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Shortly before he turned twenty-nine Eliot decided to go to therapy. It had been his— decision; it had not taken cajoling or guilt. It was just that by then he had exhausted himself waking up hungover or else sleepless from the nightmares, and he'd accepted that even waking up next to Quentin was not enough to untangle the years that had come before. And so on a Friday night, two-thirds of a bottle of wine in, he'd confessed his fears and his hopes of healing to Quentin and wept only a little bit into his chest, and the next morning they had sat down together to comb through the endless directories and reviews.

Eliot's wounds ran deeper than even possession and resurrection, and he felt at last determined to begin the long process of mending them.

In the end he'd gotten lucky with Caroline. He liked her immediately, which was not something he often experienced. He liked her unpretentious but brightly painted nails; he liked her round glasses that framed her eyes in exactly the way he thought a therapist’s should. He liked that she did work with "family systems", something his one-off university health center therapist had recommended he seek out a lifetime ago that would supposedly give him the tools to understand the ways in which his upbringing and— God, his relationships with his family, because apparently even absence counted as a form of relationship— how all of that mattered. What it meant.

And he liked her voice, which, perhaps damningly, reminded him not a little bit of Margo’s.

On a cold morning in October he found himself in her office as he did each Wednesday, smiling at her as he set his bag down and withdrew his water bottle. He sat down and crossed his legs and took a long drink, then reached for a sequined pillow and held it in his lap.

Once he settled, she said, "How’ve you been?"

Eliot took a deep breath and smiled. "Pretty good, actually." He held out his palms as if to show he was not hiding anything. "Today's my birthday, actually, so that’s exciting. I think."

Caroline smiled, her crooked lower teeth visible behind her neutral lipstick. "Impressive, coming to therapy on your birthday. How old are you?"

"I figured I might as well, and— God, I’m thirty?" He turned his gaze toward the window. It was bright out, the late October light bouncing gently through the suncatchers that reminded so much of his Aunt Diane that the first time he had stepped foot in this office he almost turned on his heel. But then he’d noticed that the light where it spilled onto the ground followed a pattern, a geometry so satisfying he might have called it soothing, and he’d realized they’d been charmed to produce specific shapes and patterns that were calming. They drew in his focus, catching his meandering thoughts like fish in a net.

"How does turning thirty feel?" Caroline said, her gaze as level as always.

"Fine," Eliot said and returned his attention to her. "I don’t know. I think it’s fine? It hasn’t really occurred to me to feel any particular way yet."

"You’re sure?"

Eliot laughed. "I know I look like," he gestured at his body, at his intricately knotted tie and his trousers so obviously home-hemmed, a technique perfected over the years to accommodate his long legs. "And that I’m visibly performing, all the time, always. We’ve talked about that, though so let’s— not dawdle. That’s the easy stuff. I'm not afraid of aging, or worried about if I've accomplished enough, or whatever. I am— I suppose, honestly shocked I lived this long. Which. You know, I haven’t, in some worlds. There's a parallel universe where I died aspirating on my own fucking vomit, age twenty-four. And thirty-eight timelines where I got disemboweled. Plus you know, my whole life. So that part, the part where I'm alive, is. Quite bizarre."

Caroline nodded and scribbled on her legal pad. Eliot wondered if she was actually taking notes or if perhaps was writing a grocery list or drawing cruel caricatures of him. Which wasn’t fair, probably, to Caroline, who he liked and who had been genuinely good at untangling some of his more gnarled roots— and it wasn’t fair to therapists in general, maybe. Probably a lot of them were pretty good at their jobs. She certainly seemed to be, if his now supposedly reasonable alcohol consumption and occasionally sober sleep were anything to go by.

In her soft, sure voice, which was an obvious therapeutic affectation that he appreciated nevertheless, she said, "Are you doing anything special?"

"Quentin wants to take me to dinner," Eliot sighed.

"It sounds like maybe you’re not interested in that idea?"

Eliot chewed his lip like a child preparing for confession. "With his dad."

