I'm procrastinating. Instead of doing edits on a manuscript that was due to a reviewer last week, I decided to work on Chapter 4 of The Business Arrangement. Not that I mind: an update of this story is long overdue and while I did some research and outlined a couple of chapters, I haven't written anything solid on this manuscript for weeks.
Anyhoo, a big thanks to Fairy225 for pointing out that I'd changed Ben's name to Daniel in Chapter 3. He! I don't know why the name Daniel kept swirling in my head while I was writing the chapter. I still think my main character is a Ben though.
Many thanks to all the people who registered to follow the story too. You are the reason I'm motivated to keep writing it, because if at least one person likes it, then I have to write it for them.
To all critics: please note that this is a first draft of this story and I don't have a beta yet. I would be grateful if someone was willing to beta for me though, and would return the favour.
Chapter 4: HOW TO WOO A MAN YOU DON'T LOVE
Ben sipped his apple juice, hoping that the cold sweet drink would settle his rebellious stomach. He was very hungry and the farm breakfast, which included two fried eggs, bacon, beef sausage, sirloin steak, Boston beans, grilled tomatoes and chunky potatoes, looked really inviting. The fried food probably had more unsaturated fat that Ben had eaten in a week and would be a decadent way for him to reward himself for passing matric. But he was not sure that he would be able to swallow the food. Or worse, if the food would stay in his stomach after he swallowed. Not with his stomach tied in knots. Eventually, he chose the safer option, the creamy Thai chicken and sweet potato soup, which would probably be easy on his knotted stomach.
The meeting with Michael was a reason for his current state, but it was not the only reason he hadn't felt like eating for days. At first he couldn't eat because he was worried about his final matric results, which were announced nationally that day. Finishing high school was a big deal in South Africa. After writing final exams in November, all the Grade 12 students had to wait until late December for their papers to be marked by the National Education department. The results were usually announced just after the New Year, with the list of names of all graduating students and their overall performance published in all the national newspapers. The official transcripts were also sent to the students' individual schools, where they could collect them.
Most students and parents couldn't sleep the night before the exams were announced; some of them waiting until early dawn so they could rush to the nearby 24/7 shop to buy a newspaper so they could check the results. Ben knew that he was smart and he had worked hard. So he expected to pass. But for him it was not enough: he had to excel in order to be admitted into a good university degree programme. And his father would be disappointed if he got less than an A in his subjects.
Like most of the graduating students and their families, he and his parents waited until 3am or so, when one of the maids brought them a newspaper. It was gratifying to know that he passed, but he was so excited he couldn't eat well at breakfast. Then his father called him into office to discuss the marriage and he had new problems to worry about and no interest in food. Curse his father for his lousy timing! Why couldn't he have waited a couple of days, even a week, so Ben could enjoy having finished high school before he dumped this marriage thing on him? It's not like there was a rush – most undergraduate degree programmes didn't start until mid-February and Ben still had six weeks of summer left to enjoy his freedom before he had to worry about his future.
He had just placed his order with the waitress when he saw Michael stop at the door to talk to the hostess, and then look around the informal but upmarket chain restaurant to search for him. Ben raised his hand to the level of his ear to attract the attention of the hostess, who was looking at him but probably didn't know he was the target the new patron was looking for. She murmured something to him, and Michael turned and looked in Ben's direction, saw him and smiled.
The smile relaxed some of the knots in Ben's stomach. "At least he looks friendly, not like he's looking for a fight," Ben thought to himself.
"Hey!" Michael said in greeting, sitting in a chair across from Ben.
"Hey," Ben mumbled.
The waitress came quickly, and Michael ordered beef and mushroom pastry melt, made up of layers of pastry, roasted butternut chunks and creamy beef and mushroom topping with melted pecorino cheese, and coffee after learning that Ben had already ordered.
"So…" Ben mumbled after the waitress left.
"So…," Michael repeated, drumming his fingers on the table top. Abruptly he stopped, looked at the nervous Ben, who was staring at the table top. "Your parents finally told you, huh?"
"What do you want to do?" Michael asked.
"I don't know!" Michael almost shouted, his nerves finally snapping. What did he mean "what do you want to do?" He was asking as if he had a choice; as if he could say no. Ben took a deep breath. "Dad said you agreed to this," he finally mumbled.
"Yes, I did," Michael said.
The waitress brought Michael's coffee and Ben took a sip of his apple juice, more for something to do than wanting a drink while she put it on the table and Michael put in a sachet of sugar and stirred it.
"Look, I realise that we're not on equal ground now. I've had time to get used to the idea and you just heard about it today. I'm sure you're still trying to process the whole thing. And I admit that I used to resent you because of this arrangement. That's why I was so shitty to you before. But we can make it work."
"How?" Michael's voice croaked. He took another sip of the apple juice. 'How can we make it work? And why would we even want to make it work? All you have to do it tell your parents that you met with me, still don't like me and certainly don't want to spend the rest of your life with me. Surely they'd let you out?"
Michael put his hand across the table, placing it on top Ben's hand, which was gripping the drinks glass as if his life depended on it.
"That's assuming that I was to be let out, and I don't."
Ben stilled, raised his eyes to look at Michael. The sounds of the busy restaurant full of diners faded away and Ben felt as if he was alone with Michael.
This was the crunch and Michael knew he had to be honest about his reasons, if he hoped to build a lasting relationship with the thin young man staring at him.
