So, as everyone settles in, I order up the first round and the conversation flows as effortlessly as it had during dinner. Our families get along stunningly with both factions mixing nicely with our friends, his maybe a little more than mine, but everyone tries. And as drinks and conversations drift one into the other, for me, and so it would seem for everyone else, the concept of time becomes fluid. We’re going to be here for awhile.
And I am feeling sublime, content with Ryan at my side, warm from the heat lamps, full from a perfectly prepared meal at Frankie’s Bistro and in no pain thanks to my mixed-to-perfection gin & tonic, surrounded by our family and friends.
So, I really should be at my ease and on most levels I am. Well, on all except one actually because something - or more likely someone - is itching near the edges of my otherwise contented mind and has been for awhile with that implausible little irritation only growing stronger. I attempt, with nominal success, to deny my own senses since what I’m feeling must be wrong, but as the feeling only grows, I finally have to admit that I’m right. It is her. She is coming to me and I’m certain of it well before I see her, which makes me nervous and Ryan notices. Leaning into me, he whispers, “What’s wrong?”
“Don’t know yet, but something is.” What else can I tell him? Putting my arm around his shoulders, I try calming myself in his warmth, his familiarity. His love.
“Is it…them?” he starts. “Are they…?” But he stops when he sees her and as if on cue, when everyone else sees her, they all go quiet too, knowing how unusual this is, for her to come to me, but beyond that, they also know just how much she means to me. So they -- friends, family, Ryan – all look to me for understanding, but I don’t have any to give them. I‘m just trying to deal with the apparent fact that Caillen is alone and so unsure, faltering as she scans me and all those with me. To someone who didn’t know her, she would probably seem unhurried, maybe even measured or languid but since I do know her; all I can see is her hesitation, her fear. Caillen is frightened of me, doesn’t want to be coming to me and I have difficulty aligning that with my memory of who we once were to each other. What I’m seeing in her, I don’t want to see. What I’m seeing in her hurts us both and I wish it didn’t.
But once to us and with all eyes on her, her nervousness becomes obvious to everyone. Still, she quickly remembers herself, bowing to me more formally then I would’ve ever wanted, almost as if to a stranger, but I know she only does what she believes is right. Caillen’s only disrespect is in what I read into her actions. We are no longer lovers, I’ve been gone from her for a long while and she treats me with both deference and distance because, while I remember that she’s the only woman I’ve ever been with or ever will be with, she has forgotten. I know that even after leaving her, my love for her is undiminished, but she doesn’t. She tries only to protect herself and her formality is her time-honored way of doing that.
“Stefan,” Caillen says, extending a warm smile to my parents, to Ryan’s parents and, of course, to Jonathan and Marcus, but with only a slight nod to my others. Except for Ryan who, still leaning into me, captures her attention, he obviously fascinates her even after all this time Staring openly at him, briefly but tellingly, before ducking her eyes back to me, she waits.
Standing to meet her, as she lifts those clear pale green eyes to mine, in that moment, I am again lost to her. But, just as quickly as she had, I remember what I should do, returning her greeting in kind, bowing low with as much formality as she had to me. I say, “Caillen, normally you run from me, but now you come to me. To what do I owe this pleasure?” And I smile, but somewhere between what I mean and what she hears my words change, shape-shift, no longer mean what I‘d intended them to mean and I regret them. I’ve been gone awhile and I’ve forgotten how they are with their fragile expectations, how she is. How they over-think absolutely everything and I’ve forgotten how easily they are hurt. She looks unsure, as if having done something wrong and I’m not sure why. “Caillie?”
She ducks her head again, looking up at me with narrowed, confused eyes; pale green now gone emerald, and she says, “Always straight to the point with you, isn’t it. Well, not to worry, I won’t keep you long and so, in keeping with the trajectory you have set for us,” and she cocks her head as if to challenge me, “Tari sent me to give you information he feels you should have.” Then, turning her eyes away from me, she finds her calm in the nighttime sky beyond the terrace’s enclosure.
