“MIKE, DOLL, it’s the trip of a lifetime. All you’ll have to do is teach two watercolor classes at the end of the cruise. The San Isabella III is one of the world’s most beautiful ships, not to mention touring the stunning Galapagos Islands. This might be your last chance to see the blue-footed booby,” Penny pleads as she sips her Irish coffee.
I have always wanted to see those marvelous animals and their lapis webbed feet. As a little kid I’d spend hours drawing strange creatures with oddly colored talons; when I found out there was an actual bird that looked like the ones in my imagination, I was deeply intrigued. But I thought I had plenty of time to make that childhood dream come true. Didn’t I?
“Last chance?” I ask Penny. “Are they in danger of becoming extinct or something?” The thought of any species perishing, especially one I held in such high regard, was disturbing.
“Not that I know of, but I don’t have a direct line to the World Wildlife Federation. What’s in danger of extinction—is you!”
I put down my cup of non-Irish coffee and look across the veranda of the Hotel Del Coronado and focus on the sandy beach of Coronado Island just a few yards away. I love Penny. I’ve always loved Penny. I loved Penny when Penny was my uncle Paul, before her transition, but I have never loved the lectures.
I should have known when she asked me to coffee at the opulent Hotel Del she had something up her three-quarter-length sleeves. She first brought me to the gleaming white Victorian hotel as a kid. We would have a glass of water and split a cucumber sandwich, the cheapest thing on the menu. Now she can afford whatever she wants, and she uses the covered patio that overlooks the ocean as her personal throne room.
“Penny, you’re being dramatic.”
“If you take the promotion Mr. Biddle is offering you, your life will become extinct faster than the dinosaurs.”
“Actually that took thousands of years.”
She takes a deep inhale and points her finger at me. “Don’t you get smart with me, Michael Robert Davis.”
Penny is only a few years older than me, even though she is technically my aunt. We’ve been best friends since we were teens, but she has always had a maternal side that is somewhere between Carol Brady and Joan Crawford.
Penny flies around the world escorting wealthy travelers on adventures from the Great Wall of China to icebergs in Patagonia. It’s a perfect job for Penny since you need to be strong but liked by everyone. She was once an All-State lineman for UC San Diego, so nothing gets in her way, but people still adore her.
“Mike, I’m being serious. I need your help, and you can take the time off. You’ve never really wanted to work at Biddle anyway.”
She’s right, of course. She’s always right, which is really very annoying. I started doing some small drawings for Biddle Communications part-time. I had just returned home to San Diego after graduating from art school in New York. My student loans were like wolves howling outside my door, and, of course, I was still helping Mom with some of the bills and taking care of my younger brother and sister. I had been doing that since my dad walked out when I was a kid. So my part-time work turned into a full-time staff position. Now I’ve been asked by Mr. Biddle to become the senior account manager of operations for the entire firm. I never thought I would be working for a communications company that specializes in public relations for healthcare providers, but here I am, managing projects duller than the wheels on a used skateboard. I’ve even had to hire someone else to do the artwork, so I don’t even get to do that anymore.
“Penny, need I remind you of the salary that goes along with this promotion?”
She throws her arm in front of her and dramatically looks at the freckles on her wrist where a watch would be if she were wearing one. “Oh dear me. Is it quarter past a freckle already? Mike, doll, you mention the salary every hour on the hour. I love you, so I’m going to say this gently. Cut that shit out! I don’t give a crap.”
“That’s the gentle version?”
“That’s the honest version.”
Some people say they never knew they were poor growing up. That wasn’t me. I knew it and I hated it. I hated having to lie about where we bought our clothes. I hated that none of the furniture in our house came from the same decade. I hated eating Hamburger Helper. Actually that’s a lie. I absolutely loved Hamburger Helper and still do.
“Are we going to talk about the real reason you don’t want to go? Or should we keep pretending?”
“Pretending,” I say, my voice strong and clear.
“Mike!” she says sharply, then puts her hand on mine and looks at me with her big artificial-green eyes. She gently rubs my knuckles with her hand. She has more rings than fingers, so they sparkle like a royal scepter in a fairy tale. “I know. It’s still hard. I understand. But you can’t bury yourself in work just to forget what happened.”
