“You guys have never heard of gay chicken?” Nile said, that fateful evening. They were sitting on the rooftop balcony of Andy and Quỳnh’s otherwise tiny London flat. The stated goal of the event was to improve Nile’s Italian, since she was going there next month to do three months in the archives at the University of Florence, but she said the last two words in English.
“No,” said Joe. “What’s ‘gay chicken’?”
He said it in Italian, to help Nile along; she demanded he repeat it, which made Nicky burst out laughing and tell her to never say it again, but that yes, that was a word for ‘gay’ which wouldn’t get her punched if she used it.
“Okay, that’s enough, I want to hear this explanation,” said Andy.
“It’s like, two straight people go to kiss each other and the winner is whoever doesn’t back out,” Nile explained. “People do it at high school parties a lot.”
“We’re too old for that shit,” said Booker. He was the oldest of them, half-way through his PhD; Andy was a lecturer, which made it a bit weird that she hung out with them, but she was in a different department. Joe and Nicky were both in the first year of their PhDs, Nile was doing a Master’s, and Quỳnh had a real job in the City which was mysterious, probably evil (Joe was just guessing, because it was the City) and required her to be significantly better-dressed than the rest of them at all times. But that was why Andy got to live somewhere with a rooftop balcony.
“I’m up for it,” Nicky said, tossing back the rest of his beer. “You think you’re too good for this, Book?”
“I think my wife wouldn’t think it was funny,” Booker laughed, waving his bottle in front of him. Joe could recognise a polite refusal when he saw one, and thankfully Nicky could too.
“You’re…straight?” Nile said doubtfully, squinting at Nicky.
“Please don’t start that ‘European or gay’ bullshit again,” said Andy.
“You’re gay and European,” said Booker.
“That’s not the point, Book.”
“Come on then,” Joe said, pointing at Nicky. “You want to do it? Let’s do it.”
Nile squinted even more doubtfully, but wisely didn’t say anything. As it happened, Joe was straight; he just happened to be currently girlfriend-less. And just because you were straight didn’t mean you had to be a dick about this stuff. He could absolutely win this. Nicky was going to be fighting all that Catholic guilt.
“Fine,” Nicky said. “Whenever you’re ready.”
“You suggested it, you come over here.”
“Off to a good start,” Andy said, leaning on the railing of the balcony and smirking. “You won’t even go near each other.”
Nicky got up from his stool and walked towards Joe. Joe put his glass down – he’d given it a go, but the taste of beer really wasn’t doing it for him – and crossed his arms. “I’m waiting.”
Nicky covered the gap with one last big step, and Joe stood up to meet him. Up close like this, he found himself focusing on things he’d never noticed before. The variation of colour in Nicky’s eyes. The bow of his upper lip. The faint scraping of end-of-day stubble. The slight but perceptible difference in their heights, that required him to tilt his chin down and Nicky to tilt his up.
He was so caught up in all of it that it came as a surprise when their lips touched. They were both close-mouthed, and awkward. Determined not to be the one who backed down, Joe nipped at Nicky’s lower lip. Nicky responded by cupping the back of Joe’s head with one of his broad hands and licking into his mouth. It was, perhaps sadly, one of the better kisses of Joe’s recent memory. Joe fisted a hand in Nicky’s t-shirt to get him a little closer. He might as well enjoy himself until –
Icy-cold water exploded over Joe’s head, trickling down his shoulders and arms. He yelped and leaped back; Nicky did the same thing.
“Okay, enough,” said Quỳnh, who had been in the kitchen and must have come out while they were…busy. There was an empty glass in her hand. “We get it, you’re both too stubborn to back down. Food’s ready.”
Joe wiped the back of his hand across his mouth, and shivered as the cold water made its persistent way downwards. Everybody else was shrieking with laughter. “Can I get a towel?”
“I’ll get you one,” Andy volunteered, still snickering.
“So who won?” Nicky turned to Nile.
“Uh….” Nile’s eyebrows were nearly at the edge of her braids. “You’re still in play. But any further and you’re gonna need to get a room.”
Any response Nicky might have made to that – and Joe was curious to hear it, he couldn’t lie – was muffled by the towel Andy threw at his head.
They didn’t talk about it for the rest of the night, and then Joe didn’t see Nicky for three days. He didn’t want it to get weird; he liked Nicky, and they were both new here, and had made the same friends. That was the sort of thing that Joe was becoming aware got harder and harder as you got older.
So he texted him on Saturday morning and asked if he wanted to kick a ball around, which seemed sufficiently friendly and sufficiently not like he was inviting him to repeat the whole kiss thing. Not because it had been bad; it hadn’t. It really hadn’t. It had been weirdly more or less the same as kissing a girl, at least in Joe’s experience. He’d gone home a little buzzed from it, and even more ruefully aware of being single.
Nicky showed up and they kicked a ball around at the park for a while, and then went to get something to eat, because it was late in the morning and Joe had been too lazy to eat a proper breakfast. Nicky clucked like a hen at this and insisted they find food; Joe wasn’t about to object.
