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September 24th, 2013

Caught in the Light of His Eyes

One very fine late summer evening_2010

While not a small dining room, it certainly isn’t a large one either, even if the distance between us, the distance between where I stand fidgeting, half-dancing in the doorway and where he sits, at a table for 6, with his back to me, yawns extreme. A seemingly vast Grand Canyon of a distance that divides only because I’m scared. So, I shift and hover, turning in tight circles first from my four others, who cluster behind me (encourage me! encourage me!) and then to him. All the while knowing myself to be the embodiment of a physical kind of stammering as I try to find my way across the abyss. To him. To him.

But time (and the fates?) intervene, taking care of my fear for me as I watch when the sweet-faced man sitting across from my quarry, my prey, my Jaxon, not only notices me (seriously, how could he not?) but then, leaning across toward him, quietly informs Jaxon of both my very existence and of my approximate location behind him. With only a whispered word, a constrained sweep of his arm, a gentle gesture of his hand, I am found. I know that I am because that’s when Jaxon turns slowly yet inevitably toward me. And I shiver as I am quite predictably, yet still breathtakingly, caught in the light of his eyes.

He tilts his head, smiles slightly, bends an index finger toward me, beckoning me and I obey. I make my way, hands shoved into trouser pockets, head slightly bowed, across the distance that separates. That distance now no longer so much a yawn as a sigh, no longer so much the Grand Canyon as a relatively painless-to-leap ditch. Watching him, as he shifts his chair back from the table and sideways to my approach, opening a place before him where I can be, his action one of welcome, of possibility, I am a little less scared (but not much).

The eyes of the five others at Jaxon’s table are on me as I stroll (for dignity’s sake, I do not leap) my way to him and the eyes of most of the other restaurant goers are on both of us. I kneel before him, slightly bowing my head as a sign of respect, he is, after all, considered by many if not most to be America's Greatest Living Painter. And then, looking up into his hazel eyes, which are just as I remember them, more brown speckled with green than not, as he leans, elbows propped on his thighs, toward me, I ask, “Do you remember me? I’m--”

“Jameson. Jameson Gwynedd-Alden. I remember once long ago having to find out the spelling so, yes, I know. I know who you are. I remember.”

“It’s just that it has been so long that I couldn’t help but wonder if--”

“If what? If I’d somehow forgotten you? How could I forget, no matter how long it’s been?”

“It’s just that our time…” and I hesitate, not sure how to proceed, not without saying too much, not without his approval.

And he smiles, my Jaxon does, fingertip touching me under my chin, saying, “It’s alright, say what you want, how you want. We’ve grown older, both of us, but especially me and the time for discretion, for...for illusion is long gone.” Then, throwing a gentle smile toward my others still clustered in the doorway, which they naturally return, he turns his attention again to me and I’m pleased.

The other restaurant goers, from what I can see, from what I can sense, have gone back to themselves with only the expected surreptitious glances being thrown our way, while those at Jaxon’s table avert only their eyes, not their attention. I must speak carefully, but that will be easier now that he has opened the door.

Still, I hesitate. Because even though I’ve rehearsed the words I need to say so many times, in my mind, in front of a mirror, to the approval of my others, over the past several years, months, weeks, but most especially over the last several days, that they’ve become a ritual within me, have taken on the status of a rite, a fete accompli with only the actual saying of them left to be done, I can’t help but be wary. Wary at the least and terrified at the most with Jaxon as the unknown. His response calculated for, but only to an exactness of possibility not probability. And so, I am where I am, somewhere along a sliding scale between wary and terrified. So, I hesitate.

But finally, slowly reaching into my coat pocket finding, gathering up, hiding in my hand, my small treasure for him, I hold my closed fist out toward him and sigh. After only a second’s hesitation, with just a slight crinkling of confusion around his eyes, he reaches also, meeting me halfway. Stroking his only slightly uncurled fingers, opening them with my other hand, I lay my treasure in his palm and he clutches it, not looking. Jaxon knows to wait for me. How he knows I can’t say and for one moment I reflect, remembering times gone, on past possibilities both taken and missed. I reflect for, apparently, a little too long because....

“Are you alright? he asks, “Jamey? What?”

(Oh my god, he called me Jamey!!) “Only that one time,” I remind. “We only had that one time, 20 years ago now, when you clung to me in that bathroom stall and…and--”

“Had my way with you,” he sighs now. When such a tender smile plays out over his lips and around his eyes, I allow myself to breathe a little easier (but not much).

“Yeah, yeah. Had your most incredible way with me, yeah?!” I grin with him, with his others surrounding us, but not with mine who remain in the doorway, the distance apparently still the Grand Canyon for them, still a yawning abys too wide to cross. And not with the surrounding restaurant goers who remain returned to themselves. For a moment, we reminisce.

“I think of our brief time together often. I’m glad for it.” Ducking his eyes, finding mine, Jaxon adds, “Very glad. No matter what else has gone right or wrong in my long life, I have that happy moment with you to think about and I find I am very glad for it.”

“Just that one time though. Only that one time,” I whisper, suddenly sad

“Are you sure you’re alright?” he asks, running his fingers through my hair before lifting my face towards his, my eyes to his.

“Yeah, yeah. Sure, sure.” I nod that I am even if I know that I’m not. It hurts remembering our abbreviated past and it hurts knowing that I have to let go of the treasure I have given him. It has become a part of me, of who I am, over these past 10 years. Still, it must be done because, beyond this simply being the right thing to do, I promised Matthew I would.

