Warnings: barebacking in a safe, sane and consensual relationship; established canon real person relationship schmoop sex
Notes: A working knowledge of the play Red is helpful but not necessary. You should know that the central character is the painter Mark Rothko, played in this production by Alfred Molina, and Jon's character is named Ken.
Pentimento is an alteration in a painting, evidenced by traces of previous work, showing that the artist has changed his or her mind as to the composition during the process of painting. The word is Italian for repentance, from the verb pentirsi, meaning to repent. Rothko uses the word in the play to describe his technique.
Zach shifts from foot to foot in the farmer’s market stall, intently scrutinizing heirloom tomatoes and late summer squash.
“You like eggplant right?” He doesn’t look up, grazes a finger along glossy dark purple skin.
“How long have we been dating?” Jon laughs under his breath, slipping behind Zach to get out of the way of a woman handling the avocados and frowning. He presses one hand to the small of Zach’s back as he squeezes by, and Zach pauses, tips his head up to the tarp between him and the sky, and furrows his eyes behind his sunglasses as if he’s doing mental math. He appears to finish his calculations and shakes his head softly, lowering his gaze to look evenly at Jon.
“Here, hold these.” Zach thrusts the paper-wrapped flowers to Jon to hold and selects his handfuls of tomatoes, zucchini, a beautiful blooming bunch of basil, and yes, several shiny eggplants, piles them carefully at the register. The woman from the farm weighs and bags them while Zach takes the flowers back, brushing up against Jon and switching places, already distracted by the sunlight twinkling off the glass jars at the herb and tea vendor across the aisle, leaving Jon to fish out some money from his cargo shorts and accept the heavily laden bag.
He’s delicately fingering the soft leaves of a pineapple sage plant when Jon makes his way over, bag of fruit and vegetables slung over his shoulder. Zach is smiling, talking to the herb guy animatedly.
“This is good, and the lemongrass, too.”
“They’ll go well together,” the herb guy says, looking from Zach to Jon and giving him a friendly smile. They don’t know each other, not really, but Jon knows Zach got him and Lea some weird-tasting medicinal tea once when they were both stricken with the same sore throat, and he wonders if this is where it came from. It worked, whatever was in it.
“Do you need money?” Jon shifts the bag again to try to get to his pocket, but Zach already has some out.
Zach tilts his head to look at Jon, curious, quirked smile on his face that quickly drops away. “Twenty-two months. And I have some.”
“Come right home tonight.” Zach says simply, taking a small crostini with a sample of jam and popping it in his mouth as he walks.
Jon takes one too, smiles at the hippie girl offering it. The little handwritten sign says olallieberry. He has no idea what that is but his eyes roll back in his head and he’d definitely stop to buy some. Zach keeps walking. Jon mouths next time apologetically to the girl, and she giggles. Jon catches up to where Zach has stopped to eye the goat cheese guy warily. Zach hates the goat cheese guy. Jon just pauses, because he knows what will happen. Zach breathes in sharply, turns on his heel and balks aloud, “nope,” like he just can’t.
Jon can’t help laughing at him. Only Zach could have a nemesis here. “But how will you ever get goat cheese?” He taunts him. Zach hangs back and shakes his head, grinning over at Jon as they fall in step again.
“Just destined to be deprived, I suppose. Did you hear what I said?”
“I always come right home.” Jon’s mouth curls around that word, not hearing himself say it until he actually does and then there’s the feeling of it, so full and round. It’s better than he would like to let himself admit, home.
“I mean I have to take a shower.”
“Don’t take a shower.”
“Ew! I sweat and spit and get drenched in paint for ninety minutes. I’m taking a shower. And I have to sign autographs.”
“Don’t sign autographs.”
“I always sign autographs!”
“You’re too nice.”
“You always sign autographs.”
“I’m too nice too.”
“You really aren’t.” Jon clucks his tongue and Zach rams him with his shoulder. He’d punch him in the arm...no, actually, he’d grab him and kiss him, but those paps might still be around and they’ll get five times as much for their stupid pictures if he does either.
“Wait so you’re not coming today at all?” Jon looks at Zach quizzically as he gets his backpack on and grabs a banana on his way through the kitchen.
