Timothy was in love with René, or felt he very soon would be. All the looks and habits of love were there. They farted in bed without apologizing and argued over toast and jam with the casual hostility of married people. In fact, Timothy felt so strongly that he would very soon be totally in love with René that his failure to quite feel the sensation hung over him in a fog of guilt.

At any rate, the awards ceremony was in just a few months; it would be self-destructive to throw away a decent relationship and show up alone when he’d been inching toward love with such a beautiful partner. René looked good in a tux and had a way of making formal events feel as simple as card games. He would place a hand in the small of Timothy’s back at precisely the right moment or interrupt a painful conversation to sweep him away. As for the love part, it was probably developing, was probably imminent. Very soon, he said to the mirror as he parted his hair. Any day.

“Heil Hitler,” said René, walking into the bathroom. He’d showered in the guest suite, but all his lotions and ointments were here, in the master, along with a silver tray of the colognes he liked to layer onto his chest in a specific palimpsest that Timothy could never quite fathom. “Your part is Nazi-rigid,” he explained, and he mussed Timothy’s hair from behind, wriggling two fingers down the neat line at the side of his scalp.

“You said to be fancy.”

“Fancy, not fascist.” The spritzing began, and Timothy retreated to the closet, where he selected a pair of trousers that bothered him when he sat but worked well when he stood. He could sneak off the top button once they were seated at whatever restaurant René had chosen. Assuming there were tablecloths.

“You can’t wear that,” said René. “I’m wearing blue.” Timothy looked down at the shirt he’d put on. René pulled down a thin navy sweater for himself.

“But that’s not the same blue.”

“That’s what I’m saying. We’ll clash. We’ll be all—” René made a face to signify electrical disjuncture and began unbuttoning Timothy’s shirt. He re-hung it on the wooden hanger and chose a pink-striped substitute that had lately been feeling too snug around the belly. Timothy put it on and went to feed the cat.

They were in the elevator by 7:50 p.m., which still left them plenty of time to go on foot, said René. Timothy plotted a ten-minute walking radius in his head and determined that his birthday dinner would probably be at Buca. This was a good choice—they had a sea-bass carpaccio that was really special—but it was also hugely expensive, and the dawning realization that he’d be paying for his own birthday dinner caused Timothy to let out a little sigh.

René retaliated with a mocking sigh of his own, which made Timothy look over in surprise, prompting René to say, “Don’t be all”—he made his electrical disjuncture face—“tonight, okay? Just relax.”

René was making an effort. And this was, in a way, quite touching. He could have taken that sigh of Timothy’s and spun it into an argument (he’d done it before), but it was Timothy’s fortieth, and so René would make an effort. Timothy smiled at René and reached over to rub the back of his neck. “Almost there,” said René. And he gave Timothy a whatsitgonnabe eyebrow waggle.

It was charming, could be charming. That René didn’t know that Timothy knew they were going to Buca. So when they rounded the corner and it became completely obvious, Timothy made a show of stopping on the sidewalk and put his hands on his hips, looking at the restaurant’s exterior. “Wait, are we…Are we going to Buca? Because I fucking love Buca.”

“Your dreams will all come true,” said René. And he walked ahead, making a too-formal salute at the valet.

Although it was barely dusk, the restaurant’s interior was oppressively dark, which Timothy always found reassuring, as it meant there was less chance their meal would be interrupted. He folded his jacket in half and handed it to the girl behind the counter.

When they began dating, René had been excited whenever Timothy was recognized in public, had sat up in his chair or stepped back in the midst of a cocktail party to watch a fan gush (“Excuse me, I’m so sorry, I just wanted to. . .”). That had happened during their very first dinner two years ago, and afterwards René had positively beamed: “Does that happen to you very often? I guess it must. It must drive you crazy.” Timothy had smiled warily, because men were always excited the first dozen or so times, but, after that, the experience soured, and they became sick of hovering at the periphery of things and wound up sleeping with the masseuse.

René’s enthusiasm, though, was stubborn. In fact, unlike the lawyers and tech gurus who’d preceded him, René seemed to thrive on playing the mystery figure beside Timothy’s celebrity. He delighted in being captioned as the “friend” or “companion” in magazines that showed the pair walking down a sidewalk with shopping bags and sunglasses, looking glamorously unmade. He discovered a kind of pleasure, too, in being the confidant of Timothy’s famous friends, many of whom felt they couldn’t confide in each other; and they, in turn, enjoyed the attention of a young man who lacked the gene that made others fear the famous.