But that’s what I want. I want to be so busy with work that nothing else can breathe, so busy that I never even think about Benton.
“Penny, it’s been almost an entire year since he left. Why am I still…?” I can’t finish the thought.
What’s the equation? A one-year relationship takes six months to get over? Half the time. Something like that? Then why am I still not over Benton?
My entire upper body tenses when I think of how he left. Things got worse and worse until he just told me he was taking a research fellowship back in the UK and that he didn’t think I had my priorities “sorted out.” Well, screw him. My priorities are just fine.
“It might do you good to get away, nothing to remind you of anything.” Penny’s phone vibrates, and she looks down at it, then rolls her eyes. “It’s the cruise people. Mike, you think. I’ll be back in a minute.” Penny grabs her phone and walks away from the table.
Mr. Biddle did give me time off before I start my new position. There are a few thousand miles between Benton and me now. A few thousand more couldn’t hurt. I’d even get to paint for a brief stint, and I’d be helping Penny. There really isn’t a reason why I shouldn’t go.
Penny returns and bats her incredibly long fake eyelashes at me. “Well?”
“Fine,” I say.
“Are you serious? Mike, I need a definite ‘yes.’ This Galapagos cruise has been a complete nightmare to plan. The cabins are fully booked, and the lecture staff keeps changing. We have some very high rollers, and I cannot send another ‘Sorry about the change in the itinerary’ email.”
“I get it,” I say. “You can count on me.”
“Wonderful,” she says and slaps her hands together in delight. “Honestly it’s going to be the best gig of your life, and you’ll get to see the blue-footed booby.”
I take a sip of my now-cold coffee and think about all the pictures I’ve seen of this alien creature in magazines and online. That bird better not disappoint me.
I OPEN the door to Artists and Craftsmen Supply, and the familiar chimes announce my entrance.
The owner, Terry, makes a dramatic gasp and wheels his chair toward me, his elegant paisley silk scarf flowing behind his wheels. “Do my eyes deceive me, or is it really Mike Davis? How are you, you gorgeous sandy-blond twink?” Terry is a shameless flirt. In fact, there is even a sticker on his wheelchair that says Shameless Flirt.
“I’ve told you, Terry. I’m thirty-two, so I can’t be a twink, and I’m fine,” I say. I don’t tell Terry about my pending promotion. He would openly scoff. He thinks jobs are for “normals,” not artists. Of course, Terry inherited a large trust fund. My bequest will be a second mortgage and my mother’s collection of thimbles from every state in the union. We don’t exactly have the same financial responsibilities.
“Heard from your gorgeous ex-boyfriend? I miss seeing Prince Charming.”
Terry always called Benton Prince Charming because of his very upper-crust British accent and the fact that he did, in fact, look a bit like a Disney prince—square jaw, wide, perfect smile, deep eyes, and brown hair so thick it looked like it was painted on. I thought Benton’s muscular chest and thick legs made him look more like a superhero, but I’m not even sure there are British superheroes, so Prince Charming was an apt name.
“No, Terry, I haven’t,” I say, hoping my annoyance shines through in my tone. “That’s generally what the term ‘ex’ implies.”
“Such a shame. I’m still cheering for you both to come to your senses. You had so much passion.” He shimmies his shoulders like the very thought gives him goose bumps.
Terry would know. The last time he saw us in the store felt like a crime of passion.
We had just had dinner at the Crest Cafe. After two servings of their famous guacamole and more chips than any two gay men should ever consume, Benton told me about a new exhibit he had been developing at the San Diego Zoo, where he was an assistant. Nothing made Benton more excited than being with animals, but talking about them was a close second. A meerkat had just been born, and Benton was beyond thrilled. He spoke each word deliberately, and his voice had this deep gravel in it that became even more intense. It wasn’t the destination of the conversation that was so compelling; it was always the journey. How his deep brown eyes sparkled, how he would run his hands through his hair when he got caught up in the moment.
After the guac and chips, Benton said he had something he wanted to show me. We walked out of the Crest Cafe and around the block to Terry’s store.
“Why are we going in here?” I asked outside the store. At that point I was at most an infrequent visitor.
