It had been a good birthday. But then, why did I need to convince myself of that?
From breakfast this morning—waffles that Quint got up early to make specially, even though he needed to leave for work as soon as he was done and couldn’t enjoy them himself—to the small dinner party that had just started winding down now, everything was great.
Sure, the party had a slightly lower turnout than last year: My mom, Zeggy, Ike, the twins, Seb, and of course, Quint. That just meant we could hold it in our apartment rather than Zeg’s house. And I still got plenty of birthday wishes on Facebook. It wasn’t the number of people that bothered me.
Not the number of gifts, either. At that very moment, I was looking at a pile of presents on the table in front of me, and an even larger pile of crumpled wrapping paper surrounding them.
“That was the last one?” Quint asked. “Alright, let me get a bag to clean this up.” He stood and headed for the pantry.
Frowning after him, I said, “Hang on. That was the last one.” I scanned over the pile to make sure I hadn’t forgotten anything. Then I began to sort through it, picking up each gift and pointing to its giver in turn. “So, wait. I got studio headphones from Zeg and Ike, the custom leather guitar strap from Mom, this cool little pocket synth from Lyra, the guitar pick punch from Griff–”
“For which we all thank you, Griffin,” said Zeggy. “No more lost pick panics a minute before a gig, right?”
I was willing to bet she’s suggested it to him for exactly that reason. Without letting myself get sidetracked, though, I just rolled my eyes at her and went on, “the two t-shirts from Zain, and the soundwaves print from Seb, right?”
My finger was pointing at Seb then. He nodded, biting his lip.
“I love it,” I repeated, just in case he needed more convincing. It was a framed, professional-quality print he’d made himself, showing the visual waveform for my song Please. The one that’s about discipline. “I’m gonna hang it above my synth.”
He smiled as Quint came back over with a blue recycling bag and started clearing wrapping paper off the table.
Transferring my attention to my husband, I said pointedly, “But that means none of these are from you.”
“True,” he replied, unperturbed.
Everyone else was starting to grin now, Griffin and Lyra squirming in their chairs with excitement as the adults exchanges secretive glances. I looked around at them all, then back to Quint. “So where is it?”
“Where is what, angel?” he asked.
And he says I’m bad with the innocence act! I raised an eyebrow. “My present.”
“Oh, of course.” Sparkles of amusement slipped around his glasses while he kept calmly picking up wrapping paper one piece at a time. “It’s in the apartment. Let me finish taking care of this recycling and I’ll bring you to it.”
I leaned forward, grabbed all the remaining paper in two huge handfuls, crumpled it together, and shoved it into the bag he was holding. “There.”
Everyone laughed. Quint said, “Thank you, angel. Alright, stand up and close your eyes.”
As I did, Zeggy said, “He’ll peek.”
My eyes popped open again at the affront. “No, I won’t!”
“Close. Keep them closed,” said Quint, and he put his hand right over the bridge of my nose, like a blindfold, and left it there. His voice moving behind me, he said, “I’ll guide you.” I felt his other hand on my shoulder. “Jagger, out of the way.”
“Yeah, don’t let me trip over the dog,” I said, laughing as I tried to follow his gentle pulls and pushes. We were moving away from the table, I knew, but other than that I had no idea.
“I’m not going to, trust me. There. Now walk forward.”
He came with me. I could hear the others in some kind of commotion, with a lot of whispers. I thought I made out Ike say, “I’ll get the–” before a “Shhh!” from my mom cut the rest of the sentence off.
“Why aren’t they coming?” I asked Quint. “Is it more of a private kind of present? You don’t usually give me those until nighttime.”
His palm left my shoulder just long enough to deliver a firm pat on my rear. “Keep talking like that,” he said with quiet humor, “and you’ll be getting a birthday spanking tonight instead. Stand still a moment, I need to open this door.”
He didn’t answer. A second later, he was pushing me forward again. I felt pretty sure we were in our bedroom, but then he took me on a zig-zagging path and spun me around at least twice, until I got thoroughly disoriented. When he stopped me to open another door, I had no idea where it led. Though it definitely smelled familiar…
“Quint? Are we in the closet now? There aren’t any presents in here.”
