The next few days passed in a lazy blur. It would have been almost nice, except Elliot could sense that Tyrell was retreating back into himself.
Elliot knew Tyrell loved food; he’d spoken passionately about it in the past. He liked to try new things, and he enjoyed dishes with spice and flavour. But over the last couple of days he’d picked morosely at his meals and chosen bland, beige food. Elliot had tried to tempt him with Korean take-out on the second day, but he’d declined and had toast instead. It was as if he was shutting down, like he simply couldn’t process any unnecessary sensory information.
They talked, but it was always awkward chit-chat. Elliot was starting to get a picture of how Tyrell coped with things. He retreated and grew quiet, seeking physical reassurance rather than sharing what was on his mind.
The only time he seemed happy was when they were being intimate. They’d kiss lazily on the couch, limbs entwined and hands rubbing soothing patterns on each other’s skin. Tyrell would let himself go, seemingly forgetting everything other than the feel of Elliot’s lips on his. But when they’d stop, he’s snap back into his bad mood, or sleep. He did a lot of sleeping.
Elliot knew that his silence was a defence mechanism, and understood from his own experience that talking could be scary. It meant confronting feelings, and hearing the words out loud made everything real. But, he reasoned, as glorious as it would be, they couldn’t just spend their days kissing. So, on day four, he pushed a bit harder.
‘Tyrell, what’s on your mind?’
‘Elliot, I don’t wa-‘
This request, simple and earnest, was enough to stop Tyrell in his tracks. He cleared his throat nervously.
‘I’m anxious about seeing my son.’
Joanna had called to arrange for Tyrell to come over and see Otto. Once he’d hung up the phone he’d seemed jittery, but on the whole happy. Elliot put the jitters down to nerves (completely understandable, given the circumstances), but overall had been pleased that something good was happening for Tyrell.
‘Why are you anxious Ty?’
Tyrell looked ashamed, and Elliot reached out to put a reassuring hand on his forearm.
‘Because I’m scared that I won’t love him,’ he whispered.
Elliot was momentarily speechless. He’d not been expecting that. He’d assumed Tyrell would be nervous to see Joanna, that he would find it hard to see her in her new house, starting a new life without him. He had thought perhaps that Tyrell might feel disconnected from the baby, being that he’d not had very much contact with him so far. But he hadn’t expected Tyrell to say that.
‘Because I’m worried that when I look at him all I’ll see is the lies. And besides, if my marriage was a sham, surely that makes me barely more than a sperm-donor. Certainly not a father.’
‘That’s crazy Ty, that’s not how it works! And surely you have to realise you were more than that to her.’ No response.
Tyrell just stared at his hands.
‘And as for not being a father, what you do now determines that, nothing else. If you’re there for him now, and you’re there to watch him grow up, then how could anyone see you as anything but his father? And most importantly your son isn’t going to care about any of the shit that went down. Sure, that might be a confusing and awkward conversation when he’s older-’ Tyrell laughed softly and Elliot squeezed his hand, ‘- but if he knows you love him, that’s all he’s going to care about.’ Tyrell looked up at Elliot hopefully.
‘And I don’t believe for a second that you won’t love him. He’s a part of you, your own flesh and blood. At the end of the day that matters far more than everything else you’re worrying about.’
Tyrell pulled Elliot into a hug and gripped him tightly. The smaller man stilled, caught off guard, but recovered quickly, wrapping his arms round Tyrell’s broad shoulders. He breathed in Tyrell’s clean, fresh scent, and closed his eyes. They stayed like that until Tyrell finally relaxed, and that night he ate something other than bread for the first time in days.
Two days later Elliot helped Tyrell get ready to leave for Joanna’s. Clearly nervous, Tyrell fussed with his appearance, and looked, on multiple occasions, like he might throw up. As he opened the front door to leave Elliot pressed a firm, urgent kiss on his lips and looked up into his eyes.
‘Remember what I told you.’