“I want to show you something. Let’s not tarry.”
I reluctantly followed him in. He walked me directly to a display of new brushes. “Look!” he said, pointing.
A red sable rigger brush stood proudly on display. The sign said it was a brand-new arrival from Japan. It looked as much like Fred Astaire as a watercolor brush could, all elegance and class. Benton knew I had a thing for brushes, and he knew the red sable rigger flat wash was ne plus ultra.
“It’s exquisite,” I sighed.
“I saw it in the window yesterday, and I’ve been dying to show it to you. I want to celebrate the birth of the new meerkat at the zoo and buy you a whole set of them.”
A whole set of brushes? At that point it had been months since I put paint to canvas. In fact, I had a whole set of brushes I hadn’t yet opened. I felt guilty even thinking about those brushes, and I couldn’t let Benton get me another set that might never be used.
“Oh, I don’t think I need it,” I said, trying to keep it light.
“Of course you do,” he said. “It’s been months since you painted, and a new set of brushes will inspire you.”
“No, they won’t.”
Benton thought it was so easy. The last few months had been grueling with budgets, client proposals, and endless invoices. What would I paint at this point? A portrait of a spreadsheet?
“Don’t be daft,” Benton said with a playful smile. “I’m getting them for you.”
“I don’t want them,” I said with a bit more force than I planned. But I did not want them. I just wanted to leave. “Let’s go.”
Benton picked up the package of brushes and walked toward the register.
“No!” I said with an uncharacteristic sharpness.
“What’s wrong with you?”
“It’s you,” I said. “You always do this.”
Now Benton was getting pissed. “I always do what, pray tell?”
“You just steamroll your way over me because you think you know better.”
“Well, in this case, I do.”
“No, you don’t!” I said too loudly.
“Sod off, Michael. They’re just brushes. I want to see you paint and not just stare at your computer all weekend.” He tossed them back on the shelf. “The problem is you don’t know what you want.”
“I know exactly what I want!”
At this point we were shouting at each other. Terry came out to see what was going on, and that calmed us for a bit, but the fight escalated and kept growing until we got home. Benton pushing me to paint. Me explaining I had responsibilities and didn’t want pressure from him.
That was the beginning of the end. Benton couldn’t stop, and it only made me resist. Working at Biddle was my choice, and I wasn’t going to feel guilty about a job that allowed me to make a good living.
We couldn’t quite recover from the arguing, and about two weeks after the disaster at the art store, he moved out. He decided to take a post-doc position in the zoology department at the University of London not far from where he grew up. He loved the San Diego sunshine and our group of friends, so for him to move back there must have meant he wanted to get pretty far from me.
“Earth to Michael. Come in, Michael,” Terry says in an overly enunciated voice while tapping on the arm of his wheelchair.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” I say, snapping back to reality. “I’m in a rush. I leave tomorrow for the Galapagos.”
“I’ve always wanted to go there,” Terry says dreamily.
“That’s literally what every person I have told has said to me.”
“Well, at least you’re finally taking a vacation from that awful job.”
“Not exactly. I’m teaching a watercolor class for my aunt, Penny. She’s leading the cruise.”
“Oh, that’s marvelous!” Terry says, giving me a mischievous smile.
“Don’t get too excited. It’s only a week.” I pull out the list of supplies I need.
“Maybe a particularly streaky sunset will make you change your mind.” Terry takes the list from me and puts on the glasses that are hanging around his neck. “Martine is leaving at the end of the month. There’s always a place for you in framing. Think about it. It would give you plenty of time to paint, and I’d even let you use the empty back room as a painting studio.”
“Terry,” I say with a tremendous sigh that I hope indicates my lack of interest in this topic.
Terry wheels away and says, “Fine. Meet me at the register. Be there in a jiff.”
Once he is far enough away, I walk past the aisles of canvases, matte cutters, and oil paints until I just happen to be in front of the red sable flat wash brush. I stare at it for a few moments. The handle is forest green, and the delicate hairs of the brush come together at the shiny gold ferrule. It looks like it could foxtrot, but before my imagination can go any further, I turn my head away from the display and walk back down the aisle to meet Terry.