by Hyakunichisou 13 (百日草 十三)
Another Tuesday, another staff meeting. Russell sipped from his travel mug, which did not contain even remotely enough caffeine for this, and listened to Wright drone on about Q2 web stats.
“That said, why don’t we touch base with the App Subcommittee,” Wright said. “Katrina, Ardash, do we have any progress?”
“We’re still strategizing on how to benchmark the deliverables,” Ardash said, with an utter lack of shame.
“Can we get a prospective done-by? We don’t want to drop the ball on this. The Director wants us to be proactive.”
Fucking bingo, Moira gleefully mouthed across the table, and capped her purple highlighter. Russell scratched his temple with one middle finger.
“We’re going to have an off-site this afternoon. We’ll keep you in the loop,” Katrina said smoothly. Which meant that they were going to take their laptops to the coffee shop downstairs and knock off at three, Russell thought enviously.
“Excellent. Okay, item seventeen. Our division has been asked to send representatives to the Corporate Employee Engagement Committee of the National Excellence Organization Bronze-Level Certification Program. Can we get a volunteer?”
Russell sorted the acronym out in his head. “NEO? Seriously?”
“Thank you, Russell.” He overrode Russell’s muted groan. “That’s one. Anyone else? It’s a great opportunity to broaden your core competencies.”
“I do not think that word means what you think it means,” Ardash muttered, careful to keep his voice low enough that Wright didn’t hear.
“Lew, how about you? You might provide fresh eyes to the big picture, as it were.”
The new guy smiled with noncommittal politeness. “Of course.”
Tortoiseshell glasses. Wavy hair. Shawl-collared sweater over a decent shirt and a tie. Russell had missed him during his meet-the-family round of the floor yesterday, being wrapped up in urgent requests for change orders from his current project team for things they had sworn six months ago they wouldn’t need. Just as well, because he’d been ferociously cranky about it.
“Fantastic. I’ll forward you the details. I think that about wraps it up. We’ll meet again next week. Until then, let’s all keep each other on the same page, shall we?”
Once they were down the corridor and out of earshot of the boardroom, Moira turned to walk backwards, grinning at Lew, who was behind them. “Thanks for taking one for the team, Lew. Have a nice time getting on board with the centre of excellence that is the corporate ecosystem.”
“I swear to God he’s a performance artist,” Ardash said. “It’s the only possible explanation.”
Russell had worked with Wright for a few years before Wright had struck out on the management track, and he’d been able to talk like a normal wage slave then. His promotion had given him a mild case of buzzword salad, but it had grown to unreasonable levels over time. Apparently getting an MBA did that to a person.
“Ugh, he’s like a dog with a bone on this app thing.” Katrina clutched her hair. “I hoped he’d have forgotten about it by now.”
“It’s not his fault, he’s getting pressure from above. The board knows apps are what all the kids are into these days,” Russell said.
Moira leaned her head on Katrina’s shoulder. “But Mooooom, eeeeeverybody has an aaaaaaapp.”
They’d lost the new guy. Russell turned back to see his head submerge below the level of a cubicle wall.
“Catch you guys up,” he said, and doubled back to knock on the plastic top of the putty-coloured divider. “Hi, I don’t think we’ve met. I’m Russell, project wrangler.”
The new guy stood and shook Russell’s offered hand. “Lew. Database wrangler.”
Lew’s cubicle was still corporately bare. His desk held pads of pale blue and green post-it notes, a Moleskine pocket notebook that definitely had not come from the supply cabinet, and a fountain pen. Too early, Russell supposed, for family photos and favourite mugs, let alone zombie figurines and sarcastic inspirational posters. “What have they got you working on?”
“Good…” Lew frowned. “…To Go?”
“Oh, GOODGO? I’m pretty sure they come up with these project titles before the projects. I’m working on something called Tridecahedron right now.”
“A shape with thirteen sides? That’s a strangely honest description for a corporate project.”
Russell opened his mouth and shut it again. “I…did not know that was a real word. Okay, I just learned something new. Hey, after staff meetings, some of us make a run to the good coffee shop. You interested?”
“I’m a tea drinker, but thanks.”
“Okay, no problem. Also, I have some hot food court tips. Like, stay very far away from the panini place, but the curry place will make you see God.”
“This workplace seems to be highly food-motivated,” Lew said.
“For sure. Work is work, but it’s the little things that make a difference. Anyway, got to go, the caffeine-deprived hordes are waiting. If you have any questions about things, feel free to ask.”
He was hard to read, Russell thought, walking away. Courteous but a little deadpan. Russell made it a point to know everybody; cajoling other people to do things was basically his job, and it went so much more smoothly when the people he was asking knew and liked him, but also, people were fascinating. And he and Lew would be enduring together the very special torture that was a corporate focus group. Also, if he was honest with himself: Shawl-collared sweater. Tea drinker. Tortoiseshell glasses.
After work, in the pub that the group of them had a standing Tuesday-night confab in, he set down his pear-and-apple sparkling seltzer and said, “Anybody got any intel on the new guy? Lew?”
Moira grinned. “Aside from him being smokin’ hot?”
“Workplace harassment,” Ardash warned lazily, sneaking one of her asparagus fritters.
“He seems nice,” Katrina said.
“He worked on the original Grun system build,” Ardash said.
“That is nice.”
“So what’s he doing with us?”
Ardash crunched down on a roasted chickpea. “Those eighty-hour weeks get old.”
“When you’re old.” Ardash had turned thirty-five a month ago. Moira would be younger than he was for another half-year, something she delighted in reminding him of.
“What’s he do outside of work?”
