A Christmas/Hanukkah story, based on Ben and André, characters from “The Painter’s Assistant”
The calendar betrayed him. It always did. He flipped the page back in July and somehow, every year, the very next page was always December. All those good intentions? Yeah, the devil didn’t need to worry about hiring a paving company as long as Ben was alive because every goddamned brick had his name on it.
Shop early. Buy a gift a month. Save money to spend. Start in January. Fuck that, start in December in the after-Christmas sales. Lose weight. Work out. Figure out time travel so he could undo that disastrous marriage. Or at least find a fucking cheaper lawyer.
But this year …. This year it was different. This year it mattered. This year there was André.
Beautiful, curly-blonde André. André who’d shown him what love between two men could be. Who was healing him of the wounds of losing Jacob, his dearest friend, who’d loved him and wanted him and whom he’d pushed away again and again until the beast got him, until Jacob’s fucking pancreas opened its doors to cancer, so virulent he was gone three weeks after diagnosis, while Ben was still reeling from the news, turned to stone, unable to think, living so far up Denial that even the pharaohs hadn’t been buried there yet, with no time to act before it was too late, too fucking late to do anything but kneel beside that cursed coffin and pray to a god he hadn’t believed in since way before they’d bar mitzvahed, begging him to send Jacob back, promising to fuck him senseless — or be fucked by him — if only he would live.
Jacob had left him far less than whole, so shredded that Misty — god, how could he have fallen for a woman named ‘Misty’ of all things? Misty had come out of her shell of oblivious long enough to drive them both to divorce court and him to the cleaners despite her promises to the contrary.
André had rescued him from that, too. His installation “The Color Naked” was incredible … and incredibly delayed from gallery appearance. “Unavoidable conflicts”. André believed things would be back on track soon. Ben wasn’t so sure. Once the gallery owners had seen the later works, the ones featuring both him and André, things had gone south fast. One man’s body, covered in paint, pressed to a canvas — that apparently was fine. Two men, together, in various poses showing just how much they loved each other — that apparently wasn’t fine.
He was still trying to get André to back off his insistence that at least 6 of the 30 contracted for canvases be of both, in hopes that would get the installation before the public — and André paid — but so far, his lover was being wonderfully stubborn about wanting to show the world who they were to each other.
Ben had stopped taking payment months back. Janine agreed, and agreed to keep it from André. Beautiful blonde André who left all the business end to his equally beautiful, equally blonde sister would never have agreed, and so they’d simply done an end-around. Ben thought it was stupid to bankrupt them both just so André didn’t feel like he owned Ben — though Ben knew the truth and would live with it until things turned around for either or both.
It was Janine who’d clued him in to the fact that next year’s lease payment on the studio was coming up, and that André simply didn’t have the funds. He never talked about it, but Ben saw the deepened crease between his lover’s wild eyebrows, made note of the fact that more blonde curls appeared in the shower drain, worried over the fact that he had an easier time counting the ribs he loved to lick.
He’d asked Janine how much, and been rocked back on his heels by the figure. That was when he’d started funneling his pay back into the business account, glad that he’d kept his own funds separate, to avoid Misty’s lawyer — or his — getting a whiff of ‘screw the guy some more’ and going after André as well. Half the money was there, thanks to Janine’s careful stewarding, and to continued sales of André’s earlier work, but until the installation went up, and with that, the sales of the other pieces in the collection that would generate, the outgo would continue to tower over the income. Ben had to help, had to do something.
He’d finally figured out what. No. That was wrong. He’d known all along what to do. He just hadn’t had the courage to make the decision until now, with December and Christmas/Hanukkah looming. André celebrated the one, Ben the other, though neither would call himself an observant follower of any religion. André’d been raised Episcopal; Ben, Reformed.
It was tradition for them both, but they still celebrated the holidays, and this would be their first together. Ben had overheard André asking Janine about Hanukkah, setting her to research the traditions and had made it a point to make light of the whole thing, though hiding the invitations from his family for get-togethers had proved impossible. He’d wished, for a moment or two, that his family hadn’t been so accepting of André and their love, so his mother wouldn’t have called André directly with chatter about family gatherings and Kippah Kantor and all the other trappings he’d have been able to keep stuffed in that particular closet.
André knew now, though Big Beard Man in the Sky bless his mother, she’d told André very convincingly that the family exchanged activities rather than gifts — a movie night or a dutch day trip to the slopes — there was still the problem of gifts between the two of them. Janine was doing her part there, too, making sure André knew that Ben wanted more than anything a weekend for the two of them, away from the city, at a particular B&B. A B&B owned by Jacob’s family, and a free stay for Ben, though André needn’t know that.
And now, he’d worked up the courage to do what needed doing, so he could give André his gift, the year’s lease on the studio, the place they’d met, and fallen in love, and where André had waited patiently for his stupid mind and cock to catch up with his heart. It would hurt, but not as much as losing that studio would have hurt.
He’d hidden the value of the guitar collection, the one he’d amassed, dreaming of the day he’d record using those guitars, his entry into the Big Time. It had been luck and skill combined, haunting the pawn shops, looking for the guitars the buskers had to let go when times were tough. He’d not bought them all. He’d chosen carefully, the ones whose music had stopped him in his tracks, the ones he’d dreamed of being. Those guitars he’d bought. A few he’d held and watched for the haunted eyes, the lost souls whose fingers fretted ghost strings. He’d find them and when he was sure the dream was the real one, the one that fed what the world needed, the song that plays the chords of god, he’d hand those to tear-filled eyes, to the hugs that wrapped his soul with joy, knowing that even if he never heard of Joe the Picker or Fred Fingers anywhere but on the corner of Now and Forever, he’d done the universe a service, kept the music alive. Most he played and eventually sold. A very few, he’d kept and watched the hands that had fingered strings go on to finger other and better and make it, really make it. Those very few he kept close, the promise that dreams do come true.
