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Learning How to Dance

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LIBRARIAN: So. Right. We'll proceed. I have only one night for this. I would like to have more, oh yes, but due to extortionary rates demanded by the proprietors of this auditorium ... I have only one night for this.
-- Underneath the Lintel, Glen Berger

It was one kiss. It was a long time ago. Midnight and Allison's trailer decked out in red silk and pink fairylights and his eyes -- Richard's eyes -- gleaming, holding all the light in the room, swallowing it like the gulps of smoke from his cigar.

It was an affair that never happened but for which he still feels guilty.

He has kept it close and secret: a diary of his heart, where all came to nothing. Each day a new thing, with new promise that is always dashed by the evening because he is a coward and Richard is not.

Something dreamed. Something impossible.

x

He goes to London because he can't help it. He lies to his wife, makes excuses to both his sons. He ignores the calls from his publicist which lurk on his Blackberry like intimations of an undreamt life he has not yet woken up into. His agent sends him a series of increasingly panicked emails. He takes pity on her by the final one, replies back:

Have to disappear for a little while, be back soon, let everyone know will you? thanx R.
On the plane he tries to sleep, for eight hours, and for eight hours he fails utterly, and instead gets turned around in labyrinthine fantasies that involve running into Richard in the street, in London, in a Covent Garden cafe, and wow, how about seeing you here? By the time it's time to disembark all his muscles are stiff, unresponsive. He almost has to limp off the damn runway.

x

He drifts. It's not that the play isn't interesting, or that Richard isn't superb in it. It's that it's Richard -- his wrists flashing white under the lights as they escaped from his sleeves at the end of every expansive gesture, and at the end of his wrists his hands, his fingers. Rob drifts remembering Richard's fingers touching the hair at his temples as they kissed. Richard's fingers gentle, quivering almost, blown off course every moment, righting himself again, steering on instinct until, struck by lightning, he had pulled away, breathing heavily, looking at Rob: what are we doing? can anyone see us? why weren't you kissing me back?

At first it was -- or seemed -- impossible. Schiff was, the first day Rob met him, quiet, aloof, but certainly in control of everything he said, did, and thought. Pronouncements -- and they felt like words from a damned oracle the first time Rob went to him wanting an opinion on something to do with the only thing either of them then thought they had in common -- pronouncements came slowly, and with a surprising erudition. (It took him a good few months to realise how much snobbery Richard had engendered in him when they first met and once he had realised it he had wanted to run and find him to apologise -- only the certainty that he'd just get laughed out of Schiff's trailer stopped him.)

It took until the middle of the first season for Schiff to have gathered the disparate threads of Rob's respect between his fingers; by the time the Emmy nominations were announced Schiff had begin to weave something that felt more like hero worship. It wasn't a showy kind of idolatry: it matched its subject in being wry, taciturn, and oddly shy, but also given to occasional philosophical pronouncements, to occasional sunbursts of joy, and to staying up too late puzzling out whys and wondering over hows. Rob spent a lot of time with the hows too: how do his lips taste? how can I find out? how can I keep from getting fired if I ever do?

The thing at the Emmy party was impulse. Impulse and alcohol. And pride. They weren't friends, not really, but dammit he saw the guy every day, spent most of his scenes with him, even ran his lines with him sometimes, and he had watched that episode -- the only one Richard could possibly have submitted for consideration -- in mute awe. Rob had cried at the end, once he saw the rushes. Schiff had cried too, several times. When he came back in to finish up a few angles, Rob could see the redness, just a hint at the corner of his eyes, hidden from the camera by make-up tricks Rob's wife could have told him all about. Rob watched him, from across the room, weak under everyone's congratulations and his nervous gestures all out of control -- his fingers rubbing his forehead, his beard, at his eyes. Rob smiled, thinking about the make-up girls who would be cursing his name if they could see him, with powder on his fingers.

Rob had wanted to touch him then: just a touch on his back or his shoulder; just 'well done, that was amazing'. But they weren't friends, and somehow he couldn't do it.

