The Last Anniversary
by Angela Benedetti
[This story is a sequel to “A Spirit of Vengeance.” “The Last Anniversary” was originally published on the Torquere web site as part of their Route of Relationships promotion on 30 September 2008.]
Tamra shifted her position in the upholstered chair and sighed. The chair was comfortable, but when you were spending several hours at a time in it, eventually the padding just wasn’t enough.
The hospice room was nice, with cool blue walls and curtains. The floor looked like hardwood, but Tamra thought it was probably some sort of composite. There were some pictures on the walls — landscapes and florals, very relaxing. The furniture was all wood veneer, and if it weren’t for the monitors and equipment around the hospital bed, one might imagine oneself in a nice living room.
Of course, Josh had been in that bed across the room for sixty-two days now, and although the hospice workers were good about turning him every two hours, Tamra didn’t imagine he was terribly comfortable either. Or that he would be terribly comfortable, if he were aware enough to be uncomfortable. Sometimes Tamra hoped he wasn’t, and then she felt bad about it because if he wasn’t aware then that was as close to being dead as made no difference, wasn’t it?
The door opened slowly and Tamra’s daughter Margie poked her head in. She looked over at the bed, then turned and murmured over her shoulder, “Grampa Josh is still asleep, so tip-toes and quiet voices.” She held the door open and the two children crept in under her arm, eight-year-old Carson and four-year-old Abby. Carson had his backpack with him, and Abby was carrying the stuffed lamb she always took to preschool.
Margie was carrying something too, a large and bulky package in a plastic sack scavenged from some long-ago department store purchase. Tamra smiled and watched her take it over to the side table and pull out a platter covered with foil. The children pressed close on either side; Abby bounced up and down, patience not being one of her skills yet.
“The muffins turned out perfect,” Margie whispered. “Dad’ll love them.” She bit her lip and turned away, and Tamra pretended not to have noticed her eyes shining.
“Dr. Aviv said he could have a tiny piece, like a big crumb,” Tamra said. “Just enough on his tongue to taste but not enough to choke him.”
Margie nodded. She handed a chocolate-chocolate-chocolate-chip muffin to each of her children, then pinched a bit of crumb off of a third and walked over to the bed.
“Hey, Dad,” she said softly. She stroked the back of his sunken cheek. His cheekbones, always prominent even when he’d been a young man, stuck out under his fragile skin, sharp and grotesque. He took a deep breath, then sighed.
“It’s your anniversary, Dad. I brought you a muffin.” Margie coaxed his lips open with one finger, then pressed the muffin crumb onto his tongue.
Tamra heard a low noise come from the bed. It might’ve been an “Mmmm,” or it might’ve just been a random vocalization which meant nothing. She preferred to think that Josh had actually tasted the muffin and knew what it meant.
Abby came over and leaned on Tamra’s knees. “Gramma Tam?”
Tamra and Margie both said, “Shhh!”
Abby scowled, then whispered, “Gramma Tam? What’s an anniversary?”
Tamra said, “It’s a day in the year when something important happened. It’s like your birthday — that’s the anniversary of the day you were born.”
“An anniversary is when someone got married,” Carson whispered around a mouthful of muffin.
“Sometimes,” Tamra said with a nod. “Sometimes it’s the day two people met — that’s what it means for Grampa Josh.”
“So that’s the day he met Grampa Jeff?”
“No. His anniversary with Grampa Jeff is the day they got married — that was in March. Today was the day he met your Grampa Kevin. You don’t remember him; he died before you were born. Before your mother was born, even.”
“Did they get married too?” asked Abby.
“No, love. That was a long time ago, and men weren’t allowed to marry other men back then. Or women to marry women. Your Gramma Claire and I had to wait until the laws changed.”
“That’s stupid,” said Carson, his voice dripping scorn as only the voice of a youngster practicing to be a teenager can.
“You’re right,” agreed Tamra. “It was. That’s why the law was changed. But Grampa Josh and Grampa Kevin had to just live together, even though they loved each other very much.”
Josh tasted chocolate and he heard Kevin’s name. Chocolate muffins — it must be their anniversary. He’d met Kevin at a party, a pot-luck thrown by a bunch of younger artists, some of them other art majors he knew from the university and some just freelancing whatever they could manage. Someone had declared it Ugly Public Art Day, and Taya and Greg had tried to cram as much of the local art crowd into their apartment as they could manage without a crowbar.
