It’s a typical cold, wet autumn day in London, and Andrew is aware that he’s supposed to be falling in love a little with each of these nice polite gents who’ve all shown up for what is, let’s face it, probably the most important audition of their lives.
But there’s a sense of viciousness in the air. It’s barely three weeks since the American election, and everyone’s still in a state of shell-shock. The storm outside is brutal: stinging, slanting rain that seems designed to put the auditioning actors even more on edge than they were. The combination of politics and the weather seems to have sucked all the energy out of the room and out of Andrew himself, replacing it with a kind of livewire, fraught sense of agitation that’s rested on the shoulders of all the actors he’s read with so far that day.
And Andrew knows it’s terrible of him, but he’s feeling kind of judgy because none of these men are bringing him Louis, and there’s a part of him, a big terrified part of him, that is so, so eager to meet Louis. He’s been waiting nearly a year to meet Louis.
The task before them — reading for this part, in this play, in this political moment, and having to audition alongside of Andrew — is absolutely daunting, and he knows that. Plus, every actor they’ve seen so far has made sure to mention how much it means to them, and Andrew can see some of them tripping over themselves to get it across, how much it matters, how much they want it.
But it’s also a bit painful, because those are the actors who are injecting Louis with a desperation and a neediness that Andrew as Prior doesn’t think he can respond to, not in the context of Perestroika, not in the scene they’re reading, the scene where they finally see each other again after all the months apart. Prior is angry and bitter and hurt and dying and full of a righteous biblical fury, and Andrew knows that these borrowed emotions — plus the weather, plus the pressure, plus his own nervousness, his own totally justified nervousness — are all making him hostile and irritable. He knows he’s the enemy of every actor who sets foot in that room.
But he can’t help it. He’s still wrapping his head around Prior, around being Prior Walter, and he’s distracted by a stupid underlying panic because Tony fucking Kushner is right there in the room watching them, and every time Tony perks up or looks excited Andrew feels a stab of fear, like he might be, be, de-cast or something, like maybe Tony will just spontaneously choose one of this line of younger prettier actors who’ve all been stammering over Louis’ lines and give Prior to them instead.
And Andrew is probably exuding some kind of pent-up low-level resentment that’s completely unlike him, and it’s probably tripping up the men who are there to actually audition.
But also he’s kinda like, well, you’re Louis, you’re the asshole, so bring it.
Several of the actors approach the part like it’s a war they have to win. They seem to take some internal hacksaw to the sides for Louis, as though he’s a dragon they have to slay — he’s guilty and loud and full of self-hate but little else. And, well, that doesn’t leave Andrew a lot to work with; if the actors playing his recalcitrant boyfriend all think that he’s a monster, how is Andrew supposed to fall in love with him?
The day stretches out; the callbacks are running behind, and they’ve sent out for sandwiches and chips so they can all work through lunch; Andrew’s left feeling that casting this is a necessary ordeal, and he knows that when the right actor comes they’ll all have a sense of who he is, but he also can’t help feeling that he is Prior Walter, he is the fucking prophet of the millennium, and he deserves a Louis who is as fucking extraordinary as he is damaged.
He’s licking chip grease from his fingers and nursing Prior’s ruffled pride when a midsized, weatherbeaten actor walks in. He’s a bit oddly packaged, as if his body hasn’t decided whether it’s built or nursing an early dad bod, and at a glance he looks much older than the other actors Andrew’s read with today. But then he smiles at the room and reveals a hidden baby face — round cheeks and twinkling eyes, a right jolly elf.
Marianne and Tony both both straighten in their chairs when he enters, like the main act has just arrived, and Andrew unconsciously sits up, too, newly alert.
“Hi, I’m James.” He makes the rounds greeting everyone, and shakes Andrew’s hand in a broad, firm grip. He makes small talk with the producers for a few moments in a thick Scottish brogue — apparently he’s been in a bunch of acclaimed stage productions Andrew hasn’t had time to see, which is evidence aplenty that Andrew should never stray too far from the theatre, his church — and then he turns back to Andrew and remarks, “Boy, what a bastard demon of a play this is, innit?”
Andrew blinks, thrown — the other actors have all immediately launched into praising the play and Tony and none of them have called it a demon bastard in front of the playwright. He glances over to Marianne and Tony, but their body language is all eagerness and anticipation. Tony looks delighted.
But James follows his gaze and his smile turns wry. “Oh, believe me, Andrew, I don’t know how I wound up here either,” he says.
And then he shows them all exactly why he’s there.
They’re both completely off-script for the reunion scene. Andrew wasn’t expected to go off-book for this, since rehearsals won’t actually start for another month — but he expects most actors to have the sides memorized for a callback like this, and if he’s going to ask that from the actors he’s reading with, then it’s just a courtesy for him to be off-book, too.
But even though Andrew has this scene memorized, he’s still utterly disoriented when it starts, because James’ line delivery makes him trip over himself — at first he thinks James has forgotten his lines or is fucking up and ad-libbing, but after a few moments of baffled adjustment, he realizes that’s just how James’ Louis works: he’s babbling and frantic, deploying a stream-of-consciousness that halts and stumbles and trips over itself and his own defensiveness, that changes course in mid-thought and leaves Prior scrambling to keep up with his shifting logic and his absolute shamelessness, and, and, yes, yes, Andrew thinks, of course this is what their relationship is like, of course.
“I’m sorry, can we — can we start over?” he asks. Everyone looks at him in surprise.
“Sure, mate,” says James. “D’you need me to give you something a bit different?” and that throws Andrew a little, too, because his American accent was perfect and his Scottish accent is so markedly different from his melodically neurotic New Yorker voice.
“No, no, I just wanted — I needed to get used to this,” Andrew says, feeling relieved when James nods in understanding instead of looking affronted.
“I imagine a lot of people have to get used to Louis,” he answers, grinning, and they perform the scene over from the beginning, and this time no one interrupts.
“Oh, this is going to be so much worse than I’d imagined,” says Prior, with newfound awareness that his ex-boyfriend is a giant useless catastrophe of overthinking and anxiety and narcissism — and still somehow utterly hopeful, still, and utterly, painfully endearing.
And they’re off, Prior hurling scorn at Louis and Louis scrambling to respond and still trying to convince Prior that they’re worth something, the two of them together, even though he left and he’s fucking a Mormon Republican and James’ Louis never stops looking him in the eyes, never stops pleading wordlessly, even when he’s bristling and combative and pissy and such a fucking drama queen, even when he’s saying he doesn’t want to come back, because Prior understands not to listen to a word he says anymore, but to his body language and the way he has tangled himself in knots over this, over this clusterfuck of his own making; and Prior wants to wrap him in his arms and punch him, and when he screams at Louis to come back when the bruises are visible, Andrew understands for the first time that Prior really means find someone to punish you the way I can’t bear to, and when the scene is over, they stand shocked, staring at each other, and Andrew thinks: Blue streak of recognition.
“D’you wanna run it again?” asks James politely, and a startled laugh burbles out of Andrew and then everyone else laughs, too, and he spontaneously crosses the space between them and kisses James McArdle on the cheek.
James looks at him a little sheepishly, rosy cheeks turning even rosier — but he’s also grinning a bit, like this is exactly what he was expecting.
Fuck you, Louis, Andrew thinks fondly.
In January, Tony comes to rehearsal for the first time. He spends a full week with them, and it’s the hardest week of Andrew’s career.
Tony comes armed with reams upon reams of notes, and then he sits armed with a giant yellow notepad and makes more notes. And the notes are for all of them, but most of them not directed at Marianne herself are for Andrew: notes about Prior’s motivations, his drag presentation, his movements, his commitment to artifice — “Oh, it’s artifice, but it’s very serious artifice!” Andrew grumbles to James one night as they’re leaving rehearsal. “God, I feel like I’m being shamed by the ghost of Judy Garland.”
“Don’t you think you aren’t,” James says, grinning. “At least you’re only getting it during rehearsal. I texted him a quick question about a line read last night, and I swear to god, this morning I woke up to a ten-page email.”
“It’s mortifying,” Andrew says honestly. “He hates me, he clearly hates me. I can’t do this.”
James turns to him, abruptly serious. “Hey,” he says. “Look at me.”
Andrew lifts his head, and he thinks the next words out of James’ mouth are going to be something like, “Are you kidding? You’re an Oscar nominee,” because god knows that’s what Andrew has been telling himself all week as he berates himself for feeling like a failure.
But James, sharp-eyed and gentle and, and gorgeous, just places a hand on his shoulder, and says, “Fuck Tony Kushner.”
Andrew’s mouth drops open.
“No, I’m serious,” James says. “The playwright’s not god, not even this playwright. And I don’t care who it is, whether it’s Tony, Marianne, whoever. This part, your part, Prior — his journey is all about realizing that you are already more than enough to carry whatever you have to carry inside of you. And you’ve done the work — I’ve never seen another actor work as hard as you, or care as much as you about getting it right, about doing justice to Tony’s voice and to Prior’s voice, to, to Prior’s whole being. And anyone who makes you, Andrew, feel like you’re not enough to carry Prior, after all your commitment and passion and, and youness — they’re either oblivious or an asshole. So either way, fuck ‘em.”
“Oh,” Andrew says. And then he says, “Oh,” again, because that was— “That was good, you’re very good at this.”
James laughs and rubs the back of his head. “Well, if I wasn’t well-adept at giving pep talks to self-doubting twinks, what kind of gay man would I be?”
Andrew snorts, delighted and also a bit surprised, because he’d thought — well, he’s not sure what he thought James’s sexuality was, but he didn’t expect it to be something he was casually open about. “Really, you think I’m a twink.”
“Oh, please, you know you’re a twink,” James says, and he darts one appreciative glance over Andrew’s body.
“I didn’t miss that once-over at all, I just want you to know,” says Andrew, just to needle him.
“Sorry,” says James, not sounding sorry in the slightest. “I’m usually more subtle, but you practically gave me an invite.”
“This is why Tony loves you the most,” Andrew says. “It’s your confidence, this is why he cast you.”
“Ha,” says James. “No, I’m pretty sure they cast me because you made out with me in the audition.”
“It was just a cheek-kiss!”
“Not how I remember it,” James grins, winking.
“See, that’s why,” says Andrew. “You made Louis fuckable. Everyone always says Kushner is Louis, but I think secretly he just wants to fuck Louis.”
“Oh, he definitely wants to fuck Louis,” says James, “but I feel like if you don’t come away wanting to fuck Louis at least a little, and feeling quite uneasy about it, then I didn’t do my job right.”
“He definitely thinks you’re doing your job right,” Andrew says.
“Really,” James says, and there’s a pause, and when Andrew looks at him he feels sure James was about to say, “Do you?” but stopped himself.
Andrew’s a bit shocked to realize this feels like sexual tension.
He clears his throat. “And you are,” he says. “You’re killing it, you’re going to win a shitload of awards for this play.”
This time it’s James who snorts. “Please,” he says. “It’s Prior’s play.”
“But Louis is the tour de force,” says Andrew. “He’s the humanizing flaw, the one with the 15-minute monologue and the giant brutal redemption arc, the one containing the, the truth about ourselves at our ugliest.” He can feel himself turning red because he knows he’s babbling, but he can’t help it. “And you’re so — your Louis is so, so — you’re so vital and vulnerable and sexy and brilliant, and — you’re going to win every award in the universe for this. Or at least you should.”
James is watching him intently, bright eyes studying Andrew as though he’s just given away something really important. Andrew runs back over what he said. Yes, yes, to all of it, he thinks. James is vital, he is brilliant, and he is — honestly, kind of extremely hot. Like, honestly when he actually thinks about it, James’ Louis is insanely hot in a scruffy deadbeat intellectual way. Prior really lucked out, he thinks, and then feels guilty, like he’s betraying his beloved for the thought.
Prior didn’t luck out, he amends. I did.
“Well,” James says after a moment, shoving his hands in his pockets and looking a bit pleased — always a very good look on him. “Thank you. I’ll save this lovely speech for when I inevitably have my own mental breakdown over this goddamn play.”
“This is a sacred space,” Marianne tells them at the beginning of February, gesturing to the airy space around them, the bright amber light of the Lyttelton, as they all huddle onstage for the first time. “This is where we will fail. This is where we will fail, and fail again. And we can only succeed if we all choose to fail together, here and now, and rise together.”
