LYLBTB Advent Event 2013 : Josh Lanyon
Merry Christmas, Darling
SORT OF STRANGER THAN FICTION:
Ethan and Michael
by Josh Lanyon
“Merry Christmas, darling,” sang Karen Carpenter. “We’re apart, that’s true…”
It was the first Christmas Ethan had ever had a boyfriend, so it was only reasonable that he’d hoped he and Michael might spend the holiday, at least part of the holiday together. He was pretty sure Michael had at least been open to the idea — he hadn’t mentioned any other plans when Ethan had dropped hints about holiday dinners and so forth — but then when Ethan had finally got around to actually inviting him, Michael had looked vaguely regretful and said he had already agreed to spend Christmas day at his father’s in La Crescenta.
“He’s got a new fiancée,” Michael had said. “He wants me to meet her.”
“Oh.” Ethan had tried to hide his disappointment.
He wasn’t good at hiding his feelings though, and Michael had added a curt and belated, “Sorry.”
Ethan blushed hotly. “No! Of course you’d go to your dad’s. I only meant…if you didn’t have anywhere else to go, you could spend it with us.”
Maybe he was taking too much for granted anyway. It wasn’t like he and Michael had any formal agreement. It wasn’t like Michael had ever said Ethan was his boyfriend. They saw each other regularly, exclusively, but that was probably — on Michael’s side, anyway — because there really wasn’t another gay person within five hundred miles of Peabody. Even Karl Hagar had moved away to enter an MFA Writing Program at the University of San Francisco.
“It was nice of you to ask,” Michael said politely.
“Oh no,” Ethan said quickly and awkwardly. “You’re always welcome. It’s awful to be alone at the holidays. I’d have asked sooner, but I assumed you had somewhere to go.”
Oh my God. He couldn’t stop. He couldn’t shut up! He couldn’t stop making it sound like he was only asking out of politeness — and the worst part was, he sort of wanted it to sound like he was only asking out of politeness since Michael was rejecting his invitation anyway.
Michael let him babble to a stop, then he said, “Thanks anyway.”
They finished their sandwiches in silence — they were having lunch at The Sandwich Shop — and parted ways.
Parted ways for real because Michael did not ask Ethan out that night — or the next — and by noon on Wednesday, Christmas Eve, Michael was driving south to La Crescenta, wherever that was. Ethan only knew because Erin told him. Michael had not even looked in on Red Bird Books to say goodbye and wish Ethan a Merry Christmas.
So instead of spending Christmas with his first boyfriend, it looked like Ethan was maybe breaking up with his first boyfriend over Christmas.
Every time he thought of the two gaily wrapped parcels hidden beneath his bed, he wanted to burst into tears. Not that a Timex watch, even a nice Timex watch, or a bottle of good Scotch were such amazing gifts, but he’d chosen them with care. He’d bought the very best he could afford. He knew what Michael liked and he’d wanted to please him. It wasn’t about the gifts. It was about what the gifts represented, the promise of something more between them…
He was behaving like his nine-year-old self upon learning Santa wasn’t real. Boo-fucking-hoo. That’s what Michael would say to him, if he’d had any idea Ethan was such a big baby. Happily he had no idea. Had probably not given a thought to Ethan since he’d left Peabody.
“So I guess we take the turkey out now?” Erin was repeating patiently.
“We have to take the turkey out early so we can bake the stuffing and the green bean casserole, right?”
“Right. I guess.”
This was the blind leading the blind. They’d never tried to cook a whole turkey before. Not for just the two of them. They’d done Cornish hens a couple of times. Erin had tried to cook a duck once — that was better forgotten. Usually the McCartys invited them to Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner. But Erin had a new boyfriend this year. She was back together with her high school sweetheart Tony Guinn, and out of kindness to Tony, Ethan was doing his best to keep his twin sister from killing them all. It was at his insistence they were baking the stuffing in a casserole instead of flouting the possibility of ptomaine poisoning by packing clams and celery and nuts and bacon and bread cubes into a raw turkey.
“But then do we put the turkey back in?” Erin asked.
They both doubtfully studied the sallow looking turkey in its large roasting pan.
“Probably.” Ethan said. “Right?”
“But then the casseroles will be cold.”