“I have too much prep...that ok?” Zach glances up from the flowers he’s now unwrapped and stacked on the counter according to color and stem length.
Jon stoically tries to ignore that his idiot boyfriend just said prep like he’s a Top Chef contestant, and steps a little closer. “Tonight either?”
“I have to get the backyard ready and go buy the good mozzarella and put the caprese together and make the sangria...” Zach flails his hands about the kitchen, gesticulating for emphasis how very much work he has to do.
“I’m in tech!” Jon cries dramatically, nudging Zach around to press him up against the granite counter, hip to hip. Zach leans down and grins and Jon feels his breath hitch just before he feels Zach’s mouth, wonders if it will ever not do that. He’s not sure if he wants it to stop or not. His hands come up to Zach’s waist and he feels Zach’s slide around his back, hook under his backpack straps and hold him tight, kissing him with something sharp and bright on his tongue, bell pepper maybe.
“I’ll come next weekend...promise.” Zach rubs his lips against Jon’s cheek, Saturday stubble raspy on his skin and Jon immediately pictures makeup covering it, red paint smearing that away. “Will you be ok without me there?”
Jon flinches slightly because he can feel from Zach how that was him being completely and painfully earnest. Jon tries not to laugh, recovers, and smiles, not letting on that his heart just stalled. He kicks him, teasing his leg with the inside of his foot, kisses him some more.
“I just wanted to be sure,” Jon explains, teasing Zach’s lips lightly with each word, “so I can give your seat to someone.” Zach nods against his mouth, finally pulling away with a low mmmmmm sound, gives Jon a swat on the ass and a break a leg as he turns back to his flowers and his herbs. Jon spares a few seconds more to just watch him work, shaking his head to center himself as he turns and heads out.
“You know if I’m married? Dating? Queer? Anything?”
The great thing about playing Ken is that he’s not only fictional, but, necessarily, a blank slate. Just as he accuses Rothko of not knowing any of these things about him, the audience knows only what the script tells them, his backstory existing only in the actor’s own head.
Jon emphasizes each of those words differently at different times. Today he puts it hard on married, and slightly softer but still stressing, on queer. He has imagined Ken’s unknown life, the one he’s made up for him, the man he shares an apartment with--he would probably call him his ‘roommate’--who looks like Zach, especially now that he’s seen him in the clothes of his new character on his TV show.
He sees him just like that, in horn-rimmed glasses and a crisp white shirt. A lab technician or a graduate student or a psychiatrist in training (Rothko tells Ken he needs one, so this one amuses him greatly) or a magazine writer. He studies heavy books and cooks from an old French cookbook his mother gave him in their tiny one-burner kitchen and has dinner waiting for Ken when he comes home, splattered with paint and stung with verbal barbs. He takes care of him. Married. They’re friends with other artists and intellectuals, they attend Mattachine Society meetings and later Beat poetry readings, maybe they even know Ginsberg. They fuck. Queer.
Jon loves thinking of himself as queer. He loves the word and loves what it has come to mean to him. He loves that he is out and Zach is out and they are both working and doing what they love and taking care of each other.
Alfred bristles out the door and offstage, the scene coming to its end. Jon stands still, looking at the painting upstage, and lands softly back on that other word, turning it over in his mouth silently as he takes a stage cigarette out of the pack in his pocket. He ignites it and lets out a slow, showy plume of smoke, tilting his head (very Rothko-like) as the stage lights dim.
“Oh god, are you having some sort of...séance?” Is the first thought Jon actually verbalizes as he walks through the open living room and onto the patio, taking in the dozens of candles that he thought were reserved for the dinner party. The dogs yip and circle Jon, sniffing to see where he’s been, and he scratches their heads, eyes his boyfriend questioningly. Zach looks up from his wine, acting anxious as he pours a new glass from the ice bucket next to him to place in Jon’s hand.
“Please, just. Shut up, ok? Drink this.” He sounds exasperated, but clasps his fingers between Jon’s and leads him from the backyard into the bedroom, shoos the dogs outside and shuts the French doors, tells Jon to sit on the end of the bed.
“What is...ok are you breaking up with me or proposing?” Jon blurts out as Zach gets down on his knees, starts untying Jon’s shoes.