Then a perfect night. They'd won just about everything. And however used they'd become to seeing each other in formal wear during filming it was all different when they were piled into the Shrine Auditorium and having to get up from their seats to accept awards every twenty minutes. Then they'd called Richard's name, and everything was suddenly a flurry of hugs and squeals and the sound of everyone's hands except Rob's hitting Richard's back in time to the theme music -- or an approximation of it -- played by the cheap band in the orchestra pit.

His speech, then. He sounded just like he always does: slightly amused and slightly detached, as though he'd be flown at great expense into someone else's life and now had to make out like he knew what he was doing. Until Rob heard the little catch in his voice. The little intake of breath where there should have been none; where there should have been the smooth assurance of rehearsed surprise and careful humility; what Rob would have performed if he'd been up there.

Then the party afterward. Everybody's wife laughing and Allison dancing with everyone, twirling under Richard's arm. Rob was lining up glasses of champagne he wasn't meant to be drinking, even though he was then the nominal lead in the most lauded drama on television. He spent an hour watching the bubbles in the glasses disappear, and through them a party he didn't know how to crash.

It took three glasses. It took Allison holding court around a set of tables halfway across the room. It took his own wife having been captured by a prominent comedian and his slimy grin, and Richard's wife having vanished from the auditorium completely, leaving only the smoke trail of guilt in Rob's hazy head.

Three glasses of champagne, two of the downed in one, the third taken in frantic sips, almost inhaled. He knew that Richard would be able to smell the alcohol as Rob leaned in, as Rob kissed him, on the cheek, as a way of saying 'congratulations', as he made the joke that made it seem like he was the one with homosexual panic. He knew that Richard would be thinking whatever it is that people who have never been the subject of a high publicity scandal involving a minor, alcohol, and his own dick think about people who have, even as Rob was running his tongue over his bottom lip trying to work out if he could taste anything of the skin so recently his, and knew that all he could find was the sweetness of the champagne and the bitterness of wishing.

He kissed Richard on the cheek, in front of a camera. Filming them, making some kind of stupid documentary. Richard was fiddling with the award, looking like he was examining it to find a label saying 'Made in China'.

It's a little bit off, he said. It's a little bit bent. Just like you, Rob said.

Richard's eyes. Bright, not sober but a long long way from drunk. For a moment showing something that looked an awful lot like uncertainty. A little colour coming in, like a pair of pinpricks to the lobes of his ears. Rob's fingers tangled in Richard's sleeve, just for a second.

They still aren't friends. And now they aren't something else as well.

After that, the impossible thing happened.

Though they saw no more of each other that night (both wives returned to claim what ought to be theirs) by the time filming started up again, something between them had shifted. Rob spent a month trying to work out exactly what it was about Richard that had changed the charge in the air when they shared a room, why Rob felt uneasy whenever he turned his back on him; watched, and watched with something other than the sardonic indifference he had previously associated with Richard's attitude. It took him a month to work it out: although Schiff has a reputation for flirting with anything in a skirt (though, Rob heard him remark to Bradley, he is just as partial to a nice trouser suit), Rob had never seen him act on or in any other way indicate any interest in men. The bright-eyed soft-voiced coaxing that marked most of his interaction with pretty women whether he intended anything by it or not, do not apply with guys; and yet what was the way he talks to Rob then -- the teasing that was not gentle, or soft-voiced, but bordered on cruel, or the way he was very careful not to touch Rob unless he was in character (when he touched Rob slightly more than Rob remembered him doing the previous season), or the heaviness of his gaze -- what was that but some admission that his feelings were trying to drown him, that he was in over his head, and that one kiss, just a brief peck on the cheek, just a straight guy's way of saying congratulations, had been all it took.

x

There's no interval for Underneath the Lintel. Rob shifts in his seat, thereby breaking his resolution to do absolutely nothing -- including clapping or breathing too loudly -- to draw attention to himself. He dashed from Heathrow to the West End in an unwashed shirt and his darkest wraparound shades; he hasn't shaved for two days (the stubble is coming in grey, which he finds strangely pleasing, if only because it gives the version of Schiff who exists only in his head something other than his continued youthfulness to shape his insults around); and the cabbie did not recognise him. Why would he? the inner Schiff says, in not quite the same voice as the man on the stage. It's not like you've done anything worth being recognised for lately. Rob turns the programme in his hands cover-down so as to escape the version of Schiff (melancholic and weathered, in shades of blue) who is actually looking straight at him, tells the one in his head to shut the fuck up, and turns his attention back to the prototype.

