Family Snapshots

Dance loves it when he’s asked about cooking from the old country. He drags Drin to Korean grocery stores and shows him bottles of peculiar pickles and bins of even odder vegetables, he offers charming translations of the hangeul on labels. Likewise, he asks Drin for translations of Spanish labels, asking how things are used, laughing about how many varieties of olives there are.

They both find it harder to talk about other things, to poke about in one another’s history. Drin has watched Dance and Emma veer away from asking each other such questions as if it’s become a habit, in spite of Emma’s normally insatiable curiosity.

Sometimes ordinary life intrudes anyway. When Bud Innes brings Korean businessmen to evenings at the Metro, Dance responds eagerly to their questions, translating with what appears to be a careful scholarly accent and great courtesy. There are rapid bows. To them, he claims politely that he’s just a simple musician and he hasn’t kept up well enough to speculate about the politics, the arts and music scene, the business statistics, or the status of relations with the North. He asks their opinions to better inform himself, nodding, only pausing to apprise Bud of what he’s being told, using very careful phrasing.

swing singer Max Raabe in suit, next to fence
Even in old pictures, Bud is the skeptic

Afterward, in private, he will offer Bud Innes a raking summary of the guest that’s worthy of the most dour of the field auditors Bud employs. That makes Bud grin, and thank him.

He also warns Bud that all those guests may view Dance disapprovingly as a sloppy-mouthed American boy of low blood who is far too effeminate to employ in proper business operations. The swishy hand gestures and prissy faces which illustrate this point make Bud roar with laughter.

“So that’s why we really truly belong not there,” Dance says, and he shrugs, as if it doesn’t matter. Never mind that the odd plangent note in his voice will show up in his violin solos, like an echo, for a week afterward.

Bud shares a thoughtful look with Emma for that, and then with Drin, but he just nods and thanks Dance. After, he always sends Dance and Emma a gift basket, things like fresh fruit or smoked meats or preserves, with a nice card.

Even discussing the weather overseas is too painful sometimes. Emma will comment, now and then, on the monsoons coming off the Sea of Japan. The weather back home provokes Dance to mutter phrases that he’s never translated for any of them. Challenged on this, he laughs at Drin.

“Yucky frozen dog snot! Yucky dripping piggy sweat! Yucky air quality, they are always smoking like chimneys, making horrible stink!” he says, and cracks up at Drin’s startled expression.

“But pigs don’t sweat effectively, that’s why they need wallows to cool off in hot weather,” Emma objects.  “The phrase ‘sweat like a pig’ actually comes from the iron smelting process–”

Drin just starts to smile.  Dance is already chuckling at her.

Emma huffs, and admits she is guilty of teaching him such questionable phrases. He sounds absurdly like the Midwestern exiles at the Metro, the ones who really weren’t sorry to leave either the ice or the humidity.

“Yuck! Horrible! No more, I am so lucky!” Dance exclaims, waving his hands, and laughing.

boy in trad Korean costume walking on sand
In Costume

Jokes and folktales and history about his family are okay, though. Ask Dance about his family when he was a kid back in Korea, and he smiles and tells stories. As long as it’s older family history, Dance is as open and pleased to talk about all of them as anyone could ask for. He’s perfectly happy to drag out his battered old shoebox of print pictures, and talk excitedly about his grandmother-teacher, and his parents and aunts and uncles who work for various American military supply contractors, and the cousins, and their children.

Dance notes wryly that the rest of the family are all much paler than he is, too, some of his cousins called him and his mother very bad names. At college, there was jealousy about him winning the music prize instead of other family members who looked ‘nicer’. Drin assures him, rather fiercely, that he loves the color of Dance’s skin just as it is, and hugs him quite hard.

“Only son is big job,” he says, leaning into Drin’s legs, and glancing up from piles on the floor, with an awkward grimace.

boy in red shirt playing violin
Practicing

In traditional Korean terms, he’s been good in one sense–going off and getting a job in America–but not one that pays well. Then he announced he was queer just before he left; he admits he was pushed stupidly into it, taunted by those same insulting cousins. And then he hurt them with the name-change here in America, so their patrimony is gone. Never mind that he says that he’s done it to avoid bringing shame to the family.

Drin has read online blogs about the culture, about how parents adjust to queer children, and he asks about it.

Dance says he’s spoken to other immigrants, he knows of other Korean families who do handle the adjustment to a gay son with grace, or with sadness, or with resigned humor.

The problem, he explains, is that it requires them to talk about even more basic things first. On personal topics, it seems the honored parents become suddenly, and formidably, traditional. Dance says he isn’t holding his breath that their opinion of him and his gay partner might change. It might, normally, if the honored parents had long enough to calm down.

But not after the shocking package about the murders of girls in Moldova.  His parents aren’t going to overcome their fright at gruesome pictures.  His Grandmother-teacher admits that nobody questioned why his parents received a big box of murder scene pictures.  There were autopsy copies in Slavic languages, with pictures of dead women.  There are images recovered from cameras left at the scenes, showing a man who looks very like him, but not quite.  His facial scars are angled differently.  Dance’s piano teacher knows he isn’t the man in those pictures, but the others in the family are too shocked.  Nobody will talk about it, nobody will listen to her.

His parents could understand Dance is innocent if they ever looked at his mail packages to them. Dance got a Metro Symphony DVD copied over into the correct regional zone for them. He was recorded performing at the Metro on some of the evenings that Moldovan prostitutes died in East Germany, according to those dates listed in the few English-translated documents that Dance received.

He wonders if someone throws away his mailings unopened, in outrage.  He’s got no response from his teacher when he asks if his parents got the package, if they ever watched the DVD.  Then he changes the subject, wiping one hand at an invisible chalkboard to make his point, and he asks instead about Drin’s family.

Drin replies that he himself was lucky, growing up in a large family with plenty of outrageous eccentrics.  It gave him a sense of perspective, at least, but of course his parents freaked out even worse for the knowledge of how truly weird things could get.

bearded man in boots and sweater on rocks
climbing down

They were right, of course. It got weird, some of his military hitches he doesn’t remember too well, and probably better that way. It didn’t go well, he went hungry and took stupid risks and survived in places nobody had business to be. It’s a tossup, to him, if the Army’s rituals save more young fools than they kill.

A few weeks after Dance brought him home to Emma’s little house, he helped Dance dig new holes in its crowded garden. That afternoon taught him how strong his lover really is. How fast he decides his actions, too; Dance’s saws and loppers cut wood as fast as his kitchen paring knives chop vegetables. The man never stops moving.

Standing in the shower together afterward, tired out, stroking that amazing body under the soap and the hot water, he asked Dance more of the details on choosing his new American name.

“Tell me again,” Drin asked in the shower after washing off the sweat and dirt of the garden, quiet and calm, picking up the new shampoo he’s brought over, “why did you stick with it, once you invented it? Dance of Knives. One helluva name, that is.”

He’s not sure Dance will tell him at first. Dance looks away. After a moment, he writes in hangeul on the fogged glass of the shower door, and gives it a wry, considering look. “So old-timey, my parents, they write downward my old name, Ahn Ha Neol.  In English, we put surname last, we write it out Hanul Ahn.  I tell Bud’s guests that I am a Gwangju Ahn, my clan, so I do not embarrass the family, but I am in the Sunheung Ahn.  Nobody prints hangeul down any more,” he says.

Then he writes a shorter name, horizontally.

검무

He says it, slowly, and lets Drin repeat it a few times: “In Korean, I say it Gummu, like gum and moo.  Yes, the cow noise little kids make.”

But Drin waits, watching Dance with one brow lifted.

Dance sighs, waves his hands.  “Well, that name in Korean, really it is Sword Dance or Dancing Swords, not really Dance Of Knives.  I tell you true.  That is the best choice to sound okay.”

“Like this?” Drin says, and he copies both sets of script in large careful fog-dripping marks on the neighboring pane of glass, saying the names.  “So if I am visiting in Seoul, I ask for you with these names.”

“Yes,” Dance says, and takes Drin’s hand in a sudden fierce grip.

“Hey, some day,” Drin says, and smiles.

Dance nods, kisses Drin’s knuckles, and stands back, leaning his head back into the tiles.  He watches Drin while the bigger man rubs shampoo into short gray hair. It smells of lavender, and Dance’s nostrils flare wide. It’s hardly fair. Drin already knows how his musician loves the scent of it. He smiles, and bends a little for Dance, who can’t resist taking over.

Dance massages the shampoo over the older man’s head, spreading his fingers wide and trailing down Drin’s neck muscles, and into his shoulder joints. Dance is frowning a bit. Distracted by what his hands are telling him, Dance tells him in scattered bits, explaining who he used to be.

Drin makes noises of understanding as he listens. When he washes Dance’s hair, in turn, he can’t resist smiling at the glossy hair sweeping through his hands. He’s going to miss it, once it’s cut, even if Dance is fed up with tending to it. Dance made an appointment with Drin’s barber, asking Drin to come along and help him stay calm about being touched. He will do fine; earlier that week Dance stood perfectly still for his first real fitting with Drin’s tailor, as promised; a man of his word, and proud of it.

That kind of pride may look like an absurd luxury back in Korea. Drin isn’t sure about the rest of the man’s family yet, even after all the research he’s done on their background. He knows a little about the relatively few Korean surnames being shared among so many people. He knows the given names are two symbols, one of them usually a generational choice shared among those born at the same time with the same family name.

That leaves a lone little symbol, often one little sound, among all of the sounds of one’s name, for one’s personal character. A traditional, dignified, reasonable order of priorities, in any culture where working together will keep you alive, and where art is always a job in the service of power.

Dance nods, naked and brown and silky, and the grip of his hand tightens. It makes Drin think of tigers.

The surname is what matters to older folks, he says. “The name Ahn,” Dance says dryly, “means ‘tranquillity.'”

Drin blinks at him. “Ironic, under the circumstances.”

Dance glances up under those black brows, and he says, with all the crispness of speaking in large rehearsal spaces at work, that the Ahns have a history of being a high-brow bunch. A pale, aristocratic, indoor bunch, certainly not his own peasant-brown skin tone. People have asked him sharp, rude questions about his right to the name. Dryly he assures Drin that wearing fancy Hollywood sunglasses and claiming he spends too much time in swimming pools would not help him.

He says he belongs to the largest clan within the larger surname, a high-status clan associated with a city that now has a sheet-metal fabrication plant, providing parts to the military. His parents live in another city, holding down jobs with military contractors. Good jobs, but still well beneath their proven capacities in the past.

They make up for that on their own time. This is all in the grand tradition of self-educated Westernized people who don’t have to limit their identities to their public occupations. So their son was always special. Unlike traditional parents, they treated him as differently as they could from other little kids, they encouraged the stubborn little guy’s independence.

Partly, they had to. His capacity in music showed up early and hard. He says they gave him the music lessons he begged for, the Mozart and the Bach he loved hearing on the radio–while they were still insisting, in some kind of masculine pride, that he must have the martial arts too, even if it risked damaging his ability to play serious music. He wanted to do that, also, especially since his first name was such a girly name.  He got in fights.  He remembers his mom and aunts saying they loved putting him into martial arts classes because it ran off some of his extra energy.

Drin groans, which makes Dance laugh.

Then Dance sobers, and explains that his teachers forced a confrontation with him, and with his parents. The two pursuits were incompatible, they said. His parents refused to think it was a problem until it involved everyone in the family.  But his teachers made Dance understand his family was facing a choice as big as any a kid ever knows. The teachers said to him there was a limit to riding the two skills, he must decide.

Dance’s voice can be dry as any sub-Saharan desert, when he wants. Drin pities the parents who had to face up to that skeptical eye, from that kid, looking at them in disbelief.

Dance chose music, against the wishes of his father and uncles and senior men in the family. His father angrily forbid him from ever returning to his old kuk sul won school or the teachers there.

In America, on his own, he went to a Japanese dojo close by the house, rather than go across town to the Korean school well-known to the community. Then he told his Grandmother-teacher what he’d done, and explained how much it helped him, how much he liked it. She was horrified–that meant he was risking his hard-won music career on injuries, and he was doing it with Japanese help, another insult to traditional Korean parents.  She told him not to tell anyone else–it was yet another outrage added to those wild American ways which upset his parents so badly.

Dance is baffled, too. Is any of that on the same scale as allowing him to be accused of murder?

Dance has been lucky so far, when he keeps on risking injury to his arms and his hands and his fingers, and he knows it. The dojo makes quite different demands on the body than his music does. Much as Dance loves to lounge in the water, he can’t even linger too long in the pool or the hot tub or the sauna, for fear of softening all those string-player’s callouses too far.

“Why was your old name girly?” Drin asks, rinsing soap out of his lover’s hair.  His outrageously long black hair.

“Ha Neul,” Dance says, “means sky.  It is a simple name, not from Chinese, more like girls use.”

But they never called him that as a kid.

In traditional places, kids have nicknames to deflect evil spirits. Like Yiddish, never brag on your kid with a pretty name. Use a nickname, the nastier the better, to hide them from ill-wishing and bad luck.

The rude nickname he was given as a rowdy little boy was not like other kids either. He scribbled drawings on the walls as a toddler, persistently and stubbornly, and they called him a dancheongjang, which is a traditional painter of roofs. The root word, dancheong, is the Korean art of “painting roofs that fly to the sky.” More literally, the word meant cinnabar and blue-green, from some of the colors they use, he says, smiling.

painted roof of Gyeongbok Palace, Seoul, Korea
Gyeongbok Palace, Seoul, Korea

Asked if he ever had any art classes, Dance just shrugs.  No one ever thought to give him lessons or books on painting or drawing.  He did that kind of thing on his own, as a teenager, back when he kept binders of his drawings hidden away.

“Drawing men like this,” he said, brushing his hand along Drin’s wet beard, smoothing down Drin’s chest. “Big men who laugh, long curly hair, big beards. You must laugh if you saw my drawings. Lumberjack beards. Freckles, no. Only here, when we– when I see them, I find out I have this weakness for freckles.” He sighs. “After I win the competition for America, someone stole my binders.”

“Oh no,” Drin murmurs, alarmed.

“Oh yes.  They take my binders to my father, big family fight. After that, I feel sad, pathetic, always drawing these big heroic laughing men on tiny papers to hide it. I work very hard instead, I won the first chair here, I must work hard to stay.  To me, the Metro all looks the same as my family. There could be sneaking tricks on me, so I give out nothing. Now I have no drawings of fairytale princes or cowboys or mountain men, I am not at clubs unless I am playing music, no wasting time with gossip boys, but also no hiding. I am not being tiny to anyone, not for anything.”

Drin has been getting an idea what “stubborn” means, in Dance’s life.

Dance doesn’t argue with Our Emma, for instance. He doesn’t fuss. He just shrugs and he does what he said he would do all along, and he doesn’t bother to flinch when she whacks him for it. You have to be stubborn, to live with The Emma of Doom.

“You…” he smiles slowly.  “You are bigger than any drawing dream I ever do.  So big!”  His fingers spread wide with a snap, flinging wet droplets at the ceiling.

Drin looks up and watches the drops fall again onto them, wipes his eyes with a grin.  “When you were little, what did you draw on the walls?” Drin asks, delighted.

“Dragons and phoenixes and Garuda birds and unicorns and eagles and jet planes and dragonflies and helicopters,” Dance holds up one hand, the long fingers angled like a wing. “Or so our grandmother-teacher says, but she might have been telling stories about scribbles, too. She says that’s what we are telling her, anyway.”

“I like your Grandmother,” Drin says.

Dance grins.

“Will you draw me some dragons? Or eagles?” Drin asks, and even he hears the hesitant catch in his voice. He’s seen some doodling that promises interesting things.