That gave away too much, of course. He chuckled and patted my butt again, a tiny bit harder. Probably because he didn’t need to worry about our guests all the way back here. “Snoop,” he said. “I’m glad I warned Seb not to keep his anywhere you’d find it. Now, come along.”
We went out of the closet—imagine us, a married gay couple, being closeted—and on another long, winding route that muddled me up more. The others were being very, very quiet now, so I couldn’t even orient myself by listening for them. It got to the point where I was giggling almost constantly and trying, fruitlessly, to pull Quint’s fingers away from my face.
“Our apartment isn’t this big! Where are you taking me?”
“We’re still in the apartment, it’s only a little bit farther,” he replied. True to his word, he stopped a few steps later. “Alright, are you ready?
“Yes,” I said.
“Eyes closed?” he asked.
I huffed and closed them. “Yes.”
“Okay.” His hand dropped. A second passed, though it felt more like ten. “Open your eyes.”
I did. My mouth opened of its own accord at almost the same instant. In front of me on a stand was… the guitar. The 2015 Gibson Les Paul Supreme I’d been drooling over all year, shining in cherry sunburst with gleaming gold hardware and mother-of-pearl crown inlays on the fingerboard. I blinked, half-expecting it to vanish.
“Wow, he’s actually speechless,” Zeggy said, from the spot in front of the TV where everyone other than Quint was standing to watch my reaction. “Never thought I’d see that.”
“We hid it at our house for Uncle Quint, and then we brought it over earlier today while you were out walking Jagger and put it in the laundry cupboard,” said Lyra. “Do you like it, Uncle Theo?”
“Yeah, I… I love it,” I said. Tearing my gaze away from the guitar, I looked at Quint, who was smiling at me on my left side. “How did you know?” I shook my head a little. “I never mentioned.”
“By going to your favorite music store, showing them your picture, and asking if they’d seen you take an interest in any particular instrument,” he said. “Apparently, you’ve been making special trips to play this model. I hope you like the color. I picked what I thought would best complement the guitar strap your mother got you.”
“It’s perfect,” I said, and swallowed on a lump in my throat before pulling him down into a kiss. He broke it off first. I would’ve kept on kissing him for at least a half-hour, just trying to convey how much I love him. And it wouldn’t have been enough.
Glowing at me, he said, “I love you, angel.”
Griffin interrupted the quiet moment by suddenly saying, “Play something, Uncle Theo!”
“Yeah, play a song on it,” the rest joined in.
I looked from them to the guitar. “Play it?”
“Well, it’s yours, isn’t it?” asked Mom.
That was when it hit me. What hit me, exactly, I can’t explain, just that the idea of this gorgeous instrument belonging to me made me break out in a cold sweat. I felt like I couldn’t touch it. My hands would spoil the pristine surfaces.
“Uh,” I said, “I’m… I actually probably need to tune it, which can take awhile the first time. Let me play you guys something with one of my old ones.”
I saw Seb and Zeggy both frown as I went to take my trusty Strat off its stand. I didn’t look for Quint’s expression. None of them said anything. I quickly tuned it, sat down on the chair by my synth, and after a moment’s thought, began performing Landslide by Fleetwood Mac.
My audience perched themselves on the couch and armchair and various other surfaces, listening silently. Quint stayed standing. I kept my eyes on my fingers. When I finished singing, they all applauded, and then Zeggy said, “It’s getting late. Kids, go put your shoes on, please.”
Lyra groaned, but Ike put a hand each on hers and Griffin’s heads and brought them over to the door. Meanwhile, Quint was giving my mom a tupperware dish of leftovers and helping her into her coat.
“Hey,” Zeggy said, quiet enough for only me to hear. “You okay, sweetie?”
“Yeah, fine,” I said. Her eyebrows went up. I scowled. “You are not Quint.”
“No, I’m a mom,” she said. “Also your best friend. I know when something’s bothering you. Landslide?”
In a tone like don’t-say-I-didn’t-warn-you, she said, “Okaaay,” and went to join her husband and kids. “We’ll walk you to your subway stop, Mrs. Calhoun.”
I put the Strat on its stand so I could go say goodnight and thank them all for coming. It took a few minutes, but eventually, with one last hug that enclosed a twin in each arm, they were out and on the elevator. “Bye! Happy birthday!” Lyra called, waving, as its doors shut.