They ended up outside at a café that had tables spilling into the park. It was one of those rare days when England remembered that summer was a real season, and not a cruel taunt. They ordered, and Nicky went inside to use the toilet. A second later, Joe saw Nile walking past, and waved; she did a double-take, and came over.
“Hey,” he said. “How’s your weekend going?”
“I’ve gone three whole hours without cracking a school book,” she said. “It’s a miracle. Joe…can I say something?”
“Uh,” Joe said, readjusting his cap, so the brim was directly backwards. “Okay. What is it?”
“I wanted to apologise,” Nile said, earnestly, taking the seat across from him. “For the whole gay chicken thing. I didn’t mean it to – Quỳnh kind of pointed out that it’s a bit…uncool. And I knew that, I just didn’t…anyway, sorry. But you guys carried it off really well.”
Joe waved a hand. “Don’t worry about it. We’re friends. No big deal.”
Nile blinked. “You don’t have to – I get it, okay? That you’re dating.”
“What?” It was Joe’s turn to blink at her. “We’re not dating.” Then he realised how that sounded. “Not that that would be bad, you know, I respect – but we’re both straight. That was the point of the game, wasn’t it?”
“Yes, but –”
Nile was cut off by Nicky, returning. “Nile! Hello. Are you here for lunch too?”
Nile looked at Nicky, then Joe, then the table, set for two. “No, I was just passing. Don’t let me interrupt your…uh…lunch.”
“Is she alright?” Nicky asked, as she made her escape.
Joe laughed. “She’s just feeling bad about what happened at Andy and Quỳnh’s dinner. I think Quỳnh told her the whole gay chicken thing was homophobic.”
“Probably not the worst thing in the world, but it is a bit tasteless,” Nicky agreed. “Not that we get to make the final judgement on that.”
“Also, apparently we did such a good job she thinks we’re dating.”
It was Nicky’s turn to laugh. “Oh, poor Nile. Did you explain?”
Joe spread his hands. “I tried. But anything I said was just going to sound more in denial. So she might not come off it for a while.”
Nicky shook his head, a smile crooking his mouth, and then their food arrived and the topic changed.
It didn’t come up again until they were on the floor of Nicky’s flat, a few weeks later, stabbing at their laptops as they marked undergraduate essays; they’d decided to pool their misery. Nicky had the world’s tiniest flat, less a pied-à-terre and more orteil-à-terre, Booker had declared. When the fold-down bed was down, you could barely move. Nicky insisted it was worth it for the privacy of a space that was absolutely his. Joe, who lived with Booker and Booker’s wife and two other PhD students, privately thought Nicky had a point.
Joe was grousing about his living situation to Nicky, who was currently face-down on the floor, having lost the will to live after the last essay. “And the walls are so thin – even if I did want to bring anybody home…I know much more about Booker’s sex life than I ever wanted to. You don’t have to worry about that.”
“Don’t worry, it hasn’t been a problem,” Nicky said, after a pause. His shoulders had gone oddly stiff.
“Is everything okay?” Joe had been leaning back on his elbows; he sat up straight. “You don’t look like everything is okay.”
“You can’t see my face!”
“I don’t need to see your face to see into your heart,” Joe said, deliberately over-dramatic. It made Nicky laugh, almost silently, the way he sometimes did. He levered himself up.
“Fine. It’s just that I – don’t laugh – I mean it, do not laugh – I haven’t actually…brought anybody home. Yet.”
“Really?” Joe said, a little incredulously, because if classically handsome Nicky couldn’t attract a girl, then what hope did anybody else have. “That is – no judgement! You’re not…waiting for marriage, or anything. Are you?”
“When I was younger, yes. Now I’m just too old and too awkward.”
Joe laughed. “Don’t be ridiculous. You’re totally, what would Nile say, smoking. You could get it if you wanted it. But if you don’t want to, then you don’t want to.”
“If I didn’t want to, it wouldn’t be a problem, would it,” Nicky said crossly.
Joe leaned back on his elbows again. “You know, neither of us ever conceded.”
“Conceded – you mean Nile’s silly children’s game?”
“Not a children’s game, I hope.”
Nicky propped his chin on one hand. “You’d definitely chicken out before we got anywhere, and then I’d be frustrated and still have all this marking to do.”
“I would not,” Joe insisted, getting up on his knees and shuffling forward to prove it. He wasn’t totally sure about it, but the only way forward was through. He kept on not being totally sure about it until the point when they had their hands on each other’s cocks and Nicky was panting harshly into his mouth, and then, well…it really was more or less the same, some details aside. And he couldn’t leave Nicky like this, not when Nicky had just told him – and he certainlycouldn’t back down.
Joe came a second later. It was sweet and satisfying in the way it could only be when you should be doing something else, and were doing this instead. Nicky made a muffled noise into his mouth and came too, in hot pulses over Joe’s hand.
They lay there gasping and recovering. Joe thumbed idly at the edge of Nicky’s foreskin, still fascinated by it, until Nicky used his free hand to poke him. “Stop that!”
“I’ve just never seen how one works close up before.”
