Meet Your Mate
Tilden Blake climbed the two flights of stairs from his office to the classroom. It was still warm and bright for October, a classic Indian summer day. Out on the lawn below, he could see a game of Ultimate Frisbee, and a few brave souls in various states of undress sprawled out on the grass, catching the last of the New England sun.
Tilden walked into the classroom, carrying the papers from the first exam. As always the classroom was stratified by academic success; near the windows sat the students who were struggling, and opposite the windows sat the students who were excelling. The division was so absolute that Tilden had sorted the exams by room section. He passed out the papers and gave his usual early in the year pep talk for first year Russian. The four young men sitting under the window and laughing at some private joke had performed dismally. Tilden had written a note in both Russian and English across their test papers requesting they attend office hours, not that he thought it would help. At least two of the clowns, he didn’t think had mastered the alphabet.
Tilden returned to the front of the class and began expounding on the newest grammar topic. Twice his example sentences were interrupted by snickers from the back of the room, and Tilden saw a small object disappear into a student’s pocket. Oh, God, what do they have now? he thought as he strode across the classroom, never breaking eye contact with his four hooligans. Was he teaching in college or in kindergarten? Tilden stood over their desks and held out his hand. He asked for the object in Russian. Luke Griffith, their apparent spokesman, met his question with feigned innocence and non-comprehension, his blue eyes wide and his blond curls framing his face like a cherub.
Finally in exasperation, Tilden repeated the command in English. “Give it to me.” Tilden hated breaking out of the target language, and even an early first year student should be able to handle a four word sentence. Maybe Luke didn’t understand; he’d scored only 38 out of 100 points. The worst score that Tilden could remember, and half the points were gifts.
Luke smirked and handed the professor a blue Matchbox car. Tilden was sure that he was enjoying forcing the teacher back into English. One year a group of students had an informal contest with one point awarded for every English sentence. The loser each week bought the beer Friday night. Tilden suspected Luke and his friends had come up with a similar scheme
Tilden stared at the car, a toy in a college classroom. He remembered his first year Russian teacher, a survivor of the battle of Stalingrad. Mad Vlad everybody called him behind his back; of course to his face, he was always properly addressed as Vladimir Fyodorovich. Mad Vlad would have grabbed young Luke by his shirt collar and shaken him until his teeth rattled while screaming colorful Russian phrases that were only appropriate on the battlefield between war weary comrades. Tilden had wiped spit off himself a few times when he’d confused the endings of the genitive case. Vlad’s face had been millimeters from Tilden’s and as purple as the famous Ukrainian borsch.
Tilden watched the four miscreants still snickering behind their hands and elbowing each other; a thorough tongue lashing probably wouldn’t even faze them. In fact, Tilden thought despairingly, they’d probably think it was funny. Staring at the boys, Tilden blew out a breath through his teeth and pointed to Luke. He could at least move them and prevent the distraction for the students who weren’t going to drop out.
“Luka, come sit up front. The rest of you find seats away from each other.”
Luke smiled to the class and made a production of shifting seats. Tilden tried hard to engage the boys for the remainder of the class. It was probably a lost cause; he expected four drop slips by the deadline on Friday. In his mind, Tilden could already hear the department head berating him for the number of late withdraws and the poor class size.
Tilden spent the rest of the class trying to explain the intricacies of in versus at and the three choices of prepositions that could fill this role. As usual about half the class mastered the concept, and the remaining either looked blankly at him or made silly jokes. As the clock moved toward ten till the hour, the class began to grow restless, and Tilden dismissed them, shaking his head sadly as the worst students made toward the door without requesting office hours or even making eye contact.
“Luka, I need to talk to you. Do you have a class next period?”
“Did you understand anything I said in class today?” Tilden leaned against the chalkboard and stared hard at Luke.
To Tilden’s surprise, Luke dropped his eyes and blushed, his cheeks turning a rose pink. “I’m not very good at this,” Luke muttered.
“It’s not a matter of being good or bad; it’s a matter of studying. You need to study every day, and you’re not. Russian is cumulative; you can’t cram right before the exam. Your grade reflects exactly the amount of work you’re doing, which appears to be none.”
“Are you always such a hard ass?” Luke asked, grinning with a charm that Tilden suspected usually bent people to his will.
Tilden glared hard at the student, still trying to process the contrast between Luke’s flippant comment and his seconds earlier embarrassment. “Is that all you have to say for yourself, young man?”
Luke blushed again and shifted in his chair.
“So, you don’t have anything to say. Do you have a withdraw form that I need to sign?”
Luke looked up, his blue eyes wide and pitiful.
“That look won’t work with me,” Tilden said softly. He was surprised to see Luke’s eyes fill with tears.
