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Under the Linden Tree

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This was not how he envisioned himself on his 40th Birthday - with his face pressed down against the rubber mat inside a boxing ring.

 

“Duck! Duck now!”

 

Max’s voice had barely registered in Brian’s brain before the punch landed on his chin.  Brian hit the ground, landing on his hands and knees as he huffed and heaved.  He could smell years of sweat and blood on it.  

 

“Are you okay?”

 

Max dropped down next to him, sliding on his knees; he had his hand on Brian’s back.  “Why didn’t you duck?”

 

Brian threw him a Are-You-Serious-Now look and slowly got up. “I started learning this all of two days,” he tried to keep the whining out of his voice.  But it wasn’t fair, he only promised to try kickboxing because Max was so eager to teach him, as if opening a dojo was his second dream job.

 

The minute Brian agreed to try, Max jumped in with both feet.  They’ve been going to Max’s gym every day; he had even bought Brian a few pairs of kickboxing shorts.  The bright colours and fancy patterns took some time to get used to and generally Brian was more into bodybuilding, but he wanted to humour Max.

 

“Sorry, mate.  Got a bit carried away there.” Liam, the big Aussie who threw the uppercut punch, came over to apologise. “Not every day I get to spar with an action star. I mean… you are Lt. Matthew Scott!”

 

Oh right, Max had mentioned Liam was a big sci-fi and Stargate Universe fan.

 

Getting punched by a fan was a new experience but Brian could live with that.  And truth be told, it was more of a bruised ego than bruised jaw.  Brian reassured him, “It’s nothing.  Part of the learning curve.”

 

“Exactly!  It’s what training is all about.  Brian’s tough, he can take it,” Coach Max chimed in.

 

Brian glared at him.

 

Max simply grinned, putting his arm around Brian’s shoulders.  “Come on, you are a natural.  Your footwork is already excellent.  Just need to work on anticipation of your opponent’s moves,” Max heaped on praises, the man was an expert in disarming people; Brian rolled his eyes, slightly mollified.  

 

Two seconds later, he was completely placated when Max pressed a kiss on the side of his head.  This was much better.  Max whispered in his ear, “have I told you look like the sexiest sweaty motherfucker when you box?”

 

Colour rose on Brian’s face.  He knew there was a reason why he loved going to the gym with Max - exercising is an aphrodisiac to Max.

 

Brian glanced around but as he expected, no one was paying them any attention.  He has gotten used to Berliners’ directness and nonchalance, no one would bat an eye even if Max made out with him on the spot.

 

But Max was not the PDA kind and the kiss looked European platonic enough.  

 

“Come on, let’s shower and get changed.  We have more things to do,” Max gently pushed him towards the gym’s changing room.

 

 

 

15 minutes later, Brian stood under a wall of boxing promotion posters, waiting for Max to finish chatting with his gym friends; he’s used to it now - that wherever they went in Berlin, Max would stop and chat with someone he knew.  In restaurants, in the gym, on the street.  Other people spent hours messaging or talking to their friends on their phone, or ‘handy’ as it’s called in Germany.  But no, Max did all his socialising in person.  

 

To kill time, Brian took out his own ‘handy’.  There were a few birthday messages from his family and friends.  Even two from his ex-boyfriends.  Brian read them and replied with ‘heart’ and ‘thank you’ emojis to each of them.  Toby has sent a rap and dance video message, Brian smiled.  He began to type his reply, wanted to write something witty and heartfelt… but words failed him.  He just couldn’t muster enough zest for it.

 

I am 40 years old.   Brian repeated that in his head, as he had done in front of the bathroom mirror this morning.  Objectively, he knew nothing has changed, that it’s just a number.  In fact, he felt stronger and healthier than ever before.  Coming out had done wonders for his mental health… and being with Max… Brian knew this kind of happiness was precious, that not everyone would experience it in their lifetime.  That it was not a guarantee for everyone.  

 

But still, reaching 40 was a milestone and it did strange things to him.  Am I where I should be at this stage of my life? What have I done?  What have I achieved in those 40 years? Brian had pensively wondered.  The marking of the first half of his life has created an atmosphere at once celebratory and melancholy… until he had felt Max’s two strong arms wrapped around his midsection.  “Happy 40, mein Mäuschen,” Max pressed a loud kiss on the side of his cheek, dispelling Brian’s maudlin thoughts.

