The airport's Christmas tree is rather sad. It's large enough, but has been shedding needles all over; the bare branches are covered with tinsel, which has also been shedding, and a few glass ornaments. There's a string of lights, but it's either unplugged or just doesn't work. And the glowing angel on the tree top is flickering, like it's going to die at any moment.
I think that about sums up my Christmas this year just fine.
My step-son starts off by yelling and waving, but his grandparents are fighting a crowd to get to us, and that won't do at all. So Terry takes off and rushes them; half-way across the terminal they catch him, and it's hugs and kisses and smiles all around. It would be a perfect moment to snap for a Christmas photo, and next to me, Michael is beaming at them.
Perfect, yeah. If only I didn't hate their guts.
Well, that's not really entirely accurate. I've never met Mr. and Mrs. Teller, only spoken with them on the phone, and that was only for the few seconds it took to pass the phone off to Michael or Terry. It's hard to really hate the guts of someone you've never even spoken with, let alone seen outside of photos. So we'll just say that I'm predisposed to hating their guts, and if they prove human at this first meeting, then fine, but if it goes down how I think it's going to go down, I will be easily able to say that I detest them.
Michael and I walk briskly towards the Tellers, and Terry enthusiastically drags them back towards us. I can see the family resemblance between them; I never met Terry's mother, and these are her folks, but it's clear they're genetically related. Something Terry and I are not, and I don't think his grandparents are going to let me forget.
"Michael," Mrs. Teller says warmly, and she greets him with a hug. He gets a handshake from Mr. Teller, and then there's the awkward moment when everyone remembers that I exist.
"Uh, Janet, Ty, this is, uh..."
"Ryan," I say, when Michael stalls. I do hope that this is because he wasn't sure if he should introduce me as his partner, boyfriend, or just that man who lives with him (which is how Janet referred to me in the message left on our machine), and not because he forgot my name. Though, as he and I haven't really said a word to each other since we got in the cab ten hours ago, him forgetting my name is entirely possible.
"Oh, yes. Michael said you'd be... tagging along."
Oh, yes. And I hate your guts, Mrs. Teller. "Yeah," I say flatly.
"Well, we should go get everyone's luggage, so you can get on your way," Mr. Teller says, his voice friendly in such a forced way that it might actually be friendlier if he said what he meant, which was basically, go to hell.
"Well, let's go," Terry says impatiently, and abandons his grandparents to tug at me and Michael. Well, at least he remembers I'm his parent, and allegedly a partner in this relationship. But Michael habitually scoops him up and on to his shoulders, so there goes that, too.
Maybe he has forgotten that I exist.
Terry babbles about the trip on the airplane, kindergarten, the book Michael's currently reading him, and (to my great vindication) evolutionary theory. The Tellers look a little stunned that that cropped up as one of his random topic changes, but it's what he and I were discussing on the plane. I'm prepping a science lesson for my juvenile offenders (I was fired in October and there aren't many schools hiring mid-semester, but the corrective facility for delinquents was, and a job is a job, especially in this market) and this is their next unit. Terry loves to hear about the way the world works, so I often run my lessons by him, on the theory that if the five-year-old can get it, the fifteen-year-old car thieves, druggies, and parole violators probably can too. Terry thought the idea that we're related to all other animals was amazing, and I promised him we'd go find a good book on it at the library when we get home.
Terry's chatter fills up what would otherwise be an awkward silence. His grandparents dote on everything he says, he rides comfortably on his father's shoulders, and I follow a few steps behind, hands shoved in my pockets.
The luggage claim is crowded, but Michael and I fight our way to the front (leaving Terry with his grandparents to do so) and get our hands on our stuff. Back out in the hall, there's another awkward pause. "Well," Janet says briskly. "If we want to beat all this traffic home, we'd better get going!"
"Sure," Michael murmurs, and turns to me as we begin walking. "Look, Ryan, we'll see you in the morning, okay?"
He pauses, then pulls me aside. "I said I'd pay for the hotel and the car, okay?"
"No, it's not okay," I snap. "That's not what this is about."
"I really don't want to fight about this."
"Then don't. You go have a nice Christmas eve with your family, and I'll watch Home Alone in my hotel room."
"This isn't my fault and I don't like it, either!" he snaps. "What was I supposed to do, though, tell Terry he can't see his grandparents?"
I grind my teeth. That's where this really gets me. It's not fair to Terry to not let him see his grandparents, just because they won't let me into their home. Terry had it rough enough, losing his mother to begin with; losing his grandparents is just unfair, regardless of how they treat me or what they think of Michael's and my relationship. And I love Terry. What the hell kind of step-dad would I be if I denied him that?
But I don't have to like it. I don't have to like that I can't be with my partner on Christmas Eve; I don't have to like that I'm only allowed into Michael's in-laws' house for a few hours until we go out to lunch on Christmas Day. I don't have to like the sideways, scared glances the Tellers give me, and I don't have to like this whole stupid trip across the country.
But damn it, I love Terry, and I won't deny him his family. And I won't let him know how incredibly angry this whole thing makes me.
