|All the White Horses
Author: coincident PM
Seventeen years of-fearing, admiring, failing, loving-raising a gentleman. Kurt/Blaine, Blaine's father narrates. One-shot.Rated: Fiction T - English - Blaine A. & Kurt H. - Words: 11,472 - Reviews: 122 - Favs: 359 - Follows: 27 - Published: 04-19-11 - Status: Complete - id: 6920936
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
A/N: Not every parent can be a Burt Hummel.
Warning for some discussions of mature themes and profanity. Characters' opinions are not necessarily my own.
This is your son, eight years old and making the sweet, sweet discovery that a humming dashboard holds rhythm better than anything else ever has or will. Blaine's got his backpack on the floor between his feet and his hands open-palmed rapping out syncopation on the dash in front of him, singing 'cause every little thing—is gonna be all right—and you're listening and tapping along on the hand brake, not quite able to catch the beat or make eye contact but nodding nonetheless. You've never had much to say to one another, but you have an unspoken playlist that breaks the silence of the eleven-minute ride to school.
—so don't worry—about a thing—
When the handle clicks open the spell breaks, inevitably; this is difficult ground because from there on you'll both deal in words, not music: Blaine in third-grade minutiae, you in the white-collar vernacular that sometimes seems about as tiredly pointless, but most of all in the strained goodbye or see you later and the knowledge that from then on whatever happens in the other's day will be something untranslatable and incomprehensible. Still as he dashes towards the building something soft under your breastbone hopes he'll stay filled with the quiet energy emanating from that dashboard, the off-tempo nodding; the sense that that eleven-minute suspension in music will make it possible to persevere through the rest of his day, as it's done for you.
Your own father never said any of this. Even if you wanted the words, you wouldn't know where to find them. By the time the window goes up all you have time to do is call, "Study hard," which he pretends is Have a good day, and he smiles and replies "Yes, Daddy" which you pretend is I love you.
This is your son bored out of his mind at his sister's twelfth birthday party, kicking his feet against the rungs of his chair and muttering lovingly to an airplane made of a High School Musical napkin and some unfortunate girl's earrings. Valerie with her birthday-girl tiara keeps shooting him glares, but he ignores her, instead eating his cake with methodical neatness and testing the aerodynamics of his plane by launching it into a bowl of punch.
"This plane is called The Val," he tells you when you approach him. "Because it's her birthday, that's why—it got a bit drowned, so it's a good thing it's secretly a submarine."
"You may as well help your sister, as long as you're here," you say, ignoring the soggy plane-submersible. You hand him a full glass of punch and pick random sprinkles out of his hair and point to one of Valerie's friends at the far end of the table, surrepitiously dozing off as the girls around her engage in a pizza-eating contest. "She isn't having a good time. Do you think you can change that?"
"What do I do?"
"Pay attention to her. You'll know."
When you next seek him out he's chatting away quite the thing with a now utterly charmed preteen; as you pass them you see him glance bewilderedly at one of the High School Musical napkins and splutter on bravely ("—think he's kind of orange, but his hair is maybe shiny. Is he the one you like?") By the end of the party he will know to use her name more often than she uses his, to remain attentive to her plate and glass, and most of all, to enjoy himself so that she will know she is with someone who appreciates her. In his elementary-school world of gum under desks and boys who spit on the parking lot, the protective, loving mantle of charm must seem like nothing so much as undiluted magic—the promise of a lovelier world that he, suddenly an adept magician, can for seconds at least make real.
The birthday party with its raucous children and unchewed gobs of cake seems suddenly like a premonition. Here is an entire generation that will grow up disdaining courtesy as a matter of tiresome rules, and in the midst of it, your son: nine years old and already firm in the knowledge that to be a gentleman is to be—if only for moments—someone's hero.
This is your son watching you polish his dress shoes. You jerk them away from his hands with an involuntarily tense motion that escapes like gunfire; his eyes dim, but he apologizes before you can and then your own apology seems frivolous, so you hold it quiet inside your mouth.
The lack of conversation is nothing unusual. You have an Ivy League education, an immaculately maintained 401-K, a wife who wears pearls of the proper size and color to your office dinners; with all of this, somehow, the world has come to expect that you have automatically acquired the ability to socialize with your children.
In the car before going inside you look at your tired eyes in the rearview and tell yourself: today will be the day you toss words back and forth with him as easily as Lydia and Valerie do, today will be the day. Inside, you palm his curls as he locks arms around your legs. You close your eyes and apologize with the movement of your hand in his hair, you think that you are a coward, but tomorrow—tomorrow.
Tomorrow you will tell him you love him. In the meanwhile, his dress shoes will always be the neatest in his class.
This is your son upstairs doing his homework, or so you think until you catch the tail end of, "Mom, I think you should come upstairs—" from your daughter pulling on Lydia's skirt. You set down your pen.
She turns toward you, biting her lip. High school has brought with it uncomfortable jeans, a North Face jacket, and a straight-with-side-bangs haircut identical to every other girl's, but she's never been able to hide that expression, vintage Valerie when she was just fat baby Val.
"Is there a problem?"
"I sort of—I mean, Blaine's in our bathroom, I think he's crying, and I just...I don't think he should be, you know, alone—"
Upstairs the three of you lean against the cream-colored wall next to the door and you hear your son's voice tremulously forming sentences and breaking them apart like building blocks.
"I read about on this website, it's really helpful, lots of ki—teenagers are confused about this and it said it's really nice to be able to be honest with your family, and so I thought—"
Lydia and Valerie look at one another first. Stunned and fluttery—birdlike. No one looks at you. You direct your gaze to the floor. The world is suddenly too bright, unmanageable—this, you think, this was why you chose neutral pastels for the rooms, so that nothing would hurt your family's eyes.
Blaine's voice picks up again with its brave inflections. "Now that I'm thirteen and my s-s-sexuality is beginning to come to light—"
His debate coach would make him say it again. His sexuality, not a word he can even say, sounds like some kind of unfocused creature emerging from the deep. Before Lydia can reach for your hand you flatten your palm against the wallpaper, like an insect.