Luke looked down and tried surreptitiously to wipe his eyes with his sleeve. His fingers twisted the wire on his notebook, unthreading the pages from the coiled ring.
Tilden, seeing the genuine discomfort in Luke’s expression, moved to sit on the desk and rested his chin in his hand, still watching Luke, but with more curiosity than anger. “It’s not the end of the world to drop Russian, and a withdraw will be a lot easier on your grade point average than an F. Bring the paperwork in tomorrow, and I’ll sign it without any hassle.”
Luke continued to sit, playing with the edge of his notebook.
“Go on now,” Tilden said, stuffing his papers into his satchel.
“I can’t withdraw,” Luke said softly, more to his notebook than to his instructor.
“Why not? Do you have a silly bet with your friends? They’re in the same boat as you, so I wouldn’t worry about it.”
“I’ve already dropped biology, and I won’t have enough credits,” Luke said with quiet pain in his voice.
Tilden looked at Luke; he seemed genuinely upset, no longer the confident college boy drinking and partying his way through his first year. “You can always catch up on credits in the summer.” Tilden leaned on the chair next to his student, still watching Luke intently.
“It’s not that...” Luke trailed off and started to get up. “I’ll bring the drop form tomorrow.”
“Sit down.” Tilden’s voice snapped through the empty classroom.
Luke sat down reflexively, dropping his book bag with a clatter.
“The offer of a signed withdraw form without a hassle is off the table. Now, you tell me what’s going on.”
“I can’t drop this class.”
Luke squirmed in his seat, staring at the desktop.
“Why not?” Tilden asked again, letting a determined sharpness creep into his voice.
Luke grabbed his backpack and headed for the door.
“You step out of this room, young man, and I’ll fail you for the semester.”
“You can’t. We’re still in the withdraw period.”
“Only with permission of the professor, and I’m not inclined to give that right now.”
“Fine, I’ll fail and go to community college just like my dad wants,” Luke shouted.
Tilden watched a range of expressions cross Luke’s face: shock, anger, fear, and finally defeat as Luke walked back to the chair and slumped over the desk. “Try to explain things more clearly, please.”
“I can’t drop this class, and I can’t fail.” Luke buried his head in his arms and scuffed the floor with his shoe.
Tilden watched silently. This boy who had spent an entire month flagrantly failing was crying. There was some piece missing to this puzzle.
“Dad won’t pay for next semester if I drop another class or my G.P.A. drops below a C,” Luke said, his face still buried in his arms.
Tilden stroked his chin and, as much to himself as Luke, said, “I probably shouldn’t, but I’ll pass you in this class if you do all the work from now on and redo all the earlier work.” Tilden stood, grabbed a box of tissues, and set it on Luke’s desk. “Now dry your eyes, and open your book to the first chapter.”
“I wasn’t crying; I have allergies.”
Tilden snorted and smiled. “You’re not the first man reduced to tears by Russian grammar. No more stalling, we have only twenty minutes, and we’re going to spend it learning what you should have learned a month ago.”
Tilden drilled the simplest three or four word phrases until Luke was word perfect. “Very good, you can actually learn when your fellow hooligans aren’t present. Meet me in my office one half hour before class tomorrow.”
Luke made a face. “I’m not a morning person.”
“This extra study time is for you, not me. You will do it at my convenience, or we won’t do it at all, and you can fail.”
Luke had the good grace to look sheepish. “Sorry, I’ll be there.”
“Good, go to bed before the wee hours, and it won’t seem that early. If you have a class in the next hour, you need to run.”
“It’s just intro to European history. It’s boring.”
“With Professor Brown?”
“Hurry, he doesn’t like students to be late.”
Luke trotted down the stairs, his backpack banging against his shoulder. As he pushed open the outer door, a Frisbee floated toward him. He casually caught it and flipped it back to a student who was jumping up and down and waving her arms on the quad.
“So did you survive Professor Blake?” Mike asked, slipping his arm around Luke’s waist. “You done with Russian for the year?”
“No, I’m going to stick it out. Get off me now. I’m going to be late for history.”
“So when did you become the teacher’s pet? College students don’t go to class in fine weather.”
“Come on. I need to go.”
“Why, so you can listen to him blather about Martin Luther and the Thirty Years’ War? Let’s go fishing.” Mike snatched the backpack off Luke’s shoulders and took off running across the quad, hurdling the sunbathers on their brightly colored towels.
Luke caught Mike as he dodged around the fountain, which generations of students had nicknamed the Goddess of Learning, a large, buxom woman holding a scroll, looking reverently at it, with her other arm outstretched to the sky. Around the basin was an inscription in Greek that few students could read since the downfall of the classical curriculum. Luke reached for his backpack, but Mike grabbed his wrist and pulled them both into the fountain.
