Because even when we are actually in the same place, the place is never suitable for the probable consequences of personal questions asked and finally answered or for the painful resolution of nagging suspicions confessed to and most probably confirmed. We only seem to ever come together for the benefit of some facet of the progressive socio-political circuit we all navigate. Banquet halls and formal wear…cocktail hour and four-course meals…silent auctions and time-consuming fundraisers for causes and candidates that we all deeply believe in. And while she and her others sit on one side of the room; I and mine sit on the other. Almost as if by design, which I wouldn’t put past them.
And, not unreasonably, they’ve not only blocked me on their email, their Skype, their IM, they’ve even returned all my little hand-written missives unopened, leaving only Isa, by their design, to answer his cell when my name appears and so, my only obvious option is direct, actual and in-person communication, which, at least when initiated by me, can be so thoroughly hard to come by. Moving away, they are always moving away from me. Otherwise, when initiated by them, like once, maybe twice, over these past many months, and only then when they had no choice, I don’t move away, I never move away and I feel no shame in admitting that I never will.
So, since this, right here, right now, is the only time Caillen has stayed still, I quickly move my friends toward the feeling of her hoping she won’t suddenly bolt. Just stay, Caillie, ok? Just stay. The relief I feel when I finally do find her, seated and reading, always reading to protect herself from the way-too-much simulation of the busy world surrounding her, is intense. She doesn’t acknowledging me, although she is completely aware of me. She doesn’t even raise her head, that is, until I greet her, saying, “Caillen.”
“Stefan,” she says, slowly looking up, nodding to me before coolly making eye contact with Ryan and our friends, Aaron and Thomas, but when she sees that Jonathan and Marcus are also with us, she jumps up to greet them, giving each a sweet soft kiss, conveying both her surprise and delight at finding them with us. Afterall, they are actually more of her world, than of ours, even if they do live only a couple of blocks away from Ryan and me in Brooklyn. I notice the confusion that briefly passes over Ryan, but he quickly remembers how they both belong to Tari as much as she does, as much as I once did. He always forgets somehow and I don‘t know why, but that bothers me.
Moving in front of me, just vaguely to her side of my personal space, she says, “Jayden and Courtlan, they are with me, getting us coffee. Shall I call them, have them bring some for you, for you and your others? Should I assume that you have a reason for coming to us?”
“Thank you,” I say, nodding, grateful to her for her inclusion of us.
She calls, passing on our information and shortly, Jayden and Courtlan return and fortunately we’re able to find a table in the food court large enough to accommodate all of us comfortably. We settle in and knowing them well, I skip any pleasantries instead going straight to the point. “I’ve had a couple of questions for awhile that I’d like--”
“How many?” Jayden asks, abruptly. Always their protector. Always her intermediary.
“Three, Jayd.” And I well understand that I’m asking his permission.
“One at a time,” he allows and I agree, looking directly at Caillen.
But before I can speak, frowning slightly, she says, “One would be, now let me guess…one question would be your wanting to know exactly what it was that our dear old mutual friend, John Upton, said to me during the otherwise lovely evening of Jonathan and Marcus’ holiday party last year.” Offering me a dark smile, she continues, “It was during that most difficult of transition time when you were ever so busy trying to making up your mind whether or not to leave us, yeah?”
Admittedly, she knows me well and, while hers isn’t necessarily my take on what was happening during that time, I nod, adding, “Doesn’t have to be exac--”
“But you do know that I remember his words exactly, don’t you, Stef? Not difficult to do, easy words to remember and even if the party was so many months now long gone. Eight months, eight years, eighty years, wouldn’t make any difference. As you well know.”
“I do, I do know, Caillie. Just tell me what he said to you. I asked him after all of you had left that night, but he refused to tell me, said it was nothing, but I know that’s not right. I’ve asked him a couple of times since--”
“Then you have remained friends,” Jayden states. “We weren’t sure.”
“No…not so much. I see him around once in awhile. I ask, but he won’t tell me, Caillie. He just laughs but I know that he hurt you, I know he did and--”
“Yeah, he did.” Caillen says, “but ying-yang because he also helped me understand things more clearly since--”
Bullshit,” Jayden challenges and she isn’t even vaguely startled by his response, smiling to his frown so, I realize, this must be an old and on-going argument.
“Obviously Jayden disagrees with me, but in reality, we each take the blame for your leaving on ourselves. If I hadn’t done this, if Jamey had done that, if Toby or Jayden or Courtlan had or hadn’t done…whatever, you wouldn’t’ve left us so, we take all the blame each on ourselves. And while, understandably, we also each wallow in our own take on things; the others dismiss that, preferring their own self-serving if destructive scenario.”