Michael, on the other hand, is an adult. And I do hope how I feel is loud and clear to him.
It evidently is, because he grits his teeth and doesn't say anything to me when I don't answer him. He knows he's being an ass. Good. So I turn away from him, back to my step-son, and crouch down to hug Terry. "Okay, I have to go get my car and head off," I tell him. "But I'll see you tomorrow morning, bright and early."
"But you'll miss Santa," Terry points out.
Michael makes a noise which I suspect is a guilty whine. Because even his son knows he's screwing me over. So I hug Terry again. "Santa can find people in hotels," I say. "He's magic."
"Real magic?" Terry asks suspiciously.
"Of course real magic," I scoff. "How else would he know what you want for Christmas?"
Terry considers this. Then he nods, slowly. "Okay, but you have to be there early for presents!"
"Will do, kiddo," I promise, and ruffle his hair. Then his grandmother gathers him up again and I stride off to go rent a car, not looking back.
God, I hate Michael right now.
Okay, so I will acknowledge this was not my best moment. In fact, it was pretty low of me. But what the hell was I supposed to do?
What happened was pretty simple. My wonderful wife, Charese, died almost a year ago--it'll be a year at the end of January. I spent months grieving, and during those months, her parents were as amazing as any in-laws anyone could ever ask for, especially when it came to taking care of Terry. But when the memories got to be too much, and I took leave of my good senses and moved us across the country, they were, understandably, a bit offended. But the move turned out to be wonderful, thanks to sheer luck; Ryan came into Terry's and my lives, and filled a hole that was gaping. And no one was more surprised than I was that I fell for him.
But Charese's parents, already upset that I moved the only child of their only child away from them, were not exactly thrilled with me and Ryan getting together. Ryan has convinced himself that it's homophobia, and bigotry, and that they hate him out of hand. I think that's ridiculous--after all, they still care about me, despite the fact that I guess I'm bisexual. It's more that, while they are a little old-fashioned, sure, they just hate to see that I'm getting along without Charese, and with someone else. Not that they want me to be miserable or anything, just that seeing me bounce back so quickly is something of a shock. So of course Ryan makes them uncomfortable.
The problematic part is that they made it clear to me that he's not really welcome in their home, but that they're desperate to see Terry. And I want them to see him--after all, he's their only grandchild. And I think it might do them some good to see that he's happy, and that Ryan is a part of that happiness. And Terry adores them, and misses them, and it wouldn't be fair at all to not let him see them. But the only way to do that was to leave Ryan out.
I know it sucks. I worked out a deal--Ryan is going to be with us for Christmas morning and brunch, and we're only going to be here for two nights anyway. It's not like it's such a big deal or such a long time. And damn it, Ryan is an adult, he can cope; Terry is practically a baby, and he deserves this! It's not that I don't love Ryan, it's that if I have to choose between him and Terry, Terry wins, every time.
And I had to choose.
It's just for three days, two nights. Ryan won't stay mad forever. And I'm sure that when Ty and Janet get to know him at brunch, they'll adore him as much as Terry and I do. Who wouldn't? But Ryan isn't really as cool with this as I'd hoped. Since we first discussed it, a few weeks ago, he's gotten really sulky whenever it comes up; he pretty much degenerated to giving me the cold shoulder today.
What does he want from me? I know it's not a perfect situation, but he's here, and he'll be here with us on Christmas morning, which was the best compromise I could manage. I really did try my best; my in-laws were dead set against Ryan being there at all. They really want to pretend that it's Christmas just like it used to be, but Charese is just stuck at work or something, but she'll be right home very soon. And as much as I'd love to indulge in that fantasy where Charese comes sweeping in the door to my new house and demands to know why I moved without her, I don't think it's healthy.
And Ryan didn't even give me a hug before he stalked off. Which sucks, because, as awkward as I am about actual sex and stuff--I lived most of my life as a heterosexual man, and still find actually doing more than snuggling and making out with a man a little awkward--Ryan and I are always extremely affectionate. We do cuddle, and hug, and usually give each other a peck on the lips, even in public. Which I know Ryan loves, because he's told me many times how much it means to him.
But no. Not even a goodbye to me, just to Terry, and then off. Well, fine, Grinch. I wanted to make the best of this, but whatever. See if I care.
Terry's grandparents still have a car-seat, which, thankfully, he hasn't outgrown yet. So once we've got the luggage, which Ty insists on taking out of my hands to carry himself, it's off to the car and on the way to the house where I've spent so much time. And it feels eerie being there again, after moving, and knowing Charese isn't there. There are signs of her everywhere; the Tellers are big picture takers, and aside from the many pictures of Terry, and pictures of me and Charese with Terry, right up on the mantle, front and center above the Christmas stockings, is our wedding picture.
My breath catches in my throat.
I hoist Terry up to see. "That's me and Mommy," I tell him.
He smiles. "I like that picture."
"Me too, baby."
"Where's Ryan?" he asks.
I blink. "What?"
"How come Ryan's not there?"
"Because I... Ryan and I weren't together then. You remember, you never met him until we moved."