I continue my well-rehearsed ritual by placing my fingertips carefully, caressing up along his closed fist, up along the inside of his arm to the inside of his elbow where I linger, feeling for, finding his pulse so near, so very near, just under his skin. “How could I…how could we have known when I first felt your pulse like this that so much of life lived would have to pass before I felt it again? Opportunities grabbed, held onto and opportunities...lost. I can’t help but wonder sometimes if the right decision was made, if the right path was taken. If that maybe--”

“Don’t. Don’t. Thinking like that will only drive you…us…will only drive us crazy with second guessing. Things played out they way they were supposed to, it would seem. You were good for Matthew, you were what he needed, a safe harbor in what had been, up until he met you, a pretty stormy life. Not that you wouldn’t have been good for me, but given one way or the other...” And he shrugs. “If that is what you’re implying?”

“I absolutely am.”

“Then, if it was either him or me, the right decision was made. Now, please allow me to see what you’ve given me, Jamey. I’m…curious.”

Drawing my fingertips away from his pulse, away from the rush of his blood, I almost dance them back down his arm toward his wrist where my fingers then flutter just above his still closed fist so that I’m able to touch each of my fingertips to each of his fingers, pulling them open. Not possibly knowing what his reaction will be to what I’m giving him, I drift my fingertips along his long elegantly opening fingers to the very tips, maintaining our contact for just as long as I can. Since I am still kneeling in front of him, resting on bended knees, tipped back on my heels, I lay my hands folded in front of me and I wait.

Only then does he look to find his treasure nestled secure in his palm and for just some moments, as he gazes, as he recognizes what it is, time slows, extends, becomes fuller somehow, the only sound a whispered, “No,” of disbelief from him. I make no move nor does anyone else, the room around his table suddenly sheened in a pastel veil of unreality. Except for a small clear place at the doorway where my others wait for me. Closing his treasure-laden hand, bringing it, pressing it to his chest, to his heart, he covers it with his other hand and bowing his head, he whispers, “Oh my God.” And nothing more. Time almost stands still then. I’m becoming concerned when suddenly his head lifts, his tear-filled eyes flick to mine and he asks, “How? How, Jameson? How?”

“Kind of a longish story, but not too long,” I say, glancing at his others who to a person, and each in their own way, tell me that they apparently have all the time in the world and are more than happy to share any or all of that with us. With their long-time companion, Jaxon, and with me. A chair is found and brought for me and placed next to his. A glass of white wine is poured and placed in front of me as my others, led by Caillen, are at last able to traverse the distance between there and here. They cluster nearer by, wall-leaning, wine glasses in hand, where I can now, gratefully, more easily see them.

A deep sigh and then, continuing the rite of it, the ritual inside me, I say, “Actually, it’s two relatively short chapters, nothing overblown or overwrought, but both necessary to the completion of my story.” For confirmation of what I think I know, for the knowledge it will bring his others, and to place Jaxon back to that pivotal time some 45 years ago, I ask, “When was this necklace first given to you?”

“Matthew gave me the chain and one of the pendants in 1965. He added the second pendant a year later.”

“And do the pendants have any meaning beyond--”

“Yes. Yes. They do. They…do.” Fingering them, stroking his thumb over them, turning each again and again from one side to the other, he takes a shallow stuttering breath, saying, “The first--”

“Which?” and he holds one, the smaller one, out to me.

“This one was meant to show that we were as if…as if promised to each other, as if engaged, I suppose, while this second one meant that in our hearts, our minds, we were joined for life, as if…married. Yes, as if married.”

“How old--”

“I was 23 and Matthew was 28 when he first gave me the necklace. Valentine’s Day 1965. The second pendant was also given on Valentine’s Day the following year. In ‘66”.

“And you had known each other how long?”

“We met when I was 20 so, in late ‘62, October as I recall so about two and a half years.”

“Then, seven years after giving you the necklace, you caught him cheating on you, betraying you with someone you had always believed to be a friend.”

“Yes,” a broken, a torn whisper. “Yes, I walked in on…on them. He…he and--”

“Don’t. Don’t, Jaxon, okay? I just wanted to make sure we understand things in the same way. You don’t need to--”

“I couldn’t stay, I had to leave him. Had to leave New York, to get away. I had never trusted any man before him and…and--”

“And you have never trusted any man since, have you? Tell me true.”

“No. No one.”

“Have never loved anyone since him. In over forty years?”

“No. No one.” I believe him and I can see from the down-turned eyes of his friends that they do too.

“And you thought this symbol of his love for you was, by your own actions, lost many years ago? Lost in 1972.”

“Yes! Yes! And why wasn’t it? How do you have it, Jameson? How?”

“Your first question, why wasn’t it lost, is the first chapter of my story, your second, how I came to have it, is the second. Shall I begin?” Receiving affirmation from all around, I do, but not before taking his hand in mine, opening his still clutching fingers once more and taking back from him the silver chain with its two dangling charms. I circle my arms around his neck fastening the necklace back where it should always have been. “Why wasn’t it lost? I have only Matthew’s recollections, told to me one fine late summer afternoon 10 years ago when he gave the necklace to me, in answer to that question.” Closing my eyes for just a second, my head titled back, I take a deep breath. And then, after a decent gulp of my wine, I glance over Jaxon's shoulder, seeing Jayden smile, lifting his glass to me in salute. I love my others. I love my them. I love my them. I love them.

“First things first, though, yeah? A little, just a little exposition. During your time together, your nearly ten years together, you and Matthew shared four lower Manhattan buildings, each next one just a little more derelict and abandoned then the one that had come before and despite both of your rising fortunes in the New York art world. Each building housed wide-open, high-ceilinged, window-framed studios that were exceedingly well suited to two young artists who wanted to share in private communal living stacked, as the studios were, one floor above the other. And who also both held to the belief that painters painting in the 2nd half of the 20th Century should paint freakin’ BIG. Am I right?”

