I NEED IT TO BE REAL

By

NancyKay Shapiro



Note: This story started life as a chapter from my novel, What Love Means To You People. The chapter was subsequently dropped, but "I Need It To Be Real" appeared in a small lit magazine out of Chicago, Midnight Mind, issue 5.




The fiftyish, janitorial man who held the elevator door for them in the lobby of the Municipal Building scoped Cassie thoroughly from her trim ankles to the round belly and rounder breasts, and up to her pretty face, chin proudly uplifted. He caught Jim's eye over her head as they got in and turned to face the closing doors. "Third floor, right?" When Jim nodded, the man grinned, eyebrows cheerfully upraised, and mouthed something it took Jim a couple of seconds to get. That honey sure caught you, man!

The doors opened, and the smiling man bowed them out. "Third floor—Marriage Bureau!

It was at that moment Jim thought for the first time of what this must look like.

Here he was, a forty-two year old man in a grey Hugo Boss suit and a yellow tie, hand in hand with a pregnant girl of twenty. Everyone who saw them together would naturally assume they were a couple. It was disgusting, Jim always felt, the way successful older men went for women who were barely post-pubescent.

What a display they made of themselves, two people together for reasons so blatantly transactional! What could such couples possibly find to talk about? Maybe people like that just didn't talk when they were alone, the way so many other people never read. He and Seth were an ill-assorted couple too, but he rejected the comparison at once. What they had together was about all sorts of intricate things no one else could be expected to know or understand. Whereas that couldn't possibly be the case with these midlife straights and their trophy wives.

In the elevator bank was a decrepit exhibit about Tammany government. Once past that, they came upon a huge heap of old computer equipment piled against the flaking yellow walls.

"Is this the right place?" Cassie asked, glancing around.

"Afraid so."

"But the outside of the building is so grand."

"Yes, well, this is nothing—you should see what jury duty looks like. Come."

He took her elbow, wishing she hadn't worn such a low-scooped, form-fitting dress. The dresses were all that fit now, the sleek black trousers and jeans Seth had bought her when she came to them were too small already. In the short time since what Jim called Revelation Day, she'd gone from carrying very small to carrying big, as if the end of secrecy had freed the baby to expand exponentially in all directions. What do you care what strangers think? he chided himself. You'll never see any of these people here again. They wended their way along the murky corridor towards the doorway marked Wedding Chapel.

In response to a sign she saw on her right, Cassie drew her arm away. "The bathroom is up another flight. I'd better go now."

The waiting area was crowded, almost all the chairs taken. Lots of Asian people, black people, and the few little groups of whites had a look about them—hair styles, clothes, just off enough to be conspicuous—of people who turned out to speak with heavy Slavic accents. He got on line to hand his paperwork over to the clerk at the desk, and was aware of trying to look more natural than he felt, even though no one was particularly looking at him. This was crazy.

He'd been off-kilter the last few days, they all were. Ever since Cassie announced her one great condition for giving up the child to them. They'd been sitting around the table after dinner.

"I want a ring on my finger," she'd said, "I want the kid to have your name from the start, Jim, and I want a real husband to go through all this with me. The preparations, the birth, all of it. I need it to be real."

Seth slapped his palms against the wood and shot up from his chair. "What do you mean, real?" he'd demanded, eyes sparking.

"I mean real. If you guys want the kid, then Jim has to claim paternity, we've got to get married. Just 'til it comes."

"That's insane!" Seth said. "You know that's not necessary! All that's necessary is that you relinquish your parental rights, and we adopt it."

"It's necessary to me," she'd said, with a hauteur that was new. "I don't want to go through this as a single girl—without respect, in trouble. I need to be someone's wife for as long as it takes. You're my brother, so it can't be you. That leaves Jim."

This silenced Seth for a moment. He frowned. "If it's being disrespected you're worried about, we can make sure no one dares—"

Cassie shook her head. Her arms were crossed possessively over her belly.

Seth had turned to him then, spluttering. "Tell her, Jim! Tell her you're not going to marry her!"

It was crazy, but there was, nevertheless, something in Cassie's demand that appealed to him. Claim paternity, those words, they resonated in his head even as Seth protested. He wouldn't really be marrying Cassie of course, not in any true sense, but the child would become, thereby, almost indisputably his. He'd be marrying the baby. Jim was surprised at the melting feeling he got from contemplating it.

