The French Have a Word For It
An excerpt from the short story by Josh Lanyon
Something about the deep voice was familiar. Colin Lambert looked up from his sketch pad, squinting at the tall silhouette blocking the blanched Parisian sun. It was a golden autumn afternoon and the last of the tourists were crowding the cafés and narrow streets of the “village” of Montmartre. The background babble of French voices, the comfortable scents of warm stone and auto exhaust and Gauloises and something good cookingalways something good cooking in Parisand the old world colors: the reds of street signs and awnings and the greens of ivy and window shutters and the yellow of the turning leaves and fruit in the grocer stands -- all of it faded away as Colin gazed up, frowning a little.
“It is Colin, isn't it?”
Gradually the black bulk resolved itself into broad shoulders, lean hips, black hair and gray eyes. Colin blinked but the mirage didn't vanish, in fact it smiledan easy, rueful flash of white. “You probably don't remember me.”
Not remember Thomas Sullivan? Did anyone forget their first love?
Colin was on his feet, sketch pad tossed away, chair scraping back on cement. He moved to hug Thomas and Thomas grabbed him back in a rough, brief hug, laughing. They were both laughingand then selfconsciousness kicked in. Colin recalled that he wasn't seventeen anymore, and that Thomas wasn't
And never had been.
He stepped back, Thomas let him go, saying, “I can't believe how long it's been. You look...” Words seemed to fail him.
Colin knew how he looked. He looked grown up. Ten years was pretty much a lifetime in puppy years, and he had been such a puppy back when Thomas knew him.
Knew him? Back when Thomas had been his bodyguard.
“How are you? Are things going right for you?” There it was: The Look. That keen, searching gazewow, Thomas's eyes really were gray. Not just something Colin had imagined or remembered incorrectly.
Gray eyes. Like cobbled streets after rain or smoke or November skies.
And Thomas's smile conveyed a certain, er, je ne sais quoi as they said over here. A friendly understanding. Like Thomas had been there, done that, and made no judgmentsbut nothing surprised him anymore either. It was almost weird how little he'd changed. A few faint lines around his eyes, a little touch of silver at his temple. What was he now? Fortysomething?
Every woman in the café was looking at him. A lot of les hommes as well.
“I'm good. I'm great,” Colin answered.
And Thomas was still studying him. Measuring the boy against the man? Or just wondering about what scars the bad times had left?
Colin said firmly, “Yeah. I'm here painting.”
“Painting?” Thomas looked down at the sketch pad as though he'd only noticed it.
“Well, sketching just now, but yeah. I'm painting. What are you doing here?”
“You're a student?”
“No. I'm a... doing this.” He nodded at the sketch pad, then reached down to flap the cover over the rough sketch of a steep flight of steps. It still sounded so... not exactly pretentiousor not only pretentiousbut unlucky to say I'm a painter.
Thomas's smile widened. “Good for you. And you're making a living at it? At your painting?”
“Er... define making a living.” Colin laughed, and Thomas laughed too, but his gaze continued to assess and evaluate. Well, old habits probably died hard. Especially for a guy in Thomas's line of work.
“What are you doing in Paris?” Colin asked again.
“The usual. A job.”
Well, whoever the client was, they were lucky to have Thomas on their side. Still, Colin preferred not to think about Thomas's jobpreferred not to remember that time in his own life. “How long are you here for?”
“Tonight. Just tonight.”
Colin was aware of an unexpectedly sharp jab of disappointment. “Oh. Right.”
They continued to stare at each other and then Thomas looked around at the small, crowded tables. “Do you have time for a quick drink?”
“I'd like that, yes.”
They had wine, of course. Beaujolais Nouveau. The waitress brought it out, chilled, with two fluted glasses, perfumed aromas of plums and blackberries wafting into the bright cold autumn air. And for the space of a glass of wine, they could have been alone in the world.
An occasional fat drop of rain splashed down; there were dark clouds rolling in from the distance, crimson and gold leaves scattered the sidewalk, bikes and motor bikes flashed past like giant insects. Neither man showed any inclination to hurry away.
“It's beautiful here. I see why you love it,” Thomas remarked, leaning back and glancing around the crowded street as though only now recalling their surroundings.
“I do love it. You're right.” Colin studied Thomas's ruggedly handsome features. It was not a face that gave a lot away. “Are you still…what are you doing these days?”
Colin's memories veered sharply. Not a path he wished to travel. “So you never went back…to the FBI?”
“No. I stayed in the personal protection industry after I left your grandfather's employ.” Thomas suddenly grinned. “I don't know if I ever told you, but I was always proud of you for choosing to go away to college on your own terms.”
