12. Pair Bonding

Boston, 2002

There's an odd sense of insecurity that accompanies Janek during his first few weeks in Boston. It's not about work, as the environment is very much like he'd expected: efficient and business-like, though a couple of his fellow residents are helpful and even friendly.

At first he thinks it's the strangeness of a new country, the details of the way things work, the discomfort he feels over having to ask questions about things he believes he should know. But soon he notices his unease always comes when he's attempting to behave the way a social animal is expected to behave, when he's sitting at the cafeteria with his colleagues, reminding himself over and over that not all conversations need to have a point. He'd made some progress in his first few years at Oxford, but it all started going to waste when he walked into that professor's office and discovered what he wanted to be.

Somehow this unease is linked to the question mark that's been hanging over his head for years, pointing to something he's not seeing, spreading out a puzzle he can't piece together. At times it makes him wonder how he would have managed if he hadn't found Filip and discovered with him that he simply did not know how to feel bad about being the way he was. He also has soundless images of a life filled with strangers in dingy places. It's what that his time in Italy would have been like if he hadn't found Piero, and even if Piero was hardly a good thing, it was the experience that showed him it was possible to find emotional fulfilment with another man. And occasionally, very rarely, he ponders whether he'd still be friendless if he hadn't found Daniel.

These thoughts had always come in quick flashes, at long intervals, and he was never able to sustain them. It didn't feel like it was worth the bother anyway, because he knew there was something about this train of thought that just wasn't going anywhere.

But they've been coming in shorter intervals since he arrived in Boston. Sometimes he sits at home staring at the wall, turning them every which way, and they still don't fit. But Janek is a firm believer that thinking will always pay off eventually, and one day, a simple water-cooler comment makes everything fall into place.

The chief resident invites him to a small gathering at her house, and given the goodwill the woman has shown toward him since the first day, Janek feels obligated to accept. He must have given himself away, though, because she adds with a good-humoured laugh, "It's not easy to make friends here, is it? But you have to persevere!"

Persevere. He hadn't been persevering. He hadn't even been trying. He'd just been waiting, like he always did, and that's where the problem lies. It occurs to him now that he might not have spent four years practically in a vow of silence if he'd done something other than just wait. And how long did he hide behind a friendship that would never have happened if Daniel hadn't been who he was?

'What do I have in common with Filip and Piero?' Daniel had asked, and for a second Janek had looked at him as if he were the Sphinx, before he convinced himself it was a rhetorical question and never gave it any more thought. It jumps to the forefront of his mind now, asked and answered by memories of three moments of relief and gratitude for having been found.

In his next email to Daniel, Janek writes in a postscript, "For someone who has so much disdain for psychoanalysis, you sure like to drop hints and send me on my way to work them out, eh? I hope your boyfriend is a fan of Freud."

Armed with a newfound resolve, Janek accepts every single invitation he receives to parties, dinners and even coffee at the diner after work. Each time feels a little less like the effort to be pleasant is coming from the bottom of his soul, but actually enjoying it still feels light years away.

There are moments, though, when he does enjoy himself, when he takes a minute to breathe and just watches, takes in the voices and gestures of people who have close ties with one another, friends, couples, relatives, sees their familiarity, and it all looks so, so easy. It stirs up a longing that's always been with him, one whose company gives him his own feeling of familiarity. The pitifulness of this registers like an alarm then, and Janek straightens up, clears his throat, and grabs onto the first bit of conversation he can reach.

After fake-laughing at an anecdote about a birthday party gone awry, Janek, in an effort to participate, mentions absently that he'll be turning thirty in two weeks. The reaction startles him: everyone loudly proclaims that there must be a celebration. He stammers out an excuse about how small his apartment is, already knowing it's no use, as there is a restaurant near the hospital where birthday parties and other festivities invariably take place. When the group leaves the bar, Janek is reminded for the third time to stop by and make reservations the next day.

How he went from taking small steps toward being more sociable to throwing his own birthday party is a mystery, but after literally having nightmares about it, Janek grits his teeth and decides to ask for help.

When he picks Roman up from the airport a week later, the little shithead is still laughing.

What Janek tells himself is that it doesn't count as merely waiting passively if he actually gets out of the house and goes to a club. He's taking the initiative here, even if all he does is lean against a rail with a drink in his hand and scan the place. If people tend to approach him, well…it's not his fault he stands out.

And it's not as if it's so great, anyway – ninety percent of the time it's just a straightforward invitation for sex in the back room. Why people bother dressing up and trying to communicate over thousands of decibels of bad music is beyond him. Going to a sauna is more practical and more honest, is what he thinks, but after a couple of brief conversations that lead to casual sex, he can't deny that the whole mise en scène serves a purpose. It feels less sleazy when you go through the initial introductions with your clothes on, and there's a thin veil of disguise for the mutual sizing up, but it's enough to add a dimension of conquest, however feeble.

It takes a while, but one night he notices he'd gotten dressed and gone to the club on auto-pilot, greeted the bouncer by name and smiled at the bartender. He's saying hi to one of the regulars he's talked to a few times when it dawns on him that he has become a regular too. It's not exactly an ideal situation. What Janek wants – what he's always wanted – is something that's highly unlikely to be found in a place where the only reason for going is a shared sexual preference.