 

So, Brian decided not to overthink and just enjoy the big day with his boyfriend, let Max be the planner for once.  Which carried some risk of its own because Max often got carried away when he met his friends - and he had a LOT of friends in Berlin.

 

“I can be very antisocial when I work, so I try to make it up to my friends when I am free,” Max had explained before.  

 

Brian knew this perfectly well, and had plenty of experience of such a personality trait.  When he was back in New York the last few months, Max had also been away shooting a new TV series.  Brian could count with one hand how many times Max had FaceTimed him without Brian calling him first.  But they’ve passed that kind of petty competition now.  So, Max didn’t always remember to call him, but when he did, he would make sure Brian knew exactly how much he missed him.  For Brian, that was enough.  Relationships are all about compromises - as long as both of them think it’s worth it.  

 

Berlin and Max were inseparable, Brian had long acknowledged that if they want this relationship to work, he would have to prepare to spend a lot of time here.  Brian has plenty of his own friends in Berlin as well, thanks to an extended stay in the city during the lockdown.  He considered the city his second home now.  But still, on his 40th birthday, he didn’t want any fanfare, just a quiet day with his man.

 

“Hey, ready?” Max appeared next to him while Brian was still in his introspective mode.

 

Brian nodded, pocketing his handy.  “What’s next?” He asked, hoping Max would say they were going home.  

 

“I am starving.  Let’s go eat!”

 

Brian rolled his eyes.  “You are always hungry.”

 

Max squeezed his shoulder and gave him one of his boyish grins, showing those two dimples which Brian has kissed countless times, knowing his wish would be granted.  

 

 

 

They went to one of Max’s local favourites, an unassuming Italian restaurant.  It was relatively quiet after the lunch crowd, Brian was glad to finally have some alone time with Max, they talked quietly over a plate of antipasti, some good cheese and a bottle of Tuscan wine - a low-key celebration perfectly suited for Brian’s wish for ageing gracefully.

 

Every once in a while, Brian would look up from his food and find Max smiling at him.  They shared their memories of Italy when they worked together on set.  Max couldn’t get enough of the food there; Brian remembered watching him eat and wondered why it was so fascinating to watch someone enjoying their food. Max’s happiness was his happiness.  Maybe it has always been like this.

 

When they were having dessert, someone suddenly appeared next to their table.  

 

“Maxi!”

 

Brian heard the sound of chair scraping against the tiled floor, Max got up and hugged the newcomer.

 

“Sophia, long time!”

 

A dark brunette with olive skin had her slim arms around Max in a familiar and cosy embrace.

 

Of course, peace and quiet never last whenever they are in Berlin.  Brian resigned inwardly and got up to greet Max’s friend.

 

“Hi, I am Brian,” he reached out his hand, but very un-German-like, Sophia gave him a hug.

 

“Of course, I know who you are.  Love, love, love your version of Jim O’Connor - effortless and understated.  Just the right amount of clumsiness.”

 

Brian opened his mouth, then closed it again.  It’s been a while since someone directly praised his theatre performance.  “You watched that?”

 

Sophia nodded enthusiastically, “I watched the West End edition in London, wish you were there more often, they need more actors like you to do Tennessee Williams justice.”

 

“Thank you.  I… “ he rugged the back of his neck, very certain his face was red, still too stunned to speak.

 

Sophia hugged him again. “Pleasure is all mine.”

 

Max stood aside, grinning wide.  “Sophia runs classic theatre acting classes in Berlin.  She’s the go-to-person for everything about theatre here.”

 

For someone who shunned acting classes and claimed he couldn’t do theatre, Max had a lot of friends in this field.  Whenever Brian was in town, Max always dragged him to the English theatre in Berlin.

 

When Sophia released Brian, her eyes were sparkling; she threw a quick glance at Max and said, “hey, can I borrow Max for a second?”

 

Brian watched the two of them walk to a corner of the restaurant by the window.  They talked with their heads leaning close to each other, smiling, like sharing a secret, or co-conspiring to do something naughty.  Sophia laid her hand on Max’s chest, laughing at something Max had just said.  