“So, when I say that what happened between us was mostly, if not all, my fault, I am saying my ego is, in fact, just that all-encompassing. It was all and only because of me you left I will exclaim silently when my mood is severe and therefore, for me anyway, John’s words so especially tied-in with my own particular take on the ‘why’ of your decision-making, that he hit home with a vengeance. But, as you’ve witnessed, Jayden disagrees. Jayden has his own scenario as does Courtlan and so on and on. So many little scenarios, so much shared blame.”
“None of you,” Ryan says, “were to--”
“Bullshit,” they chime, smiling oh so sweetly and Ryan realizes not to argue as the full weight of her words settles on him. And anger shines from them, there’s no forgiveness in them and maybe there never will be. Right now, they’re being polite, the way Tari would want them to be and not much more. I wonder why they’ve even let me come. Maybe they were just bored, three pretty little kittens needing a mouse to playing with. The image both frightens and excites me. Good times.
“John came in close,” Caillen says, “do you remember, Stef? Nearly nose to nose, definitely breath to breath, with a slight and jaded smile and after only a second’s hesitation, he said, ‘Did you really think, Caillie, did you really believe, in your wildest of believings, that Stefan would willingly, wantingly spend the rest of his life fucking pussy?’ I, in a fit of being a little startled, replied honestly, said, ‘Yeah, John, I did. I really thought he loved me enough.’ John’s succinct summation was ‘Well,’ smirk, smirk, smirk, ‘you were…obviously wrong’. And Stef, thing is--”
“You didn’t believe him?” I know I sound like I’m accusing her of doing something wrong or stupid, like she would be showing weakness in even considering his utter bullshit, but I know that she does, that she has in fact all along and I don’t want her to. “You didn’t.”
“Kind of did, Stefan. In fact, I not only believed him, I took each and every word of his down so deep inside me and over and over again so many times that each one has become like etched into the very bone of my spine. And you know what, Stef? Whenever I’m feeling particularly masochistic, I can just crawl down inside myself and rubbing my fingertips along their ridges, remind myself of their truth. Sweet, huh? Just…any ole time I want.”
“Caillen, please, his words aren’t the truth, they’re--”
“You know how they say, Stefan, you know how they say that actions speak louder than words. Your actions, Stefan, your actions have borne out the truth of John’s words.” She tosses her head forward and down, narrows her eyes…defiant, a wild horse that’s being approached by an unwanted rider.
But I don’t want this. “Caillie,” I plead. “Please, you can’t--”
“Let it go, Stefan,” Courtlan warns. “Nothing you can say now will change her mind, not at this late date. Please, what is your next question?”
Scrubbing my hands across my eyes, trying to erase the image of John sneering at her, I realize I can‘t and I almost want to end this now. I think maybe I’ve already had enough resolution, but who knows when I might get this chance again so, “In San Francisco when I came home from New--”
“Ahhh, and so to the beginning, the day when you flew back home after you’d first met Ryan here in New York,” Courtlan says and again, I nod, further being reminded that Caillen isn’t the only one who knows me well. “What do you remember?”
“A lot of people were at the main house. I remember more people than normal were there like Shelley and Michael and a couple of others were hanging in the doorway between the entry and the kitchen. Caillie, you were with Paul and Allie and Toby and a bunch of others in the living room. Jonathan, Marcus, Charlie. I heard people banging around in the kitchen, people moving around upstairs and I remember Jamey bouncing up and down in front of me maybe wanting to say something, but I kept him from it. I interrupted him and--”
“You want to know just what was going on in our house, right?” Courtlan asks. “Right? And what was it that Jamey had been about to say?”
“Right,” I nod, adding, “thank you, Courtey,” again grateful to them for their patience and to him for what he was about to tell me.
“No problem. So, understand, we knew everything that had happened between you and Ryan right from…oh I don’t know, like from the very first minute, yeah? We knew that the interview Ryan had done for your spec article for ‘Elements’ magazine had gone very well because we knew that you then took him out to dinner and that after, he took you home for the night. We knew everything, ever since the two of you were first sighted at Frankie‘s Bistro. How could you have imagined it to be otherwise, Stef? Discretion? There is no such thing. Did you think that if you both just wished for anonymity, that anonymity would be yours? Hardly.”
