by Hyakunichisou 13 (百日草 十三)
“Have you seen that bullshit?” Moira demanded, appearing around Russell’s cubicle wall like a highly caffeinated Valkyrie swooping in, venti coffee cup in hand, to bless or condemn the living.
Russell surfaced from his project planning spreadsheet as if from under layers of insulating blankets. “Uh, any particular bullshit?”
“The thing from HR.”
He clicked over to his email and scrolled down through a few messages he should take a look at and a lot of threads he’d been pointlessly included in. He found the one from HR and glanced at the subject line; he was already wincing as he took it in. “Hoo boy.”
“Do they know what decade it is?”
“Wow, Katrina’s going to really hate the thing about tattoos.”
“Do they know what century it is?”
“Conservative, check. Well-groomed, check. Ooh, dressy. I think we should start a new bingo game, corporate email edition.”
“Wait until you get to the bottom,” Moira said grimly.
Russell reached the chart labelled Men and Women. “Oh. Oh, no. They really did not think this through, did they? Ha, I like how HR is making very clear that this isn’t their idea, it’s coming from the new CEO, don’t sue them.”
“They’d better hope no one sues them. Gendered dress codes are bullshit.”
“Right. But not necessarily illegal.” Russell flinched as she turned her glare on him. “I agree with you! It’s just that I read a thing online!”
She folded her arms. “I am submitting a written response.”
“Cool. Count me in.”
“Yeah, you better believe it. Otherwise, look forward to dropping a fortune on ties, because that glow-in-the-dark thing you drag out every Halloween isn’t going to fly.”
“I own ties,” he murmured to her retreating back, which today was clad in a jacket of extremely large green and purple plaid, and went back to his spreadsheet.
“How about the cilantro pancakes?” Russell asked, putting down the specials menu. “And the ginger-fried asparagus, so we don’t have to listen to Katrina complain about the cilantro.”
“I forgot, she told me she probably won’t make it. It’s either her night school night, or that tattoo artist from Osaka is in town, I forget which.”
“Did Ardash say anything? He’s usually here by now.”
“No idea where he is. You know, I’m pretty sure he has a secret girlfriend.”
Russell barely missed inhaling cider. “Are you serious?”
“Yes, I’m serious.” Moira frowned at him. “He’s employed, can talk about something other than work, and has good personal hygiene. You don’t think he could have a girlfriend?”
“No, yes, I mean, Ardash is a great guy, of course he could have a girlfriend. In theory. It’s just that he…I never thought…I always figured…” He threw up his hands. “He doesn’t exactly ping my gaydar, but I never thought he was, you know. Straight.”
“Don’t say that word out loud,” Moira stage-whispered. “Anyway, I saw him with a woman at the farmers’ market last weekend, and their body language was definitely date-ish.”
“Okay, well. Consider my horizons broadened. Should we say something? Do you think they’re at the meet-the-friends stage yet?”
“He hasn’t told us anything yet. I think we should give him some space.”
The waitress paused at their booth to take their order. Moira gave it, and drained the last mouthful of her beer. “Speaking of which, Lew knows he’s always welcome at Tuesday nights, right?”
“For sure. I don’t think it’s his kind of thing, and he’s busy with his writing most nights. Oh, but I asked him if he wanted to come to Pride with us, and he didn’t say I’d rather put flaming needles through my eyeballs, so I’m optimistic. How about Daphne? She seemed to enjoy it that one time she came.”
“I think she sees it as more of a you-and-me thing than a me-and-her thing. Anyway, her schedule’s all over the place.”
“But she’s coming with us to Pride, right? At least to the march.”
“Yeah, yeah, sure. Listen, did you see that reply HR sent to my email?”
Their next round arrived. Russell, who had a one-drink max on a work night, took a sip of house-made root beer. “Thorough boilerplate.”
“Thank you for your valuable feedback, my ass.” Moira rapped her napkin-wrapped bundle of cutlery against the table, making it jangle. “You know that’s corporate-speak for LOL, go away.”
“We could talk to Wynne, send it up the org chart.”
Moira pursed her lips. They’d been reporting to Wynne for four months now, and she seemed solid enough from what Russell had seen, but there hadn’t been a really hairy situation to make her show her true colours yet either. “No, we’ve tried words. We need to take concrete action.”
The waitress arrived with two steaming plates. Russell folded one of the cilantro pancakes and dunked the edge carefully in ginger soy sauce. “Do you think we’re at that stage yet? I mean, it was just an email. Remember when they tried to impose the ten-minute-break rule the same week the elevators were being serviced? Or the no-internet-for-personal-use-ever thing? It’s just upper management rattling our chains. Two weeks from now, no one’ll even remember the thing.”
“Russell.” Moira poked the back of his hand with her fork and steamrolled over his ow! of protest. “This isn’t just about us. Okay, we’ve been working here forever–“
“Five years,” Russell said, then quickly recalculated. “Six. Seven? Seven and a half, holy shit.”
“And we know what corporate baloney looks like. But this isn’t just some pointlessly stupid rule about how to format your TPS report. This is about them telling us what they think men and women should look like, and saying that anyone who doesn’t fit into those boxes or wants to colour outside the lines doesn’t belong. We have an opportunity here to use our privilege–and I’m including the privilege of it not being personal for either of us–and stop this garbage before it blows up on someone it really matters to.”
Russell nodded slowly. “Okay. Okay, I get you. What did you have in mind?”
A puff of someone’s lingering perfume and a muffled burst of electric guitar drifted into Russell’s condo as he opened the front door for Clement. “Let me take that. Wow, how much did you bring?”
“I didn’t know what you were after, and you are not getting me into Fabricland on a Saturday afternoon.” Clement surrendered the two tote bags and carried his sewing machine case over to the dining room table.
“I assume that would be bad.”
“Honey, those weekend warriors will cut you over the last yard of velvet ribbon.” Clement unsnapped the top of the rigid case and lifted it off.
Russell put the tote bags on the table. “Just so we’re clear, I’m not up for velvet ribbon.”
“Of course not, it’s almost June. I brought you a cotton print and a solid colour linen-look blend.”
Someone knocked on the door. Russell opened it to let Moira in. “Start the coffee, I have Cakehole doughnuts!” she announced, brushing past Russell and placing the flat white box she carried on the kitchen island. She took off her jean jacket and tossed it over the arm of the couch, where it landed with a clack like a gnashing of teeth; the entire back was an armour of political buttons. Given Toronto weather, Moira only wore it for a couple of weeks in the spring and fall, which was probably just as well, because it must have weighed a couple of kilos.