Tyrell nodded silently, a lump in his throat.
He found Joanna’s apartment without any trouble, and she let him in with a warm smile.
‘Hello Tyrell,’ she said fondly, kissing him on both cheeks. He looked like a deer in headlights, his blue eyes wide, and his stature lacking its usual height and confidence. She took him by the hand kindly, and led him into the front room. He looked around, taking in the surroundings. Like the house they’d shared it was tastefully decorated, if a little more modest. He spotted a photo of the two of them, taken on the beach. It was a candid shot he didn’t remember being taken. They looked young and happy.
Joanna caught what he was staring at. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said, ‘I hope you don’t mind me keeping this one up. It’s just a happy memory for me,’ she finished sadly. ‘If it’s too weird for you I can take it down.’
‘N-no,’ he managed to croak, ‘I like it.’ He cleared his throat. ‘I’m sorry, this is just-‘
‘I know,’ she cut in softly. ‘It’s okay. Do you want to-‘
‘Can I see him?’ Tyrell interrupted, his resolve hardened, and his mask firmly back in place.
Joanna faltered slightly, taken-aback, before nodding. ‘Of course you can.’
Tyrell might have doubted it before, but as soon as he saw Otto he knew without question that he loved him. He’d already grown a lot since he was born, and he blinked up at Tyrell sleepily. Tyrell smiled at him and gently stroked his face with his left hand. His eyes filled with tears as he felt overcome with joy.
‘He’s beautiful Joanna. Perfect.’
Joanna had come up behind him and wrapped her arms around his waist. Resting her chin on his shoulder blade she whispered, ‘I know. We did well’.
Tyrell turned to face her. He was so unaccustomed to this softer side of Joanna. It reminded him of when they were first together, but it was a part of her he’d rarely seen in recent years. Now he understood why of course.
They were standing far too close, Tyrell looking down into Joanna’s eyes. He brought his hand up to her cheek and heard her breath catch in her throat. This snapped him out of it, and he withdrew his hand sharply. He turned his attention back to the baby. ‘Can I hold him?’
‘Tyrell, he’s your son, you don’t have to ask.’
Nervously he reached into the crib and gently picked his son up for the first time. He choked out something between a laugh and a sob as he held Otto’s tiny warm body against his. Joanna decided to leave the two of them alone and quietly headed out to the kitchen. About twenty minutes later Tyrell came out to join her. She was pleased to see that he looked happy, a genuine smile gracing his face for the first time in what felt like ages. He took a seat next to her and she offered him some tea.
They sipped contentedly until Tyrell broke the silence.
‘Never could I have imagined how incredible that would feel.’ Joanna just smiled. ‘I could have held him forever.’
‘You could have stayed longer, I wouldn’t have minded.’
‘He started to get restless, so I thought it best to let him sleep.’ He suddenly remembered something and reached into his bag. ‘I brought him a gift!’
Joanna opened the box he gave her, and pulled out a small soft toy. She laughed as she saw it was a little lion.
‘Because he’s going to be strong and brave like his mother.’
‘And his father,’ Joanna added, gently squeezing his hand. He just nodded, not really convinced by her words.
He almost made a joke about how he’d decided to steer clear of teddy bears this time, but realised he couldn’t bring himself to. He felt a lump form in his throat, and his vision swam.
He wasn’t sure how it happened. His thoughts were so jumbled that his brain was three steps behind his body, so he was as surprised as she was by the feeling of his lips on hers. Her soft noise of shock jolted him into the present, and his mind screamed at him that he was making a mistake. He couldn’t find it in himself to care however, and he deepened the kiss.
Joanna pulled away suddenly. ‘What are you doing?’
‘Please,’ he whispered brokenly. She knew him better than to assume this was about needing immediate comfort. She understood that this was about closure, a way to come to terms with the hurt he felt. A way to end their chapter, and move on. She’d be lying if she said she hadn’t felt the same way.
