The Question

by Kit

Chapter 14

For some time after Matt left I was numbed by the shock of his sudden departure, but as that numbness gradually wore off I experienced a whole range of different emotions. At first I couldn't believe that he'd decide to end our meetings without even giving me a chance to explain myself. Then it occurred to me that perhaps he didn't think there was any need for discussion because I'd made it very clear from the beginning that I didn't want any emotional involvement.

Of course, he'd told me that he, too, wanted just a no-strings sexual interaction, and he'd also promised to avoid the L-word. Now he'd changed his mind and broken his promise, leaving me feeling betrayed and angry. For the next few hours of that sleepless night my mind was swirling with a mix of different emotions whose proportions constantly changed, although most of the time the predominant emotion was anger.

When the Sunday dawn came, my body twitched with fatigue and my brain was exhausted, but still I couldn't sleep. My unhappiness was increased by the realisation that there was little hope of keeping to my study schedule that day. With only about four weeks to the start of the final exams, that thought worried me greatly and it made me curse Matt for his bad timing.

After breakfast, I resolved to put Matt out of my mind and not to allow his betrayal to affect the prospects for the rest of my life. This whole incident, I told myself, just reinforced how right I'd been in my decision to avoid emotional entanglements. I also told myself that I didn't need Matt and that I'd be better off without him. I was determined that the next time I wanted to find someone for sex I'd be more careful to ensure that the proposed sex-buddy really did share my desire for a no-strings interaction.

Despite my logic and my resolve, however, all that day my attempts to study were an abject failure. At first, that made me even more angry with Matt, but during the course of the day the anger faded, and by evening, when I went to bed early in the hope of catching up on my sleep, other emotions overshadowed my anger. Alone in my bed, I realised that I was already beginning to miss him and that what I missed wasn't just sex.

Perhaps perversely, I'd enjoyed the way he'd managed to make me laugh even when his humour was used to puncture my ego and bring me down to earth. I realised that his attitude to life, so often annoyingly different from my own, gave me a useful contrasting perspective. I was sad that he'd gone and I wanted him to come back, but I still felt that he was the one who'd broken our agreement, so he was the one who should make any first move of reconciliation.

That night I managed to get a little sleep, though it wasn't very restful, and the next day most of my classes went by in a haze. On the Monday night, forty-eight hours after Matt had walked out of my room, I still hadn't heard from him, and my prideful resolution to wait for him to make the first move was beginning to wilt. What he'd said about not wanting to end up like Frank echoed in my head, and I realised that I didn't want to lose him like I'd lost Frank.

My reasons for wanting to repair my relationship with Matt were not all selfish. The memory of the last time I'd seen him kept haunting my mind like an accusing ghost. The pain in his voice, the hurt in his eyes and the dejected body language were all things I'd never seen in him before. Although it wasn't my fault that Matt had become emotionally involved, it was clear that he wouldn't have been hurt if we'd never met. A feeling of guilt was joined by an increasing concern that he was probably still feeling the pain of rejection.

Of course, I hadn't specifically rejected him, but I admitted that he could be justified in inferring that from my refusal to answer his question. If and when we spoke again, I'd need to address that question one way or another, and to do that I needed to examine my feelings for him. After that, if I still couldn't tell him that I loved him, I'd have to think of some very persuasive reasons for him to continue seeing me. With all that going through my mind, I had a third night with little or no sleep, and on the Tuesday morning I decided that if Matt hadn't contacted me before ten o'clock that night then I'd have to phone him.

Although I'd hoped that Matt would contact me before my self-imposed deadline, I knew that it was unlikely that he'd do so. Therefore, I wasn't really disappointed when I didn't hear from him. After taking a few minutes to build up my courage, I phoned him at about ten thirty. However, he didn't answer, so I left a voice mail message simply asking him to call me. The same thing happened three more times between then and midnight, and this was so unusual that I began to suspect that he was deliberately not picking up when he saw my number on his caller ID.