She looked at him over the rims of her glasses, her eyebrows raised. Despite their quote-un-quote professional relationship he was oddly thankful for her maternal air. It was easier to fess up to his own feelings when she looked at him like that.

"How are you feeling about that?"

Still too quickly Eliot said, "Fine."

Those fucking eyes over the gold of her round frames. Imploring and obvious. "I don’t know honestly. It seems like a lot? Like, we don’t usually do family things for birthdays. We see Ted for Thanksgiving and Christmas, obviously, but not— birthdays are just for us." He paused, considering that summer when Ted on the Monday of Quentin’s actual birthday had just texted Saturday, boys? Turtle & Wolf? to their small group chat, which was a thing that had appeared apparently out of thin air the previous Christmas when Eliot had gone alone on a last minute trip to pick up extra cinnamon sticks and nutmeg because who mulls cider without nutmeg? Eliot had been thrilled, though, to complete this small errand for his partner and his father, to be trusted with it, and he still felt something sharp and tender when he saw a message in the thread.

In the end, Turtle & Wolf was a restaurant that turned out to be much nicer than Eliot had expected— which, what had he expected, really? Fucking, Bud Light and shoestring fries? And yes, that was— it was actually what he’d expected but instead they’d had a pleasant and bougie meal of oysters and craft beer and fucking— blistered shishitos— and had split some other things that Eliot barely remembered because all he could recall then, in Caroline’s office with its sequined pillow and its tasteful if predictable graphic prints of houseplants and abstract sunrises, was the way that Ted had said, Eliot, do you think you could do another half-dozen oysters? Q doesn’t like them as much as he pretends to for me. And the way Quentin had smiled and nudged his knee against Eliot’s under the table until dumbstruck he remembered to say, Of course, but only West Coast. with a teasing smile.

Eliot shook his head as if dispelling the memory like a fog. "Well, not Quentin’s birthday, Ted always takes us out. He took us to a shockingly nice place in Jersey and we ate a metric ton of oysters and we ended up staying the night out there. It was fun, actually."

"So what’s different this time?"

"I mean, he’s not— he’s not my dad, you know? It just feels. I don’t know. I mean, I’ve never had something like this. I’ve mostly ignored my birthdays or used them as an excuse to get especially fucked up. The last time I remember— well, before Quentin, who is weirdly good at scratch baking and also at giving head— sorry— the last time I remember enjoying a birthday was when I was four and my mom somehow convinced my dad that a Little Mermaid theme was actually completely acceptable for a boy because of Eric and at the last minute swapped out the pre-approved Sebastian cake topper for an Ariel."

"It sounds like your mother understood you."

Eliot laughed and his stomach churned. He uncrossed his legs and took a deep breath in through his nose. Blew a long breath out. "Yeah. I guess she did. But it was just."

"Just what?"

"God, how do I even— it sounds so fucking stupid to explain it out loud?"

"Whatever it is, it’s not stupid, Eliot."

He rolled his eyes and swallowed. Even now, after a year in this space with its soft cushions and its white noise machine and its utter lack of scent, he couldn’t bring himself to quite accept that it was a— a safe place. Somewhere he could just let his feelings exist without reproach.

Nodding, he said, "It was just. My mom tried for as long as she could but she, I guess, obviously lost stamina for dealing with my dad. And the older I got the less acceptable it was for my mom to be, the way she was with her little boy, who was no longer a little boy but somebody who, you know, should be a little man. And I couldn’t do anything but pull away. I think my mom was the only thing keeping me tethered to the family and then when she accepted that she couldn’t keep that up she just. Gave up. And slowly it just became clear that, I don’t know. That I didn’t have a space in that family anymore. And I don’t know how to find one in Quentin’s."

"You belonged with your mom, though. It sounds like she made space for you, at least for a while."

Eliot felt his mouth tighten into a line. "I guess. I don’t know. She wasn’t great, either."