“Well, I’m willing to give you other opportunities, on that performance,” Nicky said, a glint in his eye that Joe liked. “Unless you’re chickening out now. I promise to be a gracious victor.”
“You’re not getting me that easily,” Joe told him, and then contorted awkwardly because he’d nearly rolled onto his laptop. “Ugh, we should have planned this better.”
“The advantage of this place is, the paper towels are just up there,” Nicky said cheerfully, and got up to fetch them.
“How did you have so many books in that tiny apartment?” Nile groaned, her hands on her lower back. “I swear I moved ten boxes.”
“It was twelve altogether,” Nicky said. Their friends had spent the day helping him and Joe move into their new shared flat – not that much larger than Nicky’s old place, but there were two bedrooms, theoretically, and as far as Joe was concerned the lack of Booker and Adèle and the others made it more than worth the closet-sized space he was going to sleep in.
Not that he expected to be doing all that much sleeping in it. Late in the third year of their studies, Joe still hadn’t managed to meet a girl who wanted to date a perpetually busy art history PhD student. Every time he’d met someone and thought, maybe – one of them had even been a nice Tunisian girl, his father would have been quietly thrilled – he hadn’t managed to strike up a relationship of any sort, much less a romantic one. There was his research, and lecturing, and his friends.
And he had to face it: his agreement with Nicky, which was that until someone officially called it quits they could continue to up the ante with sex, took a lot of the urgency out of it. Joe had always thought of himself as a romantic, but somehow, the shape of his life right now didn’t make romance that much of a priority. He’d worry about it once he’d handed in his thesis.
“Worth it for Joe to have his own place, and stop whining about the thin walls,” Booker said.
“I never whined!”
“No, you just used to bang on our bedroom wall and tell us to be quiet.”
“Sounds fair to me,” said Andy. “Not like you couldn’t do the same to him.”
“He never brings anybody home!” Booker turned to Nicky. “That will make life easy for you.”
“Did anybody win that stupid bet?” Quỳnh asked idly.
“It wasn’t a bet,” Nicky said. “It was a chicken.”
“Not –” Nile scowled at him. “You just did that on purpose.”
“He’s very funny,” Joe said fondly. “And nobody’s won.”
Booker snorted. “How far exactly did you take it?”
“They’ve been having sex,” Andy said, sticking a crisp in her mouth and talking indistinctly around it. “For a couple of years.”
“Hey!” Nicky said, whirling on her. “What would make you say that?”
“Oh really?” Booker said, chortling.
“All I’m saying,” Andy said to Nicky, “is don’t show up with a hickey poking out from under your collar and tell me Joe crashed at your place last night.”
“It’s private business,” Nicky said, starting to go red.
“It’s not –” Joe started to say, and stopped, because he didn’t want to sound like Nicky wasn’t important to him, it just wasn’t what it sounded like. But like the first time, he couldn’t think of a way to say it that wasn’t weird to flat-out homophobic.
He’d read a term in an article last year that described it, maybe, he thought: men who have sex with men. He had sex with Nicky, because they liked each other, because it was fun, because it was convenient, but it didn’t mean what Andy and Quỳnh would want it to mean. That was all. And he knew about bisexuality, or pansexuality, and all of those things. But if he was one of those, he’d know. And he wasn’t. He was straight, and then there was Nicky, and those were different things.
“– I mean, what he said,” he finished. “It’s not your business.”
“Oooooookay,” said Nile, after the silence held on a beat too long. “Are we going to order food, or…”
“Right, right, we promised dinner,” Nicky said, standing up. He’d prepared most of it the weekend before, enjoying the chance to cook for a group. Joe had been his sous-chef, and they’d taken a break half-way through to put down the bed and blow each other, curled up, a fond farewell to that ridiculous tiny space. “Joe, can you help me get it out?”
“Sure,” Joe said, springing up. “And can I get anybody a glass of wine? Or we’ve got some lemonade – no, Nile, not real lemonade, sorry.”
“I never expect it anymore,” she said, with good humour.
“Let me get the plates, I remember where I put that box,” Booker said, and things shifted back to normal.
They ended up staying in that flat for less than a year. They both handed in, and became Dr al-Kaysani and Dr diGenova, but once the celebration was done they had to face the academic job market. It was grim for anybody: for two people with degrees in religious studies and art history, it was worse than grim.
“My mother’s trying to get me to move back to Amsterdam,” Joe confided to Nicky, late one night. They were curled up on the couch. This flat was more spacious, but it was a badly-insulated British classic. Lucky for Joe that Nicky turned out to be an excellent cuddler, and by now both of them were comfortable enough with each other to think nothing of it.
“And mine is trying to get me to move back to Rome.” Nicky sighed. “I don’t want to, but…it’s about to get very difficult here, with visas and so on. I don’t suppose you want to move to Rome?”
“I’d consider it. How about Amsterdam, for you?”
“I’d consider it,” Nicky said, thoughtfully. “Let’s not make any hasty decisions without talking to each other, yes?”
“Where else am I going to find someone to live with who gives me morning coffee and blowjobs,” Joe agreed.