“‘Is he single?'” Moira translated pointedly.
“It’s only been two days,” Katrina said. “I don’t even know how he likes his coffee.”
“There you go, you already know more than we do.”
“Yeah, go chat him up,” Moira said.
“I did. He didn’t volunteer much about himself.”
“Did you give a chance to open his mouth?” Ardash asked, and he and Moira low-fived each other.
“Yes, very witty, you crack me up.” Russell stole a look at his phone. “Gotta go. I’m meeting Scott and Clement.”
Moira dipped one of the fritters into parsley mayonnaise. “How’s the sportsball wedding going?”
Russell dropped a ten onto the table. “It’s a whole new world, my friend.” Scott and Clement had called him upon realizing, a month after invitations had been emailed out, that an outdoor ceremony and summer barbeque reception for forty friends and family in a sixteen-foot-wide backyard might be a little different in scale than inviting a few people over for KFC and the Super Bowl.
“Tell Scott if he wants to blow off some steam, I’d be happy to kick his virtual ass for him.” Moira and Scott had hit it off at a party Russell had thrown in his old place, and bonded over Call of Carnage XV or whatever the hot first-person shooter had been.
When he rapped on the front door of the couple’s bay-and-gable, he could hear voices in the house, and then the thump of footsteps. Clement opened the door, raising his voice and directing it back over his shoulder: “–do not need that much steak–hey, Russell–for forty people.”
“It’s a party.”
“Not everybody thinks eating their weight in dead cow is a party, honey. That’s just you.”
Russell kicked off his shoes and followed Clement into the living room. Scott, two hundred and twenty pounds of former football player, was on the couch, hunched over his tablet.
“I thought you wanted to do jerk chicken,” Russell said.
“I want to do a goat.”
“You roast a goat, I’ll be able to auction you off to my aunties and take early retirement.” Clement raised a glass of iced green tea at Russell, who nodded, and disappeared into the kitchen.
“You roast a goat, you can forget about fitting your aunties or anybody else into your backyard.” Russell pulled his laptop out of his bag and deposited himself on the couch beside Scott.
“We could set it up in the laneway.”
Clement rematerialized with a tall glass, which he placed on the coffee table beside Russell. “Sweetie, later in the summer, if you want to roast a goat or a pig or an entire cow, you can with my blessing, but you’re not going spend your wedding day barbecuing, all right?”
“Oh, all right.”
Russell pulled up his spreadsheet. “You’re going to want to decide on the menu soon, so you can go with the right caterer. Let’s see…Clement, you were going to ask your sister-in-law to put together some playlists, how’d that go?”
They sorted through the tasks they’d talked about the week before, and then Russell opened the draft email he’d prepared. “I’m sending you a link to ideas for backyard decorations. I know you wanted to keep it simple, but you want it to look different from usual, right? Let me know what you think.”
He sipped iced tea while they swiped through his Pinterest board of paper swags and strings of brightly printed pennants and tea lights floating in terra cotta planters. He’d tried to keep the ribbons and lace to a minimum, not to mention the rainbows, but with what the internet had given him to work with, it had taken a heroic effort.
“Those little lights in the mason jars are adorable,” Clement said.
“Yeah, and they’re battery operated, so you don’t have to worry about extension cords.”
“And I like the blue and white check tablecloths.”
“Your colour scheme could be blue and white.” Russell looked around the living room, which was sparse student Ikea haphazardly accessorized with Argos, Jays and Leafs swag. “What do you think, Scott?”
Scott jabbed at his tablet with a fingertip, intent. “Home team colours,” Clement clarified, and Scott looked up in Pavlovian reflex. Clement reached over and plucked the tablet out of his hand. “Honey, if you’re watching the pre-game without me–”
Scott grabbed at the tablet. “‘What is your dream wedding?'” Clement read aloud, and let Scott take it from him.
“It’s just a quiz,” Scott said defensively.
Clement put his hand over Scott’s, dark on pale. “I thought we both wanted our wedding to be in our own home. In the house we bought together.”
“Yeah. Yeah, sure I do.”
“Honey, you can be honest with me. Do you have a different dream wedding?”
“I don’t know, I only got halfway through.” Scott dropped his tablet onto the couch beside him and clapped his hands together, shaking off Clement’s touch. “Okay, what’s next? Let’s get this wedding thing on the road.”
The first meeting of the Corporate Employee Engagement Committee of the National Excellence Organization Bronze-Level Certification Program was pretty much as expected. There was a logo, a mission statement, hand-outs of a PowerPoint presentation that no one in the room would ever refer to again. The word excellence was defined.
“Now we want to focus on the key drivers of employee engagement,” the consultant said as though she were announcing a free vacation for everyone in the studio audience. “We’re going to start with some fill-in-the-blank opportunities to mind shower, just to warm up. Here’s an example: Doing my job well makes me feel… Who wants to contribute to that? Anyone?”
Two hours later, in the elevator back to their floor, Russell said, “Well, that was hellish.”
Lew rubbed his forehead. “I’d forgotten what the corporate world was like.”
That was an opening if Russell had ever seen one. “Yeah, I heard you worked at Tomorrow’s Fireworks before this? On the Grun system?”
“That’s right. TF was many things, but corporate it was not.”
“How’d you end up here?”
Lew seemed to give his answer more consideration than Russell thought the question warranted. “After they were bought out, it wasn’t the same.” The elevator dinged for their floor. “And I was ready to move back to Toronto.”
“Oh, yeah? You’re from here?”
“I grew up here, but it’s been almost ten years.” They reached Lew’s cubicle.