“I didn’t draw you a custom blended herbal bath to break up with you, god I’m not a total psycho. And...” Zach pauses, takes a gulp of white wine from his glass and makes a screwed up face at Jon that either conveys drowning in abject confusion please send help, or that the wine is sour. “If that’s what you want?” he finishes with a grimace.
“What...that’s not how you’re going to go about that. If you meant it. I mean I hope you’d, prepare a monologue, or something...” Jon drains the glass of wine and stretches back to set it on the bedside table.
Zach is babbling but there’s that earnest face Jon glimpsed earlier and he can feel his heart clanging away at the inside his chest. He lets him talk, watches him take his clothes off, hastily, nervously. “I haven’t done this...gotten here, before. I mean I know I’ve told you this a million times and you know that I know that it was always, just, my walls, my bullshit, something to keep some kind of distance. And even though I was doing that, you just totally got in. And I’m glad, I am...so...fucking glad. But I really, really haven’t done this before. And I...twenty-two months, Jon. Do you know what that even...and it’s been so easy. Right?”
Jon helps pull off his own t-shirt and just sits a minute, naked, cradles Zach’s head in his hands. “I know how long it’s been. I’ve been there the whole time. And no it hasn’t really been that hard, you’re right. It’s been...nice.” He stops, pulls back a bit to look down at him, still rubbing the back of his head but staring into his eyes seriously. “You know it’s ok that it’s not always hard, right? Like, I’m asking, do you actually know that?”
“No, I don’t know that!” Zach snaps back, so tightly wound Jon isn’t sure what he’s supposed to do with him. Zach finally inhales and exhales, once each, sharply, and stands. He takes Jon’s hands and pulls him into the bathroom, guides Jon to slip into the perfect, warm but not too warm water. Zach watches him, clearly wants to see if Jon is comfortable (he is) and Jon just looks at him, open and patient, waiting.
Zach finally breathes again, lowers himself to sit on the wide tile ledge of the tub. He looks Jon up and down, picks up a bar of some organic tree soap they also got at the farmers’ market. Jon looks at it, smells it warming in Zach’s hands, remembers the day they bought it. He looks back up at Zach, and waits.
“It hasn’t been nice, Jonathan, it’s been amazing. It’s been...you’ve been...do you have any idea how good you are for me? To me? I like myself more, with you. My own friends like me more, with you. And I only want to be, with you, and it’s been that way for a long time now and it’s freaking me out! Aren’t you freaked out?”
Jon takes Zach by the wrists, pulls them close to him and folds Zach’s hands, still soapy, against his chest. “I’m really, really not. Nothing about this, or about you, freaks me out. It’s just...I don’t know, maybe I’m just wired differently. I was so ready for this. I was ready to love you and you let me...and that was it for me.”
“I hate it when you say things like that.”
“No you don’t. You want to, because you want to analyze every little thing to death and ask what it is and what it means and you think you like that. But you wanted to just be loved and have something be good for you for once, and that should be easy. You deserve that, and we both got really fucking lucky. Don’t freak out because you just realized it has been easy and you’ve been happy for almost two years.” (Two years I’ve been working here! Ken screams in his head.)
“Two years! Two fucking years, Jon!” Zach shouts back, and Jon shudders.
“I know. I know!” Jon actually yells too, and he knows it’s loud but he feels like it needs to be. Zach nods slowly, seemingly really hearing him, sits back on his heels on the bath mat.
“I just...I’m not good at this. I feel like I’m still not as good at it, as I should be, for you. Because you’re the best, Jon, you’re the best thing, the best person...and you’re so good. And I’m an asshole but I want to be an asshole who somehow manages to be a good boyfriend. A good...whatever we call it.”
“We we or the royal we?” Jon jokes, trying to get him to relax a bit.
“What’s the difference?” Zach asks.
“I think boyfriend is still ok. But, by now, I believe Our People would call us partners.” Jon grabs for Zach’s glass of wine.
“Oh that’s absolutely disgusting, no.” Zach scoffs, watching him intently as Jon finishes that glass too.