But where had he scooted? Someone must have taken René ahead to the table. A waving hand at the far end of the restaurant drew Timothy’s attention. Damn. Not a quiet dinner for two, then. There were four others at the table, and René was walking back now, beaming about his little ruse while the friends waved from their seats, half-standing.

“Surprise!” said René as they crossed the restaurant floor.

“I really don’t like surprise parties,” said Timothy, but he immediately regretted the remark. René’s face fell noticeably just before they arrived at the table, and Timothy was aware of his struggling to remain buoyant during the hellos.

Here was Ed, his bald head gleaming romantically in the candlelight as he stood to over-hug. “Happy BIRTHday,” he growled, rocking Timothy from side to side. Here was Bryson, back from the shoot in Tokyo and looking like a Brooks Brothers advertisement in his perfect brown blazer—he was perhaps a bit greyer than last time, but seemed annoyingly content. (“Fear not, I’ve already ordered something bubbly.”) And here were Martin and Tamara close together at the end of the table, looking conspicuously heterosexual. They smiled in unison and waved. Then Martin (perhaps because he was still a new boyfriend of Tamara’s and wasn’t used to being around Timothy) stood to lean across the bread and awkwardly shake his hand. Of all the Toronto friends, these four were René’s favourites.

“What was that you ordered?” asked Timothy as they all settled down.

“A Bisol Prosecco,” smiled Bryson, offering the wine menu.

Timothy ignored it. “Let’s get a couple more of those, then.” He leaned back in his chair and made eyes at the server. There always seemed to be one hovering nearby and, for once, Timothy didn’t mind the special treatment.

Soon they were all toasting Timothy, his agelessness (ha), his generosity (sigh). The food started to arrive (they’d looked despairingly at the inscrutable menu and asked the chef to simply “take care of the table”). After the antipasto, Timothy excused himself and went out the front door, which meant a cigarette. Of course, those had to be handled discreetly and away from the cellphones of other diners, so he stepped in shirt sleeves past the awning and down the dusky sidewalk. One of the reasons Timothy liked Buca was the obscured alley around the corner where a person could enjoy a smoke without any hassle and out of view.

He’d barely taken a drag when his right hand went mindlessly to the wallet in his pocket and felt for the hard circle of metal. There it was. Hello. A diamond ring, thought Timothy. What a strange thing to just have in my wallet. A gold ring with a diamond of large, tasteless proportions gripped atop it. He could even make out the stone’s enormous outline through the calfskin. Suddenly, a Gollummish urge had him pulling out the wallet and tugging the ring out of the secret back slit where traveller’s cheques had once been stowed. Perhaps it was a bad idea to dangle diamond rings in one hand while smoking with the other in a downtown alley. But then it hardly seemed to matter if someone came running by and snatched it. In fact, that might simplify things enormously.

Couldn’t he just toss it into a dumpster? Pop it into a mailbox? Or give it away, even, to some smiling idiot on Yonge Street? No, he couldn’t give it away. He’d be recognized, and that would bite him later. The cigarette was going too fast. They always died two drags too soon. Timothy scowled and was contemplating whether he could reasonably stay for another when Bryson appeared at the alley’s lamplit entrance and shouted far too loudly, “Ah ha!”

He looked so old in this harsh light! The jowls not exactly sagging, but crinkled as though coated in dried glue. The undereye purpling, the scalpiness of his temples. This kneejerk critique made Timothy think next about his own aging, how broken-down he’d become since he and Bryson had first met in their twenties—when they were just getting started. He supposed that if he were to start out today, nobody would give him a chance. Strange to be riding on your younger self’s coattails this way.

Bryson stepped into the alley, sauntered. And though Timothy had pocketed the ring, it was too late. “Timothy,” said Bryson, “what were you just holding in your hot little hand?”

Timothy smiled. “Oh, let’s maybe just leave that.”

“You are playing with an engagement ring in a dark alley—there’s not much chance I’m going to leave it.”

“Why are you out here snooping, anyway?”

You abandoned a tableful of friends,” said Bryson, stopping to admire the graffiti. “I’m merely on a retrieval mission. But now I think we’ll have to stay a bit until you’ve explained yourself.”

Bryson was impossible when he got like this. “It’s nothing,” said Timothy. “Just a gift.”

“Ah-hm.” Bryson cocked his head, gnawed his lip philosophically. “One does not dish out diamond rings like party favours, as a rule. Even people with bank accounts like yours.” This was a disaster. He wasn’t going to let it go. “Well, don’t look so desperate,” laughed Bryson. “I mean, it’s your life. If that’s what you want to do, I promise not to judge.”

