Prologue

 

I’M GOING to tell you how this story ends, but not with whom. That’s a fair promise to make, isn’t it?

So…. Yes, you’ll get your happy-ever-after ending—if there truly is such a thing—you just won’t be privy to all the details. Unless you read on….

Almost twenty-five years ago, I was thirty-five years old and privileged to cross the pond to merry old England for the very first time. I was finally able to say I’d traveled internationally by the grace of my best friend, a writer of boys’ adventure stories with the improbable name of Lord Boutros BinBin (no, he was not an actual Lord; he told me once he simply had parents who were “quirky” and “creative,” also known as “free spirits”). He wrote under the much plainer moniker Beryl Kensit.

At that time, and during that trip, I was also blessed to fall head over heels in love with a gorgeous, kind, and sensitive man I met at twilight on the streets of the beachside city of Brighton. He ticked every box on my imagined list for the perfect lover—exotically handsome, spiritual, artistic, amazing in bed, and… I could actually hold a conversation with him. Our silences were okay too, comfortable. We launched into a passionate affair and promised that we’d meet again.

But the course of true love, as they say, never did run smooth. Ain’t it the truth?

I returned home from those two weeks with a satchel full of memories, a sexually transmitted infection, and the knowledge that I’d found true love.

But then, only a week or two after settling back into my little apartment in the Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago, I found myself falling head over heels in love again—this time with a salt-of-the-earth, charming, and sweet man from the South Side. He was nothing like I ever imagined I would be compatible with—our tastes, educational background, intelligence, and cultural awareness made us like creatures from two different planets—yet somehow the magic, the spark, was there.

How would I reconcile the two? Whom would I choose? Could things ever end satisfactorily when, as in Mary MacGregor’s song, you’re “Torn Between Two Lovers”?

Read on, my friend, read on… and discover how the head won out over the heart.

Or was it the other way around?

 

 

 

Chapter 1

1995

 

IT WAS the cheapest flight we could find. Air India, round trip, O’Hare to Heathrow, around seven hundred bucks. We snatched up the fare because my best friend, Boutros BinBin, was homesick and wanted to show me his homeland, “the place that made me who I am.” If you know Boutros, you know this is a scary thought. And yet I still wanted to go.

We snatched up our tickets because we were both sick of Chicago, dreading the humid summer we knew was in store, and because I had done about every guy on the North Side.

Joke. Now Boutros, hush. And stop rolling your eyes!

We’d do London (and EuroPride). We’d do Brighton (Boutros called the seaside town the San Francisco of England because it was so gay—in a good way). We’d do Boutros’s ancient hometown, Bath. Honestly, one of us would do just about any attractive male within the age range of eighteen to, oh, sixty-five—but the latter part was always negotiable. In the dark, a hard dick is a hard dick.

Or maybe I’d find Mr. Right. “You’ll find a hundred Mr. Right Nows if I know you,” Boutros said. Boutros could always see through me like I was made from glass. It was this attribute that I both loved and hated about my best friend—and probably what drew us together when we’d met a couple of years before at a gay writer’s group called the Newtown Writers, in Chicago. I was drawn to his sense of humor, and he was appalled by the Daisy Dukes I wore to the first meeting.

Just a few short years later, we were both summarily thrown out of the writers’ group. Boutros said it was because we were the only two who’d been published, and I argued that it was because we appeared at a meeting at his house wearing nothing but a smile. Gay men! They’re always trying to get you naked, and then, when they succeed, they get offended!

We agreed to lick our wounds over coffee. Compounding the pain of being ousted from the writers’ group, I had recently ended a relationship. Boutros lent a sympathetic ear to my man troubles, which were then all about my indolent, smart, perpetually stoned, and job-challenged boyfriend, Henry, whose life revolved around marijuana—growing it and smoking it morning, noon, and night. I wondered what it was he needed to escape. When I asked Boutros, he told me, “Probably because he can’t stand waking up sober next to that face. And I can’t blame him.” Only Boutros could say such things to me, knowing I would somehow interpret them as demonstrations of love and caring. When we finally broke up after Henry had quit yet another job that was way beneath him, I cut ties.

And yet, I was devastated. Boutros led me through mourning the end of my first gay love with a firm hand, a lot of sarcasm, and a willingness to listen while I rambled on and on into the phone, wondering if I’d done the right thing. After all, Henry could be sweet, although he’d never admit it. On the day Henry moved out (while I was at work—a concept foreign to him), he left the CD player on and Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” playing on infinite loop. Even though I knew Boutros was probably appalled by the sappiness of this gesture, he listened as I choked out words of devastation through sobs, and demonstrated admirable restraint when he could have cut me down to pathetic size with a couple of bon mots. Support like his, coming at a crucial time, often cements two people together.