They spend three weeks just running through Millennium, relentlessly working out the technical kinks, adjusting to the rotating sets and the puppeteering and the perpetual cross-dialogue and the incredible effects — the whole grueling phenomenon of it. And Andrew spends three weeks mired in the most intense parts of Prior’s relationship with Louis, perpetually cycling through their passion and trust and love into betrayal and outrage and heartbreak, over and over again.
It takes a toll on them both; James gets in the habit of routinely massaging Andrew’s shoulders, like he’s trying to reassure him that he, James, is not going to leave Andrew stranded, alone, in the middle of all this. Andrew gets in the habit of asking James if he’s eaten yet that day, and since the answer is usually no, he starts bringing him fruit and power bars.
Most of the other actors have turned to meditation and mindful relaxation to help them rest and adjust and get through the performance. But James is terrible at that; Denise gets him to join her and Andrew for a Reiki session, but he just babbles nervously and winds up tenser than when he started. So Andrew makes him rest whenever they have small breaks during rehearsal; he usually winds up carding his fingers soothingly through James’ hair as James lays with his head in Andrew’s lap.
It’s become a bit of a joke to them that Prior’s role in Louis’s life is as much mother as lover, and that Andrew has clearly picked up this trait from Prior. James likes to dance his fingers over Andrew’s hand and say, “Yes, mum, I even brushed my teeth this morning and everything,” when Andrew does his wellness check-ins.
But at the same time it’s impossible not to want to mother him, at least a little. Sometimes Andrew forgets how young 27 is, especially given how much older James usually seems — older than Andrew by far, or at least more cynical; he and Nate are both as jaded as they are progressive, and just as sharply invective as their characters. Nate is closer to Andrew’s age, and that’s another thing that makes James seem older than he is. But then he’ll suddenly get dizzy because he went all day without drinking water, and Andrew will wind up feeding him grapes and banana slices by hand, and he doesn’t miss how James seems to curl into Andrew’s space in those moments, like Andrew is his primary source of nurturing and protection.
Except that after those three weeks, they run Perestroika for another three weeks straight, and this time Andrew feels the loss of James’s constant presence like Prior feeling the loss of Louis — because James spends the whole of Perestroika, except for their two crucial scenes together, away from Andrew, and the absence of him is stark and brutal and Andrew feels jittery and unmoored without him.
He can feel himself getting antsy and restless and jealous the more time James and Russell spend together, as though there’s a bond between them that’s competing with his own, and Andrew knows this is ridiculous, but also Andrew has first dibs on James because their thing clearly trumps whatever thing he has with anyone else in this play, and Andrew is sorry, but that’s just how it is.
And he can’t do wellness check-ins with James when he can’t see him, but he still worries about him, so he settles for texting him: Banana emoji. Question mark.
Thumbs-up, James sends a few scenes later. Followed by one of the glowy pink hearts.
LOL ME is completely ignoring TK’s note about Joe’s coat, James sends a bit later. He’s going to be pissed.
It’s a coat, Andrew texts back with a laughing emoji.
It’s ART, James responds, and when they finally see each other again half an hour later their eyes meet and they both burst into laughter, and Andrew feels something within him loosen and unknot.
He blows James a kiss from across the stage, just like Louis does to Prior in the first act of Millennium.
Right on cue, James catches it, and pulls it to his heart.
Marianne has miraculously kept them highly sequestered and focused on the process up until now, but when previews start, the press brigade arrives, the floodgates of public opinion burst open, and it’s a full-on blitz. Suddenly word-of-mouth about the actors and their performances is everywhere; suddenly James is getting mobbed outside of the theatre every night. And everyone has a Take on Louis Ironson, the show’s most divisive character.
Andrew is busy being overwhelmed by the outpouring of response to Prior, but in his periphery he’s constantly aware of James being bombarded with praise and criticism and tears and rebuffs. Once or twice audience members even berate him, as though he must be a sociopath for wanting to play the role.
Andrew gets in the habit of walking out early, just so he can hover. And James probably knows he’s hovering, and probably thinks it’s silly of him, but James also gets less shit from the audience when Andrew is standing next to him, so Andrew doesn’t really care.
On nights when they perform Millennium, James normally comes to Andrew’s dressing room before the show starts. They’ve fallen into a pre-show ritual of sitting together for a few moments, just breathing and relaxing and adjusting into an awareness of Prior and Louis together as a couple — of their shared space and body language and physical intimacy. Andrew always shuts the door and gives them at least five minutes or so to be totally alone; to laugh or be silent or touch one another’s faces or murmur whispered promises and apologies to one another in-character, whatever it is they happen to feel.
A week after previews have started he glances at the clock and is startled to realize James isn’t there. When he walks downstairs and knocks on James’ door and opens it, he can tell instantly that James’ breakdown has finally hit.
It’s in the way he’s sitting, rigid, staring at himself in the mirror but not seeing himself. Andrew knows that feeling instinctively, the way he knows by now that all James’ confidence in himself is never bravado — that it only extends as far as he feels prepared enough to do the work. And he suddenly looks unprepared to do the work.
Andrew shuts James’ door and goes to him and wraps his arms around James’s shoulders. “Hey.” He kisses James’ forehead. “Look at me, baby, look right up here.”
James drags air into his lungs and obeys, holding Andrew’s gaze in the mirror.
“You’ve got this,” Andrew says. “You have always had this.”
James sends him a grateful little smile and reaches up to take one of Andrew’s hands. He kisses it and then keeps hold of it.
“I just feel so overwhelmed,” he says. “There are so many people out there that Louis means so much to, good and bad, and it feels so much huger than I was prepared for. I’m just dreading it.”
“It’s supposed to feel huge,” Andrew says. “This is the work. This is it. This is the bastard demon, demanding you face your reckoning.”
“I don’t know how you can bear it,” James says, sounding lost and a little choked up.
“You are how I bear it,” Andrew says instantly, firmly, realizing as he says it that it’s true. “And Denise and Nate and Nathan, but you, most of all. You put me through hell night after night and you walk this high-wire of emotion between love and loathing, and —”
In the mirror, James’ expression shifts into something a little like devastation, a little like amazement. Andrew leans down and rests his head against James’s shoulder and keeps talking.
“Prior’s journey to heaven would mean nothing,” he says, “if I couldn’t forgive you after it was all over. And every single night, you manage to come back to me with your heart in your hands, and you manage to make me believe in your redemption, and you make me love you more, make me love Louis even more, for all his fucked-up betrayal. And I know it’s in the script, but you — I want to forgive you. You give me a horrible ex-boyfriend who is so fucked-up and flawed and beautiful that all I can be in response is fucked-up and flawed and beautiful, too.”
James draws in a ragged breath and looks at Andrew, and says nothing, but his eyes are wide and bright, and Andrew is suddenly so happy he’s here with James, that he’s the one talking him through this.
“You are enough to carry this,” he says after another moment. “And we are enough to carry this. You and me.”
James’ smiles, lopsided and a little watery. His might be the most gorgeous face Andrew’s ever seen.
“I believe you,” James says. “And I can carry anything, as long as I’m holding onto it with you.”
“I’m right here,” Andrew says, pressing a kiss against James’ neck.
James turns and responds, laying a kiss on Andrew’s cheek, and then he tilts his head forward and rests his forehead against andrew’s cheek, lips brushing Andrew’s jawline. Andrew closes his eyes, just trying to experience the intimacy of the moment. When he opens them again, their image in the mirror makes his stomach slides in an interesting way: James leaning into him, Andrew holding him tight.
They look like lovers, like two people who know each other better than anyone else. And James’ eyes on his are just...
It’s a strange pinprick within him, and he thinks James can somehow sense him internally flinching away from it, because James is the one who pulls back and releases Andrew’s hand.
“You’re really good at this,” he says lightly.
“Well,” Andrew answers, matching his tone, “if I weren’t, what kind of honorary gay man would I be?”
As soon as he says it, he wishes he hadn’t. Something in James’ expression masks itself, and Andrew suddenly feels weirdly guilty.
It's not until hours later, onstage, when James pulls Andrew into his arms for the “Moon River” dance, that Andrew abruptly realizes why.
James pulls him close and Andrew’s entire body jolts to attention, and Andrew suddenly realizes that he’s been stretched taut all night, waiting for this — waiting for the moment when their mouths finally meet, the moment he can pull James close and card his fingers through James’ hair, and, and fall into this without fear.
He closes his eyes and kisses James, and it feels like the top of his head is about to explode.
When James pulls back and starts chatting to him in Louis’ voice, Andrew’s almost disconcerted by it. He thinks he can see a flicker of realization cross James’ face, but then they’re done, and Prior’s dream Louis is fading away, and Andrew doesn’t have time to think: Oh, no.
At least not until the next night.
And the next.
And the next.
Andrew doesn’t really remember what he says at the panel talk with Denise until he walks into Nate’s dressing room for their nightly pre-show ritual of runway walking to house music and Nate shuts off the mix and says, “Nope, sorry, not today.”
“Oh, no, did I do something?” Andrew asks. “What did I do?”
Nate makes a little noise of incredulity and holds up his phone. “I watched every single series of RuPaul’s Drag Race,” he reads.
“I did watch every single series of Drag Race,” Andrew says. “You watched them with me!”
“Yeah, but I didn’t go out there and say watching Drag Race turned me gay, only not really, because I still need everyone to know how straight I am,” Nate says. He quotes again. “I am a gay man right now, just without the physical act.” Then he shoots Andrew the world’s most longsuffering look.
“Oh,” Andrew says. “Oh, god, did I actually say that? Are those real words that actually came out of my mouth?”
Nate shrugs. “Only according to the Advocate, the Independent, Entertainment Weekly...”
“Oh, fuck,” says Andrew.
“I know we’re always exhausted, but how did you manage to turn your brain completely off?”
“I have no idea,” Andrew says, appalled at himself. “I was... trying to be cute? Clever? I dunno.”
“Well, take your clever irreparably straight ass to somebody else’s dressing room til you figure out how not to piss off half the gay community,” Nate says, waving him away.
“Should I, should I apologize?” Andrew says blankly, pausing in the doorway.
“And say what? Actually, I’ve thought about it and I don’t feel like a gay man?”
Andrew starts to reply and has no idea what to say.
After another moment, Nate scoffs. “Jesus, Andrew,” he says, laughing a little incredulously. “Figure your shit out. I have some queens to commune with. Shoo.”
Andrew winds up sitting in Nathan Lane’s dressing room talking about the media frenzy over his not being gay, while the silver sets in Nathan’s hair and across the hall Nate sings along to “Gimme That House Music” without him.
“You know what, kiddo,” says Nathan Lane to Andrew after Andrew has babbled at him about outrage cycles and Twitter calling him a homophobe, “they’ll forget about this by tomorrow, and you’ll still be a shoe-in for an Olivier.”
“But is that okay?” Andrew squeaks. “I didn’t mean to do any harm. Or stereotype, or—” He halts. “This question of whether I should be doing this play, should Prior be played by a gay man, it’s not going away. And, yes, of course he should be. This is the real thing—”
Nathan Lane holds out a hand and shushes him with a quelling look. Andrew fidgets uneasily on his chair.
“Look, you’ve been in this business long enough to know the theatre doesn’t give a shit who’s gay and who isn’t,” says Nathan. “For one thing, there’s just no point. Any man who says he’s totally straight in this business is probably either lying, confused, or probably about to have a long overdue breakthrough.”
“What about somebody who implied he was half-gay because he watches Drag Race,” Andrew says.
Nathan looks at him and his whole body starts shaking wordlessly before the laugh finally comes, which is adorable, and this is why everyone loves Nathan.
“I’d say that’s somebody who’s clearly not watched enough Drag Race,” says a voice behind them, and something warm and fluttery shoots through Andrew, and he turns gratefully to find James leaning in the doorway, gorgeous and beaming at him and —
— and Andrew is abruptly reminded that he has a whole different reason to be appalled by what he said the day before, because James is giving him butterflies; those are fucking butterflies.
“If our Little Lord Fauntleroy here ever decides he’s all the way gay, they’ll have to declare a queer holiday in New York,” says Nathan. “Probably better you’re doing it in stages — give everyone a chance to adjust before you send all the gays to the ER in shock.”
