Backstage Romance Ch. 08byikhneumon©
* Jeff *
Mom was all packed and ready to go when I arrived at her sprawling ranch house on the outskirts of town. I greeted her with a kiss on the cheek. "Where are your things?" I asked.
"Already waiting in the Explorer. Come on, let's get your stuff loaded," she answered.
"I thought I was driving..."
"You? Behind the wheel in the snow? In a sports car? Are you trying to give me a heart attack?"
"It's going to snow?"
"Don't you watch the news?"
"I've been in rehearsal..."
"Jeff, I'm your mother, and I love you, and I'm very proud of you, but I do wish you'd plan ahead a bit more often." Remembering my first night with Daniel, I internally conceded she might have a point.
"Your father would have already checked the weather report three times, double-checked the tires, and planned an alternate route in case of delays," Mom continued.
"You divorced Dad."
"Just because my marriage to Gary didn't work out doesn't mean he didn't have many good qualities. Why else would I have married him in the first place?"
That was one thing I appreciated about Mom. She didn't harbor resentment. Even though she had been awarded full custody when she and Dad split in the early '80s, she insisted on keeping him part of our lives. He had been there to share weekend visits, summer vacations, graduations, Julie's wedding, and my first Broadway performance and Hollywood premiere. When he passed away—far too young—in 2002, his second wife, a sweet, unassuming woman named Karen, had even turned to Mom for help planning the memorial service; she and Mom were now close friends.
Within minutes of my arrival, we were on the road, my belongings secured in the back of her Explorer alongside her own bags and homemade apple and pumpkin pies. Julie and Joe lived only ninety minutes' drive out of town ordinarily, but between the threat of snow and the holiday traffic, we didn't expect to arrive until fairly late. Knowing their parents, the kids would be allowed to stay up to greet us when we got there, then hustled off to bed while the adults caught up.
Mom was quiet as she navigated the maze of surface streets out to the highway, humming along softly with Aretha Franklin's voice on the radio. She didn't speak until she was well underway, one highly independent grandma perfectly capable of driving herself over the river and through the woods, thank you very much, to visit her grandkids for Thanksgiving.
"I can feel you bursting from here," she commented. "So tell me about the play. Is it going well? Do you like your castmates? How's Scott?"
"Don't you really mean you'll burst if you don't hear the gossip?" I teased her. "Which question do I answer first? Scott's great, and he can't wait to see you opening night." Scott and Mom had bonded during the post-Timothy transition period, when he took it upon himself to shepherd me through my depression. I had led Mom to believe I was burned out after dealing with a string of failed auditions and disillusionment with Hollywood. "He's outdone himself on this production; I don't think I've had to move so much since I was on Broadway."
"He is an energetic one," she mused. "And what about the rest?"
I felt a surge of gratitude for my fellow cast members. "Well, they're all true pros, they're easy to work with, they've got real talent and they aren't afraid to work hard. Rehearsals have been a bi-- a pain, but I think the final product will be more than worth it. Angela—my co-star—is a knockout but she's also really down to earth; you'll like her a lot. Christina'll drive you crazy with the ditzy act, but she's got a mind like a steel trap. And a very colorful Spanish vocabulary, I recently discovered." I grinned. Mom was quick enough on the uptake to get my implication, and irreverent enough to find it humorous. She gave a meaningful "mm-hmm" in confirmation.
"Heather's a sweetie," I continued. "She's been going through a stressful time lately, but even with all the emotions, she's been totally on top of things during rehearsals. Oh, and Joseph! Talk about going through a tough time, losing his mom and all, but he's still holding up his end as a performer!
"And the crew at the theater is top-notch! I've been completely impressed. The ASM had to step in as an understudy for a while. He did so well, Scott wound up practically making him the assistant director. Seriously, I almost considered asking him for acting lessons." I couldn't help allowing my pride for Daniel to creep into my voice.
"He's that good, huh?" Mom threw me a sideways glance. "I haven't heard you praise someone that highly since you were studying with Professor Ryan in college."
"Well, there might be a connection, now you mention it. He studied under Professor Ryan, a few years after I graduated."
"I always knew I sent you to the right school. And what's the name of this wunderkind?"