"Yeah, but..." Terry considers. "I miss Mommy, but I like when you kiss Ryan better. He smiles more."
I examine the picture. Charese and I were kissing, her veil a little in the way, so it's hard to tell that we were both smiling. We certainly were in all the other pictures. But she was a pretty serious woman, and it's true that she didn't smile as easily as Ryan does. And while we were very open about being in love, she was reserved about being physical when there was anyone else around, including our son; so I guess Terry didn't see us kiss as often. And I don't know. Maybe it's true that whenever we kiss, Ryan's face lights up. I think it's that he's still surprised we kiss at all, considering that I certainly had never thought we'd get together or anything. I was straight!
But maybe not. I don't know. I just wished Terry remembered his mother smiling more.
"Mommy used to read to you when you went to bed at night," I remind him, setting him down and leading him to the room that Janet made up for him.
"I like when you read better," he says.
I frown. "Do you remember Mommy?"
"She smelled nice. But she made me take too many baths."
I smile a little bit. "She smelled nice because she was so clean. Because she took baths every day."
Terry makes a face. "Not worth it."
"You might change your mind someday," I say.
"Don't think so!"
I laugh. "Well, fine. We'll see." He sits down on the bed and I sit next to him. "Do you remember when Mommy used to cook pancakes?"
"Yeah!" he says enthusiastically. "She put, um, batter on my nose and kissed it."
I smile at that memory. She did it every weekend. "Yeah, they tasted good, too."
"Yeah, but she didn't let me eat Lucky Charms never."
"They had too much sugar."
"You let me have Lucky Charms," he points out. Darn my son's overly developed sense of logic!
"Well, not every day," I laugh.
"You should every day."
"Only if you take a bath every day."
"Not worth it!"
"Michael!" It's Janet's voice. "Terry! We've got cookies!"
"Cookies!" Terry yells back enthusiastically. Janet makes the most amazing cookies. We hurry back downstairs, where we are, indeed, greeted with a plate of sugar cookies, topped with red and green sprinkles. And two cups of milk. Terry scrambles on to a kitchen stool and begins to help himself.
"Be careful not to spoil your lunch," Janet says, but she winks at him, and Terry's face lights up. In other words, he can spoil all he wants. I'd object, but it is Christmas, and I don't mind too much.
"So, Michael." Janet gives me a warm smile. "I heard you talking about Charese, hmm?"
I nod. "We were missing her."
"Well, I have a surprise for the two of you!" she coos. "Grampa and I put together a bunch of her pictures in an album just for you. Do you want to see what she was like growing up?"
"Yeah!" Terry says enthusiastically.
"Well, good! Ty, bring in that album!"
Charese's dad ambles in a moment later, clutching a thick photo album, which he slaps down on the table. We spend the next half-hour studying the whole album, which is full of pictures of Charese. Baby pictures, her first steps, her first day of school, dressed up for the holidays, middle school pictures, her first dance, a birthday party, every high school yearbook photo, as a bridesmaid in her cousin's wedding, and on and on. Terry thinks it's great, and I...
Well, I maybe start to weep. Just a little. She was so young and so beautiful and amazing, and seeing her at her happiest just takes a lot out of me.
I kiss Terry's forehead. "I'm fine, baby. I've just got to go... wash my face. Okay?"
He nods seriously. He's a sensitive kid; I'm sure me being upset upsets him, too. "Everything's fine, Terry. I just miss Mommy."
"I miss her, too."
I wipe my cheek. "I'll be right back," I promise, and hurry over to he nearest bathroom so I can douse my face with warm water. When I'm cleaned up and dried off, I find Ty and Janet waiting for me in the hall. "Sorry," I apologize quickly. "I just... I'm sure you understand."
"Of course." Janet hesitates. "Terry is watching TV, there are so many Christmas specials on. I hope you don't mind, we wanted to talk to you."
"Oh, sure," I say. I'm not a huge fan of just dumping my kid in front of the TV, but I haven't seen the Tellers in months. I don't mind talking with them for a few minutes. We walk back to the kitchen and I pick up another cookie.
"Well, son," Ty says, sounding very paternal, "I have to say, we were relieved to hear you talking about Charese like that. To see how much she still means to you."
"Yeah," I say. The photo album is still open, now to Charese's prom picture. I don't know who she's with, but I'm definitely hotter. But she's striking, in a dark red prom dress, her hair done up so just a few curls escape to frame her face.
"Well, uh," Ty clears his throat. "We wanted to talk to you a little. You've been a bit... different lately. We just wanted to make sure that you and Terry are okay."
I nod. "Terry and I are doing great, I guess, as great as we can... He misses you, and his mother, but things are... We're happy enough."
"Well, Terry can come visit us anytime he wants," Janet says. "You, too, of course. We just couldn't help but noticing... Well, I know people do odd things when they're upset, depressed, and it would be hard for anyone to cope with losing someone like Charese. But you... this business with your friend... Well, you don't think it's real, do you?"
I blink. "Do you mean Ryan?"
"Sure," she says. "Ryan."