James comes all the way inside the dressing room and says in his lovely brogue, “I’m in favor of a parade for when Andrew finally comes out, ‘cause somehow I’m always managing to miss the Pride parades and I think I’m overdue for a wee holiday.” He puts his hands on Andrew’s shoulders, and Andrew doesn’t tense up at all, because Andrew definitely absolutely positively isn’t falling for his co-star, because that is a dumb, dumb move, and Andrew just told the world he wasn’t gay, or that he was kind of half-gay, or not gay yet, or, just, it’s just absolutely definitely not happening.
Except then James’ thumb brushes Andrew’s neck and he starts massaging Andrew’s shoulders and Andrew cranes his head to look at him upside down, and even from upside down James’ smile is lovely and cheeky and warm and, okay, see, this is what acting does, Andrew knows this, he knows better, acting is a terrible trickster monster, it always blurs the lines between real life and make-believe, it takes your real feelings and your superimposed feelings and your constructed feelings and your sexuality and throws it all into a giant cosmic rinse cycle.
Andrew has always had a tendency to fall just a little in love with all of his co-stars, in cute platonic crush ways. He knows better, he knows, all those years with Emma should have schooled him out of this habit for good.
But he also knows that this, god, this is different. This is spending every day in the most intense performance environment he’s ever known, giving everything he is, in rehearsal, in performance, everywhere, alongside someone who’s been giving back so much to him, to the play, to the audience, and it’s just... James.
“You know, people gave me all kinds of shite when I was cast,” James tells him. “Too Scottish, too working class, not Jewish, you name it. You’re never gonna be enough for everyone.”
“I know that,” says Andrew. “I know that in theory, I went through all this when Tony was with us in rehearsal. But it’s hard to go forward thinking you’ve let down your community, that you’ve, you’ve taken something from somebody who needed it more—”
“Hey, none of that,” James says gently, still rubbing his shoulders. “Tony didn’t choose somebody else. He chose you. He chose me. He chose us because of what we are, not because of what we aren’t. And you’re still representing a real, lived queer experience, you know? You’re representing Tony. His words, his voice, his anger and grief and hope.”
“Oh,” Andrew says, because in all the months he’s been justifying this to himself, no one’s ever said that to him.
“And besides,” adds James, “you and everyone else are all overlooking the most important bit from that panel.”
“Really,” Andrew says. “What’s that bit?”
“I wrote it down,” he says, and he digs out a folded scrap of paper from his pocket and clears his throat. “There’s beautiful James McArdle,” he reads aloud, “who I can project all my love and need onto because he’s such a wonderful human being and I adore him.”
Nathan chuckles. Andrew had completely forgotten he was there. James just looks down at him, impossibly beautiful and smug, a wonderful human being who Andrew adores.
Andrew reaches up and catches James’ face in his hands and pulls his head down so their foreheads are touching, upside down.
“Are we going to Spider-Man kiss?” James asks from his vantage point right-side up.
“No,” Andrew laughs. “Different Spider-Man.”
“Shame,” says James. “I always wanted to be Spider-Man’s girlfriend.”
“Apparently if I keep watching Drag Race that might still happen,” Andrew laughs.
“You’ll tell me when it does, right, lad? I don’t want to miss my chance for the parade.”
“I think given that I’m making out with you every night, you’ll probably be the first to know,” says Andrew, and he thinks he probably sounds flirty, but honestly after months of this kind of back and forth every night he no longer knows what’s flirting and what’s not, what’s real and what’s constructed, he just... doesn’t know, and they’ve only been performing the show for three months — six months, if you count rehearsals — but he’s already tired of obsessing and— I’m a gay man just without the physical act? Jesus christ, what was he thinking.
James grins. God, his eyes are just...
“See? That’s what I love about this job,” he says. “Full of surprises.” He kisses the top of Andrew’s forehead and backs out of the room.
Andrew cranes his neck to watch him go and then comes back to himself and swivels back around to find Nathan Lane, theatre legend, looking at him like he’s...
“What?” says Andrew.
“What?” says Nathan Lane. “I didn’t say anything.”
“You’re looking at me like I’m, like I’m a really obvious Christmas present that someone didn’t bother to wrap very well,” says Andrew.
“You’re a completely opaque Christmas present and I have no idea what’s inside you,” says Nathan Lane.
“Okay,” says Andrew.
“Or who,” adds Nathan.
“Oh, god,” says Andrew, and Nathan starts that wordless belly-shaking laugh again.
“What did I say before?” he says. “Threshold of revelation, kiddo. It happens.”
Left on his own, Andrew isn’t sure he could fall in love with anyone like Louis. Louis is too brash, too prone to working out what he thinks on the fly and forcing everyone around him to deal with not only the process but whatever the end result is. James really isn’t anything like him. James is beautifully eloquent, but he’s considered and thoughtful, he listens so carefully to everyone else, he never mansplains or interrupts unless he’s coming to someone else’s defense or is really pissed off because someone’s being a tosser, and he’s, just, he’s the kind of guy Andrew had almost started to believe didn’t really exist in this business: quiet, a little introverted, non-demonstrative, but serious and sweet and humble and, just, the real thing. James is the real fucking deal, onstage and off, and Andrew has no idea how everyone around him isn’t at least a little in love with him.
But then there’s Prior, and Prior’s boundless capacity to love, and through Prior Andrew learns to love Louis so much, his rambling neuroticism and his adorable nervous tics and his perpetual terror of intimacy and his endless drama queening and Prior loves Louis loves Andrew loves James loves Prior loves Louis, is in love with the heartbreak and hope and the perpetual sense of possibility and desperation and despair and wanting that thrums through them both every night, and he never wants it to end.
Near the end of the National Theatre run, there’s a moment when it’s not a sure thing that James will be coming with them to America; there are Equity contract negotiations to work out, and there’s the question of what Russell will do, and there’s the part where James has always said he’d never live in America, but—
“But I would, for this,” he tells Andrew, “I’d do it in a heartbeat”—
— and Andrew’s heart is in his throat every night they’re onstage.
He knows that he and James have gradually grown more and more intimate, allowed themselves to touch, cuddle, kiss, fall more in love every night onstage, and he knows that’s part of their jobs, but he can’t help it because Prior loves Louis and Andrew loves James ’ Louis, and he’s trying with every fiber in his body to convey to all the gods and producers looking down on them that he can’t do this without James, that they’re too integrated into each other and the show by now, that when Prior’s heart breaks and rebuilds itself eight times a week, it’s breaking and rebuilding for James’ Louis, no one else’s.
One night when the play is near the end of its London run and the uncertainty is at its highest, they do the reconciliation scene and James, instead of bending to kiss him on the forehead as the scene ends, leans down and kisses him on the mouth instead. It’s startling and heartbreaking and Andrew as Prior freezes all over, stunned and yearning and angry and exasperated and defensive, and when James pulls away he’s got tears in his eyes.
“Sorry,” James whispers as they move to their places for the epilogue. “He just wanted him so fucking much.”
Andrew steps into James’ arms and holds him tight and they don’t speak, and Andrew doesn’t say anything as trite as, “Burnish your heart into something new and bring it to me, learn how to fight for me, so that I can finally say yes to you,” because he could never; because the world only spins forward, and this hurt — this chasm, this gaping scar on the world’s heart, this holocaust that Prior has to bear inside of him and bear witness to night after night, over and over — it can only be survived and testified to, not atoned for.
But after that they seem to touch even more frequently, canvass each other’s space even more comfortably, as if they’re desperate to keep each other as close as they can even as they’re drawing further apart; and now when Prior’s dream Louis comes to him for their final dance, he pulls him close without any hesitation; and now when Prior tells Louis not to come back until his scars are visible, the real Louis’ face contorts in pain, he cries, and he fucking listens for once in his goddamn life.
And when James gets his Equity approval, when the word comes that they’re all going to Broadway together, Andrew goes to him and says, “I couldn’t do this with anyone else.”
“I would never want you to,” says James, cupping his face, and they hold on to each other for the next five months.
In the last weeks of the production’s London run, the cast is largely in a state of shell-shock because of the events in Charlottesville. Following the violence, the entire theatre is electrified and tense, and ending the whole run on this note just makes them all more aware of how vital and how unpredictable the impact of the play will be when they transfer to New York.
Because of the urgency of it all, and because he’s just so fucking exhausted, it takes Andrew a while to process what he’s feeling after the break has ensued. He takes a long holiday, and texts James photos from the Maldives, and doesn’t let himself check the phone every thirty seconds for a reply; he doesn’t freak out when James’ Insta shows him on holiday in Scotland surrounded by old friends, all those people who aren’t Andrew, who know the roughshod blunt-edged Glaswegian James instead of the deceptively polished London James.
James’ texts to him are friendly and sweet and occasionally flirty, but they’re always restrained, and Andrew knows what that means — not that what it means matters, anyway, because this isn’t a thing.
He moves back to New York and takes a week or two just to luxuriate in the city again; he lets Ren explore Central Park for the first time in ages, he goes to dorky experimental Off-Off-Broadway shows, he gorges himself on his favorite knish stand on the corner of 56th and 8th. He finally gets around to seeing Sleep No More, and he and Ellie hang out playing Fortnite and getting drunk off Prosecco until he feels like he’s no longer a dying prophet.
Only then he wishes he didn’t have the break at all, because it’s weird not to feel like Prior. The thought that he’s suddenly no longer Prior creates within him a strange unease — as if, once the link is broken, he’ll be unable to re-tether himself. Or perhaps he’ll try, but he’ll have to go through the whole gut-wrenching process of becoming Prior all over again, only he won’t have time; in New York, the show will have even less rehearsal time and the pressure will be even higher.
And after simmering in this anxiety for a day or two he texts James: this break is too long.
It’s night in Manhattan so he doesn’t expect a reply right away, but a few seconds later: I’ve already forgotten all my lines, with an upside-down smiley.
Prior Walter? Andrew texts back. Who the fuck is that?
Don’t worry, James sends a few moments later. We’ll help each other remember.
<3, Andrew sends back, smiling. And then: When are you coming to NY?
Not til December, James texts. Putting it off, you know I can’t wait to be in the U.S. :D :D :D
Before Andrew can respond, James adds: miss me already?
You know I do, Andrew replies. I want my fucking boyfriend.
He sits, staring at the text for a moment, and finally thinks, fuck it, and hits send.
James’ reply takes longer than Andrew can handle, so he gets up and paces and plays with Ren for a couple of minutes and imagines himself as a giddy ‘90s rom-com heroine, determined not to sit by the phone pining, waiting to hear from Hugh Grant or whoever.
“I will be strong and empowered,” he tells Ren, “because I’m not in some kind of long-distance relationship.”
His phone buzzes. If you want out of our LDR, you’ll have to say it to my face, babe, James has sent.
Andrew sends him back a row of skull-faces. James texts back with the joy-crying emoji. Andrew makes a face at the phone and tosses it on his coffee table before collapsing dramatically onto the couch like he imagines Bridget Jones would after being rebuffed by Hugh Grant or Mr. Darcy.
He thinks about James: his voice, his eyes, the way his whole face crinkles when he smiles; the feeling of his soft skin below all that stubble; his mouth on Andrew’s.
He shivers, and his body stirs with interest.
Screw this, he thinks; if I’m going to have a full-on gay crisis, I might as well do it properly.
He reaches for his phone again and downloads Grindr.
It’s not like Andrew is in complete denial. He’s been testing the waters on Grindr, but the results have been pretty lackluster, at least as far as any potential sexual awakening is concerned.
But in December, rehearsal finally resumes, and he finally sees James again, and James’ eyes lock onto his, and the flimsy protective borders Andrew placed around his heart during the intervening months abruptly splinter.
They wrap their arms around each other, and Andrew’s heart slams into his throat and his knees go weak and his stomach flip-flops — the whole fucking cliché at once. They can’t stop holding on to each other, touching each other, breathing one another in, and the eye-fucking is ridiculous.
“I couldn’t wait to see you,” Andrew murmurs into his shoulder. “I missed you.”
James turns and kisses the top of Andrew’s head. “I was counting the days, love,” he says. And then he adds, “Trying to rehearse Louis without his Prior was a train wreck.”
Andrew pulls back and looks into James’ face — beautiful and shrewd, and at the moment absolutely opaque.
“Your Prior is here,” he answers, and so begins the longest eight months of Andrew Garfield’s life.
When the production arrives in New York, the media frenzy is honestly a little overwhelming — even for Andrew, who’s been dealing with media frenzies for years. The local media’s interest in this revival is so intense, and several of the other British actors haven’t really experienced anything like it before. It makes them seek out sites of refuge where they can.