And she hadn’t been, had she? She’d spent the better part of his late childhood holed up in her bedroom, a place Eliot still thought of as hers even though she had never stopped sharing it with his father. Her husband.

He didn’t know what she had done up there. Talked on the phone a lot, he was pretty sure. Sat and drank vodka sodas in the quiet privacy away from all the men of the house. That was the way of things. She would make dinner and after everyone had eaten and his father had retired to his recliner to watch whatever sport was on and work his way through a six pack. After his brothers had gone to do— whatever it was that older brothers did. To hang out with their girlfriends in the Walmart parking lot or to go hogging which in Indiana meant that someone had seen a wild hog once three years ago and all the older boys had since been using it as an excuse to drive around and drink Schlitz and shoot their fathers’ rifles from pickup beds. She would go upstairs. And Eliot would be left to draw with the Rose Art art kit he had gotten two Christmases ago or else would go outside to say hello to the goats and tell himself stories in the barn.

Which was all to say that for much of Eliot’s childhood, things were quiet. Relatively speaking. His father on bad nights would still be his father. And his brothers would suffer as much as they’d come to inflict. But before— when he was eight or nine years old. When his father would only roll his eyes when Eliot struggled to understand downs or didn’t care what exactly a safety was. When his brothers’ teasing was almost only teasing; when gay and fag were equal parts masculine endearments and threats. Things were quiet. And his mother was notably absent from those years. She would only appear later, when everything fell apart. Eliot wasn’t sure what it meant. If it was better or worse.

"I mean. She was home, which was good. She always made sure we were fed."

Caroline nodded. Her soft bob falling across her face as she did so in a way that made Eliot want to tuck it back.

"That’s good."

"So I wasn’t neglected."

"There’s more than one way to neglect a child, Eliot."

He shrugged. Ran his hand over the sequined pillow which flipped from silver to gold and back again. For a minute he drew stripes down it, then an equilateral triangle that reached into two corners. Felt his throat tightening. "I guess," he said. For what felt like several minutes or maybe a decade he stared at a point on the merled carpet, fighting the sting in his throat. This was always a part of therapy he hated, the part where Caroline gave him space to talk when all he wanted was for someone to tell him how to feel. He met her eyes and shrugged, tried to make it clear that he had nothing else to say on the subject of his mother.

Eliot figured it was good therapy, really, to let him sit with his words, and he was starting to get over the feeling of anxious silence he had to fill in the same way he had filled every lull in every party, every unanswered question in every class. Nevertheless he tapped his toe and chewed his lip and scratched at his knuckle with a thumbnail. He waited and waited for her to speak, doing his best not to, to not let his frenetic brain, the part of him that hated talking about himself, the thing that made him a good host and good friend but that made him a horrible patient, until she shifted, uncrossing her legs and crossing them again, settling comfortably like silt in the river.

"It makes sense that this would hurt more than talking about your dad did. I think— sometimes it can be easier when we know someone hurt us. When there’s no question and anyone would say, yes of course your father abused you. But it’s more difficult when it’s—" here she paused, looking up as if her words were lost on the ceiling. Looked down at her clipboard as if reviewing her notes. This was another part of therapy that Eliot hated, when he remembered that Caroline saw a couple dozen patients a week. That he and his problems were not special. He shifted on the loveseat where he sat and ran his palm over the pillow again.

Finally she said, "It’s more difficult when we love the person. When they were probably also experiencing abuse too."

He nodded again. He prepared himself to make excuses, to explain that he wasn’t blaming his mother for everything. Maybe not even anything at all.

As if on cue she said, "Which is not to say that she’s to blame for everything that happened to you. She was hurt, too. But you were just a kid, Eliot."

"Yeah, well. I never felt like one."

The words were out of his mouth before he’d fully processed them and Caroline leapt at the comically obvious window he’d left open. "Do you think that maybe that’s why your birthday is hard for you? That getting older means that you were younger once, and that maybe that’s opening up a lot of feelings about your parents? It can be strange, as we get older, to begin to understand them as people."

