Loving men. Loving another man. Such a thing could not be done in my home country, not without risking my freedom and my life. Of course, it was a risk to my freedom in America as well, but I knew the tricks that would keep me alive: patience to avoid the weekly police raids, and cunning to pull the wool over the eyes of my keepers--like my annoying former boss Ambassador Kurasov.
The trick was to play dumb. As his aide, I was expected to have impeccable behavior, so of course Kurasov was having me watched at all times. With some scheming, I managed to learn how to give his two sour-faced bodyguards the slip. He might have discovered my antics had he not believed me to be too thoroughly stupid to be up to anything. I was never incompetent, mind you--just slow. Thick, if you will. After all, I wanted to keep my job, and I did it well. I actually enjoyed it from time to time. I endured his abuse with patience, let his insults fall on deaf ears. The joke was, after all, on him. And eventually, he was called back home to await punishment for his greed, and the sour-faced guards became mine.
Now under my direct employ, they had no choice but to endure what I now had more freedom to pursue. With the shoe-polish of my new profession still wet upon my feet, I brought Michael Donfield back into my life. He was the young, talented chemical engineer who had been the pawn, the bait in the scheme that had resulted in Kurasov's downfall and my newfound power. He was friendly and intelligent--and he was beautiful.
The first time I saw him was at the embassy party when I was still Kurasov's aide. Donfield was drunk, and he swaggered over to me and insinuated his arm around my neck. In another universe, or perhaps merely another decade, I'd have plucked the martini glass out of his hand and swept him into a dance where he belonged.
"Want a taste?" he murmured slyly. He meant the drink, I assumed. Until our eyes met and I could see the emptiness in his heart. It sucked me in. I understand physics; vacuums do that.
Yes, Michael Donfield, I want a taste. I want the whole glass. I promise not to leave fingerprints or break it....
Napoleon Solo whisked him away before I did any more breathing down his neck, and I was left to deal with Kurasov's business for the rest of the night. Playing dumb, and lusting after other men--married men, in this case--at fancy dinner parties. It was preferable to the life I could have had back home, of course--pressed into marriage, for one thing, and of course there were no gay bars that I knew of in my city.
They were probably there, of course. Merely hidden. I was too young at the time to know how to find them.
Kurasov's greed and ambition had always exceeded his prudence, a trait I valiantly strived not to emulate. He did not take care to investigate the scheme involving Michael Donfield, which turned out to be a trap. I was the one who discovered it. Stupid, he called me? Some genius he was, not to see through the antics the UNCLE agents put us through. I can only feel thankful that I was not their intended target. Donfield's effect on me was a stray bullet, if you will. I put up quite an argument when Kurasov decided to take that impostor Donyev with him to Donfield's flat instead of taking me. But I wasn't unlucky. The minute he was gone, I discovered that my suspicions had been founded in truth. My boss was walking into a trap.
I burst into the flat where they were meeting with my gun aimed straight at whoever opened the door. Donfield answered it. We stood there as I aimed, staring at each other like unearthly souls forced to reside in puppet bodies.
I remember these times now with a smug chuckle, and stretch languidly on this king-size bed. I can afford the best hotels now, and all the other privileges the Ambassadorship provides. The sheets feel like liquid on my naked limbs. Michael's skin is warm and pliant under my fingers. He is soft and beautiful and exquisite, with a shine in his eyes that I have never before encountered in any man. Gone are the days when I would lurk in bars, pretending to be from Uruguay or Andorra or some other exotic country that had nothing to do with my own, should anybody even notice my accent in the impersonal, desperate darkness there. Michael knows me. Michael loves me.
Sometimes this troubles me. I have held my gun to his head and forced him to return to his wife for the evening. I could see the war within him as he painfully forced himself to agree to stay hidden--a war that I have partially caused. Perhaps, like my old boss Kurasov, I too am a warmonger.
