It was winter when Martin got the call from his parents. He’d just finished a long shift, he’d just organized a date for later that week, he’d just settled down to watch television. So he let it go to voicemail, he let himself drift off.
Every Christmas until they were both teenagers he and his brother did a show for their family before dinner. Kevin played piano and Martin accompanied him with whatever instrument he had that year. One year after begging to change instruments again (he was his father’s favorite and he was well aware that meant he could do anything but refuse to go into medicine) he played piano with Kevin. He’d expected his older brother to intentionally mess him up as he’d been threatening to do all night but when the time came he was focused, calm. Martin was in awe at the way he played, fingers flying over the keys in a blur, gently maneuvering over his own clumsy digits.
The applause had been magnificent and all of their cousins looked amateurish in comparison. Martin didn’t dream of that though. He dreamed of searching for a working phone in a blizzard, the landscape a disconcerting mix of the street his school had been on and the one where he now worked. He knew that something very important was happening, that he needed to get a working phone as soon as possible.
He woke up in the morning and listened to the message left behind. His mother was crying into the receiver, it put his nerves on edge. “Martin please call us back as soon as you get this, something...something’s happened with Kevin and- I don’t- I can’t talk about this right now I just-” A shifting, handing over the phone. His father’s voice now, Martin straightened up a bit even though he wasn’t there to see him.
“Kevin’s gotten himself in over his head.” Martin’s gut twisted with worry. He couldn’t imagine Kevin being in over his head enough to admit it to their parents. He’d seen Kevin sing choir with the flu before because their mother had asked him to. Martin suddenly wished he’d come to dinner last night but the trip was too long to justify and he’d assumed the news would be something related to his job.
“He brought home a gay man last night.” His father continued, “He claimed he was in a relationship with him but your mother and I don’t believe it. At least not in the way he recounted it.” His mother was making noise in the background. Talking to someone, one of their aunts most likely. She was the youngest in her family and whenever she was upset an aunt or uncle came over to console her.
Kevin brought home a man?
“...I’m telling him. Yes. He’s obviously gotten himself in trouble and we’d appreciate it if you tried to reason with him. We believe this man could be dangerous, you should have seen…” A pause to control himself. Martin could hear the anger, could picture him, tense and bubbling.
Kevin brought home a man?
“Anyway, we can discuss this in more detail later. Call us back s-” Martin hung up and listened to the message once more before deleting it. Kevin was gay?
He remembered being young and catching him kissing a neighborhood boy in bed. Remembered Kevin chasing him down like a rabid dog and screaming at him not to tell anyone. It was something he’d forgotten about after years of Kevin bringing home and bringing up the occasional girl. Whenever their mother would fish for information about them he’d smile elusively and shrug as if shy.
Martin called his brother.
He picked up on the third ring.
“Hello?” Kevin asked, throat hoarse.
“How dare you.” Martin said, wrapping the phone’s cord around his finger. “You didn’t even tell me you had a boyfriend!” There was a short pause and then a tired laugh, a sigh.
“Yes. I’m sorry. You should meet him, I think you would get along well.”
“I think he’d tolerate you.”
“That’s more like it.”
Martin got on the train to Kevin’s apartment at five the next evening, hands jammed deep into his pockets and nose red from the cold. The subway was awful in the winter, all the trash was soggy and the floors squeaked.
He wondered what his father meant by ‘dangerous’. By ‘you should have seen’. He nervously looked out the blackened window, at the tunnel rushing by. Perhaps he’d misjudged his parents’ concern and Kevin was in an abusive relationship? Their mother was a marriage counselor after all, what if she’d sensed something? What if something awful had happened?
The gift bag hanging from his elbow felt heavier. He wouldn’t spy for his parents, that wasn’t what he was doing. He was concerned for his brother, he was going to determine how valid that concern was.
Besides, he thought. What kind of guy does Kevin like? All the girls he’d ever mentioned or brought home were plain ‘good’ girls. Christie and Mitzie and Mary and Sue. They all wore their hair in braids or ponytails and were palatably ambitious. They wanted to work their way up the ladder, not build any stairs. Martin tried to translate this into a man. A sales clerk? Something with money. A bank teller?
He pictured a balding bank teller talking down to his brother, insulting their mother’s food, saying something awful. He wondered if he should have even brought a gift.
