Chapter 42: I Struggle to Swim, Part 2
Eric shook his head. “What could I say that would have done any good? Until I was about ten or so—I really didn’t understand that my situation wasn’t normal. And—after that—I was smart enough to know that Appius could do a whole lot more damage to me than I could him. He didn’t physically abuse me. He sent me to the finest schools. The worst he could have been accused of was neglect. And,” he paused, “honestly, I worried that I would make things worse if I said anything.”
“I know what you mean,” Sookie said quietly.
Eric leaned in and kissed her lightly. “I know.”
“My mother and your father were made for each other,” she said.
“A match made in hell, min älskade?”
She nodded against him.
“We should leave the sauna before we burn up,” Eric said after a minute, even as he got up and retrieved his towel.
Sookie nodded and followed Eric out of the little room and then accepted a bottle of water that he took from a small refrigerator in the corner. He grabbed two robes from a rack and handed one to Sookie before putting on the other one.
“That’s Pam’s when she uses the sauna,” he said, gesturing to the robe he’d given her.
After putting on his own robe, Eric sank down heavily onto the comfortable white sofa and began to drink his water. Sookie quickly changed from towel to robe and joined him on the couch, tucking her feet under her legs.
As she sipped her water, Eric picked up his story.
“All of that history is why I thought my father would let me call him Appius or Mr. Northman when I joined the company. Before then, he actually looked sickened on the rare occasions when I called him ‘Father.’ But Appius laughed at me when I asked him if I could address him like other employees did. He told me that the only way I would ever be even moderately successful was if I was known as his son. He told me that—despite what I thought my personal qualifications were—I was and would forever be nothing without him. And I was to call him ‘Father’ in public so that I would remember that we would never be equals. I remember the cruel look in his eyes when he said the word, ‘father,’ but it was a long time before I found out just how cruel Appius could be.”
Sookie shifted and leaned her head against his shoulder, offering her silent support.
Eric went on. “For almost every day of my life that I remember, I’ve felt Appius’s disapproval of me as well as his disappointment. Nothing has—or will—ever be good enough for him. Graduating at the top of my class for both my undergraduate and graduate degrees wasn’t enough. Editing Harvard Business Review wasn’t enough. Helping the profits of Northman Publishing improve by 22% in the five and a half years I’ve been with the company—despite the recession—hasn’t been enough.”
He sighed deeply. “I found out why he hated me when I was 26 years old. Right after the Larsson Publishing merger went through, Appius called me into his office. There was a man in a lab coat waiting to take my blood. And there was also another man there, a man Appius introduced as Peder Lang. Peder looked to be around my father’s age.”
“Who was he?” Sookie asked, her voice quivering.
“Appius thought Peder was my biological father,” Eric said in almost a whisper. “During their marriage, my parents had made an arrangement with each other—just like the arrangements Appius has made with all of his other wives. If she was discreet, my mother could seek physical companionship elsewhere, and Appius definitely did the same. As you know, he prefers being with men, though he certainly believes in siring his own children.” Eric laughed ruefully. “He chooses wives like a horse breeder chooses fillies.”
“That seems so cold,” Sookie remarked with a shiver.
“It is,” Eric sighed as he wrapped her into his arms. “Appius sees marriage as a convenient institution where affection isn’t a necessity—or even a preference. He believes in marrying women who will deliver worthy stock and who will advance his empire, but—when it all comes down to it—they are little more than decorative broodmares to him.”
“And his wives? He’s had four right? They all agreed to that?”
Eric shrugged. “Even now, arranged marriages aren’t that uncommon among the wealthy. Appius is—at least—honest about his goals in his marriages, and the women he chooses have their own reasons for agreeing. For instance, Sophie-Anne prefers women, and my father encourages her dalliances. He provides her with the lifestyle she wants and asks for little in return, especially now that Appius, Jr. has been born. According to Nora, there is even talk of another child because Sophie-Anne has decided that she enjoys motherhood.” He sighed loudly.
“What?” Sookie asked.
“Her definition of motherhood is to let nannies raise her child. From what I’ve heard from Nora, who still lives in the family home, A.J. is brought out briefly a couple of times a day, paraded around for everyone’s approval, and then taken back to his nursery.” He paused. “Still—Sophie-Anne and Appius have hired the best people to take care of A.J., so it could be worse.”