When someone waves to him to join a small group in a less noisy area, he starts making his way through the crowd with a mental shrug. He's certainly come to appreciate the company of his colleagues, and the conversation is engaging and stimulating more often than not. Here, he has much less in common with these men than with the people at work, but what makes up for it is the fact that he can sit back and relax, and not feel he has any expectations to meet.

And, of course, sometimes he gets to have sex.

Boston, 2008

The first time Janek heard of the concept of a "valley girl" was when Roman came to Boston the previous year. Roman had flown in from Los Angeles, bringing along his girlfriend and a copy of the first film he'd worked on as an official member of the sound editing team. Janek and his boyfriend had to sit through a cheap, noisy action movie, though the shrieks coming from Roman's girlfriend were perhaps a few decibels louder than the machine guns and crashing cars. Janek was more intrigued than irritated by her cluelessness, but his boyfriend had a few scathing remarks to get out of his chest as soon as the couple retired to their quarters.

He thought of asking Roman what exactly he saw in her, but by that time, the obvious mismatch between a neuropsychiatrist and a club owner with a penchant for fashion statements had started to make itself…well, obvious. Janek's idea of a fashion statement was forgetting to button up his lab coat before walking into a patient's room, and Roman kept giving him amused looks when the boyfriend showed up wearing clothes that were clearly intended to call attention to himself. He could ignore Roman's jabs, but he wasn't going to invite more comments by questioning his dating choices.

This time he's alone when they arrive from the airport at two in the morning on the night before Janek is scheduled to defend his doctoral dissertation. He'd insisted that this was no reason for Roman to come all the way from Los Angeles, but Janek knows he's not even the main motivation for Roman's frequent visits – he has several friends in the city's numerous music schools.

He drags his feet as he walks to the front door, ready to turn and go back to his bed as soon as he lets them in, but when Roman pulls him into a hug, he's suddenly gripped by a vivid memory of the day he told his family he wanted to be a doctor, of how everything around him was discouraging then, and now he realises that underneath all his bullheaded determination there was always a flicker of doubt, a certain disbelief that this was really within his reach.

He backs away a bit, keeps his hands on Roman's shoulders as the thought forms in his mind: he finished his residency, finished his doctorate, he's a doctor and a researcher and he has a job at one of the best medical institutions in the world. He lets his head fall and starts laughing before looking up at Roman again.

"What the fuck is going on here?" Roman looks tired and confused, but he's smiling as he stares at Janek and waits for an explanation.

Janek shrugs. "As of today, I am a fucking doctor with a fucking PhD, that's what."

Roman tackles him into another hug, laughing and slapping his back forcefully. "Congratulations, you dickhead. I'm really proud of you."

When Janek finally pulls away, he ruffles Roman's hair and nods, unsure of when he'll be able to stop smiling. "Thanks for coming."

Janek wishes he had papers and notes to collect so he'd have a reason to fiddle around with his bag while he tries to keep track of the conversation. As it is, it's just a laptop, already safely put away, and Janek standing behind the table in the auditorium as students and faculty buzz around, some forming small groups on their way out, others swarming near the podium, waiting for their turn to shake his hand or give him a congratulatory slap on the shoulder.

He heaves a sigh of relief and smiles warmly when his research partners surround him, laughs when the inside jokes start coming with small adaptations to better fit the theme of his presentation. Roman finally makes his way to their group, and he's no help at all when he fuels the mocking session with a few comments of his own, but Janek just nods patiently, waiting for an opening to get the last word in. He may not be the life of the party, but he can deadpan with the best of them, usually with perfect timing, making it seem like the whole conversation was just begging for precisely that punch line.

They disperse with the promise of meeting later for the appropriate celebrations, while Janek walks to his car with Roman in tow.

In the car, Roman stares at Janek in a scrutinizing manner until he sighs, already knowing what's coming.

"What?"

"That was really crappy of him. He couldn't have waited a couple of weeks?"

Janek lets his forehead drop against the steering wheel. "Who told you?"

"What, you thought I wouldn't notice his absence?"

"It doesn't matter. I'm fine."

"Pfft, I never liked that guy."

"I'm fine." He sticks the key in the ignition with a little too much force and starts the car.

Roman goes quiet while Janek manoeuvres the car out of the small parking space. The silence only lasts until they stop at the first red light.

"So I'm supposed to believe that being dumped by your boyfriend doesn't faze you at all, it's like, 'oh my refrigerator broke, I'll have to get a new one, oh the inconvenience'."

"Look, Roman…I have no regrets, ok? It was great there for a while, and then it wasn't. It's not like I didn't see this coming."

"So that's it? You're fine, no problem, you've moved on?"

"Oh, god…" He throws his head back and runs his eyes across the roof of the car with a groan. "Ok, if it's so important to you, I will be not-fine for a few weeks. I'll even get a bucket of ice cream and wallow in front of the TV like the girl in that ridiculous movie you made me watch, which, by the way, had some really obvious sound problems."