 

Then she cradled Max’s face in her hands, Brian’s heart lurched.  She might be sincere in her praise, but suddenly all he could see were her fingers brushing Max’s face, her thumb rubbing over his blond stubble, gliding along the strong lines of his chiselled jaw.  

 

On my damn birthday too. But of course, Sophia didn’t know.  

 

But Max did.  

 

Brian tore his eyes away, took a big gulp of his wine and told himself not to overreact.  The thing was, he didn’t mind Max being with his friends or his friends being overly affectionate, but maybe not on the one day he wanted to have Max’s full attention, the one day his annoying insecurity reared its ugly head again.

 

After a few minutes, he saw Sophia leaving the restaurant.  Max walked back to their table.  “Hey, you want to see some German theatre in action before we go home?  Or something else? What do you want to do?”

 

What Brian really wanted to do was to go back to Max’s apartment, he wanted to spend the rest of his birthday in bed or on the sofa.  Anywhere, as long as he’s lying down horizontally with Max.  

 

But.

 

He knew Max wanted to go see his friends. 

 

Brian shrugged.  “Sure, it should be fun.”

 

Max smiled; he dug his spoon into Brian’s pot of tiramisu and said, “hurry up then, the show is starting in 15 minutes.”

 

Brian knocked Max’s spoon away with his own, laughing.  “Hey, behave! It’s my birthday.”



The theatre was a street away from the restaurant.  Brian followed Max into the foyer of an old building, he knew theatre had been an integral part of East Germany, part of the revolution, the resistance.  There were still a few working ones in the east side of Berlin today.  As he walked, Brian began to notice it was too quiet and there was no ticketing or reception area, it didn’t feel like a play was about to start.  He touched Max’s shoulder, “are we in the right place?”

 

Max didn’t say anything; he grabbed hold of Brian’s hand and pulled him up the stairs two at a time, his beloved Red Wing boots pounding the marble staircase.

 

They landed on the 2nd floor, facing a set of heavy wooden doors with peeled gold paint.  Max knocked.

 

“Max, what is this place…” Brian asked; he had a feeling something unexpected was going to happen.

 

The door opened.

 

The first thing Brian saw was Sophia’s smiling face, but behind her were rows and rows of red velvet seats, leading to a stage with curtains drawn, all under a high dome ceiling.  Everything was discoloured and worn but still carried its past glory. It’s a sizable old theatre.  The classical kind.   

 

And in front of the curtain sat a large group of people dressed in… costume… no, young people in normal clothes.  It was a group of students.  Brian realised.  Max has brought him to meet Sophia’s theatre acting students.

 

He turned to Max, couldn’t believe he had fallen right into the trap, but most of all, he couldn’t believe Max had planned this, being Herr Spontan (Μr Spontaneous) and all.

 

Max was still holding his hand.  “Come on, they are waiting for you,” he coaxed, pulling him forward.  “And don’t worry.  You are not here to present anything.  They are having a discussion on Tennessee Williams plays and I thought you would enjoy joining in.”

 

Brian allowed Max to pull him forward, the expectant expression on everyone’s face told him that this wasn’t a whimsical coincidence, Max had cooked this up with his friend - for Brian.

 

“Welcome!” Sophia greeted him with a bright smile and guided him to sit on one of the chairs inside a circle on the stage.  “Our guest today needs no introduction.  Tony nominated and my favourite Gentleman Caller.  All the way from Broadway, Mr. Brian J. Smith.”

 

All the students clapped and said hello.  Still slightly dazed, Brian nodded and said thank you to everyone.  He looked back at Max, who was sitting below the stage like a casting director observing talents.

 

Brian threw him a meaningful glance, hoping he’s transmitting the ‘you-going-to-pay-for-this’ message to his boyfriend, Max replied with raised eyebrows and a mission-accomplished-shit-eating grin on his handsome face.

 

“Now, Brian, you might not know, but we’ve been discussing ‘Suddenly, Last Summer’, which has some shocking themes for its time, but which is more shocking to you, cannibalism or homosexuality …”



***

 

The street was deserted by the time they left the theatre.  It’s darker than the streets in Manhattan at 10pm, something Brian was still getting used to - that outside of bar and club areas, Berlin at night could be quite dark and quiet.