Kevin’s neighborhood was artsy. There was a park across from his building where an odd dance class was being held and someone had spray-painted something on the sidewalk. A name maybe? The letters were too jumbled to parse. A woman sat on the steps to Kevin’s building, smoking and laughing softly as her boyfriend kissed her neck.
“Hey, man,” She purred, smiling slow as Martin pushed the buzzer to his brother’s apartment. “Hey, man…”
“Who is it?” Kevin answered. Martin glanced anxiously at the woman. He couldn’t tell if she was talking to him or not.
It smelled like weed inside. Someone was reading bad poetry in an anguished tone and it echoed through the halls. Martin got into the blissfully empty elevator and rode up. His heart was in his throat at the thought of meeting Kevin’s dangerous boyfriend. He wondered what he’d do if he saw anything. He’d pull him aside and ask to talk about it maybe. He hadn’t ever done that before, it was usually Kevin pulling him aside. Every time Martin and his mother had a fight he could expect Kevin at his door. He could hear it every time, their mother asking “Honey could you please talk some sense into…”
Kevin’s floor was quieter than the lobby. Someone was playing music and it drifted around the hall. The lights were calmingly dim and somewhere a child was talking excitedly about something. Martin waited outside Kevin’s door, listening to the child’s voice wind and vanish as they passed by the floor on the stairs. He closed his eyes. He opened them. He knocked on the door.
The man who answered was not Kevin.
“Hello, this is Kevin Cozner’s residence.”
Martin gaped. “...I’m his brother. Uh, Martin?”
The man nodded. “Oh, of course. Come in.”
Kevin’s apartment was cozy. There were a lot of earth tones and the lights were orange, giving it a warm feeling. There was a tall plant in the corner and instrumental music was playing on a recorder in the living room. The smell of food was in the air. The man took Martin’s bag and disappeared, leaving Martin alone in the foyer for a moment.
This better not be what they meant by dangerous. Martin thought, anger boiling up in him. No. Something else, surely. Something else must have happened.
“Martin?” Kevin’s face peered around the corner. “Oh, there you are. Come into the kitchen, my hands are full.” He followed him, looking around.
Books were piled up on one end of the counter and Martin paused to flip through them. Cookbooks and literary theory. Kevin was cutting onions and blinking rapidly, pausing every so often to hiss. He hadn’t been to Kevin’s apartment before and he told him as much.
“I’m sure I invited you over a few times.” Kevin lied, pushing the onions aside. He seemed tired. He stared out into space before beginning to dice potatoes. “I’m making stew. Raymond is baking bread to go with it.”
“Is that his name?”
“Hm? Yes.” They were silent. It was uncomfortable, the music and bubbling of the pot were the only things keeping it from being deathly.
“He seems nice.”
“You don’t know him.”
“I said he seems nice.” Kevin snorted. Martin grit his teeth.
“Is he not nice?” Kevin rolled his eyes.
“Nice is a juvenile term. ‘He seems nice’, wonderful. How insightful of you.” Martin slammed the book he was flipping through down.
“Mom had a very different impression of him so I would think that being nice might be welcome but evidently not. Whatever.” It was silent again but their anger kept it from being awkward. Raymond walked into the kitchen with Martin’s present in hand, a ceramic bird that could function as a plant holder.
“Is this a gift?” He asked.
“Huh? Uh, yeah.” Martin said. Kevin mimicked him under his breath. “Yes.” Martin snapped, glaring at his older brother. Why had he even come? They’d never gotten along. They’d never been the type to be able to chat idly. When they talked it was about something, it was to iron out details and plan or complain about being forced to be together. Why did he think a house call would be appreciated?
“It’s very thoughtful, thank you. Kevin has recently taken up gardening.”
“It’s hardly a garden. It’s a few plants.”
“Still, it’s commendable.” Kevin was quiet, turning his head away from Martin and eventually ducking to avoid Raymond as well, rummaging in the cabinets for longer than Martin thought anyone needed to rummage for anything in their own house.
“I made it myself.” Martin said, eager to start a new conversation. “I’ve been taking pottery classes for a few years now.”
“What would you say is your favorite type of clay?” Martin paused, thinking on this. He had no opinions on clay but didn’t want to come off as...not having a favorite type of clay.
“I can’t choose.” He said. “They all have different purposes.” Raymond nodded thoughtfully, apparently accepting this as he set the bird on the kitchen’s windowsill.