Blaine is silent again. Then:
"You coward," he blurts. Unprofessional, but this is rehearsal and he can afford the moment. "You coward," his voice wavers, "can't even tell them—"
You imagine him then. How it must have been: spending the last few evenings clicking dutifully from Suggested Reading to Suggested Reading and clearing the browser history on the computer he shares with his sister. You wonder if he found the right way to tell you and then you're angry with yourself, so angry—because when your son navigates the world as easily as Blaine does it's so easy to assume that he will never be hurt, that you will never be called upon to assuage that hurt.
So easy to place responsibility for your well-being on his shoulders, instead of the way it should be.
"Can't even tell them you're gay," Blaine hollers behind the bathroom door like the gangly thirteen-year-old he is, and a sudden smattering of tears blinds you; not at the declaration but at the pain in his voice. You blink and blink, you don't know how there's so much moisture still in your body when your throat is so dry. "Gay—you're gay—I'm gay. I can say it. I'm Blaine Anderson and I'm gay—"
He's crying now in earnest, his sobs the backshifted echo of your own teenage ones, sounding like he's being torn in two. So hard there's no face to be felt, just a paralysis of fear and saltiness. Your wife rattles the doorknob now with an air of desperation; she's already found the words; she never has to think about it the way you do—"Blaine, my love, my baby, open the door—"
When the door opens you don't hear it, but you can see from the corner of your eye how the women claim him in their embrace, even Valerie who professes dislike for him on every other occasion—even she grows up in moments, clutching her brother in a firm seatbelt of a hug. Blaine is clinging to his mother's soft white arms with a drowning child's grip, but his eyes are looking for yours.
Move, you tell yourself. Move, you damned fool.
But you are a frozen man, all you can think is that hugs will do nothing; you are a father and your mind seizes up in logistics first—from here there will be trips to school, legal action against high-school viciousness, a hopeless tender loneliness that you will not know how to answer from a son who will keep looking to you as if you should.
It's with this last that the anger finally comes, with perfect glacial slowness, until at last you are encased in ice and the pain of what your son will now face doesn't reach you. It isn't directed at him, but at something unseen and uncomprehending that he will now fight against for the rest of his life; as his father you find yourself conscripted into a war you never wanted and will never be able to avoid.
And you are not your son—you are no one's hero. You were never prepared for war.
Move, your own dark eyes plead from your son's face, and without your consent your cowardly feet move—towards the hall, down the stairs, out of the house, into the cul-de-sac outside that leads you nowhere at all but back to your own door.
This is your son who is exactly the same and tells you that, because he is the only boy in the world who would think of someone other than himself in a situation like this.
"It's still me, Dad," he says, paused at the doorway of your study; he looks like a changeling caught between one world and another. Not your child, except that he fixes his collar before he speaks the same way you do before a difficult meeting—this, you think, has always been one of the grave joys of being his father, the small ways in which your own soul shines out from behind his features and looks the more beautiful for it.
I know, you try, I would know you anywhere but your throat seizes up. As Blaine will one day freeze as a football player grabs his collar, you feel yourself halted now—knowing desperately that you need to speak to save your own life, not knowing in which direction to go.
Ultimately, as you have always done, you choose the safe route. Whatever you wanted to say or could have said comes out "Finish your homework."
Something in Blaine's gaze ratchets shut like a drawbridge.
When he replies, "Yes, Dad," you know you've forfeited your right to the lexicon of one another, the unspoken understanding of love that had undercut your conversations. From here onwards you will speak to each other as always, polite or deferentially jovial; whatever you lost in that moment is so quiet and so devastating that it will go without expression—a great pain must be borne in silence or screams, and the latter was never an option for you or for Blaine.
A gentleman, after all, does not make a mess of his mourning.
He slides the door shut and you turn back to your work. The yellow highlighter burns in your vision with its cheeriness. A steady drone continues from the desk lamp. Life goes on; you have done your part in propping up your generation's farce of masculinity. You wonder why the quiet thing in your chest keeps aching, and aching, and aching.
This is your son whom you've taught, with savings accounts and his own monogrammed checkbook, that a gentleman expects back exactly what he puts in. Blaine has always accepted the credo with delighted understanding: in the black-and-white movies he adores, the kind, loving men receive exactly what kind, loving men should, which seems to be something along the lines of gleamingly varnished happiness in whatever form they desire it. This all makes exact mathematical sense to your honor student slip of a child, and you have known since he was small that if he were to paint a motto above his life he'd write in sloppy but certain letters something to the effect of tie your shoelaces and you won't fall.
("That's incredibly naïve—what about rocks, or street curbs, or someone sticking a foot in your—" Valerie would probably say to this, and Blaine would reply with cheery pragmatism, "'Well, at least you won't have your own shoelaces to blame;" you have never joined in these conversations, bewildered by the back-and-forth repartee, but you know exactly how they go.)
So although over the phone Lydia tells you in near-hysterics that he must have been terrified when he opened his history book in third period and a shower of shredded pages fell out (nothing is as violent as a destroyed book, to you, to your son) you listen only halfheartedly, knowing that in reality Blaine probably hadn't reacted at all, because he would know there had obviously been a mistake. He'd have put the poor mutilated cover of the book into his backpack with the air of someone sealing evidence with caution tape. When he takes the book out to show you at home you can see that he feels, somehow, that the book is the victim, not him.
In the principal's office Mrs. Lewin, the secretary, looks upset but strangely unsurprised to see him. The stories he's read (Honors English or not, he did, in the end, have to look up the word homophobia) will not register in his mind at all, because he is Blaine Anderson, he appreciates his classmates and recycles and doesn't tell on the sophomores when they need his help with algebra; he's paid for his happiness with kindness, and this is not the way the world works.
What your wife will never know—what your son will never know—is that this is the first time you wish he were different. Not when you first see him blush over another boy, not when you understand that he will never have his own small children—when you realize, here, in this dingy office, that from now on the world will constantly work to disabuse him of the principle of fairness you have worked hard for him to learn.
It's an ugly thought, but his safety is—has always been—more important to you than anything else. Even, as you have learned now, his happiness.
Your thirteen-year-old looks simultaneously thirty and three as he gathers up the book and hugs it to his chest, crossing his feet and watching the adults through the glass. There's a little bit of gum smashed into the ground next to his shoe. In a few hours, when he shudders in your passenger seat, tears drying on his cheeks, you will say the world can be ugly not knowing what else to say, and that's the first thing you'll think of: used gum in the principal's coatroom where there should be mahogany wood and cleanliness, like a judge's bench. Order. Reassurance. The next time a book of his is shredded it will be math, and across an illustration of multicolored prime numbers will be a word you would have docked Blaine's allowance for for at least four months, had it come out of his mouth.
