"When the winds are breathing low, and the stars are shining bright..." Percy Shelley
Keeping Midnight Alive
Carly said he’d show him an angel, and he meant to, despite the drive or the chill in the air. He'd been kidding, of course; neither of them expected a religious catharsis during their winter break, but for Carly...well, if a promised angel was enough to bring his boy home for Christmas, blessed be. The fact that he'd nabbed him at all was still a Hollywood mystery. On paper, Joey was a jock. Physically, quite thankfully, jock. Emotionally, more often than not, Joey was a social chameleon. Though it irked Carly to watch the seamless, shape-shifting, party-people pleasing routine, he understood. Deep down, in the darker haunts of hidden pasts, everybody has a mask or two, and a dozen more plastic smiles. Some are for confidence, others for gain. Some are just a little more dusty than others.
Carly, already a declared English/Writing major - an academic lemming, yes, but a lemming of profound literary principals - had carved his niche within the emo-angst riddled legions of post-adolescent transcendental Fantastic Realists on campus (where apparently androgynous, abstinent, vegetarian vampires were the new dead horse to punt from workshop to workshop; Carly would never understand it...a saga, honestly...just bite the bitch and be done with it. I mean, c'mon. Sad little pandas are starving in captivity and everybody's favorite immortal gets cold teeth when the time comes, and comes again, and comes again. Seriously, it's like Shrek and Donkey meets Brokeback Mountain without all the good pervy bits...not that Shrek and Donkey would ever get tent-nasty but...for God's sake, somebody just put a fang in her so we can find a new trend to butcher). Alright, so perhaps his critiques weren't popular, but he had a firm grasp on something the collegiate literary world had long-since forgotten. Plot. He was the Hemmingway to their Dr. Seuss; The Grapes of Wrath to their "Strawberry Wine." A tyrant in his criticism, an angel in his advice, a magnanimous bastard with that Midas style. But a jock, he was not.
But Carly had an unusual, violet-eyed beauty about him, a rare but rapture of a smile; he was small-framed but more than fit, and he knew the look when he caught one leveled in his direction. He was gracious, always, but he was spoken for, not just by a jock, but the jock. Joseph Means - his boy - was already a favorite for the US Olympic swimming team, having made a light brunch of both world records in the 100m freestyle and butterfly. Joey was even better than that other guy - the perpetually half-naked scrawny one with all the gold necklaces, Carly couldn't remember his name. Decent swimmer, though...for a pothead. Anyway.
Finals came and went, term papers died in a wild frenzy of red ink and fruitless tears, and the two settled into a nine-hour drive, armed with 16GB of everything from George Winston to Fallout Boy (and, ok, yes, that Fergie song with the verse about the blanket, 'cause that's just friggin' brilliant), but they talked instead. Joey snagged a nap somewhere on I-81 between Walmartshire, VA and Whogivesashit, TN - home of the fightin' Wildcats, the pride of Whogivesashit High. Joey mumbled and stirred a moment when My Bloody Valentine's "Sometimes" came drifting out of the speakers like cool velvet sex on a southern summer evening. He fumbled around until he found Carly's hand, wove their fingers together and drifted off again, dreaming. Climbing up into western NC, Carly saw the first few flakes of what would be their first white Christmas since he was rocking the OshKosh corduroys. He nudged Joey, pointing out the windshield, wide-eyed smiling. Joey was from Providence, but he swore he'd never seen such a perfect snow regardless.
Carly was still floundering in affection when they pulled up the drive and into the garage. His mom was out, likely fighting the supermarket crowds for a forty-dollar frozen turkey. The snow had begun to fall in earnest, sowing panic and a pressing necessity for bread and milk. It always amazed him that Albany could call for an overnight dusting of sleet and freezing rain, and 1500 miles south they'd be brawling in the aisles for that last mashed and battered loaf of Wonderbread. But they were his people, and even if they did "pray for him" once word got out about him and Joey, there's something to be said for even the most misguided concerns, Wonderbread ruckus not-withstanding.
Mom was home by dark, leaving Carly to unload a carload of groceries while she inspected the new boy. Joey smiled throughout the kindhearted interrogation over coffee in the kitchen. Finally appeased (and quite proud of her only child), she gave her blessing in a perfect southern mother's way. The sheets were fresh on Carly's bed, extra quilts in the hall closet, y'all holler if you need me, and keep it down if you don't. Carly knelt forward for a quick kiss on the forehead, and Joey followed suit, grinning ear to ear, for the same. Carly fell in love all over again...