It did us.

So when Boutros proposed we jet off across the pond together, I was beyond thrilled. Even though I knew I couldn’t afford it on my catalog copywriter salary, which barely paid my rent, going to Europe, especially England, had always been my dream. I’d grown up with a pen pal from the West Midlands and had developed a keen interest in the place from her long letters describing Cannock Chase and the little Staffordshire village in which she lived. Perhaps I could see her, too, while I was there. It would be our first meeting in person.

Boutros convinced me to clean out my bank account for the trip by saying that once we got there, we could stay with friends and family wherever we went. All we’d have to pay for was food (fish and chips!) and drinks (Guinness!). We’d get around via the tube, and for longer distances, we’d take advantage of England’s very user-friendly trains that went just about everywhere.

I desperately needed a break from my boring job and from nursing my broken heart (even if I was the one who technically broke it), so I was on board.

Well, actually, I was on board right that very moment, Boutros next to me. We were on a double-decker plane that was enormous, much bigger than anything I’d ever flown on—not that I’d flown much, just a handful of flights between Chicago and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which had the closest airport to my hometown of East Liverpool, Ohio.

The flight attendants, all women, wore saris. The plane was filled mostly with eastern Indians. Heathrow was a layover for them, not a destination, as this flight continued on to New Delhi.

“Ah, the sweet smell of curry is in the air,” Boutros whispered, leaning close to my ear.

“Hush.” I looked around, praying no one had heard him. I got his sense of humor—which involved saying a lot of things simply for their shock value—but I doubt that anyone else on the plane would.

I already felt as though I’d stepped into another world. I couldn’t wait to get to our destination and see what adventures were in store.

One of the flight attendants came around pushing a trolley. On it were small Styrofoam cups and full-size bottles of whiskey.

“Would you like?” The dark-haired woman smiled at Boutros and me, gesturing toward the bottles and cups.

Indian custom? I shrugged. What the hell? “Yes, please. One for me, and one for my friend here.” I leaned back a little so she could see Boutros in the middle seat. I doubted she could miss him, though, dressed as he was in palazzo pants with a yellow-and-purple paisley pattern, and a white muslin peasant shirt. His black hair stood up in a multitude of directions, and his mustache, waxed, stuck out so far, he could make the truthful claim that one could see the mustache from behind him. The goatee below the mustache was just beginning to gray. His earring and nose ring were connected by a dangling silver chain. He liked to say his face was “done up like a Christmas tree.”

Sometimes I wondered if people even saw me when I stood next to him.

“One?” Boutros scoffed. “Amateur. Could we have two?”

She nodded, smiling, and poured us each two shots of whiskey. She handed them over, and we both quickly downed the first and then handed the cups back to her. Boutros belched and said, “Check back on us, would you?”

The flight attendant’s smile didn’t waver. Serenely, she moved on to the next row to ply the whole plane, I presumed, with strong spirits.

Boutros slid his cup aside so he could reach for his leather backpack, which he’d stored under the seat in front of him. “Surprise! I’ve got a little something here that will help shorten the flight, if you know what I mean.” He grinned mischievously as he groped around in the bag’s outer compartment. He brought out a prescription bottle and shook it. A couple of pills rattled.

“Morphine, sweetie, from when I had that cyst out in hospital. Remember? I punched that nun when they started cutting before the anesthetic set in.” He leaned close, rubbing up against my shoulder. “I saved these two just for you and me, darling.”

“You’re too good to me. They say time is the most thoughtful gift, but I beg to differ. I say it’s drugs.” I returned the shoulder nudge, then held out my hand like a beggar.

We popped the morphine, washing it down with our second shot of whiskey. The unvoiced plan, of course, was that we would sleep on the overnight transatlantic flight, arriving in London the next morning refreshed and ready to begin our sightseeing after dropping our stuff off at Boutros’s friend Trevor’s place in Westminster.

Maybe I was too excited to sleep, but even after a third shot of whiskey and morphine, I was still wide-awake for the full eight-hour flight. And perhaps my excitement was contagious, because Boutros couldn’t catch a wink either. We watched our flight’s progress on a screen on the back of the seats in front of us. I thought, Hurry, hurry.