They’d been together for such a long time. Even to Joanna, who had known their life was a lie, their abrupt ending had been a shock. It had left her with loose ends that needed tying up, and feelings that needed to be reconciled. It was human nature to mourn the familiar when it was snatched away, even if it was you that did the snatching.
Her own feelings aside, surely she owed him this much anyway. If he needed this to help him deal with the truly awful things she’d done to him, then it was the least she could do. She needed to make sure he understood something though.
‘You know this doesn’t mean-‘
‘I know, I know it doesn’t,’ he whispered frantically as he placed kisses down her neck, his hand already slipping inside the waistband of her trousers. She gasped, letting her head roll back as his fingers found their destination. She grabbed his other wrist and pulled him roughly to the bedroom.
They had always had crazy chemistry, and a great sex life. But there had come a point in their relationship, when she’d decided that she needed to distance herself, for both their sakes. It didn’t seem fair to keep building such a meaningful physical connection, and she felt like she was taking advantage of him.
They both had such a high sex-drive that stopping sex altogether would have been out of the question, so for Joanna, the silk ties and blindfold acted as a compromise. Tyrell was unsure about the restraints at first, but she’d persuaded him that it turned her on, and eventually he got on board.
It helped her to disconnect from sex by removing its tenderness, its intimacy (in her eyes, at least). It served a purpose and left them satisfied, but it was stripped of all the things that had made sex special for them. She knew he felt the same, but wanted more than anything to keep her happy, so went along with it. That thought broke her heart; he’d always been so good to her.
As hard as it felt in the beginning, she knew the kindest thing she could do was to be colder towards him, and sex was a good starting point. She also reasoned that somehow, letting him have dominance absolved her of some of her guilt. She had taken away so much of his power in all other areas of their relationship that in her mind this levelled the playing field. She realised now how much she’d been lying to herself as well as him, and that she would never be able to forgive herself for the awful ways in which she’d manipulated and pushed him away, knowing he loved her too much to leave her.
Their sex now reminded her of their early days. When she’d still thought, somehow hoped, that maybe they could work. Before she’d fully come to comprehend the weight of her lies, and the effect they would have on him. Before she’d realised just how large the game board was. Before Phillip had finally been honest with her about the endgame, and how life-changing its consequences would be.
Sex with him at the start had been like nothing she’d ever experienced. She’d never really associated sex with any sort of meaningful connection, and the first time they’d made love, the intensity of the feelings behind it had overwhelmed her. He’d made her feel good, wanted, cherished. Feeling all this again now, she was reminded why she’d felt the need to cut off that side of him. It was too much- far more than she felt she deserved- and this feeling overwhelmed her again.
Sensing she was upset he paused, looking down at her with worried eyes. ‘What’s wrong?’
She felt too choked to speak, but eventually managed, ‘I’m just so sorry.’
‘You never deserved any of this.’
His expression was unreadable as he studied her face. Eventually he seemed to win whatever battle he was fighting in his mind and he moved to capture her lips with his. ‘I just want to have this to remember us by.’
She understood completely- he needed something positive to take away with him, an honest memory of the two of them, as equals. She nodded, cupping his face with her hand, and he built the pace back up until he was driving into her hard and fast.
As they neared their release they babbled sweet nothings in their native tongues. She knew he was really close when he started to groan her name. She savoured hearing it, knowing it would be the last time.
Afterwards she could tell he felt as wrung-out as she did. They lay panting, nerves singing with pleasure and again, she savoured the bittersweet moment. She took him in, noting all the ways she’d undone him, knowing she would never see him like this again.
Tyrell lay next to her, feeling like he’d been hit by a sledgehammer. He could feel anxiety tightening his chest, and struggled to calm his racing thoughts. He sat upright, in an attempt to breathe in more air, but the room felt too hot, too stifling. He could hear her talking to him, could sense concern in her voice, but she sounded so far away. He shrugged away from the hand she put on his shoulder and started putting his clothes back on frantically.