"Daniel Lewis. Apparently he's been working at the theater ever since he graduated. I can't imagine why he hasn't been out there trying to make a name for himself, but he seems to be content stage managing. I mean it, Mom, this guy has what it takes, but he says he prefers staying behind the scenes. He's got to be the most humble, unassuming person I've ever met!"
"Everyone has their place where they feel most comfortable," she mused. "Mine certainly wasn't in the kitchen baking pies."
"Your pies are awesome, Mom."
"My sales record is better," she retorted smugly. Mom was one of the top realtors in the area.
"And how's business?" Time to turn the conversation away from dangerous topics before I made her suspicious by babbling on and on about Daniel. And how talented he was. And how adorable. I folded my hands in my lap to hide my erection. What, was I some horny teenager, sporting wood at the slightest provocation? When it came to my Danny Boy, apparently so.
"Business is booming," Mom answered, "but I'm about ready to retire. It's been a great run, but it can't last forever."
"You've been saying that for five years now."
"Then it's about time I started listening to myself, don't you think?"
I shrugged. Mom was not only good at what she did, she enjoyed it immensely. I couldn't imagine what else she could find to do in her retirement that she would find nearly as fulfilling.
Snowflakes began to patter sporadically against the windshield. The traffic was moving slowly, but at least it was moving. Aretha was off the radio, replaced by The Turtles singing "Happy Together." Was it me, or was all the music they were playing on this station older than I was?
Finally, Mom cleared her throat. "So... anyone special I should be aware of?"
God, no, not this conversation.
"Mom, can we not go there?"
"What? You're thirty-six, Jeff, you can't expect me to believe you're not interested in some kind of a relationship."
"You sound like Scott. He said his whole goal in directing this play was to get me laid." I winced all over again remembering that particular conversation.
"Not to be crude, babe, but I think Scott has the right idea. If he's worried about you, then I know it's serious. Ever since you came back from Hollywood you haven't been yourself. Before then, really. When's the last time you were even, you know, intimate with someone?"
Two or three times a night for the last week and a half. But I held my tongue. Call me a coward, but I was not going to come out to my mother in a car in a snowstorm in Thanksgiving traffic. Even though the "storm" was more of a light shower and she had four-wheel drive and a flawless record behind the wheel. So I deflected. I'm good at that. Years of practice in good old sunny California will do that for you. "You know, maybe it makes me sound old-fashioned, but I just don't think men should go around discussing their sex lives with their mothers. That's just too weird, Mom!"
She sighed. "I'm not going to pull the whole 'When are you going to give me grandchildren?' routine on you, Jeff. I'm perfectly content spoiling Megan and Dylan every time Julie gives me chance. But you can't ask a mother not to worry about whether her baby is happy."
I turned and gave her a smile. I hoped it looked fond; it felt strained. "I am happy, Mom. Honestly." Blissfully. If you only knew. "You don't need to worry about me."
"I'm afraid worrying comes with being a parent, sweetheart." But she didn't pursue the subject, to my great relief.
I was feeling cramped and bleary-eyed by the time we pulled up in front of the house. The snow was falling steadily now, but so far less than an inch had collected on the ground and rooftops. I took my bag and the heavier of Mom's two, wondering just how I got so out of shape when I found myself staggering under the weight. Mom slung the smaller bag over her shoulder and carefully lifted out the two pies.
"Nana! Uncle Jeff!" Two small figures were waving from the front porch. I grinned and called back.
"Is that my favorite niece and nephew? I'm not so sure, they've gotten so big since I saw them last!"
Julie joined the kids, gently restraining them from running out into the snow in their pajamas. "Jeff, honestly, did you really make Mom drive the entire way?"
"Didn't give me a choice, sis!" I answered. "She seemed to think I would have us upside down in a ditch if she let me have control of the wheel."
Mom snorted, handed off the pies to Julie, and bent for hugs and kisses from her excited, chattering grandchildren. Julie in turn passed the pies off to her husband Joe, who was hovering in the front door, and gave me a hug. "Happy Thanksgiving, big brother. How's show biz?"
"There's no business like it!" This was our standard greeting, and had been ever since I performed Annie Get Your Gun in high school.
"Well, get in where it's warm and tell us all about it."
"Yes," Mom chimed in, "Be sure to ask about the ASM who can make my son the big-time actor feel inadequate." No, Mom, inadequate is not at all the right word. More like intoxicated or enthralled. Enamored, even.
The kids detached themselves from Mom and came to flank me as I entered the house.