Dance laughs hard, a full-bellied laugh. “Oh yes, we will! We– I will– I’ll paint you some right on the wall! For my dragon king, yes, I will make you a great big laughing Chinese dragon to ride, with a silly horse face, and whiskers!”

“Dancheongjang,” Drin says, badly, and Dance laughs.

ceiling of entrance gate for Wolijeongsa temple in Korea
Painted roofs

Dance says Emma is the only one who can say it right, and she’s reclaimed it from the parents who still won’t talk to him.

He admits that Amalia came up with “Dance” in English from that childhood nickname, but Emma made it her own, choosing it again for him. It was Emma who claimed him under his new name, who put him in this house, gave him his garden, gave him a new shape.

In the “Months of Being Alone,” she yelled at him a lot, poked him, she actually knocked him down and sat on him in the living room, and kept yelling his new stage name at him, until it was the only name he could respond to. Making him get up, poking him to go to work, and weeping with rage when he wouldn’t play for her, until he gave in–less trouble–and started practicing at home again.

“Your music is yours,” she screamed at him. “It’s not theirs. Never was. I won’t let them take it away from you!” He says it with a wry glance, handing over a towel, warning Drin how severe she can be, and Drin can’t resist hugging him.

Dance kisses his cheek, and breathes on his ear, murmuring in pleasure. He says that he won’t even turn his head if addressed by the old name, any more. It’s broken off somewhere in there, old history.

Emma’s tried it, he says. He says he won’t mind if Drin surprises him, calling that name, to check for himself. Generous, as always, he offers Drin the consent to do so first, not waiting for Drin to ask. He shrugs, waves his hand. Why not?

Amalia often called him Dance, for short, his very first month in the country, when she was in a hurry.

Dance of Knives, Emma repeated one evening in the kitchen, laughing at the flying slices of potato–not carrot, for once– when he was angry. Then more often, because he got angry a lot toward the end of that last month. Emma agreed. She said that was healthy, to get mad. He should do something about it. Act on that mad.

He did, when he was angry enough to submit to the process, to complete it at last.

He explains. The lawyer, to act as an advocate, to wade through the paperwork that seemed enough to dizzy anyone, much more for someone whose native language wasn’t English. The fees: for the lawyer, for the filing, for the legal notices in the newspapers. It ran to nearly a thousand dollars by the time it was over. And the questions, on the forms and from the judge: Are you avoiding debt collection? Are you being sought by state or federal police for questioning? Do you have any outstanding warrants?

It seemed that very few people sought to change their names to salvage the honor of their families. Even fewer were allowed to do it midway in their immigration process, something he hadn’t known when he started it.  Explaining contracts under stage names does not impress the INS.  But then the INS agent in charge got some odd letter from some mysterious American military unit, a note which they waved at him briefly, suddenly the INS officers decided to let it go through.

Drin is left wondering what their interest might have been.

But Dance of Knives it was, when he got angry enough to become a new person. It was the only name he had left.

“You know that dojo saying, ‘Never bring a sword to a gunfight?'” he says wryly. “Well, I am always standing there with a crummy little knife. Duhhh.” He waves his fist around so foolishly that Drin starts to laugh, and kisses him. “And why no gun, you say? Well, back in my old country, we cannot own weapons without permits, you know. We are such angry people, we must be afraid of our own kitchens. We cannot even own something the size of your gift, that wonderful chef’s knife, without getting a permit!”

“So you just learned how to take big weapons away from silly Americans, huh?” Practicing with Dance at the dojo is always thought-provoking.

Dance adds dryly that, as an artsy stage name that gets attention at the Metro, it’s served him well. Emma makes sure that people at charity events use that name.

Drin says the original childish Korean nickname sometimes now, in bed. He asked Emma to drill him on how to say it, how to get it right. Dancheongjang. It always makes Dance react in ways that make Drin lose his breath.

Drin glances up at the dragon that fills the living room wall over the tv, the only wall space left open in the room.

It is a very Chinese-looking dragon, one in a fairly late Ming-era mood, a clown with a sense of humor, rolling around at play in the clouds.

Drin bought the paints that Dance asked for, amazed at how cheap it all was. Dance used stencil techniques, and in just one afternoon, humming bits of the Yellow River Suite, he pounced out gray and bluish clouds on the plain landlord paint with his crude little sponge-tipped stick.

Most of it is just an outline of darker cloud, but he showed a frolicking foot grasping a bluish pearl, and a laughing horsey face peering out of a gap, with just a hint of the eye and one horn, and the alligator snout with the whiskers, the tongue lolling wide as it laughs.

It’s not so much amazing that Dance has this kind of art too inside him, as the fact that he knows what to leave out, as instinctive as rests in his music.

Chinese hand scroll painting of dragons

Drin looks down from the dragon. The man who painted it is flipping through pictures of the people who won’t call him back, who won’t let him speak to their children, who won’t have him visit if he ever returns.

Drin shifts his foot and gives Dance a leg-hug, and sees the cheekbones rise in a hidden smile.

Feral cat, Drin reminds himself daily. He sets things neatly on the couch beside him, in the same order Dance keeps them. His knees provide a rest for Dance’s head, and his shins, back support, in a rare time of leisure.

The photo box should have made them both happy. Dance’s pictures and the stories should be making him laugh, but it’s a struggle.  He hears it, how Dance’s family treats the man like a ghost, ignoring his calls. Dance hasn’t spoken to a single live person in the weeks that Drin has been around to notice, and this doesn’t seem to surprise Dance at all.

Dance has got up at all hours, just wanting to talk to a live person in his own language. He has been making an extra effort, because of his news about his partner now. Dance says he wants to tell his parents about Drin. He’s so happy, he wants them to be happy about it too.

Maybe he knows they won’t be, though. He admits that nobody has been responding to his emails about it.

Even self-sufficient guys who remind Drin of a cat like to talk to their family sometimes. He knows Dance has been calling them, leaving messages for those few people related to Grandmother, as she’s brought them to the phone to leave him messages. Never directly. Just voices, whispering hastily in Korean, things which translate as Christian prayers for his soul, responses far too brief to comfort him.

Grandmother never calls him when he’s home to answer, but she gives him messages. Those help. Happy short messages, reassuring ones that she came through her operation okay. More details come in scattered in her emails, forwarded bits and pieces from the others, randomly, not in direct responses to anything Dance tells them, as if they never hear him. This seems to be how they’ve always communicated.

Drin says, “And what do you call this month?”

Dance just smiles all across his face. “The Month of Eating Too Much,” he says, as if there could be such a thing in his world, and he cracks up, smacking Drin on the shin.

“You know what I call it?”

“What?” Dance says, eyes alight, leaning into him.

“The Month of Jogging Too Much,” and Drin smacks him back, on the shoulder.

Dance falls back between his knees, head on Drin’s thigh, and rubs his face on Drin’s legs. “It’s working, too.”

“It is,” Drin agrees, making a wry face, and Dance makes a rude humpy gesture with his hips.

Drin says, “The Month of Too Much of Doing That?”

“Never!” Dance cracks up again, both hands hugging Drin’s left thigh.

Drin knows that’s not true, though. There’s days that Dance still reminds him of a neglected dog, wildly over-excited by the slightest bit of kindness or touch. Drin scales back his natural impulses sometimes, knowing Dance isn’t used to getting so much time and direct, unblinking interest. Or demands. Drin feels himself wanting to grasp the essence of water, and telling himself to knock it off is an on-going mantra.

Japanese actor Shun Oguri with long hair
listening for that call

It may be almost too much for Dance. He tries to let Dance come up to him, let him choose what distance he wants.

It’s surprising how often he turns to find his musician busy doing something else in the same room. I meant to be here anyway.

Drin finds himself smiling–until he sees the secrets in Dance’s box of photos.

Drin leafs gently through the faded, cracked old snapshots, learning what they mean to Dance. The photos themselves are problematic. These are pictures that clearly and simply belong to a much older man. They come of a different age. Older than Drin himself, even.

The rest of Dance’s generation all had their baby pictures taken with video cameras, cheap digital boxes, disposable film cameras, even in the most traditional villages back in Korea.

Not Dance. Dance is too young to have childhood Polaroids, Ektachrome and Kodachrome prints of him performing at recitals. Yet here they are, with negatives dated in blocky-looking vertical hangeul script. He’s too young to have such prints in an age of cheap digital knockoffs all over Asia.  His box is all crumbly paper packets with strips of negative film in them, heavy thick old paper prints that have aged strenuously, thick emulsion coatings curled and cracked.

Drin is sure the dates will be nonsense. Not all the negatives match, either. The man doesn’t have prints for half of what’s there on the negs.

Drin makes no remark on it. He’s careful not to make any fuss, but there are monsters buried among the bits of orangey aging film. These things belong somewhere else, back in that nightmare place where bugs with too many claws are firing lasers. That place has no relation at all to the world where thousands of cheap digital cameras got sold in Korea in the year Dance’s birth certificate says he was born.

There are dim, underexposed objects recorded on some of the old negatives. The lighter edges in the negatives show outlines of industrial gear, coils, compressers, heat exchangers, large pressurized sand-tanks like those used as sewage filters.

He barely glances over the one industrial strip that is continuous. There’s a sequence of shots approaching large light-colored boxes with thick walls. The prints would show them as dark, of course, and Drin’s memory supplies the flat green color.

Boxes out of bad dreams, imprinted into his brain like bad x-ray imaging.

He cannot look at that strip twice, not without losing control of his breathing and alerting Dance, and he really doesn’t want his musician seeing the actinic shrieking gaps in his own life.

Two pale boxes, two blobs of black faces, with pale tubing underneath their chins, and thin pale lines running up to their noses.

There are more lines, cryptic outlines. But he knows. Drin knows those are metal tongs bracing their skulls in place, with half the padding fallen off. Frozen metal, exposed, that leaves short scar lines on either side of the face–if they lived.  There’s pictures of dead things thawed from the boxes. The same kind of boxes that usually hatch out the bugs and the crab-armed things Dance fears, the same bug-soldiers found in his own nightmares. Boxes hold dead things in Emma’s bad dreams. She had a lot of names, too.

Sarcoboxes.

Two of the brown bodies, side by side in their boxes, each caught frozen, mid-struggle. Both dark underexposed blobs have the same distinctive silhouette. One picture has an outline as simple as a Roman coin—with the same profile that he sees right now.

The best revenge, Drin thinks, and in some grim secret place in his soul he is angry. Outlive the bastards.

It has the dark ringing echo he hears in his own voice from nightmares.

He looks at the negatives, checking for handwriting, for labeling on the photo packets, on the backs of pictures. Besides numbers, he finds a few odd vertical scribbles of hangeul symbols in fading ink, to be captured and translated later.

Carefully, gently, he looks over each printed or Polaroid paper picture, glances through the negatives, nodding as he listens, and he strokes Dance’s hair or his shoulder now and then, not too much.

In family pictures, the clothes are of another age, styles that are utterly fifties.  Dance’s parents look content, laughing a little, hugging a kid who’s all kneebones and elbows, big wide mouth laughing. The grin looks like Dance when he laughs. But there’s a missing lower bicuspid, and the kid’s incisors have chips that Dance doesn’t have. He’s pretty sure the kid isn’t Dance. Never was.  He wonders if those teeth would match that of the guy in the Moldovan murder scenes.

Then he stares at a photo of Dance’s mother visiting one of the many uncles at his work.

Drin is forced to take a deep breath, shocked. He recognizes the company sign hanging behind their heads, the hangeul shapes in their logo. He knows that company all too well. The company is infamous for complicity in fraud, for failure to respond timely in audits, for a very confident contempt about notices of violations, a contempt for anyone trying to enforce contract rules. No one in that country ever questions their word so rudely. The executives don’t even bother to buy off local law enforcement, their mere name is enough to bully local code enforcement and health inspectors to silence. Plenty of others will buy their products if American agencies are too proud.

Outlive the bastards, his angry dream-self repeats, growling.

“What’s the matter?” Dance asks then, with his hands cupped around the cardboard box, hugging it. That box has been hugged before. Drin hands him each careful section of his meager piles of pictures, watching him put them away again. He touches Dance’s shoulder.

“These are impossible to replace. Would you like me to get them scanned in, so you can send copies to your parents? Send some to your grandmother? Maybe send them some new ones from us, go take pictures of the garden here, too?”

Dance chatters happily through the entire scanning process, telling him about each person in the picture they’re working on, about their nasty childhood nicknames–like his own nickname, which may be an old custom but is often very funny–and their weird tastes in clothes and their annoying children.

Drin carefully adds in all of the information Dance gives him. When he asks how old some of the nieces are, and Dance doesn’t know, he records that too. “I can try to find out more for you, if you like,” Drin offers.

Dance laughs. “You know some guys there?”

“Yeah, and not just in Seoul. GIs who got married over there and stayed. Take a look at this, what does that say?” He gets Dance to pick out computer hangeul symbols to match up what’s written on the prints by hand, and to give him translations. They aren’t informative, just names and numbers, as if this is part of a larger series.

“You know what would be nice,” Drin says quietly, trying not to let any of the inner feelings leak out, trying to speak calmly, one of the hardest things he’s ever done. “You could copy the emails that each person sent you early after your arrival here. Attach those with the email scans of their pictures, so you see the person together with what they sent you. Send those to your grandmother. I bet she doesn’t have all of them, and she’d enjoy seeing what you wrote back to everybody.”

“Oh, she would!” Dance says, eyes wide.

“You could ask her permission first, say you’re sending it for her family history albums. I mean, who wouldn’t want that one email of the cousin talking about her first grandbaby, that’s beautiful.”

“Our Drin, you’re brilliant!” Dance says, and kisses him on the cheek.

Drin burns two CDs, late that night. One of them will go to another office in another state. Nobody will be surprised to learn that Drin might go on investigating his lover’s family. Certainly Bud Innes will be interested in the details of just how Dance’s relatives are tangled in that company’s operations. His invitations to Korean businessmen have been targeting several companies, family associations, who operate in similar ways.

Cut off as he is, Dance has no way to know the kind of trouble signaled by company markings in the background of many of the senior members of that family.  He’s unable to learn the current details on his own family’s social and financial obligations in that association, and Drin is not going to share it until he’s sure of it, and maybe not even then.

The activity is also great cover for sending teslamomma results of his searches on that other guy from murder scene pictures.

The Mayor Does Home Repairs

By the time Drin moved in with Dance and Emma, he knew the charm of the little house was not in its smallness. Any charm it had came from constant work done just to keep it functional. No boxes on the floor, or they can’t get to the bathroom; no clutter left on the sink, or they can’t brush their teeth; no dirty dishes scattered, everything must be clean in its place, or the kitchen is a death-trap. Dance stores his three good skillets in the oven–the drawer beneath the oven has his other pans. So Dance’s skillets get stacked on newspapers on the living room floor when he bakes.

Drin is familiar with theories on tiny working kitchens, from those friends who tell hilarious stories about cramped New York apartments. It’s not funny in their little house.

Of course he’s wary when he comes in the front door. He’s been a soldier too long, he looks first, always–so he’s never tripped on the skillets. But when he sidles around them, he’s wrong-footed to get around the next obstacle in the course, the big flour and sugar canisters. Turn wrong after that, and he’s knocked stuff off Emma’s cramped little desk.

When Dance is tense, when he is worrying about something else, things get piled in the way. He has a knack for setting up pathways nobody can run, a mysterious ability to space perfectly ordinary objects into barriers that would baffle a fire team of perfectly decent Marines. Most days, Drin and Emma can get through all right, because Dance allows for their different stride lengths and handedness. Some days, nobody can get through. This is one of the habits that worries him most about Dance.