They'd gone around and around on the question all evening, but Cassie stood firm, and finally Seth, speechless and tight-mouthed, had retreated to the bathroom. He'd spent a long time in the shower, but even so when he emerged, Jim had seen, as he climbed into bed, that his eyes were red-rimmed. He'd snapped off the light and curled away before Jim could get a good look.

Jim had intended, that very evening, to propose to him that they register with the city as domestic partners, and celebrate themselves and their impending parenthood, both, with a commitment ceremony and a party. It was certainly time, past time, they do that. Before he could open the subject, Cassie let loose her demand, and he couldn't bring himself to refuse. She was the Empress now, she must have everything she wanted. If that included his name and his hand, on paper and for a few months only, as they both reminded Seth, then so be it. Yet somehow it felt paltry to promise him at the same time that they'd make their own relationship official as soon as the divorce from his sister was final. After all, official or not, what they could have wasn't a marriage. Far from it. So he'd said nothing about it at all.

And last night, when Jim was setting the alarm clock, Seth, already under the covers with his back turned, said, "I'm not going to go with you. You don't need me to be there."

"Of course I need you to be there. Your sister needs you to be there. And what about the nice lunch we were going to have afterwards, to celebrate? Dim sum."

"You can have lunch alone with your wife. In fact," he said, sitting up and throwing the covers off, "maybe I ought to get out and let her sleep here. After all, who am I—the guy you fuck. Not your spouse. I can't be that."

"Seth, please—" Touching his shoulder was like grabbing a hot pan handle. "Oh for Christ's sake! You're taking this too far!"

"One of us is taking things too far, but it's not me!"

He'd talked to him then, all over again, about what this did and did not mean, begged him to be reasonable, said there was no reason why he should be in a sulk, and he'd at least done him the courtesy of not interrupting, although his lip curled under his cigarette, and when Jim stopped speaking, nothing had really changed.

"I know why you want to do it," he muttered, snatching the quilt back up and curling away, "and I know why she does, even if you don't. I can't stop you, but I don't need to be there to see it."

That morning he'd been gone when Jim woke up.

The paperwork handed over, Jim sat down to wait. There weren't many empty seats in the room. He was near the window, where a puffing radiator immediately began to cook him from the waist down. Looking around, he saw few smiles; people huddled in nervous groups, some laden with flowers and cameras, but none looking truly merry. English duked it out with five or six other languages, snatches of which came to Jim's ear as he kept an eye firmly on the door, and resisted a compulsive urge to look again at his watch. This was the oddest place in New York, he thought, to be sitting alone. He uncrossed and recrossed his legs. Shot his cuffs. Deliberately didn't look at his watch. Tried to distract himself by playing a game: who was the handsomest groom in the room? Which couple looked the most unlikely? Youngest? Oldest? Usually he enjoyed people-watching, but the relentless straightness and dourness of the situation was getting to him.

The last time he'd been in this room, a good ten years before, it was to witness as some friend of Zak's had given his hand, and with it a green-card, to an artist from Paraguay. She'd paid the friend, Zak said afterwards, fifteen thousand dollars for the favor, money the friend wanted in order to help set his boyfriend up with a catering business. They'd joked that day about the underground economy, and after the ceremony gone for Vietnamese with the groom and his boyfriend, the bride and her girlfriend. Somewhere along the line he'd gotten hold of a bad shrimp, and spent the next twenty-four hours doubled up in the john. At least on that occasion, everyone's significant other was a good sport about the proceedings.

"How long do we have to wait?"

"I don't know." He got up to give Cassie his chair; there wasn't another nearby. Continuing the game, Jim had to award her Most Visibly Pregnant Bride In The Room. She took a book out of her bag, opened it, but didn't start to read. Her eyes were riveted on the frosted glass door at the end of the room.

"Is that it?" she asked, gesturing towards it with her chin.

"The portal to the fatal chamber," he said, crooking a smile.

Cassie stared at it. Nothing could be seen on the other side; the semi transparency of the door wasn't even evident until someone on the other side came up close to it. The clerk called the next couple and the group disappeared through the door. He timed it with the sweep hand on his watch; not quite two minutes had elapsed before the couple and their witnesses emerged, looking a little stunned, and after resuming their coats and wraps, swept out of the room.