"Are you gonna be in another movie, Uncle Jeff?" asked Megan.
"Can I come see?" chimed in Dylan.
"No, kids, I'm in a play right now. Your Nana and Mommy are coming to see me, but I'm afraid you'd be a little bored by it. It's kind of written for grownups."
"I wouldn't be bored!" protested Dylan.
"Believe me, kid, you would," I laughed. "It's got lots of kissy stuff." As I had anticipated, he made a face. You can count on some things, and a seven-year-old boy's reaction to romantic displays is one of them. Megan, on the other hand, looked unexpectedly thoughtful.
"Who are you kissing, Uncle Jeff?" she asked. "Is it a boy or a girl?"
"Whoa, there, Meggie!" I stopped short and turned to my sister. Julie was practically doubled over trying to restrain her laughter. "Jules, what on earth have you been telling your kids?"
Joe intervened, returning from the kitchen. "My fault, Jeff. Megan caught a few clips from Brothers and Sisters on some entertainment show when I wasn't policing the TV carefully enough. She's been springing interesting questions like that one us for a couple weeks now."
I turned back to my niece. Okay. How to handle this? "Well, Megan, to answer your question, I'll be kissing a girl. Her name is Angela and she's very nice and very pretty. If I was in a play that asked me to kiss a boy, I wouldn't have any problem with it. But this play doesn't need me to do that."
Megan digested that. I could tell there were more questions brewing behind those blue eyes, but her mother intervened. "Megan, that's enough pestering Uncle Jeff. Why don't you and Dylan get upstairs and brush your teeth, okay?" Megan pouted a bit, but pattered up the stairs behind her brother, who probably couldn't wait to get away from all the talk about kissing. "Come on, Jeff," Julie continued. "Let's go get you a drink. After fielding that one, you've earned it!" She took my arm and escorted me the rest of the way to the living room, leaving my bags in the entry for the time being.
I was always impressed by how welcoming Julie and Joe had made their home. Of course, that was part of my little sister's talent: She was an interior decorator, with a knack for delivering tasteful quality with a personal touch. She and Mom had helped me pick out and furnish my own place in town. I still grinned thinking about the fights we had over my refusal to consider using more accent colors. "Jeff, you're an actor, for God's sake, what's wrong with giving your home a little character?" she had huffed.
Joe was a web designer, and worked largely from home. Together he and Julie somehow managed to order their time around both the kids' needs and the erratic demands of their work. Dad, however admirable he might have been in other areas, hadn't ever been able to achieve that kind of balance. No doubt that was one of the reasons for the divorce. I had been ten, not much older than Megan was now, when Mom and Dad split.
So there we all were, the Williams-Andrews-Roberts family, together for Thanksgiving. Someone had put cider on to heat: I could smell the enticing aroma of apples and cinnamon wafting from the kitchen. Surrounded by the cheerful hubbub of my family, I was surprised to realize I was feeling melancholy. My family had just gotten larger by one, and he couldn't be there to share it with us.
Julie gave me a nudge. "Hey, where'd you go, Jeff? Lost in a role already?"
Not the role you might expect, sis. I composed my face and dutifully committed myself to playing a loving son, brother and uncle. And confirmed bachelor. Not that there was anything gay about that at all.
Where are you, Daniel?
* Daniel *
I was standing on the terrace of the university theater again, looking out over the snow-dusted quad. The winter sun was hanging low and pale in the sky. Jeff stood beside me, holding my gloved hand in his. The breeze was chilly, but his body was warm next to mine. I pressed closer to him, drinking it in. He waved his free hand toward the view.
"It's all for you, Danny Boy. All for you. I'd give you the world if I could. You know that, babe, don't you? You're the one I've been waiting for. You deserve it all."
My breath caught in my throat at the passion and sincerity in his words. Mark was wrong, he had to be, all he knew was the actor, not the man. He didn't know this side of Jeff, the side that cherished and protected and thought the world of me, little as I deserved it.
"I want you so much," I told him, the words coming more freely than I ever thought possible. "I don't need the world, I just need you. Don't ever leave me, Jeff."
He let go of my hand, took a few steps away to lean over the rail, head bowed with emotion. "I'm not going anywhere. I couldn't. Not since I've found you. I'd been searching for so long, I'd almost forgotten what I was looking for. Or that I was even looking."