“You ass,” Luke spluttered. “You’re ruining my books.”
“It’s not like you use them anyway,” Mike teased, staying just out of reach, his wet T-shirt hugging his chest and showing off his gold nipple rings.
They circled the fountain again, splashing water against the colorful mosaic. Luke reached for Mike a couple of times, his fingers just slipping through Mike’s crew cut hair and over the dangling earrings.
“Gentlemen, get out of the fountain.”
Luke and Mike turned to see a formidable woman with iron gray hair glaring at them, her hands on her hips. She was wearing a red pantsuit and carrying a leather briefcase. Her lips were pressed together in a firm line, and her smoke colored eyes never wavered. Luke stepped out of the fountain, his feet squishing in his sneakers.
“Whatever possessed you two to go swimming in the fountain?”
“We were just having a bit of fun,” Mike said, smiling gamely. “Early spring fever.”
“This college has two perfectly good swimming pools. Use them next time.” She nodded crisply and walked off.
“We dodged a bullet there,” Mike said, laughing.
“How?” Luke asked, the red in his cheeks just starting to fade toward his normal color.
“That was the dean of students, Nancy Groat. She could’ve given us a formal warning.” Mike shrugged and bent down to wring the water out of his jeans.
“I don’t think we totally dodged that bullet,” Luke said, looking over Mike’s shoulder to the tall figure leaning against the tree. Except for the stern expression, the man looked like an advertisement for an outdoor catalog, his lean frame dressed immaculately in khakis and a blue oxford shirt, which accented the near violet color of his eyes, His brown, windblown hair was just long enough for a few stray bangs to brush his eyebrows.
“Luka, didn’t you tell me you had class?”
“Yes, Professor Blake.”
“And what about you, Misha?”
“Uh, I’m supposed to be in the same place.”
“Come with me. I’ll walk you across to the history building to prevent any additional accidents in the fountains.”
Tilden hustled the two boys across the grass and into the history and government building before they had a chance to formulate an escape plan.
Luke and Mike could hear the deep bass of Milton Brown’s voice as they approached the classroom. He was expounding on the formation of the German state and the Protestant Reformation’s influence on the state.
“Milton, I found two of your students lost and wet. I was kind enough to escort them the rest of the way.”
The entire class stared at the two hapless students; a few snickered behind their hands at Luke’s and Mike’s obvious discomfort.
“Thank you, Tilden,” Brown said with a raised eyebrow, but no other outward show of surprise. “There are two free seats up here.”
Professor Brown returned to his lecture as if soddened students always arrived fifteen minutes late. Luke tried to take notes, but he was having trouble following the information and was distracted by his wet pants uncomfortably sticking to his skin. Luke wanted to play hangman with Mike, but he didn’t dare with the professor striding back and forth centimeters from his desk. Luke’s only consolation was that Mike looked just as uncomfortable as he sat scribbling in his notebook.
Finally the bell rang, signaling the end of the period.
“You two stay right here,” Professor Brown said, staring hard at the two boys.
Luke slumped down in his seat. This was the second time today that he had found himself in this position.
The silence continued until Luke tentatively looked up. Professor Brown, who had always seemed remote and detached when he was lecturing, now appeared forbidding. His near black eyes crackled behind his gold rimmed glasses as he glared at the two boys. Standing centimeters from Luke’s desk, he looked far bigger than he did striding behind the podium.
“Do you have anything to say for yourselves, boys?” Brown asked.
Both boys shook their heads.
“This is college, boys. It’s not my responsibility to make you come to class or to study, but if you don’t, you will fail. Contrary to popular belief, I don’t enjoy failing students.” Brown smiled a mirthless smile. “Write a summary of the last chapter, five hundred words. This is not a punishment, even though I’m sure you think it is. I expect it tomorrow morning by eight at my office. Good day, boys.” Brown swept out of the classroom without an additional word.
“What an ass!” Mike said as soon as Brown was out of earshot. “Not a punishment or whatever he was blathering about, but he wants an essay by the crack of dawn. Tonight is the start of the homecoming festivities.”
“At least you only got this, I’ve got extra work from Blake also. I’m going to have to spend the night in the library.”
“Do you even know where the library is?” Mike teased.
“Yes,” Luke groused. “You’re the one who got me into this mess.”
“What do you mean? You chose Russian because you thought the teacher looked hot.”
“I know,” Luke groaned. “I should have chosen the woman who looked like an apple dumpling who teaches French. But you picked this class.”
“I was told Brown was an easy teacher.” Mike shrugged. “I guess the info was wrong.”