"It's..." I trail off. How do I justify a relationship like the one I have with Ryan, to the parents of my late wife? "It is serious," I say. "Ryan and I... I love him," I say finally. "I know that must be a little odd for you..."
"What we think is that it must be odd for Terry," Ty clarifies. "I mean, what kind of little boy wants to see his father like that?"
Janet coughs politely. "It just isn't normal for a little boy to have to live with two grown men. I mean, what will people say?"
"That Ryan and I love each other?" I suggest. "Look, I know it seems a little strange, but Ryan really is good parent. I'm sure once you get to know him--"
"We don't want to get to know him," Ty says sharply. "We're worried, son. About you--about Terry."
"Well, it's just... Confusing, don't you think? For poor Terry--first his mother dies, and now this. He's going to be so confused about... about men, and women, and what they're supposed to do," Janet says nervously. Like this isn't how she expected this conversation to go.
This is when it slowly starts to dawn on me what the hell they're talking about.
"You think Terry is confused because... what, Ryan is gay?"
"Well... yes. Michael, honey, I can't say I understand what's going on between you and him, but really isn't normal. For a man like you, who was married and has a child, to suddenly run off with a man as though you were gay yourself."
"It's not as easy as that," I say, suddenly tired. It must be jetlag. "I know it's strange that Ryan and I are suddenly together, but we work together. We love each other, and he and Terry love each other."
"That's not normal!" Janet insists. "It probably isn't even safe."
Ty takes a deep breath. "To leave your son alone with a man like that. Some of the things they do--"
"Michael, come on now. We've read some very disturbing things about his type of person." He sounds so calm. "We understand that things are hard for you, but... Is that really what you want to do to your son?"
I swallow hard, trying to choke down anger. I don't yell when Terry is in the house; he doesn't need to see me at my worst. "Terry is my son," I finally snarl at the two of them. "I would never allow anyone to hurt him. Never. Ryan is an amazing step-father to him, and if you don't believe me, ask Terry."
"He's only a child, he doesn't understand. We thought you would know better, Michael," Ty says.
"And I don't understand how you could even--why--this just makes no sense. It makes no sense!" Janet adds.
"I guess if you're stupid enough to accuse my partner of harming my son when you've never even met him, it would be hard to figure out." I stand up abruptly. "I'm going out. Try not to feed my son any lies while I'm gone."
"Don't say anything else to me." I clench my fist. "I defended you to him. When he called you homophobic, I defended you!" I shake my head and stalk out of the room, towards the living room where Terry is watching A Charlie Brown Christmas. "Terry, baby?"
"Huh?" he asks, not looking away from the TV.
"I have to go out for awhile. You be good, okay? No more cookies."
"Three more cookies," he says automatically. So my son and I haggle; so what?
"Three more--after lunch."
Terry considers it, but he's distracted by the TV. "Okay," he finally says.
"Be good for Gramma and Grampa," I remind him. "Don't watch TV all day."
"Daddy, I know," Terry says, rolling his eyes. "One hour."
"Right. One hour." I also have strict rules about the television. I prefer my son to think, not tune out. "Love you, Terry."
"You too, Daddy." He's already glued to the TV. Sigh.
I stomp out of the room. Where the hell is a pissed off father supposed to go to blow off steam and figure out how to apologize to his partner on Christmas Eve?
The cable in my hotel sucks, but there's free coffee and cookies in the lobby, and a computer for internet access. When the hotel hostess comes to refill the coffee, she gives me a sympathetic look. "Hey, you want to go in for pizza or anything?" she asks me, winking. "You've been sitting here alone for three hours."
"Just... killing time," I sigh. "Pizza sounds great. Is there anywhere that will deliver on Christmas Eve?"
"Yeah, we already ordered. I hope plain cheese is okay?"
"It sounds great." I lean back in the chair. I figure she's flirting with me, but it's kind of nice to feel like someone actually wants to flirt with me. Sigh. Stupid Michael.
"So what brings you to a lonely hotel on Christmas Eve?"
I shrug. "I think my boyfriend is about to break up with me, since he won't introduce me to his wife's parents."
"It's a lot like living in a soap opera."
"Clearly." She laughs. "You want to talk about it?"
I open my mouth to do so, but my cell starts ringing, and it's Mikey's ring. "One sec," I say. "That'll be the bad news from the boyfriend now." I dig into my pocket for my phone. "Yes?" I snap.
"I need you to come pick me up from the mall."
"I walked to the mall from the house, but it's kind of far from the mall to your hotel, and since I'm not going back there until I stop wanting to spit at my in-laws, and I'd much rather kiss and make up with you. Oh, and I bought you another Christmas present, because nothing says I'm sorry like material goods, right?"
Blink, blink. "What?"
Michael sighs. "Can you come get me, Ryan? I screwed up and I need you."
I swallow. "I'll be right there, Mikey. Just tell me where you are." I type up the directions, because I have no paper, and tell him I love him before hanging up.
"I take it that wasn't bad news?" the hostess asks. "You need to print that?"
"Yes, please; and I have no idea. Michael's acting very weird. I guess I'll miss the pizza."