“Sounds like you need a wife, if you lose me.”
“That’s so much work, though. When you’re right here.”
“And when you’d have to concede that I am the best at pretending to be gay.” Nicky turned over.
“I concede nothing.”
“Want to keep conceding nothing in our much warmer bedroom?” Nicky asked, already unbuttoning Joe’s fly.
“If I have to,” Joe said, and let Nicky take him into the bedroom and fuck him, curled up under the covers, because it wasn’t that much warmer in there. They’d one-upped each other into that sometime last year, half out of curiosity, and Joe considered it to be entirely worth it.
Nicky was planting soft kisses on the back of Joe’s neck when he came, and despite the cold flat and the despair-inducing academic job market, life wasn’t so terrible after all.
The next weekend, everything got tipped upside down: Joe got a call from his sister, delegated by their parents, to tell him that one of his father’s cousins had died (sad in the abstract, but only that since Joe had never really met the man) and that he’d left Joe a house in Malta.
“He lived there,” said Noor. “What’s outrageous is that he left it to you because you’re the oldest son.”
“I’m also a penniless art graduate, and you are a high-powered lawyer.”
Noor sniffed. “Whatever. I’m checking the paperwork but I think you’ll need to go there before you sell it. I’m sure that will be such a hardship, flying to Malta in the middle of an English winter.”
“Flying Easyjet like I’m going to have to will definitely be a hardship,” Joe shot back, but he was already looking up flights.
“This is enormous,” Nicky said, standing in the entrance hall of Joe’s cousin’s house and turning around. “Look – I can stretch out my arms and not hit anything!”
“Our perceptions have just been screwed by fucking London real estate,” Joe said, but Nicky wasn’t wrong. The house was on the outskirts of Valletta. It had five bedrooms, a beautiful view of the ocean, and it belonged to Joe. Joe had persuaded Nicky to come to Malta for the winter break by the simple method of booking him plane tickets, and explaining that the accommodation was free, and that Malta would be warm. Nicky passionately hated the cold.
They spent the day exploring the house properly. Joe’s cousin had left most of his decent possessions to charity; all that remained was some old but sturdy furniture. They were going to have to go out and buy some plates if they wanted something to eat off.
“It’s a shame you have to sell it,” Nicky said, as they sat on the balcony that evening. The sun was setting to their west, across the bulk of the island. This side of the house overlooked a small garden that stopped at a cliff; it was incredibly peaceful.
“I could rent it out, I suppose,” Joe said. “Permanently, or AirBnB, or whatever. But I’d feel shitty about it. Or pack it in, move here, and…” He shrugged.
“Make it a bed and breakfast,” Nicky said. “I’ll do the breakfast. You tell people all the things they should go see.”
“I don’t know what they should go see. I’ve never been here before.”
“You’d learn. And you’d know all the context for the history and all of that.”
“The history is pretty grim, some of it.”
“Here and everywhere. What matters is moving forward.”
“It’s nice to think about,” Joe said. “But I don’t think I’m ready to give up on my work just yet.”
“No.” Nicky sighed. “And neither of us know anything about running a bed and breakfast.”
“Oh well,” Joe said. “Let’s enjoy it while we’re here.”
They ate cheap food and had a lot of sex and Joe tried to figure out how to sell the house. There were a lot of calls to Noor. He did like Malta; Maltese was close enough to Tounsi that he could understand some of it. It felt like somewhere he could be. He hadn’t expected that at all.
The day before they were due to leave, he got three rejection emails from academic jobs he’d applied to in the Netherlands and Belgium. The list was already as long as his arm.
He was sitting at the kitchen table, and he called Nicky over to share the pain. Nicky shook his head, and put his hands on Joe’s shoulders, standing behind him. “I got five last week. All jobs in Italy. I know it’s hard, but…”
“We do good work,” Joe said. “I know we do. It’s not us.”
Nicky squeezed his shoulders. “No, it isn’t. That makes it harder.”
Just for fun, Joe opened a new browser window and typed ‘accommodation regulations Malta’ into the search bar. A bunch of government websites came up.
“It doesn’t look that complicated,” he said, as he skimmed the first one.
“Famous last words,” said Nicky. But he pulled up a chair next to Joe.
They never made that flight back to London.
Getting a bed and breakfast going was easier and harder than Joe expected. Easier, because he and Nicky both liked the actual work of it, meeting new people and being hospitable, and didn’t mind the less fun parts like cleaning either. Harder, because neither of them had ever run a business before, and there were a lot of small moving parts to keep track of. Joe spent a lot of time on the phone to his mother, and Nicky turned out to have a totally unexpected talent for deciphering governmental regulations (he said it was significantly less arcane than theology).
What was also unexpected, was that they quickly got recommended on several online lists of LGBT-friendly accommodation providers. They were sharing a room, to keep the rest free, and Joe supposed people assumed. And they weren’t – were they wrong? He didn’t know how to explain it to Nicky, even, let alone his family, or guests. But it was working fantastically for business, so he leaned into it from a marketing perspective (somehow Joe being an artist had turned into Joe being the one who ran their website and social media) and didn’t think too hard about it.