The thought that he might be deliberately avoiding my calls was both hurtful and worrying, so on the fourth call I left a more substantial message and hoped that he would at least listen to it.

"Matt, this is Ian. Please listen to this," I said somewhat redundantly. "I need to talk to you. You can have an answer to your question. Call me back anytime, it doesn't matter if it's after midnight, and we can arrange to meet as soon as possible."

After leaving that message I only had to wait about five minutes before he called me back, which reinforced my suspicion that he'd been screening out my calls.

"Hi," he said in a carefully neutral tone. "It seems you have something to say to me."

"Yeah," I replied, trying to hide my relief at hearing his voice. "Let's meet for a chat as soon as you can. If you don't want to come here then we can meet wherever you like."

As soon as the words left my mouth, I was amazed by my eagerness and willingness to capitulate and meet under whatever terms he dictated. At that moment my pride hadn't merely been swallowed, it had been almost completely digested.

"If you're going to answer my question then a simple yes or no is all I need," he said warily. "If you're not going to answer it, or if the answer is no, then there's nothing to chat about."

From his tone I could tell that he wasn't as disinterested as he was trying to seem, so I tried to explain as best I could.

"It's not as simple as that," I said. "The answer isn't no but it's more complicated than a simple yes."

"Why do you always have to make everything so complicated?" he said, showing his exasperation.

"Because I think life is complicated," I replied. "And maybe I see shades of grey where you see black and white."

"I don't know," he said, clearly uncertain and suspicious. "How do I know you won't just try talking me into getting back together without giving me any answer at all?"

"Yeah, right," I said wryly. "Like when have I ever been able to talk you into anything you didn't want to do? Anyway, I promise to give you an answer, even though it's not a simple one. Just listen to what I have to say, and if you don't like it then you can just go away again and we won't be any worse off than we are now. What do you say?"

There was a long silence before he replied. "Okay. I'll be there in about twenty minutes."

Then he hung up, leaving me a little stunned and concerned by the fact that he'd be with me in such a short time. I still hadn't worked out exactly what I wanted to say to him, and I was still trying to sort things out in my mind when he arrived. When I met him at the outer door he returned my grinning greeting with a friendly but businesslike smile, and when he entered my room I had to resist the urge to give him a welcoming hug. He sat on the chair by my desk, and I sat on my bed so that we were facing each other.

"Right, I'm listening," he said. "I'd prefer it if you gave me a simple answer, but knowing how your mind works, I think that's unlikely. Make it complicated if you have to, but if you start giving me any bullshit then I'm going and I won't be back."

Despite his relatively harsh words and serious expression, I got the strong impression that he would prefer not to go away forever. However, I still felt a little intimidated because so much seemed to depend on what I said next.

"Okay," I began nervously. "Please be patient and listen, even you've heard some of it before."

He nodded, leaned back in his chair and rested his arm on the desk.

"From when I was eleven until I was fifteen," I continued, "I had a best friend, Teo, who I loved a great deal, but I thought it wasn't a romantic love. When I was fifteen I thought that I was in love with Simon. I loved them both at the same time, and I was sure that they were distinctly different types of love. I was probably right about that, but I still don't know which, if either, was really the same as being in love. A lot has happened since then, and now I'm not so sure I can separate my feelings so simply.

"Now I think they were just different aspects of the same thing, like different shades of grey. But I'm not even sure about that. What I am sure of, though, is that when Teo died and when Simon rejected me, it hurt a lot, and I learned that whatever label you put on those feelings, they can lead to a hell of a lot of pain. I was hurt when you left on Saturday night, and I could tell that you were hurt, too, so that's yet more proof that the sort of emotional entanglements labelled 'love', usually cause pain."

I paused briefly to consider my next words, then took a deep breath and resumed, "So, I was hurt when you left, and I'd miss you if you were no longer part of my life, but I don't think that's real love..."

