"We never speak of it. The subject is taboo..."
|We never speak of it. The subject is taboo, though it plays on both our minds. It lurks in the shadows of our conversations. It hovers on the edge of every moment we spend together. Sometimes I think if I just turn my head quickly enough, I can catch a glimpse of it slinking out of sight.
Some people believe that there is nothing worse than death, but that's because they don't know what pain really is.
Damon is beautiful. There is no other word for it. The way he absent-mindedly runs his hand through his tangle of dark brown hair -- hair that always reminds me of rich chocolate; the way his cheerful green eyes shine in the light; the way that every movement is perfectly controlled; the way he gets that cute little frown right between his eyebrows when he's thinking. God, I could go on forever. And of course that goofy grin that stretches all the way across his face and displays his dazzlingly white teeth. I die a little every time he grins at me like that.
Oh, and did I mention he has dimples?
There he is now, just coming out of Calculus III. His eyes are dreamy and faraway, no doubt lost in contemplation of abstract theories or whatever the hell it is they talk about in there. Me, I made it past Math 102 with a C+ average and never looked back.
He looks up and sees me leaning against the wall and his gaze sharpens and focuses. He smiles a hello and I fall into step beside him. It's a routine so familiar that I could walk it in my sleep.
We reach the Beanie Bag and take our usual table. The cafe is nearly empty; most students study at Starbucks or the new Barnes and Nobles at the mall, where schoolwork doesn't necessarily exclude their social life. I prefer the cool, quiet, and somewhat dim interior that these old-fashioned coffee shops provide. There's an air of intimacy here that is utterly lost amid the brashly lit innards of the more popular hangouts.
"How was your test?" he asks, pulling out his notebook.
"Fine," I lie. Actually, I hadn't had time to finish it and had left most of a page blank, but I figure as long as I scrape by with a C-, it won't be a big deal. I don't know what brilliant mind came up with the idea that English majors need a science elective, but I'm living proof that Biology 101 has taught me nothing except how to doodle. Someday I'm going to publish a book of all the sketches I'm making in there. "How was class?"
"Amazing," he says, shaking his head. "That man... I mean, wow." If I didn't know better (too well!), I'd think he has a crush on his math professor, the way his voice turns all reverential. He gives me a detailed and completely incomprehensible synopsis of game theory, which I gather is Dr. Peterson's pet subject. I nod as though I can understand more than one word in five and have a good time watching his face.
Enthusiasm suits Damon. His eyes light up as though there're flashlights behind his eyeballs and his dimples become more pronounced. He gestures with his hands, drawing imaginary shapes in the air. He's the whole reason I declared myself a Republican last year, though he has no idea and would probably be appalled if he knew, being a fervent Democrat. Actually I couldn't care less one way or the other; politics has no interest for me and I've never voted in an election in my life. I did it so I could pick arguments with him, playing devil's advocate to ideas I don't give a damn about. Because in the heat of our debates -- if you can call me mouthing words I'd heard on TV a debate -- in the heat of the moment, I can almost pretend, almost imagine that I'm the reason for the eager light on his face.
"Jared, you aren't listening!" his accusing tone brings me abruptly back to my surroundings.
"Sure I am!" I protest lamely. "You, uh, you were talking about game theory... Interesting stuff, that." He rolls his eyes at me and I grin. "Okay, so I'm not a brainiac like you. Let's see you define the different types of sonnets, smarty-pants."
We laugh together, at each other, at ourselves, and it's as I look unguardedly into his eyes in that moment of companionable humor that it happens, as it has happened many times before.
I find myself lost in their greenness. They remind me of the first leaves of spring, that vibrant, shining emerald that glows with life and health. I feel my breath hitch.
Then he blinks, and it's gone. We're back in the Beanie Bag, staring at each other across a table spread with badly scrawled notes. The only sounds are the girl wiping down the counter with a rag and the dim strains of some country song.
He knows. I can see it in the way he won't meet my eyes but instead gazes off at a spot just under my nose; in the way he holds himself, stiffly as though afraid that he might break something if he moved too quickly. It's moments like this when that thing, that unspeakable thing which we both know and won't ever talk about, comes closest. I can almost feel it breathing down my neck and am seized with a childish fear that if the silence continues for another second, it will land on the table between us and shout out its existence for all the world to hear.
