Title: Tea and Sympathy

Rating: PG-13

Summary: Tea and talk for two. Post-RENT. Nothing kinky here, kids.

Disclaimer: Characters of the property of the Jonathan Larson estate and, sometimes, the actors who make them come alive. Sometimes. Also, Urban Outfitter's is far from mine, and the phrase "pale male" belongs to Alison Beschdel, whom I imagine Joanne reads regularly.

Tea and Sympathy

One of the nicest things about tea with Mark is that he'll come uptown to meet me at work. Of course, I pay, but that's simply the rule since I found out that he was walking fifty-odd blocks to meet me to save on subway fare so that he could afford the damn tea once he got here. Sorry, kiddo, not allowed, I'd said, even though he protested, said he liked the walk and the chance to see the neighborhoods changing right before his eyes. Or his lens, I suppose, because he was still grinning behind that fucking camera as he protested. And he probably did mean it, but I still pay for the tea every time we meet. So now he makes sure we go somewhere with padded chairs, and he orders something like "Cinnamon Sugar Plum" and sticks his tongue out at me. If he thinks he's rubbing my face in his "bourgeois" tastes, he has another think coming.

One of the other nicest things about tea with Mark is, of course, Mark himself. He's neurotic and a little ridiculous, but he watches my eyes when I speak, which tends to be at considerable length, so relieved am I to have an audience that doesn't squeeze a word in edgewise between every thought of mine. He has a very expressive face that comes alive at my stories of chambers cursing sessions, interrupting only to ask for definitions of the legalese I seem to throw around recklessly. He lets me rant, a little, about my beloved Maureen, rolling his eyes and grinning. On the rare occasion, he offers me a precious tidbit of information. Nothing too personal, of course, because it would be his balls on the line and because they're too close for any actual betrayal of secrets, but small presents to let me know she's not as an impenetrable a fortress of crazy as she seems at times.

And out of all my lover's friends, Mark is definitely my favorite, finally a crossover into the realm of a friendship of my own. Not that the whole bunch of them aren't sweet, and goofy, and endearingly fucked up, but Mark is the one who I like to spend time with on dreary February afternoons, sipping Sugar Plum tea in a pretentious little café in midtown. Mark understands what Maureen still grapples with, that my life has become an almost schizophrenic struggle to keep up with my work, her work, the bohemian crazies she loves so much and whom I have adopted, and my own tight circle of ladies who've known each other since we all came out in the eighties. It's confusing, a muddling of my identity. Friday, in the office with Steve all day, then rush to help set up for Maureen's Urban Outfitter's protest. Saturday, work from home in the morning, out in the afternoon with Maureen, that night out for drinks with my ladies' circle, chewing out the gossip: is Hilary or isn't she? Sunday, stay in bed all morning with Maureen, then to The Loft, as I've come to think of it, for a big dinner with The Gang, finally, home late so I can collapse and try to prepare for another manic week. I can barely keep up with myself sometimes, especially as these two groups of friends would probably have nothing to say to each other. "Luppies!" Maureen sings out when I tell her where I'll be for the night, making fun of their professional careers and causing me to swat her behind, albeit with a smile. And when I tell Mark all of this, even the butt-swatting, which I know I should really keep to myself, he smiles and tells me it sounds like a lot to handle. Once, after a particularly exasperated rant about the psychotic week I had had—that was the week where I had taken on an additional case, pro-bono, eviction of two women in Harlem—he picked up the camera quietly, turned it on and pointed it at me.

"Zoom in on Joanne, who has fooled us all this time into thinking she's a lawyer, when she really seems to be a professional juggler!" I grimaced and sipped my coffee, glad that he wasn't judging, glad he seemed to accept what I was saying without any real fanfare. He's so easy to talk to at times, it shocks me, especially as my history with pale males is slightly less than stellar. Which makes me quite popular in the law profession, let me tell you.

One time he was telling me a story that somehow involved a whole long shpiel about explaining to his mother that he really had to hang up and leave or he would be late for our tea date, and when he used the phrase "my ex-girlfriend's lover", something triggered in my head.