You have taught him not to make the same mistake twice. That time, he will know not to go to the principal's office. Instead, he will go to the guidance counselor and fill out applications to six different private schools all over the country, until he is accepted in a city called Westerville, sixty miles from home. Lydia will sit next to him and hold his hand. Valerie will punch a snide classmate in the throat and receive suspension.
The therapist Lydia hires will purse her lips and say important now that you spend time with your son. Your daughter and wife will avert their eyes, embarassed at the tired bogeyman you've become—repressed father avoiding his family, the stupid stiff workaholic who brings convenient villainy to a thousand teenage dramas and emotes in numbers—and you will twist your wedding ring on your finger and pay them no mind, because you will be calculating how much overtime is left until you receive your pay raise and the zeroes on either side of the Dalton Academy bill balance one another out and your son is safe.
But you know none of this yet. Here in the principal's coatroom, waiting for his turn to explain what's happened, Blaine is completely sure of receiving the understanding that is his due, because this is how you have taught him a gentleman faces the world.
The door opens; Mrs. Lewin's eyes are a little red. You catch the tail end of the words –school policy from the principal, who silences them when he catches your stare. Blaine gets up and smiles, walks past the gum, the florescents pooling on his shoulders like stage lights. The book is illegible and useless against its chest, its arguments and reasons all torn up by hate, but your son walks with confidence.
And you will remember for the rest of your life: the small gentleman you raised has tied his shoelaces, and this is the last time he will believe with all his heart that there's no way—no way at all—that the loving world will let him fall.
This is your son, asking, "Do you wish I were straight?"
No. You're the same.
Yes. Your faith in the world will die by the time you're twenty.
No. You're strong.
Yes. You shouldn't have to be strong.
No. I'll protect you.
Yes. I can't protect you.
Your daughter describes you as a mindless drone in a machine; only you know that you grew up fighting. Fighting to stay awake studying, to get into Yale, to pay the way through it, to grovel and beg and bludgeon yourself up a corporate hierarchy you would live to see your children jeer at, to give happiness into those children's hands like a torn-away heart. An endless, brutal fight, its wounds measured only in the florescent-lit nine-to-five indignities of love. Traffic lights and overtime and dirty looks at the office to be home for dinner. Remembering to shine a small son's dress shoes. You've fought all your life and clawed your way to where you are only because you have bent yourself to the will of the world, changed yourself when it would not change for you.
It no longer occurs to you whether this is wrong or right, only that it is—and that he, perhaps, is strong, but you are not brave enough to see him broken.
You tell him: "I do."
This is your son waving goodbye from the ivy-covered facade of Albert J. Hofstader Sophomore Dormitory. Neither your wife nor your daughter is speaking to you; they're holding one another's hands and looking nowhere with their red-rimmed eyes. Blaine's hand is more like a salute than a wave. You don't turn back to look at him because it would be a useless motion. Outpourings of emotion are like outpourings of anything else: messes, to be mopped up leaving the world neat and manageable again.
Later you will wonder why it is, then, that you can think back on it and remember him so clearly: a small upright figure with a grave expression, braced against the slate-blue cold of fall. Wrought-iron and ivy and cigarette smoke off marble, boarding-school sensations dappling the skin in an entire constellation of luxury—but his raised hand, stilled, its whiteness austere as a flag of surrender.
This is your son singing lead for the Dalton Academy Warblers whom you Googled for thirty-seven minutes, at work, after learning the name from your wife ("—didn't even congratulate him or ask him anything about it, don't you think he would have liked that?" she chides quietly as you drive, and you think about a downloaded back issue of the Dalton Academy Clarion explaining something about hazing rituals and wonder who 'Pavarotti' is). When you pull up to the gate Blaine hugs Lydia and Valerie briefly and shakes your hand.
"I hope you had a safe trip," he says, exactly what a father would want to hear from a well-mannered son. "You can chill in my room before the show. I'm glad you could make it."
Every degree of it perfect, down to the mindful colloquialisms mixed in to distract people from the fact that he's working from a template.
"That's very considerate."
You know the template as well as he does.
He pulls his hand back from yours with quick courtesy; you have never given any outward indication of your hesitance in touching him now that he is grown, but he can tell. It occurs to you only as you are following him up to his room that perhaps he has simply come to assume that people will be bothered by his touch—you've seen his best friends and his teachers shrink back after his announcement. Another child might have reacted with anger or determined resentment, but Blaine, who lives in constant awareness of how he affects others, has simply incorporated the provision into his mode of conduct. If he is bitter at all, he has never provided any indication of it. Yet as Valerie wraps an arm around his shoulders you see him bite his lip. He closes his eyes, as if the fact of that basic human contact is too intense to bear, drowning, shaking for the fear that when her arm is lifted he will again float away into the unanchored, touchless space he inhabits.
Your years have taught you: a child's sadness is a messy thing, all his longings and miseries hanging out like untucked shirttails. You turn your eyes away. Line your shoes up next to his.
He serves you all tea in an assortment of mismatched but clean mugs and asks after Lydia's gardenias, Valerie's college acceptances, and your promotion. It's all very correct with exactly the right amount of mirth stirred in. It would fool a stranger, if you were one.
And then you see him step out in front of a wall of boys in blue blazers, and everything changes.
All at once he is eight years old again, bobbing and tapping his feet and resonating like a tuning fork struck to a new and vibrant key. He jumps, he twirls, he dances (terribly), he wraps the world relentlessly in the easy joy that emanates from him in spades, and once again he is the tiny boy singing absently in your car, full to bursting with an unbreakable energy.
You excuse yourself from the auditorium, knowing Lydia will give you certain hell for leaving, and you lean over the sink in the men's restroom and push the shaking heel of your hand against your eye. It comes away wet.
"I'm so glad he's happy there," chatters Valerie afterwards, on the ride back.
You think of his preternatural stillness in his dorm room against the bounding, exuberant creature onstage, and you wonder if not being able to talk to Blaine has given you twice the ability to listen to him. To know, as surely as if he has given it to you, the weight and shape of his pain.