"You should head off, the mall will close early today." She pats me on the shoulder. Ah, not flirting anymore. Faghag. I can deal with that.
"Well, if he breaks up with me, I'll give you the DL if you'll promise to help me find a flight home tomorrow so I can move out of his house before he gets home."
"It'll be fine. I'll save a slice of pizza for you," she promises, and with that, I'm on my way. And I do my best to hurry; Mikey sounded upset, and no matter how pissed off I am at him, I don't want him stranded somewhere, alone and upset. Maybe that makes me a pushover; I don't care. We're kind of permanently together, and there are things you do for your partner, even when pissed off.
The mall is indeed closed when I get there; driving around to the store from which Michael had called me reveals him sitting on the curb, looking depressed and chilly. Despite the fact that we're in California, and to my New York bred self it feels insanely warm, I hit the heat, then roll down the window. "Hey, sailor, looking for a ride?" I call.
His head snaps up and he stares at me. He smiles a little wanly. "Hi, Ryan."
"C'mon, honey," I sigh.
Michael stands up and clamors over to the car, a small bag clutched in one hand, but pauses. Then he reaches inside my rolled down window, wraps his arms around my shoulders, and kisses me. When he pulls away, he gives me a quizzical look. "You're mad at me, huh?"
"What tipped you off?" I ask wryly.
But he smiles. "Terry is right. Even when you're mad at me, you smile when I kiss you."
I blink. So I did. "Shut up," I answer.
He gets into the car. "It's sweet," he says. "I love it."
"I am mad at you," I remind him.
"I know. That's because you haven't heard my awesome apology yet."
I roll my eye a little and roll the window up. "Let me know when it's warm enough, the heat is killing me," I answer flatly.
"I'm fine, then," he answers, and turns it off. "I mean, it's probably past time for me to start doing things to be nice to you. Considering how much you do for me and Terry, and we never even thank you."
"Terry usually does," I answer.
"I suppose I should try and practice what I preach at Terry about being polite, huh?"
We're driving now, and it's awkward. Mostly because I am mad, though Mikey clearly isn't anymore. And I suspect he's realized the errors of his ways. But given the cold shoulder I got from his in-laws, and being dumped at a hotel on Christmas, he doesn't really get instant forgiveness this time.
But when he murmurs, "Thank you for picking me up, Ryan. I'm really glad you're here," I can't help but soften a little. He does care about me. And I sincerely doubt he's going to dump me, if that's the case.
An awkward ten minutes later, we pull into the hotel parking lot. The hostess waves at me from behind her desk as we stride off to my room. For a change, I get the keycard to work with no problem (I hate those things; what's wrong with actual keys?) and with the door shut behind us, I get ready to snap at him. But he beats me to the punch, fiddling with the bag he's been clutching.
"I fully admit that I was insensitive, leaving you alone on Christmas. I also admit that I was very wrong about the Tellers, and you were right; they were homophobic, and horrible, and I couldn't stay there and listen to them talk about you like that. About... about me and you. Because I love you so much, and I'm so lucky to have you, and I can't believe I treated you like that. I'm sorry, I'm so, so sorry. Did I forget anything?"
I blink. "No, I think that more or less covers everything."
"Can you forgive me?"
I sit down on the bed next to him and wrap my arms around him. "Do you even have to ask?" I ask. "I love you."
His face lights up. "Can I stay here tonight, with you? I don't really want to leave Terry with those... With them, but I want to spend some time with you. And he'd be so disappointed..."
"Honey," I say seriously, "you will always be welcome anywhere I am, and I will never say that you can't share a bed with me." Something occurs to me, thinking back on what he's said.
Michael really doesn't identify as gay, and never had reason to until a couple of months ago. I'm the first and only guy he's been with, and our friends were all very happy for us. So he's never really run into anyone who, well, wasn't okay with us. He's only ever seen homophobia when it's happened to me, in high school, and then more recently, when I got fired. He knows it exists, but since he's never really been gay, it's never had a serious personal impact on him.
This is probably the first time he's had to deal with anyone homophobic. My poor partner.
I wrap my arms around him and kiss him. "Do you want to talk about it?" I ask.
He gets what I mean, but shakes his head. "Not really. They just didn't even try to understand. I thought it would just be okay, once they got used to it, but..."
"Some people don't get used to it," I surmise. "Mikey, I'm sure they weren't bad people, but--"
"I don't know," he says. "They weren't when Charese was here. I don't remember them being horrible. But..."
"I know, honey," I say quietly. "I know."
He hugs me back. "I really wish you hadn't been right," he confesses.
"Hey, me too. I'm really sorry they weren't so nice to you."
"Don't be. They made me realize why you're so amazing." He smiles a little and disentangles himself from me. "Sit there for a minute, okay?"
He gets up and picks up the bag he brought in, which is small and has no logo on it. He turns around so I can't see what he pulls out, but there's some sort of clicking noise. When he turns back towards me, he actually drops on to his knees, and holds up a very small box.