"Let's get to work," he mumbles, apparently no more at ease with the strained, unsaid words between us than I.
I take a deep, shaky breath and reach into my backpack. Normally I don't care for Faulkner, but today I bury myself in his work as though I can find solace in the shattered lives of his characters.
It's been like this for nearly two years, since we were freshmen.
We happened to be roommates, by one of those cosmic coincidences that in the old days determined the fates of empires, but which in these modern times were reduced to things like the university's housing lottery. That whole first semester we were never more than politely interested in each other. He spent most of his time on his laptop, classical music drifting through his earphones, spending more time texting people online than actually speaking to them face to face. He never went out, aced his classes with little effort, and I rather disdained him for his shy stay-at-home studiousness.
I, on the other hand, partied like any self-respecting college student should his first time away from home. My classes were a luxury that I indulged in only enough to keep from failing, and I could get into any club in the city with the fake ID I'd purchased on a street corner during my second week at school.
The first hint I had of my feelings toward him came when I returned to the dorms for spring semester. I walked into our room, threw my duffel on the bed and myself after it, tired after the long drive. I lay there a moment, my face buried in the pillow, then got up with a sigh to unpack. That's when I glanced over to Damon's half of the room and realized that he wasn't back yet.
The pang of disappointment went through me with a shock. I stood there for maybe thirty seconds, trying to figure out what the hell had just happened and why my stomach had suddenly decided to flip over.
I had become so accustomed to his presence there, so used to his familiar profile as he sat staring at his computer, that not seeing him where I expected, ready to greet me with a smile, was almost a physical blow.
Oh, Jared, I thought in a daze. Oh, boy, we are -so- not going there.
Except of course, I did. I paid more attention to him when he came back, watched him when he wasn't aware, and could not deny the attraction. It wasn't lust, but it wasn't totally pure either. I decided, quite independently of his opinion on the matter, that I would break him out of his comfortable little shell and introduce him to the wider world.
He didn't put up much of a resistance, and I'm not bragging when I say I can charm almost anyone I choose. While he adamantly refused to skip classes or let his grades slide, I convinced him that underage drinking wasn't the mortal sin he believed it to be. We went to clubs and parties, stayed out late on weekends, and on one memorable occasion I watched him lie with a completely straight face to a cop who'd asked to see our IDs. I made a note never to play poker with him for money.
It was at the last party of the year when things unraveled, the huge annual bash that one of the fraternities threw at their house to celebrate the end of exams before everyone went home for the summer. Lots of beer, loud music, cigarette smoke, and groping thinly disguised as dancing. I saw Damon head upstairs and decided on a whim to follow him. The hallways up there were deserted and quiet, and the only illumination came from the party downstairs. I found him leaning over the banister. He saw me and smiled.
"Hey. Had to get away from the noise for a minute. Can't hear myself think down there."
I chuckled and joined him at the railing. "You aren't supposed to think, you're supposed to get roaringly drunk and pass out on the floor."
His low laugh set my blood pounding. I don't know if it was the beer I'd consumed or the heat of the late Georgia spring or the sheer madness of the party below us. I leaned in and kissed him. I mean, really kissed him. I didn't use my tongue, but it definitely wasn't innocent. I had him trapped against the railing, leaning back over it like an acrobat. His lips tasted like he had mixed his beer with the fruit punch. For one dizzying moment, I felt him respond, felt him react to the kiss.
Then he shoved me, hard, and my breath flew out in a grunt as my back slammed into the opposite wall. He stared at me like he'd never seen me before, one hand rising to touch his lips, as though to assure himself that what had happened wasn't something he'd imagined. The next moment, he had turned on his heels and was gone.
I didn't go back to our room that night. I wandered the streets until I found a seedy bar whose neon sign flickered on and off like some demented beacon of decay. The inside was dark and smoky, and no one even looked up when I sat down at the bar and ordered a shot, the first of many.