"I didn’t say it was hard for me," he said. Wiped his nose and laughed and shook his head. "But that makes sense." He wasn’t sure that it did. Or that if it did, that he could believe it.

"So given all that, what do you think scares you about spending more time with Quentin’s father?"

Again the tightness. His throat closing in on itself in the same way the room seemed to close in on him. He tried to speak and felt the tears encroaching at the corners of his eyes and didn’t want to cry but this was— a safe place, he reminded himself. Still he looked at the floor just to the left and behind her. Let his tears and his vision— God, he did need glasses, didn’t he?— blur the area around her before he spoke.

"What if I," he started. Coughed. Almost ripped a sequin from the pillow. "What if Ted doesn’t like me?"

Caroline nodded. Let the words land. Say something, he thought. Tell me what to feel. But she didn’t, and she wouldn’t, not this time. As if Eliot held all the solutions in his own hands.

Fucking therapists, honestly.

"You’ve met him before," she said. Like that was an answer.

"Yeah. I mean. I know he likes me. He’s already accepted that his son was a big fucking queer and likes him— still loves him, or whatever, after he realized that his son does whatever it is that dads hate about gay sons. Sucking dick, taking it up the ass, whatever it is. I don’t know. My dad hated me, God, I don’t know when it started, when he figured it out. But he did and he hated me for it. But— Ted’s fine with it. And honestly, what is that like? What the fuck is it like when your dad says things like, I just want you to be happy, or— you know, Quentin fucking told me that he never even really came out? He just. He just fucking went on a date in college with some guy and invited him home for some long weekend, fucking, Labor Day, some truly mid-Atlantic bullshit, I swear to God, fucking. Clams and white wine and— and his dad apparently was just. He was just fine with it. Later they had a talk, I guess, but it was easy. It’s always been so easy. Quentin has never been afraid. So how am I supposed to walk into that house and— be somebody’s son?"

"Do you want to be?"

"God, of course I fucking want to be. I want— I want, I want to be somebody’s kid so badly. I wish my mom had been better and my dad hadn’t been anything at all and that I could just, be fucking normal about this. Because, what happens, you know? If he doesn't really like me. Or if he just, doesn't have space for me? I feel so stupid because I'm thirty fucking years old and all I want is for someone to say, I'll be here no matter what. Like— God this is so stupid, but I kind of want him to just say, I'm your dad now, Eliot. And what if he never does? And if he does, what if I freak out? Because honestly that would be entirely on brand for me. So what am I supposed to do?"

She tapped her pen against her jaw. "Have you tried expressing any of this Quentin?"

"What," he laughed, "Have I sat him down and said, ‘Darling, love of my life, will your dad adopt me?’"

"Maybe. If that’s how you want to put it."

"Okay, Caroline, in what fucking universe is it normal?"

"Which part?"

"The part where I, this person with you know, a gazillion family issues and who has never really been properly loved by an adult— okay, I know I’m an adult and Quentin’s an adult but you know that’s not the same as— I don’t know, God, it sounds so— an adult adult. Somebody who drives you to the airport. Who tells you the temperature for roasting a turkey so you don’t have to scour the internet, who has like, family knowledge. The fucking person who— helps you fix the stove. Knows how long to let grout set. You know? Somebody like that. What the fuck— how do I ask for that? How do I tell my boyfriend that I just want someone who knows better than me to tell me everything will be all right, and please, can your dad be that person for me?"

She shrugged gently. The roll of her shoulders almost infuriating and Eliot’s stomach roiled with discomfort. "Do you think he wouldn’t understand?"

"Jesus," Eliot said. "No. You know what? I don’t think he would. That sort of thing— that’s a given for him. No matter what he’s been through, how sick or how shitty he’s been, fucking Ted has always been there. Always."

"So what makes you think Ted wouldn't want to be there for you like that?"