“I like the idea we can be a safe place for people,” Nicky said. “The details aren’t important for them.”
“I like it too,” said Joe. “Although it’s a bit awkward how we keep getting invited to all the events as well. And the Facebook page.”
“We’re meeting lots of great people.” Nicky rubbed his chin. “I am surprised it’s so many couples, though. So many male couples, I mean.”
“Oh?” Joe said, half-distracted; the booking system had mangled five bookings for next month and he was trying to clean up the resulting mess.
Nicky shrugged. “I always thought – that was – gay men weren’t very good at monogamy.”
“We’re good at it,” Joe said, absently.
“Yes, but we’re not gay.”
“Right, yeah,” Joe agreed, because for some reason he couldn’t copy and paste this email address and was having to type it out. He didn’t process what Nicky had said until three hours later, when Nicky was reading in bed and Joe was trying to sleep.
“That thing you said about monogamy, earlier,” he said. “That’s probably…not right.”
“I’m getting that now,” Nicky said, turning a page. “It was just something people said. When I was growing up. I’d forgotten about it.”
“It’s amazing how many of the things people said when we were growing up were just…stupid,” Joe said, working an arm around Nicky’s waist, under his book, so Joe could comfortably mash his face into Nicky’s side.
“Mmm,” Nicky said, petting Joe’s hair. If Joe was a cat he would have purred.
The question of monogamy, and what people thought of them, came to a head when they were doing the more delicate and difficult work of figuring out the legal parameters of their co-owning the business. It was something they should have done at the start and had hand-waved away. Nicky was fiercely determined that since Joe had inherited the house, he should own more of it, and Joe was equally determined that Nicky had done and did at least half the work, and shouldn’t sell himself short. Joe ended up on a video call with Noor, who kept reminding him that she wasn’t qualified to practice law in Malta.
“But probably the easiest thing if you want a fifty/fifty split is to get married,” she said. “You should do that sometime anyway. It upsets our parents that you haven’t. It took them some time to come around, but they want to see you settled down.”
“We’re not – it’s a business relationship, Noor,” Joe said.
“You share a room!”
“We need the space!”
“You were always falling in love, when you were younger. You can’t tell me you’ve stopped doing that to platonically share a room with your friend. Who you share your entire life with.”
“I – it’s just not like that.” Hearing Noor say that gave Joe a pang, though, because she was right: he had always been falling in love, and that hadn’t gone away. These days, absent other foci, it latched on to Nicky, but he and Nicky weren’t like that. They were friends and they had sex and they had a life together. Getting married would make that even more complicated than it already was. “But we’ll think about it.”
Noor made a frustrated noise that was probably audible in Belgium.
“What were you doing to your poor sister?” Nicky asked when the call was over. “She sounded upset.”
“She wasn’t upset, she was just annoyed because I wasn’t fitting in with her view of the world.” Joe shut his laptop. “She thinks the easiest way for us to split the business is to get married.”
“Huh.” Nicky looked contemplative. “That makes sense.”
“That makes sense?” Joe said incredulously.
“It doesn’t to you?”
“I don’t want to get married for business reasons.” Joe got up and started to pace. They were in the kitchen, which wasn’t that large, so ‘pacing’ meant going two steps, and then back the other way. “It doesn’t feel right. It feels like – like cheating the meaning of the thing. A scam. People had to fight for years to marry their lovers! We’re not gay, and we’re going to do it because it makes our lives easier?”
“Men and women get married for all sorts of reasons,” Nicky pointed out. “Nobody asks them why. Wouldn’t it be worse to treat it like it was only valid if it was true love?”
“Maybe? I don’t know. It just feels weird.” Joe leant back against the counter, and folded his arms. “I had – I had a very specific idea, when I was younger, of what my life would look like by now. I was going to be a professor like my father, and marry a sensible girl like my mother, and it’s all…turned into mist and blown away. I’m happier here than I was in London. It just isn’t how I saw my life going.”
“I used to think I was asexual, and that I was going to be a priest,” Nicky said, sitting down at the table, in the chair Joe had vacated. “And that certainly didn’t happen.”
“I didn’t know that,” Joe said, surprised. “Either of those things.”
Nicky shrugged. “I knew all of the porn magazines my older brothers had were very boring, and tacky. So I thought I was asexual. And then it turned out that I liked sex, at least with you, but maybe that’s just you. But it hasn’t mattered, because…” He trailed off, with another shrug.
What Joe really wanted to say was sounds like maybe you’re gay, but he didn’t really know enough about asexuality to say that, and also that was up to Nicky to decide, wasn’t it? Really the whole idea that you had to put a label on this stuff was stupid. It wasn’t anybody else’s business what he and Nicky did or didn’t do. Joe was still definitely attracted to women; he’d just never met one, in the last few years, who it was worth upending his entire life for.
“Oh, fuck it,” he said. “Let’s do it.”
Nicky put a hand over his heard. “So romantic. I’m touched.” Joe threw a tangerine, from the fruit bowl on the bench, at him. Nicky caught it, grinning.
