by Hannah Sloane
Tom approached weddings with deep-rooted pessimism and a weary sense of duty. Perhaps the couples sensed this because often, at the after party, he found himself seated in a dimly lit corner with an awkward ensemble of attendees: the divorced and over opinionated aunt, the balding uncle suffering from halitosis, the jovial priest whose mission was to convert. And he wondered whether he’d somehow, inexplicably offended the newlyweds directly before they arranged the seating plan.
Issue #117 soundtrack: Many Birthdays, “Mixture of Blood and Heart”
The heavily italicized text on thick card stock screamed deafeningly of wealth. Julia, he read, was getting hitched in Italy. This information demanded the invention of an urgent, unavoidable work conflict because destination weddings, in Tom’s limited experience, were the worst at creating a false sense of camaraderie among guests who saw one another at the reception, the pool, the omelet station, over and over until they felt compelled to gesture and joke. Always during these moments Tom felt the resurfacing of an uneasy trapped-in-an-elevator sensation, a sinking mood as his facial muscles reluctantly mustered the energy to smile, as his lips attuned themselves to the perversities of small talk. And if he attended this particular wedding he’d be asked to take part in the ceremony in some small, meaningful way. To read a prayer perhaps, in lieu of Julia’s brother being able to, and the guests would peer at him voyeuristically, and whisper behind hymn books and service sheets that he was Freddy’s best friend, and how tragic Freddy’s passing at the tender age of twenty-two had been. No, this was not an occasion he could attend.
He reinserted the invitation back inside the paper folds where, instantly, it became lodged. Thick and immutable, Tom could almost sense the envelope heaving uncomfortably, exasperated by the weight of contents straining against its creamy perimeters. He threw the envelope onto his bureau where it landed with a distinct and satisfying plod. Soon it was buried beneath postcards and bills, magazines and an occasional bookstore purchase, forgotten until an email floated in: Tommy, we haven’t heard from you about the wedding. We would so love for you to be there! Please join, since Freddy is unable. Of course we insist on paying for your flight. Love, as always, Greg and Penny.
What an imperious family. Even after Freddy died they clung to him tenaciously: Julia inviting him to her birthday party, Greg and Penny asking him to join them on vacation. Perhaps leaving England eight months after the funeral had, in some way, been a subconscious effort to distance himself? Regardless of rationale, he was happier these days in a city where family, or lack of, wasn’t an issue. It barely cropped up in conversation. Everyone in New York was a transplant.
He allowed himself to forget until the email, a desperate plea rather than a request, arrived. As he read the words he imagined Penny Hilborough talking in a low, soft drawl, her lips curving into a disarmingly youthful smile, her eyes dancing, almost mocking him, as she spoke. And she had played the dead son card, the little toad. How could he refuse now?
It was a relief, Tom realized, to step on a plane and leave New York. Since moving in together he’d felt a simmering resentment, something he didn’t care to admit. Gordon was irritatingly brilliant, the type who didn’t suffer depression or blips, who didn’t need Anthony Robbins podcasts. Gordon was structured and disciplined. He was a go-getter. He ran three miles each morning, swam at the weekends, cooked a mean quiche, and drank in moderation. He was the CFO of a tech startup. Most impressive of all he filed his tax return without complaint or struggle.
On an early date Tom remembered asking what Gordon’s weakness was. Gordon paused, stared at the strand of arugula perched on the edge of his fork, and said pointedly: “you.” He wasn’t being cute. Tom sensed in Gordon, almost immediately, a wiser soul who wouldn’t play games.
Gordon was twelve years his senior. Therapists would have a field day analyzing that. Tom, whose parents were dead, had a thing for older men. To borrow an American expression, go figure.
When they first met people mistook them for twins. They were an identical build and height. They had the same chestnut-colored hair. You’re two peas in a pod, teachers used to observe. And yet he and Freddy laughed at these absurd remarks, so obvious were the disparities in their appearance: Tom had a crooked smile, Freddy a bump in his nose, Tom’s eyes were green, Freddy’s were hazel. The differences grew more apparent in the summer when Tom’s pale skin freckled and Freddy grew steadily more tanned.
Freddy had the swagger of someone who belonged at their boarding school, quite simply because his parents could afford it. He was louder, better at sports (when he could be bothered to play), whereas Tom was aware of the fragility of his situation. He was studious, fearing it imperative he pass flute and violin exams with distinction, otherwise he might lose his scholarship.