On stage, Richard is doing some strange approximation of an English accent. He looks into the audience over the rims of the little glasses which Rob knows are not entirely down to the requirements of costume. For a second he seems to be looking straight at Rob. His eyes -- the heaviness of his gaze -- hurts. Rob looks away, at the blackboard with the list of 'Evidences' written on it in Richard's haphazard handwriting. By the time he looks back again, Richard is facing a different part of the theatre.

x

Nothing had happened for a while. They were edging toward the end of the second season and everyone knew that it was -- another seemingly impossible thing -- going to be even better than the first. Rob was riding the same high as the others: stupidly proud, feeling lucky, trying not to feel too lucky, since that's about the time (Martin would say) that it all starts to go to hell. So Rob tried his best not to notice that Sam Seaborn was maybe the least developed of all the main cast and vowed not to mention it to anyone until he got stuck at a very late reshoot with Aaron and half a bottle of flat champagne and found himself explaining, very soulfully, that he felt things weren't quite where they should be with Sam and couldn't they maybe do something about that? If he'd been keeping score at that point maybe he'd have been worried that, as a supposedly reformed character, all his major life developments had of late been happening only under the influence of champagne. But then Aaron wrote the episode with Sam's father's affair and the dead spy, and Rob felt loved again and all was forgotten. Almost all, anyway.

Richard's daughter was born during the hiatus. Rob's younger son started having increasingly violent nightmares around the same time. Standing around the house, bare feet on tile and breathing in the perfect air kept at the perfect temperature in his perfect L.A. house, rocking his son in his arms, trying to soothe his crying, Rob used to wonder if Richard was doing the same thing, somewhere not too far away. Eventually John was sleeping through and Rob lay awake instead, or else dreamed stories he would never get to film, in which Richard was peripheral; always there but seldom seen; a hand on his shoulder. He was often dreaming Richard's hands around that time. Smoothing out the shoulders of Sam's Seaborn's jackets. Touching the flyaway strands of Rob's hair. Gesturing the words he won't say: What are you, crazy? We can't do this. Go home to your wife, and I'll go home to mine.

It was late in the day, when it happened. Bright lights going on all over the set, blinding him as he walked over to where Richard was standing, clutching a stack of papers in his hands -- old scripts, newer scripts, mail, notes, and the ubiquitous Toby Ziegler notebook that usually slips into his shirt pocket resting on top of all the rest. He looked like he was waiting for something. What it turned out he was waiting for was Rob, and he could have been waiting all day, all week. Rob thinks he would have just carried on standing there, one side of his smile getting slowly eroded by the wind, if Rob hadn't come out at that moment.

He'd said, Come with me.

Rob had said, Where are we going?

Nowhere. Well, somewhere. Nowhere important.

That's good, Richard, he thinks he remembers saying. He thinks he remembers trying really hard not to let his tongue trip over Richard's name. He thinks he said, It's good that you're so certain.

Just come with me, he said, and Rob had gone.

The car park was unprepossessing, and certainly unromantic. Richard owned a car that gave away his vanity -- in that it was the kind of car no one would ever be vain about. Rob thought then that he liked to be thought of as less fancy than the rest of them, or certainly less fancy, less rich, less like a star, than Rob, anyway.

He leant against the door of the car, with his hands in his pockets. The colour was in his cheeks, and in the lobes of his ears, again. Rob remembers that he was thinking about kissing them, thinking about taking that warm flesh in his mouth, when Richard said it, and so it sounded like fantasy, and Richard had to say it again --

Kiss me.

And Rob had.

x

When the play is over, the applause is strange. Stunned, Rob thinks. Richard takes his bows diffidently, with the traces of the tears the Librarian cried ten minutes ago (tears Rob is still brushing from his cheeks) in the way he holds his body. One person, in the middle of the stalls, stands up and starts to clap. One person wolf whistles. Two more people stand, then another four. Rob stands up with the rest of his row, clapping his hands over his head, and promises be damned.

x

Rob stands there, toe-to-toe, and imagines saying it: Kiss me.