During the first rehearsal weeks, usually on Sunday nights before they have a two-day break, the cast and crew sometimes hang out at this Irish pub on 9th, not too far from the theatre. It’s intimate, and far enough away from Times Square that it’s mostly full of locals. James likes it because it gives him a chance to rant about how Irish pubs in New York are nothing like actual Irish pubs, even though it obviously makes him feel a little more at home. Andrew likes it because he loves to listen to James ranting, and because he gets to drink in James’ smiles along with his beer. And because after a few of them — beers and smiles — he can just stop thinking and stop worrying about what it means when their hands tangle, when James’ fingers stroke his kneecap, or when his hand winds up laying dangerously high on James’ thigh.
Tonight it’s just the two of them, and James is on one of his favorite subjects: shark movies.
“The thing people always forget,” he’s saying, his words coming out slurred, “Is that people assume that because Jaws is one of the greatest films ever made, it’s the standard for all shark movies. But actually, I would argue that the default template for your average shark movie is probably more along the lines of Jaws 3-D or Jaws: The Revenge.”
“Wait,” says Andrew, yawning. He holds up his index finger and then decides it would be a good idea to bring it down squarely on the center of James’ nose. “Did you, when you were a child—”
“—The correct terminology is Wee James,” says James, removing Andrew’s hand from his nose and dragging it into his lap under the table.
“—When you were a Wee James,” says Andrew, “did you watch a bunch of shark movies hoping they would all be as good as Jaws, only to find that they were instead all only as good as Jaws 3-D?”
“I think you’re asking the wrong question, love,” says James. “Other shark movies only wish they were Jaws 3-D.”
“Stop,” says Andrew, giggling.
“No, really,” says James, with the same earnesty with which he argues that the rise of the Scottish independence movement walks hand in hand with the rise of Democratic Socialism. “I genuinely think that in its own way, Jaws 3-D is a kind of masterpiece.”
Andrew props his hand on his chin and listens.
“Honestly, it’s got everything! Louis Gossett, post -Oscar win, mind you, playing a greedy corporate mogul, and he’s not even the main villain. Dennis Quaid, in the role he was born to play, as the cursed son of Roy Scheider battling a shark that’s apparently got a vendetta against his whole family and which will finally get the better of his younger brother in Jaws 4. It’s got a team of altruistic dolphins who fight sharks in defense of humans. Best of all, it’s got a mama shark exacting revenge on Sea World because Sea World murdered her son! You can’t find drama this heady in today’s shark movie. And honestly it was a bit of a prescient critique about underwater theme parks.”
He breaks off and quirks his head at Andrew, who can’t stop grinning. “What?”
It’s a blessed relief that nobody hanging out at an Irish pub in Hell’s Kitchen on a Sunday night is going to be sniffing out celebrities. And even if they did recognize Andrew, none of them would give a fuck that he's drifted further and further into James’ space, that Andrew has laced their fingers together and neither of them are moving apart.
“You, James McArdle,” Andrew says, “are currently appearing in the most socially incisive play of the last half-century, and you’re sitting here telling me about the trenchant social commentary of Jaws 3-D.”
James beams at him. “Well, you’ve got to admit, given the current geopolitical crisis, a movie where a shark rises up against the human populace is arguably more accurate a read on our future than the epilogue to this play is.”
Their personal space is nonexistent by now. Andrew could reach out, cup his face and feel his stubble, run his finger over the dimple in his chin. “What is this blasphemy,” Andrew slurs, “about the epilogue.”
James laughs at him, and then something about his expression turns a little awkward, and Andrew can see the moment when he starts overthinking, pulls himself inward.
“No, don’t,” says Andrew. “Keep laughing.” He leans his head against James’ shoulder; James just shifts and looks down at him, a little warily.
“And keep talking. I like hearing you talk.”
James snorts. “That’s not me,” he says. “You’re thinking of Louis.”
“No,” Andrew says. “James with the Scottish brogue and the very well-defined ideas on Parliamentary procedure. I know the one.” He does reach up and poke James’ chin, then, only then he forgets how to move away, and he finds himself rubbing his knuckles slowly over James’ cheek. “So you talk, I’ll drink,” he says, pretending like he’s not thumbing the curve of James’ jawline, plush and soft beneath all that well-trimmed scruff.
“Right,” says James, reaching for his drink. “Only I need a few more drinks first, too, to get this all out.”
“You don’t believe in the optimism of the ending,” says Andrew.
James blinks, and Andrew shrugs. “We’ve been doing this for over a year now, baby,” he says. “Don’t you think I know you?”
James looks wryly impressed, and takes another drink.
“It’s just... men on AZT never lived that long,” he says after a moment. “Five whole years? And Prior is happy and healthy and whole? Please. And the reconciliation between them, between him and Louis — it feels like something we want because we want it, not because it’s actually that easy. The whole epilogue feels like the most impossible, magical part of the show. And I know that it felt hopelessly naive even back in ‘94, I know that’s a well-established critique of the show, but I still feel it, every night. I’m still always trying and failing to convince myself that it’s enough.”
“Of course you are,” Andrew says. “Because you’re Louis.”
James shoots him a sweet, grateful smile, and Andrew takes another drink and thinks, fuck it, and tucks himself firmly against James’ side, sliding his arms around James’ waist. James’ eyes are warm and soulful and broody and, ugh, gorgeous, and Andrew lets himself get lost in them.
“You don’t think that was the point?” he asks. “You don’t think the epilogue was Kushner choosing to be a prophet of hope rather than doom?”
“No, I think it definitely was,” James says, and he slides his own arms around Andrew so they’re just, just holding onto each other. “I just don’t know that it was honest.”
“Well, maybe honesty took him as far as it could take him,” Andrew says, instead of closing the distance, or asking James if this is his version of method acting. “Maybe the epilogue is just his reward to himself and to all of us after giving us a seven-hour long indictment of power and politics and capitalism, and maybe that’s fine, maybe he earned it.”
“You think he earned the right to give the audience platitudes after all that?”
“No,” Andrew says, “I think he earned the right to, to choose hope. In this universe he built, that’s also our own universe, where we are the only hope left, in that universe full of despair and pain, to choose to write a future full of hope and community and reconciliation. Forgiveness.”
Something catches in James’ throat. “That’s just it, though — it only works if you believe in the community, in the resistance. But I always feel like...” He swallows. “Like you’re the only true angel left. Not me.”
“Yes, you,” says Andrew. “All of us.”
“No,” says James. “Not anyone, not in this—” He laughs, but it sounds hollow. “There are no angels in America.”
“Bullshit,” says Andrew, “I know one right up the street,” and he touches his forehead to James’ at last.
It seems to catch James off guard. He inhales sharply and cups Andrew’s face in both his hands, and they stay like that for a moment, just breathing each other in.
“God, I really, really love it when you get spiritual,” James says after another moment.
“Let’s go for a visit,” Andrew says. “Say a proper hello.”
“You really want to?” James murmurs, an undertone almost, because they’re still pressed together, and this tension feels louder than either of them.
“Sure,” says Andrew. “Take me to Bethesda, let’s sit and hold hands and be Prior and Louis before the fall.”
James runs his thumb over Andrew’s cheek, and then down over his lips. Andrew kisses it automatically, without a thought, and James shivers, beautifully.
“It’s below freezing outside, love,” he says. “Ask me again when it’s warmer.”
“What if I ask you after this is all over?” Andrew blurts, and James freezes and goes wide-eyed for a moment.
“Ask me any time,” he says, “No matter when,” and then he pulls away and takes a long, long pull on his pint, and Andrew suddenly feels sober, and bereft, and wide-awake.
Andrew is not processing the building impending cataclysm of his emotions.
He can’t pause to sort them out or, or deal with them, because he’s too busy fighting for life onstage every night and prepping for the Broadway debut — and so naturally they all seem to blindside him at the worst moments.
Like when he’s standing on the roof one night during one of the endless technical rehearsals, desperate for air and quiet, and turns to find James next to him, wordlessly looking up at the stars, and neither of them says anything, and they’re just... somehow so perfectly heartbreakingly together and not together, and James was absolutely right, this play is a bastard.
Or like when he’s texting Emma about introducing her to Nate at the Met Gala, and she responds, You’re bringing NSJ? Not James?
Why would I bring James? he responds, after a moment that stretches out far too long to be unsuspicious.
She replies with an eyeroll emoji.
So that’s... happening; and sometimes their private pre-show ritual involves one of them kissing the other in-character, slow, sweet kisses that make Andrew question everything he’s ever understood about plausible deniability; and sometimes their wordless stints on the rooftop include one of them pulling the other one into his arms, or lacing their hands together, and a whole lot of gratuitous touching, and—
And it’s all very unspoken and melodramatic, and probably they’re both being a pair of overinvested drama queens.
But, fuck it, it’s this play, it’s been looming over all of them, devouring all of them, for over a year now. It only makes sense that all their onstage intimacy has spilled out into offstage intimacy, and if neither one of them is doing much to question it or freak out about it, well, then Andrew sure as hell isn’t going to be the one to start.
But that’s, that’s just it, isn’t it, the not-starting means he doesn’t have to deal with it, and if this is actually real, the way the butterflies in his stomach explode during their final kiss night after night in Millennium, then it’s the biggest missed signal, the biggest misdirect, and it’s, honestly it’s a fucking misfortune. Because it would mean that he’s lied to himself, that he’s been lying to everyone, while playing Prior Walter, the bravest gay character ever written, on Broadway.
It’s almost more terrifying to think about that — the dishonesty, the gaping chasm between who he thought and said that he was and who he turned out to be — than it is to think about how much will change if he comes out.
Then again, maybe he doesn’t have to come out, or maybe he can just... come out by not coming out. After all, Lee’s been living his queer half-life for the entire run of the play up until now. He's been an open secret for years, and it’s never been made a big deal of. So maybe that means the best way to come out these days is to not come out at all.
Except then Lee comes out, only it’s in the most awkward way imaginable — he’s defensive and unnerved and practically shamed into it, and the worst part is that he was kind of asking for it.
It unsettles the whole cast, and even though it shouldn’t disconcert Andrew as badly as it does, it really does, and he feels blindsided once again.
Now that the New York previews are just days away and they’re rehearsing back to back run-throughs, they barely have time for talking backstage — there’s too much to do, too many logistics to deal with, too much intensity happening on and off-stage. But there’s a rare lull one night when they can’t get the people-vanishing bed to actually make people vanish, so they send everyone upstairs while they sort it all out.
“Look, I understand why you’re upset, but I also understand why he asked the question,” Andrew overhears James saying to Lee as he passes Lee’s dressing room. The interview’s been out for a day or two, and Lee’s already walked it back, but the cast is still tense and avoidant and it’s thrown an undeniable tension into Lee’s dynamic with James, onstage and off.
The door’s half-open. James is straddling a chair backwards while Lee throws him a strained look, like he’d rather not be having this conversation, and Andrew halts.
“I don’t think it’s any of your business, or his, what I—” Lee says.
“No, not normally, but you kind of made it his business, right?” James says. “You can’t just say queer actors should play queer parts and not expect the blatantly obvious follow-up question.”
“It shouldn’t have needed a follow-up,” Lee says, “The subtext should have been clear. I thought I was very clear.”
“Okay, sure, but acting like you were shocked and scandalized by the idea of being asked, it’s...”
“I mean, it’s a wee bit Kevin Spacey, isn’t it?”
“I’m sorry?” Lee says, aghast, and James says, “No, I don’t mean like that,” and Andrew knocks on the door and they both turn to look at him, startled.
“Sorry,” says Andrew. “I just, uh,” and then he just stands there. James smiles at him and holds out his hand to Andrew, who takes it and lets James tug him into the room. James flips the chair around so he can sit properly, so that he can pull Andrew down into his lap even though there are plenty of other chairs he could take.
Andrew leans into him, feeling weirdly defiant about their perpetual casual intimacy. This constant physicality between them usually only exists inside the theatre, but it feels all the more public, all the more shamelessly showy, because of it. As though it’s something that exists only for them, only while they’re here in this space.
He wonders if Lee's ever had that experience, if it would be weird to ask.
He drapes his arms around James, runs his fingers over the side of James’ neck. James reaches up and strokes Andrew’s hand and then resumes the conversation like nothing has changed.
“I meant his whole thing he used to pull,” James says, “insisting on so much privacy, it had all this attendant shame and stigma and it was cringe-worthy, and in retrospect it was quite dangerous.”