They waited, HBO muted on the TV, until his mother’s light ceased casting its warm rhombus of yellow glow into the hallway and crept through the darkness, hand in hand, mindful of every creak on the stairs, of every thump and patter of bare foot. She’d worry if they went out tonight as cold as it was, even just to the end of the ridge; she needed her sleep, needed not to worry. Lord knows one foolish boy was enough, much less the two of them out at all hours, catching their death in the cold. The downstairs had cooled considerably, but the thrill of the escape kept it at bay.
“I feel like such a kid,” Joey said, grinning, quite foolish but unashamed, and Carly wondered for the thousandth time how in hell he'd managed to reel this one in. He stole a quick and silent kiss on the cheek and the grin never faltered.
Jesus Christ, I even love his teeth, Carly thought, feeling time skip-hop in his head, then pause briefly. Joey stood half in a cold wash of moonlight, half in shadow, his eyes ablaze with childish excitement. There are moments, few and far between, when you get a clear glimpse of the rest of your life as it should be; Carly held onto it with both hands, breathing it in on an endless breath. But a moment lives to move along, and even if man made time, time never said shit about waiting for him. We are the Frankensteins of our own emptied hourglasses, and an hourglass is never grateful in nature.
Life resumed, seeming to hurry and catch up; the next few moments were a blur of socks, shoes, scarves, coats, and many pattings of pockets in search of cigarettes and lighters. The door eased open on silent hinges and the two of them tip-toed onto the porch. Carly headed for the screen door, hand out and reaching for the latch, but his left arm twanged in its socket, pulling him back a step. Turning, confused, he looked to see Joey staring at him in the moonlight, head leaned just slightly to the side, with the corner of his mouth slightly upturned.
“What-” Carly managed to whisper before he was hauled forward. Their lips met in the near dark, cold noses mashed together, Carly was at first startled and then brilliantly stupid-headed. Two large, strong hands placed themselves on either side of his face, and suddenly he knew this was something different, something…right. This was big, different from his Joey, even in the dark, even when all the world was busy looking elsewhere.
And then it ended. He knew not to step back and sprout a fool’s grin like he wanted to; Joey was looking at him again with those cool dark eyes and Carly could see the gears rolling over in his head.
“I love you, Carly,” Joey said, so faint he had to read his lips in the moonlight.
“I know,” Carly said, his voice even. He didn't return the sentiment; it wasn't a question to be answered. “C’mon.”
Time skip-hopped again and they found themselves running, still holding hands, out the driveway. The air was so cold and dry that they had slowed to a meander in only a moment, panting, throats burning. The snow had melted on the packed gravel of the drive but was still several inches deep in the yard and the brushy undergrowth in the woods around the house. The silence around them was both oppressive and companionable, a softness in the night broken only by two sets of gritty footfalls.
So this is how it sounds to be happy, Carly thought, and his eyes got a little misty.
“You cold?” Joey asked, putting an arm around him.
“Yeah,” he said, only half-explaining the snuffle.
“Let’s keep going,” Joey said, then laughed. "Where the hell are we going?"
"To see your angel," Carly said, quick-stepping ahead.
They moved out into the high, snow-tamped grass of a pasture that ran the length of the ridgeline, moving parallel to an old rusty barbed-wire fence. Below them, the pasture dropped into darkness. Carly remembered some shitheaded frat boy had asked him if the cows back home had two legs shorter than the others to compensate for the terrain. Carly had laughed with him and, for a brief but vivid moment, humored thoughts of gouging out frat boy’s eyes with a coat hanger. He brushed his mind aside and laid his head on Joey’s shoulder as they walked.
The wind picked up a bit, stealing away their breath and leaving them numb ears and noses. Carly waited for the inevitable How much farther? but it never came. Joey seemed satisfied just to be there, his booted feet making damp whumps in the snow-covered grass and his head leaned gently against Carly’s on his shoulder. Something around them conveyed a need for revered silence, and they kept it.
After about fifteen minutes of walking they reached the highest point on the ridge, marked by a scarred old white pine that stood covered by a million silver needles in the moonlight. It swayed gently, whispering above them in the wind. Beneath the chatty old pine Carly felt safe to break their silence.
“I used to come out here almost every night in high school,” he said.
“It’s peaceful,” Joey whispered from beside him. He was staring up through the branches of the pine, a look of serene admiration drifting across his face.
“It’s pretty bland in the daytime,” Carly said, pointing off down and across the pasture. “The state road’s just across the way there. It’s pretty much in direct sunlight all day long, and all you can smell up here is car exhaust and cow shit.”
Joey snorted a laugh and shoved him. Another small and unassuming silence ensued, during which their hands found each other again in the quiet dim beneath the tree.
“I wonder how old this tree is,” Joey said, again craning his neck and glancing upward. “Looks like it’s been through hell.”