“Someone was putting you on, roomie. I’m sure they’re laughing their butts off at us now. See if I ever take your advice again.”
“Hey, don’t blame it on me. I told you I was a brat. You shouldn’t look to me for advice. You need one of those know it all types, a handsome top to rescue your ass.”
“Don’t I know,” Luke said with a sigh. “I haven’t seen any good ones floating around looking for a lovable boy.”
“You did apply to be a contestant on the new top and brat show, didn’t you?” Mike asked with a smirk.
“Yeah, but I’ve got more chance of winning the lotto than being picked, which is just as well. When I think about it, being paired with a strange top on a TV show sounds pretty scary.”
“Wimp,” Mike teased.
“I didn’t see you sending an entry in.”
“Well, I don’t look like the classic little boy. I’m tall, dark, and handsome, not a cherubic, blond-haired lad.”
Tilden leaned back in his chair and propped his hiking boot clad feet on the desk, sending a shower of journals on foreign language teaching to the floor. “Gospodi!” he muttered and scrambled under his desk to pick up the errant journals. Tilden preferred his office tidy, but twenty years of assorted souvenirs from repeated trips to Russia had taken every available space. A collection of Soviet and Russian textbooks dating back to near Stalin’s times lined the shelves; even the space under the desk was stacked with journals and books. The only wall space without shelves was full of framed Soviet era propaganda posters exhorting the workers and peasants to defend Moscow from the fascists.
Tilden heard a knock on the door. “It’s open,” Tilden called from inside the office.
“I thought I’d take you for lunch today. Trent and Mace are trying out a new menu at the cafe, and they need some taste testers.”
“You’re just trying to cheer me up.”
“Are those two numbskulls you brought to class some of your infamous Russian students?” Milton asked.
“Yes, the most infamous. The proud holders of a 38 and a 54. I don’t think I’ve ever had a student score below a forty before.”
“You can’t make them study.”
“I know that,” Tilden said, running his fingers through his hair. “It’s just I’m not getting through to this generation. I expect I’ll sign a drop form for a third of the class before Friday’s deadline. The dean’s going to give up on Russian if I can’t keep more students enrolled, and the head of the foreign language department is making noise about only offering it on alternate years. We used to offer more than one Slavic language, and now Russian is barely surviving.”
“It’s not your fault,” Milton said, dropping his arm around his friend’s shoulders.
“Maybe I should go to taking three semesters to teach first year Russian like many schools are doing. Freshmen aren’t prepared to study early in the year; I’m probably asking too much of them.”
“Nonsense. You’re a good teacher. Who dragged me through my graduate foreign language requirements?”
“You weren’t a freshman. I must be moving too fast, not engaging the students.”
“Stop beating yourself up,” Milton said with a harder edge to his voice. “Do I need to swat you?”
“Oh, no you don’t,” Tilden said with a grin and danced out of Milton’s reach. “Don’t get all toppy with me. I’m not one of your boys.”
“I’m not so sure about that,” Milton teased. “You sure as hell were acting like one. Come on, let’s go. All the food will be gone if we don’t hurry. It’s a beautiful day; let’s walk.”
West Banner was always beautiful in the final days of fall. The foliage was picture postcard perfect, each tree a mixture of rich reds and oranges. Tilden and Milton strolled down the main street still paved in cobblestones and bustling with tourist darting in and out of the antique stores and used bookshops.
The Olde Curiosity Shop was booming. Four to six people crammed around the small tables designed for two. Students and elderly tourist mingled at the soda counter, both enjoying an old-fashioned malt or the house specialty, a brown cow. Other people ate standing up, clutching a plastic plate in one hand while leafing through volumes plucked from the overflowing bookshelves with the other. Only the rare book section was off limits to customers with food or drink.
Mace, carrying a tray of water glasses, waved at Tilden and Milton and signaled for them to wait. He was a small man, barely breaking the tape at 170 centimeters. His owlish glasses gave him the appearance of an academic which contrasted sharply with the large silver buckle proclaiming his prowess in bareback bronc riding and his slight limp. A thousand pound horse had landed on his right ankle, pulverizing the bone and leaving Mace with a joint that could set off airport metal detectors worldwide.
“I saved you a table up front,” Mace said in his usual slow drawl. “I’m glad you showed up. I thought the crowd might lynch me if the table stayed empty any longer.”
“If you need to seat your paying guests, I have a sandwich back in my office,” Tilden said and started for the door.
“Oh no you don’t.” Mace snagged Tilden’s arm. “We did the menu especially for you. The first course is schi or borsch. For the main course we have cutlets or chicken Kiev with fried potatoes and for dessert apple baba, vanilla ice cream, or both.”