“Moira!” Clement came over to wrap long arms around her. “I haven’t seen you in an age, girl.”
“I know, winter sucked, I basically hibernated. Thanks so much for coming over to help us out with this. I hope we didn’t make you miss the sportsball.”
“Nah, today’s a night game.”
Russell lifted the lid of the box to reveal six glossy rounds of deep-fried goodness, decoratively iced in pastel stripes and plaids. He took a deep, sugar-perfumed breath, mouth filling with water. Given the medical history of the men in his family, he tried to keep fried foods to Tuesday nights and parties, but Cakehole’s limited Saturday doughnut production runs were the stuff of legend.
“Ground rules,” Clement said. “The doughnuts and coffee stay here” –he made a circle over the counter with his finger as if dowsing for sucrose– “and fittings take place over there. Nobody gets sticky fingers on my fabric.”
“Believe him,” Russell said, getting his coffee grinder down from the cupboard. “You don’t want to get on the wrong side of Wardrobe.”
“Noted. So what do you have in mind for Russell?”
“Come over and I’ll show you.”
By the time the coffee had been pressed and poured into a thermos to stay hot, the dining room table was a topography of folded fabric and paper envelopes. Russell–after carefully washing his hands–approached with a sense of nostalgia. It had been a lot of years since he’d fallen asleep to the stutter of Clement’s sewing machine five feet away in their narrow dorm room.
Clement pushed two envelopes towards him. On one was a coloured line drawing of an extremely svelte blonde woman in a sleeveless shift; on the other, her brunette twin wore a simple dress with a gathered skirt. She put him in mind of a Fifties housewife doing the dishes in heels.
“If you like the shift, we can do either fabric,” Clement said, “but if you want the fuller skirt, it has to be the print, because there’s not enough of the linen. I bought most of my stash with my nieces in mind.”
Russell pursed his lips. The skirt looked girlier to him, but there was something about the sleek shift that captured his attention. He’d never aspired to sophistication, but that smooth line promised polish and grace in a way that unexpectedly appealed to him. Anyway, the flowery print reminded him of his aunt’s couch.
“This one,” he said, “in the plain yellow.”
Clement looked at Moira, who grinned and shook her head. “You got me.”
“What?” Russell asked.
“Moira put her money on the Laura Ashley look.”
“Is that an insult? Are you insulting me?”
“Dude, I’ve seen your hometown. If you were a girl you’d have had worn blouses with puffed sleeves.”
“Uh-huh. At least I owned clothing without skulls on it.”
“Arms up,” said Clement, measuring tape in hand. He wrapped it around Russell’s chest and scribbled a notation in a notebook that was thick with pinned-in fabric swatches and bits of paper.
Moira contemplated the doughnuts. “Dibs on the strawberry one,” said Russell, who had a weakness for pink-flavoured things.
“Yeah, I know, I got that one for you.” She bit into a green doughnut spotted with white polka dots, scattering hardened bits of icing onto the counter.
“How much are you stuffing?” Clement asked.
“Aren’t we judgy today,” Russell said. “Only one, max. Moira, you’re taking the rest home, right?”
Clement gave him a remarkably restrained roll of the eyes. “Not the doughnuts. B cup? C cup?”
“No cup. This is a boy dress, not a girl dress.”
“Woman,” Moira said, licking a tab of icing off her fingers.
“Hold this.” As directed, Russell brought his hand up to hold the measuring tape at his shoulder; Clement ran the other edge down to his knee. “Are you wearing heels?”
“No,” Russell said firmly.
“It would complete the look,” said Moira.
“Thank you, Tim Gunn. I am not wrecking my feet or my budget on high heels.”
“Above or below the knee?”
Russell looked down to where Clement’s dark fingers were drawing two imaginary lines, one on each leg, against his grey sweatpants. “I have no idea.”
“I’ll go just below the knee. Wear your black dress shoes with white ankle socks. Good white ones, not sweat socks.”
“Retro. I like it.” Moira poured herself a mugful of coffee.
Clement straightened. His hands pressed the tape across the back of Russell’s shoulders. “Short sleeves or sleeveless?”
“God, I don’t know. I don’t know these things. What do you think?”
“If you go sleeveless you have to shave,” Moira said.
“Boy dress,” he reminded her.
“Boy, girl, both, neither, I don’t care, dude, no one wants to see your hairy pits in the office.”
“She’s not wrong.” Clement drummed his fingers against his notebook. “If you go with sleeveless I can get it done this afternoon. You can wear a light cardigan over top.”
“Yes! Thrift store road trip!” Moira yelled.
Clement eased a sheaf of tissue paper out of its envelope and began unfolding it as though it were fragile and precious. “Go have your doughnut. I have to think; this pattern has darts.”
Russell warmed up his half-full cup of coffee and grabbed the pink doughnut. On the first bite, the icing crumbled and then melted in his mouth; the dough itself was as light as a down pillow. He closed his eyes in bliss.
“What have you got planned for the rest of the weekend?” Moira asked.
“Lew’s coming over later today. Tomorrow’s pretty open. Oh, speaking of weekends….” He reached past her to pull the Pride schedule out of the alternative weekly paper. “We should do some planning before everybody gets booked up.”
“Again with the Pride,” Moira said. “You are a walking cliché, have I told you that?”
“Cliché nothing. It’s June! The sun’s out but it’s not so hot that everybody’s ready to drop! It’s one of the two months of the year when sane people voluntarily go outside! I’d go to it if it was the International Paint Drying Festival.” He flipped forward through ten glossy pages of sponsors’ ads hectic with rainbows.
“Mm-hm, and those all international painters in tank tops and shorts would have nothing to do with it.” She fluttered her eyelashes innocently at him over the rim of her mug.
“Fine, point, but also I just like it. Everybody’s in a good mood. Come on, there must be something here you’d be into.”
“I’m doing the Rainbow Run 10K,” Clement said from the floor, where he had lain cloth and paper down and was sticking pins into things with heedless speed. “You better come and cheer for me. It’s been years since I’ve run that far and I’m probably going to die.”
“See, there,” Russell said, “watching Clement puke on the finish line, that is the kind of programming content I’m looking for. Oh, look, they’re doing a nightclub thing at the aquarium again. You came with me to that a couple of years ago, didn’t you?”
