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CHAPTER 13: Chapter Thirteen
-- CHAPTER THIRTEEN --
After his meeting, Steven returned his bicycle to the flat, and drove his car into town to meet John.
It was just gone two o'clock when Steven pulled up to a little storefront office in an older section of the city, thinking he must surely be in the wrong place. Then he saw the name "JOHN DIXON" on the door. Steven pulled on the old but newly repainted door and it creaked open. Inside, was a nice but modestly furnished office which seemed deserted.
"John?" Steven called.
"In here, Steven," John called back, coming out of one of the side offices.
"I rather expected leather, chrome, and an elevator ride," said Steven, looking around.
"Well, we've got only vinyl and wood, I'm afraid," John replied smiling.
"Seriously, this wasn't what I expected from a Dixon."
"Seriously, I was tired of the rat race. Who needs it?" John offered.
"Dixons who tire of the rat race do it in Monte Carlo or the Caribbean or someplace. Not in storefront offices."
"Okay, okay," John said, good naturedly, holding up both hands. "Guilty as charged. I figured I'd try to help some people who might not be able to afford a solicitor, so here I am in the old uptown district. But I honestly did tire of the rat race."
"I'm impressed," said Steven.
"God!" John replied, groaning humorously and rolling his eyes, "I'm through impressing people."
"I meant it in a good way," quipped Steven, thinking that this really was a new John Dixon.
"Okay, I know," John replied. "Fancy a coffee?" he said, walking toward a coffee maker perched on a small table to the side of the main office area.
"Yeah, great," Steven said, almost chuckling. "I still can't get over you drinking coffee."
When the coffee was done John invited Steven over to the waiting area which featured more comfortable furniture.
"Have a seat"
"Thanks. Good coffee."
"Thanks. Steve, can I ask you a question?"
"Why did you speak to me that evening in the grocery store? I mean, you could've just slipped out."
"I just wanted to break the ice. I knew you were back in town and I didn't want us to have to round each corner being afraid we would run into each other. It seemed best to just be open."
They sipped their coffees.
"Well, I hope my coming to your flat the other day didn't upset you," John ventured. "I just wanted to let you know how I felt. I'm sorry if I was a bit---"
"No, John, it's not that, it's just... well, there are some things I just don't understand."
"Like what, Steve?"
Steven took another sip of coffee and thought for a moment. Then he took a deep breath and spoke from his heart, "John, I don't understand how you could have been married for all these years and then come back here and...and...say what you did!" Steven paused, trying to speak calmly. "Did you love her, John?"
"Yes, I did, Steven."
"Then how can you come here now and say---" Steven stopped. There was pain in his voice.
John sighed. This was what he had dreaded the most-- trying to explain to Steven. Trying to account for the past twenty-two years. If he said that his marriage was only a sham, that he'd been only gay all along, that would be a lie. Yet if he claimed to have a wonderful marriage, how would Steven believe him when he said he loved him now?
The truth was not as simple as black or white. The truth, John had learned, was not always so easily sorted.
"Steve, I don't know if I can explain it, but I'll try. You ask if I loved Barbara, well, yes I did. Very much. When I left Basingstoke I was running from myself, from feelings I didn't understand, or was afraid to understand, maybe. If I had it to do over again, I would certainly do differently. If I had it to do over again, I'd be up on that stage with you, I'd never have let you walk away. But when I met Barbara I fell in love with her. I truly did. We were at university, she was beautiful, and smart, and witty. And she loved me."
John looked at Steven but could discern no reaction.
"I'm not saying that we had the most passionate marriage in the world, or that I didn't have doubts at times, or desires. But I was completely faithful to her during our marriage. Completely. I was committed to her, and she to me. And we were, I suppose you'd say, happy. And Susan came along, we built a life around her, and--"
"But was it fair to Barbara?" Steven interjected.
John looked thoughtful. "The truth is that it probably wasn't. I'll be the first to tell you that she deserved better than me. She deserved someone free from my conflicts who could, well, maybe give himself more freely in ways that I couldn't."
John looked up and continued, "But you see, Steven, that doesn't matter because she wanted ME. She loved ME. And if you'd given her the choice she still would have chosen me, she still would have loved me. Not that I deserved it. But that's the way SHE was."
"But didn't you owe her the truth? Didn't you owe her the right to choose?" Steven pressed.
John looked down again, "Yes, I did. I did owe her that."
"Did she know?"
John looked sad for a moment and shook his head. "Steven, I'm not telling you that I handled everything correctly. In fact, I'm telling you quite the contrary-- that I've bungled my life at every stage. At school, I thought I had everyone fooled, that I could fool anyone. Well, anyone except you, that is. But I wasn't just trying to fool Barbara. I did love her. I'm not telling you my marriage was perfect, because it wasn't. I'm not saying that I did everything right, because I didn't. In many ways I failed in my marriage like I've failed at so much else. But I knew Barbara well, I did love and care for her, and above all else, I can honestly tell you that she truly wanted to be with me."