That was the night I decided I didn't believe in God. I mean, it wasn't like I'd ever been a religious fanatic, but I'd gotten a fairly traditional Christian upbringing from my parents and never really questioned it. But I realized that night that if I believed in God, then I'd have to believe that this whole fiasco with Damon was part of His benevolent plan, that He meant for me to suffer this kind of pain. And if I believed that, I would only be a very short step away from hating Him, and I didn't want to hate the Almighty. Better not to believe in Him. That way, He could make me suffer, I would deny His existence, and we'd be more or less at quits with each other.
By the time I got back to the room the next day, Damon had gone. He left a brief note, saying he hoped I had a good summer. I tore it into pieces and flushed it down the toilet. That summer we saw each other a few times online, and though I could tell he was trying to keep our friendship alive, I never replied to his text messages. The one e-mail I got from him near the end of the summer was an apologetic explanation that, since his younger step-brother would be attending our school in the fall, he would have to back out of our plan to room together the next year.
Just because I didn't reply to him doesn't mean I forgot about him. If anything, I obsessed, though quietly. I remembered how his nimble fingers flew unerringly over his keyboard, and the absurd way his hair looked in the morning, with a cowlick that you could hang a TV antenna from. And I remembered that kiss and the way he had looked at me.
See, if all I had seen in his face during that fleeting half-second before he left was disgust and revulsion, I could have written him off as a bad mistake and moved on. But there had been no loathing in his expression. Surprise, certainly, and confusion, but those I had expected. No, it was the understanding and regret I saw that killed me. He didn't hate me, he just didn't think of me as more than a friend, and it had hurt him too, to realize my feelings and know that he could never return them in kind.
The summer passed, and fall semester saw me a sophomore with the lightest class load I could manage and still remain a full-time student. Damon had quit trying to contact me, but I still saw him around campus. Not because we had the same classes or anything, but because I felt irresistibly drawn to places where I knew he would be likely to turn up, though I made sure he didn't see me watching. If the campus police hadn't been so busy chasing down petty vandals, I'm sure they would have arrested me for a stalker.
It was near the beginning of October that the inconceivable happened and led to where we are today. I had retained the old room I shared with Damon, though now my roommate was a large, blocky senior who stood head and shoulders above me and who would probably have punched me through a wall if I had thought to put any moves on him. I woke up early one morning and lay blinking in the grayness before dawn, wondering what had disturbed my sleep. Then I heard it again. A soft, timid knocking, almost a scratching, at the door.
I pulled it open and for a bleary moment thought for sure that I was dreaming. Damon stood outside in the hall, and he looked like absolute hell. His eyes were bloodshot and decorated with dark bags. His hair was a tousled mess. He was shaking and hugging himself as though cold. I stared.
"Ja-Jared, can I--" he paused to swallow, his voice small and hushed. "Can I talk to you for a moment?"
"Uh," I replied eloquently. "Uh, sure. Just... hold on a sec."
I shut the door and pinched my arm to convince myself that I was awake, then grabbed my roommate's bathrobe and slung it over my shoulders. It was several sizes too big and smelled of the cheap cologne he used, but I didn't want to go hunting in the dark for mine. Besides, he was snoring softly on his bed and wouldn't miss it.
"What's the matter?" I hissed out in the hallway. I looked him up and down once more. "You look like hell."
He shrugged, glancing listlessly down the hall. I realized with my usual delayed tact that he probably didn't want to discuss his problems out in the open where anyone could open a door and walk in on our conversation. We retreated to the lounge, a cramped little room that no one ever used since some moron had stolen the TV last semester.
Slowly, with much cajoling and a minibag of gummy bears I found in one of the robe's pockets, I got the story out of him. It was sadly mundane, really. The girl he'd been seeing since the summer had decided that they weren't right for each other, and she needed more depth in a relationship and blah blah blah. Long and short of it, she dumped him. With an e-mail no less, which has to be the most un-classy way to end a relationship in the history of the world.
He cried a little, telling it, and I could tell that he hadn't gotten any sleep the night before. I'm against most forms of violence, but I swear, if that unfeeling bitch had walked in right then, I would have strangled her on the spot and gladly accepted a life sentence for it.