 

They walked slowly on their way back to Max’s apartment, the quiet streets were illuminated by the golden yellow light.  Brian looked up to admire one of the street lamps - Berlin’s vintage gas lamps - some of them survived two world wars, witnessed the building and destruction of the Berlin Wall.  

 

Max seemed to have read his thought, he said, “Do you know nearly half of the world’s existing gas lamps are here in Berlin?”

 

Brian had read about that; he nodded.  “They are so beautiful.  They are part of the Berlin identity.”

 

Max extended his arm and wrapped around Brian’s shoulders, pulling him closer.  The wind has picked up and the temperature has dropped to below 10C.  Brian welcomed the closeness; he nuzzled the back of Max’s neck for a bit.  Max doesn’t wear cologne, but Brian recognised his shower gel, something woodsy.  Fresh, clean and bold, like Max himself.  He couldn’t help but take a deep breath, inhaling the familiar scent.  Max hummed his approval, his fingers carding Brian’s overgrown curls gently.  Brian closed his eyes, enjoying these low-key intimate moments.  This was how he wanted to spend his birthday, just this was enough.

 

That’s not to say he didn’t appreciate everything Max had done for him today.  It meant a lot.  But Brian knew it was more than just his birthday, there was another reason for Max’s action - to make Brian feel more at home here.  Just like whenever Max visited him in New York, Brian would do the same for him.

 

The long distance thing was always going to be difficult, compounded by their profession, finding time to be in the same city was a challenge.  They had spent years circling around in an on-again, off-again, ambiguous affair until the need to acknowledge, to give it a name was too much for Brian to ignore - perhaps it was too much for Max too, though he had a higher tolerance for uncertainty than Brian.  The understanding they’ve reached allowed Brian to breath, to plan, to dream.  

 

“I love you.” Max had told him, on more than one occasion.  Asking for honesty from Max was never the issue.  Good honesty and not-so-good ones.  

 

“We will take it one day at a time, then one week at a time.  Who knows?  weeks would turn into months… and years.  But if you no longer think this is working, you’d tell me, okay?  Because we should only be in this if you’re happy,” Max had said, in the only way he knew to make a love declaration.

 

Heart thumping, torn between elation and trepidation, Brian had batted his lashes and replied, “Why and I thought romance is dead.”

 

“I love you, you silly Texan.” In a second, Max had had him in an affectionate headlock. 

 

So, that’s what they’ve been doing.  Taking it one day at a time.  Travelling between cities.  Phone-calls and texts and Face-times. 

 

And it’s been more than a year since that conversation.  Brian shivered as he silently acknowledged the passage of time.  

 

Months have turned into years. 

 

“Are you warm enough?” Max clung him tighter.

 

Brian nodded but leaned closer into the embrace.  They were a block away from the apartment, they stopped under Brian’s favourite giant linden tree.  Around Christmas time, they would wrap these trees with Christmas lights, but now it was just yellow and brown leaves everywhere - on the trees, on the sidewalks, falling in the air…

 

Max kissed him, capturing his lips, pulling him further under the shadow of the big linden tree.  Suddenly the night air filled with electricity.  Maybe there were some invisible Christmas lights around, Brian mused, returning the kiss with some vigour.  He’s been dying to do this the whole day.

 

A few moments passed, or maybe it has been minutes. They came up for air.  Brian cradled Max’s face with his hand, his thumb stroking the chiseled jawline, feeling the stubble scratching his skin.  

 

“You know you don’t have to make me like Berlin even more,” Brian whispered.

 

“I know.” Max winked. “Just with me in it is enough.”

 

Brian laughed, punched his chest.  “Good to know you are so full of yourself.”

 

Max didn’t mind at all; he had a big grin on his face.  “Hardly.  It’s only because I feel the same way about New York.”

 

That stopped Brian fast.  Just like that.  Every time.  Max would just throw something out like this - direct and heartfelt.

 

“Max…”

 

Max pulled him back into his arms, his mouth pressed tight against Brian’s ear, “Happy Birthday.”


Being forty isn’t so bad, after all.