Wyatt and Graham from PERFECT
It started to fall apart right before Christmas.
Everything had been fine up until then. Better than fine. Graham and I were seeing each other a few times a week, talking almost every day – talking about moving in together, in fact. It was relaxed and easy and I started to believe in it, trust in it, count on it.
And I know Graham did too.
Ten months. Almost a year. But then along came Christmas.
Not an easy time of the year to be alone. Not an easy time of the year to be in a relationship, either, at least not a new relationship. Not with all that potential for disappointment and comparisons and miscommunication.
But I really did think –
Part of learning to be a couple is figuring out the way through all those different, sometimes conflicting, holiday traditions.
“Do you go home for Christmas?” I asked Graham.
It was a Sunday morning and we were having brunch at Metropol Bakery.
“I haven’t seen my parents in eighteen years,” Graham replied, calmly picking the cranberries out of his smoked turkey breast sandwich. “Not since I told them I was gay and they told me to get out.”
I was shocked and I don’t think I hid it very well. Graham had mentioned his parents a few times and I’d never had any hint that he wasn’t on polite if distant terms with them. It underscored how much we still didn’t know about each other.
“Did you want to go to your parent’s for Christmas?” he asked.
“If you do.”
“If Bill and Dana don’t mind, sure. I’d like that.”
“Mind? They’ll be thrilled.” My parents loved Graham. They absolutely believed he was my Mr. Right. He talked sports and gardening with my dad and cooking and politics with my mom. He was clean, polite, and employed. You bet they loved him.
Graham grinned and that was that.
“What did you want for Christmas?” he asked a couple of evenings later.
He laughed. “Yeah you. Can you give me a few ideas of something you might like?”
“You mean a list?”
That was apparently even more amusing. “If you want to make a list.”
I didn’t want to make a list. I wanted him to surprise me with something he’d chosen particularly. Having to come up with ideas seemed too much like handing over a grocery list and asking him to remember to pick up a bottle of milk. I didn’t want him to give me a list either – and, in fairness, he didn’t offer one.
“I don’t mind surprises,” I told him, hoping he’d see what I was getting at.
“I don’t want to get you something you already have.”
A reminder that for all the time we spent together, and the discussions about moving in together, we didn’t live together, didn’t really share a life.
“What did you do these last couple of Christmases?” I asked later that night. “Did you spend the day on your own?”
We were at Graham’s, in bed. We’d finished making love and we were lying there, quietly. Not talking, just holding hands. Looking at the stars through the skylight.
I can’t say that Graham tensed, but I could feel something changed. He said, “I spend Christmas with friends.”
“Oh.” I knew a lot of his friends by now. He knew a lot of mine. I was wondering which friends he’d spent the holiday with.
He said abruptly, “I usually spend Christmas with Jase’s parents.”
Until that moment I had never given a thought to Jase’s parents, or to the fact that Graham might still be close to them, that they might – probably did – regard him as another son. That Graham probably loved them too. That he might prefer to spend Christmas with Jase’s family over mine.
And even if he didn’t prefer Jase’s parents to mine, I couldn’t help feel guilty – awful, in fact – that I was taking Graham away from these people who had already endured the worst thing that could happen to parents.
Graham turned his head my way. I knew it was too dark for him to read my expression, just as it was too dark for me to read his.
I said hesitantly, “Did you want to—?”
“No.” He said it with finality. So much so that I didn’t feel I could question it. But I did question it, and although he probably meant to reassure me, I didn’t feel reassured.
It all came to a head over the Christmas tree.
I usually got my tree the first weekend in December. That’s what we did when I was growing up and I continued the tradition when I had a place of my own. I like Christmas. I like it all. The music, the decorations, the presents, the special feeling in the air – the fact that most people are a little nicer, a little kinder, a little more generous this time of year.
This year I kept putting it off getting the tree until the weekend before Christmas. Graham went with me to the tree farm. We were tying the tree onto the roof rack of my car when he said, “You’re going to a lot of trouble when you spend most of the time at my place anyway.”
“Maybe we should set it up at your place?” I was partly kidding. Partly not.
Graham barely hesitated. “Okay. Sure.”
“Do you have a tree stand? Decorations?”
“I’ve got everything.”
That was the truth. He had everything from tree skirt to tree stand to boxes of ornaments – all neatly organized and labeled. Labeled in handwriting that wasn’t Graham’s.
When I saw that square, legible writing I knew I had made a mistake. But it was too late by then. So we dragged out the boxes and set up the tree. We strung the lights through the fragrant needles. And then we began taking the ornaments out, one by one. There were a lot of very old bulbs and beautiful handmade ornaments. Someone had taken their tree trimming as seriously as I did. Graham, who had said very little from the time we set up the tree, stopped talking altogether.
After hearing my too cheerful, too loud voice break the silence a couple of times, I had nothing to say either.
Graham finally, mercifully went to turn the stereo on. When he came back I was holding two clay ornaments, one red, one green. They were imprints of small hands, a child’s hands. I turned them over and read JASON KANE, age 5.
I looked up, saw Graham’s face, and looked down again.
He said in a muffled voice, “Why don’t I get take out for dinner?”
A second later the front door shut.
Graham didn’t come back. He didn’t phone. It got later and later. I decorated the tree, put the boxes away, and went home.
He didn’t call the next day either. Or the next.
I could have called him, I guess.