“Even if it did put you out of work?”
Colin's smile twisted. “You said you'd stay in touch.”
Thomas's gaze dropped to the red and white checked table cloth. “I shouldn't have. I was always a terrible letter writer.”
That had hurt. Thomas had meant…a lot. Had probably even known how much he meant, so to just drop out of Colin's life? Not even the occasional Christmas card? Yeah, that had hurt. There had evenembarrassinglybeen a few tears shed over that.
“It was kind of hard to say goodbye,” Thomas admitted. “I guess I tried to make it easier on both of us.”
Thomas seemed uncomfortable, so Colin changed the subject. He didn't want to scare Thomas off. They had little enough time as it was. “So what's the job? Can you talk about it?”
“Not really,” Thomas said. “Routine stuff. No drama.”
“Yeah,” Colin said dryly. “That's what you probably said about my case to your buddies at the Bureau. It's plenty dramatic when you're on the other side.”
“Your situation was different.” For an instant there was a glimpse of the professional Thomas Sullivan. Despite the easy smile, the frank gaze, he could be brusque and hard as nails. He was the man who hadalmost single-handedlysaved the life of the kidnapped fourteen-year-old grandson of one of the richest men in America. There had been a lot of media attention on Special Agent Sullivan after that daring rescue. It couldn't have been easy for someone who valued his privacy as much as Thomas.
Absently, Colin moved his glass inside and out the ring of wet on the table cloth. He really didn't want to think about that. Didn't want to remember the ninety-six hours he'd been kidnapped and held for ransom by John Riedel, a disgruntled former security officer at one of Mason Lambert's bottling companies.
It wasn't a big trauma for him. Well, it probably was, actually, but it's not like it haunted his days and nights. He had got past it, had moved on, and had even managed to forget a lot of it. Learned to trust people again, andeven harderlearned to trust himself.
Watching him, Thomas said suddenly, “You sure everything is okay? You hugged me hello like I was the cavalry and you were down to your last bullet.”
Colin chuckled, looking up. “I hugged you hello like you were the first familiar face I'd seen in nine weeks. I'm not quite as fluent as I thought I was. It gets lonely sometimes.” He thought it over and admitted, “Or maybe I was just kind of thrilled to see you again. I'd sort of given up on that.”
He didn't mean it to come out like an accusation, but Thomas must have heard something. He gave another of those lopsided smiles and said, “I guess you sort of had a case of hero worship when you were a kid.”
“It wasn't that exactly. Well, I guess it was, but it wasn't only that.” Colin took a deep breath. “Um. I'm not sure you ever noticed, but I'm gay.”
Thomas let out a sudden soft exhalationas though he'd been holding his breath. “It…crossed my mind a couple of times.” His tone was grave enough but he was struggling to keep a straight face.
“That obvious, was it? At fourteen?”
“Not at fourteen, no. At sixteen, sort of. Seventeen, yes.”
“Just another way I managed to disappoint Grandpappy.”
The amusement faded. Thomas said vaguely, “It's probably not that bad.”
“No. Probably not.” Colin finished the last mouthful of his wine. He'd made it last as long as he could, knowing Thomas would be saying goodbye soon after that final swallow. He would have things to do and places to go. “I knew from the time I was little. And when I got older, I couldn't help but notice that I didn't find girls very interesting. Not the way my friends did. I was trying very hard to talk myself out of it. But then you came along. And I realized it wasn't something I was going to grow out of.” He added quickly, “I hope you're not offended, me saying this to you.”
Thomas's dark brows shot up. “Why would I be offended?”
“Well, I just mean…”
Meeting Thomas's steady, smiling gaze, something clicked into place for Colin. Warmth flooded his face.
Thomas's grin widened.
“I'm an idiot.”
Thomas laughed. “No.”
“Yeah. I am.” He was shaking his head. “God. Now I really am embarrassed.”
“Why? It's not like that was a conversation we were ever going to have.”
“I don't know why not. We talked about everything else.” Especially at first. Especially after he'd been dumped back into the nest: the fledgling the cat had chewed up. Colin had still been in shock and terrified. For a time it had been hard to let Thomas out of his sight. Thomas had represented safety, security and fourteen year old Colin had latched on tight. Thomas had accepted it with good grace.
Maybe he understood that being taken had done something to Colin. Shattered his belief in people, made him understand how thin the veneer of civilization was, how fragile its protections against what his grandfather referred to as “the barbarians outside the gate.”
You didn't get over that right awaybut you did get over it. If you worked at it.