When Drin feels claustrophobic enough, sometimes he insists on taking them off with him on a road trip, for sanity’s sake. In hotel rooms, he learned that Dance will blockade any space when he’s nervous. Dance will make the passage negotiable for somebody of their stride and handedness up until they go to bed, and then the portcullis around the bed is dragged in place. Emma just asks Dance to move things for her to reach the bathroom, in the middle of the night, and yawns back to sleep while he rebuilds it. It’s quite something to see him pull it off with perfectly ordinary luggage. Even more infuriatingly, Dance doesn’t even notice he’s doing it.

Neither does Emma. She just assumes it’s routine to go falling over boxes of music manuscript or spare instrument cases or books. She also assumes that Dance will get there in time, if he’s home, and pirouette around to catch either of his partners as they’re falling, saving them neatly from cracking their heads. Even if they weigh twice as much as their beautiful musician does.

The risky part is when he’s not home, and they’re threading the maze he’s left behind. He’s got better about clearing these traps just before he leaves.

Dragon on ceiling tile in Japanese temple

It’s always wiser to open the door, check the pathway first, and then go get bags of groceries from the trunk of the car. Drin would do this anyway–that soldierly habit of checking security in the house first, before loading himself down–but such evidence always makes him sad and worried about Dance. Also, it makes him irritated about the tight, unforgiving spaces in the house. It’s like living in a rat’s habitrail made of breakaway stunt glass; ding the slightest thing and they have to replace another part which wasn’t designed for repairs.

It annoys Drin to fix shoddy goods. It annoys him to constantly watch himself, to move carefully in cramped quarters like a submariner, to grip gently, to avoid breaking things that were not built well enough to withstand ordinary wear and tear. It annoys him to see Emma and Dance put up with broken shelves and faucets and cabinet hinges that should have lasted better.

It outright angers him to see them flinch at perfectly common repair bills and the cost of quality parts. But he gulps it down, waits it out, watches them carry on. He listens in amazement when they just start cracking jokes as Emma’s car dies. The rent costs more than they can afford in this tiny place, but hey, at least they can do transit for groceries and walk to work, if they have to. Right, two miles in the rain just before an evening performance.

They don’t have a clue how different their lives could be on just slightly better salaries.

Installing them in ten times more square footage of conventional housing would not solve all the problems. He’s seeing, on a daily basis, how carefully Dance moves, how precise his daily gestures are. Dance has to be, he’s just too bloody strong. Distract him too much, and Dance breaks doorknobs, toilet levers, closet doors, plastic parts, patio chairs. He’s putting on more muscle every month, with more food in the house, he’s getting stronger, so he’s having to adapt to those changes. Dance tries pathetically hard not to damage things, but he also takes alarm easily.

His jumpiness has him leaping back like a wet cat at sharp sudden noises–especially at night, in the dark, jumping from things nobody else even noticed–and he’s described seeing some pretty strange things outside the house. Big enough jumps, he leaves dents in walls, and even in the low ceiling. Well, in some places, it’s a very low ceiling.

Drin himself is wary of barking his skull on low doorways and open cabinets. Dance is meticulous about always closing the cabinets, but Emma occasionally forgets, in her typical rush. It makes Drin feel silly when he bashes his head on them and she apologizes for it.

After the tight quarters in the house, it seems quite odd that Dance wants a great deal of space to exercise; running in the streets, digging in the garden outside, practising at the dojo, swimming in the largest pool he can find. Dance liked Drin’s huge, wide-open apartment for the space it allowed him to practice his katas in the morning, not for sleeping.

In their little house, there’s no space for the athlete to really loosen up during bad weather. The living room is the only place they have to stretch, to sprawl out on the floor, or practice sparring, or use any kind of large equipment; it’s barely ten feet across with all the furniture taken out. They should really carpet it in gym mats to accommodate two of their favorite activities. Both of those involve wrestling around, but only one involves their trio of video game controllers. Mentioning the idea of gym mats makes Dance get a wistful look, and Emma gets pinched-looking about the cost.

Fixing things often brings up nagging money issues. Drin automatically adopted a mental schedule for repairing and replacing nearly every functional part of the house—including the old, fragile, and uncertain plumbing and electrical–but he doesn’t want to frighten his partners by taking over everything, overwhelming their input on finances.

They are, come right down to it, no good as courtesans. They just don’t know how to accept gifts gracefully. They don’t even know how to elicit the gifts they actually need, either. They try very hard not to ask him for things, which is maddening when he really wants to get them something special.

They may be grateful, but it makes them twitchy, and it makes them sad to know they couldn’t take care of themselves. They aren’t independent enough to survive without help, and they don’t really want to think about how to manage without him if something happens.

He does take care to make sure they’ll be okay, if God forbid they ever have to survive without his ongoing salary. He simply confronts them with awkward big gifts to their savings, not even softening it. This embarrasses them, which he just finds charming and irresistible.

Dance will ceremoniously refuse it twice, and pummel Drin about the shoulders–carefully– when he finally accepts it. Emma just yanks Drin close and smacks him, or she bites his ear, or she pulls his hair, and then she kisses him sloppily, making silly noises while she pretends to chew on him. “Ommm nom nom nom,” Dance says, eyes laughing, and ducks when she smacks him too.

He knows there’s going to be bruises from this one.

“Hello, love, you’re home early,” says Emma, blinking up owlishly from her laptop.

Dance comes out of the kitchen, wiping his hands dry on a towel, and there’s a little quirk to his mouth. Oh, he knows something. Then the inquiring gaze narrows. “Oh nooo, you wicked husband you, what did you do?”

Drin coughs into one cupped hand, and rummages in his pockets. “Em, happy birthday.” And holds out a ring of Volvo keys in Emma’s direction. They are much newer keys than hers were.

“Whaa-aat did you do–” she repeats.

“Well, I was taking in my car for an oil change anyway, and the mechanics knew somebody who wanted their old wagon to go to a good home.”

Dance starts to chuckle. He looks over at Emma, grinning, while she just blinks at the keys.

She completely lives up to everything Drin expected when the little frown smooths out and she asks, “Is that the key fob from two model years ago?”

“Yeah, it’s in the driveway,” Drin says helpfully, and puts the keys in her hand. He shrugs. “Easier than borrowing a loaner car, and I needed to pick up stuff to fix the bathroom anyway, you know.”

Dance’s eyes fly wide open, and he makes an outraged noise, and then he’s laughing.

Emma is up on her feet at last, mouth open. Drin pivots neatly aside, just in time, and gives her a tiny little push between the shoulder blades, and says, “Now, you’ll want to go take a look and make sure it’s going to fit you just the way you like. I mean, it is a used car, yeah? And if it doesn’t, we’ll just go back and find you another one that does, how’s that?”

Dance is laughing in delight behind them, and he pounds on Drin’s back as they spill out the front door. Emma is still making confused broken little noises, hands flying about. She exclaims at the very conventional, unremarkable brown vehicle in the driveway, and gives it an awkward little set of pats, as if she’s not quite sure it’s real, or where the key goes in.

“It’s a fob type, you click it–” Drin says, showing her, and the door lock chirrups, startling her. “Here, slide in and let’s see if the driver’s seat works okay for you. And they told me the manual is nice and clean. It’s in the glove compartment if you want to take a look.”

There is some time spent on seat adjustments and trying levers and learning where to change the mirrors, and eventually he admits he also bought them a new bathroom cabinet and some panelling and tools that are taking up space in the back. By the time he’s got those supplies shifted inside the tightly-organized garage, she’s carried the car’s manual away into the house, he has been well and truly pounded about the back and shoulders, and he’s got most thoroughly nommed and kissed silly by both of them.

By the time Emma sits down with the manual and her laptop at her narrow little shelf of a desk–no project is well and truly begun until she’s got the available research under her belt–Dance is bringing out bowls of soup and fresh-cut bread for them all, looking pleased with the world.

Drin turns at the kitchen table and hisses at his husband, “You heard it coming up the street, didn’t you?”

Dance smiles a tiny little smile, and whispers back, “I can keep a secret.”

Long Day

“Dog, stop it–” Emma says, flinging things down on the chairs and sofa, controlling the dog one-handed until Drin calls the furry tornado away.

bag with logo I Like Big Books, source unknown
cloth bag with message, source unknown

While he occupies the beast’s attention, she eases her arm out of the straps of a heavy cloth shopping bag–it is full of books–and pauses for a moment, grimacing while she tests her fingers for remaining function.  “Do you ever have days where everything is just too much– days when even your tits hurt?”

Dance finishes drying his hands on a dish towel and considers her solemnly.  His eyes are amused.  “No, but sometimes mine are made sore, yes, by somebody having way too much fun making me act silly–”

Emma gives him a Look, and he giggles.

Drin arches up both brows innocently, patting the dog.  “Are we going into TMI?  Is Too Much Information going to happen now?”  He pushes away his newspaper and sits up, looking attentive.  The dog, seated at his feet, ears perking up, has the same expression.

“You are too silly!” Dance says.

Emma smacks Dance on the shoulder.  “God, you want TMI, I’ll give you TMI.   I’m too wiped out to play in your league on the snark tonight.  Give me a pinky-push and I’ll fall over.”  Emma bends down to the limits of her aching back, and completely fails to reach the ankle straps on her shoes.  Those embarrassing noises that come out of her are, officially, groans.

Dance pats a straight chair that is not empty, speaking sternly to the cat occupying it, who tries to ignore him.  He bumps the cat gently, ruffles her fur until she is annoyed enough to jump down and depart in a huff.  “Em, sit down, let me take off the shoes, have your tea.  I will finish this dish and put it in the oven and we eat it all up and then you should have a back rub.”

She flops into the chair like a rag doll, groaning.  “God, whatever I did to deserve you, let me figure out what it was and do it some more.”

Dance smiles, slowly and marvelously.  “Oh, I think I will not mind eating this lovely food Drin bought us, and rubbing the tight muscley shoulders on this beautiful Emma woman.”

“I’m glad you didn’t put it the other way round,” Drin says dryly.

“So am I!” Emma says, laughing.  “You make it sound like it’s all the same to you!”

“It is all the same thing, eating up all the yummy things, mmm mmm mm.”  Dance waggles his hips provocatively.  He ignores their outraged laughter and pivots back into the kitchen, where he makes clanging noises, humming.

“Sometimes I kind of worry.  I mean, when you have any bite-able bits, you kind of wonder about Dance–” Drin looks perfect straight-faced saying this.

Emma stares at him, shocked, and starts to laugh again.

“Eat all the things!” Dance says in the kitchen, with growling, ravening noises.  “Start with this.  Here’s your tea.”  He puts a steaming mug on the table by her hand.

She looks down at it, surprised.

“Now, say thank you to Drin for buying us our new electric kettle that is always on and keeps water hot for you all night.”

“He did?  When?”

“With groceries today.”

Emma looks up at Drin.

“Don’t cry,” Drin says comfortably.

“Why the bloody hell not?  Because it’ll make my makeup run?”

“No, it’ll stuff up your nose so you can’t smell Dance’s spicing in the food.  Missing that would be a shame,” Drin says, and crosses one leg elegantly over the other, adjusting the drape of his jeans.  That means he’s embarrassed to be called out on the gift.  He has been threatening to get one of those big electric hot pots to support her tea habit.  Her everlastingly eternally necessary damn tea.

She looks down at the mug of tea.  “Dammit,” she says, and chugs the lot.  “God, I needed that.”

“Good,” Drin says, and smiles at her.  It’s a tiny, slow, pleased smile and yet somehow it looks just like one of Dance’s big delighted window-pane grins.  She’s not sure how.  Not sure she even cares to analyze how he pulled that off.

“Better?” he says.

“Definitely!”

“Well then, have some more,” Drin says, chuckling, and then he bends to the dog and talks nonsense, hands buried in her ruff, while his face is getting licked.  “Yes, she can have lots and lots of tea and bounce all over the ceiling all night, yes she can.  Oooh, yes, very silly.”

“Do you want some more?  You can have more,” Dance asks.

“Yeah, that’d be nice, thanks love,” Emma agrees, surrendering the empty mug.

He looks down, turning, and chirps agreeable noises at the cat, who talks back at him in short scolding noises. The determined little beast starts stropping its sides against Emma’s legs.  Then it jumps up.  When she feels the cat’s weight land on her knees, instead of yelping in pain she endures it, steadying the beast in place, urging it into a better position, and starts scrubbing her fingertips through the soft, soft fur.  Its purring tickles against her hands.  Emma sighs.  She can feel the fibers in her neck and spine easing with twanging sensations, like loosened strings.

Kimchee stew in a steel pot
Kimchee jjigge, or Kimchee stew, photo by Korean Kitchen

Dance returns with the steaming mug, and in his other hand, tissues for her.  He leans down and kisses her forehead.  “You can cry all you want.  I did not tell Drin yet, but this stew will blast out your sinuses and make you taste everything whether you like it or not, I promise.  If you want hot hot food, I give it to you.”

“God, Dance,” she says shakily, and wraps an arm around his hips, and leans into him a moment.  He ruffles her hair lightly.

“You’re okay,” he says.  “You’re home, everything else can go to hell.”

She laughs, grips him tighter a moment, and releases him.  It’s a quote from their mutual best buddy Amalia, old reminder of all the other impossible situations they’ve survived before, and will go on enduring.  Muddling through.  “I’ve been craving– how did you know?”

“Oh, I hear this woman Emma talking, all week.  All that rain.  I know, with so much rain, Em will be craving hot TexMex chili and hot Chinese ginger chicken and hot Indian curries,” Dance says, gives a silly hand flip, and sashays back into the kitchen.

Her stomach rumbles very loudly, and both of the men laugh at her.  They always seem to find her blunt comments charming instead of gross and disgusting, which still surprises her.

“Drin wants hot food too, you know.  He can joke all about it, but he does.  So do I.”  Dance starts whistling over the noise of opening cans.

“It smells terrific, just coming into the house,” Emma says.

“It does,” Drin agrees.

“And I could smell it at all!” Emma adds.

“Good,” Dance says.  A spatula spangs and clatters against the sides of his wok, and gusts of chili and ginger and onion fill the room.  Instead of annoying her nose, it does the opposite.  She can feel her lungs relaxing more open by the moment.  The tea is starting to work its magic on her sore throat, too.

“I needed this,” Emma says, inhaling steam from her mug.  Then she puts her face into a tissue instead, and starts honking into it.  Not exactly gracious living.

“You should stay in bed tomorrow,” Dance says.

“Yeah, of course I should.  But guess what–”

“You can’t go to a gala with enough tissues up your sleeve,” Dance says.

He’s right, of course.  Dammit.  Her shoulders sag.

“More tea?” Drin says.

She looks at him narrowly.

“Herb tea now,” Dance says firmly, and takes her mug again.  “Finding you things that are good for the sad nose.”

“Now I’m suspicious, all this nice attention tonight.  Most days, if you were playing computer games I could be sick to the gills and you guys would never notice me hacking up a lung.  I could be lying on my deathbed practically!  So you’re up to something, the both of you.  I’m wondering what you guys want from me, when my brain is mush and my judgement is impaired,” Emma says.

“Says that massive brain who’s using big words like, ‘Oh, my judgement is impaired,’” Dance mimics her voice, echoing in the kitchen.

“That doesn’t mean anything.  I use those words all the time,” Emma says, annoyed.

“This is true, she says them in her sleep even,” Dance tells the other man, yelling it out as if he’s proud of it.

“If I had a brain worth the word tonight, I’d be using much bigger words to explain that now you’re trying to dodge the question and distract me,” Emma says.  She frowns.  “Words like evasive and–”

“Yes, those words,” Dance says, and a gush of water noises drowns the conversation for a moment.

Drin is looking up at the ceiling, smiling a little, and he shakes his head.  “Told you it wouldn’t work,” he says.