In the living room, Seb was sitting in one of his way-too-bendy yoga poses on the floor by the coffee table, petting Jagger and looking at the Les Paul. “I’m a little jealous,” he said, glancing up as I walked over. “The stuff I use to make my artwork isn’t a work of art in itself, like that is.”
It was. I reached out to touch it and then curled my fingers back.
“Are you alright, angel?” Quint asked. He came and stood beside me, almost in the same spot he had earlier when we kissed.
Meeting his eyes for the first time since then, I said, “Yeah, why?”
He frowned. “The song you chose.”
Christ, was everyone gonna get on my case about that? “It’s just a song,” I said, jerking one shoulder. “It was the first thing that came to mind.”
“You also didn’t want to play your new guitar,” he pointed out, gently. “We would’ve waited for you to tune it, you know. I’ve been waiting for weeks to hear you play.”
As you can probably imagine, that made me feel just grand. Spectacular. So great, in fact, I reacted by snapping, “I’ll play it when I’m ready, alright!” And then shooting down the hallway and slamming the bedroom door behind me.
Quint came in after several seconds, as I was bouncing from throwing myself onto the bed. He probably only stayed behind long enough to reassure Seb. I lay on my side staring into the still-open closet, and he sat on the edge of the mattress by my knees. He didn’t speak. Waiting with utmost patience is one of his tricks to get me to talk, but I didn’t either. Every so often, I had to blink, because my eyes kept clouding up.
Then he put his hand on my leg when I was mid-blink, and rubbed it comfortingly, and I said, “I’m sorry. I really do love that guitar.”
He nodded a little, matter-of-fact. “Yet you aren’t happy to own it.”
“No!” I denied. I had been thrilled, at first. “It’s just…I know what it costs.” With taxes, he had to have paid over seven grand for it.
“Theo, the price means nothing,” he said, frowning. “I didn’t go looking for any certain price point. I bought it because it was the one they said you enjoyed.”
“I enjoy some of the cheaper ones, too,” I mumbled while picking at the comforter.
“Not as much as that one, though.”
It being true didn’t make it any easier. “If I’d brought that to band practice, Mitch would say he was right about me having a sugar daddy.”
Quint’s entire manner got less sympathetic at the mention of my former friend. “Mitch’s opinions no longer matter, if they ever did,” he said. “We both know I am not your sugar daddy, and you don’t need to be concerned about anyone saying that, since you won’t be taking the guitar to band practice.”
I think he meant for the reminder to put me at ease. He probably didn’t intend to open the floodgates on my tears, anyway.
“Angel! Come here.”
I sat up and went willingly into his arms, trying not to get snot on the nice dress shirt he’d worn for dinner.
Quint sighed softly. His breath ruffled my hair. “I don’t want to make you so uncomfortable by giving you something you think costs too much. We can take it back if you’d like.”
The layer of disappointment in his voice killed me. Through my snivelling, I said, “Nooo, that’s not… I just–” Words, my old friends when writing lyrics, refused to line up in the right order. I felt like Seb must half the time. Maybe that’s why I borrowed one of his favorite standbys. “Merde!”
Another puff of air disturbed the locks at my crown. I could swear it was more of an amused puff. “That wasn’t directed at a person, I believe,” said Quint, “so I’ll let it pass. However, I’ll remind you that the same rules apply to swearing in every language.”
It helped in every language, too. I felt better. Or perhaps that was because he’d slipped his hand under the back of my shirt and was stroking the bare skin over my spine.
Anyway, I was able to gather myself and say, “When I went on Facebook earlier, to say thanks to people wishing me happy birthday, there was one of those memory things it does automatically, where it shows a post you made on the same date three years ago or whatever. Only this one was from last year, of a picture I took at my party with Mitch and Ethan and Kyle. It was one of the final good times we all had together.”
He was quiet when I stopped. I shifted even closer and filled the inviting silence. “Now that’s all over. I used to be in a band that had pretty good name recognition, in the city music scene, at least, and sometimes we even had to turn gigs down. A year later, where am I? Starting over from scratch. Making more money off busking than gigs, and most of that is because Jagger’s cute, it’s got nothing to do with my talent. I never mentioned that guitar to you because I knew I could never afford it, and because… a guitar like that is for– for professional musicians.”