Over near the rear window there’d been a hot debate about the ugliest public art in California. Josh was arguing in favor of the huge pile of moldy-looking crates on the Long Beach State lawn, while some goth girl he’d never met before and had never seen again after was trying to convince him that the pile of dog shit in concrete up in San Jose was worse.
“But at least that’s supposed to be something,” Josh insisted. “It’s supposed to be a big snake coiled up, right? Quetzalcoatl? Sure, the artist obviously never stepped back and took a look at it, but it has a style and you can see what they were trying to do. The box-pile thing just looks like someone snuck out there in the middle of the night with a huge truck and dumped a bunch of crates that’d been sitting in water too long, and made their get-away before anyone could charge them with littering. It’s not even–”
Josh’s diatribe was cut off when someone reached around from behind him and stuffed a chunk of something into his mouth. He choked at first, and batted at the anonymous hand, but then he got a taste. His eyes opened wide, then slowly closed. Chocolate exploded across his tongue and lingered, and he found himself moaning from deep in his gut, a sound he’d only ever made before in the aftermath of a really excellent orgasm.
He grabbed the hand he’d been swatting just a few seconds earlier and planted a fervent kiss on it. It was a big hand, strong and lean, with a bare dusting of dark hair across the back. A masculine hand, perfect. Josh sucked the thumb into his mouth for a moment, then grinned and said, “If you give me the rest of that, I’ll owe you a blowjob,” before turning around.
Everyone within earshot, the people who’d been arguing about rotten crates versus shit-like snakes, was cracking up and making jokes. Josh didn’t care. He turned around and saw that the Bringer of Divine Chocolate was a good looking older guy with shaggy hair and a killer grin.
“I’ve got three left,” the guy said, holding up a greasy-looking paper sack. “What’ll that buy me?”
“Oh, man, for three you can have me for the rest of the weekend!”
More whoops of laughter surrounded them, along with teasing and protests. At least five hands shoved past Josh and into the sack, pulling out muffins and hunks of muffin and whatever crumbs they could get ahold of. Before the shaggy guy could do more than fight for his balance, the sack was empty.
“Damn,” he said, holding the sack upside-down and shaking it with an exaggeratedly sad sigh. “Looks like I’m out of luck.”
Josh gave him a look-over and his smile shifted from teasing to intense. The guy was hot, sure, but the humor clinging to him like an aura was even more attractive. “How about if you owe me?” He looped an arm around the guy’s neck and kissed him hard. Mmm, chocolate.
Josh jumped and almost spilled the whole bowl of batter on the floor. “Umm, nothing. I mean, I’m just, you know, it’s….” He trailed off and shrugged, looking away.
His husband knew him well enough to come over and press himself against Josh’s back, looping his arms around his chest to cuddle him close. Jeff pressed a kiss behind one ear and said, “Hey, what’s wrong?”
“Nothing.” Josh hunched his shoulders and looked away. He felt guilty, for what he’d been doing and then for not being able to just say it right out. It was stupid — it was just muffins — but he couldn’t help feeling like he was cheating on Jeff. Adultery by baked goods.
“Try again,” Jeff suggested. He leaned over and peered into the bowl. “Looks good. Smells good too, for something that hasn’t been in the oven yet. What are you making?”
“Muffins,” Josh whispered.
“Muffins are good. Are these those chocolate muffins you made a while back?”
Josh nodded and thought, One year ago exactly. And one year before that.
“Cool, they were excellent. So why do you feel like shit over it?”
“They’re, it’s, I mean they were….” Josh trailed off again, then sucked in a breath and straightened up. “It was Kevin’s recipe. We met when he stuffed a chunk of muffin into my mouth at a party, and he always made them on our anniversary.”
Jeff wasn’t stupid and picked up on the unsaid. “September 30? You met today?”
Josh nodded. “Twenty-two years ago. Half my life.”
He felt Jeff’s arms tighten around him. “And you thought I’d be jealous of you making Kevin’s muffins?”
Josh closed his eyes and leaned back against Jeff’s chest, letting his husband support him. “I know it’s stupid,” he said, his voice low and flat. “I can’t help it.”
“Yeah, it’s stupid, but luckily I love you anyway.” Jeff leaned down and kissed the corner where Josh’s neck met his shoulder, then asked, “Where did we meet again?”
One corner of Josh’s mouth quirked. “Survivor’s support group.”
“Good, you do remember. And you probably remember that I’ll always love Beth, just like you’ll always love Kevin. We know that about each other, and we understand, and it’s okay, because it doesn’t stop us loving each other too.”