"I know I've already asked you to share my life, but every day I spend with you I realize how wonderful you are all over again. And I don't ever want you to forget that. And I want everyone else to know it, too."
The ring in the box is a gold band. It's got what looks like a Celtic knot pattern running all the way around it, between two plain stripes. It's fairly simple, and not too feminine, and gorgeous. And it's also very clearly a wedding ring.
"Oh, god," is all I manage to say.
"Would you wear it?" he asks quietly. "If you don't like it, I mean, that's okay. They didn't have much of a selection and I didn't have much time to shop, they were trying to kick me out as quickly as possible. But if you don't like it, that's okay. I just wanted to, I mean, I wanted to get you something really nice."
I swallow hard. "It's perfect."
"Yeah." I don't feel like I can really even speak. Especially not when Michael takes my hand and slides the ring on to my finger. I don't know how he knows my ring size, but he got it right.
"One more thing," he says quietly.
"I want you to adopt Terry. Formally."
I truly don't know what to say at this point. I nod, and I look at my wedding ring. And what can I do but reach for Michael? I pull him off the floor and on to the bed to kiss him, and I kiss him again and again and again. And when he starts to squirm a little, we shift on the bed so he's pinned beneath me, not unpleasantly. "God, I love you," I breath, almost into his ear.
"I love you too," he answers. "So much, Ryan. I love you so much."
And then I kiss him again for good measure.
I'm sorry, I'll be coherent again in a moment.
Okay, I'm back. I'm not dressed yet or anything, but Ryan and I are done, at least for now, and he's pulled me into his arms. We're both a little sweaty and worn out, but I'd have to say my apology was accepted. Several times over, in fact.
Considering we don't have sex too often (due to a combination of living with a small child and me still being very, very nervous about this whole gay thing) we're awfully good at it. At least, Ryan is. Mmmmm.
Ryan shifts against me and it eventually dawns on me that he's studying his ring. "It wasn't an impulse, you know," I say.
"Getting you a ring. I know it was spur of the moment that I did it, but I had been thinking about it for awhile."
"What I'm saying is, I wanted you to know that you and I are real, and serious, and forever. And we're a family, you and me and Terry. The ring is really just symbolic, but I... It just..."
"You know it never bothered me, though, right?"
"You wearing your ring, still." He shrugs a little, and I feel a spasm of guilt. I have been wearing my wedding ring the whole time we've been together; I only take it off to shower. I feel naked without it.
And it reminds me of Charese.
"How did you know I felt bad about it?"
"Because you're too sweet. And I know you very, very well."
"Why didn't it bother you? It would have bothered me if it was the other way around..."
"Because I know how much she means to you," Ryan says. "And I don't want to ever impose on that. I wish I'd met her."
"You'd have liked her."
"You want to tell me about her? How'd you two meet, anyway?"
"It was in a study group, sophomore year," I explain, and launch into the whole story. My crush on her kept me tongue tied, so she assumed I didn't like her; a mutual friend set us up on a blind date, not knowing we knew each other, and I confessed I liked her to begin with. She felt the same. It ended up as the first date of many, we got engaged the beginning of senior year, and married two months after graduation. Terry came along eleven months after that, and four and a half years later, she was gone.
But Ryan gets me focused on the good memories--there were a lot of them. We were happy, really happy. And it's actually kind of nice, you know, to talk about her and be happy, while I'm in the arms of someone else I love. Ryan doesn't say much, but he listens. And finally murmurs, "You know, I would have liked her. I'd have been jealous, but I'd have liked her."
"Yeah." He kisses my cheek. "I'm sorry."
"What are you sorry for?"
"I'm sorry I'm so happy with you, and it's only because you lost her. I know I'm not always a great consolation prize."
"You're not a consolation prize. I'm sorry if I ever made you feel that way."
"You don't, I just... I know you'd be happier with her."
"Yes and no, Ryan," I say. "I know what I'm missing, with her gone. I'd never know what I missed with you if she were here. And... I miss her, of course I do. But I am happy. With you. She'd have wanted me to be happy, sooner and not later, and how lucky can a guy be to have two fantastic people in his life?"
"I'm glad I make you happy." He sounds a little choked, like he did when I gave him the ring. So I kiss him.
"Speaking of making people happy, we have a dinner to attend."
"I wasn't invited."
"I'm inviting you now," I tell him. "And if they don't like it, we'll take Terry back here, order in Chinese, and watch Christmas movies on cable all night."
"You don't have to do that for me, Michael."
"But I want to," I say. "Because they need to get used to you, and I won't have them poisoning Terry's mind."
"You're hot when you're defiant," he says, and kisses me again.
Well, maybe Terry can wait another little while.
It feels like a little after six when we get out, but it's actually several hours earlier, due to our cross-country flight. As we walk through the lobby, Ryan pauses, then grabs my arm and pulls me to the desk, where the bored hostess is also watching Christmas specials. She looks up and grins. "I take it there was no breakup?"
"Nope," he says, which leaves me wondering what hey were discussing before he came and got me. But then he holds out his hand and shakes it impatiently. "Look look look!"
She looks. "I take it the ring is new?"