They invited Nile and Andy and Quỳnh and Booker and Adèle and their families, and their friends from Malta, but managed to keep it under forty people, which was an achievement. Their London friends were scattered to the four winds these days. Nile had moved back to America, Andy and Quỳnh were in Singapore, Booker and Adèle were, ironically, in the Netherlands, because that was where Booker had got a job. Joe’s sisters all came; Nicky flatly refused to invite his father (‘even if he comes, he’ll just be a dick about it’) but his mother and the rest of his siblings were coming too, and some of their kids and spouses. Joe got so caught up in the planning and the excitement of what was basically a big party that he surprised himself by waking up on the morning of the wedding, before sunrise, with a ball of panic in his chest. He shook Nicky awake.
“Joe? What is it?” Nicky sat straight up; he was always good at coming immediately to full awareness.
“I was right the first time, it’s a scam,” Joe said, the panic bubbling up and out of his mouth. “We’re going to – we keep telling everybody it’s for the business and it is, but I – I think I love you.”
It wasn’t the first time he’d told Nicky that, exactly: it was something they said to each other now and again, meaning thank you, I’m glad you’re here, that you’re choosing this. This meal is fantastic, I love you; I really needed that cup of coffee, I love you; fine, I will take this rain jacket you’ve thrown at me, I love you. But it was the first time he’d let himself really think about it.
Nicky didn’t say anything, just regarded Joe with all the intense focus he was capable of. Joe’s mouth kept going, at odds with his good sense. “I’m not gay but you’re the best thing that’s ever happened to me. It makes me happy every morning when I see your face. I want to keep doing things with you forever. It doesn’t have to be this thing, but – whatever it is we decide we want to do. I kept thinking of loving people as being about flowers and poetry and – but this just crept up on me. And I can’t marry you without you knowing that.”
“Joe,” Nicky said, very gently. “Breathe. It’s okay.”
“It’s okay,” Nicky said again, putting an arm around Joe, and drawing him in close. “We’re getting married this afternoon and it’s all going to be okay. I love you too, you incurable romantic.”
“Oh. Fine,” Joe said, but he could feel how tightly Nicky was holding him, so he knew Nicky wasn’t quite as calm as he seemed, and oddly that made Joe feel better.
“Besides,” Nicky said. “You send me poetry all the time. You’re always saying, did you know this quote, or have you seen this. And I grew you flowers in the garden.”
“You grew them for cut flowers, because guests like them.”
“I grew them because you like drawing them, and I like working in the garden. We could buy them if it was just for guests.” Nicky’s voice got tense at the end, and Joe kissed his neck, in a silent apology for not noticing.
“I’m still not conceding,” he added. “The game.”
Nicky made a disgusted noise. “There was a moment, and you killed it. It’s dead. You’re the artist, and you killed it.”
“Getting it out of the way before the rest of the day,” Joe said, and threw back the covers; they were awake now, they might as well get up. He was right. The rest of the day went perfectly.
After the wedding, Joe found a weird sort of peace with the whole sexuality question. They were married, and they were happy, and the details could be complicated under the surface. He still felt like a little bit of a fraud when some young French visitors, men whose parents had emigrated from Tunisia like Joe’s, told him awkwardly how good it was to see him married and out and running his business with his husband. But if it made them feel better in themselves, then did it matter?
The next hurdle came when Nicky’s older sister Giovanna and two of her colleagues came to stay for the summer, because they were doing fieldwork on the island. Giovanna was seven years older than Nicky and had been married and then divorced, and then gone back to university to study marine ecology. Joe and Nicky were giving them all a discount because it was worth it to have three of the rooms full for the whole summer; it was a very different dynamic to the usual rhythm of guests coming and going, having three people for a full eight weeks, but they sometimes slept on the boat overnight. It all went well until Joe poked his head into the guest living room, mid one evening when Nicky was out at his Maltese language night class and Giovanna’s colleagues had gone to a bar, to find Giovanna sitting there crying.
“Hey,” Joe said, softly. “Can I get you something? Do you just want to be left alone?”
Giovanna shook her head, tears still sliding down her cheeks. She didn’t look very much like Nicky, but she shared his calm demeanour. Her crying was quiet.
Joe came in and sat down on the couch across from her. Giovanna wiped at her face with her sleeve.
“Rough day? Those fish giving you trouble?”
“I’m pregnant,” Giovanna said, in a manner also highly reminiscent of Nicky’s blunt pronouncements.
“Uh,” Joe said, feeling deeply unqualified to deal with this. “Seems like you’re not happy about it.”
“I don’t know.” She sniffled. “That was why we broke up, my husband and I, I don’t know if Nicky told you – we couldn’t have kids, and he really wanted…and now I’m pregnant? I’m in the middle of a PhD! I don’t have time to be a mother. I don’t think I want to, anymore.” She fiddled with one of the couch cushions. “But I can’t – I’d have to go home right away, or I couldn’t do anything about it. It will be too late, by the end of the field season.”
“Well that sucks,” said Joe, who had absolutely left the area of anything he was remotely qualified to do, except be sympathetic.