This is your son, white T-shirt and shaded eyes in a summer that's been the hottest in sixteen years. Montgomery goes a terrible sort of golden as the grass dies in unfurled acres all around you. When you and Blaine go out on the driveway without shoes the gravel is like oil frying on a pan; coming back inside the soles of your feet are as numb as if you've walked a mile in deep snow.
The heat works itself down your throat like wet cotton. Everything soaked with the sun and dust flavor of August. Between the two of you the silence is like something grown hard and tall and bright with the years, so that the physical barrier of the newly-restored Chevy and its impersonal metal is nothing at all but a manifestation of that silence. You know nothing about cars and neither does Blaine, but the both of you know how to follow a script.
Sweat pours down the open collar of your shirt and you can feel the back of your neck go a painful red, just as Blaine's has done. You think: even if he doesn't think of you, he'll carry that reminder back into the cool house with him, a badge: you were here, you did what you knew how to do for this being given into your charge. How could you have known that you would succeed, that it would not be enough for him to be happy and safe, and that you—with your lifetime of decorously closed doors and best-laid plans stretching uselessly behind you—would be able to think of nothing to do except try to make him fit back into a world that couldn't hold him?
He speaks unprompted only once, testing the ignition in the new car. The key is flat and bronze-colored in the slats of sunlight sliding closed in a Venetian blind pattern, as if someone's drawn curtains over the summer. Blaine's eyes are so emotive that you're surprised to hear words in the still dusty space. You hear the question before he asks it.
"Did you really think this would—" change me, you think, "—change me?"
In that moment it reels into you like the entire unfathomable weight of summer pressing cloudy and wet against your skin, the enormity of your son's love for you. You know that if he were so inclined he could be filled with righteous anger, he could rail, he could go silent, he could chafe against you, he could cut you out of his life like a tumor as efficiently as his sister has (you don't need him, Blaine, you don't)—but all he does is ask and wait for your answer, knowing you cannot possibly be stupid enough to believe this would change him, giving you the benefit of the doubt you do not deserve. In his patience you read what he hasn't said: he knows, and he forgives you.
The sunburn twinges at the back of your neck. A sharp antiseptic tang like shame. Before you can answer, the car's ignition roars to life.
It's against either of your expectations, and the flicker of disappointment in his eyes is replaced immediately by curiosity. The dashboard hums. You place your palms flat against it and for one wild moment wonder if he'll sing, as he did when he was small, but instead he takes his hand off the brake and shrugs off his work smock.
"Gonna show Mom and Val," he says, throwing you a terse, sad smile, and then he's gone.
You stay in the car for a long time, warming your fingers against the vibration of the old engine. Dead things resurrected, given new life. The promise of forward movement. You don't know what you hoped to accomplish; you know, however, that it is best you didn't succeed.
It will later seem to you like karmic justice that exactly one month after the car incident, Blaine meets a young mechanic, and things that are broken begin, at last, to be fixed.
This is your son who is, for the first time in his life, defensive of his phone bills. It's unusual enough—the sort of behavior you'd expect from Valerie, who careened through high school speaking to you only when she felt her privacy was being violated—that you ask her if she's heard from her brother and everything's all right.
"You don't need to control every aspect of his life," she says, voice icy.
Just pay for it? you want to snap back, but instead you duck your head like the dumb beast of burden she thinks you are and go back to your study. Eventually Blaine sends you the bills himself; he still subscribes to his antiquated system of fairness that no one in the world understands except you and any actor ever paired with Audrey Hepburn. He believes you have the right to see, so you notice right away what he was shy about. The list of calls is populated almost exclusively with a single number prefaced with a Lima area code.
It's your wife who makes the insinuations and chummy phone calls and your daughter who teases him when he's home. All you do is switch him to a plan that allows unlimited texting and hope like any other parent that he will tell you in his own time, knowing he won't, and knowing it's what you deserve.
This is your son having a conversation with you about money, not for his sake but for ("—Kurt, actually, his name's Kurt"). For the first time you're thankful for the spreadsheets and your accepted role in your family of regurgitating out money, because you know that if not for this you would never have found out anything as basic as the name. So you clear off your desk and open up your Dalton spreadsheets and the forms for the music scholarship Blaine received after his freshman year, and you show him how the tuition divides up. Blaine frowns and takes notes in a small moleskine notebook.
As all of this is going on you note the real tension in Blaine's eyes, a seriousness verging on panic, and you swallow the old knot in your throat and say, between a tax audit and a family income form, "Is Kurt—is everything all right with him? Financially?" You curse yourself for adding the last word.
With his head swimming in numbers Blaine is too preoccupied to be on his guard, so he is tricked, for the moment, into talking to you as if you're one of his confidantes. He scratches out a figure and sets his pen to his lips. "I think so," he murmurs. "I'm trying to short-list a few scholarships for him, I know he'll be offended, but it's worth a try, anyway."
"Well, his father's a mechanic, and—"
Without thinking of what you're doing you reach out and close the moleskine notebook as Blaine's scribbling away. He looks up as if he's been slapped.
"It isn't your place to presume what you're presuming."
Reprimanding him is familiar ground; he's always been an easy child in that regard. Speaking to him this way is perhaps the only fluency you've retained of his childhood.
You're surprised, then, that his eyes, for a moment, narrow. In the next moment he's straightening his lapels and regaining control of himself, but the motion and what it implies fills the space between you and ignites it, electric.
"I'm not presuming anything," he says. "Tuition at Dalton is expensive, and—"
"And no one wants to be told he can't handle things on his own."
You steel yourself for the inevitable ungainly confession, but instead he looks away. This is an expression you understand, the downward-quirked side of his mouth and eyes turned glassy with self-recrimination; this is how you see yourself whenever you fail him in some small way: a coward in a gentleman's skin, an imposter in your gilded life. For the first time your boy is a man, and it's an unattractive thing.
You look down at the spreadsheets and highlighters scattered across the desk like so many toys. So he, too, is trying to make amends in the same way you have.
Blaine toys with a cufflink, fixing it. The complicated physicality of the Dalton uniform is something he takes more and more comfort in these days; the machinery of it: tie, cufflinks, lapels, pocket square. Levers to pull and buttons to press to make himself something more collected than what he is. Neither of you react to the statement, but you know, without hearing, that Kurt isn't the one who can't handle things on his own. To be a father is to hear these things.