“It’s had a hard life, see how close the branches are going up?”
“Seems like he’d be tall, fat ‘n’ happy up here with half the ridge all to himself.”
“Nah, this ridge hasn’t been cleared but for around forty years or so,” Carly said. “This was one of the smaller trees here, believe it or not. The rest were all oak and chestnut; what the mills didn‘t get, the blight brought down. You can spread eagle and stay within some of the stumps up here .”
“And left these old pines all by their lonesome,” Joey patted the side of the tree.
Something in the way Joey moved caught Carly off guard, or maybe it was the tone in his voice, an almost-sympathy or compassion for the few living trees that sparsely adorned Carly's ridge. How could I have considered this home until now?
“So where’s my angel?” Joey asked when the poignant moment passed. He was looking earnestly at Carly as if he fully expected the night’s magic to whip up a quick Gabriel right there beneath the tree. Carly walked fifteen or so feet forward out of the moonshade of the ancient pine and looked up into the sky.
“There,” he said, pointing upward.
“An angel?” Joey asked from a few feet back.
“In the moon.”
Joey stared but shook his head after a moment.
“Squint your eyes and then tilt your head back a little. See?” Carly was smiling now, almost giddy, watching the realization dawn on Joey’s face. He returned his gaze to the moon. “My mom showed me that when I was little, maybe four or five, I guess, after my dad had.... Honestly, I just wanted to get you all to myself on the ridge. I hope I didn’t get your hopes up, I mean it’s just a trick caused by the- ”
Joey’s hands had slipped around him and into the deep pockets of Carly’s coat, hugging him close against him and resting his chin on his shoulder. Carly reached his arms back and laced his fingers together behind Joey’s neck.
“It’s perfect, Carly,” Joey said, his breath a whisper in Carly’s ear. “It’s absolutely perfect.”
They stood there, rocking together in the moonlight, as the lonely old white pine sighed and whispered behind them, as glad as any tree could ever be. Maybe that's what happiness sounds like, too.
They spent the night in Carly’s bed, finding each other out with their hands. Joey proved his devotion through silence, even with his eyes so alive in the darkness. It was close to an addiction, some kind of rabid affection perpetually on the verge of boiling over, held barely in check but for the sheer pain of not giving in.
Their open mouths came together, and Carly was drunk with it. Stoned on it. Alive inside it. For once the world played second fiddle to the moment; his only focus was the insane feeling of the scalding hot contrast of their bodies against the cold air outside their circle.
Joey found an ear with his tongue, and the air caught in Carly’s throat. Something exploded in his head, his vision tunneled, the world spun. He pulled away and shook his head to clear the cobwebs. Joey laughed aloud and rolled over onto him. They stayed that way for a moment, catching their breath and snickering. Carly closed his eyes and ran his hands along Joey’s back, seeing the muscles sculpted by a thousand laps and time trials in his mind. When he reached Joey’s shoulder blades, he pulled downward and they kissed again, sharing a breath. This time, Carly gave in.
“I said it, didn’t I?” Joey asked, a whisper in his ear. “Earlier. Finally.”
“Yeah,” Carly breathed, almost half-asleep. “How long have you known?”
They were in a snug spoon, Carly the little, wrapped up in themselves beneath the covers. The moon had set, the only light in the room a green flashing spray of pale light from the blinking 12:00 of the stereo clock, keeping midnight alive. Carly’s hand traced the outside of Joey’s thigh, feeling the swimmer’s uncanny smoothness, unbroken from knee to hip, and the corded muscles beneath the skin.
“Since you turned around in the admissions office,” Joey said, after a moment. His arms tightened around Carly. “It scares me.”
“I know, me too.”
“It scares you, or you love me…”
“Both,” Carly said without thinking. He felt Joey relax a little, as if in relief, wished immediately that he’d just told him outright the first time Joey…
“How long have you known?”
“First time you smiled.” Carly always enjoyed their little moments of telepathy.
Joey nodded and was quiet again. Carly rolled over, their foreheads resting together, noses touching in the darkness.
“I love your mom, too,” Joey said with a grin.
“Easy, Trigger,” Carly said, sharing a laugh. They settled into another comfortable silence. Carly was half-asleep again when Joey spoke.
“How long can it last?” he asked, almost speaking to himself.
“Forever,” Carly heard himself answer, and then he was under until daybreak. Joey was awake a few more moments, watching him sleep. Somewhere in his mind, even beneath his dreams, Carly could feel those dark eyes upon him like an ocean, slowly rolling underneath a whirl of moon and stars.
It felt good, from the warmth of Joey’s breath against his cheek to the skin of his arms around him, it felt good.