“You like it?” Charles said.
“Which?” Erik grinned at him across the patio table where – thanks to a few days of summer warmth tucked into fall – they were dining al fresco by candlelight. “My dinner or my new bike?”
“The bike is exactly what I wanted; the dinner is what I didn’t even know I wanted.”
That was a pretty smooth way of getting around mentioning that the carrots hadn’t quite turned out as Charles had hoped – had in fact gotten rather scorched, though Charles thought he’d managed to scoop up the blacker ones himself. At least the salmon had turned out well.
Charles didn’t mind Erik being a bit tactful. The only thing he minded was the fact that, for some reason, Erik still seemed a little … tense. Preoccupied.
He’d tried to talk Erik into having a proper birthday party, or at least dinner out with Raven and Hank (which she was now namesmushing as “Haven”) and Moira and Sean (who had each threatened to make anyone who namesmushed them regret it). But Erik had insisted he wanted a quiet night in for just the two of them. Still, Charles had done his best to make the occasion festive. He’d secretly taken a cooking lesson, rationalizing that it was silly to have remodeled his kitchen to be wheelchair-friendly and then only use it to reheat things in the microwave. As tonight’s carrots a la scorch marks had proved, the results were … mixed, but Erik seemed to appreciate the effort. Earlier, Charles had spread a white linen tablecloth on the patio table, put out some tiger lilies, and lit as many candles as he could find, not counting those bizarre sparkler ones Raven had subjected him to on his own birthday months prior. The weather had cooperated, providing not only warmth but a spectacular sunset they’d enjoyed just as dinner was ready. Romantic stuff, at least in Charles’ opinion, and in Erik’s too, he would have thought.
So why did Erik keep losing the conversational thread? He didn’t seem angry in the slightest – if anything he was more affectionate than usual – but something else was on his mind, Charles was sure of it. Erik was a little tense, even fidgety. Highly unusual.
He should’ve known something was up when Erik suggested bringing up some champagne from the by-now-cobwebby wine cellar.
Especially when he’d drunk nearly a whole glass …
Step One: Keep trying to cheer Erik up.
“I’m glad I bought the right bicycle.” Charles had even tied a red bow on it, supposedly for kitsch factor but really because he thought it looked cheerful. “They were so confused at the bike store when I steered my powerchair in and started asking whether they had this one particular racing model – ” Erik laughed; that was encouraging. “Of course I could have explained, but that would have ruined the fun.”
“You never told them it was for me?”
“Kept a straight face the whole time. And of course they were too polite to ask.”
“It’s beautiful. Tomorrow, first thing, I’m taking her out.”
Charles had always enjoyed riding bikes – but he put aside his wistfulness after only a moment. “If you circle the entire grounds, I think that’s about, hmm, nine miles?”
“Something like that.” The look Erik gave Charles was unreadable. It was as though he was worried about something Charles might do, but what on earth could that be?
Step Two: Provide an opening.
“It’s good to unwind after a long day, isn’t it?” Charles tried to sound casual. “I graded papers today until I thought my eyes would cross permanently.”
“They haven’t.” Erik smiled. “Still the same beautiful blue as ever.”
Well, that was lovely. Also lovely: If Erik was upset about something, it wasn’t anything Charles had to do with.
But this wasn’t how Erik did “upset”. Erik’s version involved being moody, broody and ill-tempered in the extreme. This was something Charles had never seen in Erik before. Not necessarily bad, but definitely … not relaxed.
He tried again. “Your work was fine? I told you to call in. Everyone calls in on their birthday.”
“I wouldn’t want to let my clients down. But it was a good day anyway. Sean took me out for a lunch smoothie. He threatened to put a candle in the lid opening instead of a straw."
“Someday you’re going to let me bake you a cake.”
“Someday I’m going to buy my own birthday cake just so you can have a slice. I’d have more fun watching you eat it, anyway.”
Charles could believe this, coming from a man who thought banana chips were the height of decadence. And yet the same man, who apparently had experienced a perfectly pleasant workday, was even now three-fourths of the way through a glass of champagne.
Step Three: Actually talk about emotions like adult human beings.
Setting down his own glass of champagne, Charles said, “Erik, are you all right?”
“What?” Erik sat up straight, any pretense at relaxation gone. “What do you mean?”
“You’ve seemed a little on-edge this evening.” Charles ran his hand along Erik’s forearm, trying to make it clear he wasn’t taking offense, only concerned. “Did something happen, or – or are you worried? I’d hate to think your birthday wasn’t a good one.”