“We could try keeping them warm on Mom’s old heating plate,” Ethan suggested. He wasn’t sure that was a good idea. The heating plate had been a wedding gift to their parents and it had always been a little persnickety. They were liable to burn the house down. They were still weighing merits against risk when the doorbell chimed.
“That’s Tony!” Erin exclaimed. She bustled away, flushed and pretty in their mom’s old, violet-sprigged apron. The apron reminded Ethan of happier times, holidays when their parents were still alive, when the world had seemed a safe place and love had been something he had taken for granted.
He desultorily stirred the gravy and listened to the harmonious blend of Erin and Tony’s voices from the front room.
“Oh, the music stopped!” Erin said clearly.
A minute later Karen Carpenter was back. “Merry Christmas, darling…”
Ethan sighed. But then a moment later he heard Tony’s deep voice say something, heard Erin giggle, and he smiled.
At least one of his Christmas wishes was granted. His beautiful, funny, awful cook of a little sister finally had someone to love and to love her back. Right there, that made this one of the best Christmases ever.
After dinner — the edible parts were surprisingly delicious — Tony invited Erin for a walk.
“Ethan, let’s leave the dishes and go for a walk!” Erin urged happily.
Ethan caught Tony’s gaze. Tony was medium height, dark-haired and square-jawed. He still looked a lot like he had in high school, only more sure of himself. Except he didn’t look sure of himself just then. He looked self-conscious and slightly dismayed.
“You two go ahead,” Ethan said. “I’m just going to put some of this food away. I’ll catch up to you.”
Tony looked relieved and grateful as he dragged Erin out the front door.
Ethan swapped the Carpenters for the Mills Brothers and busied himself putting all the leftover food away, rinsing the dishes for the dishwasher, scrubbing burnt pans. By the time he finished, Erin and Tony were back. Erin was wearing a small solitaire diamond on her left hand and her eyes as well as her nose were red.
“Guess what!” she said to Ethan. “You’ll never believe it.”
“Well yes, but that’s not it. Pete McCarty just invited us all over for pumpkin pie!” Erin’s eyes were sparkling with happiness. She actually clasped her hands together like a little girl. Like Ebenezer Scrooge’s sister when she came to take him away from school to spend Christmas at home.
“He invited me too?” Ethan asked. “Are you sure?”
“I’m sure. He said, Tell that brother of yours Anna made a pecan pie just for him.”
Ethan’s throat closed. Well, that was a Christmas miracle right there. After two years, he’d given up hoping Pete McCarty would ever stop being mad at him. It just proved that you should never stop hoping.
“Hey,” Erin added, frowning. “Why would you believe I could never get engaged?”
Ethan and Tony both laughed. Tony hugged her. It was so great to see that open affection, to see Erin appreciated. Even kind of adored, if appearances were anything to go by. Ethan was truly happy for her and he refused to think about Michael or his own situation. Or lack of situation.
He congratulated Tony and they shook hands with unexpected solemnity. Then they all toasted the engagement with a bottle of sparkling cider because Erin, having no clue of Tony’s plans, had insisted on serving the champagne he’d brought, at dinner.
So it was turning out to be a very good day, and Ethan wished he could stop wondering all the time what Michael’s Christmas day was like. Hopefully Michael was having a good day too, and maybe the next time they saw each other, things would be back to normal. It was probably just the pressure of the holidays making them both awkward.
It couldn’t really be over. Could it? Because Ethan really did love Michael, and it wasn’t just because Michael was his first boyfriend. It was because Michael was Michael. And up until the holidays had made everything uncomfortable, he’d been pretty sure that Michael felt the same. Even if Michael was not the expressive type.
But maybe it was over and Ethan was soon going to be living in this house on his own. He’d be going to Christmas dinners at Tony and Erin’s, and bringing presents to their cute little moppets. He’d be Uncle Ethan the Lifelong Bachelor.
Michael would not be anyone’s lifelong bachelor uncle. Or even the special friend of anyone’s lifelong bachelor uncle. Michael had been places and done things. And he would eventually — maybe already had — find someone like himself to share his life with. Someone who took what he wanted, instead of always waiting to be told what he was allowed to have.
Anyway, there were a lot worse fates than spending the holiday with family who loved you and sharing pie with neighbors you were no longer feuding with. So Ethan grabbed his jacket and the three of them started across the frost-covered field to the McCartys’.