“Do you know anyone in the city still? Do you want to come out on Tuesday with us? It’s usually me, Moira, Ardash, anyone else who’s up for it. The bar’s at peak hipster, I mean, they carry beers with hand-drawn labels and everything’s so local it’s still sprouting, but it’s in this old diner that still has the original booths and everything.”
“I appreciate the offer, but no, thank you. I don’t go out.”
“I don’t go out.” Lew put his notebook down on his desk. “Anyway, after work I go home to my other job, which is writing apparently unpublishable novels.”
“Oh. On purpose?”
“The writing does occur on purpose, yes.”
“Right. Gotcha. Well, the offer stands. I’ll see you at the next Hell Meeting.”
On Tuesday, Russell shredded a triangle of whole wheat sourdough pita onto his plate. “What do you think that means, I don’t go out? He doesn’t date? He’s asexual? He’s getting over a broken heart? He has everything delivered like a mole person? What?”
Moira patted him on the shoulder and dipped a carrot stick into his white bean hummus. “It means that, once again, you’ve glommed onto the guy who is The Most Unavailable, surprising no one.”
Russell made an indignant noise. Across the table, Katrina nodded solemnly. Ardash spread his hands.
Russell sighed. “I hate you all.”
“Oh, hey,” Katrina said. “Wright had a closed-door meeting with Aucoin this afternoon. Anybody know what that’s about?”
“It can’t be self-evaluation time again already. Can it?”
“Oh God, is it another re-org?”
“I’ll touch base with Aucoin’s EA, ask her if there’s anything coming down the pike that might impact Tridecahedron,” Russell said.
“Oi!” Ardash pointed a parsnip fry at him. “You know the rules. No buzzwords after hours.”
“Next round’s on Russell,” Moira said gleefully, and flagged down their waiter.
Clement and Scott had agreed on a caterer. At least, they said they’d agreed, though Russell detected something clenched-teethed and bitten-tongued about the way they presented that fact. Maybe because the caterer they were going with was a noticeable rung up from the budget they’d previously worked out. That was their business; he was just the guy with the spreadsheet.
This week’s topic was supposed to be permits and the rental of tables and chairs and maybe a tent or two, but Scott wanted to talk about what they were going to wear.
“Are we sure we don’t want to go with tuxes?” he said.
“It’s going to be July,” Clement said. “In our back yard and our non-air-conditioned house. That’s why we told everyone dress was casual.” Clement’s friend Jamar had been brought in as fashion consultant; Russell had heard nothing about it but vague grousing from Scott about where would he ever wear a linen shirt again.
“Yeah, but don’t you want–I mean–it’s our wedding.”
“Didn’t we already decide this?”
“You can always change after the ceremony,” Russell said, and held up his hands placatingly at two sets of narrowed eyes. “Or whatever. Uh, do you want to go over chairs and tents tonight, or do you want to reschedule?”
There was a moment of stubborn tension. Then Clement sighed and stood up. “Chairs and tents. Let me get a drink first. Russell, you want anything? Scott?”
Clement only called Scott by his name when he was annoyed. Scott stood up too. “No. Thanks. Back in five.” He went out the front door and sat on the park bench on the porch. Clement went into the kitchen, where he seemed to make an inordinate amount of noise with glasses and ice cubes.
Left alone in the living room, Russell leaned back into the sagging sectional couch and squinted at the white-tulle-swagged chivari chairs on his screen. He was familiar with this stage in any large project: the pretending-to-compromise, trying-to-be reasonable stage. It was going to get hairier before it got better. He toggled over to his spreadsheet and dragged a few things around on the schedule. Better make sure nothing really important was on the agenda for the next few weeks.
At the next meeting of the Employee Engagement Committee, they were each given a tulle bag of iridescent marbles, midnight blue and silver. The little spheres of glass clicked satisfyingly against one another. Russell wondered whether it was too late to tweak the wedding’s colour scheme.
“Around the room you’ll see boxes with descriptions of possible employee engagement scenarios,” the consultant said, extending her arm like a magician displaying a box in which an assistant was soon to be sawn in half. “Tell us what really motivates you to give one hundred and ten percent! Vote for or against each suggestion with your marbles!”
“I think I’ve already given this place all my marbles,” Russell muttered, and was rewarded by seeing Lew rub his hand over his mouth to conceal a smile.
Once the consultant had left the room “because we want you all to be completely, completely honest!”, the fifteen or so people assembled looked at each other, got out their phones, milled around the coffee-and-donuts table, and drifted around the room making exasperated sounds and dropping marbles, in that order. Russell awarded white marbles to anything that involved gift cards and free food, and emptied his entire stock of blue ones into the box with something about a toy stuffed giraffe being awarded to the employee who most stuck their neck out in service of the customer, because seriously.
“That was less hellish,” he said dubiously in the elevator.
“But more weird,” Lew agreed.
“I can’t decide whether the consultants are sad high-school keeners or evil geniuses. Oh, hey.” Russell slid a piece of paper out of his portfolio. “You’ll need this for tomorrow’s staff meeting.”
“‘Buzzword bingo,'” Lew read out loud.
“You’ll find it deviates from the industry standard to be sustainably best of breed. By which I mean, Moira customizes it for every meeting based on the agenda.” Russell usually held off on introducing new hires to the game, but he’d just seen Lew roll his eyes and drop a handful of dark blue marbles into a box marked ‘My company’s mission statement inspires me,’ so he felt on pretty solid ground.
“What’s the prize?”
“There isn’t one, as such. But you’ll be less likely to want to chew your own leg off to escape.”