“Charles. No.” Erik sighed. Took the last sip of his champagne, as though for courage. Then he scooted his chair closer to Charles, and took one of Charles’ hands. “This has been wonderful; I mean it. But – it’s just – ” He hesitated, and then the next words came in a rush. “There was one more thing I was hoping for on my birthday.”
“Oh?” It was so unlike Erik to request anything – even persuading him to hint about a gift as reasonable as a bicycle had been a job of work. But that was all the more reason Charles hated the thought of not providing anything Erik wanted badly enough to ask for. Another trip, maybe? After the Hanukkah Fight, he could believe that Erik would hesitate before bringing up the idea of traveling again. Or – hmm. “Is this about the sex sling again? Like I said, honestly, for you I’ll try it, but I just think it’s going to be weird.”
Erik burst out laughing. “It’s not that.”
“Well, just tell me. What is it?”
Erik took a deep breath. “Okay.” Then he reached into the pocket of his jeans and took out a small silk handkerchief. Erik wanted – what, a suit to go with the pocket square?
But when Erik shook open the deep blue silk, Charles saw that wrapped within it was a ring.
A plain golden band. Like –
Charles gaped as he stared down at what he was pretty much one-hundred-percent positive was a men’s wedding ring. But he managed to say, “Oh, my God.”
“Yeah.” Erik was suddenly more bashful than Charles had known he could be.
“You mean, this is – you want – ” Charles ought to have felt overcome with love, and he was certain he would be very soon, but at the moment the combination of astonishment and delight felt more like he’d just won a game show, like balloons and confetti should be showering down from above while he screamed and carried on like a fool. Which was probably incredibly juvenile of him, but he was just so stupidly happy that he could only get out one more word: “Yes.”
Erik’s face – it was like being given a time machine, seeing how young he could look, how much of his pain and cares could be erased. “Yes?”
He took Erik’s face in his hands and kissed him – too hard, really, but how could he control himself at a moment like this? To judge by the way Erik kissed him back, he didn’t mind.
When their lips parted, Erik was slightly short of breath. “I actually – there was this whole thing I was going to say – ”
“Oh, sorry! I jumped ahead.”
They were both laughing now, giddy and silly. “It doesn’t matter.”
“No, no! Say the thing.” Charles kissed Erik’s cheek, his chin, his nose. “I want you to say the thing.”
“Okay.” Erik paused, his face still in Charles’ hands, then laughed again. “You’d think this would be easier since you’ve already said yes, but it isn’t.”
So Charles took Erik’s hands in his own and held them close to his chest. “It’s all right,” he said softly. “I’m not going to change my answer. I don’t think there’s anything in this world that could make me change it.”
Erik’s expression gentled, and even though he must have rehearsed this, there was no mistaking how strongly he felt every word. “I knew from the day we met that something inside you spoke to the deepest part of me. It didn’t take very long for me to learn that I loved you, but it did take a while for me to believe that we could be good for each other. That we could make each other happy. You’re the one who made me believe it. That’s both the first joy you brought to my life, and the greatest. But it won’t be the last, if you’ll marry me, and let me spend the rest of our days trying to give you half of what you give me.”
Don’t cry, Charles thought. Don’t cry. You always think it’s so sappy when people cry at moments like this and oh fuck forget it. He wiped at his cheeks with the back of his hand. “Again, yes. Even more yes. If that’s possible. Oh, God, Erik, I love you so much.”
“Love you too.” Erik was tearing up a bit too, but he shook the silk square free of the ring and gave it to Charles. “This isn’t the part I thought I’d give you first,” he joked, holding the ring.
“Do you want me to wear it?” His mind was still wrapping itself around the proposal, around how incredibly lucky he was to have found Erik, all of it, turning his life into something rare and beautiful – like a sheet of paper becoming one of those origami swans Hank made all the time now. “But it’s a wedding ring, isn’t it? I wish men had engagement rings.”
“For now, just try it on.”
He took Charles’ hand and slid the gold band around his ring finger. At first Charles could only stare at it. He felt as though he’d still be staring at it in stupefied delight on their tenth anniversary.
They were going to have an anniversary. They were going to get married. Which meant – “You realize this means we’ve got to have a wedding.”
Erik shook his head. “Don’t even think about planning the ceremony tonight.”
“I won’t. Besides, we don’t have time.” As completely astonished as Charles had been by the proposal, a few signs were becoming clearer in the rear-view mirror. He’d thought it was a little odd that Raven hadn’t insisted on doing something for Erik’s birthday, whether Erik liked it or not… “How long did Raven give you before you called to let her know my answer?”
“She won’t know any better if we make it ten,” Charles said, pulling Erik close for another kiss.