Whether or not your child chooses to say them is not relevant.
This is your son who doesn't tell you about the Kurt-and-Karofsky issue, but you hear anyway, through a combination of the tail ends of phone calls, offhand references on the few weekends he's home, and finally an announcement or two in the Dalton Clarion. It's the same with the transfer. The tie at Sectionals. The party at some Rachel Berry's house. The Regionals performance. The Warblers' year-end annual showcase that takes place after it.
What he does tell you, as you're calling to inform him of the hotel you've booked to stay overnight for the performance, is "Dad, actually—Kurt's family's been wanting to meet you. Mr. Hummel says you're welcome to stay at their place for the weekend."
"Why is that?"
You both know what isn't being said. You know.
All you want is to see if he'll say it to you.
There's a shaky breath on the other end of the line—the most you'll ever get, in terms of a clue, that Blaine is nervous. But in the next second the stage light goes on, the curtains pull open, he pulls calm on like a suit jacket.
"Well," he says, and his voice is yours, faking enthusiasm at office mixers, "I don't know if I told you but, we—we're going out."
This is your son whose boyfriend is as tall as you are, crane-boned with eyes that are, for the moment, dimmed to a relentless slate-grey. Individual parts of him are aesthetically pleasing, you conclude, but on the whole he is an entirely nonsexual presence. When you shake his hand with its manicured nails the palm is callused.
"It's lovely to finally meet you," he says. "I'm Kurt."
Blaine's hand is at your elbow and you can tell from the tension in his fingertips that he's scared. For a moment you want to confirm all their expectations of you and make some loud, brashly stupid remark, bray like an animal and pretend you don't know what's going on, embarrass them both. You expect to feel vindictive, but instead all you feel is a sort of sick, tired anger at the fact that there are parents like this, and that they've made your son expect that you, too, will behave this way.
"It's a pleasure," you say.
Burt Hummel grunts when he is introduced to you and says nothing at all. You see him raise a disdainful eyebrow at your thick camel-colored overcoat when he takes it and know abruptly that he's heard something—you just don't know what.
The Warblers showcase is on Sunday night. You have two nights and one day of awkwardness to go, and you are preemptively exhausted at the thought of it.
The first dinner is a disaster. Not the messy, blowout disaster family dramas are made of, but a dully uneventful one instead. Kurt's huge stepbrother keeps a defensive arm around him as if expecting that at any moment you might lunge across the table and throttle him. Everyone looks at you with guarded eyes, so you say nothing at all and listen to Burt and Carole Hummel and your wife keep up a steady beat of awkward-but-sustained conversation.
Blaine himself has turned his charm up and is measuring the room like a barometer, all quick compass-pointing eyes and little exhalations as if adjusting for pressure. He calibrates the table to his own mood. Through the salad course he leads the singers in an impromptu game of lyric tag, sparing anyone from having to actually converse with each other, and by the spaghetti all three teenagers are in fine form kicking glee stories to one another like soccer balls. At this point you see him finally relax, lean back, and start on his spaghetti.
You pick up your own fork, feeling suddenly as if a great weight has been removed from your shoulders. Midway through the motion you see Kurt pick up his as well, and when his eyes meet yours, you're stunned to see that their expression somehow echoes what you feel.
This is your son who seems wholly content to spend his Saturday morning at the table, watching Kurt share the comics with his stepbrother. They read the way you and your sister shared books when you were young: holding one page up straight in the middle between them and reading either side. It's a system that gets hammered out through intense and debilitating battles over the amount of centimeters each person gets, so you can tell they're close, because relationships don't survive reading that way unless both parties are willing to concede valuable page leverage and acquire serious cricks in the neck.
The famous Kurt Hummel is both exactly what you expected and nothing like it. He directs most of his conversation towards Blaine's mother, who loves him as was expected. Lydia embodies in voice and dress and worldview the word lady and boys like Kurt, for whatever reason, always fall hopelessly, platonically in love with women like this. He's absently helpful in a way Blaine and Valerie, who have grown up with two parents, can't quite replicate—he snatches up dishes on his way to the kitchen and knows without having to ask how his father might want his eggs. In the early morning you saw him standing in the darkened hallway in front of the thermostat, dialing the heat down. The corridor was grey and his eyes, clear and eerie, had seemed somehow feline.
The thing that stands out to you is that he talks a great deal like someone who's in the habit of saying very little, something you recognize only because since middle school, Blaine has done the same thing. You can see what he's like most clearly in the moments when he isn't saying anything at all: placing a satchet of potpourri in the guest bedroom or changing your towels to fluffier ones. The night before he'd spoken to you only once, to say, "Mr. Anderson, I hope you'll be comfortable, and if not, my bedroom's right down the hall" with the quietly vituperative courtesy of someone naturally suspicious.
The other thing that stands out to you is that he has not, in one afternoon and one night, truly smiled once.
"Are you done," he says now, to his stepbrother. "I want to read Dilbert."
"I never get Dilbert, though," says Finn.
"I'll explain it to you."
"Quite honestly, I can't promise that."
"Well—" Finn flips the page and true to form, Kurt reads Dilbert, smirks, and launches into, "So you know how globalization is supposed to be this—"
All the while Blaine's fingers stay unmoving over his own page—probably the financial section, which he reads religiously every morning although you know he hates it—and he doesn't look away from Kurt, doesn't look away at all. When Kurt finally finishes and Finn has even cracked a sort of surprised grin, Blaine smiles as well. Kurt looks up and sees him, and his eyes widen.
It's so shockingly intimate your throat closes up: the sunlight suffusing the newsprint with a cottony, haloed glow, the brightness of the comics delineated in brilliant colors and those same colors refracted in the mismatched tumblers of orange juice turning crystalline. For the entire visit you've been expecting a clutch of hands or a kiss or some moment in which everyone's eyes would turn to you, waiting for you to embody the textbook homophobe, but this is something you weren't prepared for: the touchless, detached moment of intimacy.
Coronated with early Saturday morning your son and his boyfriend stare at one another, both looking equally stunned to find themselves facing each other across breakfast. The newspaper and half-eaten danishes so ordinary in front of them, but this isn't the reality they're seeing. You feel as if you've stumbled upon something intensely private.
And then—finally—Kurt smiles.