“All right, valid,” Lew admitted. He began to read as they exited the elevator, and Russell heard him snicker as he turned the corner into his cubicle.
“Honey. We don’t need to get invitations printed,” Clement said. “We invited everyone by email three months ago.”
“There should be a hard copy,” said Scott–Scott, who lived on his tablet and to whom all physical media was on a par with wax cylinders and carbon copies.
“Why would we need a hard copy?”
“For–for framing, or documentation or whatever. It’s what people do!”
“Oh, for–” Clement swept his hands back over his short-cropped hair and huffed out a breath. “Scott, when you say things like that, I feel like you’re more interested in what other people think than you are in having a conversation with me.”
“Dude, does everything have to be about your feelings? Can we just buy some damn invitations without it being a group therapy session?”
“You said you found our therapy sessions helpful!”
“Well, I wouldn’t have if I’d known you would start doing that every single time I open my mouth!”
Russell closed his laptop and slid it into his bag while they were glaring at each other. “I’m going to get going. I think maybe you guys have some things to talk about before we can go any further on this.”
“I guess we do,” Clement said tightly. Scott folded his arms and glowered at the floor.
Right on schedule, Russell thought, enjoying the lilac-scented evening air as he walked home. The everything-falls-apart stage of the project had arrived. Now they could finally get on with things.
“What we really want to know,” the consultant said, as lines of text wheeled and zipped into place on the screen behind her, “is, what is the one thing that would make your job easier?”
“Am I in a nightmare flashback scenario, or have we already answered these questions?” Russell murmured to Lew.
“Some of you may be thinking that these talking points look familiar.” The consultant smiled at the room at large. “We’re peeling back layers. We’re drilling down. Now, who would like to engage with the first theme?”
On the way back to their desks, Lew grimaced. “I had to reschedule another meeting for that,” he said. “I’ve been asked to contribute to the employee newsletter. Wright asked me if I would be on the United Way steering committee. Do you know what would make doing my job easier? Being allowed to sit at my desk and do my job.”
“Well, you’re working for a large corporation now. Always remember, collaboration is more important than actually getting anything done.” Russell’s stomach rumbled, and he checked the time. “Is it almost twelve already? For lunch, a couple of us are going to go check out the new burrito place. It’ll be me, Moira, you know, the usual. You interested?”
“I didn’t bring my lunch, so sure. Um.” Lew paused at the entrance to his cubicle. “I hope I’m not presuming…”
“Presume away.” Russell rested his elbows on the top of Lew’s cubicle divider. There were still no vacation pics or printed-out lolcats adorning the grey fabric walls.
“I apologize if I’m misreading something, but are you trying to set me up with Moira?”
“Am I…” Russell cracked up. “With Moira? No. No, I am not. For one thing, her new girlfriend would murder me.”
“Ah.” Lew’s cheekbones were going an appealing pink. “You seem to mention her a fair bit.”
“Sure, because we’re totally work spouses, but…” Russell shook his head and snickered. “She is not the one I’d be setting you up with, no.”
“Ah. Good.” Lew squared his notebook on his desk with great attention, not looking at Russell. “When I said I don’t go out, that’s part of what I meant.”
“I wondered. Not at all?”
“I used to be married. Now I’m not.” Lew shrugged carefully. “If you work most of your waking hours, the person you’re sharing your life with eventually gets fed up with it. And when he asked me to choose…I chose the writing. Because that’s the kind of person I am. So I don’t date.”
He was struggling to be matter-of-fact about it, Russell could tell, clearly a man laying cards he didn’t particularly care for out on the table. Russell bit his tongue, summoning a few decades’ worth of gradual understanding that not everyone wanted him to ask questions and ferret out details and concoct solutions to the personal problems they were spreading out in front of him.
“I promise not to set you up with anyone,” he said.
Lew’s smile was a little forced. “Thank you.”
“Okay. Now, hot sauce: yes or hell yes?”
Scott and Clement were not getting on with things.
There was a tightrope stretched between them, taut and vibrating. Russell, reading out his list of things still to be acquired, from champagne to the marriage license, realized that his voice was dropping into a vacuum of tension, and paused.
“Do you guys want more time to think about this?” he asked.
Scott shook himself. “No. Let’s get it done.”
Clement dropped his pen onto the coffee table with a little extra force. “You’re talking about our wedding like it’s a dentist appointment.”
“Dude, do we have to do this again in front of Russell?”
“Why not? You won’t talk to me. Maybe he can figure out what’s going on with you.”
“It’s just–nothing. It’s nothing.”
“It’s something. I’m beginning to wonder whether you want to do this at all.”
“What? Of course I want to–” Scott hurled himself off the couch and began to pace the carpet between the coffee table and the large-screen TV. “It’s–you’re–we’re–fuck.”
“Hey, Scott, breathe, man,” Russell said. “This is just a fun party you’re having with the people you love, okay? Anything we’ve talked about can be changed if you guys want to. Absolutely anything. Nothing’s written in stone.”
“Tell me what you’re feeling, sweetie,” Clement said. “That’s all I want to know.”
Scott inhaled and blew out an explosive breath. “Okay. Okay. I statements. I, I, I am freaking the fuck out.”
Still pacing, he laced his thick hands on top of his head like a prisoner of war. “Look, I’ve known I was into guys since I was twelve, okay? I knew I’d never get married. I never wanted to get married. And then suddenly it was a thing that could happen. And then you asked me, and I wanted to, God, I wanted to.” He swallowed. “But then there’s all this stuff, there’s decorating and dressing up and jewellery and shit, and I suck at all this stuff. And I want it to be nice for you, I just want–I want–” He stuttered to a stop. His hands fell and his shoulders sagged under the weight of cliché. “I just want it to be perfect.”