Before I could continue with my little speech he interrupted me, and his expression, which up until then he'd clearly tried to keep blank, became one of deep sadness.

"Then why did you want to talk to me?" he asked, his voice harsh. "Just to explain why you don't love me? I told you that I can't...."

"No," I said, this time interrupting him. "Please let me finish. I've been trying to sort things out in my head. Trying to work out what to say to you. I've not been able to think about anything else since Saturday, so please let me finish."

He frowned a little and nodded his head.

"I enjoy our time together, and not just because of the sex," I said. "Just being with you makes me happy. No matter how badly things go in the rest of my life, you make me feel better. Somehow, even when you poke fun at me and tease me, you can always make me laugh. And even your irritating arguments can be entertaining."

He looked as if he was about to say something, but I shook my head a little and lifted my hand, so he remained silent.

"So of course my life would be much worse without you, but we both know that's not love." I paused while I struggled to find the right words to express my feeling, then I took another deep breath and continued. "Then I realised that what was making me most miserable over the last few hours wasn't how much I'd miss you but knowing how unhappy I'd made you. The thought of you being hurt and unhappy makes me miserable, but the thought that you're unhappy because of me is almost unbearable. I realised that what I wanted most of all is to protect you from anything that would hurt you or make you unhappy."

Again he seemed as if he were about to speak, and again I gestured for him to remain quiet.

"I still don't really know what love is," I said, "but whatever it is, I don't think it's about me and what I might get out of it. What I can definitely say is that I want to be with you, I don't want to be with anyone else, and I want to make you happy. That may or may not be real love, but I offer it to you, and I offer myself with it. And I hope you can accept what I can offer."

He sat there looking back at me as I watched his face and waited for his reaction. It seemed to be a long time before he responded, though in reality it was probably just a few seconds. Then, when he'd apparently absorbed what I'd said, a small smile crept into the corners of his mouth.

"Bloody Hell, Ian!" he said. "You really know how to make things complicated. Still, at least you're honest in your own complex little way. I know what I feel for you, and I don't want to dissect or define it, but I suppose it includes at least some of what you said."

He paused and looked thoughtful for a couple of seconds before he frowned slightly and continued in a more serious tone. "The problem is, I don't know if I can accept the fact that you can't say you love me, even if what you describe seems to be very like love. Can I risk getting hurt if you fall in love with someone else?"

I knew his questions were rhetorical, so I made no attempt to answer them directly. However, it seemed to me that I could at least clarify some points.

"Whether my feelings for you count as true love or not, I don't have these feelings for anyone else, and I don't want to have them for anyone else," I said. "And even if someone really loves you and says that they love you, would it mean they can never fall out of love with you? Would it mean they can't ever fall in love with someone else?"

I paused and studied his face to see if he understood what I was trying to say. "Could you really feel more secure and safe from hurt with someone who said he loves you than you could with me? After all, if I can't love you, then I can't love anyone else, and whatever I've got to offer, I will offer it to you and to no one else."

"And what if you meet another Simon or Derek?" he asked.

"I'll run away from them as fast as I can!" I joked.

"No, seriously," he said, frowning. "I meant what happens if we're together and you fall in love with someone?"

"That's what I meant," I said earnestly. "As soon as I felt that might be happening I'd run away from that, too. In my experience falling in love is a form of temporary insanity that brings only misery, and so I'll avoid it at all costs. And even if I can't avoid it, I'd not risk the happiness I have with you just for another experience of being miserably in love."

"And what if you fall in love with me?" he asked, his eyes serious, though his lips were smiling. "Will you run away from me?"

"I'm not sure I could ever fall in love with you," I said, adopting his half-joking attitude, "because I know you too well and I like you too much to do that."

Contrary to my intentions, that statement appeared to make him rather unhappy, so I quickly went on to try and explain myself.