Colin pushed back in his chair. “It's too bad we didn't talk about it. It might have made things easier for me. Knowing an adult who was gay, who I could have asked”
“There is no way we were ever going to have that discussion.”
Colin was a little startled at his vehemence “Sorry?”
“Nothing.” Thomas rose. “Do you have time for another drink?”
Colin nodded eagerly and Thomas disappeared inside the bistro. The waitress appeared shortly after with another round. So that was the good news. Thomas wasn't in a hurry to say goodbye.
He puzzled over Thomas's odd attitude about not discussing being gay with him, but then Thomas finally came back, took his seat. He smiled and Colin blinked in the brilliance of that smile.
“So, why France? Couldn't you paint in the good old U.S. of A.?”
“Sure. But Paris... well, Montmartre. Monet, Picasso, Van Gogh.” Colin added prosaically, “Plus it's over three thousand miles between me and Grandpappy.”
“Things not so good between you?”
Colin shrugged. “I just needed a little room.”
“Three thousand miles ought to do it.” Thomas sipped his wine. “What was the problem? He didn't want you to become an artist?”
“If only it was that simple. No. No. He was always supportive. Arranged for me to have tutors, picked the best art college he could find, and started to plan my first show.”
Thomas said nothing.
Reluctantly, Colin said, “However I explain this I'm going to sound like an ungrateful shit.”
“I said I wanted to study in France. That I just wanted to…try and do it on my own. Without his money or the family name to pave the way. I wanted to do it for real.”
Thomas nodded noncommittally.
“And that hurt him. I knew it would, no matter how I tried to say it. So then he brought up the kidnapping and said that it wasn't safe. That it would never be safe for me because I would always be a target now.” He grimaced. “I got angry.”
“I'm not surprised.”
“And I said I'd take my chances. And then he got angry and said that since I wanted to do it all on my own, I could try supporting myself like everyone else had to who wasn't as lucky to be born into a family like mine.”
“Oh boy,” Thomas said. That was something Colin had forgotten until now. Thomas never swore. Never. Rarely even raised his voice. Not even when he was negotiating with a raving psychopath who kept threatening to blow a hole in a terrified little kid.
Colin smiled ruefully as he said, “It sort of deteriorated from there. I said that suited me fine and he said we'd see if I lasted two weeks.”
“And you've lasted nine and still counting. Have you called him since you got here?”
“Nope. And I don't plan on it.”
“He's probably worried sick by now.”
Colin smothered the flash of irritation. “I send him a postcard every week. Knowing Grandpappy, he's probably got the phone rigged to trace me if I do call. Which means he'd be here on the next flight trying to blackmail me into coming home.”
“You send him a postcard every week?” Thomas sounded surprised.
“Yeah. Why?” Colin added, “I mail them from different parts of Paris.”
Thomas's mouth twitched like he was trying to keep a straight face. “Tricky.”
Colin laughed. “No. I know it wouldn't be hard to find me if he sent one of his henchmen after me. I'm not trying to hide from him, just give myself a little breathing room. I'm nearly thirty, you know?”
“You just turned twenty-seven.”
“I'm flattered you remember.” He was too, which was surely a sign of what a goof he was. Well, once a goof, always a goof. He said earnestly, “God, I wish you were staying longer. It's so great to see you.”
Of course that might be all on one side.
But Thomas was eyeing him in that steady, thoughtful way. He said slowly, “Do you have plans for tonight? Maybe we could have dinner?”
“No, I don't have plans. In fact, I could cook if you like.” God knows what he would cook. He'd have to take the money he had put aside for art supplies to buy food fit for company, but it would be worth it to get Thomas back to his place because, well, you never knew. Thomas had hung around chatting with him all afternoon and there was something in the way his gaze held Colin's just a few seconds too long every time their eyes met.
Colin wasn't seventeen now or a virgin, and Thomas Sullivan showing up in Paris for one night was like a fantasy come true.
But Thomas said, “How about I take you to dinner? You can pick the placeone of your favoritesand we'll make a regular evening of it.”
“I wouldyeah! That would be great.” Almost too good to believe.
“I've got some things to take care of. What's your address? I'll pick you up at seven.”
Colin gave the address and Thomas jotted it down in a little notebook. Then he pushed back his chair, metal scraping cement, and rose. “I'm glad I found you, Col. I'll see you tonight.”
Col. The old nickname. What a lot of memories that triggerednot all good. He didn't want Thomas confusing him with the kid he had been.
Colin wasn't even sure what he answered. He watched Thomas disappearing down the cobbled street, that easy long-limbed stride, at home anywhere in the world.
Copyright 2000-17, Josh Lanyon.
All rights reserved.