Moira was fiddling with her phone. “Did I?”
“That was Scott and me,” Clement said, “and as I recall, you certainly had a good time.”
Russell smiled fondly. He’d met a couple from Nebraska–Iowa?–somewhere in the vast middle of the States–and they’d danced together under gently morphing coloured lights while the stingrays glided past, then ended the night in a hotel room bed with a pillow top so deep Russell felt simultaneously a little turned on and relaxed just remembering it.
“There’s a demonstration at Queen’s Park….”
“That’s not really part of Pride, that’s just how we live now.”
“The Blue Jays Rainbow Day is June sixth,” Clement said, wielding a fearsomely large pair of scissors. “Let me know if you want to come. Scott’s getting tickets.”
“I don’t know if I’m free that day.”
“Oh! This! The Doggie March!” Russell wiggled the page in front of her. “Wall-to-wall pugs and golden retrievers wearing rainbow bandanas. How can we not go to that?”
“It’s just a pet food marketing thing or…” Moira took the double-page photo spread of last year’s march from him. “I think that poodle goes to my dog park.”
“Okay, Russ,” Clement said, “get over here and strip.”
“The jokes write themselves,” Moira muttered.
Russell slid out of his T-shirt and sweats, and stood in his boxer briefs where Clement pointed. Clement lowered fabric over his head like a tabard and stared to smooth and pin.
“There,” Clement said a few minutes later. “Walk around a little, sit down, swing your arms. Does it bind anywhere? How does it feel?”
Mindful of the pins, Russell paced to the couch. “Oh my god,” he said. He twirled in slow motion, arms held out. “This is the single most comfortable piece of clothing I have ever worn.” The linen hung from his shoulders so that he could barely feel it on his body; cool air swirled against his thighs and up his bare sides. “Moira, seriously, this is beyond awesome, why don’t you dress like this all the time?”
“Because I prefer a less cisnormative gender presentation,” Moira said, “and also because in the summer the office is a fucking meat locker.”
A knock sounded from the door. Russell walked over and opened it to reveal Lew, in a vintage short-sleeved plaid shirt and charcoal pants. Lew stepped into the condo and leaned forward to give Russell a quick kiss, then gave him a once-over with a faint smile on his face. “‘Rose goes in the front, big guy,'” he quoted.
“TMI,” sang Moira.
“Hey, Lew.” Clement was dashing thread through a maze of hooks on his sewing machine. “Russ, if you’re happy with the fit, I can start sewing.”
“Yeah, it’s good.” Russell reached down and started to pull the dress up as though it were a sweatshirt. “Ow,” he said, freezing in an awkward hunch as tiny, sharp bits of metal threatened to pierce his skin in at least three different places.
“Not like that,” Clement said hastily.
Together they managed to extract him from the dress, and Clement took it over to his machine. Russell got back into his T-shirt and sweatpants, which now felt a little restricting.
“Doughnuts,” Moira said, giving the box a shove in Lew’s direction.
He peered into it. “I’ll split one, if anyone’s interested.”
“Have at it.” Russell handed him a knife, followed by a plate and a coffee mug. “We were just making plans for Pride. Do you want to come to the parade with us?”
Lew’s mouth was full of his first bite of chocolate mint doughnut. He made a muffled sound and titled his head back and forth.
“It’s possible,” Moira said, “that Lew thinks the modern iteration of Pride is a conformist bid for mainstream acceptance bankrolled by large corporations that were happy to ignore our community’s needs until they decided it was socially acceptable to take our money.”
“That’s a lot of big words, person who works for a large corporation,” Russell said, without heat. “Look, I know what Pride started as, and I know we’ve still got a long way to go. But the shittier the world gets, the more I also want to stick a rainbow temporary tattoo on my forehead and dance with my people. I’m pretty sure I can do both.”
“‘I don’t want a revolution I can’t dance to,'” Lew said.
“Yes! So are you coming with me?”
Lew turned to wash his sticky fingers at the sink. “It’s a lot of people in one place.”
“That’s another thing! You can’t have a million people downtown without paying for some porta-potties and what-not.” Russell flicked the top of the doughnut box down as emphasis. Moira pushed it back up again and contemplated the contents.
“Do you mind if I think about it?” Lew asked.
“Yeah, no problem,” Russell said, giving in and taking the other half of the chocolate mint doughnut. “Clement, what should Moira wear next week?”
“Me? Pants and a jacket, as per usual.”
“Oh, no, no, no, no, no. Nuh-uh.” Russell shook the half-doughnut at her. “You have to dress like a guy. That means a guy suit and a regular tie.”
“Maybe I should borrow one of yours,” Moira said, with considerable snark.
“Suit, no, you wouldn’t fit. Tie, yes. Hold on.” Russell ducked into his bedroom and considered his tie selection. He almost brought out the plain navy blue one, but took an iota of pity on Moira and chose a grey one with narrow maroon and white stripes instead.
“Give me a break,” Moira said, when she saw it.
“The dress code says conservative.”
“I don’t have any suit it will even go with.”
“Thrift store road trip,” he reminded her.
“Ugh. Fine.” She rolled the tie up and tossed it toward her jean jacket; it unfurled in the air and landed across the jacket like a discarded sash.
Clement cleared his throat. They turned to see him holding up the pale yellow sheath by its shoulders.
“It’s gorgeous,” Russell said.
“Machine wash cold on gentle, hang to dry, warm iron with a damp press cloth.” Clement folded the dress carefully over the back of one of the dining room chairs.
Russell made a face. “Iron?”
“Nobody said glamour was easy.”
“Thank you so much. I owe you, dude.”
Clement leaned down to unplug his sewing machine. “Consider it my contribution to the cause. And you better have left me a doughnut.”
“I’ve got to get going,” Moira said, as Russell poured Clement the last of the coffee and got him a plate. “You want me to leave the rest of these?”
“God, no, get them out of my house,” Russell said.
“Any takers? Lew?”
“No, thanks, I’m good.”
“This one will be more than enough,” Clement said, eyeing the caramel-drizzled pastry on his plate with mingled lust and regret.
She snorted. “Since when, Mister What-Even-Are-Calories?”
“Since I’m in training, honey. Anyway, I’m old, my system can’t take junk food anymore.” He took a bite and shook his head even as his eyelids fluttered in bliss.