Timothy stubbed the cigarette excessively against the alley wall and exhaled the final draw. Caught, then.

“When are you going to do it?” Bryson was smirking, which made the whole thing immeasurably worse.

“I don’t know.”

“Well, let’s see, let’s see.” Bryson took a cigarette from the pack poking out of Timothy’s trouser pocket and stuck it between his incisor and top lip so that it dangled in a very James Dean way. That would have been the effect, at least, were Bryson a little younger. Shrugging, Timothy lit Bryson’s cigarette, lit another for himself, and dug the ring from the bottom of his pocket. “Here.”

Bryson whistled. “Now.” He held the ring up for Timothy, as though showing it to him for the first time. “This is not a standard man’s engagement band. You are aware, I suppose, that this is a woman’s ring?”

“Does that sort of thing even matter anymore?”

“I guess not. You’re already ruining the sanctity and all that.” He looked more closely, grinned back at Timothy. “She’s a beaut,” he said. “Seriously. René is going to shit his pants.”

Timothy raised his eyebrows and changed the subject. For a while, the two talked about a mutual friend who was dying in Montenegro. And when Timothy could decently toss away his cigarette and suggest they join the others, he did.

“Quite right,” said Bryson.

When they reentered the restaurant, it looked like everyone had melted into their meals a little. The first few bottles had shrunken-down levels; Timothy thought of the mercury going down in chilled thermometers. More booze had been ordered. As Bryson and Timothy took their seats (Bryson upping his eyebrows horribly at René), Ed turned to them both and said, “You’ve been off conspiring, I suppose?”

“We’ve been plotting, yes,” said Bryson, and he ran a piece of bread around the perimeter of a plate, sopping up lemon and fat. “We’ve been making big plans, haven’t we, Timothy?”

Would everyone always want to be in on a secret with him? More than expensive meals or gifts, Timothy’s worth was his seeming mystery. Anyone who could insinuate that they’d shared a private moment, some quiet confidence, always did as much in public—so that Timothy himself was made to look like a compulsive schemer. In reality, while most people felt left out of the loop, Timothy couldn’t help but feel there was no loop at all.

“René,” said Bryson a little later. He was flushed after returning to his wine and spoke loudly, leaning in with a drunk’s concentration. The tails of other conversations fell away and attention coalesced around what he said next. “Out of curiosity, what do you think about marriage? I mean gay marriage, as a principle.”

Poor René. He’d been mid-laugh with Tamara and Martin and now half-turned around as he realized the others were waiting for an answer. “Oh,” he said. “Well, you know, I guess I’m for equal rights, if that’s what you’re asking.”

“Right—but do you think it’s actually a good thing that we parrot a hetero ritual?” Bryson asked. “No offence,” he said to Tamara and Martin, who made not-at-all faces.

“I think it could be a good thing, sure, if it were right for the people getting married.”

“But a couple things, two things. First, I think it’s common knowledge that, in the case of creative people”—here he nodded at Timothy—“marriage has, historically, always diminished them. And second, the second thing: marriage has always been, really, about property.”

“Bryson—” said Timothy. But Bryson’s voice went up a notch.

“The main reason—irrefutably—no, I’m sorry, irrefutably, has always been the safeguarding of material comfort, adding to your wealth with a lump of dowry.” He looked around the table. “Am I wrong?”

René fell silent.

Ed leaned back in his chair, his face shining but serious.

Bryson shouted a “Ha!” and reached carefully for a bottle.

Timothy studied the interior of his wine glass and waited for someone else to say something.

After the entrees (grilled Quebec venison for Timothy), the diners lounged, played with their napkins, told old jokes—they were a bit exhausted and were good enough friends to show it. It was then that a young woman sitting nearby, who’d been making furtive glances all night, finally folded her napkin and approached. “I’m so sorry…”

Timothy turned in his seat. “Oh gosh,” she said. “I mean, I knew it was you, but…I mean, it’s really you.”

“Hello,” said Timothy. He extended a hand and gave his full name, a habit that was meant to seem modest but lately seemed to be read as disingenuous. The woman rolled her eyes and said she was probably his biggest fan and she couldn’t believe they were having dinner in the same restaurant and it was probably fate, and could she possibly take a selfie with him?

“All right, smile!” sang René.

“You’re really my favourite,” she gushed, holding on a bit too tightly to Timothy’s waist. “I mean, honestly. I think you’re just totally, totally incredible.” He blinked at the phone’s violent flash. What did that mean, Timothy wondered. To be incredible. Not credible? Could that be right? He reclaimed his seat and a moment’s painful silence transpired while the usual downshifting from fandom took place.