Richard is still in costume -- brown jacket and waistcoat, little glasses on a cord around his neck, dark trousers, black shoes. He still looks dusty, dowdy; he still looks like the Librarian.

Rob doesn't say what he wants to say. He sticks out his hand instead. Richard shakes it. It had been three years since they touched each other; almost as long since they've seen each other, apart from long, aching seconds, caught between television channels, flicking between NBC and anything else at all. Now, backstage, having used the name he swore he wouldn't say the entire time he was in London to get there, it all seems like something someone filmed.

It was one kiss. It was a long time ago. Rob runs his tongue over his bottom lip. Richard clears his throat and runs one hand, steady, down the centre of his chest until it meets the little glasses.

Rob imagines something else: holding out his hand he would touch the coarse hair shaping the delicate angle of Richard's jaw. The line of the bone goes too high but the beard evens the proportions; makes him dark, secured, handsome. The beard has grey in it, now. Little tickles of white underneath his bottom lip and flecked on his cheek. There is some stubble growing back in on his cheeks. He hasn't shaved today, Rob thinks. He thinks about stroking that skin, letting the sharp hairs cut against his fingertips. He lets himself wonder what would happen to Richard's face if he did; he does not let himself imagine the reaction he fears he would get.

Rob is holding his wraparound shades in his hands, fiddling with them, getting fingerprints all over the lenses. Richard's eyes have fallen there, though there is no expression on his face. He won't even act surprised, or pleased, or disgusted. He's all acted out. There is no face left; only Richard's face, too tired to decide what he feels.

This time it is easier to say, or just as hard: "You were amazing."

He nods, once. "Thank you."

"Are you ... " (are you sorry to see me? did you miss me? do you despise me? do you have any feelings at all, one way or the other, for me, Richard?) " ... Are you going to the stage door?"

He nods again. "In a little while."

"I'll go. Soon."

Richard nods again. He turns away, starts unbuttoning the waistcoat and pulls the cord from which the little glasses hang over his head.

Rob doesn't -- he thinks, anyway -- imagine what he does next. Underneath the shoulders of Richard's thick brown jacket he can feel the seams of the waistcoat, and the way the silk lining of the jacket and the silk back piece of the waistcoat shimmer over each other. Under that, he knows there is a thin cotton shirt, and under that he knows Richard is wearing an undershirt, like he always does. Under that, just skin -- if this skin can be 'just' anything. Rob runs his fingers around the collar of the shirt, careful only to touch the fabric, then again, careful to be touching the skin the whole time. Richard is still, breathing softly.

Rob presses his mouth against the mess of collar, skin, and curly dark hair that is the back of Richard's neck. He pulls the hair away, then kisses the skin again, then the side of Richard's neck.

"Sorry," he says, whispers. "I'm sorry."

"What the hell are you sorry for, Rob?"

"Everything, I guess. The usual thing."

Richard makes a sound that is probably his way of saying fuck you without actually saying it. Rob strokes the skin he exposed from underneath Richard's busted clock works curls. Richard shivers, then turns.

The kiss is scanty -- terrified, on Rob's side, and frantic, on Richard's -- and over in less time than it would have taken to say the words. Richard's mouth stays open, afterwards: a nothing shape, a rip of grief in him, in the things that make him, in the understanding he has of his own self. Rob lets his fingers drift there. He lets himself drift. His thumb hides inside Richard's mouth, just for a moment; then his lips try to close Richard's.

"I'm just sorry," he whispers.

Richard's fingers touch his hair. The flyaway hair at his temples, ruffled by his baseball cap and the shades and the hour and a half he just spent sitting in the dark, wrestling with his three angels. Richard smoothes it, like he might a child's -- trying to make him tidy. Then he strokes it, disarraying it again, thrusting in his fingers to the depths of two knuckles, pressing against Rob's skull with his fingertips.

The penny he drops in Rob's coat pocket is heavy. When he checks it later he finds out that it is British currency, and the copper smells like blood on his fingers.

Richard kisses Rob's cheek, carefully, like touching a bruise. He whispers, into Rob's good ear, tickling, "That's your penny back."