“Well you’re not calling me your lover,” Jon laughs with finality, handing the glass back. Zach sets it aside, makes a face like he’s mulling that one over. “No!” Jon repeats adamantly, toying with yanking at Zach’s arm and seeing if he can pull him into the bath with him. He doesn’t really though, and Zach settles beside the tub on his knees, leaning on the wall and bringing one hand up to touch Jon.
“No. Lover is...if we saw someone else. On the side. I don’t want that. You’re not that.” He strokes his fingers through Jon’s hair, softly curling with sweat and the humidity of the tub, and down behind his ear, tipping his face gently when he reaches his jaw. He traces the line with his fingertips, muttering to himself and leaning in as close as he can, pulling at the corner of Jon’s mouth with his thumb as he finally, finally kisses him again. It’s sweet and warm and everything smells green and Jon sinks, sinks a little into the water and deeply into being kissed, Zach touching his tongue inside his lips, not asking, just being there where Jon so wants him.
Jon exhales, breath heavy with moist, fragrant air, as Zach pulls away, lets go of his mouth and again draws those fingers down along his jawline, tilting Jon ever so gently away.
“What are you...”
“Red...the paint. Just a little.” Zach rubs his wet thumb over the soap again, smears it into the streak of dry paint he found, drags it down Jon’s neck and then holds it out to show him.
Jon tilts his head again, studying the spatter of watery plum-mulberry-magenta running down Zach’s thumb, getting it at last. “Ahhh...you asked me not to shower,” Jon juts his chin forward for a kiss and Zach complies, holding his head and giving Jon his mouth, licking along his lips and then pulling away with a twisted little laugh.
“I’m kind of a sicko.”
“I know you are. I’m still not going anywhere...and thank you for the bath,” Jon says softly, putting his hands over Zach’s around his face and not letting him let go.
“It’s lemongrass...and pineapple sage. For balance.” Zach nips at his lower lip, smiling. So fucking earnest.
Jon laughs this time, quietly against Zach’s mouth, he can’t help it. “I think they just say everything is ‘for balance’ when they don’t know if it actually does anything...”
“I love you.” Zach bows his head, rubs his fingertips lightly behind Jon’s ears, his neck, loosening and sending trails of paint swirling into the bathwater. Jon feels them trickle down his back, feels Zach’s words hover, soft warm vapor. It’s of course not the first time he’s said it, but it’s the best, so far.
Zach starts to stand, slowly, taking Jon under the elbows and helping him up from the tub. He lets Zach lift him, hold him, legs still in the water, dripping and swaying in Zach’s arms, feeling heavy and warm and safe and good. “Fuck.” Jon breathes out through his nose against Zach’s neck, making him shiver and shift Jon in his arms.
He turns his cheek to Zach’s chest and realizes he’s still wearing his t-shirt, weirdo, wet in splotches and clinging to his skin here and there. Jon leans back enough to grab the bottom edge of it from between their chests and peel it off of him, pressing his open mouth to Zach’s shoulders, across his collarbones. Zach sighs and rolls his head back as Jon mouths into the soft black hair in the center of his chest, “I love you so fucking much.”
Zach is only off of him long enough to crack the door open and drag the rest of the wine and the ice bucket in from outside. The dogs snap and yelp, insulted as Zach banishes them from the bedroom for now with an emphatic, back, beasts! He kicks the door shut and shoves the bucket haphazardly in the corner by the headboard, melted icewater sloshing onto his pillow but he just throws off his shorts and flips the pillow over to the dry side as he crawls onto the bed.
Jon lets out a soft grunt as his back hits the duvet, breath knocked out of him and Zach covering him with his body, pressing, pushing. He works his mouth around Jon’s neck, kissing and nosing and probably still looking for bits of paint, his hands flexing on Jon’s upper arms and Jon groans, opening for him, his knees, his legs, letting Zach fit between them, still pushing, down, down, down.
They’ve been together long enough to see each other’s bodies change, several times, actually. Jon is stronger now than he’s ever been, his shoulders huge and his chest broadening. Zach doesn’t have to be gym-chiseled for his new role so he isn’t, but he still pins him easily. Jon likes that.