“Profoundly.”

“And so, after your time together had ended, when any one of those four tenament buildings was about to be torn down or renovated or whatever, before work began, Matthew would take a day and he would visit the spaces you had shared, first his own studio, then yours.

“He went back? Jaxon looked confused. “To each one?”

“He did. He would arrive early in the morning, ignoring any ‘Do Not Enter’ or “Condemned: Violators Will Be Prosecuted’ signs or yellow crime-scene tape or sitting-idle bulldozers or whatever and he would sneak up to his old studio where he would remain just a little while before venturing one floor down to yours where he would remain until dark. And the ritual was always the same. First, he would sit for some time in whatever corner had held your bed, remembering you both there. Hummmmm. Oh sorry, I got lost in thought there for just a second. Forgive me”. And when Jaxon chuckles, I know it's all to the good.

“Anyway, then he would perform the reverential act of what he called ‘retrieving the memories of the walls’ whereby he would begin in one corner and reaching as high as he could, as low as he could, he would touch his way to the opposite corner, dragging his fingers along window sills, along floor boards, along where ever there was to touch. Remembering. Then he would sit and consolidate what he’d retrieved before doing it all over again with the next wall and the next and finally the last. Braving spider's webs and splinters and rats and whatever. At the time of his telling me, I remembering thrilling at his bravery”. At Jayden's snort, I laugh, tempering slightly the seriousness of the moment. “Anyway, Matthew carried on until all four walls were done, which usually took until nightfall when, having gathered up all the memories, he would leave. And he was gathering memories, memories of you, of you and him and your life together. To cherish.” Jaxon’s head is again bowed; he holds tight to my hand, his trembling slightly.

“Building to next building until time came for Pearl Street, the last building you had shared. Following his routine… corner…wall,…next corner…next wall, it wasn’t until the third wall that he noticed something alien, something shiny, something caught just so in the slant of a sunbeam through the broken window pane and he reached for it, finding, as we all now know, your necklace just where you had left it a few years before. Nailed by its clasp within the broken window sill. You had left it there in protest, as testament to the harm Matthew had done to you, believing you would never see it again. Rght?”

“Not entirely because I went back for it, just days before they tore down Pearl Street, but it was gone. I was devastated. I just assumed that someone who had lived there after me or some kids playing around had found it,” Jaxon says. “I just assumed that--”

“It couldn’t have been him, right?”

“Didn't occur to me.” he shakes his head.

“Especially since he didn’t even know you’d left it. But apparently it had been dragged out of the safety of its broken window sill by some passing rat, as you can see by the teethy scratch marks left behind. Dragged out just enough so that unintentionally Matthew would find it. And once freed, when he really understood what it was, Matthew fell to his knees, he rolled into himself, and he cried.

“Beyond everything else, despite what had happened between you, all the accusations, the taking-sides,, the recriminations, all made very very public, the separation, the pain and guilt that for a time caused both of you to flee New York, him back to rural Texas, you back to even more rural Georgia, he never ever considered that you’d left his necklace…your necklace behind. It was nightfall before he stood up, put the necklace around his own neck, and vowed that one day he would give it back to you.” He looks up at me then, my Jaxon does, his hazel eyes still tear-filled and taking his hands from mine, he hides his face, his eyes, with them.

“Jaxon,” I say, scooting my chair closer, “how could you have been expected to keep with you always something that would only be a continual reminder of his promises made lies, of his betrayal? He fucked you over, my dear man; no one would disagree with my analysis. Including him. He shouldn’t have been so surprised.”

Now I fingertip touch his chin, lifting his face to mine. Dropping his hands, Jaxon focuses on me. “So, Chapter One is that through Matthew’s persistence in needing to remember everything he could about the two of you, he found your necklace and thankfully, this leads well enough into the second chapter of my story. If I may continue, I’m already feeling a little…taxed. Yeah?” And he smiles. So slight a smile, but a smile nonetheless, of empathy. Of acceptance. Of approval.

I watch as, behind Jaxon, Jayden almost laconically raises his hand slightly above his shoulder, twirling his index finger gracefully so that, within what seems like only seconds, our glasses, all our glasses of wine or whatever, are refilled. I take a bracing sip. I take a deep breath, calming myself, centering myself, and straightening up a little, I continue. “Chapter Two: On one very fine late summer afternoon 10 years ago, after telling me how he’d found it, Matthew gave the necklace to me. He put it on me and it has never left me until 15 minutes ago when, just outside that doorway, Courtlan took it from around my neck and put it into my pocket. I had noticed Matthew always wearing it, never saw him without it, but had never asked him about it, maybe somehow knowing I shouldn’t. That it in some way had something do to with you. And, ya'know, unless he started the conversation, he didn’t like it if I mentioned you so, in the main, for the sake of the peace and the tranquility of our little communal hearth, I didn’t.

“That is until one not so fine late summer evening 11 years ago when momentarily forgetting my need for peace and tranquility, I did. I did want to talk about you so...I did. After some time of our going on about this and that, our words all looping around and scattering each others, I ended up telling…well, yelling-telling him really, that I thought the way he’d treated you was for shit. He, not unreasonably, told me to mine my own fucking business, but I didn’t. I carried on maybe fixing for a fight and, after some additional amount of yell...yell...yell, he told me to leave. His exact words, if you’re interested, were, ‘You may go. Now’. Which I did since, after all, our communal hearth was in his little Manhattan pied a terre, not mine. Shall I tell you about my tantrum?”

“Nothing would delight me more,” Jaxon says, trying to smile and seriously, I doubt there is anything he could have said or done in that moment that could have endeared him to me more.