At school it was a mild, meandering discovery, a creeping question mark in their sexuality that needn’t be answered immediately, but during his university years Tom no longer ignored these instincts, nor shrugged them off as a phase. He grew more resolute in his identity and orientation. He joined the LGBT society at Oxford and became embroiled in a complicated relationship with a visiting Dutch student. Meanwhile, Freddy dated girls, awful, silly, shrill girls who texted constantly and drained him emotionally. One Christmas Freddy used a word, spoken in a hushed tone to Tom alone. Bisexual. Tom translated this silently: denial.
Tom spent university breaks with the Hilboroughs in their large, creaking Victorian home in Wiltshire. He silenced his usual candor. He endured flirtatious questions from Penny about the nice girls he must be seeing. They returned to this argument frequently when Freddy crept into his bedroom and slipped beneath the sheets. Tom would snap and ask why he couldn’t come out.
“Because then they’ll suspect I am too,” Freddy murmured between kisses. “And I’m not ready. I’m still figuring this out.”
And who could argue with that? They were only nineteen, after all.
The hotel in Lake Garda was the sort of establishment elderly ladies swarmed to, ladies who carried poodles in Chanel handbags and wore fur in April. Two men in matching uniforms insisted he relinquish his meager luggage into their careful care. Ah yes, this was exactly where the Hilboroughs would insist on staying.
“Tommy!” Penny crowed delightfully as he stepped into reception. She clip-clopped towards him in beige, patent heels. And then she was embracing him and kissing both cheeks. “Oh look at you, just the same!”
His pale cheeks flushed under her wry supervision. She had always shown an unabashed pleasure in his company and, oddly, it still embarrassed him.
“You look great too.” It was true. She was a glamorous fifty-seven year old. Her skin wasn’t radiant, no. But it had a healthy glow suggestive of winters skiing and summers bathing in the Mediterranean.
She laughed. “I’ve seen better days. Haven’t we all? Oh, here’s Greg.”
He turned to find Freddy’s father standing behind him. Greg certainly had seen better days. His gut extended out as though in search of someone, or something. It pressed insistently at his shirt, straining the fabric and buttons. And his face! It was doughy and sagging, red in patches, pale as ivory in others, a displeasing combination. His handshake, Tom noted, remained as stiff as ever.
“Good of you to come,” Greg responded, his voice booming round the reception, down the oak paneled hallways and up the royal-red carpeted staircases. “But who can pass up the chance to drink excessive amounts of champagne at my expense?” He hit Tom’s stomach and roared with laughter, his mouth opening wide enough for Tom to spot a pair of tonsils.
“Ha,” Tom said politely, feeling fifteen again. “Thanks for coming. I’m sure it wasn’t cheap to get here from the States.”
Tom nodded silently. Was that the sound of Penny clearing her throat?
“We do miss you so,” Penny was saying, stepping back into view, her hand closing in on Tom’s waist. “Didn’t our invitation say plus one? Perhaps we forgot!” She was speaking softly, as though attempting to purr. “You could have brought a friend and…” Her voice meandered off, a little too dramatically, as though she had rehearsed this moment.
“And?” he obliged her. “And broken my heart, of course.”
Tom felt himself blush again. He stepped back, not wanting to be seen as a coconspirator in her flirting, or whatever Penny was plotting.
“Let’s get drinks,” said Greg, drawing out his wallet as though to say: Fear not, I shall pay! Penny, however, refused to find the gesture magnanimous.
“It’s not even noon. There are activities that don’t revolve around drinking darling.”
“Not in this weather.” Greg walked towards the large sitting room decorated with peacock wallpaper and chintzy furniture. Its panoramic windows afforded a view of the lake, a vista that might have been spectacular if the clouds weren’t an ominous shade of gray, black in places.
“I was hoping to swim, but I suppose I’ll do that another day,” they could hear Greg saying.
“He doesn’t know you paid for me?” Tom gasped, turning to Penny.
“Our little secret Tommy,” she said, smiling slowly and patting him on the back. “And it wasn’t generous of me, not at all. It was selfish! You wouldn’t have come. Everyone knows musicians get paid beans.”
No-one, it seemed, had prepared for the possibility of bad weather. It was raining heavily, the sort of rain that lands noisily on rooftops and ceilings, reminding those indoors not to step out. Julia, the bride-to-be, gazed miserably at the raindrops hitting the lake with increasing frequency. Matthew, her fiancé, stroked her back in an effort to reassure her, or remind her he was there, an action that failed to succeed.