Sookie nodded. “Yes. It could be.”
Eric tightened his arm around her shoulder in a protective gesture before he went on, “In addition to providing a new heir, Sophie-Anne is supportive and savvy—the perfect New York wife, really. And—of course—she comes with Andre. Tamara, Appius’s wife before Sophie-Anne, was equally willing to go along with Appius’s marriage conditions for her own reasons. She too prefers women, but she wanted to be a mother. She’s also from a very powerful—and very traditional—New York family that wanted to see her wed and that wanted to ignore the fact that she’s a lesbian. On paper, Appius offered her a good match—again without many strings attached.”
“Why did they divorce?” Sookie asked.
“Because of Gracie.”
Eric nodded. “After Gracie was born, Tamara realized just how much Appius favored Nora above his other children. Also, from some general comments Pam has made, it’s clear that Tamara wanted to be a very hands-on mother. She didn’t want a nanny, and she was also against Gracie going away for boarding school. In the end, she asked for a divorce because she didn’t want Gracie to be negatively affected by living with a cold father or by being shipped away.”
“But wouldn’t Tamara have seen how he treated his other kids before they got married?” Sookie asked.
“To see it with other people’s kids and to see it with your own are two different things,” Eric sighed. “Plus—since I wasn’t around—Tamara would have seen Appius’s interactions with only Nora, Alexei, and Pam. Appius has always treated Nora well. And—as long as she was getting the things she wanted—Pam would have seemed happy too. Alexei was quite young—though already spoiled—when Appius and Tamara married. Of me, she knew only that I was the eldest and away at school. In fact, she and Appius were only a couple of days away from getting married when I met her. And that’s just because they married on Christmas Eve, so I was at Appius’s house at the time.”
“So she wouldn’t have been able to tell that Appius treated you coldly.”
“No. And at the time—as you’d imagine—she had a lot on her mind, other than getting to know me. Don’t get me wrong, Tamara was nice—especially to Pam, Nora, and Alexei. And she’s a really good mom to Gracie. However, since she married Appius when I was seventeen, I was rarely around her—especially since she and my father went on their honeymoon the week after Christmas that year. After that, I saw her only on Christmas days—at least while she was married to Appius. But that was enough for her to see my father’s apathy toward me. After their divorce, she actually contacted me, and she lets me spend time with Gracie now. I go up to Boston several times a year to see her.” He paused. “You can imagine how much Appius hates that.”
“Yeah,” Sookie responded.
Eric sighed. “Their marriage lasted less than five years. Appius—I think—blames me for their divorce.”
“Why?” Sookie asked.
Eric shrugged. “I’m not sure. But Tamara saw how enraged Appius was after my grandfather John left me part of his estate, including some NP stock that Appius thought he was getting. And—for most of their marriage—I was allowed in the house only on Christmas day. I’m not sure, but I think that Tamara clashed with Appius regarding me a few times; she wanted me included in family functions, but—of course—Appius wouldn’t hear of that.”
“So you became a scapegoat for his marriage not working?” Sookie asked incredulously.
Again, Eric shrugged his shoulders. “I probably was one of the reasons why they broke up. Tamara is very perceptive, and I think that she got scared—once she realized that Appius was capable of treating a child so unfeelingly.”
“What happened? I mean—Appius doesn’t seem like the kind of person who would agree to a divorce.”
Eric smiled a little. “You’re right. But Tamara is just as good at making deals as Appius.”
“So they struck a deal?” Sookie asked.
Eric nodded. “Appius had been involved in some hedge funds that became controversial, and that involvement was affecting many of his other investments. So—to deflect from that—Tamara admitted publically to having an affair she never had, and—suddenly—Appius was perceived as a victim. Of course, the hedge funds were forgotten.” He chuckled ruefully. “In fact, Appius might as well have been given sainthood by the press. Tamara also gave him a large monetary settlement.”
“And what did she get?” Sookie questioned tentatively.
“Exactly what she wanted—primary custody of Gracie and the freedom to move to Boston where a branch of her family’s legal firm is located. Of course, the Davis family is quite rich and Tamara is a successful corporate lawyer in her own right, so she didn’t really need Appius’s wealth. He set up a trust fund for Gracie, but she’ll get it only if she joins the Northman family business.”