“Weeeell, if I’d been a cartoon, New Yorker-esque in black & white, of course, a little dark cloud threatening rain, but only flashing lightening, would have been hovering some small distance above my head as I stormed out of the living room to my bedroom. And yes, I did have a bedroom. Of my very own. Someplace where I could retreat when his mood became...unpleasant. I headed straight for the adjoining bathroom whereupon opening the window, which I had never done before, I slammed it shut just as hard as I could. Without breaking anything naturally. I opened and slammed every drawer, every door, even the medicine cabinet’s, just every everything I could open and then slam shut in that small innocent room before I then made my way back to the bedroom where I continued my little tirade. Open window…slam window. Open other window...slam other window and so on.

“Finally having exhausted myself and fearing for the well-being of the room, I grabbed my duffel, packed my 2 changes of t-shirt and my 1 change of jeans and I flounced (there really is no other word for it) down the hallway, right by the open doorway to the living room where I knew he would still be and so, could see me passing by. Finally arriving at the front door, I flung it open and I waited. I waited for him to call me back, but when he didn’t…and he didn’t…and he didn’t, I whipped it closed behind me. I slammed it shut just as hard as I could. Without breaking anything naturally since we had prints of yours and a painting of his hanging on the front door’s hallway wall and I sure as shit did not want to knock any of that stuff down. What a further disaster that would have been. I’m sure you would agree.”

“Completely,” Jaxon says, nodding his head, his eyes hooded as if clearly envisioning the scene I've painted.

“The tantrum itself may seem reasonable to you. I know it certainly did to me, but why its severity you may wonder? Well, because see, I knew what he meant by ‘you may go NOW’. I knew that he wouldn’t be calling me to meet for our next, regularly-scheduled every-six-weeks interlude. That he wouldn’t be seeing me anymore. That just maybe our little companionable companionship was at its end. So, after bolting out of his building, I went home to New York-home, conveniently located a short taxi ride away, and next morning, while I sulked, my others tidied up our east 80s townhouse and we flew to home-home, to San Francisco-home where we remained just a little less than a year. Well, they came and went, doing business this and that while I mainly sulked and surfed...surfed and sulked. You know how it is?”

“Not really, no.” Jaxon shook his head.

“Yeah well and actually, I waited only until a time when having given up all hope of Matthew ever calling again, he did. It’s so weird how often that seems to happen, yeah? Very…very weird, but anywhoo, back to New York we flew so I could meet up with him for our regular three-day-every-six-weeks interlude at the end of which time, one fine late summer afternoon 10 years ago now, he gave me the necklace. Telling me than that there were three reasons why he was doing so and that I was to guess what those three reasons were. He liked fucking with me that way, all messing with my mind, always making me guess shit and figure stuff out. Annoying, but still, I did. Guess at his three reasons why, that is.” I pause, taking a breath, finishing my wine, finding solace in the sweet faces of my others, before continuing. “I should just plow on through?” Various heads nod around the table, Jaxon nods, my others nod (it’s unanimous!!) “It’s just that you’re all so quiet.”

“Listening, understanding, Jamey,” says a pretty woman whose name I don’t know but probably should. “I think some unclear things are becoming clearer for many of us, Jaxon has never been very uhmm…forthcoming about the past. We just don’t want to interrupt. Okay?”

“Well, sure. I just don’t want to bore anyone.”

“Not much chance of that,” says the pretty woman’s companion, grinning.

Returning his grin before turning back to Jaxon, I say, “Reason One of the three whys had to do with me directly, was because during the year we were apart, he’d had no visual to attach to me, to tie me to him, nothing that was a part of me that he could think of and ‘find’ me as it were. Reasons why #1 was because he wanted something attached to me that had belonged to him so that when we were apart, he could think of it and feel me safe knowing it was with me. And that the necklace was also a part of you only just added to the rightness of this being the next phase of its life. A little irrational perhaps, but terribly sweet, yeah? Yeah, I think so too.

“Reason Two of the three whys had to do with you, Jaxon. He’d been with Keith for several years by then, had partnered longer with him than with anyone, other than you, and Matthew knew it was time, not to give up his love for you, that he could never have done, never did do…before you interrupt let me finish…but instead to let go of the idea of a possible future life with you. The rest of his life would be spent with Keith and so, by giving me your necklace, he was letting go of the idea of ever giving it back to you himself. Reasons why #2 was about being fair to Keith by letting go of you. Understand though, please, that he never stopped loving--”

“Jamey, he had to have way back in ‘72. His lies. His betrayal. He probably never really--”

“Don’t, dear Jaxon. He just seriously SERIOUSLY fucked up way back in ’72, fighting against, in his own astonishingly dysfunctional way, how much you had come to mean to him. With Keith, he found a way to both hold on to his love for you and still love him. He did. He did. Yeah, no seriously, okay? People believe that such a thing can’t be done, but my life attests to the fallacy of such a belief. I love my others, desperately, and I loved him. See?” Still, I can tell by the nod of his head that he isn’t entirely convinced.

“Listen, you know what Keith told me? Keith told me that he truly believes that you were Matthew’s great love…no, no don’t try and deny it because I completely agree with him. Matthew floundered after you left, did some seriously stupid shit once he'd come back to New York. And sure, some of his best paintings, but still, he drank way too much, drugged way too mindlessly, partied way too hard and, as I understand it, drove that fucking Phantom Roadster of his like a maniac, in a desperate attempt to numb himself to the loss of what he had so carelessly thrown away. You. And, as you know, it took him a long long long time to find his way back again. He loved Keith, he cared a great deal about me, but his passion was always you. He just could never tell you out of…oh, I don’t know…fear maybe…guilt. That you wouldn’t speak to him from 1972 to 1985 maybe? I just don’t know.”