“It’s fucking bullshit,” Giovanna said, savagely. She sniffed again. “Could I get some tissues?”
Joe got her a box of tissues and put the kettle on, and by the time Nicky got home she was red-eyed but seemed a little more settled. Joe had offered her a hug, and she’d squeezed his ribs so tightly he could swear they’d moved.
Giovanna explained to Nicky, again.
“How can we help?” Nicky asked her, immediately. “We can get you on a flight home, right away. Or I can talk to – I might know someone who can help here, even though it’s not legal. Or – whatever you want.”
Giovanna clenched her hands around her mug of tea. “I just hate that I have to decide so quickly, and that if I have the abortion, I have to carry it around like I did something wrong. It isn’t fair.” She sipped her tea. “Why not when I was trying so hard, five years ago?”
“Well, you’d still be married to that asshole, probably,” Nicky pointed out, “and you weren’t happy five years ago. You’re happy now.”
“It’s still bullshit.” Giovanna sighed. “I don’t know. I’ll think about it overnight.”
“We mean it,” Joe said. “If there’s anything we can do.”
“I know you do,” Giovanna said. “I know.”
“You know someone?” Joe asked Nicky, once they’d retreated to their own space.
Nicky shrugged. “Not for sure, but we know lots of the gay community here. Some of the older lesbians definitelyknow. It’s the sort of thing they help with. Or if we rang Andy, she would know someone who would know.” He looked at Joe consideringly. “We’ve never talked about kids, have we?”
“Uh…no,” Joe said. “Because kids are for…” He thought of all the things that fell into that gap. For people who had got married because they meant to start families; for people who knew who they were; for the picture of his life that he’d let go of when they moved here. “Why haven’t we?”
“I thought if you wanted them, you’d have said.” Nicky smiled fondly. “My mistake?”
“Maybe.” Joe thought about it some more. “Yes?”
“Okay, well,” Nicky said, decisively. “That’s another thing we can say, tomorrow. But I think probably we’ll be finding flights. She really loves her research, and she was so miserable, when they were trying back then. And nine months is a long time.”
They didn’t end up booking flights. Giovanna found them two days later and said “I had a thought. And it’s probably silly. But do you two –”
“Yes,” Nicky said at once, before she’d finished speaking. “But only if that’s what you want to do.”
She sagged with relief. “I’m going to be writing up soon…yes. I don’t want to – I still don’t want to be a mother, single or not, but I think I want to have this baby, if it’s going to have parents.”
“It’s going to,” Joe said, and felt like he’d taken a blow to the head, but in a good way. Parents? They could be parents? It surprised him how much he wanted it, and specifically with Nicky, nobody else. Nicky would be such a good father.
Giovanna finished up her field season, and left, and came back when she was seven months pregnant. She’d never mentioned who the father was, though Joe didn’t get the sense that there was anything to conceal; just that it had been a casual encounter. At any rate, they didn’t ask. It was her business.
Tayyib diGenova was born on a cool spring day, when winter seemed like it wanted to cling on, such a winter as they had here. It didn’t matter to any of them. They’d agreed that he should keep Nicky and Giovanna’s surname, under the circumstances, so Nicky had helped Joe choose a name from his family. Joe fell immediately and gleefully in love with his tiny, perfect son.
He was less convinced of his perfection after the first six months without more than three hours’ sleep at a time, but still, on the whole, pleased with their choice. Giovanna had left to hand in her thesis, after the paperwork for the adoption had gone through.
“You’re not going to get rid of me,” she had promised, kissing Tayyib on the forehead as he gurgled in Joe’s arms. “I’ll be visiting, but I feel good about this.”
“Any time you like, you know this,” Nicky told her.
Their lives got significantly more complicated over the next year. Tayyib took up an astonishing amount of mental as well as physical space, none of it regretted. Nicky and Joe both picked up some work teaching night classes through the university in their quiet season – an unexpected return to their academic lives which made both of them happy. And – unable to leave Malta, because they were so busy – their families came to them, to meet Tayyib. He wasn’t the first grandchild on either side but it was obvious their parents hadn’t expected them to have a child, and were pleased by it.
“You were always meant to be a father,” Joe’s mother told him. “That was what I worried about most, when you took up with Nicky. I know there’s adoption and all those things, but it’s so complicated.”
Even Nicky’s mother was pleased: she said that she never wanted Giovanna to be a parent if it was going to make her unhappy, there was enough of that around, and so this was a perfect solution. Nicky’s father’s opinion was neither asked nor missed.
The wave of visitors passed, but somehow Tayyib got even worse at sleeping through the night in his second year. He was a fount of endless energy, until he collapsed, babbling in Ligurian-flavoured Italian and a mix of Tounsi and Maltese, with the odd word of Dutch for variety. He had no sense of self-preservation at all, in a way that Joe wasn’t sure whether to attribute to general incipient toddler-hood or his personality. Either way Joe was hoping it improved as he got older.
Joe was as happy as he’d ever been, but that didn’t mean that he didn’t groan internally when Tayyib started talking loudly to himself in the middle of the night.