Abruptly and for no reason you remember watching Blaine from your study when he was five years old, kicking wildly at the spongy grass in the back lawn, playing soccer against himself and whooping when he scored. When you had gone to the window to close the blinds, you noticed he had no ball at all; he hadn't been playing with any particular goal or rules but just running, full like a fruit with the suggestion of sunlight and pure energy and joy, joy, joy that had slanted onto your desk, golden and glowing, even through the slats of your drawn blinds. The rawness in your chest twinging and twinging, even then, with an ungainly unrehearsed happiness that felt like spring.
When you look away your cheeks are flaming. You glance up at your mug of coffee and startle badly: Burt Hummel is looking straight at you. Then, for the first time since you arrived, he speaks to you directly.
"Game's on," he says. "Want to take that into the living room?"
You don't even know what game he's talking about.
"Yes," you hear yourself saying. "I'd like that."
This is your son whose boyfriend has a father and a family, which is something you never particularly thought about: when you considered Blaine's hypothetical future boyfriend it was as a smooth catty man with slicked-back hair and speech that consisted entirely of clothes labels: you didn't expect someone considerate of the thermostat, or someone whose father was so large and solidly built, with the same eerie assessing gaze and habit of self-containedness. Burt Hummel slides you a beer although it's only eleven AM and there's lunch, reservations, decency—all kinds of things, but you take the beer and snap the tab anyway.
It's a basketball game.
"You like basketball?" asks Burt.
You hate basketball. "Of course."
There's silence, broken only by the clinks of your cans. The couch looks worn and loved the way yours isn't. You can't remember the last time someone sat on your couch, which is white leather that doesn't do well with drinks or crumbs or people.
"Blaine told me you restored a '59 Chevy together a few years back."
You're suddenly, turbulently glad of the beer and take a sip, feeling the alcohol taut on your tongue like something you shouldn't be saying.
"Think I could take a look at it?"
"We drove it here, actually—I could show you right now, if you'd...just while the children are deciding what to do for the day..."
One doesn't offer empty courtesy with a man like this. You trail off. Burt puts his beer down, clear eyes narrowing, and finally nods. You feel ungainly in front of him. In high school, you with your numbers and math books and college applications were mocked relentlessly by boys like this, and you know that your son at some point probably was as well. The differences are so evident: your crisp white dress shirt on a Saturday morning, his denim work clothes. In a feeble attempt to appear comfortable, you've rolled up your sleeves to the forearms.
The Hummels' lawn is saturated with a dull heat that reminds you of that summer and the grease under your fingernails. Burt doesn't seem to notice at all. You place your beers on the stoop and kneel next to the car. Under the hood his hands move like fish in a school—the ease of movement and familiarity and knowing exactly where to go, just the way Kurt's did over the breakfast table, squeezing lemon into his tea. A long deliberation built of knowing hardship, of wearing expertise into the bones as a matter of necessity.
"You did a good job," says Burt. "Blaine was telling me you didn't know cars much before starting on it."
This seems to be a question, so you shrug. "I find that on the internet you can learn about anything these days."
"Huh." He reaches under the hood.
"Can I, ah, offer you a hand?"
"I'm just looking. Wouldn't want you to get that shirt dirty, anyway."
"It's just Brooks Brothers, I don't—" Stupid, stupid. You cringe and take a huge swig of your beer, furious with yourself. Burt notes the motion and—unexpectedly—breaks into a grin. It looks as incongruous on his face as it did on his son's, although their features couldn't be more different. Cautiously you find yourself returning the smile.
"Looks great," he says, and slams the hood down. "I'll have to have Kurt take a look at it later—he could stand to learn a thing or two about doing a reboot on an older engine."
"Kurt is interested in cars?"
"Kurt's great with 'em." A surge of pride animates his face and you feel warmed, at that; this man will not judge you, this man feels the same way you do when you tell someone your son sings lead for his glee club at school. You hand him his beer and he toasts you lightly with the half-empty can.
"He seems...multitalented—" you start and Burt interrupts you suddenly.
"Can I be straight with you?"
Your stomach clenches. "I—of course."
"After Blaine told me about you, I didn't want you in my house."
The beer slips in your hands and before you understand what's happened the can falls, makes a clatter on the concrete like something fracturing and the ground at your feet is saturated with amber liquid soaking dark as blood. Ineffectually you brush at your khakis. He watches quiet and observant and insolent as his son, not offering you assistance in the least.
"I apologize if I've given offense," you say finally.
Burt cocks his head to the side, considering the spreading beer stain. Then:
"You probably don't get it. When you have a kid like—like Kurt—you have to be careful of what kind of people you let into your—your life, I guess. It's not like that with Blaine. He likes football and looks like a movie star, you know, guys can respect that. A kid like Kurt—not everyone can respect that."
From just outside the flatlands of middle Ohio the wind picks up, and you get it like an echo here, just a breeze stirring the hairs at the back of your neck that's gone warm with shame. You sit on the edge of the steps to the front door and look at the lopsided tulips, the cheerily painted blue mailbox, and you think: even here, even with half a family, this man and his son tried to make a life to come home to.
"Blaine told me you wished he were straight."
The bright blue of the mailbox. You stare at it until the shade dances behind your eyes, like a camera flash.
"You expected an asshole," you say, and you can't keep the bitterness out of your voice—it just comes in, grey and dully aching, like the back of your eyelids after long nights at the office. Highlighters, spreadsheets, seventeen years of pushing yourself from one day to the next solely with the thought of that bright-eyed boy at home and the way he made a music-box lightshow of your entire mediocre world. You put your head in your hands and press at your temples, where throbs of pain rear and recede.
"I did," says Burt. "And I wasn't wrong—just wasn't right in the way I expected."
"What the hell are you talking about?"
"That kid is a goddamn copy of you," he says. "That kid—who is, by the way, the best damn thing that's ever happened to my son—is your little clone, he's polite, he doesn't care about getting those fancy clothes of his dirty, he has no idea what the hell he's doing."
"I beg your—"
"You know why he doesn't, Anderson? It's because you don't."
You're on your feet in an instant. The anger prickling under your skin feels good; you want to go into the fight all swinging fists and pinwheeling arms, but that's not what you do in your world; you narrow your eyes instead, you let the air around you go cold.
"I have no idea," you say icily, "what you're talking about."