“Right, then. All the more for me and Daphne. See you tomorrow, Russell.”
While Clement ate, they chatted a bit about work for a bit, and then Russell helped Clement pack up his sewing machine and supplies. “Thanks again. Say hi to Scott for me.”
“Let me know how it goes. Now go hang that dress up before it wrinkles.”
Russell closed the door behind him and obediently got a coat hanger from his closet. He slid the dress onto it, and turned to find Lew watching him with a faint smile.
Russell raised his eyebrows and cocked his hip out. “Like what you see?”
“Yes, but it’s also fun to listen to you with your friends.”
“Yeah, they’re not bad. Are you sure it’s not this?” He bent his elbow to let the linen drape against his body. “I could put it back on.”
“Up to you.”
“Eh. I’ve worn a skirt or two in my time, what red-blooded theatre kid hasn’t, but it’s not really my thing.”
Lew followed him into the bedroom. “You’re really wearing that to work?”
“That’s the plan.” He hung the dress beside his two suits.
“Are you worried about anyone’s reaction at all?”
Russell crowded up into Lew’s space and kissed him. “One, history has shown that if they want to lay someone off, they’ll lay someone off, and corporate conformity and loyalty and productivity mean dick-all. Two…” He slid his arms around Lew’s waist. “HR has to know that if they try to fire me for this, I’ll sue the conservatively tailored pants off them.”
One of Lew’s hands settled at the back of Russell’s neck. He kissed Russell in turn, then deepened the kiss until Russell hummed enjoyment into his mouth.
“There are two words in that sentence I’m particularly interested in at the moment,” Lew said, his free hand trailing down to Russell’s waist.
“Conservatively tailored?” Russell said brightly, and jumped as Lew snapped the elastic on his sweatpants. “Corporate conformity?”
“If you insist.” Russell wriggled out of them, and kicked them off and away. His hands went to Lew’s belt, which he fumbled open as Lew kissed him again. He unbuttoned and unzipped Lew and pushed his trousers down. Lew bent down to step out of them and place them on the chair in the corner. When he was upright again, he ran his hands under Russell’s T-shirt, rucking it up to expose bare skin. Russell lifted his arms, but Lew didn’t pull the shirt over his head. Instead, he took a step back.
“Why don’t you sit down,” Lew said, unbuttoning his own shirt. Russell yanked the top sheet and summer blanket to the foot of the bed. He piled up the pillows and sat propped up against the headboard.
Because Lew tended to be quiet, a lot of people thought he was shy. Russell had too, initially. Circumstances had revealed that Lew was not shy at all, certainly not in bed. He had a sly imagination and a willingness to be verbal, and a lot of the time, he ended up running the show. It was a situation with which Russell, usually happy to take the initiative, was very much on board.
Lew took his time, looking at Russell as he undressed. He let the shirt slide down his arms and then dropped it over the back of the chair. He took off his undershirt and his socks. In his boxers, he took the few steps to the corner of the bed, and stood there looking down at Russell. He smiled, and his gaze ran from Russell’s face and down his chest, settling on where his erection stretched out the cotton jersey of his underwear.
Russell stroked his thumb up the hard ridge his cock made. Sparks of anticipation fizzed down his legs and up his chest. “You look fantastic,” Lew said affectionately, and wrapped his hand around Russell’s bare ankle.
Russell flattened his palms against the bottom sheet to ground himself. “Yeah? What are you going to do about it?”
“I was thinking of sucking your cock. Questions? Comments?”
A surge of need shivered up Russell’s spine. “Fuck. Yes.”
“Hand me a condom?”
Because they weren’t exclusive–at least Russell wasn’t–their activities were on the safer end of safer sex. Russell leaned over to the bedside table and slid open the drawer. He grabbed the suspiciously light condom box and– “Well, crap.” He emptied the single condom out onto the bed and looked at it sadly.
Lew held out his hand. Russell picked up the condom and put it on the bedside table. “No, I’m going to be a good host. That one’s for you.”
Lew’s fingertips brushed up and down the skin of Russell’s shin. “What do you feel like doing, then?”
Russell tilted his head back against the pillow. “Surprise me.”
Lew studied him. “I like this view. I think I’d like to watch you make yourself come.”
Russell drew in a sharp breath. They’d done this before, and it was always unreasonably hot.
“Move over,” Lew said, nudging Russell’s leg. Russell made room, and Lew sat on the end of the bed. “Put your hand over your cock.”
So it was going to be Russell taking direction. No objection here. He moulded his palm around his erection, and licked his bottom lip a little showily.
“Put your other hand between your legs,” Lew said. “Rub yourself the way you like.”
Russell let his legs fall farther apart and pressed two fingers between his ass and his balls, gasping a little at the ripple of pleasure.
“Now stroke your cock a little.” Russell tried, through it was awkward through the cloth, which now had a dark wet spot where the grey cotton clung to the tip of his cock.
“Could you come like that?” Lew asked.
“Maybe. Probably.” Russell huffed a breath. “I’d rather not, actually.”
“Understood. Pull down your underwear a little. No, don’t take them off. Pull them back up–there’s good.” Lew shifted in place, his arousal clearly evident. “Pull your T-shirt up, good, just on that side.”
Russell obeyed. His briefs rested just below the crease of his thighs, a firm line against his skin; his T-shirt was bunched up at his breastbone. He wasn’t naked, but he was bared. He could feel himself getting harder as Lew looked at him.
“You are unbelievably hot,” Lew said, and cupped his hand against his own erection.
“I believe it, because I feel like I’m about to burst into flame,” Russell said, squirming against the need to get his hands on himself.
Lew laughed, a little breathlessly. “Go on then, jerk yourself off, do it while I watch you.”
“Oh fuck yes.” Russell wrapped his hand around his cock in the most efficient grip he knew and began to stroke. His skin felt electrified, all hair standing on end; the sensations of the elastic of his underwear restraining his thighs and the cool air on his exposed chest were keen as ice.
He arched his back a little and saw Lew swallow. Russell smiled to himself. He clutched his free hand in his T-shirt and moaned, then shivered as that bit of theatricality drove him closer to the edge. Lew’s eyes were riveted on him. Russell moved faster, thrusting into the tunnel of his hand. He was still just barely at the point when he could have slowed it all down, but he didn’t want to; being caught up in this helpless rush added its own thrill.