"Isn't it beautiful?"
"We have to go scandalize his wife's parents now," he says. She raises an eyebrow.
"Just to make sure they haven't upset our son," I add.
She blinks. "That does sound a little like a soap opera," she says. "Well, have a merry Christmas!"
"It's a really nice ring," Ryan says, taking my hand again, as we walk out to the car. I give him directions to the house, and take a deep breath. "You can still change your mind," he says. "I don't want to make things awkward with your in-laws, now that I'm done sulking."
"I know. Let's go," I say, trying to get myself worked up for this. They won't be happy with me, after the way I walked out earlier; they sure won't be happy with Ryan. But still.
I knock on the door and Ty answers it. He glares at us, but stands aside so we can walk in. Terry and Janet are in the living room, making something out of popsicle sticks, glue, pop-poms, and other art stuff. He looks up. "Hi, Daddy. Hi, Ryan. Ryan! You didn't get any cookies!"
Cookies play a very important part in Terry's holiday season, apparently. Or maybe Terry figures he can sneak another one if he offers some to Ryan.
"I thought we weren't supposed to have dinner before cookies," Ryan says.
"Ryan, it's Christmas."
"Well, I don't think I can argue with that logic," Ryan says. "One minute, Terry." He looks over at me and Charese's parents. "Uh, Mr. Teller, Mrs. Teller, it's nice to meet you again. I just... I mean, I wanted to say, you know, I love Terry and Michael, and I know you do too. And I think it's important for Terry to get to see his grandparents. So we'll try and get him here a few times a year at least."
Janet blinks. Ty scowls. Ryan shrugs. "So, where are these cookies?" he asks Terry.
Terry jumps to his feet to lead the way. "Daddy, you come, too," he declares.
"So, how many cookies did you sneak, Terry?" I ask, as he leads the way.
"I didn't sneak any, Daddy, Gramma gave them to me. I asked real nice!"
"Sure you did," I say skeptically, but follow him towards the kitchen.
"Gramma says when the, uh, the next, uh, bunch--"
"Batch," she corrects him quickly.
"Yeah, when the batch is done, um, I can use frosting to decorate them!"
"Sounds fun," Ryan says easily, as we're all led into the kitchen.
"You can, too," Terry says, then pauses to look at his grandmother. "Can't he, Gramma? Please?"
I suck in a breath. I have no idea if he's understood anything that's been going on. I kind of hope not, because he's been through more stress than any kid his age should have to go through. I don't want anything else dark in his life, now or ever; but definitely not something like homophobia, and not coming from someone he loves as much as his grandparents.
Janet looks at Ty, who goes tense, but finally lets out a breath. Janet sighs. "If that's what you want, honey."
"Yeah! Ryan made Daddy a birthday cake and he let me help with the frosting. I tried to draw Mommy and Daddy on the cake but they looked like squiggles but it was okay because it still tasted good."
I smile. This is what I want from life. My partner and my son enjoying themselves, and both knowing how much I love them. But with Charese still in our lives--her memory, her touch in all sorts of little ways. I can see them. I just hope that her parents can, too, and that they can cope with their own problems, so they can see that Ryan isn't a replacement for Charese. He's a warm, loving, wonderful parent in his own right.
He's a warm, loving, wonderful person in his own right. And I'm lucky to be with him, and I love him.
"Daddy," Terry says, pulling me back to the present. "You sit next to Ryan and Gramma and Grampa sit there--" he points to the stools on the other side of the table, knowing full well that we'll humor him, because he's basically the center of everyone's world, "and I'll get the cookies and sit at the end."
"Are you sure you can hold the whole plate by yourself?" Janet asks.
"Yes, Gramma. Sit!"
She sits obediently, with Ty next to her. Ryan looks a little nervous and jumpy, not that I blame him, and Terry manages to very carefully balance a platter that's almost as big as he is, and deposits it in front of us.
"Ryan gets to pick a cookie first because he didn't get any yet. Except for me, because I carried them." He stares at the plate intently, then selects a cookie. "And now Grampa and then Daddy and then Gramma."
No one argues.
"Grampa," Terry says, as we munch cookies quietly, "I really think Ryan's gotta stay here with us tonight. I know he says Santa's magic but I don't think we should risk it."
"Risk what?" Ty asks warily.
"Not getting any presents. Santa might get confused if he can't find all of us."
Ryan stares down at his wedding ring and says, "Terry, Santa will know right where I am. It's not too far away."
"Terry--" Ty starts.
"Daddy, I don't want Ryan to go, I don't want him to!" His lip quivers. Oh dear. We did get him up very early this morning, and though he dozed a little on the plane, normally he'd have been down for a nap quite awhile ago. He says he's too big to nap, but when he doesn't, he gets tired by the evening, and when he's tired he's more easily upset.
And normally, this is where I'd jump in and get him calmed down, but if he's going to guilt his grandparents into letting Ryan stay the night here instead of at a hotel, I think maybe I'll sit back and see what happens.
I'm probably a terrible father.