“Oh, honey. Oh, sweetie.” Clement got up and wrapped his arms around his fiancé.
Scott slumped against him. “God, I am such a groomzilla.” His voice was muffled.
“You’re not. You’re a big doofus.” Clement squeezed, and Scott raised his head. “Honey, of course it’s not going to be perfect.” Clement kissed Scott lightly, cutting off whatever Scott had been about to say. “But it is going to be amazing.”
“You and I are going to get married, in our house, with our families and friends around us. That’s what I want. You’re what I want. You don’t have to be perfect.”
“I am so not perfect. I wish–” Scott buried his face in Clement’s shoulder.
Clement put his hand on the nape of Scott’s neck and murmured in his ear. Scott whispered back, his breath coming a little jerkily. Russell, suddenly feeling like an intruder, found a pressing need to catch up with his twitter feed.
After a few minutes, Scott cleared his throat and straightened up.
“Yeah,” he said. “Yeah. That’s what this is about. Right.” Scott turned to Russell, his arm still around Clement’s waist. “Okay. Let’s talk champagne.”
“Did you see that email from Wright?” Moira asked, reaching over to put a triangle of her caramelized onion and cheddar grilled cheese sandwich onto Russell’s plate. It was just the two of them this evening, with Ardash off at some kind of speed dating thing and Katrina having passed with This day, I can’t even, I have to go home and have a long, hot bath before I disembowel somebody.
“The special staff meeting? Yeah, nobody knows what that’s about.”
“It’s not going to be good.” Moira looped stringing cheese back onto the point of her sandwich, frowning. “Special staff meeting is never good. Nobody ever calls a special staff meeting to say, here, we just thought you’d like some cake.”
“Oh, we should totally do that,” Russell said. He’d sampled a lot of cake this past week, most of it covered in white buttercream; he was fully behind the morale-improving effects of fancy desserts. “Did you know that’s one of the key drivers of employee engagement?”
“Appropriate reward and recognition.” The Employee Engagement Committee had shared its interim findings at its latest meeting. Half were incomprehensible and half were well, duh. At least, Lew had noted afterwards, they seemed to have let go of the stuffed giraffe thing.
Moira had an uncanny ability to follow his thoughts. “How are things going with Lew?”
Russell traced a drop of condensation trickling down his glass of house-made vanilla cream soda. “He plays things pretty close to the vest, but I think I could really get to like him. If that was a thing on the table.”
“He seriously doesn’t date at all?”
“Bad divorce, apparently. He chose work over the relationship. I think he blames himself, so he’s decided he doesn’t deserve to have another stab at it.”
Moira took a swig of beer and raised an eyebrow at him. “That doesn’t sound at all like anyone I know.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.” He prodded unenthusiastically at his cold beet latkes.
She shook her head. “Ever since Chris, I’ve watched you go for guy after guy who was epically unavailable. If they’re not closeted or aren’t moving to Tokyo in a month or don’t have the emotional intelligence of a granite countertop, you won’t even look at them. It’s like you’ve been punishing yourself for screwing up.”
“Yeah, well, hello, I did screw up.”
“Dude, it’s time to let it go.”
Russell pushed his plate away. “It doesn’t matter. He doesn’t date.”
She shrugged. “Maybe someone needs to reframe the situation for him. He can’t do marriage. You can’t do monogamy. We might be looking at compatible project requirements here.”
“Huh.” Russell poked the ice in his glass with the straw. “I don’t want to be a creepy stalker.”
“Valid. Choose your moment, take no for an answer.”
He leaned back in his seat and tilted his head at her. “When did you suddenly get to know all of the things?”
“True love enlightens all,” Moira said, and gave him a beatific smile.
The day was hot but not stifling, the sky a depthless blue, the backyard shade a blessing. Scott and Clement stood in a circle of the people they loved best and promised to be kind to one another and to be friends as well as lovers for all their days on earth. Clement’s mom and Scott’s stepdad and at least one of the grooms cried a little.
In between stage-managing the caterers and troubleshooting the tentacular music amplification setup and locating more toilet paper/matches/clean towels/emergency duct tape, Russell got to talk to people he always wanted to spend more time with but never got around to seeing. He and Clement’s brother Sam had a long, enjoyable argument about Game of Thrones, and Clement’s mom, who had welcomed and fed her son’s somewhat overwhelmed friend more times than Russell could remember during his first year at the largest university in the largest city in the country, told him all about the business plan she was writing for the roti and fritters food truck she was planning on starting. He promised to look her timeline over whenever she was ready.
And speaking of people he wanted to spend more time with… Turning to answer a caterer’s question, Russell caught a glimpse of a familiar profile through the kitchen window. He blinked and frowned. Come on, I am not that obsessed with him… But the man moved sideways to let someone pass, and it was Lew, all right, in a cloud-grey suit and mouth-wateringly green shirt. Then one of Clement’s cousins came asking him for a bandaid for her daughter’s skinned knee, and Russell went upstairs to look in the bathroom cabinet.
They caught each other’s eye across the yard as the group was gathering before the vows, and exchanged nods as Russell squeezed by the bar on the way to somewhere else. Russell briefly tried to find a seat next to him when the jerk chicken and potato salad were served, but then he had to go on a convenience store run for more ice, and after that there was drama over the non-appearance of the cake topper, which was found still in its mail-order box on top of the front-door shoe rack–the fact that the online marketplace contained numerous suppliers of multicultural sports-themed same-sex wedding cake toppers was a joy and a wonder to Russell–and on, and on, as if a year-long project with all its devious challenges had been compressed into one day. It wasn’t until a few hours later, after Russell had finally collapsed into a chair on the upstairs landing with two fingers of rum punch and a generous slice of wedding cake, that Lew found him.