He told her he had to go (or at least he hoped he’d said the words out loud, but he couldn’t be sure), and quickly made his way outside. He took in big lungfuls of fresh air, leaning against a parked car for support, not caring about the concerned glances he was getting.
It was a fairly long walk back to his, but he decided he needed the time to sort himself out, and started walking on unsteady legs. About halfway there he realised he couldn’t leave things this way with Joanna so he reluctantly pulled out his mobile. She answered on the first ring.
‘Tyrell?’ she sounded small and worried.
‘I’m sorry I left like that, I was… confused.’ Confused was such an inadequate word for how he actually felt, but he didn’t know where to begin explaining. She seemed to understand anyway.
‘I know, I’m sorry. For what it’s worth though, I don’t regret it.’
‘Me neither,’ he eventually concluded.
‘I hope this doesn’t complicate matters with Elliot.’
He froze, feeling like he might be sick.
‘How did y-‘
Hearing his panic she cut in quickly, ‘I didn’t know for sure. We were watching you before but what you did in your own home was always private. You have my word on that. They wanted to bug everything, but I wouldn’t let them.’
‘Am I still being watched?’ He didn’t know why the thought hadn’t occurred to him sooner.
‘No. They promised to sever all ties as soon as you were told everything. They’ll keep their word; you won’t ever have to worry about them again.’
‘But then how did you know?’
‘It was just a hunch. I know you Tyrell.’ He felt a weird stab of betrayal at that.
‘That must be nice,’ he retorted bitterly.
‘You know me a lot better than you think you do. I know you don’t believe this, but not all of our relationship was a lie. I opened myself up to you far more than I should have done.’
He forced an angry laugh out through his teeth. ‘Oh, how nice of you Joanna,’ he spat venomously.
‘I know it’s of little comfort to you right now, but it’s true. I only started to pull back when I realised it wasn’t fair to you.’
With those words, the fight in him vanished, and his shoulders slumped.
‘I want to be a part of our son’s life Joanna, but I don’t want this to be so hard.’
‘It won’t always be, I promise.’
‘There’s so much I want to ask you about our relationship. I need to understand, to see it how you saw it, but at the same time I really don’t want to. There are some things I just need to…’ he struggled to find the right words, ‘…hold on to.’
‘Then don’t ask me, at least not yet if you don’t feel ready. Give yourself some time, and don’t be so hard on yourself,’ she said kindly.
He nodded, not caring that she wouldn’t be able to see his response.
‘Tyrell, I’m glad that you’ve found someone. I want you to be happy.’
He ignored her words, not wanting to think about Elliot right now, and trying to ignore the guilt that rose up in his throat like bile.
‘So I’ll see you on Friday with Otto?’
‘Of course. And Tyrell-‘
‘Bye Joanna,’ he cut her off. Joanna blinked at the abrupt end to their conversation, but understood that he was just retreating to protect himself, there was no anger behind his actions. She had confidence that they would be able to work out their complicated relationship, if not for themselves, for the sake of their son. It would just take some time.
Tyrell on the other hand, was no longer thinking about Joanna, but instead worrying about Elliot. He was almost home, and knew that Elliot would want to talk to him. He could get away with not talking for a while- he could just say he wasn’t feeling well and Elliot would give him some space. But Elliot would definitely want to kiss him when he came in, and the thought of that made him want to cry. Oh God, what had he done?
He put his key in the lock and entered quietly. Elliot came out to greet him with a smile.
‘Hey,’ Tyrell mumbled weakly.
‘How did it go?’ Elliot moved to wrap his arms around Tyrell, but the taller man shrugged him off, turning his face away from him.
‘What’s wrong?’ Elliot asked him gently.
He felt trapped, with his back against the front door, and Elliot’s wide eyes boring into him.
His heart hammered in his chest as he whispered, ‘Elliot, I did something.’