If anything, the drugs and alcohol had the curious effect of making us even more bright-eyed and bushy-tailed than either of us usually were. After trying fitfully—and desperately—to sleep, fluffing the thin and starchy pillows our flight attendant had given us, we passed the night talking about what we’d see and do, following the vivid colors and subtitles of the inflight movie, Raja, which was, from what I could gather from the subtitles, a romance about a young man reuniting with the woman he was supposed to marry years earlier. We ate the meals the airline offered—chicken tikka masala and basmati rice for me and saag paneer and rice for him. Even though it was Indian food, which Boutros and I both adored, it was airline food… and thus barely edible. Fortunately, they brought out the complimentary whiskey cart again near the end of the flight.

And, at around 10:00 a.m. London time, we touched down on the runway at Heathrow International Airport.

 

 

 

Chapter 2

 

WE TOOK the tube from the airport to the St. James’s Park stop in Westminster. Walking out of the tube station, I had the nagging sensation that this was all a dream. I was sure I’d wake up at any moment in my double bed in my one-bedroom in Rogers Park, my black-and-white cat, AJ, pawing at me and demanding his breakfast. The Chicago L would thunder by just outside my bedroom window, throwing up sparks from the tracks. Sun would throw slats on the old hardwood floors.

Except now there was this almost surreal aspect to everything—the bustling crowd on the sidewalk, the curdled-milk-white sky, the British accents I heard in snatches of conversation, and the simple sense of history that was everywhere I looked.

My God, I’m really here!

I realized in an instant how young my homeland is.

We lugged our bags along the sidewalk as we searched for Boutros’s friend Trevor’s apartment. Along the way, we passed through St. James’s Park and then on into narrow streets, some with open-air vendors selling fruit, baked goods, and touristy souvenirs. I made a mental note to get myself, at some point, a Mind the Gap T-shirt with the iconic London subway system logo.

We saw things that required me to simply halt our passage and stare—these were postcards come to life. Westminster Abbey, the houses of Parliament (and Big Ben!), the buildings clustered along the Thames. Everywhere I looked was a piece of living history. I knew I should be worn out, but my heart raced, and I felt energy that should come from a good night’s rest but was, in reality, the result of the adrenaline my overexcited system was pumping out.

We passed a couple of teenage kids, a boy and a girl, camped out on the sidewalk in front of, ironically, a bank. They were surrounded by fast-food wrappers, an open guitar case, and a couple of rolled-up sleeping bags. The boy had a mohawk and wore tight, pegged jeans paired with a provocatively ripped Ramones T-shirt. The girl’s turquoise cotton-candy hair, pulled up in a sort of beehive, framed her elfin face. She wore a plaid school uniform skirt, white blouse, ripped fishnets, and cherry Doc Martens.

Boutros leaned down to add a couple of pound coins to their guitar case. There was already a mishmash of currency there—coins mostly, along with some bills.

He eyed the kids. “I want you to promise me you’ll spend that money on drugs.”

They giggled but eyed him a little suspiciously.

We walked on, the morning glaringly bright, the wind warm, bordering on hot.

“Are we there yet?” I asked. The tiniest bit of fatigue was beginning to filter in. I spied it out of the corner of my mental eye, waiting to be acknowledged. I knew its patience was running out.

“Almost. It’s just up the way, I believe.” Boutros cast a gaze at me. “This is cool.”

“What?”

“I’m seeing this through your eyes. It makes it all new again. And exciting.”

I nodded. The fatigue was coming into plainer view. My bag, an old leather duffel that once belonged to my dad, was gaining weight with every step I took. My black nylon backpack was mysteriously getting heavier too.

We finally wound up outside an old redbrick courtyard building. We were a stone’s throw from the St. James’s tube station. The building was in the heart of everything one imagines when one thinks of London—close to the Thames and all the iconic landmarks, dripping in British charm and grandeur. Something occurred to me. “Your friend Trevor must have a great job to be able to afford a place here.”

Boutros shrugged. “I’m not sure what he’s got on at the moment. Anyway, it’s a council flat, so he doesn’t pay much.”

We rang Trevor’s buzzer.

I watched through the leaded glass window as a wide figure clambered down the stairs. The latch was thrown, the door opened wide, and Trevor stood there to greet us. He was a big man—both in terms of height and width—with a shock of thinning blond hair and skin so pale I wondered if he could qualify as a legitimate albino. But then I looked into his dark brown eyes and realized he was simply pasty. Color rose to his cheeks as he eyed us both. He didn’t hesitate to grab Boutros in a bear hug, squeezing him so tight Boutros gasped and pushed him away. “Get off me!” he snapped.