"Because I’m too fucking much. I’m not just—" he paused and cracked the knuckle of one thumb, felt the tension and release of it and tried to ground himself on the sensation while he found his words. When he spoke his voice was quiet. "I’m not just sick. I’m fucking hurt. I’m fucking broken. No matter what Quentin says, being sick is easy." He swallowed and knocked back a huge mouthful of cold water. Tried to shock himself into being reasonable, or at least into— "God is that fucked up? Whatever. You’re my therapist. You can listen to fucked up shit."

Caroline laughed and Eliot thought it was earnest. "I think that makes sense. It can be hard to imagine mental illness outside of trauma, especially for those of us with a lot of trauma. You’re allowed to have your own experiences and feelings. But you’re not too much, Eliot. You’re just a person. Bad things have happened to you, and like we’ve talked about before, those things affect you, but they aren’t the only things that matter."

"I guess," he said and felt miserably guilty and fought the urge to dig his nails into his palms. "I just. I feel a special sort of broken, you know? I know I’m a lot. That my problems are way scarier than just, Sometimes I Want To Die. I know that’s fucked up, and honestly, God, I want to die all the time. All the fucking time. But it’s not just that, you know? There’s something deep down in me that just, is fundamentally wrong with me. And sometimes I don’t know why I’m still alive, how I’ve made it to fucking thirty, and I feel so goddamn angry about everything and I just, I can’t understand. How am I still here if I’m this broken, you know? What’s the point? What have I done or what haven’t I done and what fucking, comes next? What if I ask for a home, what if I build a home, and it doesn’t want me?"

Caroline nodded, her gaze pointed. "What do you mean?"

Eliot laughed, at himself or at Caroline or maybe just at his whole entire mess of a life that meant he couldn’t even go to a birthday dinner without having three-quarters of a breakdown about it. "You know, I feel like most of my life I’ve tried to build a home, a family, whether I realized I was doing that or not. You know, like, even in high school, with theatre, that was my family. But it wasn’t enough, I was still— outside, you know? Still not quite right. Too gay or not gay enough or too masculine or too feminine, just, not right. And then I left and I found my little, you know, group in college. And they were fine, and I loved them, but I never fit. Not really. They were all untraumatized or like, lightly traumatized, and I never, I don’t know. I had my walls up, I guess."

"That must’ve been hard."

"Yeah, I mean, of course it fucking was. I went away and I thought, finally, fucking finally I’ll be somewhere people get me. Where people like me and I like them and we all understand each other and then I never did. So— Margo was the first time I fit anywhere, and that wasn’t to do with Brakebills, really, but I fit. But I got to that stupid fucking school and I still had this hope and then— and then I met Q, and it was— everything that came after. And Fillory rejected me. It did. And I was— well I wasn’t okay with it. But I’ve made peace. And so—." He stopped and rubbed his chin. Felt the rough grain of his stubble which even now at— Christ, at thirty surprised him, like he was still that fifteen year old boy staring in the mirror rubbing Barbasol on his face and scraping the peach fuzz away. Like he was still the boy who had cut his chin so badly because, he’d realized with not insignificant sadness some years later, no one had taught him how to deal with the cleft that he shared with his father and two of his brothers. Even then in 2020 he felt the sting of knowing that despite that small commonality no one had thought to say, This is how we Waugh men deal with the imposition of our genetics. Like so many other things they had left him to figure it out on his own and hurt himself in the process.

She looked at him thoughtfully. "Did you hope that college or grad school would make up for the way your childhood was?"

"Well, fucking yeah," he laughed. "And I thought it would and that I’d feel grown up and stable but I just felt— the same. Still young and stupid and a mess. I still do, a lot of the time." He grimaced to admit it but it was true, wasn’t it? That even in the apartment that he had with his actual real-life partner, that he paid for with his actual-real life job planning other people’s parties when he wasn’t in New Fillory helping Margo and Alice and Fen do everything they did— that even then, in his newfound and nascent adulthood, he felt like a child. Only a day or two away instead of the decade he was from the fucked up nineteen year old who had woken up in the ER with a tube down his throat. A week at most removed from the fifteen year old boy who had stolen his father’s Jack Daniels and spent a Saturday night getting hammered alone in the barn while his face burned and he thought about how badly he wanted to kiss Trey Collins, who ran JV track and ran lights on that year's fall production of Grease and had smiled at Eliot and said, You should audition in the spring.