The wedding guests, confined to the narrow limits of the hotel, dispersed into the restaurant, the spa area, the bar. Tom retreated to his room. He had an overwhelming urge to call Gordon. Instead he sent unnecessary work-related emails, mainly to feel productive. Walking to lobby he overheard Greg barking at the receptionist about the lack of cabs outside. He hovered unsure of what to do until Penny floated into view and invited him to join them for lunch at a casual pizzeria. The restaurant was probably used to a steady traffic of tourists, except Greg proved hard work as far as customers go. He grew increasingly rambunctious. He shouted at the waiter for taking too long. He ordered more wine the moment the bottle was placed on the table. It was a delight to leave his company and return to the hotel. Tom retreated to the spa area and spent sixty minutes having the knots in his back kneaded by a woman with large hands and a deep voice. He found Penny in the sauna, alone, in a white dressing robe, its V sagging low to reveal ample bosom.
“I’ve been hiding out down here since lunch,” she exclaimed happily. “Isn’t this weather obscene?” “It is! I have to ask,” he paused. “Why Italy?” “This is where Matthew proposed last summer. They were on holiday and fell in love with the country so much they decided to marry here.” She pulled a face. “Incredibly tacky if you ask me. Jules should be getting married in the church we christened her in.”
“Sometimes I Google your name. I see news about the orchestra you’re in. You travel so often! Tokyo, Paris, it all seems so glamorous.”
He laughed openly at the idea of Penny finding him glamorous.
“I had no idea you were a fan.”
“Of course I am.” She tittered in her usual flirty way. She seemed so jovial he wasn’t expecting her next words, an abrupt change of course. “Freddy didn’t work hard, did he? He wanted life to fall into his lap. Whenever there was an easy route he took it. Whereas you? You worked for everything. Honestly, I don’t know why you were so in love with him.”
He paused. “You knew.” It wasn’t a question.
“I was waiting for him to come out. And then it was too late. What a silly boy taking so many drugs. What a waste.”
She was detached, he realized, speaking without a grain of emotion. She’d had, he supposed, seven years to come to terms with Freddy’s death. Perhaps she had seen a therapist, talked her emotions out while Tom let the tragedy sink and stagnate somewhere in his gut. It still pained him to think of those weeks immediately after Freddy’s overdose. He’d settled into an aching gloom. He’d visited the Manchester club Freddy overdosed in, like a novice detective hoping to snatch clues and piece together what went wrong. Except there was no mystery. Freddy had taken an insane amount of ecstasy that night, enough for three people.
Penny was staring at him as though she’d asked a question and he hadn’t responded. “Are you with anyone?”
He thought back to their most recent argument. Gordon informed Tom that he liked money but pretended not to, that he claimed he disagreed with privilege and yet didn’t complain when Gordon took him for dinner at Per Se. His request was simple: if Tom moved in with Gordon he must drop the pretence of being a blue-collar hero.
It was true, all of it was, Tom remembered thinking as Gordon said the words in his usual matter-of-fact way. Perhaps he’d been mildly obsessed with wealth, the appearance of it, the reality, luxury and glamour of it, ever since he’d met the Hilboroughs at the tender age of thirteen. As Freddy’s best friend he’d accompanied them on ski trips to France and Switzerland. He’d traveled to the Cote d’Azur on countless occasions, always conscious of his position as the orphan, the street urchin whose sad tale belonged in a saccharine Disney movie. He was expected to sing for his supper, as the saying went. He couldn’t refuse to help Penny prepare dinner, or decline to play golf with Greg, as Freddy did. He couldn’t sulk when he was told it was time for bed. As a guest his role was to be eternally grateful, forever enthusiastic.
He’d taken Gordon’s comments badly, very personally, consciously forming a bridge between them. He was keeping things from Gordon, deliberately omitting important details. When he explained he’d be in Europe for a wedding for the weekend he omitted to clarify who was paying, a revelation that would cause one very raised eyebrow. And then there was the other matter of the cellist he fucked in Berlin last month.
“It’s not that I’m the bad guy in the relationship necessarily,” he said, pushing the memory of the bathroom encounter to the back of his mind, “but there isn’t much wrong with my partner, so any time there’s trouble it’s because I’ve done something wrong.”
“We all need a fall guy,” Penny said and they were both silent for some time.
The wedding took place the next morning. The weather was glorious, Julia looked beautiful and her marriage seemed destined for eternal happiness. The photographs were too perfect, Tom remembered thinking.