He locked eyes with Lew. “I’m going to come,” he said, and heard Lew’s answering gasp as orgasm overwhelmed him.
He opened his eyes as the pulse slowed and faded. Lew was still sitting in the same place, watching him, breathing through his mouth, his hand still holding himself but not moving with intent. His eyes were a little glazed, and Russell decided that they didn’t have time to get to a blowjob today. He knew what Lew liked, and knew that Lew needed words or eye contact to make it good for him when he came, which was going to be sooner rather than later.
He rummaged in the bedside table drawer and located the bottle of lube, snapped the lid open and squirted some into his palm. Then he scooted down the bed to Lew, wrapped his dry hand around the back of Lew’s neck, and kissed him. Lew returned it with enthusiasm just this side of desperation.
“I’m going to make you come,” Russell said in a low voice, “the same way I did for myself.” Lew made a sound in the back of his throat. Russell moved his hand to pull the waistband of Lew’s boxers out, and thrust his other hand inside to slick up his cock. Lew exhaled; his hands tightened on Russell’s shoulders.
It didn’t take long, Lew panting with each stroke, groans rising as he neared orgasm and then crescendoing in a long cry as he tipped over.
Lew leaned against Russell until his shudders stopped. He pulled away with a sigh and stood up to shuck his boxers, then flopped down onto the bed. Russell wiped his hand with some kleenex and stripped out of what was left of his clothes, then rolled over beside Lew and threw one leg and arm over him.
“That was pretty hot,” he muttered into Lew’s shoulder.
Russell stretched lazily. “Weren’t we going to go see a thing this afternoon?”
“Mm-hm. Art thing.”
“What do you say to a nap and then dinner?”
“Mmm.” Lew’s hand came up to lie over Russell’s on his chest. Russell smiled and drifted off.
The next day’s thrift store road trip–well, short bus ride–was successful. Russell bought a light green cardigan that he hypothesized would go with the dress, and Moira found a grey suit that would need the legs taken up about a foot but disguised her curves. Afterwards, they wandered along the street. Bloordale was a neighbourhood that was transitioning from used appliance stores and dive bars into indie designer pop-ups and hipster dive bars. They got coffees and sat on the church pew outside the cafe, watching black-clad Portuguese grandmothers and spandex-clad joggers pursue their individual Sunday morning devotions.
“Hey. Isn’t that–” Moira said, at the same time as Russell’s attention snagged on a familiar-looking figure on the corner across the street. Ardash and a tall, dark-skinned guy were standing there, a little closer than was casual, matching coffee cups in hand.
“He doesn’t live around here, does he?”
“No, he’s in the east end.”
The guy leaned closer and said something. Ardash nodded, and the guy kissed him in a way that said it wasn’t their first. They backed a few steps away from one another. The guy said something else, and smiled. Then he turned and walked in one direction, and Ardash went the other.
“Huh.” Russell sipped his coffee in contemplation.
“That is not who I saw him with before.” Moira worried at the cardboard sleeve around her cup. “Maybe you’re right, we should ask him about it. Let him know that we’ll support him, whatever he’s going through.”
“He hasn’t mentioned it to us,” Russell reminded her, with a twinge of hurt that he acknowledged and then ignored. “He’ll tell us when he’s ready. Let’s just let him work it out.”
“I guess.” She took a sip of coffee. “I really do want to know that he’s okay and knows we’ve got his back, but am I a bad person if I’m also super curious?”
“You and me both,” Russell admitted. “I did ask him on Friday if he was going to Pride, and he said sure, like he does every year. But he’s never brought a date or left with anybody as far as I know.”
“All right, I’m bailing before you drag the program out again.” She drained her cup and stood up, dabbing sweat off her upper lip with the back of her hand. “See you tomorrow. It’s going to be a hot one.”
As Russell stepped out of his condo building on Monday morning, the humid air coalesced over his bare arms and shins. Standing in the rush hour press of the streetcar was like being trapped in a dry cleaner bag. He was glad he was carrying rather than wearing his cardigan. If anyone looked up to from their text bubbles and exploding jewels to give a second glance to the guy in the dress, he didn’t notice.
When he pushed open the glass door to the lobby of the office building, cool air zipped along his exposed skin as though his nerves had been iced. The hairs on his arms rose. It was heaven.
He did slip the cardigan on while waiting for the elevator, mindful of Moira’s dictate. When he got to his floor, Samantha, the receptionist, was on the phone and didn’t respond to his wave. As he passed the copy room, Russell said, “Hi, Kofi,” but Kofi replied without looking up, one hand holding the ink cartridge at arm’s length and the other tugging a smeared piece of paper out of the printer. Murmurs and the sound of keyboard strokes rose from the cubicles he passed, but no one popped their head into the corridor. A little disappointed, Russell gained his desk and stowed his bag under it. He logged in and got to work.
After a while, he felt eyes on him and looked up. Katrina was standing in the doorway. “Moira told me about your thing,” she said. “Up, up, let me take a look.” Russell stood, raising his arms and doing a three-sixty. She pursed her lips. “You need to accessorize.”
“So I hear, but there’s quite the learning curve,” said Russell, who had spent the previous evening going down an Instagram rabbit hole.
Katrina contemplated the complex tangle of gold chains and pendants that hung down her front; on days like today, when she wore a long-sleeved blouse that concealed her tattoos, she went in for baroque decoration of other kinds. She picked one out of the thicket, drew its chain over her head and held it out to him. Russell took it–a lustrous teardrop pendant with a subdued rainbow sheen–and dropped it over his head.
“Mother-of-pearl,” Katrina said. She gave the surface of the pendant a few polishing strokes with the cuff of her blouse. “There. Very inoffensive.”
She quirked him a grin. “When you get an LBD, come see me and we can step up your game.”
At ten, Russell heard a loud sigh. Ardash, arms folded, was leaning against the cubicle wall and shaking his head. “I miss one Tuesday.”
In the middle of Russell’s explanation, Moira appeared, her expression subdued. In the grey suit, she looked as though she were wearing a uniform borrowed from someone else.
“I need caffeine. Keep up or stay here,” she said, and stalked towards the elevators.
Russell stood up, remembered that he had no damn pockets, and retrieved his wallet from his bag. “How’ve you been?”
“Good. Is Lew coming with us?”
“No, he’s in corporate training all day.”
They walked towards where Moira was jabbing the elevator button. “Is it weird that I think she looks stranger than you do?” Ardash asked.