“So, in answer to your question, Jayden, Michael, Tristan and Cody plus others were in the kitchen gathering up long-stemmed glasses and sweet things to eat. Shelley and Michael, Devon and Max were loitering in the doorway with two bottles each of pricey champagne hidden behind their backs with still more chilling out of sight. Us in the living room and those upstairs, we waited on the festivities to commence because Jamey had been bouncing up and down excited to give you his little speech, the one he had actually taken some time to prepare, where he was going to congratulate you on scoring such a beautiful and talented young man. But before he had a chance to do so, you took away from us any reason for congratulating you, any reason for festivities, by denying Ryan. The first words out of your mouth were lies, Stefan, about how you’d just gone back to your hotel after your interview and dinner with Ryan, how you’d turned off your phone and gone to sleep, so tired were you. We knew--”
“Yes, Stefan. Your first words to us about Ryan were to deny him, were to deny what we already knew to be true about what the two of you had started and in so doing, you took away any reason for celebrating. You also began the difficult process of taking away any reasons we had for trusting in you, but we didn’t quite know that yet. This has been a particularly tough learning curve for us, like any new language that we couldn’t even begin to understand the lexis, the syntax so, even with Isa trying so hard, being the bridge between us he is, to teach us, things took their time.”
“Not unreasonably, Jamey gave his signal to call everything off, ripping up the written-in-his-mind pages of his little way-to-go-dude speech. There was nothing left to say. No need for festivities. So, while we distracted you, those in the kitchen put away the glasses, put away the food. Those with champagne put away champagne. A couple of us in the living room went upstairs to explain to the others, but they had overheard and no explanation was required. Then, we all went back to our own business just the same except now both confused and maybe just a little scared. You’d never lied to us before, Stefan, but you sure-as-shit would lie to us again. Over and over and over again.”
‘Your falling in love with, your wanting to be with Ryan shouldn’t’ve hurt us,” Caillen says. “Your loving him should have only made us stronger. We didn’t understand, we didn’t even know how to understand. Only Isa did and--”
“And there certainly wasn’t any reason to celebrate after that, understand?” Jayden says through a crooked kind of smile. “Come along, Stefan, let’s be done. What’s number three, humm?”
“When you parked the moving van in front of--”
“Ahhh, “Caillen says. “And now to the end, to the day you left.” Her memory.
“To the day you kicked me out.” My memory.
“The fuck you say.” Jayden says, obviously agreeing with Caillen.
Which makes me realize that they really do see that day differently, which is what I thought I wanted to find out about. “You packed up all my shit, Jayden. You packed up everything, putting the whole of my life into that van parked out in front of our house.”
“We packed up what little of you remained with us, Stefan,” Jayden says. “You were, for all intents and purposes, already gone from us. You’d only left some of your things behind as a…a placeholder…like a just-in-case. You were straddling the fence that divided Ryan and us and between him and us, we were tearing you apart so, we let go of the baby before it was ripped in half. Do you have any idea how hard it was for us to bit by bit, piece by piece, watch you disappear from our lives? During the previous six months since you’d met Ryan, during that one last day when we had to pack up your things? We had to provide you with the moving van, Stefan. We had to provide you with your way out.”
“But the front door to the house--”
“Was left open, yes.” Caillen says. “As was the door to the van so, you could decide.”
“That’s what I remembered, but only later. When I’d come home that day--”
“After a supposed ‘Chicago business-trip’ week with Ryan in New York,” Courtlan reminds.
“We weren’t home to you anymore, Stefan. And we hadn’t been for too long.” Jayden adds. ” Ryan was.”
“We did leave the door open though because we hoped that you would understand that we were still there for you,” Caillen says. “We hoped that you would come up the walkway and through that door to us and--”
“And what? What could I’ve done? Tari would never have--”
“You could’ve told us you were lost, Stefan. You could’ve told us you were scared and lost and that you loved him, but that you didn’t want to lose us and we would’ve helped you. We wanted you to trust us and I still don’t see where we’d ever given you any reason not too. But you didn’t and that’s what we’ve never understood.”
“People sometimes ask us why we didn’t fight for you harder; they say we just let you go, but see? we had already given you everything we were. Everything. What else were we supposed to do? The two doors were open; the choice was yours, Stefan. You understand? So why didn’t you trust us and don’t blame this on Tari. So we would’ve taken some flak, we could have had our way with him and you know we could’ve. So, why didn’t--”
“My fault,” Ryan whispers and, as if anticipating this, Caillen abruptly leans across the table toward him.
“Why, Ryan? Why? Why’s any of this your fault?”
He looks directly into her pale green eyes. “I made him lie.”
“His choice, he didn’t have to--”
“Yes, yes he did. I told him I wouldn’t become involved with him if he didn’t.”
“Still, his choice to abide by your ultimatum and anyway, why would you’ve done that?” And those same eyes are now gone so hard, like sharpened bits of bottle-glass, that he looks away, but he doesn’t let her stop him, which makes me proud.
“I knew about you, who doesn’t? I’d watched all of you around New York for a long time, even while Stefan was still with you, even before he and I met, and there were just so many of you, but there was only me and I knew…I knew form the minute I met him, maybe from even before, that I wanted Stefan with me, but only with me. My plan was to take him from you however I could. I don’t know, I guess I thought that unless the two sides were kept as separate as possible, the boundaries would become so blurred that--”
“Your position, your plan would become compromised?” Courtlan says. “Afraid we might start getting to you?”