"My God. That's it?" Cassie said.

"Some television commercials are longer," Jim agreed.

For the first time, she looked uneasy, glancing around the room. "No one looks real thrilled, do they?" she whispered.

"I'd noticed that. I guess getting hitched here isn't most people's first choice."

"I wish Seth had come with us."

"Me too. Did you see him this morning?"

She shook her head. "Didn't you?"

"This is hard for him."

Why does everything have to be hard for him? Why am I always having to be the one with the mature outlook?

"Why should it be? It doesn't really mean anything."

He glared. "If it doesn't mean anything, why did you insist we do this?"

". . . just because I'm a girl who got knocked up in a rusty trailer, doesn't mean I have to give birth like one . . . . "

"A rusty trailer? Oh Cassie." He averted his gaze. He'd deliberately not asked her about the baby's father or any of the circumstances of the conception. Now he was rather ashamed to find himself wondering whether there wasn't more to it than . . . perhaps there were drugs involved, or the baby wouldn't be white. He told himself that the latter wouldn't make any difference to him, and Cassie had never seemed like a girl who'd had much to do with drugs. The mental image he had lodged in his head now was so divergent from the picture Seth had painted of their background, that he ached to think of the fall she'd taken since her parents' deaths, the way she'd lost.

"He didn't force me. I went with him because I wanted to, and I liked it. But I was in a place I really didn't belong. I deserved better than what I was offered. I really just want to put the whole thing behind me. I'm going to change my name and change myself."

"Change your name? You're not really planning to use my name, are you? After we divorce, you're not going to—"

"Yes, I think I will. Being a McKenna hasn't been much fun."

"But—"

"What difference does it make to you?" She flashed around at him.

"That's entirely up to you, of course. I've no say in it at all."

He found himself wishing he had some reinforcements. He should have called Clyde and Billy, asked them to be here for him. He'd been postponing telling them about the baby; he knew they'd grumble and lecture him, but that at bottom they'd be thrilled, and eager once again to be uncles. He thought this development would fully reconcile Clyde to Seth if anything could. . . but he'd not done it because he'd imagined all the snide hectoring things Clyde would've said about the wedding, and had wanted to have that over with before he included them in any plans. Now he was sorry he'd not submitted to all that so he could have them here to trade grimaces with. He'd not realized how lonely he'd be; Cassie was almost antagonistic, and didn't feel at all like the comfortable little friend he'd come to know in the last couple months. And Seth was . . . Seth was God knew where, doing God knew what. He glanced out the window and tried to focus his thoughts on the baby. This was all about the baby, and nothing else mattered. He'd get through this day and its ceremonies, and Seth would turn up at home before long, he was confident of that. It was all just a question of sitting still with the slosh of his stomach.

"You're angry at me, aren't you?" Cassie whispered.

"What? No . . . no, don't say that," he murmured, turning back to her. "This is a very new thing for all of us, that's all."

"It's just that the other way . . . me being the knocked-up chick who's got to give the baby away . . . it feels so squalid. I never wanted to be in this trouble. Whereas, once we're married, no one will look at me like . . . ."

"Darling, it's perfectly all right. Nothing for you will be squalid from here on out, you have my word." He took her hand, and held it on his knee, wishing the Municipal Building was a little less squalid than it was. Wishing Seth was here, so that later they'd have a shared memory of this afternoon.

Seth had taken the news about his sister's pregnancy altogether more easily than Jim had anticipated. Since then, he was seen to be genuinely reading the books Jim had brought home, and spoke frankly of his fears about what changes the baby would bring into their lives. On the street he looked at children, and it was clear he'd never really done this before; it was an effort. He spoke to people with babies, asked them questions. There was an element in all this of saying See, I am doing this for you, as if he was trying to share Jim's enthusiasm for something challenging like twelve tone music or chess. Seth's tentative approach to the idea of becoming a parent at age twenty-four struck the right note with Jim, it was more genuine, for him, than out and out eagerness. He was hopeful. At the same time, he was aware that he was holding out on Seth. Comparing this time to the other one, when he and Zak were waiting for Max, the substantial difference was the sheer amount of jaw they'd done: long rambling philosophical conversations, sometimes leading to voices raised, about child-rearing, early learning, discipline approaches, Ferberizing. About gay politics, the idea of family, about what it was all going to mean. He'd brought very little of this up yet with Seth. Was that deliberate, or did it just feel as if he'd hashed it all out once already? He reflected, and was ashamed of himself for it, that Seth wouldn't have much that was useful or engaging to bring to any such discussions. He was leery of finding out he was right.