“So he’ll eventually be able to control Gracie, too—if she wants her inheritance,” Sookie stated flatly.
Eric shook his head. “I think that Tamara has established a separate trust fund for her. And Gracie is as smart as a whip,” he said proudly. “Having her mother be so supportive has made her,” he paused, “strong and kind. Most of the time, Appius doesn’t have much to do with her, which is probably for the best. Truth be told, his primary goal in marrying Tamara was to connect himself with the Davis family, which raised his political capital.”
Sookie nodded. “Because Stan Davis is in Congress.”
“Yes. Stan was a New York State Representative when Tamara and Appius got married, but now that he’s a U.S. Senator, he has much more power and influence. And Stan and Tamara’s father was a Senator for years—and then Secretary of the Treasury under Reagan.”
“I’m guessing that Appius won the Davis family connections in the divorce,” Sookie said flatly.
Eric nodded. “Good guess.”
“What about Appius’s wife before that? That was Nora’s mother—right? And Alexei’s?”
“Yes. Beth Appleton-Gainesborough-Northman,” Eric said with a little smirk.
“Why three names?”
“She liked them all,” Eric answered with a little chuckle. “Don’t get me wrong, Beth was nice—even to me. But, unlike Tamara, she didn’t question Appius. She was very keen to raise my father’s profile and status—and, therefore, her own. The Appletons are one of the oldest and most established families in New York, and she only raised their standing when she married Jeffrey Gainesborough, whom—I believe—was twelfth in line to the British throne.”
“Really?” Sookie asked.
Eric chuckled. “I think Nora’s actually in the line-up to the throne now—somewhere around two hundred.”
Sookie furrowed her eyebrows. “Is she happy about that?”
Eric shrugged. “Actually, she doesn’t care much either way. She gets invited to some of the larger royal functions, but that’s about it. Of course, Appius loves the prestige of it all.”
Sookie nodded in understanding.
“When Beth’s first husband died, she waited two years—which her in-laws deemed an acceptable mourning period—before she formed her new ‘partnership.’ She wanted to move back to the United States, and she liked being on the arm of a powerful man. My father liked her all the more because of her royal connections and her family’s status as New York nobility. Of course, it didn’t hurt that she came with a shitload of money—from both her marriage to Gainesborough and the family she was born into. Some of that was put into trusts for Nora and Alexei, but my father got most of it when she died.”
“Was Beth a lesbian too?” Sookie asked.
“No,” Eric chuckled. “But she was very careful and discreet, and—at my father’s insistence—she didn’t have any affairs until after Alexei was born. Once she had a male heir, Appius told her that one child was enough for them—especially since Appius had all but adopted Nora by then.” He sighed. “And then there was my mother—Stella.”
“She was Appius’s first wife?”
“And she made a deal with Appius too?”
Eric nodded again. “She did—at least to a certain extent. My mother and Appius met in college and were drawn to each other as friends and then as lovers. According to Mormor, to whom my mother confided many things, my father was firmly in the closet about his sexuality when he started college; he still is in many ways. Even now, only the immediate family and his closest friends know, but it isn’t something discussed openly amongst anyone. I’m not even sure that my grandmother knows, but then again, Grace Northman sees only what she wants to see—especially where Appius is concerned.”
“Why does he hide it now? I mean—I get why someone would have hidden it 40 years ago, but Appius is one of the richest men in New York, and nowadays being gay isn’t that big of a deal.”
“I’m not sure why he’s kept it a secret. As you can imagine, he and I have never had a heart-to-heart about it.” Eric sighed. “But I do feel sorry for him when it comes to that. It must have been difficult covering up a huge part of himself for all of these years, and he has gone to great lengths to cover it up. When Northman Towers was built in the 80s, he put in the apartments on the top floors mostly to hide his affairs with men. It was easy for him to pretend that a lover was a business associate; after all, some of them were. And visiting business associates were always invited to stay in the apartments—whether they were his lovers or not—so no one ever suspected anything. Hell—Appius even gets all the men he sleeps with to sign confidentiality agreements.”