Still, she wasn't my main concern, which dubious honor went to Damon. After he finished, he just sat there, staring at his hands, a sniffle escaping every now and then. I wanted so badly to hold him, to give him a simple hug that would let him know that he wasn't alone, but I was afraid that if I tried he would only stiffen up. Instead I sat with him, offering whatever wordless comfort he found in my presence. The sun had long since risen, and he was probably missing a class for the first time in his life, but I figured that wasn't the time to rag him about it.
Once I knew my roommate had left for the gym as he did every morning, I hauled Damon to his feet and steered him to the room.
"Go to sleep," I told him, pushing him down on his old bed and divesting him of his jacket. "Don't tell me you're not tired. Just close your eyes and... and think of algebra or something." That drew a reluctant chuckle, and he obeyed without further protest.
I dressed myself and then just sat on my bed watching him sleep. He looked so peaceful, so breathtakingly beautiful. I suddenly remembered a passage from one of my mythology textbooks describing the gods in slumber, and thought I knew what that long-dead poet had been trying to say.
I've always tried to be honest with myself. Lying to other people is sometimes a necessary evil, but lying to yourself is like putting a bullet through your own damn foot. So I didn't try to tell myself that I had a chance now with Damon. I knew he didn't have any feelings for me beyond that of friendship.
He had come to me -- me, of all people -- for a simple reason. He knew that I would understand. He knew that I could empathize with the pain of rejection and denial. If it was cruel of him to use me thus, I forgave him that morning as the sun climbed higher in the sky and traced a bright rectangle across the wall above his sleeping form.
Since that day, we've renewed our friendship, though it's cost me plenty of sleepless nights. Sometimes I hear his laughter ringing in my dreams, and start awake with a jerk. Other times I'm furious with him for putting me into this impossible situation. Because, of course, I still want him. Still want to kiss him again, still want to run my fingers through his hair. Hell, I'd even be happy just getting to hold his hand or lean against him as we sit on a park bench some sunny afternoon.
So simple. So impossible.
I've thought, almost casually, of suicide. It's seductive sometimes, especially on those days when I see Damon flirting carelessly with a girl, see his eyes shine in that way they never do when looking at me. But I've scratched that option off the list. You see, just because I don't believe in God doesn't mean I don't believe in Hell. And I know that if I die and end up in the fiery pit, I'll never see Damon again.
I close Faulkner's book with a sigh, having made very little progress. Damon looks up, startled, the page before him filled with equations and symbols that I don't even recognize. He's even more caught up in classes than usual, and is taking a long, hard look at medical school besides, and I miss the time we could have spent together. I, on the other hand, am taking a year off after I graduate, maybe to write a little and see if I can feed myself with my English degree.
"C'mon, Damon," I say, rising. "It's a beautiful day out there. Let's go for a walk."
We leave the Beanie Bag behind and emerge into the bright sunlight. He stands with his eyes closed for a moment, basking in the warm glow, a smile on his face. The way the light reflects off the glass window behind us casts a halo around his head, making him seem an angel come to earth. I look away quickly before he can see the expression on my face. We head for the park a block away, and he takes the time to regale me with a report of the latest legislation proposed in Washington, reviling me playfully for my conservative stance. I give him a lopsided grin and let him ramble on, only half-listening, lost in contemplation of what might have been.
I would trade my soul for the chance to tell him how I feel.
But we never speak of it, and I make no unwelcome advances. If this friendship is all that he can give me, I'll take it and treasure it, holding each precious moment as it passes, accepting the pain as I accept the joy. I look up into the brilliant blue of the sky, with fluffy white clouds drifting peacefully by. Perhaps there is a God up there somewhere after all. Perhaps He too, looks at us, His children, with that same mixture of pain and joy.
"Jared?" Damon's voice jolts me from my thoughts. "What were you thinking of? You had the strangest expression on your face."
I smile at him and shrug it off. "I hear your liberal friends are planning a rally next Saturday."
"Too right we are!" And we continue on our way, Damon's hands gesturing excitedly as his words ring out, rising to the heavens above us.
Prompt: Romance/Love. Forbidden words: heart, beat, star, love, passion.