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 terrace’s 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. It’s her. It is her. And she’s 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 I’ll 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 I’m 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, Caillen’s 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 Ryan’s parents she bows low with only a passing glance to our others, Ryan’s 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, “It’s 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 she’s 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 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 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 sister’s meanness but both ease just as quickly with a simple motion of Caillen’s hand. And I not only have to stop Ryan from confronting Margaret’s 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 aren’t? 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 freakin’ freakin’ 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 Stefan’s seeming dedication to each other, you still carry on, still appear threatened as you always have since the very first moment we came into Stefan’s 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…there’s 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 don’t. 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 person’s 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? Couldn’t 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? 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 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 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 she’s 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 she’s 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?” 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.”
“Ahhh, you are back and after only a minute or two 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 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 can’t seem to lift my head any higher.
“Good, I’m 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 we’ve 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?”
“--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--”
“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 Tari’s 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 Allie’s 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 I’ve 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, it’s 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.