And I wait, knowing she’ll take a minute regrouping. And I sigh, knowing she’s right, my first words to her in awhile were snarky and shouldn’t have been, but there’s no way now to make what I did say into what I should have said. I was thoughtless. Still, I won’t apologize for hurting her because that would only underscore, as she would see it, her vulnerability in front of my others. Not good. Also, just being near me is obviously difficult, so I need to make this interaction, whatever it may be, as easy for her as I can. She looks more afraid, so much more lost now that she’s nearer to me. And despite, or maybe because of, her own attempt at snark, my instinct to hold her, to calm her fears, is strong, but I won’t. That would be disrespectful to Ryan. So I wait, I wait for Caillen to remember what she is supposed to do next. Except…
“This, Caillen, is a private party,” Margaret, my older sister, butts-in. She is, unfortunately, unable to deal with even the slightest lull in any conversation. “A private party for Ryan, Stefan and their invited guests and since you weren’t invited, Caillen, you should leave?” I not only have to stop Ryan from confronting her bullshit, I also have to stop myself from saying anything to shut up my dear sweet sister because to do otherwise would be to imply that Caillen can’t handle Margret’s nastiness on her own. I show him by waiting myself that he should do the same. Everyone else also takes their cue from me.
Only our mother cautions her, saying, “Margaret.” A warning.
But my mother’s oldest and most judgmental of children continues undeterred, “There’s nothing you have to say to either of them or, in fact, to any of us, that could be of any possible relevance, so why don’t you just--?”
“What is it you know that we don’t, Margaret?” Caillen questions, but only after an apologetic glance to our parents, Margaret’s husband, to Ryan and me. “What information are you privy to that we --”
“Nothing,” Margaret says. “Why? What are you--?”
“Because,” Caillen continues as if Margaret hadn’t spoken, “truth be told, you not only won most of the battles, Margaret, you won the freakin’ war. Stefan is gone from us, yeah? And is now all safely and properly ensconced in the lifestyle you have so long desired for him and yet, you still don’t exhibit any of the expected behaviors, like empathy or fairness or graciousness, normally associated with a civilized victor. So, am I to understand that you just aren’t civilized or is it that you simply haven’t understood how thoroughly you’ve won?
“Because, if neither of those then, there must be something else? Because despite the truth before you, you carry on still, as you always have since the very first moment we came into Stefan life like some vicious little wasp buzzing your poisons into his ear and then stinging your toxins into the very air for the rest of us to breath. We are defeated, Margaret, alright? We are dead. You have won…hummm? You. Have. Won. So, why do you still persist in fighting the battles of a now long-over war? Why?”
“There’s nothing,” Margaret tries, glaring at our silence. “There’s--”
“Oh, but there is, Margaret. There must be or you wouldn’t continue on like this, so protective, such a little bulldog. All your petty viciousness requires a lot of energy that could otherwise be put to much better use, I’m sure. I know there’s something and--”
“I don’t know what you mean, there’s noth --”
“Yes. There is.” And even though there are tears in her eyes, Caillen smiles a predatory smile coming in so close to Margaret. Face to face. “And I will find out what.” She turns from my sister then, walking away, moving in almost circles to work off her anger. Fortunately, since they have had to deal with each other in the past and since Margaret is who she is, which, unfortunately, will never change, she knows now to just shut up. Ryan’s scowl and my eyes shooting daggers at her probably help her make the right choice of silence.
I give Caillen a minute to work off her frustration realizing that I’m proud of the way she’s stood up for herself, for her others to my sister. And, while I wish I was, I’m not that surprised at her take on the events of our shared history. She would feel as though we’d all been dragged through a war more mental than physical, a kind of cold-war and one that she and her others had lost. I can’t even describe how it tore at me to hear her whimper ‘we are dead’. I’d felt the pain behind those words, a pain that had spread straight through me and I must have shivered because, sitting just behind where I stood, Ryan had put a hand on the small of my back in a show of support and I’d needed to lean into his touch. My now lover taking care of me because of the pain caused to me by my once lover. Ironic.
But, since I can feel that Caillen is only working herself up more instead of calming herself down, I take back the conversation, asking, “Why, Caillie, why has Tari sent you to me?” Whatever his reason, it can’t be good. I sit back down, but she continues to prowl the half-circle of my and Ryan’s family and friends. And I wonder, if only briefly, where all the celebration has gone?