Zach works his way down, only reluctantly letting go of the muscles in Jon’s arms when he can’t reach anymore, and Jon takes the opportunity to grip at Zach’s shoulders, touch his jaw, let him suck and bite at one finger as he slips under, between his legs. Zach grins and then he’s gone, Jon whipping his head back and gasping, oh god oh god oh god, as Zach’s tongue slips between, glides up and down, then flickers lightly against the very sensitive skin there and Jon realizes Zach is giggling. With his tongue in his ass.
Jon flings his head around and rubs himself on the bed, trying to create some momentum in his hips that will make Zach pay attention to what he needs to be doing. It doesn’t work. “No...oh god, what...Zach, baby, please...”
“You taste...like...lemongrass,” he manages to explain, briefly lifting his face from between Jon’s legs and then, thank god, dipping back in. Jon laughs and swears and grabs the back of his head, holding him where he wants him and Zach loves that, licks more insistently, but Jon can still feel the slight tremor of laughter from his throat. He grins through gritted teeth and shudders a little from the sensation.
“Oh god...you’re the one that...put me in a Thai soup bath...oh fuck please don’t stop...”Jon trails off, still holding Zach and shoving unashamedly into his face and Zach laughs a little but doesn’t stop, his tongue still thick and teasing and moving and fucking perfect.
“I...it’s good...fucking intoxicating...just Thai soup....never same again,” Zach manages in between flicks of his tongue and laughter and Jon loves him and wishes he’d shut the fuck up and never wants him to stop. He wraps his lower legs around him, holds him tight, rakes his hands down over Zach’s head, pulling at hair and touching whatever he can, Zach murmuring and moaning into Jon’s flesh now as he settles, serious on making it good.
He makes it very good. Jon is open and wet and begging, barely able to watch even when Zach raises up a bit, carefully pushing a long, strong finger in place of his tongue and taking Jon down his throat in one fluid move. Jon whines, a choked sound that cracks and dies in his throat and his eyes fall shut as Zach strokes and sucks, inside and outside and constant and confusing him because it all just feels and he can’t tell what feels good on the head of his dick from what feels good in his spine or in his toes because he just feels it everywhere, circulating and pulsating red and black, black and red behind his eyelids and he feels full and loved and queer and so calm when he is finally able open his eyes, to see Zach looking up at him from his cock, his eyes full of all of that and more. Jon lets it build and build and then lets it all go, comes down his throat, Zach’s eyes drifting shut as he swallows, but Jon can feel him smile.
Zach wants to gaze and pet and let him rest but Jon growls and prods and lays him out, has lube and the bottle of wine and is on top of him in a heart beat. Zach takes a few gulps from the bottle, eyes wide with appreciation and awe as Jon slicks his fingers and pushes them into himself, watching Zach watching him. Zach tries to set the bottle down but misses completely, wine almost flooding the bed but Jon catches it, takes a swig, leans forward to put it down and hovers to kiss Zach while he’s there. Zach moans something, a pitiful sound, and Jon grins against his mouth, whispers, swallow... and good when Zach’s brain finally complies and lets him swallow the wine, his lips still tangy and cool with it when Jon can finally properly kiss him.
He stays low, and close, sliding back and down a few times, slipping his fingers out and around to grasp Zach and make sure he’s slick enough too. He kisses him, slow and deep and heavy as he works their bodies together, pushing and opening and pushing again until Zach is inside him. Zach whimpers into his mouth and tries to thrust up, and Jon can feel it and loves it, but in this position it’s Jon who’s stronger, and he has Zach good. All Zach can do is lie there while Jon works him over, twisting his hips and screwing himself on him, kissing and gasping and not letting Zach have a moment to think, their chests close, sweaty, rising and falling together.
Jon finally has to move his hands off of Zach’s where he has them held down, pressing himself up on his arms for more support, more freedom to fuck with his hips, which is where Zach’s hands go immediately, gripping his ass and helping rock him as deeply with every movement as he can. Jon tries to sit up further, to get more balance and to let Zach see, let him watch himself sliding in and out of Jon because he knows how he likes that, but Zach stops him, his hands clawing up his back, pulling him down, down, close again. He fucks up into him as Jon surrenders, lets gravity win out and settles onto his chest, Zach whispering in Jon’s hair, right here...stay right here.