But it is a war that would have come soon enough. Michael is like a volcano, and the lava is starting to ooze from seams in the steaming ground. His enthusiasm for our relationship leaves me feeling nurtured and satisfied--but afraid. I fear for his safety. I fear for my own. We have already achieved as much as we can, as two homosexuals trying to live as best we can in a world that shuns us. What more can there be? What is it that he wants?
I run my fingers over his arm and hold him close in a comfortable embrace. His backside nestles between my legs. "What are you thinking?"
Michael makes an incomprehensible noise, then mumbles to me, "You'll get mad at me if I tell you."
"Don't be silly," I purr. "I could never get mad at someone with such a nice ass."
He's turned away from me, obviously, but I can tell his smile at this statement runs off his face and is in danger of dripping onto the pillow. "Mm. You naughty boy. You're trying to compromise me."
This is a good sign. He's flirting back, and not begging me to kill him. "Michael, Michael, Michael," I answer. "It is the other way around. Surely you realize this. You've spoiled me with your capitalist American luxuries."
"What, you don't have men with nice behinds back home?"
"*I* came from back home," I remind him.
He laughs, which shakes his body slightly--but just enough to tease my groin back into arousal.
I ask again, "Tell me what you're thinking." This time it comes out as a command, which I know he'll obey. He's predictable, and it's comforting--when it isn't scaring me. You think I wasn't terrified when he didn't want to go home that night? Sure, I seemed calm, but shooting the only man I have ever loved is not my idea of a hot date.
"I was making believe this was real life," Michael tells me.
"What do you mean, dragi?" Lover. Dear. "This doesn't feel real to you?" I move my hips slightly, nudging his rear with my erection.
"There's more than that," Michael says. "I was making believe we lived together, and that this is our bed."
"A nice large bed for such rich men as we are!" I laugh sardonically. One night in a hotel is one thing, but...
"A double bed would be fine," he answers calmly. "We lived together, as man and... man...." He's struggling with his words. "I don't even know what I'm trying to describe."
"A dream." The words escape my lips unbidden. I try not to think of these things. We have each other, at least to a degree. We have our freedom and our lives. To want anything more is--dangerous. Futile.
"Where does a dream begin," Michael starts to sing. "Does it start with a goodnight kiss?"
"Come, I will kiss this foolishness away." But what are these strange feelings of exhilaration that course through my body?
Have I suppressed hope for so long that I no longer know its name?
His singing voice is a joke, but I let him continue because he won't close his mouth to kiss me. Or maybe I do want to hear what he has to say, and am not trying that hard.
"When is reality dismissed? Or does it commence when we lose all pretense... where does a dream..." His lips give way to mine.
And in that kiss, I find the solution. What do you know, the song was right. A dream does begin with a goodnight kiss.
"Paris," I whisper in his ear as I pull away.
I pull back on my reins. Before I go any further with this insanity, I need to clear up every possible loose end. Entire chapters in my life would be closed with a single word, so I will tread carefully.
My lips graze his cheek. "Michael."
"I love you," he gushes.
"I know. I love you too. But you give me too much power."
"What do you mean?"
"In the limousine. You would have let me pull the trigger. You would have let me kill you."
Michael sighs bitterly. "I don't like leaving you," he says defensively. "Can I help it if being with you is the only place I feel alive these days anyway? Anywhere else I feel like I'm just acting out someone else's life. And since you control when we meet, for the most part, you do have power--I can only be myself when you let me."
"I was protecting us. You seem ready to flaunt our relationship in the streets. But you only say these things when I am near you. Would you really have the courage to go home to your wife and tell her you are leaving and never coming home?"
"Depends on what 'home' is," Michael answers cryptically.
"I need a lover with a strong heart." I emphasize these last words. "I will explain this only once. We can go to Paris--together--and make a new life." I pull myself to a sitting position and lean against a pillow.
"A new life--" Michael gasps.
