Professional Courtesy

an excerpt

Chapter One

Eric wallowed in the way his muscles burned as he turned toward home. The Esplanade wasn't exactly the most challenging course in terms of terrain. Dodging the tourists, students, and people out for a stroll created enough challenges, almost like a slalom, that he could still get enough endorphins going to make him feel good about running. Soon enough he would have to take his workouts indoors, anyway. Thanksgiving had passed, and snow and ice would blanket his usual running course.

He should have taken that job in California. It didn't snow out there.

Well, he hadn't taken the California job. He'd stayed on the East Coast, and now he had tenure in Boston so snow would be a part of his life for the foreseeable future. Could have, should have, would have. Anyone who didn't live with at least a few regrets probably hadn't done much with their life. Besides, he wasn't really a California guy. He'd lived there, briefly, but it wasn't quite right. New England had settled into him, like winter, and he could no more escape than he could stop the tides.

He took the next exit from the esplanade and headed back to his place. There were plenty of people milling around on the sidewalks for him to dodge, helping him to keep an added layer of difficulty to his workout, but for the most part he was doing just fine. His heart rate was up, the sun was shining, and today was going to be a fantastic day.

He jogged up the steps, let himself into the building, and up the stairs to the top floor. His lungs cried out for mercy by the time he got there, but that was fine. It would only help him later in life, right? He paused and stretched before letting himself into his condo.

He loved this old place. He'd loved it ever since he inherited it, ten years ago. He adored the old wood paneling, and the nineteenth-century details like the molding and the fine glass doorknobs. He loved the built-in bookshelves, and the assumption made by the original builders that of course the inhabitants would have enough books to fill several rooms. He loved the fact that this was his home, his space, and he alone had the right to make decisions about it.

The fact that he found his mother pinning up pine garlands around the fireplace made him frown, but he ignored it. Surely she'd take them down by the time Eric got out of the shower.

He jogged into the master bedroom and peeled off his running clothes. Temperatures were low, to be sure, but Eric had still managed to work up a decent sweat. That was the mark of a successful workout -- the burn of his muscles, his clothes soaked with sweat, and a body still coming down from his endorphin high.

He jumped into the shower and tried not to think about what he'd found his mother doing. It wasn't that Eric didn't like the holidays. Part of the reason he'd decided to keep the condo and live downtown was so that he could enjoy all of the lovely store displays and the decorations on Boston Common. Eric just didn't feel compelled to decorate at home. Pine needles were untidy. Rearranging everything to put up a tree was just chaotic, and no one needed that kind of chaos in their life. And the tree itself, no matter where it got placed, would inevitably block a book.

He shuddered in horror, despite the hot water crashing down on his skin.

He laughed at himself as he rubbed the washcloth over his skin. He shouldn't get himself so worked up over something that hadn't become an issue yet. Eric's mother hadn't done anything significant yet. If she was leaving the stupid pine boughs up, he would talk to her and she would take them down, and that would be the end of it.

He finished his ablutions, got dressed, and checked his briefcase. Everything was in order, and he was ready to go. He emerged back into the common area, only to find even more pine boughs. Not only that, but Suzanne had dropped a massive wooden wheel onto the coffee table. It had candles.

Eric groaned. "Seriously? What is that fire hazard doing in the middle of the living room?"

Suzanne gasped and pressed her hands to her cheeks. "Eric! It's an antique! I brought it all the way from Germany. It's part of your family heritage. It's bad enough that I won't have any grandchildren to pass it on to, but you could show the proper respect for it."

Eric rolled his eyes. He didn't want to be needlessly harsh with his mother. She was in a difficult place right now and he could be sympathetic, but the stupid "antique" was nothing but a hunk of dry wood. It would go up like a Roman candle, and he had half a mind to help it along. "It's got beer spilled on it, Mom."

"The beer of your great-grandfather!" She sniffed. "And his grandfather, and his. This is an original advent calendar. It's survived every war Germany saw from 1837 until I married him, and you should take a lesson from its resilience instead of turning your nose up at it."

"Is dry rot contagious?" Eric poked at the wheel. When he saw his mother's face fall, he softened. It had been a difficult year for her, and he understood that. Maybe they hadn't been close since he'd come out, but he didn't need to make it worse. "Look. I get the thing is important to you. You lugged it all the way here and everything. You've been keeping it in storage. But you can't just take up the whole living room with it, and with all this other holiday nonsense. Maybe you can set up the calendar in your room, since it's important to you?"

He'd meant it as a compromise, but Suzanne recoiled. "Holidays are meant to be celebrated. And they're meant to be celebrated as a family. When you decided to become a homosexual, you still came to our house and celebrated Christmas with us!"