“Are you ganging up on me?” Tilden asked.
“No, never,” Mace and Milton answered simultaneously. “Now come sit down,” Mace continued, “Trent will be upset if you don’t sample his cuisine. We’ve even have black bread from the Russian bakery in New York.”
Tilden trailed Mace to the table when he realized that escape was futile. On the table was a traditional start to a Russian meal: both black and white bread, hard-boiled eggs, red caviar, and an assortment of pickles. Two bottles of mineral water and a European fruit flavored soda were artfully arranged to create a centerpiece.
“We also have tea if you like. I even liberated two of your Russian tea glass holders; the podstanniks or whatever you call them,” Mace said.
“Podstakannik or podstakanniki if there are more than one. Of course if you’re talking about two, you should use the genitive singular podstakannika,” Tilden said, smiling to let his companions know that he was playing along with their game. “No vodka?”
“You teach this afternoon,” Milton said. “I don’t think the head of the department would be thrilled. The students might like it though. An authentic cultural experience.”
“A bit too authentic for me,” Tilden said primly.
“So what will you have?” Mace asked.
“What do you advise?” Tilden asked, playing on a first year dialogue that all three men knew and was a frequent joke when they dined at restaurants.
“I advise the chicken; it is very delicious,” Mace replied with mock seriousness.
“I’ll take the borsch and the chicken. For the third course, I’ll take the baba.”
“I’ll have the same,” Milton said.
Milton and Tilden were almost finished with lunch when Trent, Mace’s partner, walked up to the table carrying a small package wrapped in brightly colored tissue paper. “This came in a couple of months ago, and I was just waiting for the right time to give it to you,” Trent said.
“It’s not my birthday.” Tilden raised and eyebrow and looked sharply at his two friends.
“I know, but we all thought you needed a little pick-me-up,” Trent said. “We’re tired of watching your black mood. Open it.”
“Why do I think this is a conspiracy?” Tilden asked with a laugh.
“Because it is,” Trent and Milton said together.
Tilden tore the paper off the package. He had always liked gifts, especially the non-practical kind that his friends usually selected. His parents, whom he loved dearly, were always practical and hated shopping; every Christmas and birthday a check arrived in the mail. “First Year Russian for Christian Schools—where on earth did you find it?”
“I have a friend who is a bookseller in the Republic of Texas,” Trent said. “He knows I have a market for unusual Russian books, and he sent it to me. You should read the dialogues; they’re great—lots of lines like ‘Have you been saved?’ and ‘Are you baptized?’”
“That’s practical.” Tilden rolled his eyes. “Next time I’m lost in the Moscow Metro instead of asking directions I’ll talk about Jesus.”
“Texas leaving the union was the best thing that ever happened to this country,” Milton said. “It sure makes teaching history easier; I don’t have to worry about being accused of having a liberal, homosexual loving agenda.”
“Stop with the political nattering,” Trent teased. “We want to cheer Tilden up, not depress him.”
“The final meal for the condemned.” Tilden looked at his watch. “I’ve got to go; I can’t be late for my class. The dean and the head of the department are already looking for reasons to axe Russian; I don’t want to give them any more ammunition. Thanks for the book.”
Tilden curved his lips into a smile and tried to wave jauntily as he left the store, but his thoughts were grim. No matter how hard his housemates tried to cheer him up, they couldn’t change the facts. The Russian program was on the short list for extinction and with it his job. Since he’d started teaching, the Russian program had halved in size and was still shrinking.
Tilden enjoyed teaching at Banner, but in reality he had few ties to this small college. He was unattached despite the best efforts of Milton’s partner Sheldon to set him up with a suitable man, and while he owned half the house he shared with Milton, Tilden was sure Milton would buy his share out if necessary. Maybe it was time to apply to a bigger university; his credentials were good, and a big city might inject a spark in his private life. He would miss this New England village, and he would especially miss Milton, but life wasn’t static.
Tilden unlocked the front door of the large Victorian house that he shared with Trent, Milton, and their partners. He scooped up the mail that was scattered across the parquet floor in the hallway and carried it to the kitchen table to sort.
Technically the house was divided into three apartments, but they’d never bothered to install separate post boxes. The second and third floor could be reached by a rear stair, which in the house’s glory days had been the servant stairs, and each floor had its own small kitchen. Tilden and Milton had purchased the home together when they has both landed tenure track positions. While they’d never been lovers, they’d both been close friends since they’d roomed together Milton’s second year of college. Trent and Mace rented the third floor or attic space as they jokingly called it. It was hardly a starving student’s garret apartment with its two large rooms and spacious windows overlooking the town and the rolling countryside in the distance. Mace, with his disarming cowboy charm, had quickly changed from tenant to close friend, and now he and his partner spent more time on the first and second floors than in the attic. Everyone appreciated their cooking expertise, and they preferred not to schlepp groceries up two flights of stairs. All five men lived in the house more as if they were one large extended family rather than apartment dwellers.