I drove up alone to my parents on Christmas Eve.
“Where’s Graham?” they both asked.
“Not coming.” I couldn’t leave it like that though. “I don’t think things are going to work out with Graham.”
“Oh no!” my mom exclaimed. “What happened?”
My dad came to the rescue. “Wyatt’ll tell us when he’s ready.”
But no. I didn’t think I’d be able to talk about it. Not that trip anyway. I lay awake that night wondering what Graham was doing. Wondering if he was lying there in that big empty bed staring up at the stars and grieving for Jase.
My heart felt like a lump of coal.
It was still a good Christmas, though, and if I did occasionally think about Graham, who was probably once again spending the day with Jase’s parents, I didn’t let my preoccupation spoil the day for my own folks.
We had reached the turkey sandwiches and coffee part of the evening when the doorbell rang.
“It can’t be the mailman today,” my mother said cheerfully as I went to answer it.
Graham stood on the doorstep, hands shoved in the pocket of his navy parka, snowflakes in his dark hair.
“Hi!” I know I looked and sounded dumfounded. I was.
“Wyatt.” Graham’s eyes were somber, his expression a mix of pain and embarrassment. He was wondering what the hell he was doing there. Which made two of us.
“You’re…” I didn’t finish because yes, he was obviously there and yes he obviously hadn’t come for dinner. “Come in.”
“No. I don’t—that is, I wanted to see you. To talk to you.”
And whatever he had to say wasn’t going to work in front of an audience. That I understood perfectly. “Hold on.” I half closed the door, grabbed my coat off the hook on the wall rack, and yelled, “I’ll be right back.”
I closed the door on the inquiries of where I was going. Graham turned and we walked by silent agreement away from the house toward where his jeep was parked.
“I don’t know what to say to you,” he said. “I only know I couldn’t let another day go by, this day go by, without trying to talk to you.”
“You could have called. You didn’t have to drive all this way.”
He didn’t answer.
I stopped walking. “Graham.”
He stopped walking too. “Why did you leave that night?”
“Why did I--? Huh? So you could come home!”
“What are you talking about?”
I was already sorry for that flash of bitterness. “Look, we both know you didn’t want me there.”
“You’re wrong, Wyatt.”
I laughed shortly. “No. I don’t think so. The last person you wanted or needed to deal with that night was me.”
He put his hands on my shoulders, gazed intently into my eyes. “Wyatt, you’re wrong. I did want you there. I always want you there.”
Why did he have to say that? I pulled away and wiped my eyes on my coat sleeve. “I know you care about me.” Exasperatingly, my voice shook. I steadied it. Took a deep breath. “But the fact is, you still love Jase. You were right. You’re not ready to move on. I’ve been pushing you the whole way.”
I shook my head. “No. I’m not. I saw your face that day. Not just that day either. It’s exactly what you said at the start. You miss him all the time.”
“Yes, I miss Jase. But that doesn’t change the fact that I love you and want to spend my life with you.” Graham’s hand was a warm weight on my shoulder. He turned me to face him once more. “I wanted you there that night. When you left like that, without a word…I figured you were angry or hurt or both. I thought maybe I should give you some time. And I was…embarrassed, I guess.”
His face twisted. “I feel like I’m always breaking down in front of you. It’s not fair to keep putting you through that. It’s a strain on our relationship. I know that. But sometimes…something will get to me. That night…was tough. But having you there helped.”
“You didn’t come back. You didn’t call. It didn’t feel like I was helping.” I was still trying to wrap my head around the idea that Graham believed he was always breaking down in front of me. He was one of the least demonstrative guys I’d ever known. Not cold, but not effusive. Not by a long stretch.
“All I can tell you is when I got home and saw you were gone…” The pain in his eyes surprised me. “I thought I’d better give you a little space. I hoped you’d call. I thought you would.” He glanced automatically toward the house.
Seeing the situation from Graham’s standpoint, I felt a stab of remorse. It had never occurred to me he would feel anything but relief at being let out of spending Christmas day with my family.
“I was waiting for you to call. I felt like it was your move.”
“Why would it be my move? Aren’t we in this together?” He was frowning.
I wanted to believe him. I did believe him up to a point. But if he was wrong? I wasn’t sure I could take it. Something inside me seemed to snap. I blurted, “I feel like I can’t live up to Jase, to what you had with Jase.”
Graham looked stunned. I rushed on, afraid if I didn’t get out now I never would. “I feel like I can’t compare. Like you’ve already had the best there is and anything I can offer is just going to be second best.”
“Sweetheart. Wyatt. Stop.”
I stopped. That had been way more than I had ever meant to say. And Graham thought he was always falling apart?
Graham pulled his glove off and rested his warm hand against my face. “Listen to me.” His gray gaze held mine. “Everything is completely different with you, completely new. And I’m glad. I don’t compare you to Jase. You’re nothing like him. That doesn’t take anything away from either of you. I loved Jase but he’s gone. You’re here now and I love you with all my heart.”
“Is that true?”
“You must know.”
I looked into Graham’s face, into his unguarded gaze, and I did know. I could see the depth of his emotion, the emotion he kept so firmly in check, regardless of what he thought.
“When I see you, I see the future,” he said. “I don’t know what that future holds. I just know I want it.”
I began to smile. “I’m pretty sure one thing that future holds is a turkey sandwich and a cup of coffee.”