“I know, right?” Seeing Moira in that bland shade was disconcerting, like The Wizard of Oz turning back to black and white.
In the elevator, Russell regarded himself in the mirrored wall opposite, a column of pale skin and pale cloth with Katrina’s pendant a talisman of pearly silver glowing against his chest. He looked like himself, but way fancier. “Nobody’s said anything.”
“Patricia asked if I wasn’t feeling well.” Moira scowled.
Russell and Ardash exchanged looks. “It’s in a good cause,” Russell ventured.
“I know, I know.” The elevator bell dinged, and she stalked ahead of them to the coffee shop, where she ordered something with whipped cream and drizzle and a flavour shot, and drank most of it on the way back upstairs.
Russell had a meeting with Wynne scheduled for eleven. She was on the phone when he paused in the doorway to her office; she glanced up, did a discreet double take with only her eyes, and waved him into the chair on the other side of her desk while she extricated herself from the call.
“Ru–” she started, hanging up the phone. “Pardon me. Are you going by a different name now?”
“No, it’s still Russell, he, him. This is about the dress code.”
“The dress code?”
“It’s the twenty-first century. Gendered clothing requirements are, uh, inappropriate.” He narrowly avoided using Moira’s pithier term.
“Yes, I agree. I’d be happy to bring it up at the next managers’ meeting, if you’d like.”
“Would you? That would be great.” Moira might champion resistance, but there was something to be said for working within the system as well. And he suspected that a Black woman who wore her hair as a crown of braids probably had some experience with bullshit corporate dress codes.
“Consider it done,” she said, with definite anticipation. “So, about the Winston contract…”
“Is it only fucking Tuesday?” Moira said morosely, trailing a roasted baby carrot through a puddle of hoisin dipping sauce without enthusiasm.
Russell looked at her with concern. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen her drooping so badly. “Are you sure you’re not coming down with something?”
“I’m fine. It’s just that boring is not my colour.” She gestured broadly with the carrot. “I had to borrow a white shirt from Daphne! This morning a guy in the subway had the same tie as me! I feel like a fucking plastic widget robot!”
“Shit, watch it,” Russell said, as two droplets of sauce landed on his chest. He grabbed a fresh napkin, dipped it in his water glass, and dabbed at the dark dots.
“So? If it gets dirty you won’t have to wear it any more.”
“Are you kidding me? We’re in the middle of a heat wave. This thing is terrific.” Russell remoistened his napkin, blurring the sauce to beige. “Have you heard anything else from HR?”
“Anybody give you any grief?”
“No. Though a guy definitely checked me out on the streetcar this morning.”
Moira huffed and folded her arms. “You are having way too much fun with this.”
“Eh, why not?” Nobody had ever accused him of not enjoying attention. “But look, if you’re really hating it, you can bail if you need to. I won’t judge.”
Her eyes narrowed. “Hell, no. No, I am wearing this bland-ass suit until we get action, even if it does make me look like the Ghost of Christmas Past.”
“We have a usual spot on Yonge,” he explained to Lew at lunch on Wednesday. “Don’t forget to wear a hat. And bring water. And maybe a bag for all the free condoms and shit that gets thrown around.”
Lew swallowed a bite of his falafel. After a full morning of being subjected to PowerPoint presentations in a darkened room, he’d insisted they get out into natural light, and they had scored a stone bench in the courtyard tucked into the centre of the block of office towers. “You’re really into this.”
“It’s fun,” Russell said, for maybe the hundredth time that week.
Lew poked a precarious chunk of fuchsia pickled turnip back into his wrap. “All right, I’ll come.”
“Awesome.” Russell grinned and shifted a little closer to Lew, deeper into the meager shade of the small-leafed urban bushes. He’d taken off his cardigan in the heat, and he could feel the tender tops of his shoulders, still pallid from the winter, beginning to roast under the noon sun.
“Is that Moira?” Lew asked, pointing at the visible slice of sidewalk with the end of the falafel. “Did she say she was going to join us?”
“No…” Russell knew she was in today because she’d copied him on an email, but she hadn’t shown up for coffee break. She was carrying one of the cartons from the Thai take-out place down the street. The grey suit hung, if possible, even more awkwardly on her solid frame than it had the day before, but she wasn’t wearing a tie, and her shirt was the blue of water under a clear sky.
“Is that shirt regulation?” Lew asked, following Russell’s train of thought.
“That is not what I would call a conservative colour.” Russell watched Moira disappear behind a concrete pillar.
“How long are you going to keep this up?”
“The rest of the week?” The dress was still an excellent garment to wear in a Toronto summer, but he’d washed it and hung it to dry the night before, and been less than thrilled to have to get up early in the morning to iron it. The two tiny spots of sauce were still there, though faded and hidden under the string of chunky turquoise beads Katrina had dropped on his desk at half past nine.
“Do you think it’s having any effect?”
“Who knows.” Russell licked a bit of tahini thoughtfully off the side of one finger, and balled up his empty sheet of foil. “I think Moira’s kind of spooked, though.” He’d have to figure out something to do about that.
All afternoon, whenever he got up to go to the printer or had spare time waiting for a search to churn through, he thought about it. The answer came during another sauna-like commute home, as he watched a woman in a dress printed with hydrangeas the size of a picture book outpace the streetcar, and when he finally walked through his front door, the first thing he did was dig the slim box out from the top shelf in his closet and pop it into his bag.
He tried all day Thursday to corner Moira, but she messaged him that she was too busy for coffee break in the morning, and later, just before noon, that something had come up and she couldn’t make lunch. He caught a glimpse of her early in the afternoon, still in the suit but wearing a scarlet shirt that he recognized–it had a recurring black pattern that, on close inspection, revealed itself to be tiny Death Stars–but she scurried down the hall with her head down. He was pretty sure she’d seen him.
“She’s avoiding me,” he said to Lew on Friday morning break as they loitered around the coffee shop counter with the rest of the pre-caffeinated office drones.
“That doesn’t sound like her.”
“You’re telling me.”
A barista deposited two cups with Ross scribbled on the side. “I assume those aren’t both for you,” Lew said, as Russell fitted lids over his cherry cheesecake lattes with whip and rose sprinkles.
“No, but desperate times call for an excess of sugar.”