“My ex-boyfriend had a wooden duck. It wasn’t nearly as well made as this, mass-produced items rarely are. It was a travesty, really. You’ve done much better.”
“...Thank you.” Raymond nodded, ducking to check on the oven before walking back around to Martin with a bottle in his hands. He set it on the counter and brought out two glasses.
“Would you like a drink?” He offered.
“Yes, please.” Martin said, hoping he didn’t sound too eager. Kevin had been silent since Raymond’s compliment, ignoring the both of them.
“Let’s go sit down in the living room, the bread won’t be ready for awhile.” Raymond suggested, leading him down a hall. Martin spared a glance at his brother’s back, wishing he could see his face again.
Raymond turned down the volume of the music and sat with the ease of someone who was comfortable in the space. Martin wondered how long they’d been dating. He wondered if they lived together. There were posters of broadway shows framed on the wall and he tried to determine if his noticing them was rude. There were other things on the wall that he could have noticed first.
“Kevin tells me you’re a dentist?” Asked Raymod, pouring him a glass of something. Martin didn’t recognize the label but he wasn’t picky. Or, he wasn’t as picky as his brother. If Kevin had it in his apartment chances were it was good.
“Yes, I’m working up to opening my own practice.” He said, taking a greedy sip from his glass. Raymond filled his own carefully, being sure not to spill anything. Martin didn’t know if he was always like that or if he wanted to impress him. It wasn’t often he was being wooed.
“Thank you.” His throat burned.
“...I apologize, I’m a bit frazzled.” Raymond said, looking as composed as ever. Martin smiled slightly, wondering if he was joking. He realized that he liked him and wondered if it was the right thing to do. Liking him might cloud his judgement on other matters.
“I hadn’t noticed.” He assured him.
“Thank you but there’s no need to be so polite, I’m a wreck. Kevin is too. I’m sure you heard about last night.” Martin felt his heart stutter and was grateful it didn’t stop. Excitement and curiosity ran circles around his head, two devils. He wanted to pry. He wanted to know.
“I got a call. I gather it didn’t go well?”
“That is a vast understatement. It went poorly.” He was suddenly relieved that Kevin wasn’t in the room and eager to hurry the conversation along in case he joined them. He didn’t think he could listen with his brother there.
“Would it be rude to ask?” He asked clumsily. He wasn’t very good with maneuvering around conversation like Kevin. His words were blunt and leaden while his brother’s were thin and slant. It was something their mother praised him for as children and still did as they grew older and he grew sharper. Their father had Martin’s heaviness but without his awkward manner. He was decisive and hurried, not wasting time on things Kevin and their mother could talk about for hours.
He remembered once during the aftermath of an argument their mother flew into the living room and threw herself into the corner of the sofa. Kevin had been sitting opposite her, Martin lying across him. They’d watched their mother shiver there, teeth grit and eyes narrowed to pins until Kevin spoke. “Martin still doesn’t know how to tie his shoes.” he’d said and Martin had sat up, whining about being tossed to the wolves for the sake of a conversation topic but the two of them talked over him for the better part of an hour about the importance and technique of proper shoe tying. It had been a miserable afternoon but a memory that cropped up every time he found himself at a loss for the right words in conversation.
“Not at all.” Raymond said and then recounted the story in detail. He was a good storyteller, he had a voice that you latched onto, deep and rich. Martin could imagine him reading poetry. He didn’t. He imagined the scene he was painting instead.
Kevin and Raymond in the dining room, his parents there too. A taut energy in the air like a violin string being worried, something being sawed, something on the edge of snapping. When it did Martin stopped imagining and lapsed into remembering again. Remembering when they vacationed for the winter somewhere warm and Kevin had sat by the pool, refusing to go in and staring at the lifeguard. Martin had teased that he’d never be that buff even if he worked out five times a day (He and his brother had been only inches apart then, Kevin had sprouted up two summers later) and he’d turned to get his mother to weigh in on the topic but saw his father there instead. His face was thunderous, red, twisted. It scared him silent and sent him diving into the pool with a whoop of nervous laughter. He stayed underwater for as long as he could, eyes open, burning with chlorine.
“I’m sorry.” He said. He didn’t know who to but Raymond nodded.