“I’m not Kevin Spacey,” Lee says, still sounding horrified, “Jesus christ, I just wanted to be open without being garishly performative about it, and I think that’s valid.”
“Of course it is,” says Andrew.
“Of course it is,” James says, still rubbing the inside of Andrew’s wrist. “But it’s this fucking play, you know, it’s a monument—”
“Yes, and I’m a gay man who lost friends to the AIDS crisis playing a gay man who lost friends to the AIDS crisis,” Lee snaps, and then he looks pointedly between Andrew and James and pointedly doesn’t say a word.
“I, I know,” says Andrew, “I know I screwed up last year, and I didn’t, I wasn’t thinking—”
“Shh, you were fine,” says James soothingly, and Lee actually lets out an incredulous huff of laughter.
“No,” says Andrew, “I know, Lee, this is important to you, and it’s important to me, and I... I want to say that I get it, I know what it’s like to be put on the spot and have to account for your sexuality after you said something dumb in the media. But I don’t know, not really — how can I? I’m not...”
“You’re what?” says James in his Louis voice. “Not Republican?” and it breaks the tension, and Andrew laughs and rests his chin against the top of James’ head, and Lee laughs and shakes his head.
After a moment, James says to Lee, “Sorry, mate, I’m not — no one’s ever asked me the question, I don’t know how I’d respond or what I’d do in the moment.”
“Forget it,” Lee says. “It’s this play, it makes you feel...” he shakes his head again and stretches out his long arms to pull them both into a hug.
They’re together on the roof later that night, he and James, holding hands in their wordless communion, when James breaks the silence.
They don’t normally talk much up here, but sometimes words come spilling out of them, and when it’s James’ turn, Andrew wants to wrap himself around them, around James, to try to contain them all.
“I was an ass to Lee tonight,” James says, “and I don’t mean to be, but also it’s just so damn frustrating that we still live in this age where it’s possible for you to be, to be, Schroedinger’s Gay, where you can just live a queer life while you enjoy all the privileges and benefits of being perceived as a straight man, even while you’re doing a role like this on Broadway, and it just, it just seems so fucking low-risk, compared to, but, but then again I can’t talk because I’ve never been a celebrity, I’ve no idea what kind of pressure he’s under, or you for that matter, no one cares if I’m out or not, no one’s ever even asked me to self-identify, and I just feel like, I’m repping the side and no one gives a shit, they only care if you or Lee are half-gay or in or out or whatever the fuck, and, and—” he stops and takes a breath, and Andrew just looks at him, patient, waiting for the rest.
“Maybe if I weren’t so right in the thick of it,” James says. “If my relationship with Lee in the show wasn’t so combative and challenging and if I weren’t trying to hang onto my sense of self every day when all Louis’ guilt and self-loathing and sense of, of helplessness and inadequacy threaten to swallow it up, then I wouldn’t lash out, or do it in the wrong direction.”
“You don’t,” says Andrew. “You never have.” He turns and reaches out to run a hand over James’ face, wondering how he ever could have thought that James looked older than 27 when they met — god, so long ago. Fifteen grueling, wonderful, astonishing months ago.
“Does it ever bother you?” he blurts. “That you’re acting opposite someone who’s not out, who, who may not ever be out.”
James blinks and double-takes.
“Andrew,” he says, like he’s disappointed in Andrew for asking.
“You don’t have to sound so dismayed,” Andrew starts, nervous laughter welling up inside of him, but he gets no further because James leans in and kisses him, softly, gently, on the mouth. It’s just a swift brush of lips, but it’s James kissing him — James, not Louis — and Andrew’s stomach abruptly somersaults.
It feels like the most intimate thing they’ve done since they met.
James pulls back. “When I first met you I thought you’d be, I dunno, goofier. Because I mostly knew you as the superhero, as the Comic-Con celebrity. And then you were just... so articulate and passionate and smart and knowledgeable, and you walked around with Frank O’Hara poems in your pocket—” He breaks off, laughing, and Andrew says, “Honestly everybody should walk around with Frank O’Hara poems in their pocket,” and James says, “But you do.”
“And you are full of so much care and thought and heart for these characters, and, Andrew, there‘s no one else on earth who cares more than you do about Prior. Or about Louis. You’ve given me so much, you’ve given this play so much, and, and I break my heart in awe of you every night,” he says. “Every fucking night.”
Andrew is maybe tearing up when James finishes. Maybe they both are. He smiles and reaches up to trail his fingers over James’ lips, down over the dint of his chin, across the scruff of his cheek. Fuck.
“Easy to say,” he says hesitantly, trying to articulate the jumble of indistinguishable emotions running through him. “Right now, if I could come out to the world as being Prior Walter, I would,” he says, willing James to understand. He swallows. “But after all, it’s just a limited run.”
James’ expression changes all at once; the smile slips from his face, and he pulls Andrew completely into his arms. Andrew moves with him, but his nervousness must be obvious, because James takes Andrew’s face in his hands and steadies him.
“Whatever this is, or isn’t,” he says, “I don’t worry about it, ever. It’s given me nothing, nothing, but joy. You’ve given me nothing but joy, Andrew. And, and I mean, who knows, maybe I’ll have a complete breakdown when this is all over and I have to leave you, because god knows it’s going to be the worst breakup of my life, but—”
Andrew inhales sharply as James breaks off abruptly. Then don’t leave me when this is all over, he wants to say. Is going to say, any second, it’s on the tip of his tongue—
“—But for right now, it’s exactly what it needs to be,” James finally finishes. He kisses Andrew’s forehead. “And it’s the best part.”
Andrew nods, suddenly, sharply, disappointed, and annoyed that they’re somehow, finally, talking about this, talking about emotions, and yet somehow it’s even more vague and confusing than before.
But James disentangles himself and steps back, like he doesn’t trust himself to stay any closer. He backs toward the door, throwing one last speaking look in Andrew’s direction, and Andrew realizes a moment later that he’s clutching his arms to himself, as though he were freezing, instead of on fire.
In London, they had a two-hour interval on the two-show days, but in New York they only have one, and Andrew mourns that second hour on the regular. It makes the whole experience so much more intense without that extra moment of decompression, and the cast usually winds up napping through it or meditating or something else healing and rejuvenative.
There are days, though, when they’re antsy and they roam the corridors looking for fellow restless souls. By now, Andrew can tell when James is having — thinks he’s having — a really shit performance, because he perpetually runs lines to himself backstage, and on the two-show days he paces in his dressing room instead of napping. And when that happens Andrew feels duty-bound to draw him out of his head, as much as he can. Sometimes, that means provoking him into ranting about Trump or racist Americans or loud audience members who applaud at awkward moments. Other times, like now, it means taking him by the hand and refusing to let go until he unclenches.
So the break is almost over and they’re backstage, and James and Nate are teasing Andrew about his stint on Doctor Who. He and James are holding hands because that’s just what they do now, and Andrew is trying to count James’ smiles, but he keeps getting lost in them and losing count.
“I can’t believe you watched me on TV when you were a kid. God, you're only five years younger than me, why does that gap always seem so huge?” He bumps James’ elbow.
“A better question is how are you actually ageless?” James says. “You’re older than both of us but you look like a damn puppy.”
“Don’t flatter this boy, he gets that a lot,” says Nate. “Been hearing it ever since we were in drama school.”
“Oh, really,” says James, perking up. “Was he a heartthrob?”
Nate smirks. “Wouldn’t you love to know.”
“Oh, no,” says Andrew. “We’ve gone this long without spilling secrets from the past.”
Nate snorts. “Only because you don’t have anything on me to spill.”
“Hey,” Andrew says. “That’s not... well. Okay, maybe that’s a little true.”
Nate laughs. “You don’t remember me from drama school, it’s fine.”
“Well, I mean — how long ago was that?” Andrew asks. “Fifteen years? Wow. And we were only there together, what, a year?”
“Right,” says Nate. “But I remember you.”
“Oh, ho,” says James, grinning.
“Oh, god,” says Andrew.
“I love this story already,” says James. “Scoping out the upper-classmen, were you, Nate?”
“Just the ones we all knew were going to have real careers.”
“That’s our Andrew,” says James, reaching up to thumb the back of Andrew’s neck.
“What did they say about me?” Andrew asks.
“Oh, look at this, now he wants to know.” Nate reaches out and thumps Andrew lightly on the forehead. “I can tell you I remember you had your eyes wide open, you were watching everything and everyone. We were all keeping our eyes on you, but you were a lot more puzzling than the rest of your class, because you were half matinee idol, but you were also half nerd.”
“What!” says Andrew. “I was not!”
“No, you definitely were,” says Nate. “I have this very vivid memory of you coming out of the library one day with a stack of books that were so high you couldn’t even see your head, and everyone was gawking at you, and you were just like,” — he puts on his best impression of Andrew, which Andrew has to admit is kind of eerie — “‘Don’t mock me, I have to read all this by tomorrow, wait, help, I can’t see down these stairs!’”
“Oh, my god, that is a false memory,” says Andrew, burying his head on James’ shoulder. “Stop.”
“Absolutely real,” says Nate. “I don’t know what you were studying, but I’m damn sure you were the only third-year in the library reading up on Pinter or whatever instead of out trying to land auditions.”
“Well,” says Andrew. “I like reading. I like learning about the theatre, I like... knowing upon whose giant shoulders I’m standing.”
There’s a moment and then they both exchange looks and burst out laughing at him.
“You know, sweetheart,” James says, “Nathan always brags about how eloquent you are, but you really are lovely with words.” His fingers are splayed in the curls at the back of Andrew’s neck, and somehow Andrew’s arm has wound itself around James’ waist without a second thought. “And yes, 100% nerdy.”
“Completely,” says Nate.
“I dunno,” says Andrew. “I think it was rather sexy.”
“Why not both?” says James, and they look at each other and somehow Andrew can’t look away.
“Andrew, you know I love you,” Nate says, “but if you don’t admit that that is the nerdiest thing anyone has ever said in a theatre then you are in even more denial than I thought.”
Andrew smiles. “Fine,” he says. “It was nerdy, I am a giant nerd.” And then, still looking into James’ face, he surprises himself by adding: “No denial here.”
With his arms around James’ waist, he can feel the instant when James shivers.
“Anyway,” says Nate, in the voice he uses when he’s striving valiantly to ignore someone else’s idiocy, “that’s why we watched you. Or at least, that’s why I watched you. I wanted to be the nerdy third-year, not the ‘take me to my stardom already’ third-year.”
“Really,” says James. “It wasn’t just because he had an amazing ass?”
Andrew snorts. “Oh, James, you’re so goddamn literal,” he says in Prior’s voice, and James turns to him and winks, and right then, just exactly then, Andrew’s heart flies out of his chest and he thinks, shit, this has nothing to do with the play, nothing to do with anything except the two of them, whoever the fuck they are, trapped in this perpetual cycle of wanting each other and avoiding what they want and yearning and backing away and wanting, over and over, night after night.
He thinks in that moment that something might finally happen, something that can’t happen, something huge and shattering that can’t be mistaken for confused feelings or blurred lines, something that’s just his hands on James’ body and James’ mouth on his and James’ incredible voice saying Andrew’s name against his skin, and I’m a gay man just without the physical act, Andrew could go back in time and slap himself.
Andrew thinks the sound jostles them both; it takes them a moment longer than it should to unwrap themselves from each other.
“Time to go be pulverized,” James murmurs, and he sounds so apologetic, so reluctant to go, that it takes a moment for Andrew to stop focusing on his voice and register what he said.
“Hey,” he says. “Don’t go alone, take this.”
He shuts off his brain and leans in and kisses James, deep and sweet, on the mouth, and James closes his eyes and threads his hand in Andrew’s hair and kisses him back, and all Andrew knows is his taste, his stubble, their tongues sliding together, the tiny sharp catch in James’ breath before he pulls away.
They hold each other for another moment, just processing, breathing, before James says, “Well, now I’m bloody indestructible.”
“Still think you’re not an angel?” Andrew asks.
James smiles a little shakily, and then leans in to kiss him again, swift and confident this time. This time when he leans back, it’s Andrew who gasps and chases the kiss until he’s breathless.
“I still don’t know,” James answers at last, cupping Andrew’s cheek. “But I think I’m getting more weightless all the time.” He presses a long, intimate kiss against Andrew’s cheek that makes Andrew’s stomach flutter like a helpless bird, and then moves away to go join Lee off stage right.