“Worth a try,” Dance says.

“Whaaaat?” Emma demands, scrubbing at her forehead.  She inhales more steam, and honks noisily into a fresh tissue, and stares at Drin with her mouth open so she can breathe at all.

He gets up, stretches hugely, yawns, and wanders over.  “You look terrible, poor baby,” he says, and pats her shoulder.  “Like you should be tucked up in bed.”

She gives a snort that is even more piglike than usual, with the junk clogging her sinuses, and makes him laugh.

Massage for Emma

road loaf of bread, photo by ahintofhoney dot com
raspberry olive oil bread, photo by ahintofhoney dot com

Dinner was simple, exquisite, and abundant. Drin says so, sighing, and the cook dimples up in a broad smile. When Dance is done stacking up dirty dishes and willing to settle, Drin pulls out a chair for him, slides an arm over onto Dance’s shoulders, gives him a kiss. Dance leans into the support of Drin’s whole body. The shoulders relax under Drin’s touch.

“Man, that was so good,” Emma says then. “I’m stuffed.”

“Our Drin picks out great bread.” The soft words come through Dance’s back as a vibration. Then Dance puts out one arm and smooths his palm over Emma’s back. The way Dance’s muscles shift, somehow the touch has the satisfying feel of a harmonic ringing, a circuit loop joined, ramping up to full power.

“Good olives, and cheese, too,” Emma agrees, with a groan. She leans back into Dance’s hand. He rubs his palm across her upper back, gently.

Emma stiffens and gives a sudden stifled grunt.

Dance exclaims, and Drin asks, “What’s wrong?”

“Oh, don’t mind me, it’s just the stupid back again,” she says, half-angrily.

“Easy, easy, we talk it down, your period coming makes you sore, yes?” Dance says, both hands steadying her.

“Oh hell, I’m not dragging you off for this silly spinal problem tonight, not when Drin has time off–” she cuts it off with a hiss of pain, clearly unable even to reach around and grab at her back.

“Whyever not?” Drin asks. “Yeah, take it easy, let Dance get that sorted out. I’m not going anywhere until my tum has had a chance to enjoy everything properly.”

“Stuffed like a teddybear,” Dance says, surprising them both. He shifts his chair around to get at Emma’s back more closely, and smiles impishly at their expressions. “Amalia’s words, yes?”

“Apt,” Emma says, smile twitching in one corner of her mouth.

“Do you want me to go in another room–” Drin offers, starting to shift his knees.

Emma does have the ability to reach out and clamp a cool, dry hand on Drin’s wrist. Her fingers tighten with each spasm. “No, don’t go. Talk me through it, distraction helps– Besides, hey, girl skin, nothing special, not like you’ve never– seen it before– gaaah, the timing, sorry–”

Drin helps her fingers lace with his. She grabs onto the support. “Easy now,” he repeats Dance’s phrase several times. When he speaks, the spasms in her back do seem to ease up.

“Drin talks, please, and we slide into it slowly,” Dance says.

“Is that okay with you?” Drin asks.

Emma gives a tight nod.

“What do you want me to talk about?”

“Haircuts,” Emma says, with a sharp look at Dance. “The man’s hair looks fabulous. How did you do it?”

“A very good stylist who’s used to jumpy clients,” Drin says, chuckling at the look on Dance’s face.

“Okay, we start with the hands,” Dance says, taking up one of Emma’s wrists. He gives her a stern look. “No jumping bean. No guilt on not looking at computer. Just sit and relax, yes?”

Emma growls. She never sits still during a frantic busy weekday evening, with schedules to sort. But her back is still visibly spasming, the muscles jerking in her torso like snakes writhing under the skin, and she grunts sometimes. Looking at that, Drin is pretty sure her pain threshold must be nearly as high as Dance’s, which is scary.

Dance takes Emma’s left arm, turning it back and forth, studying it, until she gives up and lets him carry the weight.

“Neither one of us were real sure about the orangy gold streaks in the hair, until it got done,” Drin says, in the low, relaxed, put-babies-to-sleep tone that should get those back muscles to calm down.

“The stylist was right. It sure picks up our Dance’s skintone nicely.” Emma shakes a forefinger at him. “Yes, I said our, and I meant it!”

Dance makes a wry face. “Am I pwned?”

“Absolutely!” Emma says fiercely, right along with Drin, who grins.

Dance rolls his eyes. “Oh, you should hear the stylist talk about our Drin’s hair, too. He scolds Drin on messing up the very beautiful silvery Drin hair with cheap shampoo. He shakes the finger at us, tells me I am the bad influence on Drin. He will school me if I let Drin go out looking like that. I tell him we were too busy making out to be careful of shampoo. He says we are doing unsafe hair, and shame on us.”

Emma starts to laugh. “You’re kidding.”

“He’s so fey he looks suburban, my dear,” Drin says.

Her back shakes out more laughter, between spasms.

“You should be afraid, you’re next,” Dance warns her.

“Oh really? And what could he do with all these damn red curls?”

“I fear to ask!” Drin chuckles. “Visions of sugarplums dance in my head–”

Emma looks surprised, and laughs again. “Oh, you heard me talking to Amalia about just getting a magenta dye job and whacking off a couple yards of these darn bedsprings.”

“No, no, it gets done right, you let our friend work on it,” Dance assures her.

“Our friend, huh? I guess your stylist really is that good at it.” Emma looks around at Drin.

Drin smiles. “How about some music on the cd player? What would you like, our Miss Emma?” He bends enough to meet her gaze, and says, “Right, how about that old Julian Bream recording Dance wanted to hear?”

Another growl, this time one of consent.

“Okay, Dance, do you need more oil?”

“Yes, the same bottle we put on the bread. Make our Emma smell like we should nibble her up.”

“Have a pillow,” Drin says, putting a throw pillow onto the table that’s been cleared in front of her, covering it with a kitchen towel, and sliding the bottle of extra virgin olive oil over next to Dance.

Emma sighs. Dance murmurs, and helps her tug off her cheap, nasty polyester blouse. She props her head on her other arm while Dance begins spreading oil lightly up the back of her forearm, and down her fingers.

“Easy, limp hand,” Dance says, supporting her forearm and shaking her hand gently to test it. “Good. Loose. We hold the weight, don’t worry. All taken care of.”

The woman has surprisingly athletic arms and hands, because she lifts and carries books all day long. Her shoulder blades stick up painfully under the straps of her brassiere. There are red marks on her skin, striping across the light dusting of tiny freckles.

Drin yanks his gaze away from the soft skin, and marches himself away to the living room. He puts on the remastered music, adjusts the volume, and crosses back to sprawl in a kitchen chair nearby. He lifts his eyebrows in question, indicates her back where the marks are, and Dance holds up three fingers and shakes his head in silent reply. Drin nods and relaxes.

“I feel really silly,” Emma complains.

“You look beautiful,” Dance says firmly, with his fingers stroking light trails of oil up her bicep. “Now, I look silly.”

Emma grunts. “Doubt that.”

“Oh hush,” Dance says, laying down her forearm on the table next to the pillow, and smoothing oil onto her other wrist.

“Drin, I want a second opinion.” Her head bobs up a degree. She’s still fighting it, as bad as a little kid who doesn’t want to go to bed and miss any of the fun.

“Oh, I’m hopelessly biased in favor,” Drin murmurs, in those same low tones that put kids to sleep and make adults relax.

Dance smiles as his fingers slide up Emma’s trapezius muscles into her neck, just letting her feel that first touch. He asks her, “Do you both think our adding rosemary on the roasted cheese bread, like tonight, might be too much for Metro guests?”

“I liked it,” Emma says. “And the sage on the sourdough bread, and that garlic-gruyere spread, too. Ooh yum.”

“It’s a carb test tonight,” Drin singsongs the words to a Broadway melody, grinning.

“Cheese test tonight too,” Emma agrees.

“The bay leaf was a little too harsh, I think?” Dance says.

“It’s okay if you’re in the groove from the others, but not as a surprise on your first bite,” Emma says. “Put it later in the lineup when you lay out the table.”

“Hmm,” he says, and he lays down her other hand, and he’s spreading oil across her upper shoulders, between the shoulder straps.

“Oh, Christ, do I hate this damn harness,” Emma says, annoyed, starting to move.

“Easy, easy, we’ll unhook it, give us a minute–”

“I’ll get you a clean towel,” Drin says quietly. When he returns, between them they’ve got the back hooks undone, and Emma has her arms untangled from the shoulder straps. She holds up the front of the bra modestly when she sits up enough to accept the hand towel. But she’s happy to get the towel draped over her chest instead. Dance sets the brassiere aside, keeping his gaze on Emma as she moves. She leans down gratefully into the pillow, turning her head to one side.

Then Dance nods at Drin, gravely. He indicates her hair to Drin. Drin scoots his chair closer and sweeps the curls out of the way of Dance’s hands. Strokes it aside so Dance can reach up her neck. Then Drin is just slowly stroking the curls aside, because it feels nice. It’s working too; the side of her face relaxes under his touch.

Dance points a little finger at his own temple, along his jaw, and nods at Emma in signal. Drin strokes her face with the lightest touch of fingertips. Drin picks up oil on the tips of his fingers, and begins swirling light circles into the base of Emma’s skull, sliding up from her neck muscles, pausing during the other man’s pushes, so she feels that in between the deeper muscle manipulations that Dance is performing. Sometimes Dance gives deep pushes onto her trunk muscles. He murmurs each time, warning them both what he’s doing. “Hard push here, it will slide onto that knot, it will push the knot–yes, it will push along that knot–”

Dance rides out one snakey struggling knot, and then suddenly her back unkinks, the vertebrae visibly stretch wider apart. The right side of her pelvis gives a funny little clunking noise, and drops a good quarter inch in place. “Yes,” Dance murmurs, a deep satisfied grunt.

Emma gives a sigh of very nearly orgasmic relief. Drin keeps his finger tips moving, very gently. He feels her whole body stretch out, lengthening, easing, loosening.

“That was quick!” Emma says, gasping the words.

“It was,” Dance says, looking up at Drin with a smile. “Relaxing the two spots at once, magic!”

“Takes both of you, huh?” Emma says.

“We are beginning to think so,” Dance agrees.

Emma just groans. “I could sleep.”

“Best thing for you,” Drin murmurs.

“Hot shower first, then slide into warm bed, very careful,” Dance agrees. “You might be stiff into the morning, too, call us if you need help, yes? No kinking up that hip again.”

She groans again as Drin draws his fingertips out of her hair. He pats her shoulder lightly. “I’ll just get that shower going.”

“Your turn tomorrow night, right?” Emma says, turning her head enough to look up at him.

Drin sighs. Of course Dance has found the gimpy stiff bits on Drin’s body, the scar tissue from burns, the shortened tendons, the odd places that lack adequate lymphatic drainage and swell like a sunovabitch when he’s been working on the computer for twelve hours straight.

There will be stretchings and massages done before such tissues swell, with fierce boyfriend glaring, warning comments about ergonomics, and crisp Metro-style lectures on not allowing work to damage his health. There will be ticklings, if he’s not careful. “I promised, yeah,” Drin says.

“It will feel good, it will not hurt like you say physical therapy did, or I am not doing it right,” Dance says firmly, holding up his oiled hands.

Drin looks at the gleaming hands. Of course his imagination starts reminding him what those skilled fingers are capable of doing to him, and he gives another sigh. “Hot shower coming up for our Miss Emma,” he says, and grins at her. God, she looks wonderful in tousled curls with a towel folded over her breasts. He says so, too, right before he heads down the hallway. She tells Dance tartly to swat his boyfriend for her, and Dance just laughs, washing off his hands at the kitchen sink.

Drin fetches her ratty old favorite warm bathrobe and hangs it up in the bathroom for her. When he closes the bathroom door after her, Drin gives a long sigh. Then he returns to the kitchen to hug his boyfriend very tight.

Dance says, “More, yes, like that. So good on my ribs! Ahhh!” and there’s little crackling nosies as Dance leans back against his grip, twisting and pushing bones against Drin’s arms. He leans into Drin with a happy sigh, sliding his warm hands up Drin’s back, up under the shirt.

“That’s the first time she’s let me watch you,” Drin murmurs into his lover’s hair.

“Yes. I don’t know why she’s shy about some things and not others,” Dance agrees.

“And you’re very turned on, too.”

blue-eyed woman in dark shower
Stretching and Hot Water

Dance kisses him. “It does that, she has these beautiful sleek muscles, mmm,” he says, nuzzling his way into Drin’s collar, and kissing his neck. “I like what my hands feel, yes? Like wanting you when I massage you. When we– when I stop using the hands, all this energy boiling around, it goes down there on me.”

Drin’s hands rub gently downward along the slopes of Dance’s buttock muscles. “There?”

“Yes, and there–”

Drin’s hands shift around, and Dance sighs happily. Drin murmurs, “And there?”

“Mmmm,” Dance agrees, unbuttoning Drin’s shirt and kissing everything he can reach, without being particular about it. “You– you are all hard too–”

“I love watching you two, you’re both so damn cute together,” Drin says. In Dance’s ear, he murmurs, “It’s sexy as hell, the way you run your hands all over Em, and she’s just fine with you touching her. Because you earned it, that trust. It’s really beautiful, I love seeing it. Just because I’m such a horndawg, I’d love to see what you could do if it was okay to touch her tummy, and her breasts–can’t help it–”

Dance’s breath catches. “Yes.”

“Yes, you want to do that?”

Dance says, “She is okay with that right now. But I– it makes me– I get too excited, I want to–”

“It makes you want this too much?”

“Yes, like that,” Dance says, arching into Drin’s hand. “Oh, oh, Drin, I wanted to–I want you all day so bad–”

“Yeah,” Drin whispers, and takes the mouth turned up urgently toward him. Then he pulls back, panting, before the shudders in Dance’s body get serious, before the boy goes off like a rocket right there in his arms. They’re totally stuffed from eating dinner. It shouldn’t even be possible to want to use those gut muscles to shove his prick in somewhere warm and happy and slick. But it wants Dance, badly.

Dance writhes in his arms, making a sharp, disappointed noise.

Drin chuckles. “Why don’t we go do something with all that energy while Em’s busy in the shower?”

Dance’s body slackens a bit. “We could, but I should be working, and you should be working–”

“With this distracting both of us?” Drin’s hand knows exactly what to do with Dance’s excess energy.

Dance arches again, with a gasp. “Well, yes– but you like to make me come twice, and then I take too long, getting noisy–”

“Oh, I can figure out some way of keeping you quiet,” Drin says, walking them both into their bedroom, and closing the door behind him. “Maybe keep your mouth full, huh? Hand me the cock ring, I’m gonna need it with you pulling like a freight train– oh man, Dance, easy, easy there, I’m gonna lose it too soon– ”

Drin is always charmed and surprised by all the different kinds of urgency Dance brings to sex. It seems to surprise him as much as Drin. At times the driving force seems to be to get at every square inch of his lover, licking and biting and tasting and mauling Drin as if he can’t get enough of Drin’s skin in his mouth. He has a very big mouth, when he wants to. Other times he just wants to hug Drin until both their bodies creak and joints crackle. He won’t even give up clutching tight while Drin attempts to figure out what might satisfy his hunger for affection. Or he wants to get his mouth on Drin’s and just crawl inside Drin’s kisses and stay there, trying out everything he can invent, for hours.

Dance is not low maintenance, in these states.

Tonight, Drin realizes that he’s made love to Dance before in a similarly odd mood. Drin just didn’t know his boy was coming off one of those high-octane massages. It suddenly makes more sense that Dance would turn into a fuck-crazy top with a need to insert tab A into every slot B in Drin’s body, and when it’s really bad, plunging hungrily into all of Drin’s inventive capacities with toys, too. Drin knows now what the boy wants, as clearly as if he’s shouting it, and Drin is happy to figure out what will give him some peace.