Tilden glanced at the large manilla envelope’s return address and started automatically to put it in Sheldon’s stack since it was from the parent company of the television station where Sheldon worked when he realized it was for him and not Sheldon. Tilden tore open the envelope and read the cover letter. Unbelieving, he read the letter again, determining that his reading comprehension skills had not failed him. According to the letter, Tilden Blake had been selected as a finalist for the second season of Meet Your Mate: Top and Brat Special Edition.
I’m going to kill that boy, Tilden thought, staring at the letter. Tilden knew he’d not entered any contest or applied for any auditions. Sheldon must have entered him without his knowledge; Sheldon was the only one with both the means and the opportunity. Tilden ran his fingers through his fine, brown hair as he glanced through the packet of papers from the TV station: multiple forms indemnifying the station and the network for damages, a form requesting release of medical records, financial history, and criminal background, cards informing him with appointment times with the show’s counseling service and the casting director. The final letter explained that if he satisfactorily completed all the requirement, he would have approximately a one in three chance of being selected.
Tilden heard the back door open and footsteps behind him heading rapidly towards the stair. “Sheldon, is that you?”
“Yeah, how’d your day go? I heard Mace and Trent made you a special lunch.”
“I was fine until I got the mail. Do you have any idea why?” Tilden asked with a raised eyebrow.
Sheldon stood with one hand on the stair rail, poised to go up, but now frozen in place by the expression on Tilden’s face. He stared at Tilden, his eyes wary. Tilden knew he wasn’t the dominant that Milton was. He rarely engaged in the discipline rituals except for an occasional well placed swat to stop dangerous behavior when Milton was out of town, but Sheldon’s reaction suggested that he was unsure if this was going to be the first time.
“Did the bank lose the mortgage check? Is the town going to demolish the house to make way for a new superhighway?” Sheldon shifted nervously from foot to foot when Tilden did not even crack a small smile at Sheldon’s attempt at humor.
“Does this look familiar?” Tilden asked, walking over to Sheldon, who was gripping the banister fiercely, and waving the envelope under his nose.
“It looks like an envelope from my work. But why is it addressed to you?”
“You really don’t know? Does a reality program come to mind, matchmaking at its finest?”
Sheldon groaned. “You mean you were picked by Meet Your Mate?”
“Ah, so it’s coming back to you now. And whose brilliant idea was it to put my private life on display?”
“Oh, man, it was just supposed to be a bit of fun. I never thought you’d get picked. Do you have to tell Milton about this?” Sheldon asked with a pleading look in his eyes.
“No, but you do. Why don’t you go upstairs and wait for him? He had a departmental meeting this evening.” Tilden gently squeezed the back of Sheldon’s neck. “I’m not very happy right now, but nobody’s going to be killed here. It’ll work itself out.”
Sheldon nodded, bit his lip, and ran up the stairs.
Tilden was still sitting at the table an hour later when Milton came in the door, swinging his messenger bag off his shoulder and hanging it on the Shaker peg by the door. “I thought Sheldon would be down here shooting the breeze with you. Is he not home yet?”
“He’s upstairs waiting to talk to you.”
“Uh-oh, that doesn’t sound good,” Milton said with pursed lips. “What did he do now?”
“I said that I’d let him tell you.” Milton made a grab for one of the sheets of paper scattered in front of his friend on the table, but Tilden blocked him with his arm. “I think it would be better if you heard it from Sheldon first.”
“He’s not going to prison or something?” Milton asked with a grin as he mounted the stairs to head upstairs.
Milton entered the bedroom to find Sheldon curled up in a shabby, brown velvet armchair, his head resting on the oversized rolled arm. He’d already changed to a pair of pale blue boxers and a ragged Banner College sweatshirt that made him look more like a homesick freshman than a successful television executive. Sheldon looked up, his emerald eyes glistening with unshed tears.
Milton strode over to the chair, scooped his partner up, and resettled Sheldon on his lap. Sheldon always made for the comfort of this massive chair when he was upset. Milton frequently suggested that they leave it out for the trash man to collect, but its nostalgic value always won out over decorating needs. Sheldon had purchased the chair the first year of their partnership at a church rummage sale. Six years ago the fabric had been worn; now it was threadbare around the arms and the cushion edges and still smelled faintly of the previous owner’s cats. “OK, what’s going on here?” Milton said softly into Sheldon’s red hair, pulling his lover’s head closer to his chest. “Tilden seems upset with you.”