“He loved you--”

“No, never. You know how I know? Because, silly me, I let it slip a couple of times that I loved him and neither time did he answer me back in kind. He wrapped his arms around me, he held me tight, but he never said the words. Never. I have no sound of them in my mind, understand? It was enough for him to love both you and Keith. That was as far as his strict, 1940s, east Texas upbringing, no matter how hard he fought against that, could take him. There wasn’t any way for him to love me as well. But he did care very much for me and that was enough, yeah? That was plenty.

“Also,” I say, scanning Jaxon’s others, “full disclosure. I’d been seeing Matthew about two years when he met Keith and it was after about another year that he told Keith about me. Not unreasonably, Keith’s initial reaction was to tell Matthew to let me go. Matthew declined, saying he was sorry, but that while he had hoped that their future lives would take the same path, he wasn’t willing to let me go. Again, not unreasonably, Keith walked. For about a month before he came back saying that he’d thought it through hard and long and was okay with it. Not thrilled but okay. Just needed to clear that up.”

“Why,” the sweet-faced man questioned, “would Keith compromise his--”

“He told me that it was because the more he thought about it the more he realized that I was good for Matthew. That in some aspects of his life, Matthew needed to feel himself as a rebel, as a rule-breaker, as something of an outsider. Not conventional. The way he had always been in his art, a rule-breaker, on the edge. A Big Deal. And by having me he could, at least to some extent, still feel himself to be all those things. And I was safe. Very very safe because of my terribly sweet, terribly understanding, terribly compassionate others you see standing before you. Keith told me that he doesn’t believe that he and Matthew would have made it longer than six years, which up until then had been Matthew’s outside duration with any guy except you, Jaxon, if not for me Let alone the couple of decades they did make it because I kept him from wandering. I don’t say I believe him, I’m just telling you what Keith told me and what did in fact come to pass in real life. So, maybe not so much of a compromise, yeah?” Rhetorical, man. And I see the sweet-faced man duck his head and smile.

“And so, now for my run at the Finish Line with Reason Three of the three whys, which is all about now, which is all about just exactly what is happening now. But back then, on that fine late summer afternoon, the understanding of this reason came very slowly to me. When I finally did realize what this reason was, I didn’t want to say the words to him, but he made me, understanding that doing so would make it alright. So, I told him that Reasons why #3 was about me giving back the necklace to you after he had died. But even as I said it then, I also realized, told him, that that was only a part of it, that it was also about bringing me to you, in friendship, in companionship, maybe even a little bit in love.” Jaxon turned to my others then who, as one beautiful chorus, grinned at to him. They know, they understand. It’s who I am. Who we are.

“From that day to this, for 10 years, I have imagined it --once Matthew dies I give Jaxon the necklace, and I have lived it, every single day of it --once Matthew dies I give Jaxon the necklace. Reliving it again and again --once Matthew dies I give Jaxon the necklace, so many times it had become like a thing already done. So, while this action I take hurts me deeply, costs me dearly, it hurts less, costs less than you might imagine. Especially if you will accept my offer of friendship, of companionship. Still, it is an action I have already taken a thousand times with you, with your response, the only unknown. I know it’s late, that I’ve intruded quite long enough, that we should go.” But I don’t go. I go quiet instead. It is a thing done. An action at last really taken. What now remains? His acceptance? His rejection? Jaxon is also quiet so, after some time, I assume more talking is necessary.

“When I said he didn’t like talking about you that wasn’t quite true. He loved to reminisce, which means he talked whilst I sat, accolade-like, at his feet listening as he passed on to me all those memories he had collected while ‘retrieving the memories of the walls’. I have them in my mind, all filed away like CDs in a jukebox. And in chronological order. Just ask me anything. No, no don’t, I’m tired, as I'm sure you are too, and am nearly all talked out. Bottom-line, he wanted me to care for you as he had so, he told all he could to endear you to me and now he’s sent me to you. Accept me as your friend; as possibly your sometimes companion. We’re all good with it, aren’t we?” And my others, Caillen, Jayden, Toby, and Courtlan, raising their wine glasses, chime their combined Here!! Here!!.

“Maybe we could start slowly,” Jaxon says. Maybe have dinner tomorrow. You could tell me about your little Manhattan place--”

“Keith sold it to us, did you know, for some ridiculously low price since, for propriety’s sake, Matthew couldn’t will it to me. Imagine having that read out in their lawyer’s office in front of all the relatives. Whoa! And, as you may recall, for propriety’s sake, I didn’t even attend his funeral at Saint Patrick's.”

“I looked for you but when I didn’t find you, I remember wondering.”

“We talked about it, Keith and I. He kind of wanted me there, but yeah, that would have just caused a scene or been a distraction ---Scandolous!!-- or something else negative so, I said no. But still can you imagine how sweet about basically giving me our little place? Supreme generosity.”

“I would like very much to see it sometime when, maybe, you could tell me about some of the memories Matthew gave to you. Maybe we could start there. I’m an old man, Jamey--”

“Not so old.”

“An old man set in my ways for a long time. I have lived my life if not as a recluse than as something quite close to it. I’ve never really let anyone in but Matthew. I tried. I failed. I can easily enough accept your offer of friendship, but to also accept you as a kind of companion will be much more difficult, something I haven’t even thought about doing in far too many years.”