Months of walking and swimming with Dance, and stretching so he has far more flexibility in his hamstrings, are another big help. He smiles as he sprawls out on his back, pulls his knees apart, and says, “Oh, I’m ready. But I’m gonna go all fem here and make you talk while you’re doing me. Tell me things. Tell me what you want it to feel like.”

It really doesn’t take much to steer the panted words around to Emma and her fabulous anatomy, and what she might need if Dance was making love to her. Things like talking to her, checking what she wants him to do with his hands, how she likes her breasts rubbed and kissed.

man's nude back
stretch

“Yeah, there,” Drin groans. His nipples used to be just neutral points on his chest, nothing special; since Dance started kissing his way all over Drin’s chest, playing with his chest hair and worshipping Drin’s nipples with his mouth, they have heated up into new erogenous zones. He’s never heard of anybody developing new hot spots that can bring them off in five minutes, fully clothed behind a hastily closed closet door, but Dance has done that to him.

“Oh, now. Yeah. Fuck me, Dance.” He doesn’t last any time at all, the way Dance has him expertly triangulated. He’s done, while Dance is still moaning in frustration, a wild-eyed satyr with a prick up hard against his leg. But Drin has toys, and the will to take his time and use those interesting new insights in how to satiate Dance to slack boneless relaxation.

He thinks it’s a nice look on Dance. He approves of his own abilities to reduce the boy to a puddle of cum and a yawn.

Some time later, he walks as softly as he can up the hall to the bathroom, one arm resting on his lover’s sweaty shoulder. They both pause by Emma’s open door. She’s curled up under her blankets, out like a light, long eyelashes completely at rest. At her cheek there’s a fluff of reddish curls showing. Her ratty bathrobe is hung up to dry on the usual hook next to the door. Dance takes a deep sniff of it, sighs it out, nods in satisfaction at Drin, and walks up the hall with that relaxed swing to his stride which says he’s nice and loose after a workout of the best possible sort.

Drin pauses a moment to sniff the robe too, and understands dimly what Dance must be picking up; it smells of soap and shampoo and clean woman, like a promise of domestic order restored. Wonderful, how reassuring that is.

In the shower, Dance murmurs, “She’s good now, she’ll sleep through, and maybe the muscles will stay loose tomorrow when her period makes her hurt. She’ll be sore, but we hope no knots.” He stands still for Drin. Drin wets down his beautiful musician’s newly-cut hair. Then Dance says, “I wasn’t sure you’d be okay with– me– going on with– massages like that–yes, you said it is good, but–”

Drin smiles. “You worried I’d be jealous of you spending time on helping Emma instead of paying attention to me?”

Dance nods.

Drin shakes his head. “You and Emma belong together. It’s a gift. It’s a total gift, far as I’m concerned. Whatever Em wants from me, whatever she wants me to do for you, we’ll talk about it, and it’ll get worked on, do not worry.”

Dance looks down and away sharply.

Drin’s hand asks Dance to tilt his head up as he starts lathering shampoo in the man’s hair, and of course he sees the eyes squint shut, and tears, absurdly, start to run down his lover’s face. He rinses water through Dance’s hair, cups both hands around the elegant skull, and kisses him breathless all over again. Drags him out of the shower stall, stands him up against the tiled wall, and kneels down in front of him on a pile of towels, to get at him better. When he pulls his mouth off Dance’s cock, he talks. He talks about some of the same things he said to Dance in the bedroom.

red-headed woman laying back in green dress
green dress

He’s found out that he can bring Dance off hard and fast just retelling his own bisexual fantasies. No, not just another gay boy, not when Dance is hissing and groaning and thrusting up harder into his hip or his hand or his mouth, the way Dance reacts when he talks about the soft perfumed hollows under the lace panties, the swing of her breasts, the swagger of her hips striding along, the curve of her belly. He’s pretty sure Emma’s got plenty of ideas of her own, too.

He whispers across Dance’s rigid prick, his breath making the skin shiver. “I just like to think how it’d feel, rubbing my ass under you, feel you fucking me. Dream that I’ve got my cock sliding down into Emma, feeling those soft womanhips move so sweet under me, oh man. Or I’m leaning in holding her back, fucking her up the ass, while you’re giving this sweet prick to her in front. Holding her up when she comes with both of us in there rubbing together. Feeling those boobs come down heavy in my hands, you know? Bi-boy here, dreaming about getting royally fucked by both of you. Turns me on.”

“But surely after– after all that– I’m not going to–” Dance gasps, wobbling a bit. His knees are almost buckling. “Oh, oh Drin–”

“Oh yes, I think you could,” Drin chuckles, standing up, pinning him back harder into the wall with his shoulders, grinding their hips together. “I think you’re about ready.”

“Oh. Oh.”

In Vino Violent Veritas

blurry glass and bottle
A Few Too Many

“I know, I know, I said bring along your little Korean boyfriend,” says Smithers Popwell, aka Kane, the bartender with tats. It’s true that he sends problem vets to get help, calling up people like Drin, rather than report them to cops. Kane has told him that Dance shows all the symptoms of being a veteran too.

“He was funny. Skinny kid, yeah, but I didn’t realize he’d get shitfaced that fast on three shots of whiskey. Or that he’d stomp Armand at arm-wrestling and Wingert at poker, and tell me half my collection of music is all bootlegged cause he can hear the copy distortions. Or knock over Jam for calling you a faggot. I mean, who asked that asshole Jam to come? You know Jam played defensive end for that farm team in Arizona for a coupla years, ‘fore his knees gave out. The taller they are, the easier it is to tip ‘em over, I guess.”

“Yeah, the poker kind of surprised me too,” Drin says.

“We shoulda been wise to that. Musicians, ya know, they always playin’ cards, waiting when technical shit breaks down. You think he’s gonna be okay?”

They listen to the noise of Dance heaving into a bush next to the open car door. He’s moaning sometimes, but not in English. He only spoke that when he asked them to back off. They’re leaning on the front of Drin’s car instead.

Drin says, “Oh, I think so. Don’t worry, I’ll pour lots of Gatorade into him, I’ll check on him during the night.”

“Shit, man, I had no idea he’s never had that much booze in his life,” Kane says, which is just his guilty conscience talking. “But hell, any of these damn memorial services, we all of us drink more ‘n we usually do. Bet he ain’t gonna want to try it again. Not necessarily a bad thing, the way he went after Jam, about ready to peck him to death.”

“Jam’s a pretty mean drunk.”

“Hell, if any of his punches connected, we’d all be in the ER, one way or another. You notice I ain’t nurse-maiding that asshole. Dunno who did.”

“Armand told me he’d take Jam to a hotel room, put some ice on his face and arms. Wasn’t sure if the fall broke his nose again. But he didn’t think Jam was gonna want anybody to know about it.”

“And good luck to ‘Mando on all that, better him than me.” Kane pats the hood of Drin’s car lightly, mostly to check where it is. “Well, I’m heading off for a bottle of Gatorade and some aspirin myself, call it a night. Thanks for giving me a ride, and hey, thanks for coming, I appreciate it, I really do.”

Drin nods, watches him slope off toward the trailer he calls home. Kane stumbles on the steps going up, fumbles with his keys, but makes it inside all right. Lights come on gradually through the trailer’s rooms. Drin looks up at the stars, closes his eyes a moment, and pulls himself together. He walks around the car.

“Right,” Dance says wearily, sagging in the front passenger seat.

Drin squats on his heels at the open door, rests a hand on Dance’s leg. “How are you doing?”

“Things are still… what did you say… helicoptering. But not so bad if I hang on.”

Drin smiles at him in the dim light. “I’m sorry. Really, really sorry. Let me get you home, sweetheart.”

“I do not smell so sweet just now.”

“We’ll get you cleaned up, just hang on till we get home. I’m lifting your feet in the car again, you just let things turn, don’t try to move your tail end until you’re ready, okay?”

“Right.”

Once they’ve got Dance shifted and his arms inside the car, hanging onto the dashboard instead, Drin gets into the driver’s seat. He pulls out the plastic bag from the day’s purchase of cheap whiskey. “Sick bag, if you need it.”

“Thanking you.” It comes out odd, between gritted teeth.

“Okay, I’m going to start the car, but you tell me when we can move. Take your time.”

“You… seem to know… how it feels…”

“Hey, I was young and stupid once. Plus, I had brothers with a sense of humor.”

“Oh Gaaawd,” Dance moans. “Let us go. Drive, okay? I do not want to think about… how your evil brothers would take advantage… of our Drin being sick.”

“Let’s just say I’ll never touch Creme de Menthe again, okay?” Drin drives as if he’s hauling a crate of broken eggs he doesn’t want to spill.

After a few carefully negotiated turns in the road, Dance says, “Why would anybody think this is a solution to their… pain…”

“Numbing agent, self-medicating,” Drin says briefly.

“And you had… pain that needed… numbing?”

broken crystal, Fractured Aquamarine, photo by Sea Moon
Fractured Aquamarine, photo by Sea Moon

Drin smiles. “I guess I thought so then. I don’t remember why, exactly.”

“Oh. I do. Just nothing… to fix it. I remember… being so ashamed. Failing… auditions. Wanting… the wrong things… and not… anything the other kids talked about. The whole… miserable… attempt to… figure it out.”

“I guess that’s part of what being a teenager is about, yeah,” Drin says.

“Being queer?” Dance asks.

Drin keeps watching the road. “Oh hell yeah. I was okay about liking boy parts too, and I liked ‘em a lot. What bothered me was the idea that maybe I’d get caught by the assholes at school, shit, that’d be a fight. Then I’d have to explain to my folks why I like dick too. I mean, if I survived that long. But mostly, later on… like you saw, flashbacks on all that bad shit in the military. You hope getting blotto will stop bad dreams, but it makes them worse. A lot worse, after awhile.”

“Well, damn,” Dance says, imitating his accent.

“You must be feeling better.”

“No, but I am… putting my face together… to explain… to Emma that I am… fine.” And then he throws up into the plastic bag. His body hardly moves at all but his jaw opens very wide. He makes odd squeaky noises like a cat with hairballs. When he sits back, gasping, his hairline and his neck glints as if he’s rolled in glitter dust. A line of sweat trails down his brow.

Drin flips open the console between the seats without looking, pulls out a bottle of water, twists it open with three of his fingers still on the steering wheel. “Here, rinse your mouth.”

“If I ever… say I want to do this again… just shoot me.”

Drin chuckles. “I don’t think we’re going to fool Em into thinking you’re okay. She’s going to worry. We’ll just ask her not to hit you tonight.”

“She’ll beat me up tomorrow.”

“I don’t think you’re going anywhere tomorrow, either. Don’t kid yourself, neither is Kane, or any of those guys. Which is why they scheduled this whole thing for the weekend.”

“I do not know how… musicians drink and work too. Em is going to kill me.”

“No, she’ll make you go to bed, and stay there.”

Dance moans. “Bad idea, those last two drinks. They didn’t even taste good.”

“I know, and I talked you into trying it. I figured it’s a good idea to know that stuff. I’m really sorry. I was bad to you. Em’s gonna spank shit outta me, too, and I know how mad she’ll be at me.”

“Drin, eating this apple of knowledge is… not all it’s cracked up to be.”

“I didn’t set up the situation right, that’s why. If you wanna whack me for it, I completely understand.”

“I do not want to whack you. I want to whack Jam for calling you a chocolate-packing wick-dipping ass-sucking faggot. Very hard. When he’s not drunk.”

Drin winces. “All the guys said he’s just a mean drunk. Oh, hell, what am I saying– he was mean on the football field, too, Kane told me that was why the team owner kept him around. But what Jam, the damfool, was saying to me, some of it was just the truth, you know, even if it lacks respect.”

“That is why. I want him… to learn respect. Whacking is all he knows.”

“Pretty sad, come right down to it. And you, Dance–”

“Your skinny funny little Korean boyfriend,” Dance repeats bitterly.

“Yeah, and let me just add, outrageously sexy and totally brilliant.”

“And completely unable to drink,” Dance says, enunciating far too carefully.

“We don’t know that. Unable to hang around mean drunks, how’s that? I mean, you took down this great big guy when you were so shitfaced that you were puking. You stomped a former pro linebacker, man. How sad is that?”

“Perhaps he needs the excuse to cry,” Dance says, not sounding sorry about it at all.

“Man, you’re tough,” Drin says.

“I am a musician.”

“Yeah. I’ve been learning what that means.”

Dance takes a deep breath, makes the effort to talk. “People come to performances when they know… it will make them cry. And we know… we will make them cry. We just hope… it isn’t the critic who starts to weep in horror.”

Drin finds himself laughing. This was the Dance that Kane and the other vets got to see that evening, cracking jokes with that lethally solemn face and the careful enunciation. Drin takes another turn gently, climbing another of those damn mesas that make the car bob like a tilt a’whirl, as if he’s trying to make Dance sick. “Sorry, sweetheart,” he says.

“I am hoping I do not have the bad dreams tonight,” Dance says then.

“I’ll be there as long as you want, I promise,” Drin says.

“I want,” Dance says, and rests one hot palm on Drin’s leg. “Please.”

Twenty minutes later, Dance has been pulled out of the shower, dried off, dosed with plenty of sports drink and aspirin, and put to bed looking exhausted; he’s asleep within moments. Drin brushes back the man’s dense, damp hanks of hair. Under Dance’s hair, around the nape of his neck, his skin is dry, but it still glints as if he’s rolled in finely-powdered glitter, and he feels hot.

Drin straightens up wearily from checking his pulse, and meets Emma’s glare. He jerks his head toward the living room.

She leads the way, turns on the light, and he sinks into the sofa, puts his throbbing head in his hands. He’s wearing a robe himself, feeling damp and achey, nauseous, totally miserable in spite of dosing himself too. And he only had one shot the whole evening, since he takes seriously the role of the designated driver. Stress, all of it. Living like this, with better things to do every night, he’s clearly lost whatever moderate tolerance he ever had for drinking.

woman's hands with black rings holding binder
hanging on

Emma pulls up a chair facing him, looks him over. “Where did those bruises come from?”

“Pulling Dance off an ex-defensive-end football player who started to hit people and called me lots of bad names for faggot.”

“Because otherwise Dance wouldn’t stop?”

Drin sighs. “I don’t know, honestly. He put down this great big guy on the floor so fast none of us could stop him. Had him down in a grappling lock that could have dislocated the guy’s elbows. I mean, Em, he is so damn fast.”

“Ye-esss,” Emma says, arms folded.

“I’m sorry, I’m just such an idiot– dumb accidental things happen, you know. None of us knew this monster guy was gonna show up at all, he was smashed as hell before he walked in. Dance was already three shots down by then, not putting up with shit like that. Just locked him up. Then he started taking the guy’s brain apart. How the guy was disrespecting the vet who passed away, giving the finger to everybody in the military, dissing the guys who cared about the memorial services enough to fucking show up. Then he started whispering. Asking how come the damn fool kept talking about asses, maybe he’s a closeted queen, maybe he wants somebody stronger than he is to give him lots of dick up his manhole, maybe he wants somebody to hump his prostate gland–I’ve never heard Dance like that, just peeling off strips of hide. You could see all the straight guys going totally green.”

Emma touches his face. Tilts his chin up, looks at his jaw, then at his hands, lets go of him.

Drin rakes his hair back. “God. You think Robert is bad, going bitchy at the Metro, he’s a fucking amateur. Dance can drop Robert in his tracks.”