Eric clenched his jaw and painted a smile onto his face. "No one decides to be gay, Mom. It's just how you're born, like having dark hair or a cleft chin."

"Nonsense. You had every opportunity to choose a natural path." She waved a hand. "But you're our son and we loved you, even if we didn't agree with it. But to turn your back on Christmas!"

"No one's turning their back on anything, Mom." Eric tried not to look at his watch. He didn't have to be to campus for another three hours, but he had a routine and he liked to stick with it. "I'm just saying you can't just toss things around and trash someone's home because of a holiday. If you'd wanted to find some way to celebrate we could have sat down and talked about it. We could have compromised on something, maybe had a little dinner party or something. Instead you've had this unsanitary monstrosity take over the entire front half of the condo without so much as a by-your-leave --"

"I don't need permission to decorate for the holidays in my own home!" Suzanne snapped, standing up straighter. "Or is your mother, the woman who gave you life, not welcome here?"

Eric gritted his teeth. "Of course you're welcome here, Mom." He hadn't invited her. She'd simply shown up with a U-Haul. Eric didn't think now would be the right time to point that out, and besides -- Suzanne had given him life. She was his mother, she'd raised him, and she'd made sure he still had a home and family after he came out. "I'm happy to have you here, but that doesn't change the fact that randomly throwing a bunch of seasonal junk around is disruptive and it's something that should be discussed. Not assumed."

She stomped her foot. "It is tradition, Eric. I understand you homosexuals don't like to deal with tradition or what's right, but you are part of a family. You need to accept that being part of a family means sometimes doing things you might not enjoy. That means holiday cheer. It means decorating to celebrate Christ's birth!"

"Christ was probably born in the spring." Eric bit his tongue. He shouldn't have said it.

"We celebrate the birth of the Savior on Christmas day!" She swatted his arm with a pine bough. "For two thousand years we've celebrated the birth of the Savior on December twenty-fifth and you're not going to change anyone's mind with your elitism and smug attitude! We will get in the car tonight. We will go out and buy a Christmas tree--"

"I'm drawing a big red line at trees. They're a fire hazard and they leave needles everywhere." Eric crossed his arms over his chest.

"We're having a Christmas tree and you're going to like it! And we will decorate the tree with all of the antique ornaments I salvaged from my parents' house. You're going to appreciate everything that went into making you, Eric Westcott, even if it kills me!" Suzanne stormed off into her bedroom, sobbing. She slammed her door behind her.

Eric stared down the hallway for a moment, lips pressed together. He could go after her and try to soothe her. Instead, he grabbed his coat from its peg by the door and left the condo. He would let Suzanne calm down in her own time and her own way. One of the great things about being an adult was not having to let his mother take out her issues with her marriage on him anymore.

Even though he knew enough not to let himself get drawn into a more extended argument, he found the good mood he'd built up for himself with his morning workout had been sucked away. Instead of enjoying the feeling in his muscles from his run, he found himself regretting the decision to take the train to work. The press of people all around him, which made the C line such an adventure most of the time, just made his joints ache and his teeth grind.

While he normally welcomed contact with his students, he found himself dreading this afternoon's office hours. The last thing he needed today was to sit and listen to a bunch of entitled, whining students complaining about harsh grading. And if one more of these twerps, even one, tried to tell him that Romeo and Juliet truly was a romance, he was going to explode, and the building and grounds crew was going to have to scrape him off the ceiling.

But hey, then he wouldn't have to deal with the stupid advent calendar.

He couldn't even enjoy the privacy of his own office. That was just one more thing that was wrong with today. The university, in its infinite wisdom, was renovating the ancient Liberal Arts building. Eric couldn't pretend the place didn't need it, seeing as how some rooms still had knob and tube wiring in places, however the English department had all been doubled up in an old house on campus while the university worked its magic. Eric couldn't get peace and quiet in his own home, and he couldn't get peace and quiet in his office.

He would probably be spared any stupid holiday decorations on Kistler's part, but then again with his luck Kistler would want to do something flamboyant. He'd want to out-Herod Herod. He'd want to put a giant tree in the middle of the room and decorate it with Pride flags or something, and add little condom packets so students could just take them without having to go all the way to the drug store and buy them for themselves.

Eric took a deep breath to steady himself. He wasn't this grumpy, foul-tempered old man. He was a professional, an educator, and a scholar who was simply thrown off his game. He refused to take it out on the rest of the world, not even on Dr. Kistler. Suzanne's issues didn't need to become anyone else's issues.

He got off the train at the Boston Atlantic University stop and marched up to the old house that now housed the English department. Maybe the day wouldn't be as fantastic as he'd thought it would be from the start, but Eric was in control of how it went from here on in. Not Suzanne, not Kistler, and not anyone else.