"I'm not going to lie to you and pretend that I love you, because I don't. But I think that there is a good chance that a relationship between us could work. I read up on research on arranged marriages by a Dr Robert Epstein, who is a Harvard academic, once I started thinking about agreeing to the deal."
"And what did you find out?" Ben asked softly, heart breaking. He'd known that it was unlikely that Michael had been harbouring a secret crush for him all these years and that the marriage was mostly a business deal to him. But it still hurt to hear the man of his dreams say that he didn't love him.
"I found out that some relationship experts believe that arranged marriages are more likely to lead to lasting affection than marriages of passion. They say that partners who are well-matched tend to feel more affection for each other as time grows, whereas those in regular marriages initially brought together by love and lust feel less in love over time."
"Uhuh!" Ben mumbled, staring at Michael.
"I'm not saying that we will fall in love like that, but –"Michael said quickly, waving a hand.
'OK, I understand," Ben said.
"Anyway, they say that the reason arranged marriages work is because they are carefully considered, with thought going into whether potential partners' families, interests and life goals are compatible. And as you know, our families' interests and goals are very compatible and they will work as hard as we do to make sure that there is no in-law stress. And I'm sure they'll support us so we can stick together through the rocky patches every couple has to deal with."
"Uhuh," Ben mumbled. Thankfully the waitress brought their food and Ben busied himself spooning the soup into his mouth and even better, the soup slid into his stomach quite comfortably.
"You must have been very hungry to order a starter," Michael commented as he cut a slide of the pasty and covered it with a piece of butternut and a strip of meat.
"It's not a starter. This is my meal," Ben said, pointing at the soup bowl and the slice of fresh bread the restaurant provided as an accompaniment.
"Oh! Had a big breakfast?"
"No," Ben said, shifting uncomfortably. "I was too nervous about this meeting and I didn't want to eat something that could react to my already upset stomach."
"Then order something else more filling because I certainly don't intend to upset you. In fact, I hope that you'll become comfortable with me enough to eventually see me as your best friend, in addition to being my partner."
Ben laughed a bit at that.
"Eric wouldn't like his position of best friend being usurped," he said.
"He! Nope, he wouldn't like that. So let's not tell him about my plan," Michael said, smiling. The young men spent the rest of the meal getting to know each other. When his soup was finished, Michael decided that he still had room in his stomach and ordered a large scone served with chunky strawberry preserves and cream with Rooibos tea.
"You have a sweet tooth, I gather," Michael asked when the waitress left their table with Ben's order.
"Just a bit," Ben said, not yet willing to admit his greatest food weakness. Michael smiled a secretive little smile and Ben wondered if he already knew. Damn!
When they had finished their meal, Michael leaned across the table and took one of Ben's hands into both of his.
"Going back to the reason we're here: marriage is a big commitment and I appreciate that you're probably nervous about committing your whole life to a guy who until now has been less than pleasant to you. So I was thinking that maybe we could take the time to get to know each other before school reopens and you have to deal with being a fresher at university in addition to everything else."
"Get to know each other like.. date?"
"Not date, no. I don't know if the parents talked to you about it, but they wanted us to marry by the end of January, so that we can live together when you go to Wits."
"End of January?"
"I know it's too fast. But while your parents successfully protected you from media attention while you were young, journalists are going to start seeing you as fair game for a news story. You're no longer a minor child; you're handsome and incredibly rich' a perfect candidate for the social pages. It would be even better for them that you would not be living at home fulltime and will be interacting with a lot of strangers, as it could potentially make it easier for them to get stories about you It would help. And I'm sure they'd be happier if you were a playboy or drank too much or were into drugs. But the fact that you are gay will be titillating enough. So our parents want us to be bound together as quickly as possible, so that our coming out story is a nine-day wonder that fizzles as soon as they realise we've become an old married couple. And I agree with them."
Ben sighed. This was so not how he dreamt his first date with the man he would spend the rest of his life with would be like. "So what does that mean in terms of getting to know each other?"he asked.
"I think we should go on a road trip."
"Road trip? How? Where?"
"I don't know where. We can decide on a destination. Or we could pack our clothes and whatever else we need, get into a range rover and drive in any direction. We could spend January touring the whole country."
Michael looked at Ben's sceptical expression.
"It would be a good summer holiday for both of us and we can use the time to get to know each other, see if we're compatible. If we can't stand to be with each other for a month, then we'll know that marriage is out of question regardless of our good intentions. But I am hoping that the more we get to know each other, the more our friendship will grow."
Ben thought of his initial to plan to find out how Michael felt about the situation. If he was already agreeable about a possible relationship, Ben thought they could hang out, get to know each other better, see where that takes them. But so far, this had been Michael's meeting. He was the one who encouraged Ben to relax and it seemed he even had a solid plan to help them get to know each other away from their parents and the possible prying eyes of their acquaintances and the media.
"OK. Let's do it."
"You agree to get to know each other and the road trip?"
"Yes, I agree. I don't know how they will turn out and I hope we're not making a mistake, but I'm willing to try, "Ben said. " But I want to read the research by Dr Epstein that you were talking about. I want to read for myself what he says about our chances for success."
"I'll email the report to you."
"Thanks," Ben nodded. "When do you think it will be a good time for us to move?"
"I think we should leave as soon as possible though. Call your parents; tell them we have something to tell them. I'll call mine. We can all meet at your house and we'll tell them that we're leaving."
Ben thought it was a good plan and within minutes, the meeting was set up for 15h00 that afternoon.