“No, well…maybe, but more like Stefan’s position would stay compromised. I thought if I could get him to lie to you about me then that would start the separation of him from you and I believed I needed to isolate him as much as I could, alienate him from you as much as I could so that I’d have enough time to show him that I would be a better life choice for him than you could ever be and that’s what I tried--”
“Succeeded,” Jayden almost snarls.
Ryan flinches, but bravely continues. “Yeah, succeeded in doing. I thought the way you lived your lives was wrong. I wasn’t brought up that way, it wasn’t the way I was taught and I didn‘t want any part of that. As importantly, I didn’t want Stefan to be a part of that anymore. He had lived his life the way I wanted us to before he’d met you so, I knew he could again. I knew that you had always had each other, but that he’d come late to you, only five years before I met him--”
“Seven,” Courtlan says.
“Seven years, really? I should know that, but still, I didn’t think his leaving you would matter that much, I guess. I thought he already meant more to me than he could ever have meant to any of you. That even if there was only one of me, that I still could love him more--”
“Why more, Ryan, because love is finite?” Caillen asks. “You could love him more than any or all of us because you’d be giving only him all of your love while we weren’t? Do you really believe that each of us has only some set-amount of love to give and should that set-amount be divided between say four, each gets what? like one quarter?? That it? That the quality of my love is somehow less pure, less honest, less real than yours?
“Love doesn’t divide itself, Ryan. There is no set-amount, no finite allotment. Know what I’ve found, what we have found? Love is unlimited,” Jayden says. “That the more I give, the more I have to give because the more I give the more I get back. Your implication is that my love is somehow inferior to yours. That my pain at losing Stefan would be inconsequential because I have others and that your one plus one equals two is somehow a kind of magical or blessed equation.”
“That is the way our society generally works,” Ryan reasons
“Your society, yes,” Caillen continues. “Yes it is. In yours, everyone knows one plus one is so much better, so vastly superior, so far more righteous than how relationships work in ours. And so, Stefan, you found your one plus one purest love ever with Ryan and now somehow, all your disgusting perverted love for us has been spirited away, right? Do you shiver with revulsion and disdain whenever you should happen to think on it? Is that how it‘s worked out for you, Stefan?”
“Never mind. Please, forget that I asked. I’m sure I don’t even want to know.
Only another lie from you, nothing left but lies from you.”
“That’s not true.” But I know there’s no reasoning with her when she’s this pissed. I shouldn’t have pushed her ability to cope, I knew that was what I was doing and I shouldn’t have. “Caillie, please--”
“Six months of nothing but lies, Stefan, that’s what your purest one plus one love created,” Jayden says. “You suppose we can now believe you’re capable of telling us the truth? Doesn’t matter anyway. You’ve had your three questions asked and answered, have had all your long-held curiosities satiated.”
“So,” Caillen says, “to summarize…yes, your long-time friend did spit his poison on me and the memory of those words burn me still. And yes, we tried to be a part of your new found love, but you refused to let us so, we got scared and confused and refused to see. And so we remain still. And yes, we asked you to trust us, to believe in us, but instead you lied and cheated and deserted us even if we have never deserted you and never will. Now our business is concluded. Next time--”
“And next time when you feel me moving away from you, running away from you,” she says so quietly, “you’ll have no need to wonder why. You‘ll know.” And standing, bowing to me, she says, “Good day,” to Ryan, Thomas and Aaron. Finally, she turns from us, from me and stands slightly away, trembling yet self-possessed, looking out the only window she can find, trying to find her calm, her salvation. Courtlan moves also, standing with her, his head bowed to her shoulder.
“With us tonight?” Jayden asks Jonathan and Marcus “That is if you don’t mind sharing in our perverted understanding of how loving relationships can be.”
“Has never proven to be a problem for us in the past so, for all these years so,” Jonathan laughs, “shouldn’t be a problem for us now or, as far as I can tell, into the foreseeable future.” Then, after a quick nod to me from them, Jonathan and Marcus join Jayden, Courtlan and Caillen and, without a look back, all five are gone, swallowed in seconds by the mass of serene mall-shoppers. Gone from me, gone the fuck away from me again and I now know far more than I ever wanted. I’ve asked my questions, I’ve gotten my answers and right or wrong and because I really can’t help it, big boy that I am, all I really want to do is cry. Fortunately or unfortunately, Ryan notices and leaning into me, taking my hand, he tells me it’s going to be alright and I want to believe him even if in this moment, in this place, I can’t even begin to imagine how. They think I’ve left them behind while I know that will never happen.