“Hi,” Lew said. “I guess Toronto is a small village.”
“Yeah, no kidding.” Russell gestured to the other wing chair that formed a small reading area. “How do you know the happy couple?”
“Scott and I grew up together.” Lew sat down. “You?”
“Clement and I met in university.”
“Are you helping with the wedding? You looked like you were being kept pretty busy.”
Lew had been watching him? Russell took a sip of punch and let the alcohol explain the warmth kindling in his chest. “Apparently I have a transferrable skill set.” He held up his hand as if setting a marquee headline in place. “‘Project management: not just for corporate bullshit anymore.'”
“With a slogan like that, I’d hire you.”
“Yeah? You planning a big party?”
“Not at the current time.” The atmosphere got awkward for a moment; Russell wondered if Lew were remembering his own wedding.
Lew applied himself to his own slice of cake. Russell took another sip of punch. Between exhaustion and the booze–he didn’t drink often, and he was a lightweight anyway–a marvellous relaxation was seeping into his body and brain. He should say something, he thought. Something droll and irresistible. He had Lew right where he wanted him–Lew had come to find him–and all that floated to the surface of his mind was those ridiculous committee meetings. That, and how he really wanted to just lean over and wind his fingers through Lew’s collar-length hair and plant one on him.
He managed to forestall beginning negotiations through a slightly tipsy surprise kiss, but his filters were a little porous right now. “What do you do besides your writing? I mean, you don’t go out. Do you see movies? What do you read? Do you like cooking or, I don’t know, collecting pretty rocks or something? Maybe writing’s the only thing you do. Do you like to talk about your writing?”
“I don’t,” Lew said. He combed his fork over the top of his cake, gathering beads of buttercream icing on the tines. “Writing a book is one of those things that everyone thinks they’re going to do someday, and it still sounds pretentious. And with me, I get a….feeling, like a head of steam building up, that makes me need to write, until I can’t stand it any more and I sit down and do it, and even though talking about it is easier, if I talk about it, the writing doesn’t go so well.” He shrugged. “Also because I say things like that.” He put the tip of the fork in his mouth and sucked the icing off.
“I can relate,” Russell said, a little breathlessly. God, could he. That internal head of steam, which talking did not conveniently defuse, had led him to saying, not to mention doing, some of the stupidest things he’d managed to come up with in his life. He hoped this wasn’t going to be one of them.
He took another sip of punch, and stared into the rosy depths left in his glass. “So, I get that you don’t date. Do you ever consider, uh, non-dating?”
“That is the alternative, yes.”
“No, I mean, there’s a lot of ground between a date date and not dating at all.”
“Ah.” Lew harvested another furrow of icing. “That’s more attractive in theory than in practise. I’ve never been into the bar scene.”
“Well, there’s alternatives.” Russell tossed back the last few tablespoons in his glass. Ice knocked against his lips. “Like hooking up with a complete stranger at a wedding, for example.”
He risked a glance at Lew. A spark of interest warred with hesitation in Lew’s eyes. “A complete stranger?”
Russell swirled his glass until the ice chimed. “A wedding planner, say.”
The corner of Lew’s mouth quirked. “Is this one of the perks of the job?”
“Not usually. But you remind him of a guy at work he thinks is kind of hot.”
“There’s a coincidence,” Lew said softly. “As it happens, I–”
The hallway light abruptly went out, leaving them in grey twilight. The thumping beat from the living room ceased, and laughs and protests broke out. They both instinctively glanced upwards.
“Someone probably tried to turn on the TV at the same time as the music,” Russell said.
Lew shifted, cloth rustling, his fork clinking against his plate. Russell reached out to his shadow, hand going to cup Lew’s jaw as Lew’s hand found Russell’s shoulder. Their mouths met, sweetness mingling with the tart aftertaste of lime.
Dimly, Russell heard the basement door open and close. Light bloomed in the hallway again, which is when Russell noticed he’d closed his eyes.
They drew back from one another and unhurriedly let their hands drop.
Lew’s smile was a slow-blossoming promise. “How long do wedding planners have to stay at these things?”
Russell ran over his day-of spreadsheet in his mind. Food, done; cake, done. There was really nothing left but drinking and dancing and gradual attrition; some of the couples with younger kids had already left. “Let me check in with Clement and Scott.”
He found them on the dance floor, or rather the dining room floor. Clement was dancing; Scott was leaning against the wall with a beer in one hand and a poleaxed smile on his face as he watched his husband and three older women in flowered dresses and hats re-interpret a disco classic.
When the tune changed, Russell caught Clement’s eye and drew them into the kitchen. “Are you guys going to be okay if I take off?”
“We will. Thank you, thank you, thank you.” Clement pulled him into a tight hug.
“Yeah, man, you’re the best.” Scott’s hug piled on top of Clement’s.
When Russell disengaged, he said, “The cleaners are coming at ten tomorrow, and the chairs and tables are being picked up in the afternoon. I’ll swing around before lunch to check up on things, okay?”
“Awesome. Are you okay to get home?”
“Yeah, no problem.” It wasn’t late, and his alcohol buzz was already fading, subsumed by anticipation.
“All right. Take care.”