Within thirty minutes, they’d finished kissing, putting out the candles so that in their joy they didn’t accidentally burn down the mansion, done a little more kissing, gone inside to wash up together, gotten extremely into the kissing, and then phoned their friends. Raven’s response was mostly shrieking in the background while Hank shouted his congratulations over the din; Moira and Sean had to argue about which of them had seen this coming first. This was no reason for concern – Charles was pretty sure that, for Moira and Sean, bickering was foreplay.
As they rode upstairs in the elevator, Charles continued admiring his ring, which he fully intended to wear for at least the rest of the night. “How did you get such a perfect fit?”
Erik stood behind him, hands on Charles’ shoulders, rubbing in deeply. There were benefits to dating – scratch that, to being engaged to a massage therapist. “I matched it to your college class ring.”
Charles frowned. “But I haven’t even got that anymore. I gave it to Raven months ago for one of her mixed-media projects – wait, she gave it to you?”
“Actually, Hank found it partly embedded in cement, or rhinestones, I don’t remember which he said. But it was positioned so he could slide his finger into it, and it turns out you two have the exact same ring size, so I dragged him to the jewelry store with me.”
“I wish I could have seen that.” Charles laughed as the elevator doors opened and they went down the hallway toward their bedroom.
“You don’t know the half of it. Obviously the staff assumed he was my fiancé to be, and they kept congratulating us, and finally he said to one of the clerks that he was married to a woman. She gave him this look and said, ‘Honey, the time has come to make up your mind.’”
By the time Charles was done laughing about that, they were almost ready for bed. No need to bother with pajamas tonight, he thought, working to remove his pants and shorts together – there. Usually he undressed on the bed rather than in the wheelchair, but tonight he somehow thought it might be fun to just present himself naked to the groom.
Besides, being naked in the wheelchair always meant good things. It meant he and Erik were about to have sex someplace unexpected – difficult, in his situation, but as they’d learned, not impossible. Or it meant that they’d just had sex, that he was still sticky with sweat and spit and come and knew he’d have to wipe the chair down later, and relished the task, because it was proof of a life with enough love to get messy once in a while.
“I can’t believe you were so surprised,” Erik said. Promisingly, he, too, was going without sleepwear. “I thought for sure you had to suspect.”
“You mean, you thought Raven would give it away.”
“No. Well, yes, that too. But she seemed to think you might be on the verge of asking me.”
“I’d thought about it, but – ” Well. This had to come up sooner or later, didn’t it?
Erik nodded. “You were worried about your paralysis, what it might mean for us.”
“What? No.” Charles rewound in his head. “Wait, you thought I was holding back because I’m in a wheelchair?”
“Well – I – Raven said – no. I won’t blame her. That was what she thought, and I believed it, and I shouldn’t have.” He was on the way to full apology mode.
Charles hoisted himself into bed, then put one hand over Erik’s lips. “It’s okay.” Normally an assumption like that would have driven him crazy, but he was in too good a mood for it to be so swiftly brushed aside. Besides, Charles hadn’t spoken up, and Erik had been forced to fill in his own answers. This was how hurtful misunderstandings got started; someday, he’d finally realize that.
Erik still looked wary, but he took Charles’ wrist in his hand, kissed his palm. “Then, why did you hold back? You know you can tell me anything.”
“You might regret having said that.” Charles sighed. “I didn’t propose to you because there was a conversation I thought we needed to have first, and it’s a tricky one, so I kept putting that off, but I’d best not put it of any longer. Before I go on, I need you to know – this isn’t a dealbreaker for me.”
“We just got engaged. How did dealbreakers come into this?”
“Wait for it.” Deep breath. Into the breach. “Would you want to have children?”
The worst-case scenario, which was Erik going all cold and stiff and formal, didn’t happen. However, neither did the best-case scenario, which would’ve been Erik smiling and saying something like, You too? Instead Erik seemed completely nonplussed. He didn’t speak, didn’t even move.
Charles waited this out for a few seconds, then said, “I think I broke you.”
“No, no! I’m just – very, very surprised.”
Surprised was fair. But … “Would you call this good surprised or bad surprised?”
“Can’t tell yet.” Erik settled back against the headboard, gaze now somewhat turned inward. “I never thought about it. Not seriously. I mean, you realize you’re gay, you realize kids are a lot less likely – ”
“I know. It was like that for me too. But then, you know, over the past few years, friends of mine – totally normal guys who cruised Barney’s for sales like anyone else – they started getting hitched, moving to Connecticut and adopting from Vietnam. And I realized, if I ever found a relationship that I thought I could build a life on – well, that might be something I’d want. Kids.”