Caroline said, "Your relationship with growing up gets skewed when you grew up like you did. Too fast, too hard. You were exposed to too many things and made responsible for too much and it wasn’t fair to you. It would be unfair to any child and it was extraordinarily unfair to you."

They way she said it, like Eliot was more than just, some diagnosis. A list of traumas to be recognized and treated. The unabstraction of the you into Eliot, who as a person specifically did not deserve the specific things that had happened to him. It was like a rush of cold water over the flames of his emotion, the heat and burning of his discomfort with himself and the pain of his memories. He took a deep breath and made himself look at her.

"I guess."

She shrugged. "It wasn’t," she said easily. "And just because you’re an adult now doesn’t mean you have to explain it away or justify it. Has it ever occurred to you that you can say, ‘This wasn’t fair to me’? That you’re allowed?"

Blushing again, the sudden shame of every obvious thing that had never occurred to him. "No. I guess. I don’t know. There’s a part of me that always just figured it was what I deserved."

"Well I want you to know as someone who cares about you that it wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fair at all, Eliot. And you didn’t deserve it. You deserved so much better."

He shook his head, stared at a place on the carpet to the left of her. Unable to look her in the eye just like he’d been unable to look Principal Jones in the face in the second grade when he’d been called in because he’d punched back and he’d been small, then, but he’d still left Zach Carter with a black eye.

"I—" he said helplessly. "It’s so hard to fucking, Jesus."

Briefly, she tapped her pen against her lips, her eyes searching the ceiling for her next question or insight. Eliot braced himself. His gaze drifted fleetingly to her face and when her eyes flitted up to him he averted his gaze to the dancing patterns of light on the blonde wood floor. All of their geometries glittering across the surface in delicate intention. He felt their magic take hold and let out a deep breath.

Caroline said, "You keep talking about shellfish."

"What?"

"You brought up oysters and then clams, specifically in relation to Ted. Why do you think that is?"

"Is that a serious question?" Eliot stared at her and laughed, dumbfounded.

"Just an observation. It doesn’t have to be a metaphor."

Eliot chewed his lip. He tried to remember what all he had said and only the faint taste of seawater came to his mind.

"I don’t know," he sighed, feeling oddly defeated. "I guess. Indiana is landlocked. There’s just the little corner that touches Lake Michigan," he paused to make a brief swooping motion with one finger, the conductor of the world’s tiniest orchestra, "and you know, the Ohio River is basically equal parts coal and water. So I don’t know. We ate a lot of walleye during the summers, I guess, but when I was a kid I thought seafood was, you know— fancy, I guess. It wasn’t something we ate. When I got out east it was absolutely insane to me that I could just have whatever I wanted. And it was expensive, you know? Even if we’d had anything good back then we never could have afforded it. So being twenty-one and scoping out good happy hours and brunch and, whatever, places I could spend twenty bucks and have a half dozen raw little fuckers and enjoy them and enjoy thinking about how mad my dad would be. I don’t know. It was a big deal."

Unbidden the memory of a trip the summer after sixth grade to visit distant cousins in Houston; how they had gone for a weekend trip to some island on the coast and bought shrimp that bright Saturday morning straight from the little boat that had reminded Eliot not unmiserably of Forrest Gump but then they had taken everything home and Eliot had spent the day with his cousins— Trent, who hadn’t been so bad, a sweet kid, really, and Meghan, who had gone on to become a basketball lesbian and in retrospect that really did explain a lot about their easy and inexplicable way with one another, like even at that strange and tender age of twelve they had seen a special sort of complement reflected in one another— he had spent the day with them peeling and cleaning the shrimp while his brothers were off trawling the beach for hook ups or whatever. And then that night they’d fried them all up and eaten boiled corn and frozen fries baked in the oven and it had been— fucking delicious. He remembered that the shrimp had been sweet and unlike anything he’d ever eaten back on the farm, with its cornmeal breading that his uncle had made in a paper bag; he remembered the warmth of the weird house on its stilts with its copious mermaid and seashell decor and how he had looked around a table of ten or twelve of his family members and for what had probably been the last time felt like maybe he could belong with them.

