Epilogue - Snapshots

Claudio

There was a vague sense of dèja-vu when Claudio first met Janek: circumspect, undemonstrative, unimpressed, slightly jaded. He didn't understand the huge fracas Alex had made about how he absolutely could not lose Janek, but then, in a moment of what was, to his mind, a Freudian revelation, he concluded Janek was a lot like Lydia.

Of course, he soon realised Janek was only superficially like Lydia. Janek actually responded to Alex's over-the-top romanticism with something that looked like fondness, but that Claudio later understood was a profound reliance on Alex to keep him from forgetting that it was okay to be happy.

This understanding dawned on Claudio when Alex finally managed to drag his boyfriend ("and future husband") to Rio. After spending a couple of hours at the beach, Janek woke up the next day with freckles all over his face. Alex made a huge fuss about it at the breakfast table, laughing and teasing, 'isn't he the prettiest thing you've ever seen?'. Despite being obviously embarrassed, Janek smiled indulgently, shook his head, and gave him a look that said thank you for being completely insane.

Watching them, Claudio thought that if he'd been more like Alex, he might have been able to coax Lydia out of her shell and make her see that it was okay to be happy.

He was not like Alex, though, and Lydia was not like Janek. Perhaps they would always be like this: half-hearted partners, living in separate houses because Lydia didn't believe in marriage and Claudio believed in leaving well enough alone.

But perhaps if he put a bit more effort into following Alex's example, he could get her to smile more, to take a compliment for what it was, to dance with him.

It wasn't too late.

*

Lydia

Alex was barely three when he read Jack and the Beanstalk to his mother from beginning to end. She didn't believe he could actually read, but at the very least he had a prodigious memory, which was worrying in and of itself. The next day, she walked into a store and asked for the most recently published children's book. He read it to her, stammering on a couple of words, but there it was: her three-year-old son had taught himself to read.

From then on, Lydia's life became considerably more difficult. There were psychological evaluations, endless meetings with teachers and school officials, all of whom needed convincing that Alex's 'emotional development' wouldn't be compromised if they allowed him to skip grades and mingle with older kids. Lydia knew exactly what Alex's 'emotional development' required: a firm leash on the ego that was already rearing its ugly head. She was perfectly aware of her limitations – the coddling would have to be left to Claudio – but her own role was something she felt capable of performing.

There were times, however, when she was forced to admit that Alex's temper tantrums were not temper tantrums at all – it was genuine frustration born of the awareness that there was no clear place for him in the world. And when Claudio wasn't around, she was the one who had to help him come to terms with it. At first, she needed to close her eyes and count to ten, talk herself out of a constant state of vigilance, but when Alex's anguished tears stopped while he still clung to her, she learned that consoling did not always amount to indulging.

It was without her guidance that Alex made sense of the jumble of emotions that came with discovering that, in fact, you do become responsible for what you have tamed, whether or not you fall in love with it. It was his decision to submit to the penitence Janek imposed on him, and Lydia watched from the sidelines as his resolve only grew stronger with each test.

Then, something odd happened. Lydia found herself repressing an urge to console in favour of the duty to encourage, to give Alex that last push he needed in order to become the person he wanted to be. Later, watching Alex nurture and care for what he considered the most important part of his life, it was liberating to realise she could safely set him free.

And now, perhaps Alex wasn't the only person she would feel allowed to indulge.

*

Roman

When Roman really thought about it, he concluded he'd always known, in that vague, wordless way in which you know something you don't understand. When he followed Janek to Filip's house and saw them kissing, he still didn't understand. Maybe they were too horny to wait for the girls to arrive?

When Janek admitted he liked men, Roman thought he'd understood, but now he knew that the process of coming to terms with it only started when he moved to London.

First, his confusion as to why a man would choose guys over women was cleared when someone explained to him that it wasn't a choice – people were born that way. Again he thought he'd understood, and it made him feel very sorry for his brother. He decided he wouldn't allow anyone to talk shit about faggots in his presence. So the next time 'choice' was mentioned in a conversation, he turned very serious and said with conviction, "It's not a choice. It's a mental illness."

After much struggle, at last he discovered he had all the correct information: not a perversion, not a choice, not a mental illness, just a natural sexual orientation. Oh, and the word 'faggot' was offensive, and therefore verboten; 'gay men' was the correct term. Right. It wasn't that complicated – it actually made perfect sense to him, and it also made him feel much better about his brother. Janek had a different sexual orientation from him, end of story. As long as he could pretend there was no actual sex involved, he was fine with it.