Next to Andrew, Nate waits a beat, and then says, “That is one hell of a plot twist. Are you sure you—”
“No,” Andrew says, a bit sharper than intended.
Nate holds his palms up in surrender.
“Just,” says Andrew. “Five months.” God knows he’s been counting them out. “Ask me again in five months.”
“All right,” says Nate. “That’s more than fair. Look at you, being astonishingly self-aware.”
“It’s this goddamn play,” says Andrew.
“Just be careful,” says Nate. “Careful you don’t trip and fall down those stairs.”
James’ Louis always goes in unsteady and hesitant to their kisses, like he thinks every touch is going to be the last time — except for Prior’s dream Louis, who kisses him so confidently every night in that final moment, like the real Louis never will, and fuck, Andrew is so fucking gone on him, James, not Louis, just James, everything about him, and he knows it’s driving them both crazy, this knowing-but-not-knowing.
They haven’t kissed offstage since that night in March, maybe because it’s too intense or too dangerous, or because July has started to loom ahead like some kind of great passage that can’t be un-traversed.
But now, now that they’ve crossed that bridge, instead of longing to kiss him, now Andrew thinks about sex with James at the most inopportune moments: when they’re on the bed onstage in the dark holding each other. When he’s showering off the sweat and stench of the theatre every night and looks down to realize he’s gone hard remembering James’ mouth on his from earlier in the night. Countless moments when he lets himself feel wrapped up in love and intimacy and affection without wondering how much of it is or isn’t the real thing.
Something he’s always thought about the theatre, about acting, a motto he’s always tried to keep firmly in place, is what he’d said on that panel — what had gotten lost in the outrage over the RuPaul comments: that if you’re doing it right, your body doesn’t know it’s not real.
But when he said that, he’d only been six months into the production. Now, he’s 18 months into the production, and his body is Prior’s body and his brain is Prior’s brain; and maybe it is some kind of inevitable combination of method acting and falling in love, but he doesn’t care, he knows what and who he wants.
But then if he’s wrong, if six weeks or six months from now this is all just... gone, then the only person he’ll have hurt is James; he’ll have lost nothing.
Andrew also knows that James misses London; he’s made no secret about it, and even though Andrew loves this city, it’s not hard to relate. There are marked differences between performing this show in London and performing this show in New York, and sometimes they get to everyone.
He, and Nathan, and occasionally Lee, all overshadow everyone else’s performances here, in a way they didn’t in London. In New York, Nate’s not a cult TV star, he’s a “breakout,” stepping into a Tony-winning part played by a man who is currently starring in one of the most popular shows on television. After Andrew and Nate appear at the Met Gala, it becomes clear half the onlookers thought Nate was the man who’d designed Andrew’s suit.
Nearly every exit Nate makes is accompanied by a barrage of applause and catcalls, and that’s new, too. Here, on Broadway, the audience is eager to read him as comic relief. Nate says he thinks it helps all these rich white Americans to be able to blunt Belize’s edges, even though all his edges are razor-sharp.
In New York, the critics are skeptical of both Nate and Andrew, wondering why they’re both so flaming, kvetching over Andrew’s vocal register, confused that he’s so feminine, lamenting that Nate’s Belize is so sassy, even though Nate’s Belize is serious as the grave. The critics also have mixed reactions to Denise and Lee, and even to Susan’s male performances — because only in America would reviewers criticize a male actor for being too feminine while critiquing a female actor for not being masculine enough.
The only things they seem to agree about are that Nathan Lane is a demigod, and that the Scottish actor no one’s ever heard of before is incredible — though half the time they’re strangely condescending towards James, as well. They profess distinct surprise that his American accent is perfect; they overlook that he’s the show’s other leading actor; and they imply that he swiped his entire characterization from mainlining Woody Allen movies, which is such an utter dismissal of the phenomenal job he’s done keeping Louis realistic and relatable instead of one-dimensional and monstrous. A New Yorker writer even describes him as fat, which makes Andrew write an angry letter to the editor in response that he eventually balls up and throws away. He settles for ritualistically burning the magazine during one of Denise’s Reiki sessions.
And then there’s the fucking Tonys, and Andrew has been informed by every person in New York that he’s going to win, but it still takes Nate and James days to talk him down from refusing the nomination out of indignation that they were both snubbed — that they weren’t even nominated, for god’s sake. Who are the fuckwits who spent seven hours watching James walk a tightrope of audience sympathy while making a fifteen-minute monologue on American politics feel effortless and entertaining and then didn’t nominate him for a goddamn Tony? And Denise was once again nominated only as a supporting role, Jesus, these people. It had stung when the Oliviers passed over most of them on awards night, even Marianne, but at least that had felt mostly like a group loss. The Drama Desk got it almost right, but they still snubbed Nate, and Andrew is sick of watching him be overlooked when he and James are unquestionably the best actors onstage every single night.
“It’s bullshit,” Andrew says. “When you come down to it, all I do is shriek and flail a lot, and you two and Denise anchor the entire fucking play, and I just, it’s infuriating.”
“Well, you can have a breakdown over it, and I appreciate it, but I didn’t take the part for a trophy,” Nate says, looking annoyed by the entire topic, probably because Andrew has brought it up at least twice already this week.
“Neither did I, but I do like trophies,” James jokes. “They’re shiny, and I can hock them if the acting gig ever goes under.”
“I’m going to do it,” Andrew says. “I’m going to refuse it, this is ridiculous.”
“No, you’re not,” says Nate, “because first off, it’s a little white savior of you, and second, this is Broadway, and they have their favorites, and they’re clearly saying to James and me that if we want to get the same level of respect they give Mark Rylance or, I don’t know, whoever, then we have to tread the boards like Mark Rylance or Nathan fucking Lane.”
“See, that sounds reasonable, in theory,” Andrew says, feeling petulant, “but they nominated actors from fucking Harry Potter.”
“What?” Andrew asks.
“Andrew,” says James. “Can you honestly say that if you weren’t already playing Prior Walter, you wouldn’t have dropped everything to appear as the Boy Who Lived?”
James’ smirk grows.
“Oh, shut up,” Andrew scoffs, and he throws a pancake sponge at him. “I just hate it.” James reaches out and tangles their fingers together in that way that’s so effortless now.
“Besides,” Andrew says, “you may want to stay and tread the boards, but James has always said he’s going back to London as soon as this is over.” He tries not to look at James when he says it, but he fails, and catches James’ eyes as they widen in surprise and something else, something like vague concern.
“Oh, please, It’s Equity,” Nate says. “They’ll be begging for him to come back next week, they never met a British actor they didn’t love, especially a white one. James’ll be fine, he can come back whenever he wants.”
He sighs and gives the two of them an even look. “Honestly,” he says. “Do you really want to know what I hate about this? Not the rich white audiences, not all the catcalling — although that is annoying — and not the weird critics bullshit.” He starts flipping through his phone, probably looking for his latest ‘80s ballroom playlist, since it’s almost that time of night.
“It’s the fact that I don’t feel tethered,” he says. “Like, both of you are tethered to Stephen and Joe, like, you’ve got their blessings, James, you had that letter from Joe, and Andy, you had that whole week of inspirational self-help emails from Stephen.”
“You never heard from Jeffrey?” James asks.
“I mean, whatever,” Nate says, “I get it, the dude is off being a robot. It’s just that I think, out of all of you, I feel the most... unconnected to the history of this part. And part of that is down to the whitewashing of that history. And part of it is that the play is using Belize, and me, as a construct for forgiveness and continuation that he and I never asked to be part of, so it often feels like we’ve both been conscripted into the war. And part of it is that it just is fucking lonely. I’m out here listening to drag music and watching Pose like it will put me in touch with this horrifying period of history that I can’t even begin to fully comprehend, and I have to do it while playing this part on Broadway, with a mostly white cast, for a mostly white audience that wants me to be the Sassy Black Friend.
“And meanwhile, you’re both tethered to the men who went through all of this before you, and you’re tethered to each other, and I think — well, obviously, that makes a huge, huge difference in how you see yourselves and your relationship to your characters and to the play.”
“You’re tethered to us,” Andrew says. “We’re all tethered to one another, you know that.”
Nate rolls his eyes at him. “I know,” he says. “But the two of you are like tree roots.” He looks pointedly at their entwined hands. “I’m just saying, I don’t mind so much about the Tonys, because I already felt rootless, being here. Like Belize and I are just... passing through. And that’s how I play him, too, because god knows he wasn’t waiting for permanence.”
There’s a moment of silence.
“Well, that’s fucking maudlin,” James says, holding out his hand to Nate. “Get over here.”
“You’re not rootless,” Andrew tells Nate. “I will never let you be rootless.”
Nate clasps Andrew’s shoulder, observes him at arm’s length. “You really do have a savior complex,” he says, but he’s smiling.
“I know,” Andrew says, and pulls him in for a hug. He feels James move in behind him, reassuring and firm at his back, arms wrapped around them both.
“Are we doing a group hug?” Denise says from the doorway. “Can I join?”
“Always,” says James, and the four of them huddle together. Andrew closes his eyes, and they stand there, and then there’s more movement, more people entering the room, and gradually he is enfolded in what seems to him like a giant circle of arms, protective and warm, like outstretched wings.
They’re outside signing autographs later that night when James exits the stage door a few minutes after Andrew, which is rare — usually he’s earlier. The crowd lets out a roar that stops him in his tracks and tinges his cheeks pink, and Andrew turns to watch him. Then someone lets out a wolf-whistle. James turns towards that side of the crowd and throws them a cheeky wink, and Andrew’s pride in him is instantly replaced by a sharp, ridiculous twinge of jealousy.
He wonders, for a moment, what would happen if he stepped over and slid his fingers through James’ fingers, or wrapped his arm around James’ waist, and let it mean whatever it means, in front of all these people.
What would happen?
His agent would want to hold a press conference. THR would describe it as a watershed moment for Hollywood. Slate would say he was revolutionary, an A-list star unafraid to come out without first having to be shamed into doing so, or outed without permission. Buzzfeed would post a list of gifs — 15 times James McArdle and Andrew Garfield were totally in love. Andrew would secretly like every post tagged “McArfield” on Tumblr. Emma would text him all-cap I TOLD YOU SOs every day for a month.
Ellie’s already met James, she already loves him, but she would love him as Andrew’s boyfriend — she’d insist on coming over and taking him out for tea and gossip and she’d bombard him with dumb presents that James would be totally baffled by, and Andrew would just have to explain that that’s just how Ellie is, and that this was all part of his new life with Andrew and Andrew’s totally dorky friends.
They’d fuck for hours, desperate, expressive, full of murmured ‘I love yous’ and laughter and probably some crying, too, because they would both feel — he knows they would both feel — that this was some kind of miracle, a gift to them from the play itself. And James would be a little repulsed by the domestic heteronormativity of it all, while secretly relishing that bit the most; but he would bring up politics and queer rights in every interview and insist on treating their relationship like a political act, because it would be.
The world would only spin forward.
“Ride with me,” he tells James when they’re done. Andrew’s place is uptown, above Lincoln Center, next to the park so he can walk Ren. The apartment James is leasing is just a few blocks north of the theatre, so he usually just walks, but he nods obligingly and hops into Andrew’s waiting car.
“What’s wrong?” James asks him after a few moments. “I know we’re always gubbed, but you look... pensive.”
Andrew looks out the window. “Are you... all those times you told me you’d never live in America. Are you moving back after this?”
“Half my stuff’s still in storage back home,” James says. “Not that I’ve got a lot to begin with, but you know how it is. It’s been hard, I’m eager to be home.”
“Oh,” says Andrew.
“Unless you mean,” James says. “I do love New York. How can you not? Dirty and gaudy and brilliant. It’s all one giant theatre.”
“Yes,” says Andrew. “I love it. I hate people who say they hate Times Square, like that’s not inextricable, like it’s not at the center of the whole wonderful rotten city. I, I do miss London, though.”
“Ah,” says James. They sit silently for another moment, and this time it’s tense — until James speaks again.
“I need to ask you,” he says. He sounds agitated, like the words are being forced out of him without his permission. Andrew turns to him, startled, to find him opening and closing his fist and darting his eyes anywhere except at Andrew.
“Ask me,” says Andrew, taking his hand to still it.