It's a lie. Some part of you knows. Some part of you is still caught forever turning away from your son, his hands grimy and slick with black oil as if plunged up to the elbows in blood, and knowing then that you had never been able to talk to him, even before he became an adult. You have never known how to be fun or interesting or anything else that children want of their fathers; you've drawn your lines and given him what you knew how: food-clothing-shelter and a catalogue of old-fashioned behavior, a gilt-and-mahogany worldview, your longings and your wishes. Love as something utilitarian. No one could have told you when he was given into your arms that fatherhood was a thing of so much grey labor, so that Blaine with food poisoning in second grade would remember that his mother had sponged warm water onto his forehead; he would not remember that you spent the night scrubbing vomit out of the carpet downstairs. You have lost your fluency in one another and this man: this man whose son knows how he likes his eggs, who hugs his father good morning before he hugs his boyfriend—what could this man know of it, of any of it?
"If there's one thing I've learned with Kurt," Burt Hummel is saying, "it's that your kid needs you. Our kids—especially ours—they need us."
"Not everyone can be a perfect sitcom father," you hiss. "It's none of your business what I talk or do not talk to my son about."
"He's dating my—"
"Then confine it to their relationship," you snap. "Stay out of ours."
You spin on the heel of the leather dress shoe and go back into the house. Its cool darkness envelops you, smelling faintly of lightning like something electric, and you sink to your knees in the foyer suddenly overcome. The tile between your shoetips and your own heart beating in your old man's body, unfathomable and tired as a dirge.
This is your son button-mashing with his boyfriend's stepbrother while Kurt curls in the armchair behind them, lips pursed as he consults an AP review book. From time to time he raises his eyes, glances at the Mario vehicles toppling over on the screen, and returns to his differential equations with a delicate shudder. From the kitchen you can hear Burt, Carole, and Lydia commiserating over gas prices. You turn your attention to your laptop and survey a pie chart.
Later you pass Kurt's bedroom on the way to the guestroom and blush when you hear both their voices, but when you dare to glance up from the desk at the open door it turns out they're just sitting on Kurt's bed dressing up Coke-bottle mannequins in what look like elaborate handmade outfits.
"Velvet Goldmine confirmed my sexuality," Kurt's saying confidently as he holds up what looks like an immaculately-maintained purple unitard. "I made these when I was in seventh grade."
"This is completely lame," says Blaine. "This is possibly the lamest thing we've ever done. I'm judging you so hard right now, and by the way, you're hogging the BeDazzler."
"I think that's the downside of dating your best friend, because frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn."
"Don't quote Gone With the Wind at me in this context. Just don't."
"Shut up. Everybody needs to be lame sometimes, even—especially—you."
Your chest feels somehow light when your son looks up, birdlike, and says wonderingly, "You know what's weird? You're right."
Kurt grabs his hand, switching one of the little color swatches, and lays a kiss on the tender skin at the inside of his wrist like a signature. The sequins and sparkle-glue have made a mess of Kurt's bedsheets, so that when Blaine pulls him close both of them are all glittering hair and glistening lips themselves, star-studded glam rockers in jeans and weekender t-shirts. The ordinariness and the pure familiar reassurance of the gesture weakens you like a blow. Blaine leans towards Kurt, cupping his jaw with ease and reverence, and you know exactly what he sees. You can feel as surely as if it's your own the love that swells and thrums in his veins like an orchestral arrangement.
You realize as you're going back down the stairs with the files you needed under your arm that—for the first time in years—you're not afraid: not for your son, not for yourself.
This is your son whose boyfriend barrels downstairs in a clatter of teenage-boy frenetic energy, startled, and cries, "Oh my god, I don't have black socks!"
From their vantage points scattered around the downstairs people look up, looking either puzzled (Finn) or devastated (Carole) or indifferent (Burt). Kurt leaps to his feet and snatches his wallet from the table.
"Dad, I cannot turn up at the showcase in white socks. I might kill myself. Finn's feet are about the size of tectonic plates, and I don't think you own a pair of—I just can't."
"It's only seven," Blaine soothes. "Stores are open."
"Of course they are, or I might—I'm just going to take the Nav and be back in a flash. You, meanwhile, can be a gentleman and buy the eTickets for the movie."
Blaine salutes. Kurt's eyes scan the room, clear and incriminating, and unexpectedly light on you.
"Mr. Anderson," he says. "Would you like to come with me?"
Blaine's shoulders tense under his t-shirt. You eye the defenseless curls at the nape of his neck and feel your stomach churning, nervous; you know what you'll do in this moment will make or break so much. You want to refuse: you have work, you have—
"Sure," you say, and rise, like a man about to walk onstage.
This is your son whose boyfriend drives so smoothly you can tell he loves cars and the road, loves them instinctively and bone-deep the way your boy loves music. The unexpectedness of his overture seems to embarrass him as much as it embarassed you at first; he's not a charmer the way your own son is and the tips of his ears are red. He keeps worrying his lip and glancing over at you and fiddling with the radio station. Finally, in a fit of nervous energy, he jabs at his CD drive and Some Enchanted Evening fills the car.
"Blaine used to like this," you say immediately, trying to put him at ease—a doomed endeavor, when you yourself barely know what you're doing, but you're the adult, and this boy for all his bravado and ten-thousand dollar vocabulary is only a child.
He lights on the proffered subject and beams as he flips his indicator for a right turn.
"Oh, I know! He sang it to me at practice one day, and I just swooned—" Alarmed, he looks over at you. "I—sorry, TMI?"
"I beg your pardon?"
"Too much information?"
"...I don't mind."
"I see." He swallows. The tilt of his chin turns superlicious; his brow furrows, as if he's trying to reconcile something. You look out the window at Lima passing—in the darkening lights its sidewalks and unkept lawns indistinguishable from Montgomery. You think to yourself that the only difference between the towns might be the property taxes and then you chuckle, just slightly. The sound seems to simultaneously frighten and embolden Kurt, who looks at you with an incisive, chisel-clean gaze.
"Mr. Anderson, if I may..."
"I understand this is none of my business," his coolly disrespectful tone conveys exactly the opposite, "but I'd like to know honestly: do you have a problem with Blaine—"
He brakes too sharply in the parking lot of a Marshall's. You look at the building in faint surprise; he catches your sideways glance and smiles, wry.