Emma shrugs. “Sure. All the Metro folks know he’ll hurt them with the truth. That’s what makes Dance so good at auditions. Competitive, hell–he eats judges. Those bowing attacks of his don’t come outta nowhere.”

“If Dance ever goes off on Young, he’s gonna take him to bits.”

“Oh yeah, he’s not the mouse that Young’s crowd likes to think. He goes to that dojo for a reason.”

“Yeah, I believed you. But I’ve never seen him like that–”

“I bet you won’t, either. He’s never gone off at me. Not once.” Emma stares at him with those pitiless storm-gray eyes. “But real early one morning he heard me yell for help, out there in the driveway, and he took down a guy who tried to assault me. Just laid him out. Said a few things I’m never gonna forget, let the guy go, and the bugger just took off screaming.”

“Oh Christ,” Drin says, wincing at the very idea.

“Said it was better than hitting him. Honest to God, Dance didn’t want to damage the guy. And he said there’s guys who don’t hear things, so talking doesn’t stop them–so then he’d have to really hit them. Your not-so-buddy Jam got lucky.”

Drin locks his fingers together over his forehead, pressing hard on the skin over his eyeballs with his thumbs. “I never meant to get Dance that trashed–”

Emma sniffs. “Yeah, I figured that out by the third time Dance told me it was his own fault, not yours.”

“Em, I’m so damn sorry. I’m a crappy boyfriend and a bad patron. I’m a shitheel. I’m untrustworthy.”

“No, just a fallible human, you silly wanker.” She snorts. “Well, I was at fault too. I knew that event was basically an excuse to drink. I was hoping it’d just be your vet buddies there, folks like Kane who he kinda knows, keep him calm, and so nobody’s shocked at whatever flashback weirdness he might get. Because he might, drinking that much.”

“Em, I don’t know why, but I didn’t expect this. I shouldn’t have talked him into–”

“Yeah, yeah, you wanker, don’tcha hate learning experiences? Hold out your hands.”

Drin holds out both hands. She whacks him firmly on each hand, across the knuckles, and makes a face, shaking her own hand, saying, “Ow! Bugger, that hurt! I shoulda grabbed a ruler, give you that whole evol nun experience. And stop giving me that puppy look!”

He looks at her hands. “When parents say, ‘This is going to hurt me worse than it hurts you,’ it’s not supposed to be true.”

She grimaces. “You think I’m feeling righteous here? Fuck and bugger, man, we should have tested things here where things are quiet and he didn’t need to go into defense posture.”

“I should’ve taken him to a scuba diving class instead, like I wanted to in the first place, not let myself get talked into this dumb stuff,” Drin says. He heaves himself up on his feet, pads back to the bedroom.

He speaks softly to Dance, checks his pulse and breathing again.

Dance sighs, turns toward him with a blurred mumble, and falls back into deeper sleep. He pulls up the bedding higher around the musician’s neck, and returns to the living room blinking hard.

Emma swims into focus, sitting with her arms folded, swinging her foot with the slipper dangling. She lifts one eyebrow. He’s not fooling her.

“Want some fresh tea?” he says.

“Yeah, that’s a good idea,” she agrees, rising.

Filling the tea kettle at the sink, Drin says, “He’s fine, sleeping hard.”

“Good. Bit of a head tomorrow, for sure. If this scared him, knowing he might hurt other people, that might help him stay calmer when he’s dealing with Maestro Asshole Young.” She rummages in the cupboards. “So he’s too damn fast and aggressive for any of your vet friends, and he’s sure too badass for anybody at the Metro. What if Young finally pokes him into losing it? Who’s gonna haul him off chopping Young up into fucking diced radish? I think you’re the only one he allows to yank him round the paddock a few turns, if his temper blows.”

“Besides you.”

“Well, and Amalia, probably. But we’d all have to get his attention first, so he doesn’t hurt us accidentally.”

“I’m just hoping the ex-football player won’t sue for assault, for tonight.”

She spoons loose tea into the teapot strainer. “If the damn fool was that big, then wouldn’t admitting Dance bunged him up just look pretty damn silly? Hell, if he started making threats at you and Dance, that’s self-defense. Besides, they can’t get blood out of a rutabaga, Dance has bugger-all to take. The only reason an attorney would go after it is to snag your money. And you’ve got lawyers on retainer already, right?”

Drin smiles crookedly at her. “Oh, well, I could strike first with a suit for threats and slander, but that might just provoke the dummy into trying a counter-suit of his own. So I’ll need to check on the calculated risks.” That just makes his head throb worse.

She sticks out her jaw just like Dance does, looking stubborn. “So you want me to blow part of our Sunday on getting you some backup documents, huh? You know, like arrests and convictions on this bugger, records of the football career, fan pictures that show off how big he is, stuff like that.”

“Yes, please,” Drin says, meekly. He slumps into a kitchen chair and rests his face in both hands. Finally he asks her, “Shall I take Dance in for a nice chat with my attorney about it? Really rub it in, make sure Dance understands all the consequences? I mean, hardly fair to him, but–”

She snorts. “You have no pity in you.”

“Well, it’s not gonna be any fun for me, either.”

She pokes him, hard. “Your own fault, if you talked him into drinking that much.”

“Yeah, and now Dance probably thinks he’s not safe to drink at all, which is a damn shame.” Drin folds his arms, leaning against the table. “Dance is not a mean drunk, you know. He giggles a lot. Everything is funny. He was laughing at the asshole at first, until the guy started threatening me. Hell, it was out of hand before the rest of the guys understood what the hell the idiot was even saying.”

She glances over at a clock, drops the tea strainer into the hot pot. “Oh bugger, that’s too damn slow for Dance, he’s done with it by then.”

Drin sighs, scrubs at his face again.

She pokes him in the chest. “You’re missing something, ya big nong.”

“Ow.”

“Thing is, you kept up with Dance. You’re about the only one I know could do that. Think about that, ya big fly-bit bushie wanker.”

“Well, yeah, that’s just cause I was paying attention.”

“No, people at the Metro pay attention, too, believe me, and they’re still about ten steps too slow for Dance. I had to teach him to wait. Taught him to give it a count of eight or ten, and clarify twice if he has to, when he tells anybody anything. I made him practice waiting for the rest of us idiots to catch up.”

Drin thinks about it. “Yeah, I’ve seen him do that.”

“But you saw it. You’re fast enough, you could watch Dance doing it.” Her hand comes shooting out, the nail posed to poke him even harder.

He stands up, picks up her hand instead of letting her hit him. He folds it in his hands, kisses her knuckles. “And bushie tricks like that, too,” she says, glaring up at him.

“I think you let me,” Drin says, just to be provoking, and then he’s catching her hands smacking at him. She throws a couple of direct punches, which he deflects easily off his forearms. Finally she opens her arms wide, flings her hands around him, and gives him a rib-cracking hug.

“See? You see? You big silly bugger, you knew what I was gonna do,” Emma says.

He gives a deep, tired sigh, and feels everything relaxing, his shoulders drooping. Why does a hug from our Emma always make him feel better?

“You stupid wankers coulda got seriously hurt,” she growls into his robe.

“Yeah,” Drin says, using the hug to grip her tight enough that he is lifting her off her feet for a moment. He puts her down again, kisses her cheek. “Yeah, I know. But damn, that was something to see.”

She growls Aussie footie curses into his robe, and pummels his back for awhile. “Aren’t you gonna stop me?”

“No, it feels pretty good,” Drin admits. He closes his eyes, smiling, while her fists pummel up and down his back, and her front is plastered up against his front, jostling and moving and totally distracting him from the dread of having to drag his ass into the law offices of his family, first thing Monday morning.

The expense is big enough reason to avoid it if he could, but he’s got other reasons. The younger attorneys veer into way too many damn questions about inherited accounts which he can’t answer. The senior partners are worse. The oldest of them is a woman who keeps vast tracts of genealogy charts in her head for dozens of rich families, apparently without effort; and she’s never been happy with his documented place in it. He always ends up feeling like a poor disreputable orfink cousin whose true antecedents could somehow get him murdered.

A woman so much like Emma, shaped by twenty years of corporate law, on the hunt for something, is not a comfortable experience. Sometimes she drags him over to discuss new accounting tricks with other senior partners, who are affable and relaxed and only occasionally show the same reflexes under their low-key surfaces. He hates to draw the interest of any of them to his activities, interests, or resources.

Emma says suddenly into his ribs, hugging him, “You wanker, you’re afraid of your own attorneys, huh? Face ‘em down! You got nothing to apologize for, and hell, you went to the services and the memorial to be supportive of these other vets. How much more all-American can you get?” She makes rude noises into his robe, tootling the national anthem through her nose. She tries to make it sound like a kazoo.

Drin snorts, and leans back into her. “Might be simpler to just have them arrange some way to hire on the ex-football player for a decent job in some podunk town back near his grandparents. Don’t give me that look!– he’s that sort. Have to think of something he can do that’d keep him out of trouble. I expect there’s some brain damage there from playing.”

“Listen to you, always with the managing,” she says, pummeling his back again. “Well, you oughta email teslamomma, right, she’ll have some ideas. And I can come up with lists of what jobs other ex-jocks guys like that have been doing, how’s that?”

He sighs. “Thank you.”

She snorts again. “Might be, meeting you two was the luckiest thing that’s happened to the damn fool since he quit playin’ gridiron.”

“I’d rather he didn’t find that out,” Drin says.

“Yeah, yeah, I bet you do shit like that all the time,” Emma says fiercely, pummeling him.

“Can you get that knot just under my shoulder blade– aahhhh,” Drin says.

“Ya big wanker,” Emma says.

Unpleasant Truths

OCD amounts of snapshots on walls
But how do they connect?

Some ten days later, Drin is certain of how nasty the threatening pictures were, and are. Might as well take that day off work, his concentration is so badly blown that everybody notices. One of the women asks quietly if he’s had a fight with his new boyfriend, and she gestures at the small portrait he’s quietly put on his desk. He reassures her hastily it’s nothing like that.

It’s a relief to think about picking up Dance, taking him to lunch. Taking Dance back to the diner is no hardship. Besides, he wants a place with excellent light so he can see all the nuances that flicker so rapidly over Dance’s face.

Dance knows something is up, he’s more silent than usual, watching Drin closely.

While they’re waiting for soup, and things are quiet, Drin reaches into a pocket.

“Let me show you something.” Drin pulls out his wallet, pulls out some folded papers. “This came to work. Somebody mislaid the packet for weeks. It just now got it to me. Look at the date stamp first.”

Dance glances at the stamp on the back, giving a date two months earlier. He unfolds the papers, his eyes widen, and he slaps them folded shut again. He holds up the folded paper, shakes it in his grip. “This is not Halloween joke.”

Drin tilts his head. “What do you think it is?” He reaches across the table to retrieve the evidence.

“It is not me!” Dance hands the wad over. “We– I don’t know who it is. My brother? But we have no brother. I don’t know.”

“He doesn’t look exactly like you, you know.”

Dance looks up, his eyes pale gold. “You see that? Hoping, but we couldn’t be sure…”

“You have seen these same pictures before?”

Dance takes a deep breath. “Yes. Most. Not all quite the same as that.”

Drin flattens out the photos downloaded from the email. “This man’s musculature has developed differently than yours, do you see that? His face is very much your twin, but even there– look, he has scars on his face like yours, but they aren’t in the same place, or the same length. And look here, where he’s in profile near the–near the girl. Look where his nose has been broken. Even if you had cosmetic surgery to repair it, you would have scar tissue, and we can very easily have that checked.”

“We… I could not… hurt a person like that.”

Drin wants to look away from the hurt, fear, revulsion in that lovely face. Dance is not a child; he is a strong capable man. But if Drin could make the world go away for his lover just then, he would.

Dance looks up. “You do not have to believe me. I took in what things I had. You can ask police. Do not ask our Emma. Please.”

Drin hears the pain cracking in his own voice when he asks, “Why? You didn’t show it to Emma? Why not warn her?”

“I couldn’t! I couldn’t do that to her.” Dance’s hand flicks at the papers almost too fast to see. “All I could do was to make sure she is safe when she is coming from work late, when she is going in early, try to be near most nights, keep alert after these things showed up–”

“These pictures–how often?” It’s a reflex. He doesn’t even think about drilling down to get what he needs.

“Twice. Just after our grandmother first spoke to me, and another month later. Not same date as these. Nothing else, that I know of. But I don’t know if there were more we lost. Our mail kept getting messed with about a year ago. Kids or retarded guys or something would dump it all under the mailboxes.”

“What did the police do, when you took this stuff in?”

Dance shakes his head. “The second time, they come back in fifteen minutes. They say to me, ‘Look kid, we’re gonna be nice about this. Stop playing with Photoshop to get attention. Go home and work harder for Maestro Young instead of making up crap, and stop being hysterical.'”

“And the first time?”

Dance sighs. “They xrayed me, they take all the clothes off and poke me inside, they sit me in crooked chair in a hot room so long. Very large people ask me things, even the soldier women were taller than you. I don’t know who they were, when they were giving their names. There were INS people, police, military officers in uniforms I don’t know. I was in there two days I think. I lost track. I keep falling asleep, they wake me up, give me very bad coffee.”

“Christ,” Drin grunts. “Did anybody hurt you?”

Dance shakes his head. “Somebody from INS tried to slap me a couple of different times, they finally sent him away.”

“Tried?”

“He was too slow.” Dance shifts his shoulders subtly, indicating how he evaded such a blow. “It was making them laugh outside the room, I can tell.”

“Where was Emma?”

“Lucky–she was at a conference over the weekend, I just told her I was too busy to do my chores.”

bee pendant, source unknown
enamel bee pendant on necklace, artist and source unknown

Drin finds himself wanting to tap his knuckles on the table, the way he does when he’s about to lose his temper–and the anger isn’t at Dance. He knots his fingers in a fist. “Right. You remember the names of the people who asked you questions? I’ll see what I can do to track them down, find out what was going on. Did you keep copies of this stuff?”

“The second batch, yes, even though I am fearing to keep them. The first time they take it all away. I did not think well, that first time. I did not make copies first.”

Drin nods. “Did you tell Amalia anything?”

“No. I just… could not do that to her, either.”

Drin’s face doesn’t reveal much when he’s working. He’s been a military auditor. He’s been lied to by the best. “What would you do if somebody tried to assault Emma like that?”

Dance’s eyes zero down to white-gold platters. His nostrils flare and he turns his head aside, glaring at a mahogany partition. Then he glares up at Drin. “You must be sure of me, asking that.”

Drin nods. “Yeah, I’m pretty sure of you.”

“What would you do?” Dance asks, with those eyes still reflecting too much light.

Drin smiles at him with one of the more wolfish Navarre family smiles. “Well, I was a soldier for quite awhile. And yeah, I know you’d turn into a ball of fire. That’s why I said, ‘if somebody tried to.'”

“All right then,” Dance says, folding his arms and hugging himself as if he’s cold. “So what do we do about this?”

“I think we should warn Emma and Amalia, tell them everything. Get Emma to start using her research chops too. It’s your call, but that’s what I think.”

Dance’s face writhes in pain. He lowers his chin until the hair half-covers his face. Hoarsely, he agrees.

man's hand holding cigarette, tattooed with diamond rattler snakeskin pattern
diamondback rattler tattoo

Drin reaches out, resting his open hand across Dance’s rigidly folded arms. “Well, love, I’ll hit my research sources on it too, don’t worry. To help on that, tell me what you know about this man just from looking at him. You’re a martial artist. Take a careful look. What does this man do to develop muscles like that?” He unfolds the wad again, taps it.

 

“Aerobics, boxing, weight-lifting, some kind of kicking style like a Taiwanese karate or maybe the kick and dancing Brazilian form, they call it Capoeira,” Dance says. He looks up and stops talking.