Jon nods and shakes and scrambles frantically to get his mouth on Zach’s, kissing him messy and desperate and promising, no, no no...not going anywhere.... Zach grinds up into him, hard fast jolts now, fucks his tongue deep into Jon’s mouth for him to suck. Jon does, taking everything Zach has to give him, meeting him equally with all he has to give, slamming down when Zach thrusts up, mumbling filthy encouragement against his lips when he can tell he’s about to come because he knows just what will push him over the edge.
Zach finally does, tensing and then uncoiling, shuddering and biting into Jon’s lower lip as he releases, Jon collapsing on him and purring in his ear that that was just what he wanted, him inside of him, Zach shaking and pushing into him with every word. It isn’t just dirty talk. Jon does love the feeling, the messy intimacy, the trust inherent in the act, the way he knows it will make Zach mushy and weird and possessive after, like he’s marked Jon.
Jon smiles to himself as Zach’s arms close tight around him, Zach’s dry lips brush against his shoulder. He lowers his eyelids and sees red, burgundy-salmon-carmine-carnelian, rinsing off his skin, off Zach’s thumb, swirling down the drain.
“Ah thuck ahca lul wuh pahdna,” Zach garbles suddenly with a mouth completely full of the alcohol soaked peaches and cherries from the bottom of the sangria and Jon bursts out laughing, almost loses a cherry from his own mouth.
“What the actual fuck was that?” Jon tries to ask, doubling over on the kitchen counter, piles of dishes from the dinner party (and Zach puts on one hell of a dinner party) still on every surface but all they’ve done is eat alco-fruit and he suspects the dishes aren’t getting dealt with anytime soon.
Zach looks to the ceiling and breathes in deeply from his nose, his hands out to his sides like he’s trying to balance on a beam and not choke and not look at Jon because he will totally lose it. He chews, swallows, holds up one finger....swallows. He shakes it off in his arms and shoulders and lets out a breath of relief, takes Jon’s face in his hands and kisses him, sweet and burning, apples and red wine.
Zach swallows again, breathes out. “I think I could live with partner.”
“Yeah?” Is all Jon can say, literally breathless and he feels seventeen, getting kissed under the porchlight or something. He rolls his eyes at himself, he feels so ridiculous.
Zach strokes up and down his arms, looks considering for a moment. He rolls his eyes too, and takes Jon’s hands in his. “Yeah. I mean. I kind of look around the room sometimes. Or, like tonight. Look around at this great dinner table. All these smart, cool people we know. And it’s like. Whoa.” Zach illuminates this exclamation with something very close to jazz hands and Jon’s heart plunks him in the ribs. Zach bites his lip, finishes. “That’s the guy. That guy right there.”
“Oh my god...” Jon says, not meaning to say it out loud and immediately regretting it.
Zach quirks one severe eyebrow at him. “Is this awful? Should we just go fuck?”
“No! No, I mean, yes, later. But please keep going, you’re so cute, please.”
“Shut up. I’m not cute. I’m a brutal top.”
“Mmm hm.” Jon smirks, a little twist at the corner of his mouth.
“So...yeah. I like seeing you there, and knowing...that’s the guy. And you make me proud. To be with you. And it is easy. But even if it were harder, I’d still want to do it.” Zach squeezes his hands once for emphasis and lets go, turns back to the bowls he was emptying before he got distracted.
Jon leans against the counter, somewhere between the urge to tackle hug him, to sit and cry a little, or just keep standing there grinning like an ass. He allows himself that moment, then picks up one last bite of dark, plummy tomato slathered in basil and oil, eats it so he can carry the empty platter to Zach. He sets it down, a ruse to stand as close behind Zach as he can, slip his arms around him.
“Hey.” Jon mumbles into the space between Zach’s shoulder blades. Zach gives up the plates and turns in his arms, vaguely blushing if Jon isn’t mistaken. Jon just hugs him for a minute, feels Zach hugging him, feels the dogs circling their feet to see what they’re doing and if they’ve dropped any bits of dinner. Jon looks up from Zach’s chest, and his eyes are soft, calm. Jon’s voice only wavers a tiny bit. “It will be hard sometimes. And I’ll still want to do it.”
Zach smiles, kisses him softly in agreement. “Me too.”