feared he was about to embark on another colossal disaster.
When Gerald had told him what he’d done—accosted some strange American in a store and procured his phone number for his brother—Ferguson had been appalled and vowed that he would not call the fellow. But the picture Gerald had taken was intriguing. The American was fresh-faced, full lips and intense eyes, just Ferguson’s type. Finally Ferguson had decided what the hell and made the call.
The American, Michael, had seemed surprised that Ferguson had actually called, as surprised as Ferguson was to be making the call. To Ferguson’s relief, Michael seemed as bemused by this unorthodox situation as Ferguson himself. Ferguson had invited Michael for drinks, and Michael had accepted.
The door opened again, and Ferguson looked up to see the face from the photo. He raised his hand and Michael saw him, smiled, and headed over.
“Michael?” Ferguson said, rising.
“That’s me. You must be Ferguson.”
“Yes,” Ferguson said, shaking the man’s hand, not sure of the proper greeting in a situation like this.
The waiter took their drink orders, and the two sat in silence for a solid minute, glancing at each other then away, fidgeting with their silverware.
“So,” Michael said finally, breaking the stalemate, “does your brother act as your pimp often?”
Ferguson groaned and blushed. “I’m sorry about that; I’m terribly embarrassed. Gerald just worries about me, is all. He thinks I’ve been sad lately.”
“Have you? Been sad, I mean?”
“Somewhat, I suppose.”
“How come?” Michael asked then winced. “Anytime you want me to mind my own business, just tell me to.”
“It’s quite alright,” Ferguson assured. “Do you know what it’s like when you spend your entire life nurturing an ideal of what love should be? Part of you knows it’s overly romanticized and unrealistic, but you cling to it all the same. Then as you get older, you begin to see that the ideal is an impossible standard to meet, so you decide you need to settle. And you do, only that turns out to be a catastrophe as well. So you start to wonder, if you can’t have the ideal but you can’t even settle for less, what hope is there really?”
Ferguson looked across the table to find Michael staring at him with an unreadable expression, his beautiful lips parted slightly. “I’m sorry,” Ferguson said. “This is frightful first date etiquette, getting so maudlin right at the start.”
“I know what it’s like,” Michael said with a smile that made Ferguson warm all over. “So, is that what this is? A first date?”
“Isn’t it?” Ferguson asked, feeling slightly panicked.
Michael folded his hands on the table and leaned forward. “Well, in my country, drinks are like a prelude to the date, sort of an interview for the date. An opportunity for the two interested parties to get a feel for one another, to decide if a date is something they wish to pursue.”
“In that case, I guess I’m botching the interview.”
Michael favored Ferguson with that sunny smile again. “You’re not doing too shabby.”
Ferguson, suddenly flustered, fiddled with his shirt collar, stared into his water glass as if it held the secrets of the future, and tried desperately to think of something clever to say. All he could come up with was, “So, Michael, what do you do?”
He thought he saw Michael tense for a second before saying, “I’m a writer.”
“Television,” Michael said, rubbing the back of his neck and biting on his lower lip in the most deliciously unconscious way. “I’m a, uhm, I’m a staff writer for Quark’s Quirky Quest.”
“The children’s program?”
“That’s the one.”
“My nieces love that program.”
Michael nodded and trained his eyes on the tabletop, little roses of color blossoming on his cheeks.
“You seem embarrassed.”
“Well, you know, it doesn’t quite have the ring to it that ‘novelist’ does. What about you?”
“I’m an actor.”
“Really? Been in anything I might have seen?”
“I’ve mostly just done some local theater. Very local. Not much of anything, really.”
Michael was quiet for a few seconds then said sheepishly, “I could probably get you an audition for Quark’s Quirky Quest.”
The two men broke into laughter, all tension and nerves dissipating in the laughter like rain from asphalt on a hot day.
“So,” Ferguson said, emboldened by the shared moment of jocularity, “in your country, if the prelude to the date goes well, what happens next?”
“Usually dinner, possibly a movie.”
“And if that goes well?”
Michael scratched his chin, affecting the posture of deep thought. “I suppose one person might invite the other back to his apartment for yet more drinks.”
Ferguson nodded, decided to push it one step further. “And if that goes well?”
Michael turned on that heart-melting smile and said, “Breakfast.”
* * *
Gerald was running late. The dinner party being thrown by Ferguson and Michael started at eight, and it was already a quarter past. Gerald eased more pressure on the gas and weaved through traffic. The couple’s flat was just a few blocks away.