“I know, it’s just… memories are one thing, but it’s like I’m celebrating our anniversary, except it’s not our anniversary.”
“I wear the Christmas tree sweater Beth knitted for me every Christmas. You think it’s cute.”
Josh’s smile widened just a little. “It’s definitely cute. All the tiny jingle bells on it just make it.”
“And you can always find me when you want a Christmas kiss.”
Josh grinned and nodded.
“And I get to help you eat the muffins, and they’re rockin’ muffins, so we’re good there. We are good, right?”
Josh nodded, then turned and kissed Jeff, long and hard, his arms wrapped around his neck. “I don’t deserve you,” he whispered, after they both came up for air.
“Maybe not on your own,” Jeff agreed, “but the muffins tip the balance. You could make them more than once a year if you wanted to be safe.”
“Brat!” Josh laughed and punched Jeff in the shoulder.
“Daddy? How come I have so many relatives?” Ten-year-old Margie stared down at the stack of blank stationery for thank-yous next to her on the kitchen table, and the first page (of three) of the list of names and addresses above them, and scowled.
“Because you’re an incredibly lucky kid,” said Josh calmly. He was across the room at the pantry, pulling out muffin ingredients and laying them out on the counter, but was keeping one eye on his daughter. He’d been trying hard not to laugh at her increasingly loud and obvious sighs of annoyance.
“I am not lucky! This sucks!” Margie turned in her chair, managing to stay slumped while doing so, and glared at him.
“I suppose next year we could tell all your grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins not to give you any birthday presents. If you only got a few presents, just from us, you could tell us thank-you in person and that’d do it.”
Out of the corner of his eye, Josh could see the horror spreading across his daughter’s face. She was more than good enough at math to be able to weigh the difference between the thirty-some presents she’d gotten from various relatives and close friends of the family, and the four she’d get from just her moms and dads. He tossed a bag of chocolate chips in the general direction of the mixing bowls and dug around on the top shelf for the baking chocolate and powdered cocoa, ignoring Margie’s muttering.
She resorted to bargaining, with, “How about if I make the muffins and you do my thank-yous?”
Josh chuckled. “First you’d have to convince me you know how to make the muffins.”
“I’ve watched you a bazillion times,” Margie insisted. She hopped up off her chair and came over to the counter. “It’s not like it’s hard or anything.”
“It’s not hard, no, but it can be easy to forget something, and then they don’t turn out at all. I did that a few times when Kevin was teaching me. It was pretty gross.”
Margie giggled. “Is that why you don’t bake anything else, just the muffins?”
Josh nodded. “I’m really not into baking, or even cooking much. I’m sure you’ve noticed.”
She snickered, then pointed out, “But you make these every year.”
“They’re really good, though. You should make them more often.” Margie leaned up against his side and reached an arm around his back, squeezing his shoulder on the other side. When had she gotten tall enough to do that?
Josh hugged her back and tried to figure out how to explain the muffin thing. Margie knew about Kevin, knew who’d done the paintings in the studio and the bedroom, and the one in her moms’ bedroom, knew that he’d been killed years ago and that her daddy was still sad about it sometimes, just like her papa was still sad sometimes about Beth. But maybe she was still too young to really understand this kind of symbolism?
“Or you could teach me and I could make them for you?”
He looked down and studied her face. She’d be growing up soon, but wasn’t there yet, and that was fine. She’d understand some day.
“Maybe I could do that,” he agreed. “But I’ll still want to make them once a year. Even if I forget the baking powder sometimes.”
“But you still have to write your own thank-yous.”
Margie stuck her tongue out at him, then giggled again. Josh handed her the recipe, scrawled on the back of a stained grocery receipt, and they set about making muffins together.
Josh could still taste the muffin, the tiny explosion of chocolate on his tongue. He could feel it sitting there, slowly melting, sweet and bitter and just a bit of texture.
He couldn’t feel much else. The growing cancer dismantling him from the inside out was an intellectual awareness only; the doctors had him on the good drugs, with no reason to worry about addiction at this point, and he couldn’t actually feel anything which could be described as painful, or even uncomfortable, really. Worry was beyond him as well, and fear, and regret. Time passed in a gentle cloud of comfort and contentment, of patience.
