If I Must Grow Older
By Amy Lane
Ian looked around the apartment, making sure everything was in place.
Small cake with vanilla custard center chilling in the refrigerator? Check.
Little banner that said “Happy Birthday”? Check.
Fully set table, waiting on the take-out that would arrive any minute now? Check.
Cleaned apartment and stocked refrigerator, so Joel didn’t have to go shopping the next day like he always went on Wednesdays? Check.
Fully-brushed brown cat, blissed out in the middle of the floor? Well, he wasn’t really part of Ian’s birthday surprise, but, yeah, Manky Bitch was a go!
Ian looked at his watch and then at the door, wondering where Joel was. Because seriously, for once Ian had completely remembered the entire enchilada, yes, the whole shebang of domestic partnership. After forgetting the day twice, and forgetting the year one of those times, Ian had finally remembered Joel’s birthday.
He was so happy.
Now, if only Joel could be here. That would be truly amazing.
Suddenly Ian’s phone, which sat neatly and accounted for in the charger by the table, gave a ring. Joel’s ring, actually, which was the theme from Jaws. Joel had programmed it in, because he said that usually when he had to call Ian it was to remind him of something, and he felt bad because Ian must dread those calls.
Ian certainly dreaded this one—yes, he’d been distracted, because, well, the semester had just started and he was always distracted when he had to deliver lectures three times a week, but he couldn’t have screwed up that badly, right? He’d remembered Joel’s birthday, right?
“’lo!” he said cheerfully, looking around the room one last time. It really did look spiffy.
Oh no. Joel’s voice held that pained note in it. That “Ian, I know you’re a bloody genius but you’ve forgotten to put on pants again,” note.
“No you didn’t.”
“No—I did! I ordered dinner, and got a cake, and I even have a present picked out!” Well, a gift certificate, because he hadn’t had time to order the thing he wanted Joel to buy with it. Besides, it was for Joel’s bicycle, and Ian still didn’t know the first thing about bicycles.
“Papi,” Joel said slowly, “papi, what are you talking about?”
“You know, remembering.”
There was a pause on the other end of the line that made Ian make sure he had his pants on. He should, because it was March and still cold outside, but still. He’d definitely fucked this up somehow.
“Remembering what?” Joel asked cautiously.
Ian swallowed. “Your birthday?”
“Uhm, papi? It’s March.”
“My birthday’s in the fall.”
“But…” Ian looked around the cleaned, decorated kitchen wildly, until his eyes fell on the calendar. “Aha!” he said triumphantly, striding to the refrigerator. “See? See? The calendar—the one that you set out—“
“I know which one it is,” Joel said mildly.
“It’s here in my handwriting! See? I wrote it down!”
“No, I can’t see, because I’m at work. Maybe you could read it to me.”
Joel’s voice held a smug note that Ian could not entirely trust.
“It says ‘Remember Joel’,” Ian said, his own smugness sort of deflated. “Well, that’s rather vague, isn’t it?”
“Yes, a little,” Joel conceded. “My bad. Can you think of anything else that could possibly refer to, besides my birthday, which is on the whole other side of the calendar?”
“Uhm…” Ian stalled. “I don’t know. Why aren’t you here? If you’d been here, I wouldn’t have made this mistake!” He sounded petulant and childish, he knew, but dammit! He’d been trying! For three years he’d managed to remember to stop and eat at night and to pick Joel up from the airport when he went on trips and to take the cat to the vet and to do laundry on laundry days. He’d worked so damned hard to be in the moment, to appreciate the here and now with his boyfriend as opposed to the ephemeral dance of numbers, meaning, and universe that occupied his brainpan. Fuck-all! He’d tried so hard to make his one person come first.
Joel’s voice held the exquisitely delicate ring of a porcelain figurine. “Well, papi, the reason I’m not there is that Remember Joel means to remember to pick me up from work. I took my bike in to get serviced, and you were going to pick me up so we could go to the gym, remember?”
Knock knock knock.
“Oh hell,” Ian said succinctly. “Hang on a minute.” He made his way to the door and took the takeout from the bemused delivery boy, signing the slip with a generous tip, because, well, it wasn’t the kid’s fault Ian was a class A fuck-up. Then he set what must have been $100 in delivery Italian food on his table and sighed into the phone. “Can we, uhm, you know. Just sort of…”
“How ‘bout we pretend it’s my birthday!” Joel said brightly. “You come pick me up, you take me home, and we do all of those things you were planning to do, just like I really did turn thirty-one. How’s that?”
“You’re going to turn thirty-one?” Ian asked disconsolately. “I could have sworn it was twenty-eight. That’s what I put on the cake.”
“Come get me, papi,” came the kind rejoinder. “Come get me. I will kiss you, and you will remember all of the important things, okay?” His voice had gotten thicker, his Hispanic accent more prevalent, which is what happened when he was talking from his heart.
“Yeah, okay,” Ian said, still feeling stupid.
“Don’t forget to put the take-out in the fridge before you go.”
Oh hell. Really? Had he forgotten that too? Yup. Sure as shit, the take-out was on the table.
He arrived at Joel’s work twenty minutes later, feeling sheepish and out of sorts. Joel was standing under the overhang waiting for him in the warm spring drizzle. After he’d dashed to the car, slid in, and stowed his backpack in the back, he greeted Ian with a breathless smile that Ian couldn’t help but return.
“You’re always so glad to see me, mate,” Ian said, feeling some of his disheartenment ease.
Joel used one hand to wipe the rainwater out of his goatee, and then grabbed the back of Ian’s head and pressed him forward for a long, deep, welcoming kiss. It was long enough to melt the embarrassment from around Ian’s heart and allow him to relax his awkward limbs enough to hold Joel closer.
Joel pulled back and smiled some more, his teeth white in his dark face. “I am always glad to see you,” he said earnestly. “Did you really plan me a birthday?”
Ian nodded. “I just… you know. I always forget it. I figured this time, I could make it… you know. Special.”
The laughing smile faded, to be replaced by earnestness. Joel’s warm brown eyes were stone-cold sober. “Papi, you have a heart as big as the world. You try so hard—and mostly, you succeed. It’s okay if I get two birthdays this year—or even only one, ci?”
Ian smiled a little, because just being in the car with him, smelling his wet-animal smell, feeling the heat and condensation coming off his body—all these things grounded him here in the now, and they were all amazing.
“Ci,” he said quietly. “And who knows—one of these years, I may get it right.”
“You take all the time you want, papi.” Joel grinned again. “If I must grow older two birthdays a year, I’m glad that it’s with you.”