As he watched the next couple called trail hesitantly after the calm clerk, he imagined Seth sitting right now in his studio, not painting, not doing anything. Maybe just staring into space or out the window, feeling that things were happening beyond his grasp or wishes, leaving him out. Until now his objections to the marriage seemed selfish and trivial. He was taking it far too literally.

Now, as if someone had grabbed him and turned him upside down, he got a whole other perspective on it: of course Seth felt like a third wheel, and it wasn't just Cassie's fault. He'd somehow let himself fall into thinking of Seth as someone who would be only tangentially involved, who mustn't, despite the obvious effort he was putting into the whole process, be bothered too much by it.

He let Cassie's hand go; it was too small and slender, not the one he wanted to be holding. He imagined himself saying I'm sorry, but we can't do this wedding after all. I know it's important to you, but your brother hates the whole thing, and I can't hurt him. He's the one I've got to be loyal to.

Cassie took her hand back, turned it over, stared at the moist palm, flexed her fingers. He cleared his throat. He would say it. Get her out of here, go find Seth. She'd be upset, but he knew now he'd been absolutely wrong to place Cassie's wishes above her brother's. What was she in the scheme of things—and what was Seth? Seth was the partner of the rest of his life. This wasn't the right way to start it off.

He rose. Cassie's gaze followed him up, in a moment she'd ask him what was wrong; there were still three or four parties ahead of them waiting to be called. Her eyes didn't engage with his; she was looking past him. She said, "Oh. My. God," and put her hand up to her eyes.

He glanced around.

In the corridor, peering in at the door, was Seth. Dressed in the same white suit he'd worn on their first date, with a white shirt and tie, like a little Catholic boy about to take first communion. For Seth, who wore white as a daily uniform, this wasn't particularly out of the ordinary, although Jim had never seen him wearing a tie before. What had drawn Cassie's gasp, and attracted also the attention of a good third of the people in the room, was his other nuptial accessory. Set on his freshly blonded hair was a circlet of white orange blossom, festooned with baby's breath and small green leaves, that seemed almost to fizz in the stale atmosphere of the place. This diadem made him look pretty, and absurd, and also, oddly, very masculine. Jim's first thought was to wonder whether he'd worn it in the street all the way from whatever florist had sold it to him, or had he slipped it on just now in the corridor. His next thought was, what the fuck is he doing? Seth's affectation for white, in this setting, couldn't help but be a commentary. What it said to him at that moment was You've chosen wrong, you've spurned me at the altar.

Catching his eye, Seth came slowly forward, solemn and upright. Jim glanced around at Cassie, who was sitting stiffly, her eyes trained on the middle distance, as if her approaching brother had nothing to do with her.

He wended his way lightly along the crowded row of sitters. Staring people made way for him, in various attitudes of nonchalance, amusement, and disgust; Seth looked at no one but Jim. When he reached him, he stood on tiptoe to give him a chaste kiss on the mouth, which he took passively, feeling all those pairs of eyes upon him.

"What've you got there?" he asked, keeping his voice light, hoping to diffuse the situation before Seth said anything awful.

"Isn't it nice?" He rolled his eyes up towards the flowers, still dewy, that ringed his brow, and for a flicker of a moment, his tongue appeared between his lips. Jim didn't know if he wanted to kiss them or bite them, it was certainly one or the other, but he went on feigning this almost-indifference while his heart hammered in his chest. Despite the precious crown, or maybe because of it, the effect Seth had on him, the desire to possess, to at once ravage and protect, was made new, as if they'd been parted for months.

At his back, the radiator gave off its redundant waves of heat, in accord with Cassie's smouldering horror.

"I had a little chance to think . . . I know I can't really make up for being a pill the last few days—" He lifted the crown off, and peered around Jim at his sister.

"Sugar, this is for you." He laid the circlet gently on her head. "Something pretty for the bride. Although when you get married for real, probably to some handsome prick of a Frenchman, you'll have everything pretty from head to toe. That's a promise."

She jerked at the touch, but otherwise didn't say or do anything except stare at him, until Seth bent to kiss her forehead just below where the diadem rested.