“Please, just to let you know, Isa told me you would be here, but he didn’t tell me why or even if there was a reason beyond the usual and even though I now know that there must be, I have no wish to know what that reason is.” With these words, she flings a glare at Margaret before turning her eyes back to me. ”Just tell me, please, if you are attending the awards dinner tomorrow evening at the Palace?” And now stepping small steps…side to side…back and forth, I am reminded of how she never holds completely still, not even when asleep.
I nod. “Madison Room, 9:00pm.”
“Then there’s something Tari wants you to know.”
“Otherwise? He didn’t discuss that, or any other possibility, with me and I wouldn’t presume to know his mind, but if the past is of any reckoning then no. Tari wouldn‘t have sent me to you if Isa hadn’t let us know, and nearly at the last possible moment, that you would most probably be in attendance tomorrow. I ask only as confirmation. Is there a better time than this before tomorrow night to talk?”
“No, we’re leaving from here for upstate, Ethan and Cheryl have given us their cabin for the night so we won’t be –“
“Alright. Enough.” She lowers her eyes, she tenses then sighs, she sways small steps from side to side, My poor little neurotic.
She’s allowing me the time I need to process her words. When finally ready, I say, “Tell me why you’ve come, Caillen. Tell me the story Tari has sent you to tell me.” And since that is the only reason she has come to me, she begins.
“I’m going to start by saying a three word statement to you and I would like you to please respond back to me by saying the word ‘but’. I won’t say any more of Tari’s story until you do. That way I can be sure you aren’t lost inside yourself, lost to me. That way I can be sure that you have come back to me and are ready to hear. Easy, yes?”
Probably not so much. I lean forward, forearms on my knees as if moving closer to her. “About this three word statement, once I know it, will it change my life?” And as she steps back…away, I have my answer. I hold my breath, I wait.
She considers for a minute, she needs to find the right words because my question isn’t a part of the story she already knows. “The reality of your life? No, no…that won’t change, I should think. The daily ins and outs of your life will remain the same, but the substance, the nuance of it? Yes, that will most likely change. The taste…the texture…the color of your life, I should think, will transform.”
“How?” And as she tries to bring the words to me, her so familiar movements, how uses her hands as if drawing in the air, almost make me smile. Almost. Because next she says, “The color will become harsher, more…stark. The texture will become coarser…as if gritty. The taste more bitter, more…more acrid and so, in answer to your question, your life in its essence, if not in its fact, will change and, at least in the short run, not for the better. As for the long run, I can’t know. Now, are you ready?” I nod. ’You must also keep in your mind our deal, Stefan, clear? Or I won’t go on. I know your ways still and you easily get lost in yourself.” I nod again.
She drifts away from me for a moment to just beyond the rooftop’s edge, lost in her thoughts because, I realize, she doesn’t want to say aloud the three word statement that must be continually running through her mind. But she knows she must so, finally she settles. She faces me. She holds my eyes with hers and she says, “Alexander has cancer.” Nothing more.
Nothing more, but knowing more wouldn’t have mattered anyway, not in that moment because an earthquake, abrupt and shattering, is set-off inside of me. My vision skews, everything’s covered in a sheen and a throbbing. All outside sound’s muted as if everything has become so very distant, all taken away in a breath and my only thoughts are of being sick. Some manic tremor starting at the pit of me works its way up to the surface and I start shaking. I drop my head to my knees. Someone moans. Me? Someone touches me, grips my hand but I pull away. I can’t look at anyone as images of Allie fill me, overwhelm me, terrify me.
If I can just keep from looking at her then maybe she’ll be gone as if never here and those words won’t exist. But the thrum of them is so loud I can’t hear my own heartbeat so, they are real. I hear a voice so distant. Hers? A voice that won’t let me alone – Stef, what did I tell you to say to me, Stefan? I’ve given you your time.
Don’t make me say anything. I stand, I move away, I don’t want to hear more, I don‘t want to know more-- say what I told you to Stefan. Stefan!
But even just hearing of the possibility that Allie could die leaves me unable to breathe - Stefan!
No!! Fuck no, don’t ask anything of me -- say the word I told you to or I will leave you and your understanding will go no further. Now or I will walk--”
“Ahhh, you are back and after only a minute gone from us. Now that wasn‘t so hard, was it? Sit please and look at me, listen to me. Alright, Stefan?”