And anticipation. Because he’d had a long life, and it’d been a good one. He’d met Jeff, and discovered to his shock that he could fall in love again. Jeff never displaced Kevin, just as he’d never displaced Beth, but he’d found that there was infinite room in the human heart, in his heart, for Jeff and his angry little daughter who’d lost her mommy and hated the whole world. For Tamra and Claire later on, and the baby girl he and Tamra made together for all four of them to raise. For the grandchildren Margie gave them.
He felt a mild regret that he’d never seen his grandchildren grow up, but that was the way of things. It was his time, he knew, and he was ready to go.
The chocolate melted on his tongue and the taste dissipated, vanished.
The soft support of the mattress faded away and he was standing on the floor. No, on grass — he was outside, under the sun, with the scent of water in the air. He took a deep breath and his lungs filled completely, with no hitches or coughing or pain. His body felt right, the way it’d felt forty years earlier before all the little creaks and pains and stiff bits had slowed him down and made him forget what healthy was like. He stretched and took a few steps forward, light and sure.
Strong familiar arms wrapped around him from behind and Kevin’s voice said, “Hey, babe, you’re here.”
Josh turned, smiling wide enough to crack the top of his head off. He pulled Kevin into a crushing hug. “I’m here. Finally. Oh, man, finally!”
“Hey, hey, cut it out.” Kevin brushed a thumb across Josh’s cheeks, one and then the other, wiping away tears. “You did great, you really did. Beth and I’ve been watching.”
“Wait, what?” Josh straightened up and looked around, but Kevin just laughed and shook his head.
“Nah, she’s not here right now. You’ll meet her later — you’ll like her, she’s a great lady and she wants to thank you for being such a good step-dad to her daughter — but right now’s for us. It’s been a long time, you know? This is heaven and all, sorta, but it hasn’t been really perfect without you.”
Josh fell forward and plastered himself back against Kevin’s chest. He heard himself let out a needy growl, and Kevin must’ve heard it too because he said, “There you go, exactly,” and swooped in for a kiss.
There were all kinds of things Josh wanted to ask, to do and see and figure out, but they could wait. Everything else could wait. He had Kevin again, and they had forever.
Kevin’s Chocolate-Chocolate-Chocolate-Chip Muffins
2 1oz. squares unsweetened baking chocolate
1 1/2C AP flour
1/4C unsweetened cocoa
1 12oz. bag of med. or small (NOT large) chocolate chips (whichever flavor you like; Kevin likes milk chocolate to contrast with the bitter baking chocolate)
3tsp baking powder
1 3/4C milk
4tbs margarine, melted
Preheat the oven to 425F. Grease a muffin pan, either the medium 12-cup or a large 6-cup size. Grease the top of the pan between the cups too; the muffins will probably spread a little over the tops of the cups, and you don’t want them to stick too much.
Melt the baking chocolate in a double boiler. A heatproof bowl set over a saucepan of simmering water will do fine; just make sure the water doesn’t touch the bowl. When you think it’s done, poke it with a toothpick to make sure it’s melted all the way through; the bars will hold their shape even as they melt, so don’t wait for a puddle in the bottom of the bowl.
In a large mixing bowl, combine the flour, cocoa, sugar, baking powder and salt. Using a fork gets everything mixed well without having to mess up a sifter.
Add the chocolate chips and mix them in, until all the chips are coated lightly with the other dry ingredients. Make a well in the center.
In a smaller bowl, beat the egg with your fork, then add the milk and butter and beat some more. Add the melted chocolate and stir to blend; it’s not going to be perfect and that’s okay.
Pour the milk mixture into the well in the dry ingredients. Mix together with a large spatula; you want to be able to use as few strokes as possible. The most important trick to muffins is not to over-mix once you’ve got the wet and dry ingredients together; the batter should end up lumpy, with all the flour just barely moistened. Don’t try to get it smooth or even.
Fill the muffin cups evenly and bake for about 25 minutes, or about 32 if you used the larger-cupped pan. Test with a toothpick to make sure they’re done; if not, give them another few minutes. Note that there will probably be melted chocolate on the toothpick, since it’s almost impossible not to hit one of the chips, but you’re looking for uncooked batter. Test a couple of the biggest muffins, and if you don’t see any raw batter, take them out and cool in the pan, on a rack. As soon as you can handle the muffins, take them out. (Use a butter knife around the edges if they stuck anyway; once you have the sides loose, twisting the muffin slowly will help loosen the bottom without tearing the whole thing. Usually. If one of them does tear in half, just eat it first.)
Muffins can be tricky until suddenly you get it. If you’ve never made them before, don’t be afraid to practice. Enjoy!
Angela, transcribing for Kevin