He approached Moira’s lair with stealth and guile, coming the long way around and peeking from a coworker’s vacant cubicle to be sure she was in. She was at her desk, shaking her head at a chain of purple IM bubbles. He circled back through the warren and approached the usual way, offering in hand.
“Just a se–” she said, then looked up at him. Her eyes widened.
She was still wearing the grey pants. The matching jacket was tossed over a stack of reports on the other end of her desk with all the care it deserved. The jacket she was actually wearing was one of her favourites, the body faced with scraps of antique doilies and lace over midnight black. Her shirt was the colour of ripe Niagara cherries.
“Russ, I…” Her gaze sidled guiltily sideways, to the heap of discarded cloth and paper. “I had…it was…”
“Relax. I get it.”
“I thought it would be…I didn’t mean to…oh, crap,” she finished weakly.
“I brought you something. Two somethings.” Russell set the cups down on the edge of her desk and and fished in his bag.
“I tried,” Moira said. “I really tried. It was just so weird and blah and gross. I couldn’t even concentrate half the time, all I could think of was how I felt like some alien pod person, and you’ve been so great, wearing that thing all week, and I’m sorry, I just–“
“Moira McCarthy-Tan,” Russell said sternly, “I’m not doing anything that makes me miserable, and you shouldn’t either. That’s not how this works.”
She slumped. “But it was my idea, and–” She broke off as Russell held out the narrow box to her. “What’s that?”
“I had this lying around and thought it might help. Your solution is better, but you might like it anyway.”
She took the box, pulled off the top and looked inside. “Oh, wow.” She pulled out the tie. It was printed with huge, white Georgia O’Keefe-esque trumpet flowers.
“I know you’re not normally into ties, so no pressure.”
“No, this is awesome. I think it actually goes with my jacket.” She draped the tie around her neck and considered it. Then her attention was caught by something on the bottom of the box. She picked up the poinsettia-shaped tag and looked at him quizzically.
“Yeah, it’s a regift. Not everybody in my family knows what to get The Gay Cousin.”
“Aw, thank you, slightly homophobic family member.” She stood up. “Thanks, Russell. Seriously. I’m sorry for being weird.”
“Eh, you’re the good kind of weird.” He opened his arms, and she snuggled into them. He rested his chin on the top of her head. She gave him a hard squeeze and let go.
“And you brought me fancy coffee. You are the best work husband.”
“I try.” Russell picked up his own cup. “I have to get to a meeting, but come out to lunch, okay?”
She smiled, looking happier than she had for days. “For sure.”
The email came at the very tail end of Friday, when Russell was scraping the dregs of his to-do list pretending to look for something to occupy his last twenty minutes. He read it twice, and headed over to Moira’s desk.
She met him halfway, grinning. “Did you see it?”
“I saw it!” He returned her exuberant high-five, narrowly missing a tall man loosening his tie one-handed as he made a beeline for the elevators. “Whoops, sorry, Jagmeet.” They stepped sideways into the copy room doorway, out of the way of the single-minded stream of office workers heading out into their weekends.
“Okay, working within the system sometimes gets results,” Moira conceded, as though they had been wrangling about it all week.
“And you know what? I didn’t get any hassle at all. Not one thing. Toronto is awesome. My coworkers are awesome.”
Katrina crossed the corridor and crowded into the doorway, nudging them further into the pocket-sized room. “In fact–well, maybe you don’t want to know.”
“I always want to know,” Russell said, mildly affronted.
“I heard this from no one, and no one heard it from me,” Katrina said, and they all leaned their heads together as she lowered her voice. “Someone complained to HR.”
“So we weren’t the only ones,” Moira said in triumph.
“No, someone complained about Russell’s outfit. They thought it was unprofessional.”
“What?” His outrage was real this time. “This outfit is professional as hell. I have accessories.” The printer behind him hummed to life as if in support.
“Don’t worry, they were Spoken To. Then there was an emergency meeting of senior management this morning, and they agreed that the new dress code was contrary to the corporate value of championing an inclusive workplace.”
“That happened at the speed of light,” Moira said suspiciously.
“Which means,” Russell said, “that someone in HR had already drafted that email and stuck it in their back pocket.”
“Objections had been raised internally about the new dress code, but they were not fully acted upon until a wider spectrum of input had been submitted,” Katrina intoned, wielding the corporate passive voice like a skilled tailor with scissors.
“Eh, it worked out.” Russell stretched. “It’s Friday, all my projects are on schedule, and it’s going to be a great weekend. Who’s coming with me to watch the parade on Sunday?”
“Oh my god, fine,” Moira said. She folded her arms. “But only if you wear that dress.”
“Done.” The forecast was predicting a cloudless day, and the parade route was an urban oven of concrete, asphalt, and reflecting glass. “But I’m ditching the cardigan.”
“I’ll bring the bucket of sunscreen,” Lew said in the doorway. “Pass me those print-outs, would someone, please?”
Russell gathered the collated stack from the copier and handed it over. “Are you about ready to go?”
“Yes, just let me drop these off and get my bag.”
“Date night,” Moira crooned under her breath as Lew headed for his desk.
“Like you and Daphne aren’t going to Netflix and chill.”
Katrina sighed, a little wistfully. “Enjoy. See you Sunday.”
“Is Ardash still coming with us?” Moira asked, stepping backwards against the shelves of many-hued paper to let Katrina pass.
“As far as I know.”
“I wonder if he’ll bring anybody. Assuming he has anybody to bring.”
“I guess we’ll find out.” From the doorway, Russell could see Lew’s head and shoulders above the wall of cubicles, moving towards him. “Say hi to Daphne for me. I’ll see you Sunday.”
Sunday dawned rose-gold. Not that Russell saw the dawn, or anything even remotely near it; he’d had an eventful and entirely satisfactory night, first at a club and then in someone else’s Airbnb, and it was past ten when he finally levered himself out of bed with the promise of a shower and a vat of coffee.
By twelve, he was planted in his customary spot on the Yonge Street curb, using a copy of the alt weekly as a cushion. The sheath shape of the dress, which he’d washed the afternoon before but not bothered to iron, suggested a ladylike, knees-together sitting posture; Russell, whose feet were firmly on the asphalt, had anticipated the problem and worn a ridiculous pair of boxers decorated with rubber duckies, which anyone who wanted a peek at his panties was welcome to enjoy.
“Hey,” Lew said, squeezing between the tall woman in the metre-wide rainbow wig and the guys wearing short shorts and little else. He handed Russell a cardboard cup and a paper bag, and lowered himself to the curb.