"But you must have the courage to leave the old one behind. It can only be courage, not cowardice, that will put you by my side forever." When Michael blinks at me, beautiful eyes full of questions, I elaborate: "When you are with me and talk of staying, that is cowardice. You are afraid to face the world without me. But if you go home, and talk to Anne, that will be courage. You will indeed be facing the world without me--in order to find a new world with me."
"It's not courage to break someone's heart." Michael's face was flushed and I could sense his whole body start to tremble slightly with anxiety. "That's cowardice too."
"Do you think you can continue this way forever?" I sigh and gaze down upon his beautiful form. He has bound himself in the invisible chains of fear, and they will strangle him if he's not careful.
"I--I don't know." He licks his lips. "What was that about Paris?"
"A new life," I answer simply. "For Grgur Anton Vladeck and Michael Donfield. Like certain other men of our particular persuasion." Zola and Ravel came to mind, and an invisible orchestra begins to play 'Bolero' in my head.
"But your job!"
"An accident," I confess to him. "All my life, I wanted the power to be able to love men at least as freely as this. Now..." I gaze into his eyes. "Now that I have what I wanted, it seems only fair to leave it behind to nurture that love."
"You would do that for me?" Michael stares dumbfounded, his mouth slightly open.
"If you will be my equal partner," I remind him. "You cannot depend on me entirely, because then how can I depend on you?"
"Paris," he whispers.
I silence the fears in both our hearts by pulling him into another crushing embrace. There will be time for him to think this over, but for now, we must make use of our precious time together while Mrs. Anne Donfield is away at her sister's. Hopefully the former Mrs. Donfield. I know this is cruel of me, but I never pretended to be nice.
The next day, I wait at an outdoor table of a small restaurant near Central Park, my coffee and lunch half-eaten in front of me. I eat slowly because I do not wish to eat at all, for my stomach is up in arms--and also because I am afraid he will not come, and eating slowly is an excuse to stay longer just in case.
I stare into the mosaic tiles on the table. I am a fool, after all, as Kurasov said. I stir my coffee even though I know the sugar has already dissolved and wonder if Michael and I could ever hope to know each other as a real couple--living together openly. This secrecy surrounding our relationship has shaped its flavor to such a degree that I wonder if I will recognize us without it.
Perhaps sparkling tears will come into the eyes of Michael's pretty wife, Anne, and he will be unable to leave. He will take her into his arms and hold her tightly, rubbing her back, and promise to stay with her forever once again. He will do his best to stifle his own tears, for her sake. I will become his treasured memory, and he will become my pain. I realize right there that all my power and money are completely useless against such fears, and that is when I know for certain it is right to leave this place.
Does he have within him the courage to leave? Sometimes I fear that, as he has given me too much power, I may have given him too much credit. His outward personality radiates hope and eagerness, but within him something lurks that clutches at me like a dying beast in the shadows.
I must rely on the belief that his mask is not, after all, a mask, but a part of him that he will learn to cultivate once we are free of... everything...
I hear footsteps on the sidewalk just beyond, and do not have to look up to know that it is him. I can scarcely believe it. "Michael?" I squint into the bright light.
"Hello, Anton," he says, an entirely new voice coming from those soft lips.
"Take a seat," I gesture. "Would you like some lunch?"
He smiles at me. "Yes. Yes, please. I'd love some."
I am dying to ask him what happened, as if his newfound confidence is not escaping from his body like an insect's pheromones. "And will you be joining me later on?" I ask casually as I pour coffee from my pitcher into the cup of one of the empty place-settings before me.
He looks directly into my eyes. "Yes." Then he bites his lip, and I see a shadow of the more skittish Michael I knew. He opens his mouth as if to speak.
I cut in. "You have told her?"
He nods curtly, and looks solemn. "Yes."
For the first time in my life, I don't look to see if I am being watched. I take his hand in a public restaurant in broad daylight. His eyes widen in shock. He will get used to this in Paris, I know....