“Yes.” I know I‘m whimpering, I don’t care. Ryan sits close, but doesn’t touch me. It must have been him I pulled away from.
“His initial prognosis wasn’t so good, in percentages 35-65 but -- Stefan! -- but the nasty beastie within Allie didn’t mark any new territories, none beyond its original, its own, okay Stefan? The nasty little beastie within Allie didn’t spread, had no litter mates to mark any other territories for it, do you understand me?”
“Good because, the nasty little beastie once within Allie has been removed from him, all snarling and clawing to be sure, but completely removed nonetheless. The cancer didn’t spread, Stefan, there was no metastasis. His prognosis is now good. Had it gone the other way, we would have come to you for sure and sooner, but --”
“You only come to me now because of tomorrow?”
“This is your biggest concern?” And she flashes her own kind of nasty little beastie snarl. “Then, yes.” She drops her chin as if guarded, glaring up at me through platinum bangs. “Alexander will be at The Palace tomorrow and Tari didn’t want you to be caught off your guard. The dinner will be his first, his only, outing in New York. Day after tomorrow, he returns to San Francisco. No one else here knows he’s ill other than Marcus and Jonathan and they were told not to say anything to anyone. Especially you. Ahhh, that doesn’t please you. Well, whatever.”
“Still, they might have been chosen to tell you, but I was. Tari wants you to know since Alexander was a favorite of yours when you were with us and because he doesn‘t want people to imagine that we‘ve entirely deserted you, that you’re unaware of what goes on with--”
”Even if I am?” I now snarl. Since really, they are only telling me now because circumstance demands it. What if they didn’t have to? Have other near-tragedies like this come and gone that I don‘t know about? I feel lost, drained, scared.
“We have given you Isa and he tells you what we think you need to know, what more should we have done, Stefan? What more should we be doing? You left us, yeah? Our life is no longer an open book to you, why should it be? Alexander was a favorite of yours so, Tari thought you should know. He didn’t want you shocked in an open and public place. If the events where our lives intersect could be problematic for you, we will advise you. Otherwise, no intersection, no advisement. What else?” She crosses her arms in front of her and she waits.
And while she is right, what she implies only makes me feel more lost, even more sick and she can tell. What else, what else don’t I know? What else? “Ryan,” she says, pointing, “that door leads to a bathroom. Stef may be sick. You will take care of him?” I see his look of concern as he nods, but the moment passes, I will it to. I calm my heartbeat, I steady my breathing, I try to gather my thoughts, but am finding that difficult to do. And I‘m so afraid that at any moment, Tari’s story having been told, she will leave me. I lean into Ryan, while Callie stands relatively quiet in front of us. She asks, “You are coping so, shall I finish?”
“--be fine. He’ll mend. He will survive and we will all be a little more circumspect for having had to go through this with him. And so to the ritual…humm? Always with us there’s a ritual and so, three weekends ago, Tari called for a clann le cheile--”
“Like a family gathering,” I explain.
“Sorry.” And now she’s back in movement, swaying side to side.
“Is okay. Please.”
“So, with everyone in San Francisco and since we knew Allie would lose all his luscious hair anyway, instead of watching that happen agonizing bit by inevitable bit, we took over the process for him, claiming it for our own. As he sat, curled in his favorite chair by the window with the ocean view, you know the one I mean, each of us took and held out one golden curl and Tari cut each of those curls half way from tip to skull, marking and saving each one of them. We didn’t then know why and we, naturally, didn’t ask.
“Naturally,” I agree.
“But soon we would learn why and then, two weekends ago, Alexander, with us three --”
“Me and Jamey and Jayden, we all came back here for the next part of Allie’s treatment and so, we continued our own mini-process of his hair ritual by repeating the procedure. Along with Jonathan and Marcus, we each pulled and cut near his skull the rest of each strand. Again and again. When we were done, Allie said he looked like he had tiny little brown pig’s tails growing all over his head. And he did!”
“Alexander has such beautiful curls,” I say, sighing a little.