Drin glances up.

Shura Korachevsky murmurs, “Can I get you some more tea, Dance?”

Dance looks down. “Yes, please.”

As Shura finishes pouring the tea, he says quietly, “Are you all right, my friend?”

Dance gives a shrug.

Shura has the darkest eyes Drin has ever seen. They come around to bear on him.

Dance puts out a hand, not quite touching Shura’s arm. “Please, do not worry. Drin is helping us. He is not the one causing this problem. Please.”

The shadowy sockets swivel away from Drin like shotgun bores. “Well, as a fan and a friend, would you permit me to assist, if I may? I know a lot of people over the years, I have friends in various countries, and the Metro needs its concertmaster happy. It’s entirely selfish to offer. I want this wonderful improvement in the Metro’s playing to continue.”

Dance hesitates painfully.

Drin asks him, “Would you mind if we discussed this with Shura?”

Dance nods, clearly surprised. But as he’s closer, he reaches for the papers. “Please to be very still, Shura, these are upsetting.”

“Thank you, I appreciate the heads-up.”

muscular in Asian man with bare torso
not friendly either

Shura looks at the pictures without blinking. He gives a deep snort when he’s gone through them all once. He goes through them again. At one point he looks up under deep brows at Dance. He takes a wide step to one side, considers Dance’s profile, and returns to where he was standing.

Then he drags over a chair, sits down, writes out a neat note on the back of a business card, and slides it onto the table toward Drin. “Drin, when doing your research on this, you may find it useful to contact this lady. She loves to talk about old movies. She contacted me from an old Metro patronage list. She may know a bit about the Korean end, she seems to know quite a bit about Dance’s prize grant. I have spoken to her a few times about Dance’s playing.”

He taps one picture. “Another unpleasant fact. If you look closely, the wrappers fallen in the background are sometimes used for bricks of opium of a common type sold by the Afghans in Russia and the Middle East. You see it in pictures of gangsters bragging. This kind of thing can escalate quickly. Do not hesitate to call me, or the police, if you are worried about something weird going on.” He looks steadily at Dance. “Do not play the cowboy riding out alone. Get help.”

Dance nods. “Thank you.”

“Could you trust me with copies to check with people I know?” Shura asks. “Dance, do you have any other papers like this?”

Dance looks up. “We– I mean, I took copies of another batch like these, on the second time, yes. The first time, I gave it all to the police.”

“Ah,” Shura says. He takes out a pocket notebook, poises his pen. “Do you remember who took your police report?”

Dance starts talking, Shura starts writing.

“He couldn’t hit you?” Shura says finally, amused. “Indeed. I will check to see if he finally got what he deserved. I can’t see the Captain putting up with that nonsense. Allow me to make a copy of this for you, Drin. Shall I assume you’re going to tell Emma now?”

Drin looks at the restaurateur. “I knew you were good, but– could world domination be next on your list?”

Shura gives a shrug. “Running the world is such a fussy business. Me, I’m interested in good food and music. That’s plenty of work! How do you like the borscht?”

Dance looks down blankly at his empty bowl. “It was really good.”

“Excellent,” Shura says. “I’ll be back shortly with a copy of these names, Drin, and Dance, I do thank you for the confidence. If I come across useful information I shall of course contact you both.”

Drin has his own card ready, hands it across.

“Thank you,” Shura says, taking the card gravely. “I shall not mention this to Bud Innes if he happens to visit, but you may wish to think of him as an additional backup who is interested in the Metro’s overall well-being, and in Dance’s leadership in particular. Let me know if you have decided to speak with him.”

Dance nods. “Thank you, Shura.” He puts out his hand.

Shura grips it briefly, turns to Drin and shakes his hand too. Then he turns away. “Thank me when I can come up with something useful on this.”

When they get home, keeping a copy of the list of ranking investigatory officers in hand, Drin gets on the computer long enough to scrub several greetings. Finally he settles for,

He piffles here, he piffles there, where is that demmed elusive Piffernell?

Next morning, he has a reply.

Well, Piffernell, greetings to your good self. Shura told me to expect you, I’ve been waiting to hear. How’s Dance holding up? How are you holding up?–rumor has it that kid is so demanding! Has he broken his little old bed yet? Has Emma got her cute new boots yet?

Sins of Omission

mosaic torso back on bridge in fog
Out of Nowhere

“Okay, what’s the big deal? What’s in the papers?” Emma demands. She and Amalia are sitting on the couch together, both of them looking sharp and annoyed. Which means worried. The mention of teslamomma emailing Emma, months before, has brought them both here, in spite of other demands and schedules that have no room.

Amalia sighs. “Dance, stop wiggling like a two-year-old with wet diapers, and just say it.”

“I can’t,” Dance says. He’s halfway up on his feet again. It took them ten minutes to get him to sit down in the first place.

Amalia holds up a hushing finger. Over the years, she’s dealt with a lot of musicians wild-eyed with stage fright. “Sit, sit. Take some deep breaths for me here. Start small.”

Dance bolts from the room. The bathroom door creaks as he jams it shut. The fan almost masks the noises he’s making in there.

Drin is about to get up when Amalia shakes her head. “Let him get cleaned up. It doesn’t usually hit Dance that bad, but he’s so damn proud.”

Emma’s got her arms crossed, frowning. “Do you know what this is about?”

Drin takes a deep breath. “I think starting small is a good idea.”

Emma says, “You look pretty damn green too.”

Amalia gives her a look. “Take it easy, or you’ll lose both of them!”

The two women glare at each other. Emma reaches out for the papers.

Drin has his hand on them first. “Give me a second. It’s just– difficult.” The reality of looking at the two women in the same room with these pictures is making him want to join Dance in the bathroom.

“You’re sweating,” Emma says, astonished.

“Yeah. Okay. Starting small. How did you meet this lady on email who calls herself teslamomma?”

“Oh, she joined some patronage list for the Metro,” Emma says. To Amalia, she explains, “You’d like her, she’s funny as hell. Some kind of science background, I think. Older lady, I don’t think I’ve ever seen her at a fundraiser, but she’s sent us some great ideas and got us onto some wonderful grant openings.” To Drin, she says, “So how did she get in touch with you?”

“Shura Korachevsky gave us the lady’s email address in the course of conversation about… this problem. He offered to help us out as a person with a lot of connections. There was no dodging it, talking to him, once he saw Dance was in obvious distress.”

Emma prims her lips.

Amalia looks outright alarmed. “He’s really not a safe guy, you know. Some of his best buddies back home were Russian mob or national security or both. None of us has the slightest idea how he’d use information that’s dangerous, or scandalous, or–”

Drin gives a crooked grin. “But he has motive to help. Turns out he was the anonymous donor who kept Dance’s grant going when Dance’s parents cut him off.”

Amalia’s eyes pop wide open. “What?”

“Oh shit,” Emma says.

Amalia rounds on Emma, furious. “You knew!”

photo by Nina-Mouritzen
photo by Nina-Mouritzen

Emma rests her forehead in her hand. “We didn’t have a choice. Where were we going to pull thousands of dollars out of that budget? Yeah, I gave up and I went to Shura. He already gets whatever he asks at the Metro, let me tell you. He’s one reason Dance has a chair at all in Young’s scheme of things. Hell, Shura could snap his fingers anytime and get Dance fired if he wanted, so why not ask him for help? Hell, he could get me fired, easy.”

Drin says, “He says he wants the great improvement in the Metro’s playing to continue.”

“Great! Wonderful!” Amalia snaps, flinging her hands wide. “Nice to know!”

“Oh, it gets better,” Drin says dryly. “But I think Dance is the one who should explain, if he can.”

The two women look at each other. Amalia shakes her finger at the librarian. “Emma Josephine, you are a total shit and I should pull out all your hair, keeping huge secrets like that,” Amalia says, flinging herself back into the sofa and folding her arms.

Dance emerges from the bathroom looking a peculiar greenish brown. He walks over to the sofa, kneels in front of the two women, holds out a hank of hair toward Amalia, and says softly, “Start pulling.”

“What–” both of them exclaim in unison.

“Twice pictures came to us in the mail. Our Drin just now got things in mail that came to him very late. Then Drin just last night received five emails that are very bad. Somebody out there is convinced that we– that I am– killing women.”

It’s the only time Drin has ever seen Emma sitting perfectly still, with her mouth open, not saying a word.

Amalia’s hands flop limply onto the couch.

“In the pictures, somebody who looks just like us–like me– has been killing girls in places like Russia by beating them to death with his fists,” Dance says. He leans forward, takes Amalia’s hand, and puts a hank of his hair across her palm.

Emma just makes a gargled noise in her throat.

Gravely, Dance reaches out and takes her hand, and puts another lock of his hair in her fingers. They tighten on it.

Then she’s got her other hand gripping at his hair, and she’s dragging him toward her, pulling him up onto her knees. “What is this bullshit?” Emma growls somewhere down in her chest.

Dance has both arms around her, leaning into her. “We didn’t dare– I couldn’t tell you– we couldn’t make you look at– things like this–”

“They’re really that bad?” Emma snaps.

“Yeah, they are,” Drin says quietly, looking at Amalia, who’s begun sneaking forward to grab the wad of papers.

“Well, it’s sure as hell not Dance. Everybody knows where he is, whole day long. I mean, nearly always. Then who is it?” Amalia demands.

Drin says, “That’s what I’m trying to figure out. It’s happening somewhere in the Russian Near East, going up into places like Moldova, from the email servers involved.”

Dance turns his head toward Amalia. “We– I didn’t think it would go on– but Drin got the nasty emails– we are warning you to be careful, but we don’t know what to warn you about.”

“Right, show us this blackmailing little shit’s screeds, and we’ll be getting down to some decent homework on this,” Emma says.

“Well, it could be blackmail. Or it may be revenge for the death of somebody in their family,” Drin says. He releases the papers, and Amalia snatches them up.

It is not pretty, watching their faces. The email texts are even worse than the pictures attached to them. Two are partial copies of translated forensic reports on the bodies.

“Christ,” Emma says two minutes later, while Amalia is in the bathroom puking. Emma’s hand is gripping her jaw tightly, and she’s looking green too.

But she puts down the papers on the table near her, and she grips Dance’s hair, and drags up his head, adjusts the angle of it to her satisfaction, and she studies each of the pictures against the living man for some minutes. Then she grabs him and drags him close and gives him a long, fierce hug. “You utter shit, I should pull out all your hair. I should throw away all your chilis and make you live on white food for a month. I should give away all your plants and spank your bare ass until you can’t sit down for a week. Goddammit, Dance–and stop crying, you’re really gonna make me lose my temper with you!”

Dance buries his face in her lap, and bawls in earnest.

“Oh Christ on a pogo stick playing pong with a pope!” Emma shouts at him. “If you’d given this stuff to me when you first got it, we could have nailed this guy’s ass in jail by now!”

Dance flinches. “Yes, yes, we tried to tell the police–” and he explains, hastily, what happened when he tried to report it.

hand on library card catalog drawer, source unknown
hand on library card catalog drawer, source unknown

“What the fuck do they know?” Emma roars.

“Oh man, now you’ve torn it,” Amalia says, leaning tiredly in the hallway.

“You all right?” Drin asks Amalia. “Can I get you some water or something?”

Amalia waves it off.

Emma is cursing ferociously, with one hand twisting Dance’s ear. It clearly hurts, but he doesn’t try to stop her, either.

“We have a list of the names of the guys who interrogated Dance, he told me and Shura,” Drin says.

“Right, now there’s a great place to take neglected evidence,” Emma growls, and lets go of Dance’s ear. She gives him a couple of thumps on the back that sound like she’s hitting a watermelon. Then she pauses, mid-thump, and points at Drin. “But you’re right, Shura is the best contact I can think of for the Russian end of things. So did teslamomma give you anything when you talked to her about it?”

Drin grimaces. “She told me some places to check on the servers, she’s going to see what she can find as background on the various names of cops and agents that Dance recalled, and she said diplomatic immunity banishes a lot of sins.”

Emma pushes impatiently at Dance to move. She leans forward with her hands over her eyes. “Lemme think here. Of course I gotta find the original forensic reports, get them translated properly. The English wording on some of that just didn’t sound right at all.”

“God help you, trying to retrieve stuff like that from holes like Moldova,” Amalia says, sitting down with a sigh. “My cousins say the national pastime is rudeness and the only job is prostitute.”

Emma gives Dance another push. “Go apologize to Amalia, you stinker.”

Dance gives a yelp when he does, too. Amalia has strong hands. “Oughta leave you bald, I swear! You keep secrets like that, I oughta just shave your head clean!”

“That’s one way to get him to trim his hair,” Emma says dryly.

The cellist’s eyes narrow. Amalia gets that scheming look on her face that means trouble for somebody. “Tell you what. You let Drin take you back to that decent hair place, get all those shaggy ends chopped, let ’em try some more of those highlights we all thought looked good on you, and no more whining about somebody touching your head, right? And a new suit, too. No arguing when Drin takes you to the tailor, get you fitted again, do it right. Yes? You promise? Okay. Oh God, Em’s right. Guys are such babies. Stop crying, you’re making me feel tired. Go crawl in Drin’s lap, do you both some good.”

She was right about that, too.

“You tattled,” Dance mutters into Drin’s chest.

“Yep. When was the last time you went to a dentist? Or a doctor?”

Dance gives a groan.

“Shuddup or we’ll both spank your sorry ass,” Emma growls, fingers pressing into her eyes. “And Drin, you can just stop looking like you’d enjoy watching it, too, you big horndawg.”

The Mayor Loses His Shirt

Rembrandt's painting of anxious man
Just Add New Worries to Old

“I’m trying not to be alarmist here–” Drin says, taking deep breaths.

“Sit, sit,” Dance says, clearing extra throw pillows off the couch. He puts his hands out, offering to stabilize Drin, touching his arm lightly. “Are you okay?”

Emma hurries in with a large mug of hot tea, which makes Drin smile, once he’s safely sitting down.

“Thanks,” Drin says, and when she looks uncertain, he says, “Please, sit, I should talk to both of you, tell you both.” He takes another deep breath.

Emma pulls up a chair, perches facing him.

“What’s wrong?” Dance says, settling next to him, resting his hot, leathery hand on Drin’s forearm.

“Not those forensic reports, nothing like that. Putting it simply, it’s about money,” Drin says. He takes another deep breath, lets it out, says, “I just found out some– unpleasant facts about– where some of my– family money came from. The attorneys went digging into some things for me. Actually, it doesn’t belong to my family at all, and technically, I should not be using it the way that I have been. The fact I didn’t know doesn’t protect us. My parents’ generation never realized it either, but ignorance is no defense under the law. I don’t think anybody’s going to try to enforce it if I can put a stop to it right away. But it does mean that– “ another deep breath, “– I may have to restore funds. I’ve put together a contingency fund to cover that until I find out for sure. My salary from work will have to go to that. I’m a bum, actually. I’ll have to– move out of my apartment, sell the furniture, sell my car, all that.”

He waves his free hand at their shocked noises. “I’m not using any of those things very much, I don’t mind that part, really I don’t. What bothers me is that if I do support funding at the Metro, I don’t have a lot of extra to help out around here. I can help with rent, food, but there’s not enough for extras–”

Dance says firmly, “First priority is the Metro things you wish to do. Lacking funds, our first chairs will be totally frantic. We do not need so much.”

“Oh yes,” Emma agrees, and she pulls her chair closer, enough to take Drin’s hands. “Don’t worry about us. We lived on much less before you and Bud improved all the Metro salaries with your support. We’ll do fine, don’t worry. But what about you? It’s not cheap finding a new place–”

“Oh, our Drin must move in here, please, while you find a place, or if you stay here. If you wish to stay, it will be much better for your money,” Dance says. “Emma and ourself, we talked about inviting you to do this, but not wishing to be pushy.”