“Then maybe it’s high time you do. But still, slow we will go, just as slow as you need. We have all the time in the world or, if not forever, then for a couple of decades at least. Tomorrow night it is. I’ll pick you up around 8pm. Don’t worry, I know where you live. I’m so in the mood for Italian. Sound good? I know, let’s toast to our new adventure, my dear Jaxon. Our future begins.” And this time, when Jaxon smiles to me, full on and stunningly gorgeous, I am quite predictably, yet still breathtakingly, not only caught in the light of his eyes, but I can see through them the way to a bright and very companionable future. “Salute!”

One Long & Delicate Golden Brown Curl

One Long & Delicate Golden-Brown Curl

Since it is a Thursday evening, our chosen venue, a smallish vaguely upscale midtown bar, isn’t very crowded so we are easily able to find a secluded corner we can call our own. Furnished with plump sofas and oversized chairs, situated away from the main seating area, for the next couple of hours anyway, Ryan and I will gratefully be gathered together with family and friends. Because, and as we had hoped, nearly everyone from our commitment ceremony is here in Manhattan, joining us for our six-month anniversary celebration. And just as my parent’s Virginia beachfront home had proven the perfect location for our first gathering, The Rooftop Lounge’s open-to-the-night sky terrace, abundant with tropical plants and strategically placed heat lamps, should prove just as perfect for this our next. Ryan and I have survived an entire six months of committed bliss and, while I had no doubt we would, it is an accomplishment that is nonetheless worthy of second gathering. A tradition in the making? Hopefully. Once every half-year? Probably not. Time will tell.

As everyone settles, my mother, who is always too cold, with my father near one of the heat lamps, Jonathan and Marcus leaning on the terraces ledge-wall looking out over the city, each finding their perfect place-to-be, I order the first round and, with music soft in the background, the conversation flows as effortlessly, as naturally, as it had a mere hour ago during our most excellent seafood dinner at Le Bernardin. Thankfully, our families get along stunningly well with both factions blending seamlessly with our friends. His maybe a little more so than mine but everyone, on all sides, tries. As twilight becomes night, as conversations drift, flowing one into another, for me anyway, and in glancing at all the contented faces bathed in candlelight surrounding me so it would seem for everyone else, the concept of time becomes fluid.  Nursing my second Tom Collins, I scrunch even further down into the over-soft sofa, Ryan listing into my side, and I am content in knowing that we are going to be here for awhile.

Consequently, I really should be at my ease and on most levels I am. Well, on all except one level because something , or someone more likely, is itching near the edges of my otherwise at-ease mind. Has been for a while and with that implausible, irritating little itch only growing almost imperceptibly stronger, shifting finally from my unconscious to my conscious mind. And even as I attempt, with nominal success, to deny my own senses because what I’m feeling must be wrong. Has to be wrong. But the feeling only grows stronger ever stronger until, eventually, I have to admit what that implausibility, what that irritation, what that little itch is. Its her. It is her. And shes coming to me. And I’m certain of it well before I see her. Somehow that sudden knowing must show in me because Ryan notices. Leaning his head on my shoulder, his silken dark-blond hair tickling my ear, his whisper barely audible, asking, What’s wrong?”

I sigh, closing my eyes, playing a bit for time, considering before saying, 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. And to some small degree that works. At least for a minute, anyway, and Ill take what I can get.

Is it…them?” he tries again. “Are they--?” But he stops. And when I open my eyes to see why, pretty much already knowing why, I find that he has seen her, found Caillen, and as if on cue, when everyone else finds her, they go quiet too. Knowing how unusual this is, Caillen coming to me, but beyond that, also knowing just how much she means to me still, they, our friends, our families, they all go quiet too. They look to me for understanding, but I have none to give them. For my own part, I‘m just trying to deal with the fact that Caillen is apparently alone and so unsure, carefully scanning 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 tension, her hesitation, her fear. Caillen is frightened of me, doesn’t want to be coming to me, and Im having 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 feeling in her hurts us both and I wish it didn’t. Ryan moves a little away from me as if in deference to her feelings. My lovely man.

But once to us and with all eyes on her, Caillens nervousness becomes much more obvious to everyone causing most to fidget in sympathy, I guess. But not Ryan. He stays calm. For me, Ryan becomes my rock. And anyway, she quickly remembers herself, and bowing to me more formally then I would’ve ever wanted, could ever have imagined, almost as if to a stranger, I know she only does what she believes is the right way, the Gwynedd-Alden way. Caillen’s attitude is only 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 no longer holds that in any regard. And even though I know that after leaving her, my love for her is undiminished, she doesn’t. She tries only to protect herself and her formality is her time-honored way of doing that.

Stefan,” she says and continuing, Mr and Mrs Romano,” she extends a warm smile to my parents and to Jonathan and Marcus who really belong more to her than to me. I wonder at their both leaving their ledge-wall and moving nearer her but only briefly. There are other things more pressing for me to wonder about right now. To Ryans parents she bows low with only a passing glance to our others, Ryans and mine. And except at Ryan who once again captures her intense but brief attention, him obviously as fascinating to her as ever and even after all this time. Staring openly, tellingly, at him, she then quickly ducks her eyes down, her hands folded in front of her. And she waits, the ball now in my court.

Standing in greeting, as she lifts those clear pale green eyes to mine, in that moment, I am as I always am, lost to her. But, just as quickly as she had, I remember myself and 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 unexpected privilege?” And I smile. But somewhere between what I mean and what she hears my words change, shape-shift, no longer are what I‘d intended them to be and I regret them. I’ve been gone a while and I’ve forgotten how they are with their fragile expectations, how she is with hers. How they over-think absolutely everything and I’ve forgotten how easily they are hurt. She looks unsure, dismay playing across her face, as if she imagines 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, “Its 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, she continues,Tari sent me to give you information he feels you should have.” When done with this introduction to why shes come to me, turning her eyes away from me, she finds her calm in Jonathan and Marcus now next to her and in the beyond of the nighttime sky above our terrace.