Gerald smiled as he thought the words again: The couple. Gerald was, after all, responsible for the pairing, and he took great pride in the fact. When he’d impulsively badgered Michael into giving him his number to give to Ferguson, even he’d never dream it would lead to two years of marital bliss. But they were happy together. In fact, Gerald had never seen his brother happier, and it made him feel good to know he’d had a hand in making it happen.
Gerald pulled to a stop in front of the building and hurried up the stairs. Ferguson answered the door with an expression of mixed annoyance and amusement. “Lose your way, little brother?”
“Fashionably late,” Gerald said, giving his brother a quick hug. “I’m nothing if not fashionable.”
“Everyone else is already here,” Ferguson said, taking his brother’s coat. “Dinner will be ready in about fifteen minutes. We’re all having drinks.”
“Then I haven’t missed much,” Gerald said, stepping into the parlor. He and Ferguson’s Mum was here, as was their sister Anne, her husband and their two daughters, and four or five of Ferguson and Michael’s friends.
“Gerald,” Michael said, handing him a glass of champagne and kissing him on the cheek. “Glad you could make it. Where is that lovely fiancée of yours?”
“Miranda is visiting her parents this weekend. She is sorry she has to miss this little celebration, but she sends her love and promises to be watching.”
“Well, have a seat, relax. Dinner will be served shortly. The television is set up in the dining room.”
Gerald sat down in a deep recliner, his nieces climbing onto his lap and digging through his pockets for change. Gerald was excited about tonight’s premier, almost as excited as Ferguson and Michael. Michael had finally left Quark’s Quirky Quest, developing his own program entitled The Adventures of Edmond Rex, sort of a spy thing with extra helpings of humor. Ferguson starred as the title character, a secret agent as bumbling as he was charming. Tonight was the airing of the first episode.
“Tell me, Michael,” Anne’s husband, Charles, was saying, “how did you come up with the idea for Edmond Rex?”
“It’s a little bit of James Bond mixed with a dash of Inspector Gadget with just a touch of Don Knotts.”
“With a description as clear as that,” Ferguson said, wrapping his arms around Michael’s waist, “I can’t imagine why you had such a hard time getting the program made.”
“Careful, dear,” Michael said, patting Ferguson on the cheek. “Your part can always be recast.”
“At home or on the show?”
Everyone laughed. Stephen, one of Ferguson’s mates from University, said, “Casting Fergie in the lead, that wasn’t nepotism, was it?”
“Absolutely, one hundred percent,” Michael said with a smile. “And I’m not ashamed to admit it. Can I help it if the love of my life just happens to also be the most talented actor in England?”
“If I’m that talented,” Ferguson said, “maybe I’m too big for the program. Perhaps I should be in motion pictures.”
“I was just being nice, honey. You’re okay, but Hugh Grant you’re not.”
More laughter. Ferguson kissed Michael, their love for one another evident to everyone in the room.
“A toast,” Gerald said, rising and holding his glass above his head. Everyone followed suit. “To The Adventures of Edmond Rex. May it be as enduring as Doctor Who.”
“To The Adventures of Edmond Rex,” everyone cheered and drank.
Gerald watched his brother and Michael embracing and smiled the smile of an artist admiring his greatest creation.
* * *
Michael opened one of the boxes in the living room and started pulling out books. The obsessive-compulsive part of him insisted he arrange the books alphabetically by author then title before placing them on the shelves. This took a bit longer, but it would save time when he or Ferguson were looking for a specific book.
After emptying the one box, Michael paused and looked around him. The living room was almost completely unpacked, just a few boxes left. Not much longer and the house would be all set up.
Michael still couldn’t believe he owned a house. Real estate. How very adult. Although his fortieth birthday approached, Michael still felt about fourteen years old most of the time. But here he was, an old married man with a thriving career and a new home.
The Adventures of Edmond Rex had been on the air now for four years, soon to begin filming its fifth. It was a smashing success, even airing in the States where Michael’s own family got to see it. During the breaks, Ferguson had made several movies, one of which—a romantic comedy called Love Fell on Me—Michael had written the screenplay for.
Michael opened another box full of photos. He smiled as he pulled out a frame which housed printed copies of both the picture of Ferguson that Gerald had shown Michael all those years ago and the picture of Michael that Gerald had taken to show Ferguson. The beginning of it all.
Six years, and Michael still loved Ferguson as much as ever. They had their ups and downs, certainly, their share of disagreements. There had been a dark period two and a half years ago when they had nearly split, but they always managed to work through their problems and come out stronger on the other side.
Michael started placing photos throughout the room. The unpacking would go faster if Ferguson were here to help, but he’d gone to meet Gerald for lunch and a movie. The two brothers didn’t see much of each other these days, Ferguson busy with his career and Gerald busy with his wife and the new baby. Michael was glad they were spending this time together.