"What I mean," I said, "is that when I thought I was in love with Simon and Derek, it was with the person I thought they were, not the person they really were. They represented everything I wanted myself to be, and I fell in love with that image. But I know you quite well by now, and my feelings for you, whatever label we put on them, are for the real you. When I fell for Simon and Derek it was like being intoxicated, and it made me irrational. And I think now that such intoxication would probably have been transient, even if they'd returned my feelings. But what I feel for you is different. It's more solid."

Although he looked reasonably pleased by my long speech, I got the impression that he wasn't totally convinced by it. That impression was quickly reinforced when he stood up.

"Well," he said. "I'm glad I came round to listen to what you have to say. Now I need a bit of time for it all to sink in, and then I'll let you know what I decide to do."

That reaction to my carefully chosen words wasn't what I'd wanted or hoped for, and I couldn't hide the disappointment in my response.

"But when you accuse me of thinking about things too much," I pointed out, "you always say that you prefer just to do what feels right at the time."

"Yeah," he agreed. "Unlike you, I don't make mental lists of pros and cons, but I also don't rush into important decisions. I let things sink in, get absorbed, percolate around for a while, then I decide what feels right."

He stood up and was obviously about to leave, but I was reluctant to leave the situation just hanging.

"It's late," I said. "Aren't you going to stay the night?"

"That's tempting," he said with a smile, "but I don't think it would be a good idea. We'd probably just end up shagging."

"And that would be a bad thing?" I asked.

"Well, it would certainly be distracting, and I don't want my decision to be based on sex. Well, not just on sex," he said and gave me a lecherous grin. Then he became more serious and added, "Anyway, I'd already decided that I'm not going to have sex with you anymore unless we're going to be more than just bonk-buddies."

Just a few weeks earlier, I'd felt totally in control of my relationship with Matt, and now I felt helpless and a little irritated that I had to wait for him to decide whether or not we had a future together. The expression on my face must have enabled him to guess my thoughts.

"Don't worry," he said, smiling gently, "it won't take me long to decide. I already think I know how things will go, but I just want to take time to make sure it really feels right. Anyway, I'll phone you."

When he left, I lay back on my bed, resting my eyes and expecting another sleepless night. However, still fully clothed, I almost immediately fell asleep. Perhaps it was because I was so tired, or maybe it was because, deep inside, I realised that there was nothing more I could do and it was now all up to Matt.

At lunchtime the next day, Matt phoned.

"Fancy a shag tonight?" he asked cheerfully.

Although his words were his usual direct, almost crude, way of saying he wanted to meet, on this occasion they also held a less obvious message, which I immediately understood. Typically for him, he didn't mince his words or try to explain his decision.

"You bet I do!" I responded joyfully.

"Okay, I'll see you at about seven thirty," he said.

The next few weeks went by in a blur as the final exams approached and broke over me like a tidal wave, leaving me mentally and physically exhausted. After the last exam I was left in an anticlimactic limbo, having to wait ten days before the results were announced. Matt was very supportive throughout the whole exam ordeal, and he was very understanding when he realised that during the final burst of studying I had little time for socialising and not much time even for sex.

A couple of days after my last exam, Matt came round to my room straight after he finished work, and I immediately noticed that he was more pensive and serious than usual.

"I've been thinking," he said before I could ask if something was bothering him.

"Hope you didn't strain anything!" I joked.

"I've been thinking about what will happen when you have to move out of Hall," he continued, smiling wanly but otherwise ignoring my interruption.

"Oh," I said blankly.

I'd not given any thought at all to what would happen after the end of term, apart from the possibility of doing postgraduate studies with Dr Robertson, and even that hadn't been in the forefront of my mind. I'd especially avoided considering practical details of my future, because it seemed that there was no point in doing so until I got my exam results. If I didn't do well then such plans would be a waste of time, and if I assumed that my grades would be good it would only risk an even greater disappointment.

"Well, you're going to have to live somewhere," he said.

"Obviously," I replied, slightly sarcastically. "But there's no point in making plans until I know what sort of degree I get."