Drin lowers his head. Emma releases his hands, and pats his shoulder instead. On the other side, Dance leans into him, tucking his arm into Drin’s and clasping his hand. Dance kisses his cheek, murmurs, “It is all right, we will figure this out. Emma has the logistics, I have strength to move things, you must not be worried. And it is also okay by me if you wish to move into another apartment. You do not have to decide today.”

“Things can change…awfully fast, when there’s so much money involved. God, I’m a bum! You could accuse me of being like… some of the Metro’s flakey sorts, just… on a larger scale,” Drin says.

“But how were you to know? It is completely unfair to you. Many other people would never stop it, would never worry about it, saying nobody would enforce it. Until maybe later it blows up in their faces. It is your own strict auditing brain–the conscience?– yes, saying it never works out well, fix it now.”

Drin grimaces. His beautiful musician is right, of course, Dance knows him all too well. “It was some hidden computer file information that teslamomma dug out for me, tipped us both off to check on it, and then the attorneys found out where the hell it came from. Some super duper secret military project back in the forties that ended up building some labs or something in Louisiana, and Texas, of all places, and then petered out into spending on some kind of mercenary contracts and God knows where it went from there. I’ll have to track down that mess, but it sounds like pork barrel politics at its best.”

Emma pats his shoulder. “Forward it to me so I can try to track it down at the historical end of things. Things like land deeds, newspaper announcements. They have a whole different parish system there, property ownership is based on French law. You might be surprised what’s okay there that isn’t out here.”

Drin nods, rests his forehead in his hand. “Thank you.”

Dance kisses him on the cheek, on the ear, on the back of his free hand, and then has the unexpected wisdom to pull back and stop touching him. Dance gets up, paces the living room a bit, heads off into the kitchen. The fridge door opens and closes, cabinet doors clatter. More or less to himself, Dance says, “Hmm, but will there will onions? Celery? Potatoes? Good, I think we have enough for stock…”

Of course our Dance is going to start cooking. It’s the only big thing he does on the weekend, anyway, besides performances. He should be practicing for that bizarre ballet piece of Young’s–who does anything like A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the winter, anyway?

person holding 3 round loaves of home-made bread
artisanal home-made breads

Emma smiles, takes Drin’s untouched tea mug off the arm of the sofa, takes it back in the kitchen, and starts banging around pots and pans in there. Then she hisses angrily at Dance, “It’s so goddamn unfair on all those people at the Metro– if it was anybody else’s patron who got hit with this, they’d be in a world of hurt.”

“But this is our Drin, who knows what it is like to go hungry. He will sort it out, make sure the salaries are met. You wash that big pot and I’ll fill it for making some squash soup. As you said last night, we have many squashes to use up from our garden, and we have already given away an embarrassing number of funny-looking things.”

“Robert abusing the gourds last week was way too much embarrassment for me.” Emma sighs. “Better refill that pepper mill for me, Dance. I can’t get that lid off. Gotta have lots of black pepper on my squash soup.” Fingernails tap on a counter top. “You know, if we clear off that junk space, I could move my desk stuff there, and Drin could have my work space off the living room. When he has to bring stuff home, his ledgers are a lot bigger and wider than my files.”

“Oh, I do love you, you tough macha woman you,” Dance says, and gives her a noisy smacking kiss. Drin doesn’t need to see it at all.

“I can sell back those old language textbooks I’m not using, clear shelf space for his cds and dvds. We can stack some moving boxes in the front closet, too.” She goes on ruthlessly sorting out places where Drin’s stuff can be stored until they can rearrange to suit everybody. She figures out ways of restacking the garage to allow him to park a cheaper car in there. Then she comes up short. “Oh Dance, his nice clothes! Where–”

“I will make room in my closet and my dresser for everyday things. We clear out the top of the hall closet for things like his formal stuff, we hang a nice new shoe pocket like yours on the inside of the door, so we must not be not putting too many boxes in the front after all. We get that done this week, so it is all ready for him whenever he needs it.”

“Okay,” Emma says. “What if– what if– he doesn’t have enough money for everything he owes?”

“Then we will go to his family and ask for help!” Dance sounds forceful. Angry, almost. “Drin has certainly helped them on the phone enough, they can figure out ways to help him now. If he does not wish to disgrace his name, I understand, but I have no shame about going to them and telling them it is unfair to let him go hungry when he has helped so many other people.”

“Dance!” Emma exclaims. “You don’t know any of those people–”

“So what? They are his family! Yes, we– I mean it. I am not joking! He has helped everyone in the Metro and I owe him bigtime and I am not letting him down now!” Dance sounds fierce.

“Okay, okay, calm down, I was getting way premature about it–”

“Yes, but your whizzing Librarian brain, you see ahead of us, you plan, you foresee ways past problems. We need this from you. I will calm down, sorry. We were not meaning to shout.”

“Dance, he’s–”

“Drin is moving in,” Dance says firmly, “and we will make him comfortable so long as he wishes to stay with us, yes?”

“Abso-fucking-lutely,” Emma agrees.

“And if he wishes to find another place, we help him, and if he wishes to live here, we’re good there too. Are you okay with all this, our Emma?”

“Like you had to ask me!”

“But I should!”

“Oh c’mere, I gotta hug your stuffin’s out for awhile. I’d paddle your butt if you didn’t offer him room here, whether I was around or not. God dammit, it’s so unfair. The money is not his damn fault.”

“Oh, our Emma,” and there’s a brief pause in the sizzling noises of something being stirred in a hot pan.

Drin blinks hard, rubs his hands over his face, scrubs his fingers through his hair.

Oh yeah, he knows what he’s got to email to teslamomma tonight: You won that bet. Tell your Marine buddy he’s an asshole, and I’m a total shit for pulling this one, even if it’s all true. These two were only worried about money for other folks at the Metro, and for me. Dance asked me to move in and started making soup for dinner. Emma started figuring out where to stash my music cds and my office space.

But he stands up, and takes a deep breath, and goes in to reach up to the high shelves for Dance, getting down the big crockpot lid. He’s pretty sure he doesn’t deserve the big hug that envelops him from both of them at once. He hugs each one very hard, kissing them on either cheek, ceremonially. “Thank you,” he says.

“What do you think, the nutmeg too, or not? Taste this with, this without,” Dance commands, holding up spoonfuls from two small sauté pans sizzling with oil.

“With,” Drin decides, after considering the two spice blends on offer.

“Ahh, good, thank you.”

ladling gold-colored soup
Carrot and Squash Curry Soup

Drin offers to clean and chop up the hard, warty Hubbard squashes in the sink. Emma smiles, turns on the little tinny kitchen radio for Dance, and goes to sort out the mess on her cramped desk space. Dance starts whistling along with the music, with occasional cheerful comments about progress in the cooking.

When the squashes are chopped and skinned and dropped into the stock, Drin washes his hands, dries them, and turns to Dance, who puts up his hand on Drin’s shoulder. Solemnly they do a cha-cha to the tinny broadcast, shuffling back and forth in the limited floor space, with Dance giving Drin a twirl every time he reaches the widest space. Drin has to duck to do it, which makes both of them laugh.

When the song ends, Drin just opens his arms wider, and Dance walks into him, pushes him back into the fridge, and hugs his stuffings very hard. “I wish you will be very happy here,” Dance says into his ribs.

“I am so happy right here, right now,” Drin says, and rests his cheek on Dance’s hair, and kisses his forehead. Dance’s hair smells of onions and black pepper and nutmeg and a tickle of something resinous, maybe herbs or pine or just Dance himself. The smell of home, now.

Epitaph

Emma has bad dreams of her own–being abandoned, waking up in a hospital ER after being beat up, with no memory of the last month, and a purse emptied of everything useful. The nurses found teslamomma’s phone numbers were the only current numbers in the ragged, muddied address book kicked aside next to it, and picked up for her sake by a thoughtful EMT.

Her confused conversations with teslamomma were the single thread that led her to reconstructing her life, or more correctly, her intended life. Whoever attacked her knocked her down in a strange new town, just as she was crossing the street to her new library job. She remembers oddly scattered bits of previous jobs.

It’s as if you didn’t exist six months before they picked you up out of the alley, says the critic in Emma’s mind, annoying as always.

She’s looked for traces of her own passage, tried to track down the surviving women in her family, finding a sister back in Australia who suffered a car wreck and doesn’t remember much either, and who is equally frustrated in the search to find something tangible to show for her life. For the rest, no brothers, no spouse. Their mother gets heard from every few months as she’s stuck off in some remote part of Africa doing scholarly research, her distracted letters more about her work than the family; and the rest are very distant relatives.

The Letter, painting from 1910 by James Carroll Beckwith
The Letter, painting from 1910 by James Carroll Beckwith

Her sister is right; both their records are sketchy as a bad alias, but these days nobody asks Emma too many questions.  She’s as bad as either of the silly amnesiac men sprawled together in her living room, dodging questions when coworkers ask about growing up, back in Oz.

Oh, who cares?  Just make it all up, says the skeptic in her head.

That gruff voice in her head has no mercy.  Dance’s amazing new boyfriend does not charm that critic in the least.  It comments sardonically on the man’s patience, notices how Drin stalks her at the Metro like a leopard, always watchful, never pushing.  Little things, like waiting until he’s invited to go to the store with them both for a special dinner; waiting to accept a door key instead of asking for it; rarely stepping on her toes when she deals with roommate questions; and not making a big deal out of doing mundane chores.

Drin routinely does things like getting out wipes or a sponge to clean the bathroom as well as the kitchen, and never hesitates to help her out, as if he’s so used to doing for himself that it never occurs to him to wonder about it.  Says he finds housecleaning a nice meditation, and smiles.

That voice in Emma’s head cackles in amusement.  Oh, he’s got it bad, zoning out on his image of who’s using that sink, and that toilet!

The one disservice– that inner voice never changes its approach to the pornographic jokes.

pale girl wearing white plastic headdress and necklace
when her datawebs are failing

Well, she knows now from bad dreams that it’s a fading, scratchy Victrola, a ghost haunting her shell, a dim partial memory from a dead man uploaded into some cache hidden inside her bones, stashed away as carefully and secretly as a pirate’s chest in an expanse of fossilized dunes above a Caribbean beach.  Now it’s just the marks left by a life well- and truly-lived, and truly gone.

She knows from her increasingly detailed and unpleasant dreams that the live man, the General, he changed all the time.  He shifted like water, interested constantly in new things, new ways to tell jokes, new mental angles of attack on a problem.  It’s what made him worth the salute.

Hey, Watson, admit it–your old Uncle Wojo is gone, the voice tells her impatiently, but of course they didn’t let the damn bones rest in peace, those goddamn fuckers.

The voice in her head lacks the ability to change and move on which was such a big part of the General’s peculiar leadership gifts.  They didn’t capture his fluid style of field command when they canned his inner voice.  They didn’t capture invention, and wit, and soul.  He’ll never change his jokes now.  What made him the General is gone.

What she has left–what she is, with his voice rasping in her ear at meetings–is just a much better grave marker than a picture and a recording built into a granite plinth.  He would have laughed at that. Perfect, for a man of his tastes: Entombed in a beautiful woman!

But he’s had a rather masculine influence on her, between that unbending inner voice and her smudged memories of the man, striding like an avenging tower through her bad dreams of attacking bug troops.  Smoking his stogies, and smiting things with all the horrid grinning amusement of a particularly self-righteous, pot-bellied angel– I told you so!

He’s not much help, here and now, at figuring out how to tackle Drin on the really tough questions. He might not agree on the man’s charm, but still he agreed with men like Drin on too many things, shared too many of the same privileges, the same assumptions.  He’s absolutely no use for questioning Drin’s intentions, promises, attachments.

Of course Wojo knows exactly what sort of man Dance’s boyfriend was—that’s the reason why Drin made her short list for Dance in the first place. Oh, he identified who and what Drin is, what the auditor must have been, in that strange other place with the bug labs. She doesn’t even know the meaning of half the vocabulary the raspy voice offers her on that topic. There are no referents in this world that match up to the fleeting impressions left behind.

One helluva senior officer, and probably a Mercyman, beyond any doubt. Look at the man’s reflexes with Dance. Watch how he handles animals.

closeup tan and blue eye of white cheetah
Eye of the Beast

Emma hasn’t challenged Drin about that, either.  I know what you did, back in that world, hardly seems convincing when it comes out in babble about sarcoboxes full of drowned faces, about the stink, about half-converted victims grotesque with failed bug parts.

But the General is just laughing at the very idea of advising her.  She’s on her own, confronting Drin.

Just tell him about me, and about his former rank, and watch the chips fall, says that voice.  You won’t change him. Only you.

Shut up, Emma thinks, and puts her eyes firmly back on the French textbook she is reading, instead of watching the broad freckled hand stroking Dance’s hair, brushing repetitively up and down his arm, resting lightly on Dance’s back, drawing him in close.  Dance gives a big sigh, and falls asleep like a kitten in those big paws.

She can’t help but notice when Drin looks up from Dance’s sodden relaxation, looks at her with those tiger-yellow eyes, and smiles right into her gaze.

It’s like a promise:  You’re next.

Get used to it is not her idea of a choice.

Uncle Wojo is no help at all.  She’s not sure which of them makes her angrier.

Auren Han’s gun

actor Byung-hun Lee with gun
fantasy man

He’s hardly the first guy at a concert with a jacket tailored to carry concealed, and you’d never thought you might have a gun fetish. You know, these things just happen– you see a beautiful man in the backstage crowd, you catch a flash of something metal and precise when his jacket flies open.

You wonder if he let that happen on purpose. And if he meant it for you, as if you were some secret agent operative or something. Then you wonder what the movie scene would be like– the password, the danger, you’re hearing the nervous, scratchy background music, before he gestures you into the dubious safety of a hotel room.

The next thing you know, there’s a porn film running in your head while you shake hands with corporate flacks and accept the congratulations of the mayor’s wife in her three-year-old Gucci.

You’re introduced– Auren Han (the unvoiced U precisely indicated), and you’re able to meet his cool regard with your normal poise. But in shaking hands, you’re very aware of his masculinity, and his natural scent meets your nostrils and coils up in some corner of your limbic system.

It riles up your normal impatience to go home after a performance. They’re surprised how much you want to get away, somewhere private, you don’t care. Emma’s clever, she finds a closet in the building. She watches, with those greedy eyes of hers, at the door, and Drin can’t keep quiet when he fucks you with her hand creme and condoms from her purse. Your pants smell of it in the car, when you wrestle yourself out of them for Emma to get at you. Auren Han’s presence is there, the whole time.

This is all part of something else, random impressions firing wrong and turning into sensory phantoms. This itchy heat that crawls up and down, and the vague sense of pressure at the base of your spine, that comes and goes. That makes you so achingly needy that two lovers aren’t enough for you. You find yourself arching your back to direct Emma’s fingers, Drin’s prick, not towards your prostate but your back, to rub, from the inside, the tip of your coccyx into soft blossomings of white light up your back and down your thighs–and only when that itch is scratched can you get things moving again in the right direction, back to your cock, and what’s that about?

It’s not orgasmic, as you’ve ascertained one long afternoon on your own. Not by itself.

silhouette profile against bokka lights
photo by Alex Stoddard

Thinking about stroking that heat-lightning alive, with the feel of Auren Han’s hand touching yours, that’s the fantasy in your head when you take care of business. When you can’t sleep, when your prick is begging for relief, because your husband is gone and your beloved woman is asleep almost before her head hit the pillows. Why would you wake up hard, dreaming about Han’s cock, dreaming about the smell of him?