Erin was singing, “But I can dream, and in my dreams…”
Tony’s baritone joined in, “I’m Christmasing with you.”
Even their voices blended perfectly. Even so. Christmasing? What kind of a verb was that?
“Hey,” Erin broke off. “Isn’t that Michael’s pickup?”
The three of them stopped walking. Sure enough a familiar white pickup truck was trundling down the long dirt road to their house.
Ethan gulped, “I’ll meet you at the McCartys’,” and started walking back. Then he got worried that Michael might knock, find nobody home, and leave, so he began to run. He flew across the field, scrambled over the fence and raced up the walk.
Michael was holding a grocery store pie box in one hand and was raising his other to the doorbell. He turned at the pound of Ethan’s feet. Ethan slid to a stop.
“Uh, hey,” Michael said, sounding uncharacteristically self-conscious. And then, “Something wrong?”
Ethan shook his head vigorously, hand to his chest. “Half a mile. Two seconds.” He leaned against the side of the house, wheezing, “You’re…back!”
“Yeah.” Michael shrugged. “I was hoping…” His gaze dropped to the pie box. He handed it to Ethan. “It’s pecan.”
“I love pecan!”
Ethan smiled down at the pie box and then, shyly, at Michael. “Did you…want to come in?”
No, Ethan. I want to stand here in the freezing evening air and talk about pies. But Michael nodded gravely, almost as though the invitation had been in doubt.
Ethan opened the door and they went inside the house which was redolent of wonderful smells: apples and cinnamon and Christmas tree and turkey dinner with all the trimmings (most of them not burnt too badly). He carried the pie into the kitchen and set the box on the breadboard. By then he had his breath back.
“Would you like a piece of pie?” he asked.
“Oh. Okay.” Maybe Michael simply intended to drop off the pie and go? Ethan didn’t want that. He said desperately, “How’s your dad? How was your Christmas?”
Michael was studying the sink full of soaking blackened pans. He wore charcoal dress trousers, a tailored pale gray shirt, and a red tie. Ethan had never seen him in anything but jeans and T-shirts or flannel shirts — or his boxers. He felt shy with this new formal looking Michael. He smiled uncertainly as Michael turned his cool gaze his way.
“Fine. The new girlfriend is fine too. My father’s been married five times already, so I’m not sure why it was so important I meet this one.” Michael stopped. His eyes were very blue as they studied Ethan, his expression grave. Sort of pained. “Look, Ethan. I’m not sure how to say this.”
Ethan felt winded all over again. Like he had just made another run across the meadow.
Please don’t say it. Please don’t do it. Not today. Not on Christmas. Not ever.
But of course this was it. Michael was trying to be as nice as he could about it. Heck, he’d even brought pie. They would still be friends. Ethan closed his eyes, bracing for it.
“What’s the matter?” Michael asked.
Ethan opened his eyes. “Nothing. Go ahead.”
Michael said uncomfortably, “I’m sorry if it seemed like I was —”
“Wait,” Ethan said. His voice sounded choked even to his own ears.
Michael stopped, looking confused.
Ethan blurted, “Are you breaking up with me? Yes or no?”
Michael’s mouth opened. He seemed to run through all the possible responses before saying cautiously, “I wasn’t going to, no. Do you want me to?”
All at once the tightness eased from Ethan’s chest and he could draw a full breath again. He said weakly, “I thought maybe you were — I thought maybe we broke up.”
Michael didn’t laugh. He didn’t say he didn’t know what Ethan meant. He was silent for a moment, frowning, then he said, “I thought maybe we did too. But I wasn’t sure. And I wasn’t sure why we would. I thought I’d like to know.”
Relief washed through Ethan, leaving him unexpectedly weak in the knees. He leaned back against the counter. “I don’t know what happened,” he admitted. “I was thinking you would come to Christmas. But then you didn’t.” It sounded idiotic, put like that, but that was pretty much the gist of it.
“I thought I would too, but then you never asked. Until…”
It was too late. Yes. And then Ethan had taken great pains to make sure Michael understood he was being invited out of politeness.
“I wasn’t sure you wanted to be invited,” Ethan admitted.
“Why wouldn’t I want to be invited to Christmas?”
“Maybe you had plans.”