"You're bound to do well," he said dismissively, as if it were a foregone conclusion. "And you'll get on that postgrad course, so you'll need somewhere to live in Linchester."

"I'm glad you're so confident!" I said. "But ..."

"Confident or not," he interrupted, "the point is that in about four weeks you'll have to leave Hall, and if we're going to find a flat before then, we need to start looking now. After all, we don't need to make any definite commitments on a flat until you're sure you're on the postgrad course."

"Find a flat?" I said, rather taken aback by that unexpected idea.

"Well," he said, frowning slightly, "if you really want to save money, I suppose we could live with Mum, but I didn't think you'd want that."

"You're not serious!" I exclaimed, wondering if he was just winding me up.

"Just a little bit," he said, a mischievous twinkle in his eyes. "But it's not impossible, and I'm sure she won't mind."

"No way!" I said, horrified at the thought.

"There you are, then," he said triumphantly. "We have to find somewhere to live, so we should at least start looking at what sort of flats are available."

He opened up his overnight bag, took out a couple of local newspapers and handed them to me. For several seconds I just stood there staring at him with the newspapers held limply in my hand.

"What's the matter?" he asked, frowning a little.

"Well, erm, are we sure?" I said uncertainly. "It's, erm, a big step."

"Don't you want us to live together?" he asked, his frown returning.

"Yes," I said, "but suppose we find we don't get on when we're actually living together? Wouldn't that spoil what we've got now?"

He sighed, but the way he looked at me gave me the impression that he'd expected my reaction. However, instead of arguing with me, he went over to my CD collection and flicked through it for a few second. Thinking that perhaps I'd upset him, I threw the newspapers onto my bed and went over to him. Not knowing what else to do, I rested my arm over his shoulders and waited for him to say something. He turned his head and smiled at me.

"A few times you've told me how certain Pet Shop Boys' songs have reflected events in your life," he said. "So just sit down and listen to this."

Puzzled, I did as he instructed and sat on the bed, and a few seconds later he found the CD he was looking for, chose a track, then sat down next to me and put his arm around my waist. The song was Why Don't We Live Together, and as the title suggested, the lyrics were about someone trying to persuade his presumed lover that there's more to being together than just having fun. One of the main points seemed to be that if they dared to take the risk of making a home together then they could share much more.

When the track finished, he took my chin in his hand and turned my face so he could look directly into my eyes. "Why don't we live together?"

Just for once I didn't feel the need to weigh up all the pros and cons, and I just allowed myself to react in a way that felt right.

"Okay," I said.

My exam results were better than I'd really expected, though not as good as I'd hoped. Still, they were good enough for Dr Robertson, who accepted me as a postgrad student and helped me to sort out the finances. That left me with just over six weeks between the end of term and the start of the new course, but despite my lack of funds, I didn't look for a temporary job because I had more need of some rest and relaxation.

By the time I had to leave Hall, Matt and I had found a flat, though I had to borrow the money from him to pay my half of the deposit. Fortunately, he could afford that because he'd just been promoted to assistant manager. I wasn't completely idle, and during our first couple of weeks in the flat I did some painting and tried to turn the initially characterless space into something more personalised.

When we'd been flat hunting, it'd become clear that on our limited budget we could afford either a nice place with one bedroom or not-so-nice place with two bedrooms. As the second bedroom would be used only for guests or as a possible smokescreen for curious relatives, the choice wasn't difficult. By the time we moved in, Matt had already announced to his mum that we were boyfriends, so no smokescreen was required for her. However, as far as my family were concerned, Matt was just a friend I occasionally mentioned and whom they'd never met.

When they found out, as they inevitably would, that the two of us were sharing a one bedroom flat, then eyebrows would certainly be raised and direct questions would be unavoidable. Therefore, I decided that it would be best to launch a pre-emptive strike, so as soon as we'd moved in together, I made the first move by telling my mum about Matt and me. Being a complete coward and wanting to avoid any potentially emotional confrontation, I didn't do it face to face. I didn't even do it over the phone, but instead I wrote a letter to her and then anxiously waited for whatever reaction might ensue.