And I wait, knowing she’ll take a minute regrouping. And I sigh, knowing that she’s right, that my first words to her in months were snarky and shouldn’t have been, but theres 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 do what she is supposed to do next. Except…

This, Caillen, is a private celebration,” Margaret, my older sister, snaps. She is, unfortunately, unable to deal with even the slightest lull in any conversation. “A private celebration for Ryan, Stefan and their invited guests and since you are not an invited guest, Caillen, you should just leave.I watch as Jonathan and Marcus instantly bristly at my sisters meanness but both ease just as quickly with a simple motion of Caillens hand. And I not only have to stop Ryan from confronting Margarets bullshit, I also have to keep myself from saying anything to shut my dear sweet sister up. Because to do otherwise would be to imply that Caillen can’t handle Margaret 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--?”

Is there something you know that we don’t, Margaret?” Caillen questions, but only after an apologetic glance to our parents, Margaret’s husband, to Ryan,to me. “What information are you privy to that we arent? Because--

Nothing,” Margaret says. “Why? What are you--?”

--truth be told, Caillen continues as if Margaret hadn’t spoken, you not only won most all of the battles, Margaret, you won the war, yes? The freakinfreakin’ war. You. You. Won. Stefan is gone from us, yes? As you wanted, as you desired, as you schemed for, yes? And he is now all safely and properly, oh so properly, ensconced in the lifestyle, the very proper lifestyle, you had so long envisioned for him. And yet, you continue to not exhibit any of the expected behaviors, like empathy or fairness or graciousness, normally associated with a civilized victor. Either you are not civilized. Or you do not believe yourself to be a victor. Which? Since you obviously come from civility, that only leaves the later, that there still must be something else that keeps you in attack-dog mode whenever we come near.

Because despite the truth before you, Ryan and Stefans seeming dedication to each other, you still carry on, still appear threatened as you always have since the very first moment we came into Stefans life. Then you were a wasp buzzing your poisons into his ear and stinging your toxins into the very air we all had to breath. And, astonishingly, you still are. Buzz! Buzz! Buzzing your poison into the air! So this is my declaration, Margaret!.Hear me! We are defeated, yes? We are dead. You have won! You. Have. Won. So, why do you still persist in fighting the battles of a now long-over war? Unless…theres something else.

There’s nothing,” Margaret tries, glaring at our silence. “There’s nothing, I assure you.

So much wasted energy that could otherwise be put to much better use, yes?

I don’t know what you mean, Caillen. There’s nothing!

Yes. There is,she says so quietly. And she cocks her head. And even though there are tears in her eyes, she smiles a predatory kind of smile moving in so close to Margaret. Face to face. “And I will find out what.” She abruptly turns from my sister then, walking away, moving in almost circles trying to work off her frustration. Jonathan and Marcus nearly twitch at the edge of her territory wanting to comfort her. But they dont. And fortunately, since my sister and Caillen have had to deal with each other in the past, Margaret finally knows to just shut up and leave well enough alone. Margaret is who she is, which, unfortunately, will never change, but Ryan’s scowl and my eyes shooting daggers at her probably help her to make the right choice. She keeps her silence.

I give Caillen a minute to work off her frustration realizing that I’m proud of the way she’s standing up for herself even though it goes against her very nature to be confrontational with someone especially in front of that persons family. 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 spread straight through me. And I must have shivered because, sitting just behind where I still stood, Ryan had put a hand on the small of my back in a show of support and I’d had to lean into his touch. My now lover taking care of me because of the pain caused to me by my once lover. Ironic? Ying-yang? The wacky humor of the Universe? Couldnt say.

But, since I can feel that Caillen is only working herself up more instead of calming herself down, I take back the moment, 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 mine and Ryan’s family and friends. And I wonder, if only briefly, where all the celebration has gone?

Finally she stops, nearer to Jonathan and Marcus than to us. 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 is, I have no wish to know what that reason is,she says, flinging 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, shifting her weight left to right, toward Jonathan and Marcus then away,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…”

Otherwise? He didn’t discuss otherwise, 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 wouldnt 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 for us to talk?”

Honestly, no. Ryan and I are leaving from here for upstate, Ethan and Cheryl have given us their cabin for the night so we won’t be–

Enough.” She lowers her eyes. She tenses then tries relaxing into a sigh. She begins her swaying again, from side to side, unaware shes keeping time to the distant music. My poor little neurotic. And 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 really is the only reason she has come to me, I see it as the hurt behind my words registers in hers eyes. She scowls. Shakes her head. Begins.

I’m going to start by saying a three word statement 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 and, consequently, 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.Still, 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, needing to find the right words because my question isn’t a part of the story shes come to tell. “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?”

How?” And as she tries to bring the words to me, her so familiar movements, how she uses her hands as if drawing in the air, nearly make me smile. Nearly. 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 only hope. Now, are you ready?” I nod. ’You must also keep in your mind our deal, Stefan, yes? Or I won’t go on. I know your ways still, know that you easily get lost in yourself so, remember our deal.” I nod again.

She drifts away from me for a moment taking in what lies just beyond the rooftop’s edge, lost in her own thoughts because, I realize, she truly 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 is muted as if everything has become so very distant, all taken away in a breath, in three words, and my only thought is 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, must be real. Oh my god 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.

What? What? 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 Stef. Stefan!

But even just hearing of the possibility that Allie could die leaves me unable to breathe - Stefan. Whispered. Whispered. Whispered. 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.

But.”