Later, once he returned to JFK, he remembered only the rain, a depressed Julia looking out of the window while her fiancé stroked her back and her father drank too much. And he remembered getting horribly drunk with Penny after their conversation in the sauna. During the second bottle of wine, sprawled on his bed in a white dressing robe, he confessed about the German cellist and Penny admitted to sleeping with a badminton coach and suddenly both of them were laughing at the idea anyone takes badminton seriously enough to hire a coach. And then Penny was stripping to her underwear and asking Tom, between desperate sobs, if she was still attractive, even though he was gay so it didn’t really count, she added. And he insisted she was and what happened after that he preferred to push to a recess of his mind labeled: mysterious encounters.
Six months after the wedding the Hilboroughs declared themselves bankrupt. Their money was tied up in a hedge fund investment that went south, he read when the news finally reached him. He wondered if they’d known what was coming, if Italy had been one last hurrah before the fall of their little empire.
That evening his orchestra was performing at The Herbst Theatre in San Francisco. Walking onto the stage he saw the glimmer of a welldressed and elderly crowd. He imagined Penny sitting there. She’d almost be jealous as he played, wishing his undivided attention were on her instead of the violin and music sheets.
They were performing one of Tom’s favorites: Haydn’s Symphony No. 45 in Fsharp minor, known as the "Farewell" symphony. It’s said that Haydn wrote the symphony as a subtle plea to his patron Prince Nikolaus Esterházy because the prince was remaining in his summer palace far longer than anticipated. The orchestra was required to stay in rural Hungary with the prince, yet desirous to return home. Tom liked the originality of the last movement which required each member of the orchestra to stop, switch off the lights illuminating their music sheet, and leave the stage in turn. Apparently it was a success and the prince left the summer palace the day after they performed this symphony.
A memory came to Tom as they played the Farewell symphony that evening, one of Freddy tapping his shoulder and telling Tom to follow. Back in Freddy’s dorm room he withdrew an expensive watch from his pocket. It belonged to the headmaster.
“He took it off to go swimming.”
“Why did you take it?” Panic rose as Tom assumed they would get caught.
Freddy shrugged as though it needn’t require explanation. “For the thrill of it,” he finally said.
“Why?” Tom asked in a quivering, abrupt fit of rage. He was close to tears. “Just ask your parents. They would have bought one for you!”
The following day the watch was found in Colin’s dorm room. Colin was asthmatic and pudgy and disliked by most of the pupils for no particular reason except that he was asthmatic and pudgy. Despite insisting he hadn’t taken the watch Colin was in tremendous trouble.
Tom watched the episode unravel from afar with distinct distaste. He was torn, wanting to do the right thing and not wanting to betray Freddy. He did nothing and his inertia saddened him. He attempted to distance himself, wooed back by Freddy’s shameless flirting that segued into Tom’s earliest memories of sexual discovery.
As these thoughts fluttered through his mind, fleeting thoughts he hadn’t considered in more than a decade, Tom played with increased zeal. He was not distracted by these memories no, rather he grew emboldened by them. He ignored the members of the orchestra leaving their seats, the reading lights being switched off, the hushed auditorium, the pressure of an audience gazing down at him, the motion of flushed faces cooled down by fanned concert programs. He was ignorant to all of it, only dimly aware that he and the other violinist were playing in perfect unison, as though their minds were attuned to the same incident.
It was the best Tom had ever played, the conductor later told him. Tom sensed some of this as the lights came on and the crowd stood up and cheered. He stared back, somewhat shocked to find himself there, greeted by hundreds of clapping hands. He took a bow. And then another. He searched for Gordon who wouldn’t be there, he knew that, because Gordon was in New York preparing for his company’s IPO. And yet Tom desperately wanted to see him in that moment, to share a discreet yet knowing smile, the same one they employed at crowded cocktail parties when they were ready to leave.
Tom smiled at an ocean of strangers instead, a large, beaming smile of accomplishment, weightless relief, and something else hard to fathom, bordering on acceptance. Yes, it was the best he’d ever played. It really was magnificent.
Jia Sung is a painter and illustrator, born in Minnesota and bred in Singapore. In her spare time, she is a professional cephalophore, chronic complainer, whinger extraordinaire, velocipedestrienne, flâneur, domestic sensualist, and bon vivant. For more, visit jia-sung.com, and follow her on Twitter, Tumblr, or Facebook.
Many Birthdays is a DIY music project from Austin, TX, comprised of family, friends and the occasional house cat. They practice in a living room and strive to tap into the poetry of the subconscious. In January 2015 they self-released Black Mountain Blue Sea EP. Listen on Soundcloud or Bandcamp, and follow the band on Twitter and Facebook.