“It’s your turn,” he muttered to Nicky.
“Mmmph,” Nicky said, in denial. Joe cruelly rolled away from him, pulling the blanket, in the hopes that the colder air would get him up. Nicky muttered something rude under his breath. Tayyib hopefully repeated an approximation of it.
Joe huddled into the still-warm blankets, and admitted that fine, he did miss the days when they’d been able to sleep the night through, or have sex whenever they wanted.
He had to get up at five, which was about three hours before his ideal waking time, but Nicky was dead to the world and it was his turn now. He was feeding Tayyib breakfast – most of it was in Tayyib and not on the floor, which made this morning a win – when Nicky appeared, rubbing his eyes. “When did he wake up?”
“Five. How are we doing for breakfast?”
“For two guests, I can manage on my own,” Nicky said. “Although I’m probably going to terrify them, looking like death warmed over.” He crouched down next to Tayyib, in his high chair. “You were very talkative last night, huh? What was that about?”
“Papa!” Tayyib said excitedly, and handed Nicky a sticky piece of banana. Nicky thanked him politely.
“Death warmed over, I don’t think so. You always look perfect to me, my heart,” Joe told him, and Nicky, despite his lack of sleep, cracked a beautiful smile. Joe replayed his own words in his head, and wondered when that had happened – when that had become who they were.
It didn’t matter. It really didn’t.
Nile finally came to stay with them for two weeks the year that Tayyib turned three, and started attending kindergarten. Nicky and Joe had been trying to get her to come on holiday here for years, but Chicago was so far away, and she had been teaching over every summer. They kept the room closest to their own part of the house free for her, and Joe picked her up at the airport.
“At last!” Joe exclaimed, picking her up and spinning her around. “Even Andy and Quỳnh made it last year.”
“Hey, you could come to Chicago anytime! I’d love to have you.”
Joe made a face. “US immigration? No thanks.”
Nile grimaced. “Yeah, okay. Where’s the little guy?”
“He’s at kindergarten now. We’ll pick him up in a couple of hours. Come on, this way.”
They’d done the numbers and figured they could keep this first week of Nile’s stay free of bookings – a holiday for them as well as for her, since neither of them were teaching right now either. The plan was to do all the tourist things that they were constantly sending guests off to do, and never had time to do themselves.
Nile made appropriately impressed noises about the house, and hit the right note with Tayyib too, not talking down to him but not confusing him either. He was fearless with new people but also quick to judgement; if he didn’t like them, he didn’t like them. Joe was blaming that personality trait entirely on Nicky, who was the most judgmental kind person of Joe’s acquaintance.
They sat out in the garden that evening, Tayyib running in circles with his current favourite toy giraffe, for inscrutable reasons of his own. Joe was crossing his fingers that it would wear him out enough to sleep the night through. Bedtime was fast approaching.
“I saw your little shelf of awards by the door,” Nile was saying to Nicky. “Best gay bed and breakfast in Malta?”
“It’s very specific, but we’ll take it,” Nicky said. “Those things do bring some people along. Though most of them are a bit rubbish. You could make one up and probably nobody would notice.”
“I don’t know, I think they would,” Joe said. “Some of the online reviews are terrifyingly detailed. It’s like people can’t enjoy their holiday unless they can complain about the accommodation.”
“I did check, actually,” Nile admitted, “and your ratings are pretty high across the board.” She looked at Nicky. “Also, congratulations on finally coming around on the gay thing. Took a while.”
Joe was expecting Nicky to protest, but he just shrugged. “Language is flexible, but it would be silly to complain about it at this point.”
“Does that mean I win Nile’s chicken thing?” Joe couldn’t help asking.
“No, it’s the opposite,” Nile said. “You win by not admitting you’re not gay. You guys have it totally the wrong way around. Nicky wins.” She frowned at Joe. “I don’t wanna be rude, but…what are you calling it these days?”
“He avoids the topic,” Nicky said. “But I bought him a t-shirt with the bisexual flag for last Pride and he wore it.”
“I refused to be picky,” Joe muttered into his mint tea. “That’s all.”
“You’re a bit ridiculous.” Nile shook her head, but she was smiling. Tayyib had sunk to the ground next to her chair and was swaying back and forth a bit, clutching his giraffe, a sure sign that he was about to collapse.
“Okay, bedtime for someone,” Joe said, standing up. “If I’m not back in half an hour, come rescue me.”
“You know what my judgement actually is?” Nile asked, as Joe picked Tayyib up, careful to use his knees. Who needed workouts, when you had a small child. “You both win. I mean, look at your lives. What is this if it isn’t winning?”
“I don’t know,” Joe said. “Some of those TripAdvisor reviews are pretty brutal.”
“I agree with Nile,” Nicky said, catching Joe’s eye pointedly.
Joe would have held up his hands, but they were full of sleepy kid.
“Okay, okay,” he said instead, laughing. “We’re all winners here.”
“Better,” Nicky allowed, his eyes crinkling at the corners. Joe felt himself overflowing with contentment.
“You can thank me whenever you’re ready,” said Nile, and toasted them all with her mug.