Ahhh, you are back and after only a minute or two gone from us. Now that wasnt so hard, was it? Sit please and look at me, listen to me. Alright? Stefan?”

Yes.”  I know I whimper, I don’t care. Ryan sits close, but doesn’t touch me. It must have been him I pulled away from. I must remember to apologize.

His initial prognosis wasn’t so good, in percentages 35-65 but the nasty beastie within Allie didn’t mark any new territories, understand, Stefan? None beyond its original, its own, yes? The nasty little beastie within Allie didn’t spread, had no litter mates to mark any other territories for it, do you understand me? It has not metastasized.

I nod. I look at her knees. I cant seem to lift my head any higher.

Good, Im glad you understand. 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--”

But you only come to me now because of tomorrow?”I am now able to lift my head, to look into her eyes.

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 down 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 Jason and Charlie. And they all know to keep their silence, to say nothing to anyone. Especially you. Ah, that doesn’t please you. Well, whatever.

Still, any one of them might have been chosen to tell you and yet 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 weve entirely deserted you, that you’re unaware of what goes on with--”

Even if I am?” I snarl. Since really, they are only telling me now because circumstance demands it, dictates it, requires it. What if they didn’t have to? Have other near-tragedies like this come and gone that I don‘t know of? I feel lost, drained, and oh so 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, yes? 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 now she waits. Quietly.

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? From the past. Into the future. What else? “Ryan,” she says, pointing, “that door leads to a bathroom. Stef may be sick. You will care for 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 Caillen stands, still quiet in front of us. She asks, “You are coping so, I will finish?”

He’ll--”

--be fine. He’ll mend. He will survive and we will all be a little more circumspect for having gone through this with him. And now to the ritual. Always with us there’s a ritual, this The Ritual of the Curls. So three weekends ago Tari called for a clann le cheile'--”

Like a family gathering,” I toss words into the open space between me and her..

Sorry.” And now she’s back in movement, swaying side to side, her silken shirt keeping time to the music with her.

Is okay. Please.This ritual?

So, with everyone in San Francisco and since we knew Allie would lose all his luscious curls anyway, instead of watching that happen, agonizing over each bit by inevitable bit drifting from him, we took over the process for him, claiming it for our own. As he sat, comfy in his favorite chair by the window with the bay view, you know the one I mean, each of us held onto one curl and Tari cut each of those long and delicate golden-brown curls half way from tip to skull, marking and saving each as he went along. We didn’t then know what his methodology meant and we, naturally, didn’t ask.

Naturally,” I agree.

Then, last week, Alexander, with us three--

Being?”

Jamey and Jayden and me, we came back here for the next session of Allie’s treatment and so, we continued our own mini-process of The Ritual of the Curls by repeating Taris procedure but without marking or saving anything. Along with Jonathan and Marcus, with Jason and Charlie,we each held onto and cut near his skull the rest of each of Allies curls. Again and again. When we were done, Allie decided 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…did,” she agrees and I wince. Supremely grip-able.” She adds, smiling such a mischievous smile that I hurt remembering the feel of her hands in my own not so supremely grip-able hair. But, probably realizing Ive vaguely drifted away, she interrupts my little fantasy, saying, “Finally, three days ago we, well…we shaved his head and none too soon. From the beginning, Allie had made us hold back one of his still-attached and long curls. A just-in-case curl he called it. Just in case of what, of who, we weren’t exactly sure, but he asked so, we did. Simple as that. And now we know that the just-in-case curl is for you. He’s here, Stefan, with Jamey and Jayden. While I am brave, I didn’t really come here to you on my own. They’ve all hid themselves round the corner and now, 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 told you the story and I, well…I more or less lost the straw-draw. Although I still and honestly 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 as lost in too much verbiage as some of us are want to--”

Hey,” Jameson yelps, “I heard that.He interrupts her just as I see them walking almost as hesitantly toward me as Caillen had earlier. He looks as he always does which is nothing short of beautiful. As does Jayden. As I wish Allie did. Still, beautiful, he however, looks nothing as he always 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 begin to be 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 semi-low, semi-formal as if we are all now semi-strangers.

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. 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 Ritual of the Curls. Doing so is, naturally, entirely 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 never cut, its a curl left for me. Taking the knife, I flick it open as Jameson warns, “Don’t pull too tight, it may come right out of its own volition and our sweet ritual will, sadly, come all undone.” So, I hold gently. No pulling at all.

If you want the full effect, Stef, you must do two cuts,” Alexander reminds and so I do. The first cut, the half-way from tip-to-skull cut isn’t new to me, I remember him with his hair this short from our time together, 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, a place I have never been before. ”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 pulls from around his neck, hidden inside his shirt, a little lace metal box on a chain within which can be seen another perfect curl. “This is mine. Tari had them made, one for each of us, to contain our first San Francisco cuts,” He holds out his hand and I lay across his palm my first cut. “Isa will bring you your very own curl-containing lacy box when next he comes to stay with you and Ryan, kay?” And his quick shy smile rips at my heart. “Sorry, Stefan, but I am pretty tired and I really must go home and have a lay-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 else’ between you as I implied to Margaret. Isa speaks to us of nothing but your life as bliss. Bliss! Bliss! Eternal 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 wrong to find within your world. Just know that all I really wanted to do was fuck with her, yes?” And she waggles her eyebrows at us, smiling. Glancing toward Margaret, Caillen crinkles her nose at her 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. Looking to Ryan, I ask, “So…where were we?”

Are you --?”

I’m okay for now so…”

Then 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 Ryan, as usual,is absolutely right. Tonight we dance, knowing that tomorrow, as tomorrows always do, will come soon enough.

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