“Well, you did have plans,” Ethan pointed out.
“At the last minute I did, yeah. I didn’t before.”
“Well, you didn’t say anything,” Ethan said. “So I didn’t know for sure.”
Michael frowned. “I can’t invite myself. Not to Christmas. Anyway, I don’t want to always invite myself. I don’t want to feel like the only reason we get together is because I push for it.”
“Is that how it seems?”
“Yes,” Michael said bluntly.
Ethan flushed. “I’m just never sure if you really want to get together or if I’m just bothering you.”
Michael stopped himself from saying whatever he nearly answered. He raked a hand through his long, pale hair and said, carefully, “Ethan, do I really seem like someone who would spend five minutes with you if I didn’t feel like spending five minutes with you?”
No. No, Michael was polite, but not overly so. He was not the suffer-fools-gladly type, that was for sure.
Michael’s hard, blue gaze softened. “We have coffee together every morning. We have lunch together every other day. We’re together more nights than we’re apart. Wouldn’t that be a hint that I like to be with you?”
Ethan felt himself coloring. “It’s just that you’re hard to read and I still don’t know how this works.”
Michael’s mouth twisted. He turned the scarred half of his face to Ethan. It was funny that Ethan never noticed Michael’s scars anymore. He only noticed now because he could tell Michael was struggling with some unfamiliar emotion.
“I know I’m really bad at this,” Ethan admitted humbly.
Michael turned back to face him. “Well, at least you have the excuse of inexperience. I’m really bad at this too, and I’ve had my share of relationships.”
“Right. I guess.” Ethan hated thinking that maybe he was just one more in a series of relationships in Michael’s life. But even if that was true, Michael had cared enough to come here today to find out what the situation was between them. That took courage. It wasn’t fair not to try to meet that straight on.
Ethan gathered his nerve. “I guess the problem is I don’t know how you feel, and I really, really li —”
“I love you, Ethan,” Michael said.
“Yes.” Michael spoke with such quiet, simple sincerity it brought tears to Ethan’s eyes. “I think I loved you from the moment I saw you. I figured you knew that.”
Ethan swallowed. “Sometimes I think maybe you do. But then other times I think maybe you don’t.”
“I do,” Michael said firmly. He gave one of his rare, beautiful smiles. “Hasn’t it crossed your mind that maybe I was waiting for you to say something?”
No. It really had not. But now that he understood? He was probably never going to shut up about how much he loved Michael. Michael would be wishing he’d kept his mouth shut. Or maybe not. Because Michael did suddenly look a lot happier and relaxed.
It was going to be all right after all. Somehow it was going to be happy endings for everyone tonight.
Ethan said mischievously, “Hm. What would you like me to say?”
Ethan reached for Michael, who met him halfway. There were many things he wanted, needed to tell Michael, and now he knew for sure they would be welcome. The little things and the big things both. He started with something small.
“Okay. Well,” Ethan hugged Michael back with all his strength. “Merry Christmas, darling…”
a note from Barb …. Ethan and Michael are from the Sweet Spot : Petit Morts Stories and can be bought as a STANDALONE or as part of the COLLECTION. I loved all the stories, but this one was definitely one of my favourites!
Thank you so much for sharing this, Josh ❤
A distinct voice in gay fiction, multi-award-winning author Josh Lanyon has been writing gay mystery and romance for over a decade. In addition to numerous short stories, novellas, and novels, Josh is the author of the critically acclaimed Adrien English series, including The Hell You Say, winner of the 2006 USABookNews awards for GLBT Fiction and a Lambda Literary Award finalist for Gay Mystery. Josh is also the author of the definitive M/M writing guide Man, Oh Man: Writing M/M Fiction for Kinks and Ca$h.
But, really…do you care? Probably not. More to the point, Josh writes gay or M/M romance — usually within the context of a mystery / romantic-suspense or action – adventure. Lanyon’s particular brand of erotic romance features sexy cops and smartass writers, tough Navy SEALs and sensitive artists, hard as nail special agents and…other hard as nails special agents.
Josh is an EPPIE Award winner and a three-time Lambda Literary Award finalist. He lives in Los Angeles, California with his Significant Other. You can find out more at the Just Joshin blog on Livejournal/Blogspot or through Josh’s mailing list.
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