The breeze died down, and in the wintry stillness I said it. The words I had been holding onto like a secret treasure, afraid to reveal them to the world. "I love you, Jeff."
He sprang upright and turned back toward me, and suddenly I wasn't facing Jeff anymore. This man was taller and lankier. His hair was blond, but paler than Jeff's, long, curly and disheveled. His eyes were dilated so wide they looked black, but I knew they were ordinarily green instead of bright blue. His angular face was flushed and distorted with anger. I stumbled back in shock and fear.
"You slut!" he howled, and a sudden blast of cold air across the terrace nearly took me off my feet. "You were supposed to be mine, mine alone, you swore to me, and I catch you chasing after fucking sugar daddies behind my back!"
"No! It's not like that, I swear! Please, I'm sorry!" I retreated, babbling apologies and explanations, trying to calm him down. I stumbled and found myself backed against the opposite railing, raising my hands too slowly, too late, as his fist came hurtling toward my face.
I sat up in bed, gasping for air and drenched with sweat. I was trembling all over. It felt like ages before I could even fumble for the phone on my bedside table. My hands were shaking, and it took three tries to hit the right auto-dial combination to call Kelly. She answered on the fourth ring, sounding sleepy. "Daniel? What's up?"
"Kel..." I could hear my voice tremble, even though I was barely speaking above a whisper. "I had a bad dream... about Brian."
I heard her intake of breath through the phone. "I'll be right there."
* * *
I woke up hours later to the sound of rustling bodies and whispered conversation. It was late morning. Kelly, true to her word, had braved the snowy streets in the middle of the night to reach me, curled up in bed next to me until I calmed down enough to doze for a while, driven me back to her place as soon as it was light, and installed me on her sofa under a haphazard assortment of blankets and comforters.
Josh was there with a cup of hot cocoa when I sat up. "Morning, sleepyhead," he greeted me. "Happy Thanksgiving. Sorry to hear you had a rough night."
Kelly poked her head in from the kitchen. "Mr. I-Can-Sleep-Through-Anything here didn't even hear your call last night. I had to warn him not to trample through here like a stampeding rhino and wake you up: He had no idea you were even here."
I accepted the cocoa gratefully. "Sorry to put you guys out. I hate feeling like a drama queen."
Kelly rolled her eyes. "A drama queen you are so not, Dan. I'm actually surprised you even called. You can be too independent for your own good sometimes."
A drama queen I so was, whatever she said. Normal guys, whatever that means, don't panic and call in the troops over a stupid bad dream.
Kelly crossed to the sofa and sat down next to me. "So, you want to talk about it?" she asked.
Ugh. I was not discussing the first part with her. That was between me and Jeff, even if the Jeff in question was a figment of my imagination and wishful thinking.
"Well, just imagine being cornered by your worst ex-boyfriend, screamed at, called a whore, and assaulted, and that should just about cover it." I was not going to curl into a ball, I was not going to curl into a ball, I was not... fuck. There I went. Hello, fetal position.
Josh let out a quiet "Shit" in the background. Kelly reached over and stroked my back.
"You know he can't hurt you anymore, right?" I managed to nod my head.
"And that you're not any of the things he called you?" Another nod. We can manage yes-no questions. This is good. Just keep breathing.
"Does Jeff know what happened?" And now I couldn't breathe. Thanks, Kel. I shook my head.
Fortunately, Kelly seemed to realize that was about all I could handle and didn't press the question. She kept stroking my back until I relaxed a bit, then stood up from the couch, acting carefully casual.
"You stay put and get some more rest. Josh and I need to get dinner started. The bathroom's available if you want to take a shower; I brought you a change of clothes. When did you start wearing briefs, by the way?" I actually managed a hiccuping laugh at that. "Let us know if you feel up to helping in the kitchen," she concluded. "We can always use an extra pair of hands."
Josh and Kelly made an awesome team in the kitchen. When I finally joined them, feeling a bit more relaxed and human again, Thanksgiving preparations were well underway: roast turkey, stuffing with chestnuts and bacon, honey-balsamic roasted vegetables, and Josh's specialty, orange-ginger glazed yams. One bite of those, and I had never been able to go back to the cloying marshmallow goop again. Kelly put me to work peeling and mashing potatoes while she added dried cranberries, crumbled blue cheese and sliced almonds to the salad mix.