James takes a deep breath, and says, “Are you asking me about my move because you want to know how much time you have to figure this out? After the show ends?”
Andrew blanches. James finally looks at him, and he looks a little terrified.
“Yes,” Andrew whispers after another moment. He sounds terrified.
He is terrified.
James’ features go slack in something that’s not quite shock, and Andrew makes himself talk.
“I, I’m terrified of hurting you,” he says, gripping James’ hand tighter. James takes it in both of his own.
“I’m terrified of misleading myself, and worse, misleading other people about who I am,” Andrew babbles. “I’m terrified that what I’m feeling might not be real, but I’m even more terrified that it is real and I’m just cockblocking myself by, like, method acting. And, and I don’t even know, I’m not even totally sure how you feel, because I’ve been stuck in my own head and there’s a prophecy rattling around in it at the moment so I’m not feeling very coherent and I—”
James leans over and kisses him, and Andrew melts against him, wraps his arms around him and opens up to him with an involuntary moan. It’s familiar and safe, slow and intimate, and they know each other so well by now that Andrew doesn’t understand why every kiss lights him on fire from the inside out, so much more now than they did at the start of this, 18 long months ago. James cups Andrew’s chin and then trails kisses over Andrew’s throat, biting his collarbone and sending Andrew splaying back against the seat.
“This is how I feel,” James says against Andrew’s skin. “It’s how I’ve felt since almost the beginning of this.”
Andrew says, “Oh,” and, “good,” and traces James’ beautiful mouth with his fingers, and then with his tongue. The car pulls up in front of James’ apartment, and Andrew spares a moment to be grateful for the many discreet limo drivers of New York City.
“But,” says James, pulling back and rubbing a hand over his hair, now adorably mussed. “I’m also not keen to rush pell-mell into a relationship with a straight man. I’m not that foolhardy.”
“Oh,” says Andrew again, only for some reason it comes out sounding hilarious — as though it’s the first time he’s ever considered that James might not be a fool.
James starts to laugh, and after a moment Andrew does, too, shrill laughter with a couple of sobs in there, too. He pulls James back into his arms and they laugh, and laugh.
“But then again,” James says, “I’m already in love with you, so why the fuck shouldn’t I?”
“Honestly,” says Andrew, kissing James’ temple, his hair, his forehead, “It’s 2018, I don’t understand why divided sexuality is even still a thing, why are we not all equipped with 18 vaginas and 18 penii, and, and we can retrain our brains to do all sorts of things, I feel like pansexuality should just be like the default identity at this point.”
James slides his fingers over Andrew’s arm. “The other night I was listening to audience members chatting while I was signing,” he says, “and a couple of them were talking about how much chemistry Louis and Belize had, and how much chemistry Belize and Prior had, and they were speculating that maybe after the epilogue they might all end up in different romantic entanglements.
“And I felt this hilarious petty rage inside me that they had gone through that whole play and weren’t talking about us, you and me, Louis and Prior, being together, even though I know, logically, that if they come away thinking that Louis and Prior will ever get back together then they’ve missed the whole point.”
“Oh,” Andrew says, “Don’t,” because if he thinks about the end of Prior and Louis too much right now he’ll be an immediate blotchy tear-streaked mess and derail this whole conversation.
He draws in an unsteady breath, and James reaches up to trace his face. “Love is irrational,” he says gently, “and I think we’ve all long since passed the point at which our commitment to this play, and to each other, is rational.”
“Love isn’t ambivalent,” Andrew says. “I can’t love your Louis and not love you, I can’t fall in love with you every night and not fall in love with you every other moment of the day.”
“Then stop trying not to,” says James. “Let it happen, because god knows I have, and it’s honestly been wonderful.”
“You’ve honestly been wonderful,” Andrew murmurs, and they’re kissing again, and this time it’s urgent and hungry and deep, and James puts his hand on Andrew’s chest and drags it down over his abdomen with intent, sliding around his waist and down to cup his ass, and Andrew arches up and against him with a gasp and sparks shoot through him and his head thwacks against the car door.
James pulls back. “Are you okay?” he says, looking so amused and insufferable, and Andrew cannot stop laughing.
“It’s like a sex scene from an Ayn Rand novel,” he sputters, and James says, “Oh, I will show you a sex scene from an Ayn Rand novel,” and he bites Andrew’s ear lobe and Andrew squeaks and a car behind them honks, and they break apart, still grinning.
“My lease ends in September,” James says. “I thought I might sublet it and move back before then, but I’m not — I’m not writing anything in stone.“
“Don’t,” says Andrew.
James smiles at him. “We will have time, after the show,” he says. “Whatever it is, we’ll figure it out. We have all the time in the world.”
It’s kind of hilarious how much better actually talking about this has made him feel; there’s a weight on his chest he’s been carrying around for so long that he thought it was part of the ritual of the play. But now that it’s lifted, he realizes it was the burden of this, of all this uncertainty and drama and pent-up sexual tension and angst. July 15 no longer feels like a deadline, like the death knell of Andrew’s not-relationship. Instead, it feels like the start of something brand new, something they’re moving toward together.
James is obviously lighter, too, and there’s a playfulness that resides between them for the last few weeks that manifests in touches and kisses and random late-night emoji spam, or the time James sends Ren a goodnight text entirely in dogspeak. It’s as though they’ve abruptly figured out where all the fun parts go, at long last, and he thinks it makes their onstage reconciliation sweeter, after all things.
Andrew wins the Drama Desk award and accidentally uses up his entire allotted acceptance speech time talking about what an amazing actor James is. When he returns, laughing, to the banquet table, James just shakes his head at him; but he smiles, and keeps smiling for the rest of the night, as if Andrew has given him something wonderful, and Andrew can’t stop looking at him, can’t stop wanting to lace their fingers together, can’t stop — can’t stop waiting for this to be real.
It’s a few weeks before the show ends, during Act 3 of Millennium, and Andrew sometimes has a hard time during the split stage scenes because he wants to disappear into Prior, but also time is running out, the show is ending, and he wants to listen, see everything.
He’s always onstage, in the dark, for the first half of the incredible Democracy in America scene, just as Prior is entering the first true frenetic stages of his prophet career; but in-between and after his half of the scene is over, Andrew can’t help but watch James and Nate volley back and forth, get a feel for how the audience shifts and ebbs in its sympathies throughout it: whether they’re too much on Louis’ side, or not enough; whether anyone claps when the Trump parallels get too scary; whether they bristle when Belize’s truths start getting a little too uncomfortable; whether anyone claps when James says the fucking title.
It stirs something in him, that scene, and he thinks it probably stirs something in all of them, the deep ever-present anxiety tinged with the urge to do something, anything, that they’ve all lived with since the election. And even though this play is that something, sometimes it’s not enough to quell the restlessness that scene leaves them with.
So sometimes he has to stop, after he exits his side of the scene, and park himself in a surreptitious spot to watch the rest of it. He has to watch Louis careening through his thoughts and dancing around his guilt over leaving him, over leaving Prior; he has to keep his eyes on James through all of it. After this is Prior’s dream dance with Louis — one night closer to their last dance ever.
He has to keep his eyes on all of it.
“Hey,” says a voice beside him; Beth is standing next to him. “I don’t watch this scene as often as I’d like,” she whispers.
“It’s the whole show in one moment,” Andrew says.
“Yeah,” she says. “Except I always think of it as the Lost Cause scene.”
“Really,” Andrew says, turning to look at her. “Lost cause as in democracy?”
“Maybe,” she says. “Or the American Experiment. Or, I dunno, just these two people trying to communicate past generations of hurt and division and racism, and how futile that feels.”
“But they do communicate in the end,” Andrew says. “They share pain. And hope. And a fountain.”
“And Prior,” she says. She puts a hand on his arm and smiles up at him. “They share you. You’re why they come together, in the end. Loving Prior, ultimately, more than they love their own bullshit.”
Andrew thinks about that. “Loving someone else more than you love your own bullshit,” he echoes. “That sounds like progress to me.”
Onstage, Louis looks up. The snow has started to fall: forgiveness; purification; hope.
July 15, 2018
On the final performance, the Sunday matinee of Perestroika, everyone cries.
They cry before the show starts, they cry when the audience nearly gives them a standing ovation before the lights have even gone up, they cry in between scenes, they cry during scenes. James and Andrew cry during all of their scenes together. As Louis and Prior are finally reconciling in the hospital room, James never looks away from him once, and Andrew thinks of being tethered.
As the hospital bed lowers and Louis moves to kiss Prior on the forehead as the lights fade on them, Andrew reaches up and touches James’ face.
“Don’t tell me goodbye when this is over,” he says, trying to compose himself. “Let it be like, like we could just show up tomorrow for the next performance, and everything will stay suspended in time. Let it be like Louis and Prior never said goodbye either. Let’s just leave them eternally smiling at each other in front of that fountain. So at least if they’re not together, they’re never ever apart.”
And all his attempts not to break into sobs are useless, because James says, “Oh, Andrew, you’re so goddamn metaphorical,” in a choked-off laugh that turns into a sob, and then he says, “I love you, I love you so much,” and it’s time for the epilogue, and then it’s over, and The Great Work Begins.
July 20, 2018
I hate to start off emails to people I haven’t actually met yet with apologies, but I owe you a tremendous one.
I’m sorry that it’s taken me so long to write you. You should have had this email, or at least some type of correspondence from me, with you at the beginning, even before rehearsal started. At first I didn’t write it because I was in the thick of Westworld, and the things I was being asked to do on that show were challenging me as an actor in new ways, and I didn’t have a lot of headspace to think about Belize.
And then it was because I was having real trouble wrapping my head around what I wanted to say about him, and because I was thinking that maybe my words might be somehow restrictive, instead of a benediction. And then it started to loom over me, because the longer I put it off, the more daunting it seemed. I saw Stephen’s letters to Andrew in the Times and I thought, well, I could never be that eloquent or articulate, and it just added more pressure.
I’ve been asked repeatedly in interviews about the show over the last few months, because of the revival, and I’ve said the things I always say, the true things: that this play changed everything; that it’s at the core of my being and it altered everything about how I see myself, and how I see myself fitting into the tapestry (or the Quilt) of community and society — the Great Work, so to speak.
And the more I thought about that, the more I realized that maybe all my procrastination could turn into a benefit. Because when actors write these letters to each other, that are intended to provide encouragement and solace and companionship in this difficult and treacherous work, we do it at the beginning of the process and not the end. And I think sometimes that’s a mistake, especially when the difficult and treacherous work is this monumental.
Because I think we spend so much time preparing for how to live with the performance while we’re in it. And that’s hard, necessary work. But no one tells us how to live with the weight of the performance after it’s done. No one tells us how to properly grieve for the work after the work is over, how to constructively mourn and move on. And more, we don’t have road maps for how to take the work with us, how to let it live inside us and change us. It’s easy for people, I think, to feel a lot of empty emotion about Belize, and honestly about the whole play. It’s easy to appreciate the art without letting it call us to a higher purpose; and if it does call us to a higher purpose, what do we do with that?
In many ways, because I got to be involved in the play over a period of multiple productions and years — and then got to film the miniseries, which is still being discovered all the time thanks to streaming — I feel like I’m still in it, like I never left it. And I know that must have created tremendous pressure on you, and I also know that you excelled in spite and because of that.
But it also, for me, has been an ongoing challenge. Because I feel like I’m still constantly answering to the play, being called by the play to account for myself in the wake of it. What have I done to be worthy of that part since I left it? What have I done to be worthy of that history, to be worthy of carrying the legacy of that much hurt and devastation and destruction and death forward into the future?
We don’t, as a culture, really teach one another how to carry on, how to mourn and move forward. We say the words a lot, but we don’t, as a community, always understand how. God knows I don’t, and I definitely didn’t after I was finished with the play.
So I wanted to share with you, in case any of this is helpful, some thoughts on endings, and how things don’t end, and how to carry the burden and grief and loss you’re feeling right now with you into the future — in a way that hopefully will help you grow and ultimately be lighter, rather than weight you down.
After the play closed at the end of 1994, I took really long, meandering walks around New York, because I needed to feel like I was in Kushner’s New York and like I was in Belize’s New York. I needed to stand in front of the fountain. I needed to sit on random park benches talking to strangers. I needed to get off the subway at random stops and find myself visiting random places — Governor’s Island or the Moving Image museum in Queens or Little League baseball in the Bronx. I needed to mourn the passing of the play in the same way I needed to mourn the passing of life and the passing of time, and for me all of that was bound up in needing to be immersed ever deeper in the city and all of its grime and sweat and life.