"Cuteness and charm work on him," she hissed, "but not on me."

"C'mon, Sugar, give me credit at least for knowing when I'm fucking up . . . you'd look really nice in that if you didn't screw your face up quite so much."

"I'll do what I like with my face."

He blinked at her, and turned back to Jim. From the capacious pocket of his suit jacket, he took a couple of boutonnieres, white roses and ribbon all ready with pins, and affixed one to Jim's lapel.

"This is touching," he said, "Your change of heart."

"It's not meant to be touching, it's meant to squeak me in under the wire of your continuing good opinion," Seth murmured. "For God's sake, forgive me for being so difficult at all the wrong times. Here, do this for me, please."

As he pinned the other rose for him, Jim whispered, "I'd have liked this to be for us. For us, somewhere nicer than this."

"It will be . . . we'll have the honeymoon, anyway, yeah?" he smiled, ducking his head. "First the honeymoon, and then the baby carriage."

Jim had drawn the line at double rings. When next he put on a gold band, he was determined it would be for Seth only. The ring he'd bought for Cassie was a good one, though plain; even as he slipped it on her pallid finger, he imagined, with equanimity, the day she might hock it in Paris. The few words of the civil ceremony went by him altogether; she kept her face down, hidden behind the two curtains of hair, but Jim's eyes were all for Seth anyway, who stood just on the other side of her, one step back, holding his gaze. When Cassie said "I do," Seth mouthed the words with her, and it was to him, with a furtive smile, that Jim said them back.

The clerk pronounced them married; now Cassie raised her head expectantly, but Jim, past caring, leaned behind her and pressed his husbandly kiss on Seth's mouth. They fled without pausing to see what effect they'd had on the officials, pushing in a jumble back through the glass door, in a hurry to quit the waiting room and the whole Municipal Building. Rather than wait for the elevator, Jim steered them to the stairs; she descended first, and he imagined, while unable to see her expression, that she'd be in a snit. She couldn't have expected me to kiss her, that really would've been too much. I wouldn't have done it whether Seth was there or not.

Indeed, when they emerged into the thin wintery sunlight, Cassie rounded on him.

"Why'd you yank me out of there in such a hurry? Now you'll just have to wait for me out here, because I've got to pee again, right now."

When they were alone, Seth leaned against the side of the building and lit a cigarette. He exhaled with a flourish and caught Jim's eye. "I'm cutting down, honest I am. I'd really like to have your tongue in my mouth right now, but meanwhile I'll have to make do."

Jim sighed. "I think we're both going to feel a lot better once we're alone with the baby."

"Once she's gone flitting off to Paris, yeah." He sighed. No eagerness there, Jim noted. "So how does it feel? Being married?"

"I already felt married."

"I don't mean to Zak—I mean to her."

"I don't mean to Zak either. Or her."

Jim could see the words take their effect on him, his ear and cheek suffused with pink, although Seth moved only to cast his eyes down after the cigarette he let drop to the pavement. He went on mashing it out with his toe long after it was decimated.

"Okay, here she comes," Seth said. "The little wife."

Emerging from the revolving door, she spotted them, her brother leaning against the pillar, Jim looming over him—he couldn't help it, he was so much larger in every way—propped on one arm positioned beside Seth's head. For a second she saw them again as they'd seemed in her first couple of days in New York, two strange men who looked wrong together in every possible way, who stood too close to each other, were always doing and saying things that were predictably unpredictable and icky. Remembered her horror that first time she'd heard their lovemaking through the bedroom wall.

Now she saw Jim lower his head a little closer to Seth's, saying something that made her brother drop his gaze, smile a bit, and blush. Sometimes, she thought, that tendency of Seth's to color up was the only thing that saved him from utter mystery.

And Jim. Jim saved him from that and so much else.

The men glanced up to see her. They stepped apart. Jim smiled, but Seth, his penetrating gaze fixed on her, was frowning.

"What happened to the flowers?"

"Oh—" She touched her temples where the diadem had rested. "I . . . I gave it to a girl in the bathroom. She was all nervous and stuff. I thought . . . I thought she needed it more. She was getting married, for . . . for real."

Seth opened his mouth, but Jim's hand just touched her brother's wrist, and he closed it again. Cassie closed hers too.

END





Originally published in Midnight Mind #5.




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