"Mark, are you sure you're not a lesbian?" I blurted out, only to color in the next moment as I realized how rude that must have sounded. Mark, however, only cocked his head to the side for a moment, as though he was giving the question the thought that it was due, and then threw his head back and laughed. His outburst only lasted for a moment, and then he hid his grin in his mug of Vanilla Gingerbread.

"I'm never really sure of anything, Joanne. Would it help me get hot chicks like you?" And for that, I threw a napkin at him. Which caught him in the face, and which he deserved. That's just like Mark, though, to somehow turn someone else's faux pas into a quip that somehow makes you feel better. I have noticed he is certainly not above putting himself down in the process, if that helps. The years of tough love are pretty readable on that boy.

What I like best about tea with Mark is that we have our weekly dates because we want to see each other. Not because it's a whole-group function or because someone is sick or, like I heard Roger laugh once, Mark needs my help picking up women. And most certainly not, like I used to feel quite often, although the instances of feeling it have diminished in quantity, because I am some sort of appendage to the larger persona of Maureen. I love that woman to fucking pieces, nut job though she may be, but we are far from in any way merging identities.

No, I like to talk to Mark and he likes to talk to me. Perhaps because I am more of an inherent outsider, because I can't refer to incidences from five or six years ago, because I don't know any of the linguistic shorthand he and Roger seem to speak in, or the physical code he and Maureen use, maybe even without meaning to. I see Mark in the context of a much smaller period of time. I don't require him to dwell too strongly on the distant past. And maybe because of that, I've noticed how much he's changed—in my opinion, for the better—since this past Christmas. He smiles more now, small, close-lipped smiles, like he's remembering a joke. He looks people in the eyes more, and stands a little straighter. He told me he's not scared the way he was before.

"When Roger was in withdrawal," he told me, eyes on the wooden table, where he was tracing patterns in the spilled sugar, "I was tired and really empty-feeling most of the time, but I remember a few occasions, when it was late and he had fallen asleep, twitching, and I couldn't sleep and no one was home, I used to think about death a lot. About not wanting Roger to die, and never wanting to die myself. About how awful a thing death is. And I still," he ran his finger along the smooth grooved wood, "I still think that dying itself kind of sucks. But I'm a little less desperate about it now. I think...that maybe there are things," and he waves his hands around, gesticulating vaguely, "that may follow that act of dying, however shitty it may be. And it makes it more okay." He stopped, realizing how grave a conversation we were having, even if he was conducting it in the terms of a sixteen-year-old. He shrugged, grinned suddenly. "Things like this tea, Joanne. I can't believe you insisted on coffee. Want to taste? It's Raspberry Mint!"

One of the nicest things about tea with Mark is we both know what its like to be taken for granted, to be seen as stock characters in a group dynamic. I don't think anyone ever means to make us feel that way, and God knows we do things that feed that impression, but that doesn't make it feel any less demeaning. Maybe some of it has to do with dating such an obvious presence as Maureen, but I think it goes deeper than that. Mark uses his role as a crutch, and I've been too diffident about my intrusion into this radically different kind of life to protest too strongly. But it's bullshit, and I think we both know it. And don't pull it with each other. I speak, loudly and often forcefully, when he's willing to listen, and, while his camera makes constant appearances at our meeting, he puts it down during most of our conversations. We're just ourselves when we get together to watch the soggy flurries and sip our respective drinks.

Mark says he likes our weekly tea dates, and the one time I couldn't keep the question in my mouth, he agreed that he liked them as much as his frequent dinner dates with Maureen. Different, he said, very different kind of liking. But both good. "I just like to be with my family," he said, looking up from his tea and smiling at me. I smiled back at him, feeling a little burn in my eyes. His family. Our family, really. Aware that he had something bordering on profound, Mark ducked his head. "But, at least you never suggest that we share a plate of spaghetti the way they did in 'Lady and the Tramp'!" he adds, rolling his eyes gratefully, and I laugh, hard. Sometimes, I really love how he changes a "deep" moment into something entirely silly. In fact, that might be one of the nicest things about tea with Mark.