Russell stepped back and waited by the front door for Lew to say his good-byes. As Lew left the kitchen, Clement popped his head out of the doorway, and his eyebrow went up so theatrically Russell could read it from the other end of the hallway. Russell waved good-bye at him, and Clement smirked and disappeared again.
“My place? I don’t live too far, if you don’t mind walking,” Russell said.
“Sure. It’s a nice night.”
Russell could hear the usual Saturday-night racket on Queen as they hit the cross street. He led them the back way, past the motorcycle repair shop and the beer store and through the stub of alley until they reached his building. They rode the elevator to his fourth-floor condo. Russell unlocked the door and gestured Lew inside.
He’d left a lamp on, knowing he’d be back after dark, and it sheened gold over the procession of windows across the far wall. It wasn’t a large place, furnished with restraint; Russell had dumped most of his student-shabby furniture when he’d bought it five years ago, and the exposed brick and eighteen-inch wooden beams were the star of the show anyway.
“I like your place,” Lew said, crossing to the windows.
“Thanks. The view’s nothing special, but it’s a great neighbourhood. Can I get you something to drink?”
“Have a seat if you want. I’ll just be a minute.”
Russell went into the bathroom and speedily freshened up a little. When he came out, Lew was crouching in front of his bookcase.
“I had this edition,” Lew said, cradling a hardcover copy of The Railway Children in his hand. “I think it was my aunt’s. You’ve got some interesting books here. Do you collect them?”
“No, they’re family things.” When Russell found the time to read these days, it was usually on his phone. His one bookcase was more memento case than library, housing treasured volumes that had been rescued from a succession of downsizing older relatives: E. Nesbit, Joan Aiken, an actual Dick and Jane reader, some of the more adventurous Enid Blyton books. Other family members had claimed the china and the family photographs; these were Russell’s way of reminding himself of everything that he was connected to.
Lew slid the book back into its place and stood up. “I have some of my great-grandfather’s Dickens,” he said. “I like reading books I know other people have touched.”
“Sometimes they’re my comfort reading,” Russell confessed.
“I reread the Narnia books all the time.” Lew leaned forward and kissed him. “Bedroom?”
Standing on Russell’s striped bedside rug, they slid hands under each other’s shirts, undid buttons, pushed jackets off shoulders.
“This colour looks amazing on you,” Russell murmured, rubbing Lew’s chest through the emerald green. “Take it off right now.”
Lew breathed a laugh into Russell’s ear. “You’re pretty hot in a white linen shirt.”
“It was a warm day.” The hollow of Lew’s throat presented itself, so Russell licked it.
“With your sleeves rolled up, getting things done…mmm.”
Russell fleetingly thought about some kind of pun about doing things, and settled for taking another quarter-step forward and pressing his hip to the front of Lew’s trousers. Lew caught his breath. Russell put his hands on the small of Lew’s back, smoothed them lower. Lew wrapped his arms around Russell and kissed him hard. Russell’s knees went rubbery.
When Lew loosed his hold, Russell took a step back again and worked Lew’s belt open, then undid the hook and zipper on his trousers. The pants fell to the floor with a jingling thud of keys. Russell had barely touched his own belt before Lew brushed his hands away and returned the favour, deliberately slowly, and Russell let his arms fall to his sides, breathing a little hoarsely; he always found it unreasonably erotic to have another man unzip him.
Lew pulled him in close again, only a few layers of cotton knit between them. His hands cupped Russell’s ass, and his teeth closed gently on the soft skin below Russell’s earlobe. Russell gasped and tilted his head back. Lew kissed the sensitized spot he’d nipped.
“Bed,” Russell managed, and pushed Lew in its direction. Lew disengaged long enough to strip his socks and underwear off. Russell dragged the blanket and top sheet to the foot of the bed, got rid of the rest of his own clothing, and laid out on the cool sheet. Lew joined him, a line of warmth beside him, then on him, elbows supporting him over Russell as he lowered his mouth to Russell’s, their legs tangling together.
Russell had wondered whether Lew might be shy in bed, but he wasn’t in the least. He moved like a man who knew what he liked and was ready to make it happen, rocking his hips, cock hard against Russell’s own. Russell stroked a hand down Lew’s chest, ruffling the hair there, thumbing a nipple. Lew shifted a little, reached down and squeezed Russell’s balls lightly. Russell thrust up against him with a groan.
“I’m happy to make you come like this,” Lew said, and that nearly drove Russell to the edge right then; he stilled and took a deep, shuddering breath. “Or I’ll go down on you if you prefer.”
“This is good,” Russell assured him, fingers tight on Lew’s shoulders.
“Do you have any lube?”
Russell pointed to the bedside table. Lew stretched over, the movement pressing his body against Russell’s in new and arousing ways, and fished the bottle out of the drawer. One-handed, he flipped the cap and squeezed some lube into the palm of his hand.
“That’s a nice party trick,” Russell said, recovering. “Watch it, that’s going to be–ah!–cold.”
Lew made a long, slow roll with his hips. “It’ll warm up.”
Russell arched his back a little. “You feel so good.”
“You feel incredible,” Lew said. Russell twined his arms around Lew’s neck and pulled him down, and they fell into a perfect shared rhythm. This close, Lew smelled of sex and wine and a very faint woodsy aftershave. His breath was hot on Russell’s ear, his breathing gaining more voice as he wound closer to climax, a growing cadence of ah, ah, ah. Russell thought, I bet he’s loud when he finishes, and the idea turned his nerves to heated wire.
“Fuck,” he gasped.
“Yes,” Lew whispered, “do it.”
“Going to come,” Russell pleaded, and did, bowing his back against the marvellous weight on him, sightless, wordless, helpless as pleasure and release swept through him.