“Yeah,” Eric responded. “I saw several of them in a file on his desk when I was fourteen and home for winter break. He’d sent me to his office and had kept me stewing before one of our meetings. That’s how I found out he preferred men. The signatures were all male names. Of course, my father believes that I found out much, much later. You can imagine the kinds of things he threatened me with so that I would keep quiet about it.”
Sookie squeezed his hand. “Well—the gossips at NP certainly don’t know about it,” Sookie mused. “They think that Andre is there because Sophie-Anne is insanely jealous and wants to prevent Appius from having an affair with another executive assistant—as he supposedly had with Sandy Seacreast.”
Eric chuckled. “Pam has told me about those rumors. And—in truth—my father does occasionally sleep with women. In fact, every five years or so—almost like clockwork—he’ll make sure he gets caught on camera with a woman he shouldn’t be with so that he gets into the tabloids.”
“So he’d rather be known as an adulterer than as gay?”
Eric nodded. “Sadly, adultery—though only when it is perpetrated by men—is almost expected in New York high society. It is even flaunted in some ways.” He sighed. “Women do it too, of course, but they are expected to hide it better. Case in point—Nora is currently seeing Roman Zimojic. Do you know who that is?” Eric asked.
“Roman and Nora are seeing each other quite openly, and no one gives a fuck. However, to have her own affairs, Roman’s wife goes to Europe to hide her exploits. Of course, everyone ‘knows’ that she is screwing around too, but she is careful not to let any incriminating pictures get into the papers.”
Sookie sighed. “My mother used to make me read people’s lips wherever we went—even at church. She liked knowing other people’s secrets—especially when they had affairs; it gave her a sense of power over them. And when people pissed her off, she would start rumors, based on the things I would tell her.” She paused. “I hated it. The worst time was when I found out that the preacher at our church had a lover in Monroe; I read his end of a phone conversation at a football game. Later, my mother blackmailed him into giving her money to keep the affair a secret.” She shook her head sadly. “I despised telling her things like that, but if I didn’t give her something that she considered ‘good’ every month or so, she’d punish me.”
It was Eric’s turn to sigh as he tightened his arm around her shoulder. They were quiet for a couple of minutes.
“Will you tell me more about your mother and father’s arrangement?” Sookie asked, remembering that Eric had left off in the middle of his story.
Eric took a deep breath. “As I said, when Appius first went to college, he was in denial about his sexual preferences. That’s where my mother came in. As a Scandinavian and something of a hippy, she was much more open and liberal about sexuality than the run-of-the-mill American at the time. She was also very intuitive, and not long after she began dating Appius, she guessed that he wanted to be with men too. In fact, she encouraged him to experiment with men and set things up for him.”
Sookie looked up at him with confusion.
“She arranged things so that they would have threesomes with Peder,” he clarified.
“Oh,” Sookie said, trying to wrap her head around the concept. Though her lip reading had insured that she wasn’t completely sheltered from concepts like threesomes, they were definitely not something she’d personally thought about.
“It’s a difficult thing for me to think about too,” Eric shared, as if reading her mind.
“So—uh—Peder? As in the man from the meeting you started to tell me about?” she asked.
“Yeah. Peder was my father’s first male lover, and my mormor believes that Appius fell in love with him. Peder is from Norway, and—apparently—my mother, Appius, and Peder were in a relationship for more than a year while they were in college; all of them even lived together. Everything was okay until Appius came home early one day to find Peder and Stella having sex without him.” Obviously a little uncomfortable with the topic, Eric cleared his throat. “Appius was enraged. The three of them had obviously had sex together before, and Appius and Peder had had sex alone—as had my mother and Appius. But Appius didn’t know the same was true with my mother and Peder. Appius became extremely jealous, though Mormor was not sure of whom he was most jealous.”
Eric sighed. “I’ve come to believe that Appius loved them both very deeply—or at least thought of them both as his. I think that he was afraid of being pushed out of the equation if they loved each other more than him.”
“It sounds like a soap opera,” Sookie observed quietly.