“I’ve seen it happen too. One guy I used to see performing Shakira in a drag revue just let me know last week that he and his husband are moving to Hastings-on-Hudson for the schools.”
Charles laughed, but it was important to be clear. “It’s not just a bandwagon, though, you know? I like children. I like spending time with them – I don’t even care if they’re crying or fussing. I like the way they see the world. Because of my work, I know that I even like them when they’re teenagers. The more I thought about the idea of being a dad, the more I liked it.”
Erik nodded, but he wasn’t warming to the idea. Not cooling to it either. Just – deep in thought. Better get it all out now, Charles decided; sometimes Erik had to retreat into himself for a while to make a decision, and he was probably about to do that soon.
“So, that was something I dreamed about up until the accident.” In those first months, Charles had thought of fatherhood as just one of countless dreams that had been shattered. “After that, at first, it just seemed impossible. Yes, I can afford help, nurses or nannies to do the things I can’t, but – I just didn’t know whether I could really be there for a child the way a father should be. But over this last year and a half with you … I guess now it seems like nothing’s impossible.”
“That’s always how I want you to feel.” Erik lifted Charles’ hand to his mouth again and kissed the ring. “But I need to think about this.”
“That’s good. Thinking is good.”
“Okay.” Then Charles sighed. “I just set sex back at least half an hour, didn’t I?”
They both started laughing. “Afraid so,” Erik said.
“The wages of sin! Well, all right, come here and kiss me a while.”
As the sun rose the next morning, Erik was at the edge of the Xavier family grounds, pushing both his body and his new bike to the limit. The ride was so smooth, the gears so responsive, that it felt a little like flying.
If only Charles could experience something like this –
But he could, couldn’t he? There were racing wheelchairs for marathoners. It was grueling exercise, but Charles had considerable upper body strength; he could do it if he wanted. Maybe Erik could float the idea by him, and if it seemed to go over well, then he’d know what to get Charles for Christmas.
Charles always wanted more of life. He always pushed a little harder, looked over the next horizon, hoped for the best. It wasn’t how Erik lived his life – or at least, he hadn’t until Charles came along.
Now Charles was making the biggest push of all.
Hill. Erik bore down, leg muscles burning, as he started to ascend. Only when he was over the crest did he let himself think back to the conversation he and Charles had had last night, both before bed and in the middle of the night, when Charles turned over and they usually spoke for a little while. Those were never their clearest conversations, but sometimes they were important; when they were tucked up in bed together, lying in the dark, it was easier to be open, or to weigh the other’s words without feeling pressed to respond immediately.
“I suppose you want to adopt?”
“We could – but honestly, I like the idea of a little Erik running around.” Charles had run his fingers drowsily along Erik’s shoulder. “And it would have to be a little you.”
“Hmm.” Erik hadn’t thought about that. Although he and Charles had gotten better at bringing Charles to orgasm, it still only happened about once a month or so. “Tougher to get a sample, I guess.”
“And even if I were able to give one, it probably wouldn’t be any good.” Erik had half-lifted his head from the pillow at that, and Charles had sighed. “Many paraplegic men have lower sperm counts. Nobody’s exactly sure why.”
“So we’d need – a surrogate mother?"
“Also an egg donor. Both of which we’d have to find before Raven learned about this, because she’d want to do one or both, and I appreciate it, but – ”
“You have to have some boundaries.”
“And Raven’s terrible at those.”
Erik had been a little more awake by then. “You’ve thought about this a lot.”
“I guess.” But Charles had only snuggled into his pillow. “Shh. We can talk more later.”
The most surprising thing about all of this, to Erik, was that it was so utterly surprising. He ought to have expected Charles to raise the subject, or simply have thought of it on his own. Yes, when he was a teenager, being gay and being a parent were largely thought to be two wholly separate categories, but the world had changed a lot since then. He’d gone to christenings and the occasional bris for the children of gay friends. Why had he never once asked whether this was a path he wanted to go down himself?
Then again – up until his parents’ accident, he’d never imagined spending his life with any other guy besides his ex … who had always been scornful of leading a “heteronormative life.” They want to domesticate us, he used to say; he also used the epithet for straights that Erik had always loathed, breeders.
For all that Erik had worked to set himself free of that relationship baggage, he’d never worked around to reconsidering this one thing.
Having children would change their lives forever … and Erik liked their lives just as they were. If they had children, either he would have to move out to Westchester full time or they’d have to get a new place in the city; his Manhattan apartment might work for a couple and a baby, but not very far past infancy. Would he quit work to be a full-time parent? Erik fully intended to keep his job, not to be supported by Charles’ millions, and to bring up the subject of a prenup fairly soon; Charles ought to have one, any lawyer would say so, and Erik wouldn’t have anyone saying he was marrying him for the money.