“Yes he does,” she agrees. “Or did,” she adds, and I wince. “And eminently grip-able.” She smiles such a sweet mischievous smile that I hurt remembering the feel of her hands in my not so curly, not so eminently grip-able hair, but she interrupts my little fantasy, saying, “Finally, four days ago we…we shaved his head and none too soon. And so now, we come to you. Allie made us hold back on one curl. Just in case he said. Just in case of what, of who, we weren’t exactly sure, but he asks so, we do. Simple as that. Now we know that the just-in-case is you. He’s here, with Jamey and Jayden. While I am brave, I didn’t really come to you all on my own. They’ve all hid themselves round the corner and Allie wants to see you. Do you not feel Jamey?”
I don’t. I feel him less than her under normal circumstances and this is not normal so, I really don’t. “Why?”
“Why they hide? We thought the situation would be easier for you to deal with if just one of us set-up the circumstances and I, well, uhm…I more or less lost the straw-draw, although I still believe the game was rigged somehow not in my favor. Nonetheless, I was probably the best choice. I tell a decent story and I don’t get lost in too much verbiage as some of us are want to--”
“Hey,” I hear Jameson yelp, “I heard that,” interrupting her just as I see them walking almost as hesitantly toward me as Caillie had earlier. He looks as he always does which is nothing short of beautiful, as does Jayden, as I wish Allie did. However, he looks nothing as he usual does. His face is gaunt and so very pale. His clothes hang from him and he wears a deep red knit cap which, under normal circumstances, wouldn’t even come close to being up to the task of keeping his wild curls under control, but which now conforms itself neatly to the curvature of his skull. I take a deep breath, I stand and we all bow low.
Allie moves closer to me, within my personal space, and holds out his hand, which I take, bringing him into me, into my arms and despite my best intentions, I murmur into his neck, “Oh my god, oh my god.”
“I know, I’m so sorry,” he comforts me and I think I’m might cry, I want to, I know I will later, but not now.
But only because Jameson saves me. “Due to brilliant forethought on his part,” he says, preparing to remove Allie’s cap while Caillen produces her knife, “you too can partake in Allie’s hair-cutting ceremony. Doing so is, naturally, up to you.” As he removes the cap, I watch, mesmerized, as one long delicate golden brown curl is let loose to fall over Alexander’s left eye. One curl left for me. Taking the knife, I flick it open as Jameson says, “Don’t pull too tight, it may come right out of its own volition and our sweet ritual will come all undone.” So, I pull gently.
“If you want the full effect, you must do two cuts,” Allie reminds and so I do. The first cut, the half-way cut isn’t a new look to me, I remember him with his hair this short from before, but when I cut the half that remains close to his skull, I’ve entered uncharted territory…the land of little brown pig’s tails. ”Now,” he says. “Just pull.” Handing Caillen her knife, when I do ‘just pull‘; the twisting little pig’s tail comes away easily in my hand and I shiver. He digs in his pocket, pulling out a little laced metal box on a chain that I can see contains another perfect curl. “Tari had them made, one for each of us, to contain our first San Francisco cuts,” Allie explains. And holding out his empty hand, I give him my first cut. “Isa will bring you yours when next he comes to stay with you and Ryan, yeah?” And his quick smile rips at my heart. “Sorry, but I’m tired and I really must go home and lie down, you will understand? Tomorrow then.” I nod and all four, as if one, bow and, as if never with us at all, are gone.
I sit, head down, covering my mouth with my hands, so exhausted, but when I hear Ryan say, “Stefan,” I look up to find Caillen suddenly returned.
She kneels in front of the two of us and says, “Know, please that I don’t really suspect anything wrong between you as I implied to Margaret. Isa speaks to us of nothing but your life as bliss. And even if I did mean absolutely everything I said to Margaret about her nearly decade’s long malice toward us, I know there’s nothing bad to find within your world. Just know that all I really wanted to do was fuck with her, yeah?” And then, as quick as a change in the light, she’s gone. I signal for the waiter so I can order us up another round. I don’t know about anybody else, but I need a drink. I look at Ryan and ask, “So…and where were we?”
He takes and kisses the back of my hand, saying, “As I recall, you were about to ask me to dance, weren’t you?” And he is, as usual, absolutely right. Tonight we dance, knowing that tomorrow will come soon enough.