Above him, Lew shouted, and Russell reached up blindly to stroke his shoulder, his arm, his chest as Lew rocked and trembled and finally sank down to roll onto his back on the mattress.
“That was pretty nice,” Russell mumbled, closing his eyes, and then the day caught up with him and he didn’t hear what Lew might have said in return.
He woke when the bed jostled, and opened his eyes to see Lew gathering pieces of his clothing off the floor.
“Ugh. Sorry.” Russell reached for some kleenex from the bedside table, and cleaned himself up.
“It’s fine. You were only out for about ten minutes.”
“I am a lousy host.” He leaned out of bed and snagged his underwear from the floor. “Can I offer you some coffee?”
“You are a fine host, and I had a very enjoyable time.” Lew shot him a smile, and tucked his shirt into his now less-than-pressed grey trousers. “I can’t drink caffeine after dinner or I’m awake until four. I think I’m going to get going.”
“Yeah, no problem.”
By the door they shared a last kiss that turned slower and sweeter than Russell had expected. After locking the door behind Lew, Russell contemplated late-night TV, then thought about brushing his teeth again, then dragged himself into the bedroom and fell asleep for nine solid hours.
Another Monday, another…actually, Monday morning meetings were cruel and unusual, and there wasn’t enough caffeine in the city to make it right. Russell smothered a yawn and blinked across the table at Moira, who was doing the crossword puzzle in one of the free commuter dailies. Beside her, Lew, having given Russell a small, private smile as he sat down, was thumbing rapidly at his phone.
Wright came into the room and took the seat at the head of the table. “Do we have everybody? Yes? I think we’ll get started. Everyone? We’re going to get started.” The burble in the room simmered into quiet.
“Thank you all for coming. I won’t keep you long. I just wanted to inform you of a, a minor restructuring that–well, let me read my statement.”
Wright stood up and opened the red file folder he carried. “For some time now, twenty-four/seven, I’ve been on board with seizing the opportunity to look at the big picture.”
No bingo today? Russell mouthed silently at Moira, who made a sad face at him and then shrugged.
“Recently I ran the numbers, and to hit while the iron was hot, I initiated a market conversion.” Wright scratched his upper lip, which was twitching. “The timeline calls for real-time knowledge transfer going forward. In a nutshell…” He laughed out loud and tossed the file folder down onto the glossy boardroom table. “I knew I wasn’t going to be able to get through that. Guys, I’m quitting. My brother and I bought out my dad’s boat repair business up in the Kawarthas. I’m out of here.”
The room was silent for a few heartbeats. Then someone said, “That’s awesome. Congratulations,” and there was a babble and some cheering and spontaneous applause, and then a lot of best wishes and questions and some envious stories about cottage country.
“Okay, so,” Russell said, when people had started filing out of the room, “that, that” –he pointed at the red folder– “what was that?”
Grinning, Wright opened the folder. “Circling back,” he said. “Gap analysis. Reswizzle. Did anyone have reswizzle? Does anyone know what the hell it means? Even Google doesn’t know what it means.”
“Waaaaait,” said Ardash, narrowing his eyes.
“I guess you know about the bingo thing,” Moira said.
Wright snorted. “I was pissed off at first, but you know what? It was a blessing in disguise. It was the only way I could get you jokers to listen to a thing that came out of my mouth.” He raised his eyebrows as if just realizing something. “Holy sh–yeah, no, I’m saying it, holy shit, after the end of the month I don’t have to chair any more meetings. I don’t have to run herd on a bunch of overeducated, overcaffeinated, hyper-verbal smartasses. Man, I am not going to miss this place.”
“Just for that,” Russell said, “Jeremy, you jerk, you are coming downstairs with us now, and we are buying you the most complicated coffee drink our favourite barista can dream up. With whipped cream.”
“And cake,” Moira added.
Not a lot got accomplished for the rest of the morning.
Russell pulled up his his spreadsheet, made a copy, and began to delete the things that most obviously didn’t fit into the overlap in the venn diagram of wedding and farewell party.
Lew squeezed between Russell’s chair and the next, and set two paper cups onto the table, one with a tawny fern drawn in the foam at the top, the other with a hand-tied teabag bobbing in it.
“Thanks. So do you want to be in charge of the RSVPs and money collection, or the decorations and menu?”
Lew leaned back in his chair. “Remember that time I said something about just wanting to do my job?”
“Psh. You’ve got plenty of time on your hands. I mean, you’re on the United Way steering committee, and we all know what that means.” Russell typed Lew’s name beside email and cash. “I’ll give Katrina the food, and Ardash can handle the decorations. I’ll put Moira in charge of the clean-up. She’ll bitch about it, but she always stays to the end of these things.”
Russell continued typing with half his attention and said, “There’s this guy I met who sometimes hooks up with complete strangers at parties, and if he shows up, I might want to leave early. You know. If that happens.” He reached for his latte. “If it doesn’t, that’s fine too. Sometimes people have other stuff to do after work.”
“I might drop by.” Lew stirred his tea. “I think it might be good for me to get out occasionally. All work and no play, and all that. I very much enjoyed the last party I went to.”
“Yeah, me too. I hope–” Russell smacked his forehead. “I forgot, Katrina’s going to be on vacation for the next three weeks.”
“I could help you choose caterers,” Lew offered.
“Awesome. Let’s consult the google.” It was summer; he was going to be invited to a lot of parties, he thought with satisfaction. Russell filled in the empty google bar, and then he scraped his chair closer to Lew’s and swiveled his laptop so they could both see the screen as his search results came up.