Roman widens his eyes. "It did not!"

"I don't know, the footsteps were all…out of synch with the image."

"Oh, fuck you," he scoffs. "Soundtrack editor, not sound editor. Soundtrack, you know? That music in the background? I'm the one who puts it there."

"Yeah. I know."

Roman looks at him suspiciously. "Really? Were the footsteps out of synch with the image?"

Janek doesn't answer, he just laughs until his eyes are watery.

Janek has been repeating 'I'm fine' for the last week to his two closest friends. At the party, there are a few more people who might be noticing the conspicuous absence, but apparently they've been warned not to ask. Janek can tell by the sympathetic looks and the wholly unsubtle hugs, but he's fine with it as long as he doesn't have to explain that he's fine.

Because he is, really. Or he will be, but the truth is that he did see this coming. He had a year of sparks and even full-blown fireworks, when he thought he was really in love, and then months to start thinking that perhaps the thrill of infatuation wasn't going to translate into an actual lasting relationship, and that had been the most painful part of this process. That was when he became self-conscious, started going over his behaviour, wincing at the image of the little hearts that had been surely floating out of his eyes during that initial period. And then came a point when he gave up on berating himself for having gotten carried away, because even if it didn't work out, it was his first healthy, real relationship, and it just didn't work because there were simple issues of compatibility, which, okay, maybe he should have known when he got involved with someone with whom he had almost nothing in common.

The celebratory toasting happens only after everyone is either pleasantly tipsy or falling over drunk. Janek, who considers himself a master of sensible drinking, is in that ideal state of inebriation in which everything is perfectly okay by him, even the overly affectionate speeches and imitations of his accent. He raises his glass to each one and nods his approval, sitting at the head of the table like a benevolent monarch, only mildly aware of how much his posturing is adding to the hilarity of the proceedings.

After the last speech, Roman pulls up a chair and sits with his arm around Janek's shoulder, raising his voice to address the immediate group. "So what do you call a doctor with a PhD? Besides 'pompous asshole', I mean. Is it 'Doctor Doctor Lukasiewicz?'"

They laugh in acknowledgement of an old inside joke, approving the addition of 'pompous asshole' to the title. After a few more minutes of drunken mirth, Roman, who looks suspiciously sober, announces that Janek has another party to attend, and drags him out of the restaurant before he even has a chance to say good-bye to everyone individually.

He follows Roman and his girlfriend outside, and only then does it occur to him to ask what Roman had meant by 'another party'.

"It's a present for you. I'm going to introduce you to the hottest guy you've ever seen."

Janek's eyebrows shoot up. "What do you know about hot guys?"

"I'm secure in my masculinity and not blind," he replies, feigning offence.

"Right," Janek says in a drawl, not rolling his eyes for fear he might get dizzy. Something about the headlights of the passing cars is making him feel drunker than he actually is, or at least that's what he thinks. And his brother talking about hot guys is not helping the situation, either. He squints, trying to spot a taxi. "I'm going home, Roman. Take your girlfriend out to a club or something. She looks bored."

"I am going to take her out. We're going to this really hip bar where you're going to meet my friend."

"No, I'm – "

"Shut up. Before you say anything, let me tell you a little story about this guy: he's a composer, conductor, arranger, he does all sorts of things, and he's really fucking amazing. He writes these fantastic soundtracks, for children's movies, sci-fi, everything, and he even wrote, like, this saddest, most depressing music ever that won a bunch of awards, but get this: he's a totally laid-back guy, just likes to have fun and enjoy life, he's not moody or eccentric or anything like that. He's an un-tormented genius! Isn't that, like, the weirdest thing?"

Janek's standing with his arms crossed in front of his chest, trying really hard to find an angle from which to paint that story as ordinary. "It's not exactly unheard of," he says with no real conviction. "Nabokov, for instance, was not – "

"Nabokov's dead, Janek." A cab stops in front of them, and Roman opens the door. "And this guy is really, really hot. Hell, I'd probably go gay for him."

"Jesus fucking Christ, Roman, your girlfriend's right here."

Janek takes the passenger seat, while Roman translates their conversation for his significant other in the back, including the bit about going gay for the really hot guy, which she finds hilarious. Their voices gradually fade as Janek starts to wonder how 'un-tormented' this man can really be if he has that kind of artistic sensibility. It may not be unheard of, but it's also not very well documented, if at all. His research has never touched on this particular area, but establishing a convincing link between artistic ability and specific personality traits is one of the holy grails of neuroscience.

By the time they reach the bar, Janek has to concede that Roman's "present" was in fact a very well chosen one. His interest is already peaked on at least two fronts, and either he's going to get laid or he'll have something interesting to look up at the lab on Monday. Or, who knows…maybe both.

Life is good.

The End

Hello, and thanks for reading. :) There is a sequel to this story, in case you're interested: it's called Arietta and can be found in my profile (either I can't link to it from here or I'm a complete noob). It's about Janek's adventures in the world of relationships, as seen from his romantic interest's point of view.