“Yeah,” Eric admitted, running his hand through his hair again. “A fucked up one. But, according to Mormor, my mother was very much in love with Appius, so when he asked her to give up Peder, she did. Bitter about what he perceived as them both cheating on him, my father chose Stella and kicked Peder out. That incident happened during Appius and Stella’s junior year at college. The two stayed together, however, and Mormor told me that Appius forgave my mother for her supposed betrayal.” He took a breath. “Mormor says that they were actually very happy with each other after that, though they never shared lovers again. As I said, my mother confided in my mormor a lot, and even though she was much more traditional than my mother when it came to marriage, she was happy when Appius proposed to Stella—despite the fact that Appius and my mother didn’t expect fidelity in their marriage.”
Eric paused for a moment as he seemed to collect his thoughts. “From what Mormor has said, my father and mother established a good and loving partnership. And she is positive that there was love on both sides. When my father graduated from business school and took over Northman Publishing from my grandfather, my mother was by his side, and she became something of a darling in New York society. They were known as the “golden couple”—because of both my mother’s golden hair and my father’s immediate success. Northman Publishing was much smaller when my grandfather was in charge since he had other businesses interests that took up much of his time, but Appius turned NP into the largest publishing house in the United States within only a few years. Three years after they were married, I was born. And then Pam was born two years after that. In my mormor’s home, there are pictures that show my father holding me, looking proud and happy. There are also pictures of my father and mother together, looking very much in love. I have no memory of that happiness or love.”
Eric took a deep breath before continuing. “However, my mormor insists that they were in love and that my father was extremely proud of his children, especially me. My mother confided in Mormor that, though she and Appius had agreed to have an open marriage, they still shared a marital bed quite often. My father had a variety of male lovers in the days of my parents’ marriage, and my mother apparently encouraged that because she wanted him to be happy and satisfied. However—as far as my father and most other people knew—she had no affairs during their marriage. She told Appius that she was content to be with just him once they began trying for children. And she promised to tell him if her feelings on that matter changed.”
“But she didn’t—did she?” Sookie asked astutely.
“No.” He paused for a moment. “When she was pregnant with me, my mother found out that she had breast cancer. She refused an aggressive treatment plan while she was pregnant, but after I was born, she received radiation and chemotherapy, and she ended up going into remission. Two years after Pam was born, my mother found out the cancer was back. It was already quite advanced by then, but she tried to fight it, and she lived for another year. I was only five when she died, but I remember my morfar and mormor visiting New York for a long time; I guess that was around the time my mother died. I also remember my father crying and hugging me.” He sighed. “I think that memory is of him telling me that my mother had died, but I can’t be sure.”
Eric was silent for a minute, obviously trying to get a handle on his bubbling emotions. “That is the best memory I have of my father,” he said, brushing a tear from his eye. “It is the only good one I have, and it came with her dying, so I was confused by it for many years.”
“And after she died? Why did things change?”
Eric sighed. “After my mother’s funeral, my mormor and morfar stayed another week or so. I don’t have any memories of that time, but my mormor says that they stayed on to help Appius find a live-in nanny who could care for me and Pam. They also wanted to stay through the reading of my mother’s Will. Mormor told me that Appius seemed to become closed off a few days after the funeral, and by the time the Will was read, he was barely acknowledging them or me, though he would still hold Pam and rock her to sleep. Mormor says that before then, he always had a lot to do with me. She said that I was like a little barnacle around his leg.”
Eric smiled a little before his face fell. “I don’t have any memories of that either. Other than the one hug, I remember my father only as being cold and distant and critical.” He sighed. “When Appius pulled away from me, Mormor and Morfar thought that he was just grieving because of losing my mother. Apparently, I looked just like her, and—though Pam had her blond hair—she clearly favored Appius.”
He paused in order to collect his thoughts. “According to Mormor, on the day before she and Morfar went back to Sweden, my mother’s Will was read. Among her possessions, Stella had a lock-box, which she left to Mormor; the Will described the contents as pictures, letters, and jewelry that she wanted to go back to the Larsson side of the family. However, before my mother died, she told Mormor that the box also contained some things that she didn’t want my father to see, and she gave Mormor the extra key to the box—a key that she kept on a charm bracelet she wore. My mother knew that Appius would find out about the box and its location when the Will was read. Knowing how curious my father was, she anticipated that he might want to see the contents of the box, so she asked my grandmother to share them with Appius with the exception of a bundle of letters, which Mormor was to keep secret and pass along to Peder. Stella was very insistent that those letters stay private, and Mormor agreed to help her.”