Suddenly something in the car dissipates—some unspoken tension, the fear you didn't know you were still holding under your breastbone like a candle, all the pent-up anxiety of years: in this boy's eyes and hands your son is absolved of all the cruelty of the last seventeen years. Where his life and Kurt's intersect you see the empty floodplain of relief: of an expanse of lighted space where your son can lay down his burdens one after another, lay down the principal's office with its promise of justice that wasn't fulfilled, lay down the emotionless perfection of his dorm room, lay them all down, lay them all down and stand straight, proud, free. In all the years of forging your son into a gentleman you forgot he needed to be a boy first, but this boy—this boy knew, gave him a BeDazzler and stayed in with him on a Saturday being lame, as they called it; this boy has accomplished the miracle you prayed for—the reason you sent Blaine to Dalton, restored the car, paid the bills—this boy has brought you back the joyful eight-year-old who used to sing to you, and you—you pay your debts. You have to tell him exactly that.
"I'm grateful," you say abruptly, before you can stop yourself, "that my son is what he is, and that he—that he found you."
Kurt's eyes are bright, too bright.
"I'm going to go get my socks," is what he says. "I—would you do me a favor? I'd like to play something for you. If I may?"
He shuffles through a CD case and removes a disc with something lovingly Magic-Markered across it. "I wanted to hate you," he says. "I had this diatribe planned to give you. A really good one too. But you know—Blaine gets quiet whenever he hears this. It makes it hard to hate you, knowing you made him what he is."
The door slams and his fragile, buoyant form sets off across the parking lot. In the blue-and-gold shimmer of twilight he looks radiant, the only true thing in the expanse of concrete. All the light in the sky seems to catch and glitter in his shining hair and the sharp tips of his shoes.
A muted piano starts up. A woman's clear, high voice put my hand in my father's glove—
You set your hand on the thrumming dashboard and you listen to all the white horses have gone ahead— and as Tori Amos' voice soars up into its aching, vibrant ode to what you've felt for the last seventeen years, you wrench your eyes shut, and you say, out loud, "I'm sorry—I'm sorry—I'm sorry—" as if your son can hear you, the way you've always, always heard him.
This is your son upstairs doing runs in an easy, confident voice in preparation for the showcase. You're left alone with the Hummels, and for whatever reason you end up with Burt Hummel up to your elbows in suds from the lunch dishes and talking stupidly about something that's not anybody's business at all because this is apparently how you apologize.
"—paid off my loans when I was twenty-nine," you're saying, "and Valerie was born the following year."
"Me and Katie—that was Kurt's mom, she was an artist, you know—we waited too. I was busy with the shop then, so we kind of winged it. I was shit at the parenting thing. Once I put him down in an empty hood and let him sleep there, and you should've seen the fireworks! Katie was furious."
You smile at this and dry the bread plate. From the living room a high crystalline burst of laughter comes from Carole and Lydia, both excited for the show. The water is warm and your toes are cold on the linoleum and it's normal, home and its glow, the yellow light like honey slanting under the dining table and the low-hanging lamps.
"We never tell them," says Burt, squeezing more soap than is strictly necessary onto a sponge. "You know. It's like—you grow up, and you're never supposed to tell anyone anything, because that's what it's supposed to be to be a man or something. And then before you know it you're left with these kids who need to hear what you think, and you can't do it. It's a shame that I couldn't do it until Kurt's mom passed away."
The soap suds turn soft as cotton. You sluice the plate, feel the water absolve your shaking fingers.
"Maybe you haven't done right by him, but you have to try, you know?"
This is your son startling when you say, "Ride with me."
"Mom's going with the Hummels. Come on, I'll drive you to Dalton."
He doesn't argue. Never has.
The road below your wheels vibrates like a nervous heart. Concrete turning to a grey smear and Blaine looks so small in his blazer and the tie that's just the slightest bit crooked. He fidgets and dries his hands on his pants and you reach out and lay a hand over one of his wrists, stilling his motions. He looks respectful and absolutely terrified.
The old fear is squeezing your Adam's apple; you don't quite know what to say or how to say it. For a moment you know you're going to fail him again—sink back into what you always do—and then you think of the door slamming behind Kurt, the absolute faith in his voice as he put the song on.
"Do you remember," you say, "when I used to drive you to elementary school?"
Blaine looks up, stunned. His eyes are bright and wide and childlike; you don't know how anyone could find him an adult, he's so small.
"You used to sing," you say, and it's taken more than it ever has out of you, but in a voice crumpled and worn with disuse you croak out, "every little thing—"
"—is gonna be all right," he finishes, still looking like he quite can't believe it.
Below you, suddenly the road flares, widens, drops away—some bridge over some river and there's so much endless water under you, the fragile silver line of the suspension wires nearly invisible so it's as if you've been flung over empty air. And then Blaine's voice rises full and warm and real, singing, singing a moment before his hands hit the dashboard and he begins to tap out a syncopated rhythm you haven't heard for years.
"I didn't think you remembered," he says.
The sky and the water beneath you turn to blurred light. You swipe at your eyes.
"I've never forgotten," you say.
And your son, a perfect gentleman at all times, picks up his song right where he left off, and the seventeen years of sadness behind you are ended. The car and the humming dashboard and the two of you soar out over the bridge, caught between earth and sky like arms upflung, exulting in the sun.
This is your son who invites you backstage with him ("because it's the best view, no really, it is, I promise") and chatters away until his group calls him away.
Seconds before they go on Kurt's hand finds Blaine's like an answer, a soundless of course, and in the darkness the mouth-wetting intimacy of another person's moist palm and questing fingertips are intimate enough that you walk away, standing at a respectful distance behind a stage light. At your feet the ground glitters with cast-off sequins and glitter from show dresses, all the debris of glamour you know will cling to their shoes when they make the walk to center stage. Backstage in the loving dark they clutch one another's fingers; you are quietly dizzy with the rarity of knowing that for once in their lives, what they sing will not be a performance but the absolute truth, the only truth that matters. The curtain rises. Soaked like a dyed cloth with pride your son goes forward with Kurt matching him step for step.
On the soles of their shoes the sequins and glitter and beads glisten, as if the two of them have walked from miles beyond the stars and finally ended up here, at the twenty square feet of boards where, facing one another, they were always meant to be.