“You know the show Meet Your Mate?” Sheldon mumbled into Milton’s shirt.
“Yes,” Milton replied warily.
“I entered Tilden as a participant, and he was selected for the finalist pool,” Sheldon said in a rush.
Milton pushed Sheldon off his chest, so he could study his boy’s face. “Do I understand you correctly? You entered a close friend in a contest for a spot on a tasteless reality program without his knowledge or permission?”
Sheldon nodded and burrowed back into Tilden’s chest. “I thought it would be fun. I didn’t think of it as an invasion of privacy, and I never thought he would be picked.”
“I don’t know why you didn’t think he would be picked? He’s a good looking guy with a great personality and an interesting history. How many potential tops spend their summers building park benches at Yellowstone or traveling on the Trans-Siberian across the expanse of Mother Russia?”
“You forgot about his Soviet era matchbook collection.”
“You wrote his backstory, didn’t you, and filled out all the forms? How much did you tell about us?”
“What do mean?” Sheldon asked with feigned innocence.
“Living with two established couples had to be a detail you couldn’t resist. The show’s producers are probably swooning over the idea. We’d make their sweeps month—a potential group orgy.”
“No, no. That’s not what I wanted to happen. It’s just...”
“What?” Milton asked softly, gliding his hand down his partner’s back.
“He’s so lonely, and he’s a great top. He deserves someone.”
“I don’t think it’s our role to play matchmaker for him.” Milton remembered the few times that Sheldon and Mace had tried to set Tilden up with a perspective partner; they’d been unmitigated disasters—a dancer whose more correct title was prostitute, a small time Russian thug who wanted to smuggle caviar among other things, and the lawyer who had a wife in Omaha who he’d conveniently forgotten to mention. “We’ve talked about this before, haven’t we?”
Sheldon nodded, keeping his head buried in Milton’s chest.
“Why am I going to spank you?” Milton’s voice was soft and without anger.
“Because I interfered in the life of my housemate,” Sheldon mumbled, his voice raw with unshed tears.
“Why don’t you go in the sitting room and get ready.” Milton gently pushed his lover from his lap and steered him toward the door. He watched as Sheldon walked across the room to the connecting door. From his head down posture, it was clear that Sheldon was losing the battle against tears, and Milton would find him in the corner with wet cheeks.
After Sheldon shut the door behind him, Milton let out a soft sigh. He hated doing this when Sheldon was upset, especially for what had started as lighthearted mischief with the best intentions, but dragging Tilden, uninformed, into public matchmaking was out of bounds in the games they played. Sheldon enjoyed being a brat, and they both played the game with enthusiasm, but Milton was dominant in their relationship beyond the gamesmanship, and this was one of those times where real life and role playing would bleed together. Sheldon was right that Tilden needed a partner, but his implementation even for a young man as interesting and volatile as Sheldon was extreme.
Milton walked over to the chest of drawers and opened the top drawer; buried among the socks was a wooden paddle. Milton picked it up and then put it back down. Would Sheldon need to be paddled for this, or would a hand spanking be enough? Had he involved Mace? It was a rule in this household if you involved the other boy in your schemes then it was a paddling offense. He’d forgotten to ask, but Milton knew his boy and reluctantly took the paddle from the drawer. Spanking Sheldon could be a joy, the small butt turning from sweet pink to flaming red, but this was a punishment spanking, a reminder of Sheldon’s place in the relationship and the respect to which they were all entitled. Tilden was a dominant; it didn’t mean he wanted it advertised on national television.
Sheldon was standing in the corner, his head resting on the wall. When he heard Milton’s footsteps, he twisted and glanced back over his shoulder.
“Stand up straight. Face the corner,” Milton barked. This was all part of their ritual. Milton couldn’t remember a time he hadn’t said the same words when entering the sitting room to spank his partner. He pulled the straight back chair from the corner and grabbed the remote control for the television. It was an established norm if the TV or radio volume was on too high, someone probably wanted privacy. If Tilden had a boy, he’d probably play the 1812 Overture; the cannons would certainly cover crying, Milton thought with a smile. “Sheldon, come here please,” Milton said and sat down in the chair.
Sheldon turned and slowly walked towards his partner. “Are you going to use that?” Sheldon asked, looking at the paddle.
“Do we need to? Did you get Mace involved?” Milton reached out and grasped his partner’s wrist.
“Yeah, he wrote the personal recommendation.”
“What’s the rule about that?”
“If I get my friend in trouble, I get paddled.”