"I guess I just don't understand how you could--" Steven started, but his voice trailed off.
"How I could what?"
"How you could be married for all those years and then come back now and say you love ME," Steven blurted, trying to hide his pain.
"Steven," John pleaded, "all I can do is try for the first time in my life to be completely honest. I'm no good at that either, I'm sure. If there's one thing I've learned over the last twenty years it's how utterly fallible and imperfect John Dixon really is."
Then John's voice took on a slightly stronger tone. "But Steven, for all your emphasis on gay rights, you're trying to put me in a cubby hole just like the straight world tries to do to you. You're sitting there self-righteously thinking that I couldn't have loved Barbara if I do truly love you now, or that I couldn't truly love you if I really loved her."
Steven looked down.
"Once married, you slap a big 'STRAIGHT' label on everyone and, if they dare to express any gay feelings after that, you assume they are just users! Traitors!" John said with some force, shaking his head. "Don't you see, you're giving me a choice of 'A' or 'B' and demanding that I choose one or the other. I can't do that, Steven, because I don't fit in either box." John's tone softened, "Sometimes love just doesn't work that way."
John continued, "You say that, as a gay man, are in favor of love however and whenever it occurs, without regard to the conventions of society -- yet, you seem to be accusing me of something heinous when I tell you that I really loved Barbara then, and I really love you now. Why do those have to be mutually exclusive? Why must you force me into that box?"
Steven looked miserable. John was right.
"Steven," John said tenderly, sitting down next to him, "I came back here, well, honestly, hoping that you still felt something for me, and that maybe you could forgive the past. I'm not looking for a quick fling on the side, and I didn't come back out of mere impulse. I've loved you --all along-- for the major portion of my life. You're the first person I ever truly loved. I wasn't lying when I said that my love for you has been there all along. Nothing-- nothing would make me happier now than to love you, and to try to make you happy for the rest of my life."
Then John stood, sighing deeply. "But when I came back I also made myself a promise. I promised myself that for once, starting now, for once in my selfish, cowardly, damn upper-crust life I was going to be completely honest and open with everyone, and that's what I'm trying to do." He sighed again. "It doesn't come easy for me."
"Honest with-- everyone?" Steven asked.
"Yes, Steven. With everyone. No more secrets. No more living to please everyone else," John replied. "And I'm not going to lie to you and tell you that my marriage was a sham, when it wasn't, just so you'll believe me now when I say I love you."
John shrugged. "That's probably what the 'old' John Dixon would have done. Whatever gets the desired result. But I won't live that way anymore, Steven. And love is just too complex, and too rare and too beautiful, to put in a box."
John stopped, trying to discern a reaction from Steven, but Steven sat there looking away, thinking.
"I've told my Mum about us--" John said.
Steven looked up.
"--well, I mean about what happened at school, about us-- then. About me. And I told her that I intended for us to, you know, at least be mates now, if you'd have me."
"And what did she say?" asked Steven.
"I don't think she believed me, but I don't care about that. I really don't. I was honest with her, and if she wants to live in denial she's perfectly welcome to it. I won't live my life to please her. Not now. Not anymore."
John sat down beside Steven slowly, and looked at him with pleading eyes, "Steve, in this God-forsaken world, love of any kind is a bloody miracle. How can we just throw that away?"
Steven's eyes rose from the floor to meet John's.
"Steven, I'm going to say it again because I don't want you to leave this office without having heard it at least one last time." John paused, stung by the thought that it might indeed be the last time he'd ever speak these words, "I love you, Steven."
John reached for Steven's hand, but Steven jumped from his seat and stood, his hands fleeing deep into his pockets, and shaking his head. "Johnny ... Johnny, I just don't know---." His voice trembled. "I do... I do... love you, but I just don't know if I'm strong enough to take the risk again."
It was the first time Steven had called him "Johnny" and the word hung in the air between them.
John looked up at him tenderly and spoke softly, "Life's a risk, Steven."
Then John paused, and added, "I won't let you down ever again."
Suddenly, they heard a buzzing noise. "That's the pager from my answering service," John said. "They must not know I'm here. Must be an emergency. Just a minute." He reached for the phone and dialed a number.
"This is John Dixon. Did you just... yes... when?... how serious? Yes, right away." He put the phone down.
"It's my Mum. She's had a serious fall and has been taken to hospital."
"Oh, Johnny. I'll drive you over."
* * *
Steven stayed with John at hospital for twelve agonizing hours. Twelve long hours to sit, and to think.
At four a.m. Veronica Dixon died.
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