My wait wasn't long, and late in the evening of the day after I posted the letter my phone rang, and from the caller ID I saw that it was my mum. Matt and I were cuddling on the sofa and half-watching some TV program, so I showed him my phone display. He immediately muted the TV and gave me a supportive squeeze.

"Hi, Mum," I greeted her with more than a little trepidation.

"Hullo, love. How are you enjoying your new flat? All excited at getting a place of your own for the first time?"

She sounded completely normal, and of course she'd known for weeks about the flat, so I began to wonder if she'd received my letter yet.

"Erm, I sent you a letter yesterday," I said hurriedly, completely ignoring her question.

"Yes," she said with no change in tone. "I got it this morning. That's one reason I'm phoning tonight."

Expecting her to make some comment, I remained silent. However, it seemed that for some reason she was waiting for me to speak next. As usual in such matters, Mum won out.

"And?" I prompted, not even trying to hide my frustration. "Don't you have anything to say about it?"

"Well of course I do, dear," she said in her best patient-mother-to-little-child voice, "but I knew you'd be, er, nervous about it, so I thought it best not to jump straight into things."

"Well?' I said.

"Well, it's not the greatest news I've ever had, and I'm disappointed that you didn't tell me sooner," she said calmly, "but it's all part of life's rich tapestry."

I groaned inwardly on hearing that last phrase, one of Mum's favourite and much used clichés. However, she used it in all sorts of situations, sometimes not quite appropriately, so I realised that its usage here didn't imply anything too negative.

"Anyway," she added, "it's not as if it was a total surprise."

"It wasn't?" I croaked, surprised and perhaps slightly disappointed.

"No," she said a little smugly. "After all, you did spend a lot of time alone in a tent with Frank."

Something in her tone told me she was smiling, that little smile just on the corners of her lips, that irritating smile which she used whenever she thought she'd scored a point over someone. I was profoundly grateful that she couldn't see me blushing. Matt noticed my redly-glowing cheeks and gave me a knowing and sympathetic look.

"Mind you," she continued, "when you mentioned dancing classes with Debbie, I thought that maybe the Frank thing had been just a phase."

"I think that dancing with Debbie was just a phase," I said wryly. As her response hadn't been too bad, I thought about the next stage. "Have you told Dad?"

"I showed him your letter."


"You know your dad," she said. "He's not a great one for emotional reactions. He just frowned and handed the letter back to me. I'm sure we'll talk about it later."

"What about Andy?" I asked.

"That's something you'll have to take care of yourself," she said, somewhat sternly. "You can't expect me to do that for you. But if you take my advice, you won't do it by letter."

"Okay," I replied meekly, feeling a little chastised.

There was a lull in the conversation, but under the circumstances I didn't want to be the one either to end it or to introduce a more trivial topic.

"Well," Mum said eventually in a businesslike tone, "I suppose we should meet him, then."

Because of the brief break in the conversation, and because I was still relaxing from my earlier tension, I didn't immediately understand what she meant.

"Who?" I asked.

"Matt," she replied with mild frustration. "Your dad and I should meet Matt."

"You're always welcome to visit," I said, trying to sound more enthusiastic than I felt.

"What, with you in a one bedroom flat? Do you expect us to sleep on the floor? Or pay for an expensive hotel?" she asked, almost indignant. "And you surely don't expect us to spend almost four hours driving there and back just to spend a few minutes with you. No, you'll have to bring him here."

"How will that be better?" I asked, irritated by her tone. "Do you expect Andy, Matt and me to squeeze into one room?"

"As it happens, Andy will be going away with friends for a couple of weeks, so you can come then."

"I can't promise we can manage it," I said, secretly hoping to put off any such visit for as long as possible. "Matt works in a shop and it's not always easy for him to get time off."

"I'm sure you can arrange something," she replied confidently.

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