It was also vital that I kept in touch with Stephen and Joe and Marcia and Kathleen, that I was able to keep processing and talking through the experience with friends who’d shared it with me, who were all going through the grieving process with me.
And after a few weeks, I found that I was eventually starting to be in these places as myself, and not as a kind of shadow-link between the past and the present. I found that I was starting to get out of the headspace I’d been in throughout the last two years, where I was constantly thinking of myself as a conduit for someone else’s message, and as a mouthpiece for the story of this community that was so much larger than me.
But that also left me struggling with the question of how to think about myself after that message had passed through me. Who was I, if I didn’t let that message change me and alter me, and make me a perpetual witness to the lessons and loss of history?
So when I thought about changing myself, I looked to the play itself for instructions. It was my instruction manual because it was the closest thing I had to a spiritual text at the time, and probably still is. I think the single biggest thing that has helped me is to think of Belize as a template for how to live with an open heart. If I think, What Would Belize Do? The answer is always that he would give more. It’s not that he doesn’t live with bitterness and aggrievance and pain and anger. It’s that he chooses again and again, whenever he can, to set them aside in the moment and reach out with tolerance and compassion towards everyone, even people like Cohn.
For me, living with an open heart means that I try to move past my own natural shyness and make friends more, talk more openly, to more people. I try to spend less time impressing people, and more time trying to impress upon people whatever is most important.
What has surprised me most is that, honestly, that’s usually not a political statement. It’s usually that they need to laugh more, or they need to hug and be hugged more, or they need to be well taken care of for the first time in a long time. And maybe that’s just because I’ve gotten to the point in my life and career where I don’t run into a lot of assholes, but I also think that it’s because the play goes before me, and people see me, still, as its messenger. So I’ve come to think of myself that way, too: as one of its many messengers, its prophets, if you will.
But the trick here is not to blame yourself if you fail. Belize is a template because he was written by a white Jewish man. He’s ultimately a template for martyrdom and sacrifice, not for being fully human. There will be plenty of times when you won’t want to reach out with tolerance and compassion, when you won’t want to set aside your anger and bitterness. Don’t. Let them fuel you. Anger means you want things to change. The lesson Belize taught me is to focus on making the change happen instead of focusing on the bitterness.
Another thing that’s helped me is to always remember that “the world only spins forward” isn’t a kind of nihilism — it’s not about forgetting and erasure. It’s about avidly, actively learning from history and learning from your own mistakes, while building something better out of all that history and all those mistakes.
Both halves of the play begin with these huge book-end ideas: the first is that history cannot be re-traversed or re-learnt, and the second is that there is a limit to how far we can progress, that there are cultural points of no return and that the only way to avoid them is to stand utterly still and refuse to go further. But then the play undoes both of these ideas by uplifting the power of community and of collective cultural testimony to what has come before, as a way of marching continuously onward.
And I think, especially with the apocalypse of climate change and the collapse of capitalism looming ahead, what has helped me tremendously is an acceptance that we will testify to that history, and we will continue to testify to the experience of the marginalized and the disenfranchised and the ostracized and the lost, and we will march continuously onward; that there will be millions upon millions of souls who will collectively push forward with love and light until we reach the end.
That, to me, includes things like voting and volunteering and organizing politically, and living non-wastefully and trying to make social and political and artistic change — the things that create wisdom and empathy and empowerment. And it means listening consciously to the stories that other people are telling — giving them the chance to carry their truths, their histories, and their lessons forward alongside yours.
But it also means embracing the power of your basic survival. Every day you survive, every day you exist in the world, is a day your spirit and your voice carries on the Great Work. And maybe you know all this and it doesn’t warrant saying — but when I was done with the play, and felt that it wasn’t done with me, I didn’t. I didn’t know how to carry all of that in my heart from day to day, how to be worthy or be strong enough. I had to take some time to internalize the play’s message, that, like Prior, and like Belize, we each are enough, just as ourselves, to carry all of this pain and history and love and loss forward.
And to me, surviving and living to testify to the ones we have lost and the lessons we’ve learned, and the people that we are — collectively choosing more life, instead of losing faith — to me, this is the single best and greatest thing that we can ask for, from ourselves and from our epoch. This is the Great Work.
You’re going to live it every day from now on. So be present in it; be gracious; and have hope.
Andrew spends his first week off since since December 2016 sleeping in and playing with Ren and marathoning Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and not being a dying prophet. He texts James dumb internet memes, and James texts him back dumb emojis and Andrew knows that James is tacitly giving him space, and time to recover and regroup and process his feelings.
Andrew lasts a whole day and a half.
By Tuesday, he’s missing James so much that he caves and streams The Man in the Orange Shirt, then gets ten minutes in before a sinfully lit shot of James with his shirt collar strategically unbuttoned stops him cold.
“Jesus,” he says aloud, freezing the shot and thumbing open his phone.
Come over, he texts, I miss you.
Just sat down to lunch!
I need to bite your collarbone, Andrew replies.
Oh, look, just got the check, James responds immediately. Andrew cackles and sends him a joy-crying emoji.
Ten minutes later, James buzzes up and appears looking flushed and gorgeous and delectable, and they’re kissing before he fully enters the foyer, hands everywhere, touching, stroking, murmured greetings and fumbling attempts at removing clothes. James pulls back just enough to cup Andrew’s face in his hands.
“Hi,” he says.
“Hi,” Andrew says. “I love you.”
James’ smile turns up so much his eyes crinkle, and Andrew leans in and kisses him there, at his temple.
“And I missed you,” he adds, because that seems like it’s important to repeat. “I missed your mouth, and your cheeks, and your ears,” he says, kissing each of them, “and I missed your smiles and your voice and your hands and your taste and, and I’m going to unbutton your shirt now.”
“Are you, is this your version of livetweeting this?” James laughs, ruffling Andrew’s hair. “Are you going to emoji react to getting my kit off?”
“Shh, this is a big deal, there’s going to be a hashtag and everything,” Andrew grins, biting down exactly in the spot over James’ adam’s apple that he’s been fantasizing about. James shifts and arches against him and then makes a slight noise of surprise.
“You’re turned on,” he says. “You’re really, really turned on.”
Andrew tugs James’ shirt off and starts kissing his way down his chest. “That is absolutely correct,” he says, flicking his tongue over James’ nipple. He starts to mouth it but James stops him, tilting his head up abruptly.
“What is it?” Andrew asks, alarmed at the look on James’ face.
“I didn’t, I wasn’t sure it was going to work like this,” James says blankly. “I think I thought we’d possibly just experiment for a few weeks and then you’d realize you just still aren’t attracted to men and we’d kiss and go our separate ways and that would be that, I don’t think I understood how much you were — how much this was really happening.”
“This is really happening,” Andrew says, kissing him urgently. “Do you understand that you are the only thing my body has wanted in 21 fucking months? Do you understand that I know that because I have counted? Do you even understand how much sex we’re going to have?”
“Oh, christ, yes, I’m starting to get the picture,” says James, pushing Andrew’s shirt over his head and pressing against him.
“I am done sticking a label on myself, I’m done giving a fuck,” Andrew says, “I want you and I love you and I need you to — to believe me.” He pulls back. “Please don’t doubt me.”
James’ expression shifts and he swallows and says in a choked voice, “I’m never doubting you. I promise. We didn’t go through the last two years to wind up being uncertain, Andrew, if this is what you want then I’m here, I’m in this with you.”
“I know,” says Andrew, kissing his jawline. “You always have been. You never questioned any of it, did you? You never made me feel like I wasn’t enough, and I— James, I—” They’re still standing awkwardly in the foyer and Andrew abruptly doesn’t give a shit about where they are or how messy or whatever this is, and he pushes James back against the wall, pressing into him and grinding into his thigh. James shudders and slips his hand down into Andrew’s shorts to palm his erection, and Andrew pushes into him with a moan.
“I want you to come for me,” James whispers, leaning up to bite Andrew’s jawline as he strokes him. “Right now, right here, let go for me.”
“Oh, fuck,” Andrew breathes, sinking his head against James’ shoulder and shuddering.
“Yeah, love, just like this,” James says. “And then I’ll take you to bed and take you apart,” and his voice is like molten silk against Andrew’s skin, and Andrew closes his eyes and whispers James’ name and surrenders.
A few hours after Andrew’s first Great Gay Orgasm and shortly after his latest, he is lying in bed next to James, but also floating in the middle of a whole cosmic universe that has expanded before him, stars alighting and planets aligning to unveil to him all the blissful, joyous, soul-igniting power of sex with a man who really loves him.
“Oh, fuck,” he whispers.
“Hmm?” James murmurs, brushing his lips over Andrew’s throat. Andrew obediently arches his neck to give him access, but keeps staring up at the ceiling, trying to make his eyes and his brain focus through the haze of afterglow and the dawning awareness that he’s made a hideous horrible mistake.
“I’m queer,” he says, stricken.
James promptly leans up and says, “Yes, you are,” gentle, perfect, oh, god, he’s so perfect. “And that’s okay, that’s amazing.”
“No,” says Andrew, his stomach growing increasingly tight. “I mean that I just played Prior Walter, on Broadway, and, christ, I won a fucking Tony, and the whole time I thought I knew him, and I thought that I could, I don’t know, have an inkling of what it was like to be him, to feel like this — and I, I didn’t know.”
He turns and looks at James, panicky, and James stills and gazes back intently. “I didn’t know this, I didn’t know how it felt, I could have known the whole time, really known and understood what it was like to touch you and love you and be inside you, only I didn’t have this, I didn’t let myself have any part of this—”
“But you did,” says James. He takes Andrew’s face in his hands and kisses him and thumbs away the tears forming in Andrew’s eyes. “Listen to me,” he says. “Who do you think they gave that Tony to? Andrew, they didn’t give it to some straight actor playing gay. They gave it to a queer actor finding himself onstage every night, unmasking himself. That was real. That mattered.”
“It should have been someone openly queer,” says Andrew. “Why the hell did they pick me? Why did they go with the person who said that bullshit about RuPaul, jesus—”
“Andy,” says James sternly, and Andrew is distracted enough to say, “Okay, I love that you make my nickname sound like a reprimand,” before James kisses him back down into the pillows, kisses him until the panic lessens in his brain.
“Do you understand,” James says, nibbling Andrew’s ear, “that the entire time you were in the show you were openly queer, as queer as you knew how to be? You were physical — you were practically insatiable, really. You were falling in love with another man, we just weren’t having sex yet. You literally were a queer man, just without the physical act.”
Andrew blinks and stares at him. “Oh, my god,” he says, stunned. “You’re right.”
James grins at him like he’s hilarious.
“I’m queer,” says Andrew. “God, I have to come out. I have to, I won’t be Schroedinger’s Gay.”
“You don’t have to do anything you’re not comfortable with,” James says soothingly. “It was wrong of me to put that on Lee. I shouldn’t have done it, especially given what was happening with us.”
“We were falling in love,” says Andrew, just for the sake of saying it again. James’ smile is so bright and crystal clear and Andrew doesn’t think he’ll ever get over it.
“If you decide to, though,” James says, “You might as well just tell people we’re dating, since I’m pretty sure it’ll be obvious no matter what.”
“Oh, do you think you’re datable material?” Andrew grins.
“I think,” James says, “that if I don’t at least get to walk dogs with you in the park, and sit in front of that fountain holding hands with you like we’re an old married couple, then what even was the point of the last two years?”
“Speaking truth to power in a moment of cataclysmic social upheaval?” Andrew says, wrapping his arms around James’ waist and pulling him down against him.
“All the same thing,” James replies, tracing Andrew’s face with delicate fingertips.
And he smiles down at Andrew, so tender, so real and present and certain, and Andrew is suddenly overwhelmed with love and affection — of a new bright-white understanding of the world and their place in it, together; the Great Work beginning in them both.
“James,” he says.
“My love,” James replies.
“A long time ago, you said you love it when I get spiritual,” Andrew says.
“I do.” James props his chin in his hand and splays his fingers over Andrew’s heart.
“What does my favorite prophet of hope see?” he asks.
Andrew waits a beat, and leans up.
“Baby, I can see your halo,” he says, and he kisses James through his startled laugh and into the endless beyond; until their eyes open onto the great cosmic hereafter; until their wings slowly unfurl and expand.