René—thank God—raised a hand and asked the server for some dessert menus. Bryson may have meant to cause damage—he was always destroying things for fun—but nothing had stuck. René became absorbed in the list of cheeses and chocolates and, looking up, he winked at Timothy. Still, the question remained: Had René thought Bryson’s questions were related to their talk in the alley? And, if so, did he suspect a proposal?

Later that night, after desserts, and once they were all giggling into little glasses of sherry, Tamara’s boyfriend Martin mentioned that Timothy’s new project was everywhere in the media, and Timothy smiled, saying, “You know I’ve been so lucky, so lucky. It’s really indecent, actually.” The line was something he said all the time to newspaper people and talk-show hosts, a standard bit of self-deprecation—almost required of people like him. But this was the first time he could remember saying it to a table of friends and when nobody shouted him down or insisted that luck had nothing to do with it, he felt an awkward twist of remorse in his chest, as though he’d been foolishly honest and now the table had—in silence—agreed there was no good reason for his success.

This was called catastrophizing, according to Timothy’s therapist, and it was something he had an unfortunate tendency to fall into during the sherry portion of the evening. Probably none of his friends wanted to embarrass him by commenting on his talent at all—it had been a decade since any of them had felt the need to even bring up his work, and they probably thought it would be presumptuous, even tiring, to risk a judgment of any kind. This was, after all, why new people—like Martin—were so exhausting and why he would’ve avoided them on a night like tonight had René given him a chance to vet the guest list.

He remembered René’s admonishment to relax. But that was impossible, of course, given last night’s little slip.

The auction had been a charity event—testicular cancer? Huntington’s? His manager had thought it would be worth attending because the billionaire Ted Rosoff was hosting, and she assumed important players would be there.

Timothy had gone alone. He’d swiped a glass of white off a passing waiter’s tray, scanned the room for familiar faces. There was no one. There had been, however, a handsome young man, overdressed for the occasion, who had sidled up to him. They looked at a spa package and made half-funny comments about the people being massaged in the pamphlet.

Three glasses of wine later, the young man—Louis? Lewis?—had disappeared into another corner of the party. Alone again, Timothy had cast about. And there it was—a diamond ring on a white pedestal that’d been fluted to look like a Doric column. Four-karat diamond, gold band. Opening bid: $42,000.

How exactly did the ring end up in his pocket? It had been between his fingers. There’d been the security fellow, somewhat distracted, laughing with the bartender about a crude joke. There’d been a crush of people behind him. And then…he’d simply turned and shoved his hands into his pockets. The simplest thing in the world. Had he exactly decided to take the ring? Had he consciously stolen the thing?

Next, his forehead had broken out in sweat. He’d gone breezing through the crowd, nodding at those who seemed to know him, touching the elbows and waists of those in his way. Goodnight, goodnight, to the host. And there! He’d spilled onto the sidewalk! A gulp of needful oxygen. Nobody came after him. He’d turned the ring over and over in his hand, in his pocket. He had taken a step, another. He had walked all the way home, fitted the ring into his wallet, and gone to bed without allowing himself to think.

They were walking through the restaurant now, lining up at the cloakroom. Who had paid? Someone else? He would have remembered pulling out his wallet.

The goodbyes, outside, were rushed on Timothy’s part. A flurry of promises made for future dinners and drinks, a scattered accounting of travel plans. The group looked vaguely down the street for their Ubers. And then he and René were alone, retracing the few dark blocks toward the apartment. Why were his goodbyes always so hurried lately? He never seemed capable of giving people their due. And it would take only those ten extra seconds to make a person feel cared for instead of tossed aside. Always this little disaster, this graceless blurting after all the work of a social night. It was a jealous hoarding of his own solitude. Or was that just something the therapist had said? Perhaps it was true anyway: when he saw the chance to break from a crowd, he bolted.

They walked two blocks in silence.

Then René began describing the novel he was reading—a dystopian story about the collapse of civilization. “Not one of those dystopias where a teenager saves the world, though,” he said. “It’s a quiet dystopia.”

“Quiet dystopia,” repeated Timothy. He liked the sound. “What does that mean?”

“It’s like, the world is over and people are just very practical about it, trying to survive—there’s no hero or bad guy. And the thing is, it all takes place just twenty years from now. So the few humans left alive are looking back at today with this huge longing. It makes you realize how much we have that we take for granted.”