Eric took a deep breath. “At the reading of the Will, Appius seemed surprised by the existence of the lock-box, but he followed my mother’s instructions and found its location. She’d hidden it on the top shelf of her closet.” He chuckled, though Sookie could tell that his heart wasn’t in it. “I think Mormor thought she was Emma Peel or something. When Appius gave her the box, she asked for a few minutes alone, saying she needed to compose herself. That was before the lawyer gave her the key to the box,” Eric reported.
“But she had her own key,” Sookie observed.
“Yeah. When she was alone, she opened the box and hid the letters. Then she locked the box again and pretended to open it for the first time when the lawyer handed her the key he had.”
“And Appius was there when she opened it.”
“He was,” Eric confirmed. “In the box was exactly what the Will had described. And—just as my mother had predicted—Appius was curious about what was in it. But there was nothing suspicious—only old family photos, a few pieces of jewelry, and some mementos my mother had kept from her childhood. My mormor had thought that my mother’s secret was safe.”
Sookie’s brow furrowed. “Why didn’t your mom just give your grandmother the letters before she died instead of going through all that clandestine stuff?”
Eric sighed. “By all accounts, my mother tried to live normally—despite her disease and its treatment—for as long as she could. But one day, she fell down the stairs due to her weakness. She broke her hip, and—given her condition—surgery wasn’t an option. My father converted one of the downstairs bedrooms into a hospital-type room for her so that she could get her treatments at home. After her fall, she was never able to walk upstairs again, so she couldn’t get to her box of secrets.”
Eric sighed, his voice sounding agonized. “The sad part is that I think my mother truly loved Appius deeply—even then. And I think that he wanted only to care for her; according to my mormor, he hardly ever left her side after she became bedridden.” He sighed. “My mother simply wanted to protect him from the one secret she’d kept from him.”
“What was in them—the letters?”
“Mostly, they were love letters from Peder to my mother,” Eric said with a sigh. “Stella had lied to Appius. She and Peder had continued to see each other every time she went to Sweden alone to visit my grandparents. It seems that she loved both Peder and Appius. But to keep Appius, she kept Peder a secret. Apparently, she and Peder settled for meeting a few times a year. According to Mormor, there was one letter in the batch that wasn’t written by Peder—but was addressed to him in my mother’s handwriting.”
“She wanted to tell Peder goodbye,” Sookie commented.
Eric nodded, even as he tensed a little at the word goodbye. “I believe Appius’s lawyer at the time—Dermot Faeman—let him see my mother’s Will before the official reading, probably several days before. I believe that Appius found and opened that box. And I believe that he read the letters from and the letter to Peder, which would account for the changes my mormor saw in him. As I said, Mormor and Morfar thought he was in mourning, but I now believe that he was trying to hide his rage from my grandparents. You see—Appius still wanted control of my grandfather’s company and the Larsson wealth. So he didn’t confront my mormor when she hid the letters from him.”
“How did you learn of them?” Sookie asked.
“At the meeting with Appius, Peder, and doctor,” Eric responded as he ran a hand through his hair. “Appius showed me a photocopy of the letter my mother had written to Peder. It was unfinished and dated two days before she fell down the stairs. She started it after she’d learned from her doctors that the treatment she was receiving was not helping and that she would likely be dead within a few months. Appius—and I quote—wanted me ‘to see how much of a bastard I was and how much of a whore my mother was.'”
“But their marriage was open,” Sookie said. “Appius had affairs.”
“I think it was the secrecy of my mother’s affair that enraged him. Or maybe it was the fact that she told Peder that she still loved him in the letter. Or maybe it was the fact that Appius still loved Peder. I don’t know. What I do know is that my father was certain that Peder was my father. And the doctor was there to draw blood so that a DNA test could be performed.”
A/N: Thanks so much for all the comments and responses to the last chapter! They are much appreciated!
So—now we know a little more. Because of Stella’s affair, Appius believed Eric wasn’t his, and because Appius was so angry, he took it out on Eric. But there is more to learn. What do you think—is Eric Appius’s son? Or is he Peder’s?
If you want to be reminded of Appius’s “family” tree (his wives and kids), click the picture at the bottom.