Years later, when Janek and Alex got together, he found himself intrigued by their relationship. Janek was still Janek, mostly, except for the part where he never called Alex an idiot, an imbecile or any untranslatable words in Polish, even though Alex often said the same type of thing Roman would say. And when Alex talked about Janek, about something he'd said or laughed at, Roman didn't recognise his brother in those descriptions. But he knew they had to be true, because if he looked at him incredulously, Alex would simply furrow his brow, perplexed as to what the problem was.

After turning it around in his head, he finally got rid of his last misconception: if he were honest, he'd never really believed that what gay couples felt for each other was the same thing he felt for his girlfriend.

*

Daniel

He was always the last to walk into the auditorium and the first to leave. At lunch, he was nowhere to be seen. Daniel overheard comments – some curious, some derisive, most outright infatuated. All of them agreed, however, that the boy was scary.

Daniel followed him outside the building one day, watched him sit on a bench in a secluded corner, take a deep breath, open a bag of crisps, and stare blankly ahead. He remembered the comments with an inward scoff. It was painfully obvious that the boy wasn't at all scary; he was scared.

Other things about Janek demanded more effort to figure out. It was surprising that all it took were a few months and a bit of prodding for him to lay his whole life out in front of Daniel. The feelings that came with that story, he didn't touch on. Daniel understood immediately that he was expected to extract that information from the tale and recite it back to him. So he did, and he could see a bit of the loneliness clearing from Janek's eyes.

From then on, Janek's trust in him never wavered. Daniel, who understood very well what it meant to be the object of that kind of trust, never complained about the hours he spent worrying about Janek.

Sometimes Daniel looked around and wondered what was wrong with people. There had to be someone out there who would see through the façade, who wouldn't take no for an answer when Janek put on his Black Knight act. 'None shall pass,' he would say, and this person – the 'chosen one', apparently – would laugh in his face, or maybe just tackle him to the ground and tell him, 'You can get some rest now. I'll stand guard.' And, wonder of wonders, Janek would believe him.

What in the name of all that is holy was taking so long?

Then, on a cloudy summer afternoon in Boston, Daniel met Alex.

*

Janek

If Janek were a dog, he'd be the most easily trainable dog in the world. One subtle scolding and he'd learn the lesson. Now, un-training him would be a whole other matter.

For months he was incapable of something as simple as reaching for Alex's hand, and there was a lot of nodding and looking away when Alex said certain things. For instance, 'You're my boyfriend,' he'd say, as if he could hardly believe it. Janek would nod awkwardly and Alex would smile fondly, searching his eyes while he made a superhuman effort to hold Alex's gaze for a few seconds. Janek's idea of being optimistic about this was thinking that he should enjoy it while it lasted, because surely it would cease to be charming at some point not too far in the future, and he didn't have much faith that anyone had the necessary un-training skills.

More time passed, and Janek kept having to recalculate his predictions. Maybe he was lucky because Alex was distracted, caught up in the process of realising his pet project: a lecture on Beethoven's 5th, followed by a performance with the student orchestra. He worked on it for months, putting together an elaborate series of graphics that needed to be perfectly synchronised with the passages he planned to comment on. And the orchestra…Janek was still learning about music, but he strongly suspected that Beethoven's 5th did not warrant three months of long rehearsal sessions five times a week. He mentioned it once, and Alex replied that his students had it easy compared to Janek's prairie voles. Despite the long genealogical distance between rodents and humans, Janek decided not to argue.

After the event, he hung around at the party, catching the glowing, awe-filled looks on the students' faces as critics and professors showered them with praise. Alex would glance at him every now and then with an eyebrow raised and a bit of smugness, 'See? I told you', he mouthed, but all Janek saw was that nobody in that room had a smile as radiant as the one on Alex's face.

At home, exhaustion hit, striking him with a kind of verbal drunkenness. It was a long story about how he'd gotten to the lab at eight so he could leave early for the concert, spent hours either standing or bent over the enclosure where they kept the prairie voles, and how the chairs at Jordan Hall were awful, and how back problems were a sign of aging and he was thirty-seven and that was depressing. All that because he needed to lie on the floor on his back before any celebratory sex could happen.

By the time he was done talking, Janek thought Alex's frozen smile looked especially manic. 'What I want is to celebrate my first Janek-rant.' And so he did, placed his hands on either side of Janek's head, kissed his face like a deranged aunt, and asked if he could please have a Janek-rant every Friday evening.

Janek hooked an arm around Alex's neck and kissed him. "You can have anything you want," he said, as if a bell had been rung.

Somewhere, he thought, Pavlov was very excited.