“Oh, wow, a toasted bagel and an iced coffee. You are the best.” Russell leaned forward to give Lew a quick kiss.
Lew looked across the street, to where a toddler and an adult in matching rainbow-striped onesies were dancing to the tinny beat coming out of a smartphone. “I feel either over- or under-dressed.” He indicated his dark pants and vintage red bowling shirt with pink hibiscus blossoms cascading down a front panel.
“You’re good. Literally anything goes today. If it makes you feel better, you’re probably going to end up covered in glitter at some point.”
They sipped their iced coffees and watched the crowd for a while. The street had been closed for hours already, and a block party was in swing. Or possibly several dozen morphing block parties, ranging from the conga line of tank-topped bodybuilders to the gender-bent cosplayers posing for selfies.
“Hi,” Ardash said, appearing in front of them.
“Hey, you made it!” Russell squinted up at him.
“Yeah. Yeah, I did.” Ardash stuck his hands into the pockets of his chinos, which he was wearing with a light grey T-shirt wrapped with horizontal stripes of black, dark grey, white, and purple.
“Do you want to talk about it?”
Ardash sighed. “Look, I always assumed I was a late developer, or busy, or something. But I’ve been doing some field testing, and you know what? I don’t actually want to date. I don’t want to get laid, I don’t want to get married, I just want to hang out with my friends and then go home and watch movies with my cat. It turns out there’s a name for that.”
Russell raised his cup as though making a toast. “Awesome.”
“Yeah, super awesome to figure it out at thirty-three.”
“Figure out what? Excellent T-shirt, Ardz.” Katrina was wearing enormous sunglasses, a broad straw hat, and a black jersey tank dress, from the armholes and hem of which her tattoos twined like scraps of lace.
“There isn’t a timetable,” Lew said to Ardash.
“I guess. Anyway, a lot of things are making sense, in retrospect.” He took a gulp from the bottle of water he was carrying.
“That’s a look,” Russell said, pointing to Katrina’s one striped thigh-high stocking.
“Didn’t want to get my new ink sunburned.” Katrina rolled her stocking down carefully to reveal a still-puffy recent tattoo: a vine bearing gears morphing into flowers, trailing up the outside of her left shin.
“That’s gorgeous,” Moira said, crowding up behind Russell’s back to get a closer look.
Russell twisted around to look at her and, beside her, Daphne, icicle-cool in a white dress. “You made it.”
“I said I would,” Moira said, a little grumpily. “Hey, Ardash, I like your shirt.”
“Not to sound ungrateful,” Ardash said, dark cheeks a little flushed, “but we can stop talking about my shirt at any time.”
“We could talk about Moira’s,” Russell said. Moira thrust her hands into the back pockets of her baggy shorts, stretching the rainbow-hued Fully Automated Luxury Gay Space Communism decal on the front of her T-shirt. “Amazing how they managed to get all your values into one logo.”
“Shut up.” She laughed and kneed his shoulder.
Clement and Scott dropped by on their way to join Clement’s brother and sister-in-law, who were camped further up Yonge with her sister, her sister’s wife, and her sister’s wife’s boyfriend. “How’s the dress?” asked Clement, who had run ten kilometres the previous day and had not, in fact, died.
“Perfect. Performed exactly to specifications. Thank you, again. You helped score a point for the good side.”
Clement regarded him speculatively. “I saw some cotton poplins on sale the other day. They would make a nice shirt dress, if you’re thinking of branching out.”
Russell smoothed the fabric over his bent knees. “I think I’m ready to go back to my regular, boring guy wardrobe. Though I admit, I will miss the breeze.”
“You need to get a utility kilt,” Lew said. “Breezy, and has pockets.”
Russell turned to give him an appreciative look. “That is not a bad idea at all.”
Scott looked up the street towards an increasing sound of cheering. “Gotta go. I think it’s starting.”
The street slowly cleared as the grand marshall’s car inched towards them. Dancing before it was a squad of people in pleated cheerleader skirts, handing out rainbow flags. The parade unrolled behind it: floats blasting all genres of music and featuring every style of costume and undress; a phalanx of city councillors waving behind a banner; a group of two-spirited people, drumming and singing, wearing rainbow-striped T-shirts with the four-colour medicine wheel superimposed. A bearded man in a flouncy acid-green dress broke from a squad of historical reenactors to give Russell a wink and a lollipop. Cardboard fans, candies, condoms, and every other conceivable small item that could be thrown into the crowd were thrown. Lew, as well as everyone else, did end up wearing glitter.
“Someone looks like they’re enjoying themselves,” Russell said, twisting around to watch as Moira and Daphne, laughing, brushed glitter out of each other’s hair.
“Okay, I admit it,” Moira said, “this is a lot more fun than I expected. This” –she rotated her wrist, encompassing everything– “is kind of a blast.”
“You talk like you’ve never been to Pride before.”
Moira sighed heavily. “Dude, I have never been to Pride before.”
“What? Sure you have.”
“No, I haven’t.” Moira brandished a thumb in his face. “There was the year I got food poisoning the day of the Dyke March.” A finger. “The year I got dumped the week before.” More fingers. “The year my aunt died. The couple years I was in Calgary and didn’t know anybody. The year my neighbour had that kitchen fire and I had to move on short notice. There was always something, and it was never anything good, and then it became a Thing, you know?”
“Aww.” Russell rubbed her calf consolingly. “But we broke the curse this year, right?”
A rainbow lei sailed out of the air and smacked Moira lightly on the face before tumbling to the pavement.
“That looks like a yes to me,” Daphne said, bending down to pick it up. Russell handed it to her, and she dropped it over Moira’s head.
“That was total coincidence,” Moira said, without conviction. She wasn’t even trying to suppress her smile.
It was hard, at the end, to be sure where the parade finished and the spectators started. The last float had barely passed when the audience surged into the street.
Russell stood up, and felt Lew, standing too, grab a fold of his dress. “Don’t want to get separated,” Lew said in his ear.
In response, Russell threaded his fingers through Lew’s. Linked together, they stepped off the curb and into the kaleidoscope of T-shirts and turbans and leather jackets and leather harnesses and chinos and sneakers and tutus and wild wigs, the crowd around them bright with a thousand more colours than there were in any rainbow, all of them vibrant under the sun.