After that he hadn’t eaten fried shrimp again until he was nineteen at a bonfire on some beach that he’d forgotten as soon as he left it. He’d bitten into it, just drunk enough that the acuity of his emotion was still sort of pleasant instead of wildly destabilizing, and had such a profound rush of nostalgia and warmth that that he’d found Meghan on Facebook and almost sent her a message before he remembered that he didn’t want anyone to know where he was.

He realized he was blushing, his face hot. He reached for his water bottle in the way he’d once reached for his flask, took a large gulp. Let the ice water sit in his mouth and make his teeth ache until it felt like the cold had suffused his burning cheeks.

"And I guess," he continued, steadier now. "It’s strange that they’re so casual about this thing that still feels like a symbol to me. That’s insane. I know it. But it’s all— it’s all tied together, I guess. It’s easy for Ted to love his son and it’s easy for him to have oysters whenever he wants and that is all just. Bizarre to me."

She gave her telltale glance toward the clock. "We’ve got about five more minutes, Eliot. Can I ask you to do something when you leave here?"

"Yeah, of course."

"I want you to give Ted the chance to understand you, okay? Like the way your mom did when she threw you the Ariel birthday. You may not be a kid anymore but that doesn’t mean you outgrew the need for nurturing. And I know it’s scary to open yourself up to that, but I think if you try you might be surprised."

Eliot swallowed hard. He liked having an assignment; something that would hold him accountable. It ran entirely counter to the rest of his life, full of missed appointments and barely-passing grades, and maybe that was the trick to it all. To just keep doing the things you never thought you’d be able to do until eventually— and never suddenly, always gradually like a kinder version of the frog boiling in water— until eventually it didn’t hurt as much.

"Okay," he said, and nodded, and took another long drink of water. "I’ll try."

As always her smile was kind, her eyes warm and her hands now clasped on her crossed knees, her legal pad set aside. Less a diagnostician, now. More just a person that cared about Eliot. She said, "Remember it’s all small steps. You’re not going to go to dinner this weekend and find that all of the pain you’ve felt about your parents has suddenly evaporated. Whether you realize it or not it can be really easy to expect that. But it sounds like Ted has already taken the first step of welcoming you, and now you owe him a little reciprocation, if you want that kind of relationship with him."

He nodded again and tried to return her smile. "Yeah. That sounds right."

"Good. Okay, I’ll see you next week?"

From there they went through the awkward dance of disengagement, of Eliot picking up his things and shrugging on his sweater and smiling and knowing that she was smiling at his back as he made his way into the waiting area. When he reached the elevator he exhaled and at last let himself cry, just for a moment, no more than two or three tears. At the feeling his chest loosened slightly and by the time he reached the ground floor and wrapped his thin scarf around his neck he felt— better. Like he understood something about himself he hadn’t understood that morning. His eyes tired from welling up and burning but still looking ahead. Looking forward.

The feeling of the cool air against his warm face was refreshing and he felt compelled then to walk the mile and a half home. His past, though the past, did not sit behind him in the way he had once hoped when he’d left Indiana— which he could not call home anymore, because his home was here, with people he loved and who loved him. And maybe his home could be expanded into an entirely too-beige house in the New Jersey suburbs, with a room dedicated to model airplanes and where a framed photo of Eliot and Quentin sat on the mantle.

Before he could doubt himself, he pulled out his phone and tapped until he reached the small group chat. There was Ted’s message from two days previous, unanswered. Still waiting without reproach and without guilt. Just a single sentence: Eliot, you want to do something special for the big 3-0?

He swallowed and typed, Is there anywhere we can get good fried shrimp?