"Terrence, honey, Ryan's already got a hotel room, and he'll be here early in the morning..." Janet says, but the lip quivering has gotten worse and his eyes are tearing up.
"No!" he yells insistently. "No, Ryan's gotta be here, I don't want him to go to a hotel! I want him to stay here! Ryan, Ryan!"
And there's the tears, and yelling, and shaking. He gets off the stool and is immediately on the floor. I am shockingly indifferent to this; after all, Terry's my son. When he misses his nap, he gets cranky, and cries. He might be a generally well behaved kid, but that's part of being five. And normally I'd step in and calm him down, and it goes against every child-raising belief of mine to give in to a temper tantrum (I do not want Terry thinking he'll always get his way if he cries).
On the other hand...
"Terry, honey, oh, sweetie," Janet says, immediately cooing and trying to calm him down.
The crying is now too intense to make out a lot of words, but the sentiment is pretty clear. I look at Ty and raise an eyebrow. He looks at his grandson.
Ryan also looks pretty startled. He opens his mouth, and I shake my head no. Either Terry is going to cry himself out, or get his way. But his grandparents seem to be a little shell shocked.
"Terry," I say finally. "You know crying isn't how you get your way."
"No buts, you know better. What do you do if you want something?"
He snuffles. "Ask," he says in his most pitiful little boy voice. Janet coos.
"Uh huh, and what if a grown up tells you no?"
"Ask why," he says finally, still sniffling. He should probably blow his nose and wash his face, and lie down until dinner. (Asking why is one of Ryan's parenting innovations. He discovered Terry is much more agreeable if he knows why he's being denied whatever it is he wants. Ryan takes him very seriously, and he loves that.)
"Right!" I say enthusiastically. "Come here, baby." I hold out my arms, and poor, exhausted Terry all but throws himself into them. And with only a little more coaxing, he catches his breath and turns to his grandparents.
"Gramma... Grampa? Could, um, can Ryan please stay the night with me and Daddy?"
"Well, but, Terry, he's already got a very nice hotel room," Ty says diplomatically.
"So?" Terry demands, pouting. "It's easier for Santa if he's here. And I don't want Daddy to be lonely and sad."
Ryan inhales kind of sharply, but doesn't interrupt.
"Daddy was really, really sad before Ryan moved in," Terry continues. "Pleeeeease?"
Well, please is quite preferable to crying, and after a long, tense moment, Ty nods. "I guess," he rumbles.
Terry lets out a glee filled squeal, and I stand up. "And you, young man, need to rest before dinner."
"Don't you 'But Daddy' me, young man," I say. "One tantrum is enough for one night." I glance at Janet. "When's dinner?"
"An hour. I went a little overboard with the cookie baking, the oven isn't free yet."
"But I wanna frost the cookies."
"After dinner," I tell him firmly.
"No buts. You lie down until dinner, and after dinner there's more cookies."
"And milkshakes," Ty says.
"Milkshakes?" Terry sounds skeptical. "With chocolate ice cream?"
"Only if you nap."
Terry debates, but before he has a chance to decide it's not worth it, I've whisked him upstairs to the room he's using. "Daddy..." he says. "How come Gramma and Grampa don't like Ryan?"
I pull a blanket up over him. "They just don't know him, yet."
"You were sad when Ryan went away today."
"I love Ryan a lot."
"Me too." Terry yawns. "I'm not tired, Daddy."
"Sure you're not, kiddo."
"I want a milkshake."
"Of course." I kiss his forehead. "You get some rest and I'll wake you for dinner."
"Of course, baby."
I leave him dozing. See, I keep saying my son is sensitive. He knew I was upset about Ryan going, and realized that his grandparents don't like Ryan. And, sweet boy that he is, he wanted to fix it.
Back in the kitchen, things are tense. No one is talking; Ryan is staring up at the ceiling, Janet is doing something over at the oven, and Ty is glaring at Ryan.
"Look," I say, and everyone stares at me. "I think it's obvious how Terry feels about Ryan. And I want to make it even more clear that I love him. I won't let him be treated like a second class citizen, not when I can stop it. So the answer is either you welcome him into this house when Terry and I visit, or Terry and I stop visiting."
They stare at me, flabbergasted. I look at Ryan, and can tell he's trying not to smile.
"You don't have to answer me now, but either way, Ryan is the spending the night, since you did promise Terry. Whether we leave tomorrow or the day after, as planned, is up to you."
There. I said it and it's done. The situation I wanted to avoid, Terry losing his grandparents forever, is a distinct possibility.
But on the other hand, I don't want anyone poisoning my son's mind against Ryan. And if the Tellers are truly so homophobic that they can't welcome Ryan into their home, quite frankly, Terry isn't losing as much as I thought.
I sit down next to Ryan and he takes my hand. Neither one of us wants to talk, not in front of the Tellers, but he squeezes my hand. After a moment, he leans over to murmur, "You didn't have to," into my ear.
"Yes, I did," I answer. I don't kiss him then and there, but I do smile. "Because I love you. Merry Christmas, Ryan."
He raises an eyebrow, smiling, and says ironically, "And god bless us, every one."