Trevor laughed, and the old cliché regarding the connection between being fat and jolly rose up in my head. “And who’s this tasty morsel?” He gave me a once-over, wrapping up his inspection with a lascivious wink. Uh-oh, I thought. Boutros told me Trevor’s flat is only a one-bedroom. Will I be expected to share a bed with our host? There’s no such thing as a free lunch, or in this case, free accommodations in a posh part of London. I will do what I must for the cause of cheap lodging, but I hope I don’t have to. Nice as Trevor seems, I don’t think he’s quite my type.

But Lord knows I’d never ruled anyone out before for not being my type! I would say I’d been egalitarian in my past choice of bed partners. Boutros would say I was simply an undiscerning slut. “Any cock’ll do!” he’d once quipped.

God, I adored him.

Trevor extended a hand; we shook. I peered into his dark eyes, smiling. “I’m Ricky Comparetto. Boutros’s friend. From the States,” I babbled, discovering that suddenly I was more than a wee bit nervous.

Trevor laughed, a big gruff sound, appropriately eyeing me like I was some sort of lunatic. He mimicked what I’d said, making it sound harsh and flat—what I suppose my American—Chicago in particular—accent sounded like to him.

But then a warm smile lit up his face. “Welcome, Ricky from the States!” He turned a little to gesture toward the stairs, which I could now see were carpeted in some kind of faded pink floral pattern. Cabbage roses, maybe? At the first landing, there was a lovely stained glass window in hues of violet, cobalt, and yellow. Simple squares and rectangles of varying sizes. “My castle is your castle. Come on in.”

He turned to head up the stairs, stopping to grin at Boutros. “You can come too.”

“Of course I can, my dear. My presence can only lighten up this dreary shithole.”

They both chuckled.

We headed up the stairs.

The flat was small. Cramped kitchen with a clothes-drying rack perched above the sink. On it, two pairs of jeans and a black T-shirt. Miniscule counter with a microwave and electric kettle. Appliances that looked miniaturized compared to their American cousins.

The main living area was fairly ample, the walls painted a cheerful yellow and bordered by white baseboards and crown molding. Scattered around was what looked like thrift-store furniture, brightened by throws in almost eye-hurting shades of turquoise and orange. A little black here and there calmed down the color riot. A bay window looked out onto the courtyard.

Trevor led us into the cramped bedroom. A full-size walnut bed with a chenille bedspread, neatly made, graced the room. The only other furniture was a nightstand next to the bed and a small black lacquered dresser. A cut-glass lamp stood on the nightstand, and beside it was a bottle of lube.

“Didn’t this belong to your mum?” Boutros ran his hand along the white chenille fabric. “Weren’t you conceived on it, during a shore leave?” He picked up the lube and considered it, set it back down. “I believe that belonged to your mum, too, didn’t it? They always talked shit about how ‘dry’ she was. I assumed it was because of her sense of humor.” Boutros snorted.

Trevor rolled his eyes and ignored him. “You two will be in here, so just throw your bags down and make yourselves at home.” He paused, one forefinger at his lips. “You lot are okay with sharing a bed, right?” He raised one of his eyebrows, making me notice for the first time that he had a pair—they were so pale as to be almost translucent.

“Oh, we’re not a couple,” I blurted out, lest Trevor had the wrong idea.

Trevor squeezed my shoulder. “Darling, I didn’t think that for a moment. You? With this ancient queen? Never!” He shivered.

“He’d be lucky to have me, Trevor. I’ve seen some of the trolls he’s taken home from the bars. Believe me, I’d be a huge step up.” He eyed me, grinning. “We’ll be fine. Thank you.”

The bed was calling to me. The overnight flight and the jaunt through the busy streets of London had finally caught up, demanding restitution.

I plopped down on the bed and tried for my best British accent. “I rather fancy a nap. Do you chaps mind?”

Boutros’s upper lips rose in a sneer. “I could just kill him.”

“Me too,” Trevor agreed.

“Go on and have a nap. I have a night out planned for us. You’ll need your rest,” Trevor said to me, and then to Boutros, “Come on, then. Fancy a spot of tea?”

Boutros followed. “I’ll be mother.”

The last thing I remember was the white door, thick with many, many coats of paint, closing.