Timothy nodded and listened to their footsteps awhile, trying to straighten his mind after the boozy dinner. He wondered what today’s world might look like to a post-collapse generation. Children might ask how electricity worked, or how emails travelled through the air. Folks would shrug and admit they ought to have Googled it when they had the chance. All these taken-for-granted miracles. Had they really flown around the world in metal tubes? Had it really been possible to listen to any song you could name? Eat pineapples in December? He had read somewhere that over 100 billion people had lived at one point or another. And of all those billions, here was Timothy, alive at the right moment and in the right place. Even his attraction to René would have destroyed his life just fifty years earlier. He was temporarily overcome by this vision of his own good fortune. To have lived in such a time. All these obscenely rich treasures and nobody anywhere earning even their morning coffee.

As they approached the apartment building, Timothy saw two police officers standing by the front door. A thick heat ran immediately through his brain so that only panicked thinking became possible. There was not enough room in his skull; there was a pressure at the back, horrible pressure. Here it was. So soon! He kept walking; there was no point in running. They would know him, know his face. And he’d be thrown down on the sidewalk in front of René, in front of everyone. He couldn’t seem to suck in enough oxygen; the night was so stupidly muggy.

“Good evening,” said one of the officers, and she smiled, touched her cap in friendly recognition. René and Timothy walked past and into the lobby. The door clicked shut behind them.

Afew minutes later, Timothy was smoking on the patio, looking down at the tiny black dots that were the police officers’ caps. A man down there was speaking with them, seemed to be describing some kind of physical fight. Then the police shook his hand and went away.

The cigarette was almost done. He wanted another after this one, but then his heart would start racing and he wouldn’t be able to sleep.

Timothy leaned over the balcony railing and turned the smouldering nub in his hand so he could look down into its red eye. He flicked it into the night, and for a moment, the rush of oxygen caused it to flare up so he could track its plummet for fifty feet until it was lost. To burn—no, not to burn anything. Why did cigarettes dropped off balconies never manage to start fires?

“Did you read the news?” mumbled René when Timothy finally came to bed. He’d been looking at his tablet, which still glowed on the bedside table.

“What news?”

“Oh, they announced the…you know, the awards. You’re nominated.” René was drifting, describing things as though he were dreaming. “Now you just need to win.” He rolled over and grinned up at Timothy with his eyes shut. “Which you obviously will.” He shut off his bedside light then, and Timothy eventually heard his breathing thicken. Timothy stared at the ceiling.

I’ll turn myself in. Somehow, here at the black end of the day, things were clearer. I’ll turn myself in and that will be it.

That was why he took the ring, he suddenly realized. In order to be caught. Now everything could finally change, fall, drop. He turned and took René in his arms, the risk of losing him only now beginning to dawn. Of course René might decide to leave. The tabloids won’t let go, he told himself, won’t ever stop. Even when they get bored with the story in a few weeks, it’ll stay in their files, it’ll be dragged out for every future profile, waiting like some predatory thing in the corner of every blog post, the middle of every talk-show interview. The photo of him being led into court would illustrate a special section of his Wikipedia page titled “Diamond Ring Theft.” Any work he did after tomorrow would be framed, condescendingly, as a comeback. And the goodness he had until now been known for, the charity and sweetness that gilded his brand, would be overwritten. His knowable self would be stripped away.

Would René really leave? Maybe. Wasn’t he, in the end, just one more thing that Timothy hadn’t earned? Now René curled inward, fetus-style, in his sleep, and brought his rear to Timothy’s crotch. Even now, with all this, Timothy’s cock jolted involuntarily at the contact. René wouldn’t leave straight away, of course. Just as his friends wouldn’t disappear immediately but would email condolences and refute nasty columnists. René would at first protect him. It would take several weeks, even months, for this beautiful man to realize his feelings were bound up with the now dissolving trappings of Timothy’s success. But eventually, almost certainly, he would then leave. Everything would fall away.

Timothy decided to make the call first thing in the morning. This delivered a profound release—his body even produced a febrile shiver at the thought. To calm himself into sleep, he reached for René’s novel and read. He’d never been much interested in disaster stories, but there was something attractive about those practical considerations, those worthy accomplishments: learning to ride a horse, say; to gather seeds and sow them; to capture fresh water in rain barrels and craft candles from tallow.

Michael Harris
Michael Harris is the author of Solitude and The End of Absence, which won the Governor General’s Literary Award. A faculty member in the Banff Centre’s literary-journalism program, he currently lives in Vancouver.
Genevieve Simms
Genevieve Simms (@GDFSimms) draws for such publications as Canadian Business and McSweeney's.