But if they had a baby – could he justify paying a nanny nearly what he’d be making himself, turning his salary into nothing more than a token? Wouldn’t he want to be near their child as often as possible?
Erik realized that he would. He also realized how much he liked his mental image of the way Charles would look holding their baby.
And yet it was terrifying, too. He’d heard people say that being a parent meant your heart would always be outside your own body, beyond your control, unprotected, vulnerable to the world. Erik understood that, he thought. Seeing what the world had done to his mother was hard enough. Lives were destroyed by savagery, cruelty, ignorance and negligence; sometimes even when people lived through the worst, their souls didn’t. He was far beyond the idea that he could protect a child from anything. You did your best, but –
Charles was always the brave one, Erik thought.
When he got back to the house, Charles had already made coffee and was deep in the crossword puzzle. “Good morning, fiancé,” he said, lifting his face for a kiss.
“Good morning. By the way, the bike is wonderful. Had the best ride of my life out there.”
That got Charles to look up from the paper. “Oh, yeah?”
“Spectacular.” Erik poured himself a cup, ignoring Charles’ half-and-half and sugar to take it black. He turned to the iPad on the kitchen counter, where it had been left last night after Charles apparently googled fix burned carrots.
“So, this morning, I started making a list of everything we’d have to pull together for a wedding,” Charles said, as he inked a few new letters into their squares. “A venue, a caterer, a florist, tuxedoes, a band or DJ, so on and so forth, and it’s all just so complicated, so I’m just throwing this out for discussion – don’t you think eloping is romantic?”
Erik laughed out loud, but kept working on the tablet. “We could have a small ceremony. Just a few people at City Hall.”
“Not after Raven gets involved. God love her, but she can meddle. Besides – weddings take so much time to put together, and I’m impatient.” He looked up and smiled at Erik, once again as romantic as he’d been last night. “I want to make you my husband right away.”
“Okay. We’ll elope.”
Charles drummed his pen on the arm of his chair, a little flourish of triumph. “I’m eloping. I’m eloping. I love this.”
“We have to figure out when and where.”
“New Year’s? Nobody will think much of it if we say we’re going someplace upstate. Plus, no forgetting our anniversary.” After a moment, Charles said, “What on earth are you searching for that’s more interesting than running off to get married?”
“Well, I started out looking for racing wheelchairs. Just in case someone wanted to come for morning rides with me.”
Initial reaction was – good! Charles didn’t look wholly certain about the idea, but he was starting to smile. “They say it’s like doing pushups. Nonstop pushups.”
“You’re strong enough. We could start on shorter rides, just a couple of miles.”
“Hmm. Let me think. So, you started looking for racing wheelchairs, but what are you looking for now?”
“I wasn’t sure it even existed, but it does.” Erik held out the tablet. “Take a look.”
He got to watch Charles’ face as he took in the image on the screen: a kind of stroller designed for paraplegic parents, one that hooked onto a wheelchair so father and baby could roll along together.
“Erik.” Charles couldn’t say much more than that at first. “That’s a yes?”
“I think we need a little while to get used to being married first. And we have a lot of questions to answer before we get started. But –” Erik couldn’t help but grin. “Yes.”
“Of course. Definitely. We’ll figure it out. Erik, thank you.”
He shook his head: No thanks were necessary. If anything he should be thanking Charles for always pushing him toward change, toward taking chances, toward hope. “Listen, there is one thing I want to bring up now.”
Despite his enthusiasm, Charles picked up on the warning note immediately. “Uhoh. I don’t like the sound of that.”
“It’s just – you know, the only time I ever had a conversation about being a parent before, I was talking to my mother. Right after the wreck, when we still thought she might die. I was humoring her, because she was so ill and the thought of having children was still completely foreign to me, but … I did say it.”
Erik winced. “I said that if I ever had a child of my own, I would name it after one of her parents. She made me promise.”
Charles didn’t understand the problem. “What were her parents’ names?”
He took a deep breath. “Wanda and Pietro.”
“… oh, Christ, Erik.”
“I know! I know. They’re awful. But still."
“A promise is a promise.” Charles glanced up, looking hopeful. “Would middle names do?”
“Maybe. I have to think about it.”
“We’ll figure it out,” Charles said, and he lifted his hand, inviting Erik to bend down for another kiss. Erik couldn’t help noticing Charles was still wearing his ring and hoped he wouldn’t worry about the formalities any more than about the wedding – that he’d just wear it, from this day forward, and never take it off.
ABSOLUTELY THE END