*

Alex

'I'll go with you in December, I promise.'

Alex knew Janek kept his promises, so he went to Rio and spent two weeks saying things like, 'Janek would disagree' and 'Janek loves ice cream' and 'Meh. Janek is prettier.' When his friends groaned, he would beat them to it and add, 'I know, it's disgusting, isn't it?' with the dopiest smile on his face.

A couple of days before he left, he had to tone it down a bit, because Lydia looked like she was about to hit him over the head with something.

When he got back, he had already decided that being disgustingly in love was not only the most awesome feeling anyone could have, it was also loads of fun, and Janek had to join in on the fun immediately. They needed to spend every single free minute they had being disgusting together. And for that, Janek was going to have to move in with him.

In theory, there were two problems with this idea. One was that Janek's contributions to the disgustingness were mostly limited to smiling and shaking his head upon waking up to find a heart-shaped balloon tied to his wrist. Alex didn't expect Janek to ever act like him, obviously, but there was certainly room for improvement. The other problem was that Janek had this crazy idea that people should not move in together after dating for only a few months. In practice, however, those were hardly problems to Alex's mind. The first issue was something Alex understood very well. It wasn't a challenge to be taken on for fun and laughs, it was Janek and his personality, and it was important. Sometimes the looks Janek gave him were absolutely nauseating, so much so that they conjured up winged insects in Alex's stomach. Alex knew those looks would never translate into heart-shaped balloons or dancing cheek to cheek on the moonlit balcony – although after a whole hour of nagging and resorting to 'scientific findings' about the effects of the moonlight on cholesterol levels ('I am disappointed that you are not aware of such a basic medical truth.'), Janek had agreed to stand cheek to cheek on the moonlit balcony for five minutes. But Alex also knew that time and patience, as well as these grandiose displays, would eventually elicit tiny little spontaneous gestures, such as an arm hooked around his neck and a kiss on the top of his head, pointedly unromantic, a pretence that Alex would expose by draping himself all over Janek and laughing into his ear, 'Oooh, so manly.'

And the solution to the second problem was not only that Alex could annoy Janek into doing almost anything, but it was also that Alex had a plan.

The execution was rather difficult. It involved convincing a team of people to put together complicated equipments and contraptions in just a few hours, and a second team of specialists to add the finishing touches, without which the whole thing would be pointless.

By four o'clock, Alex was starting to panic, so he sent Janek a text message in capital letters: DO NOT GET HERE BEFORE SEVEN. Then, at six o'clock, admiring the final product of his master plan and unable to stand still, Alex texted him again, What's taking you so long?

Janek was completely stumped, speechless and wide-eyed. He sat on the floor, his face mere centimetres from the glass, and stared, eyes moving from the flat triangular ones that looked like paper cut-outs to the transparent ones with colourful innards to the agitated yellow ones that got entangled in the anemones again and again.

It was a sight to behold, the way Janek smiled vacantly, looking like the boy whose shadow Alex sometimes caught crossing his expression. And suddenly, this was the only thing that mattered.

After a long time, Janek turned and directed that smile at Alex. "How did you know?"

Alex tilted his head, confused. "You told me, remember?

"I…no, I don't remember."

"Must have been all that Wyborowa," he teased.

Janek didn't look away, didn't hesitate when he reached for Alex and kissed him lightly. "Thank you."

Alex could only grin like the cat that got the cream.

"So," he started, believing he was being very sly. "You have a fish tank now."

The bafflement on Janek's face was gone, and he nodded knowingly. "I see."

"You saw right through this, didn't you?"

He nodded again, biting his bottom lip to stifle a laugh.

It was Alex's turn to reach for him, laugh into the kiss, and press their foreheads together. "Sometimes I think Roman is right, you are an alien."

His breath caught when Janek glanced at the tank and shook his head. "It doesn't matter, I still think…I still think this is wonderful."

Then Alex just stared, thinking that there had to be countless ways in which Janek could be one step ahead of him, each one more thrilling than the other.

Janek stared back for a minute, straightened up suddenly, and took a deep breath. "Okay, look…we'll do this gradually. I'll keep my place and see how it goes."

Alex wanted to laugh because there were already piles of books in the guest room and piles of Janek's clothes in his closet. But he kept a straight face and said, "Okay. That sounds fair to me."

Walking to the bedroom, he wrapped his arm around Janek's waist. "Wasn't it disgusting, though?"

"What?"

"A disgustingly romantic gesture."

"Oh, absolutely."

"'S what I thought," Alex said, feeling very proud of himself.

The End