“Let’s get this done.” Milton guided Sheldon over his knees, wrapping his left arm around his partner’s waist and reassuringly rubbing Sheldon’s back a moment before slipping off his boxers and landing the first swat. As always, Milton spanked quickly and silently; the only sounds in the room were stifled sobs that changed to full throated cries at the first swat of the paddle. Milton stopped paddling after a rapid ten strokes. “It’s all over, imp.”
Milton let Sheldon lay over his knees until the sobs slowed to gentle crying. As with the spanking, Milton found that it was more effective to let his hands do the talking. He gently stroked his repentant boy’s back.
“I’m sorry,” Sheldon choked out. “I didn’t do it to embarrass Tilden or us.”
“Shh, I know. It’s all over now. Do you want to apologize to him now or in the morning?”
Milton helped his partner up and guided him to the bathroom where he wiped Sheldon’s eyes. “You don’t want to look too horrific. You know how Tilden is; he hates it when you get spanked.”
“I know.” Sheldon hung his head.
Milton placed his finger under Sheldon’s chin and lifted it. “We’ve already discussed this. There is no need to feel guilty unless you need more time over my knees.”
“No, no. You were quite thorough,” Sheldon said, rubbing his butt. “I just don’t like to upset Tilden.”
“He’ll live. He understands that you can be a brat. Let’s go; he’ll want to know that you’re all right.”
“Yeah, I know,” Sheldon said, managing a small smile. “He’s probably hiding in his study with that dreadful Russian rock music turned up to full volume, pretending to grade papers.”
“Don’t mention that you think the music is dreadful. I don’t think either of us want a lecture on the history of Russian rock music.”
“Come on, let’s get this done.” Milton wrapped his arm around Sheldon’s shoulders and guided him down the stairs. As expected, Tilden was nowhere to be seen; the door to the study was firmly shut, and the faint sound of a hoarse male voice, probably DDT’s lead singer, wafted from the room. Still keeping his arm around his partner’s shoulders, Milton rapped on the door once and pushed his partner into the room.
Tilden opened his arms, and Sheldon ducked out from under Milton’s arm and ran into Tilden’s embrace. “I’m so sorry.”
“It’s OK. It’s all been taken care of.” Tilden soothed, kissing the top of Sheldon’s head before releasing him to go back to his partner.
Milton nodded at Tilden and gave him a small smile before he led Sheldon back upstairs. “Why don’t you get into bed? I’ll stay with you until you fall asleep.” Milton drew back the coverlet and eased his partner into bed.
Sheldon curled against Milton. “The paperwork I filled out for the show is in my desk drawer. I think Tilden ought to see it.”
“Don’t worry about it; just go to sleep.” Milton rubbed Sheldon’s back until the slow, deep breathing signaled that he was asleep. Milton cautiously extracted himself from under his partner and eased the bedroom door shut as he headed toward the study to read the application.
Milton flipped through the papers before settling down on the corner of the desk to more carefully read the descriptive essay titled “Why I am Right for a Brat” and the character reference provided by Mace. It was obvious from the careful crafting of the essay and the heartfelt personal reference that neither boy had taken this lightly, and the depth of both their feelings toward Tilden was clear. Both young men adored Tilden as their kindly uncle who could provide the support of a top if either of their partners were absent. They feared losing his undivided attention, but felt he deserved a boy of his own.
Tilden was in the kitchen, puttering around with a cup of tea when Milton came down the stairs. “Do you want some tea?”
“No, thanks. Sheldon’s out for the count. I think you ought to read what he and Mace wrote. It’s special, and I don’t think a summary does it justice.”
Tilden read the essay and the recommendation letter twice before he set it down on the table with a sigh. “I don’t know what to say.”
“Those boys really love you. And they’re right, you know, you deserve a partner.”
“You’re not suggesting I go through with this, are you?” Tilden said, outraged.
“No, that’s up to you. It does seem a bit exhibitionist for you.”
“I don’t know,” Tilden muttered.
“Are you considering it?” Milton asked, raising his eyebrows in surprise.
“I’m not getting any younger, and it might be fun.”
“Do you think I’m insane to consider doing it?”
Milton pretended to think for a few minutes. He tugged on his beard and rubbed his earlobe. “Well, it’s a little out of character for you, but no, I don’t think you’re insane. If you can take the bit of public embarrassment, it might be fun. Who knows, maybe you’ll hit the jackpot and find the right young man for you.”
“What do you think the college will think about it?”
“Nancy will choke on her coffee.” Milton smiled at the thought of coffee splattering down the dean’s immaculate red pantsuit. “But I think your department head will be thrilled. Think of all the publicity. You’ll have students drooling to be in class with the handsome television star.”
Tilden took another sip of tea, swirling the dark liquid around in his glass.
“Well, are you going to do it?”
“I’ll think about it.”