The doorbell interrupted Michael’s thoughts, and he answered the door with a smile, always happy to have company these days so he could show off the new house. He was surprised to find Gerald standing on the stoop.
“Gerald, what are you doing here? Ferguson was supposed to meet you at the restaurant, wasn’t he? Did he get it mixed up?”
Gerald stood there in silence for a few seconds, his usually animated face drawn and pinched. “Michael, I … “
“Oh, never mind, come in,” Michael said, ushering his brother-in-law into the house. Michael went back to the boxes. “I’m in a frenzy of unpacking. I’m determined to finish today. I had no idea we had accumulated so much shit. Or shite, as you might say.”
Michael turned back to Gerald and his smile withered instantly. Seeing the expression on his brother-in-law’s face, Michael suddenly knew. He didn’t have to be told; he just knew. He didn’t want to know, but he knew.
“Michael, listen, … “
“Hey, look at these,” Michael said quickly, plastering a smile on his face like a mask. He reached into a box and pulled out two crystal cat figurines. “Your mother gave us these when Ferguson and I first moved in together. Remember?”
“I didn’t want to do this over the phone, but I have to tell you … “
“Oh, and look at these funky throw pillows. I don’t even know where they came from. Must be from Ferguson’s single days.”
“Michael, please,” Gerald said firmly, stepping toward his brother-in-law. “There was an accident and … “
“I don’t want to hear it!” Michael shouted, slinging a throw pillow across the room where it collided with some picture frames and sent them clattering to the floor. He leaned heavily on the back of the sofa, as if his legs didn’t have the strength to hold him up. Tears did not yet fall, but his eyes shimmered wetly. “Whatever you have to say, I don’t want to hear it. As long as I don’t hear it, it isn’t true.”
Gerald crossed the room quickly and let Michael collapse into his arms. The two men stood that way for some time, clinging to one another and weeping quietly.
* * *
Gerald was glad Michael had decided to come. When he’d found out Michael wasn’t going to the States to be with his mother for Christmas, he hadn’t been able to bear the thought of his spending the holiday alone in the barren flat he was currently renting. Gerald had insisted Michael spend Christmas Eve with him and his family. Michael had seemed reluctant, but he’d shown up nonetheless.
“More eggnog?” Gerald asked, slapping a hand on Michael’s shoulder.
“No thanks,” Michael said with a weak smile. “Gotta drive home.”
“Nonsense. Stay the night; you can watch the kids tear into their presents from St. Nick in the morning.”
“I don’t want to put you to any trouble.”
“No trouble. There’s plenty of room. Right, hon?”
“Absolutely,” Miranda said as she passed by with a tray of Christmas cookies, her and Gerald’s two children following at her heels, soon joined by Charles and Anne’s three youngsters.
“So how’s the show going?” Gerald asked. Michael had recently joined the staff of writers on the latest incarnation of Doctor Who. “Anything exciting coming up?”
“You know I can’t tell you anything about upcoming storylines.”
“Oh, come on now. Just a hint? I’ll give you one of my children. Hannah, I’ll trade you Hannah.”
Michael laughed, his first genuine laugh of the evening. Laughter hadn’t come easily to him since Ferguson’s death five years ago. “Thanks, but no. You’ll have to wait and watch like everyone else.”
Gerald sighed dramatically. “Okay, I suppose I have to respect that. Tell you what, you can have Hannah anyway, if you want.”
“I’m sure Miranda would be thrilled to hear that,” Michael said with a grin.
“Hell, she’d probably throw in Owen as well.”
“Family photo,” Fiona, Gerald’s Mum, called out. She was gathered on the sofa with Anne, Charles, their three children, Miranda, Hannah and Owen. “Come on,” she said to Gerald, waving him over. “We’re taking a photo with just the family.”
Gerald started over then turned to see Michael headed for the kitchen. “Hey, Michael,” he said, “aren’t you coming?”
Michael paused, looking at him uncertainly. “I thought this one was just for the family?”
“It is,” Fiona said, holding out her hand to Michael. “That includes you, dear.”
“Get your arse over here,” Gerald said. “Come stand next to me. You’ll look even more gorgeous by comparison.”
Michael stood there for a moment, a war of emotions playing over his face. A single tear escaped and fled down his cheek. Finally he walked over and stood next to Gerald behind the sofa, Gerald throwing an arm casually around Michael’s shoulders.
“Okay everyone,” said a distant cousin whose name Gerald couldn’t remember. “Smile.”
A click, a flash, a family immortalized.