“It is a common occurrence. I have historically tried to limit my dating pool to prevent this but…” He shrugged and Martin drained his glass, filling it up again himself.
Nothing else had happened. Raymond wasn’t dangerous. This was what they meant. The words ran through his chest again. “You should have seen.” What did they think of him? How could they think he’d do anything but…
He pictured Kevin in the kitchen.
He stood up and rushed down the short hall back into the kitchen, back to Kevin with his back turned and hands still. His head was bent over the pot of stew but he wasn’t smelling it, it looked like he was poised to fall. Martin pictured a woman with her head in the oven, a man with his hand in a pot of boiling water. He pictured his brother thinking he should have seen… He pictured his parents hissing; “If only Martin were here.” and the familiar ping-pong refrain of talk some sense into him, talk some sense into him bubbling like the stew.
“Kevin.” He didn’t move. Neither of them did.
“Kevin.” Martin took a step forward, his footsteps loud on the linoleum.
“Kevin, I’m sorry.” Another step forward, two, three. “I’m sorry, I should have been there. I would have been there if I had known I...I love you. I love you and I’m so sorry you had to be alone.”
He was right next to him now, looking at the side of his face which was blank, staring into the stew. He reached over and turned the temperature down before squeezing his brother’s elbow. He was so thin. He thought he could feel him trembling but when he looked down he saw that it was his own hand shaking.
“You’re stuck with me forever, I hope you know that.” He said and finally Kevin sighed, slowly moving downward until his forehead was inches from the rim of the pot before straightening and glaring down at Martin.
“I know.” He said, opening the cabinets and pulling out bowls and plates. “Please tell Raymond that the bread is ready.”
The rest of Martin’s visit followed smoothly, maybe aided by the alcohol or the bread which he nearly gorged himself on (To Raymond’s pride and Kevin’s disgust) but by the end of it he was in no state to go home and found himself lying dizzily on Kevin’s couch. It was soft and cool and he and Raymond were having a lengthy conversation about different types of trains that he found hilarious for some reason. Everything he said prompted an outpouring of giggling which prompted a confused look from Raymond that only lead to more giggling.
“I take the train home!” Martin exclaimed suddenly, sitting up. The world blurred to color and abstract shape. “You know, my mother was very upset about it. Me living with the train- in an area with the train was needed. We live- We used to live in the suburbs where it was all buses and she thought I’d get mugged and I- my dad thought it was fine. He said men could handle themselves better than women but you know what? A month later someone broke into my apartment!”
“Someone broke into his apartment?” Kevin asked, sitting up from where he’d been lounging in an armchair. Raymond was silent, watching the two of them talking through him.
“I didn’t want to tell anyone. I didn’t, I didn’t even tell the police for some reason? I just moved. I moved within the week and got an extra lock on my door. I felt so...weak.” Martin fell back onto the couch, feeling the room slowly rotating around him and his little island.
“When we were little Kevin and I had a lot of secrets that were ours and…” He blinked up at the ceiling, losing the thread he was grasping for.
“...I didn’t tell them- my parents. I didn’t tell them because I knew what they would say. I couldn’t...you never want to bother them do you? I was scared of thunder as a child and Kevin was...I didn’t ever…” He closed his eyes, feeling a tear slip down his cheek. “I think you’re really brave, Kevin.” He finally mumbled. “I think…”
Kevin watched his brother fall asleep. He watched his chest rise and fall five times before walking briskly over and wiping his cheek roughly his sleeve. Martin protested faintly and rolled away from him, nestling into the cushions. Raymond was looking at him but Kevin avoided his eye, going over to the record player and putting on a piano piece he’d once played as a boy.
He and his brother had performed it during a family Christmas recital, it was the first time he was leading someone else and he’d been terrified he’d fail, that he’d lead Martin astray or break the illusion he had of him as someone...well he didn’t know. He’d had an anxiety when he was young that every misstep would reveal him to be an unnamed ‘something’. He’d played with that same blind anxiety that night, fingers moving almost on their own while his head became immersed in white static that only the applause cut through. Martin had played beautifully, he always played beautifully. He was a careful, gentle learner and would sit in his room for hours upon hours playing the same five chords or notes or lines over and over again before moving to the next ones.
Raymond was rubbing his back. “I’m fine.” Kevin said, voice cracking but not enough to damn him, not enough for anything to truly break. “I’m fine.”