After another long moment, he said, “What I’m hearing is, ‘Theo isn’t good enough for it.’”
I nodded into his chest.
“That’s your father speaking, not you.”
“It’s me, too.”
“No,” he said, and tipped my chin up so I met his eyes. They were the color of soft, faded denim in this light. “You’ve been working for years on dividing your father’s voice in your head from your own. I know you can tell the difference. The song you sang tonight is quite expressive on the subject.”
“Gotta love Stevie Nicks,” I said, with a hint of a rueful smile. Then I took a shaky breath. “It’s still hard not to listen to that voice. I mean, I’m thirty-three now, and I wouldn’t be able to support myself on my own. Not through music.”
“How many other extremely talented musicians your age could say the same thing?” he asked. “The vast majority. Finances are not the only way to measure success. You bring joy to the people who watch you perform—with or without Jagger.” His eyebrow rose pointedly.
Guess that comment hadn’t gone unnoticed. I winced inside.
“Yes,” he went on, “things have changed since last year, and you’re starting a new phase at a time in your life when you didn’t think you would be. I know how scary that feels.”
Skeptically, I said, “You decided you were going to be a doctor at fifteen. You had it all planned out.” Private boarding schools, Harvard, and money had smoothed the path for him, as he’d be the first one to tell you. I didn’t think his career had ever taken a dip anywhere as low as mine.
“I meant personally, not professionally,” he said. “I’ve started over a couple of times. The first was… in medical school.”
(I understood what he meant, but, well, I hope you won’t mind me not going into it. See, I share a lot about mine and Quint’s life—probably more than he’d like me to—but what I share is ours. The medical school stuff happened way before I met him. It’s his to tell, if he feels like it. Which he probably never will.
Anyway, he getting back to what he was saying.) “The second was moving here.”
I frowned. “You were scared about moving here?”
“Of course I was, angel. I’d lived in Massachusetts since I was born. I knew one person in New York that I could call on, and I had to sleep on his couch for three weeks because I hadn’t even found an apartment before I moved, remember? The real estate market here terrified me.”
Snorting, I said, “It’s a good thing it did, or you wouldn’t have been staying with George when Zeggy came to invite him to that dinner party, so she wouldn’t have had to invite you, too, and we’d’ve never met each other.”
“Exactly my point,” he said, with a warm smile. “The best thing in my life came from that start-over.” Then he paused, thought a moment, and shook his head. “No, sorry, I misspoke earlier. There were three times, not two. The third happened that New Year’s Eve. It was the most frightening and rewarding of all.”
I don’t mind telling you what he meant by that, if you can’t guess: Us getting together.
“It also took a lot of ignoring my inner voices,” he added.
I looked down. “They sound more convincing when you’re scared.”
“I know,” he replied. “We’re going to keep working on strengthening your voice, so you can drown the others out.”
Which meant he was planning to give me lines. I didn’t complain, though. If it hadn’t been my birthday, I probably would’ve been in for a spanking, too. “Okay,” I said, “but can I play my new guitar first?”
He glowed a little bit again. “I’d like that. Very much.”
I took his hand when he stood and held it out. After I was standing too, he let go to catch my chin. A sternness shadowed the glowing.
“Although first, young man, I have two questions. Is it acceptable to slam doors?”
My stomach flipped. “No, sir.”
He punctuated my answer with a hard swat to my right butt cheek. While I yelped at the sting, he asked, “Is it acceptable to put yourself or your talents down?”
I hesitated, knowing what was coming now, but there was only one good answer. “No, sir.”
Another swat landed on the left cheek. Then he hugged me, so tight I couldn’t help mashing half my face into his shirt. He sighed. “I truly don’t like disciplining you on your birthday, angel.”
I tried to say sorry, but it came out kinda muffled. When he let me go a few seconds later, I put on my impish grin to show I didn’t mind and asked, “Does that mean the lines can wait until tomorrow?”
His lips twitched. “No, it does not.”
Always true to his word, he assigned me fifty repetitions of the very first line I’d ever written for him (‘Your value doesn’t decrease based on someone’s inability to see your worth’), to do in the hour of no-screen time.
Before that, though, I tuned the Les Paul and put it through its paces on some Hendrix while he, Seb, and Jagger watched. And you know what? I rocked that thing.