And now, those very few were worth thousands. One of them, tens of thousands. He wouldn’t even say whose it had been. Those who would look at it, take a single look and then an incredulous second look, those people were the ones who counted, who knew without speaking. And they would pay to touch those frets again.
They would pay to keep the studio for André, to keep that dream alive, to feed the music of the eyes that the universe needed as much as it needed music of the ears.
God, it hurt, handing them over, one by one, taking pieces of paper in exchange for the dreams he’d stood guardian to. But with each piece of paper were the tears, the hugs, the soul-wrap — and the promise for André.
He’d hoped it wouldn’t take all of them. It did. And the last was the hardest, of course, the most heart-valuable, for this one had been played by father and son both, and both had given more to Ben than either man would ever know, through the songs that rode their hearts into the air, into the blackness of space, the heart of Being. He’d had to work to gain audience; so many wanted to touch the remnants there, the long-gone father, the now-in-the-light son. He’d managed it, though, to talk first to her, then to him. The wrinkles around the gently slanted eyes, the gasp of widow, the tears of son — yes, this one hurt more than them all. But that piece of paper, that paper — the unexpected, the means not to lease the studio, but to give it to André, forever, his, always his. Peace for André.
And suddenly the hurt wasn’t so much. His own dream gone, yes, for he’d never record with that one. But André’s dream secured. A small price to pay, his own dream for André’s.
Ben worked hard at hiding his elation. He’d gone around Janine even, knowing she couldn’t keep that big a secret, and taken his proposal to the owners himself, arranged it all. He’d lied to André about where he was those days, meeting after meeting, going here and there, and suffered the anger and hurt André threw his way, knowing that on Christmas morning, it would all be all right when he handed the deed to the studio to his lover, his man.
Now it wouldn’t matter what the gallery owners did or didn’t do. André could work. André could be happy, could give his gift to the universe.
Even as a Jewish boy, Christmas morning had been special. His parents had always played the Santa game, telling him it was a game, but letting him play so he had an answer to give his classmates inevitable, ‘what did Santa bring you’ questions. He was used to the anticipation and the molasses of time that led up to Christmas. Even as a boy, though, time had never passed so slowly. Christmas morning would never come. André would never look in the stocking Ben had insisted on hanging and sneaking down to fill in the wee hours.
Finally, though, the day dawned and Ben was nearly bouncing with delight and impatience. André wanted to stay in bed, as always, morning wood being precious to them both.
“Baby, let’s get up and come back with coffee,” Ben pled, though his body arched into André’s embrace. Anticipation played his body false and for the first time, his cock lay there, reluctant to do more than get half-hard.
“You’ve been up to something,” André accused him. “You’ve been gone a lot and now you’re not even — oh my god, you’re cheating on me!”
“No, no, baby, never! I’ve never looked at another man, I swear.”
“Oh shit, you’re fucking a woman?”
“No, baby, no! I haven’t fucked anyone since before we met!”
“You’re lying. Something’s going on.”
“Oh, shit, André, all right, something’s going on, but that’s not it. Just come on.” Ben stood and held a hand out.
“Oh god. You got me something for Christmas. We weren’t going to do that! ”
“André. Just. Come. On. We’ll talk about all of that later.”
André grinned. “Well, all right, but … there’s a surprise for you, too. Janine and your mother helped me figure it out.”
“What? You …” Ben spluttered.
“So, come on!” André laughed and tugged Ben down the hall to the living room. “Close your eyes.”
Ben shook his head, but complied. “I’m going to get you for this.”
“Oh, god, yes, you are. Every inch of me in every place I can find to put me.” He pulled Ben into the room and chattered on, “You didn’t think I knew, but I did. And I think it’s beautiful, such a lovely thing for you to have done.”
“You … you knew? But I was so careful! Janine wasn’t supposed to tell you! Damn, I wanted to see your face!” Ben opened his eyes and there, where there had been a bookcase, a display cabinet rested, oak and walnut inlaid in the shapes of musical notes and guitars.
“What … what is this?” Ben asked.
André threw his head back and laughed heartily. “It’s for your guitar collection, silly! Your mother told me about your collection and how much it meant to you and I had this built for you. Do you like it?”
Ben stood there, running his hands over the intricate patterns, gasping when he realized the notes were the score for his favorite songs by — he sobbed and laughed, choking on both.
“I sold the installation, Ben. I know it meant a lot to you, but I just had to …. What’s wrong? Don’t you like it?”
Ben nodded and sobbed, then handed André his stocking. “Look.”
André pulled a large rolled paper from the stocking and undid the scarlet ribbon holding it closed. “What’s — oh my god!” André stumbled and sat heavily on the floor. “The … my god! You … you bought the studio? How … where did you get …. oh dear god, no!”
Ben collapsed on the floor next to him, laughing. “Yes. Yes, I sold the collection, baby.”
“But you were going to record with those! You were going to … that was your dream, Ben!”
He shook his head. “No, baby, not any more. You’re my dream, André. You and only you. Merry Christmas, baby, oh shit, Merry Christmas!” He lunged forward, taking André to the floor, laughing and crying as he kissed his lover. “As long as you didn’t sell your dick, we’ll make a new installation, this one bigger and better.”
“And when that one gets into the galleries, we’ll hire your guitars back for a recording session!”
“Perfect! Now fuck me senseless or I’ll tell Santa you’ve been too nice to get the kind of present naughty boys deserve!”
[with thanks to O. Henry]