Matthew isn’t looking for a relationship. Ask him, and he’ll say it’s because between work and studying there’s just no time. Ask his best friend, Sarah, and the story is a little different and involves a failed relationship that left him raw.
Enter Joel, a childhood friend of Sarah’s recently back in the area. He’s not looking for love, either, but he’s not averse to the idea of a little fun. Uncomplicated and on the same page: what could possibly go wrong?
It’s not that I’m giving up. But when you change the goalposts And have nothing left to say anymore, The thought that I have most Is resignation. I’ve predicted that this day would come, Like I’m a self-inflicting almanac That foresaw one day, you’d be done. I guess I kind of hoped This meant more than silent retreat, But it’s okay. I accept it wasn’t. That I’m not. I won’t force what isn’t there to defeat. I have grown cold with acceptance that There’s no longer any interest here for you. So this is where I give in and stop reaching out, For that’s all I’ve left in me to do.
The world is still there, but everything is different, like the air around him is waiting for Dean’s return. The clack of Oliver’s coffee cup against the kitchen counter rings far louder than it needs to, like it wants to draw Dean’s attention, evoke the teasing voice that used to follow about him being heavy-handed. The space in the shower cubicle now seems cavernous, pressing back in wait for Dean to step in behind him slipping his arms around Oliver’s waist while pulling him back against his chest. Even the closet space echoes mourning the loss of him, when all Oliver wants to do is find a shirt.
The coffee house they used to visit together looms in longing when Oliver walks by with his head bent in case he gets a glimpse of his memories inside. The bar where they first danced together calls out in confused greeting whenever the doors are opened, chasing him up the street asking why they haven’t come back. Even the library, where amongst its towering racks of books they shared their first kiss—discreet in a corner learning the intricacies of the Dewey system—leans with a sense of reproach for a visit that is long overdue when he goes to the grocery store opposite. Oliver doesn’t know why he bothers. His fridge is filled with food he has no appetite to eat.
Dean is everywhere, and he is nowhere, in everything Oliver sees and does. But he is not here. And when Dean left, Oliver feels like he took all the good, hopeful, peaceful pieces of him with him. Everything is effort these days. The smallest of gestures hurt. Oliver barely remembers to put toothpaste on his brush before staring at his reflection in horror for all that he’s lost, forgetting the mechanics of brushing his teeth.
Who could expect him to function, when all the joy in his life is gone?
Bark and branch and trunk and twig and leaf and phloem. Trees are more than these component parts, as are we. Skin and synapse and cell and cilia and membrane and muscle; the sum of us. And we as people become communities, societies, civilisations. Yet we are not trees. We do not flourish if we are not forests. We do not grow taller by blocking out the light of others. We do not suffocate neighbours with our roots. And yet we do. Weeding out what is different, then fighting with ourselves for what remains. We could be so much more.
In the whirlwind that is after their first kiss, he knows that he’s got to keep making the decisions that count. There’s too much at stake here if he flounders; it’s like now he’s allowed himself to feel even a fragment of what he thinks he truly does for him, that all the blurred images that were once his rigid world, have been wiped clear, and everything is a sharper, brighter contrast than he’s ever dared imagine.
But what’s more important, what’s become bigger than all of that, in all that time after, is the responsibility he now holds in his hands; maybe, he corrects, more accurately in his heart. Because after all that pausing, all that lashing out when things are overwhelming, now he’s dared allow himself to have a taste, there is no way to resist the need to lean in for it just once more, time and time again. And he couldn’t live with himself if he pulled away from him now, even for a second, even in a moment of doubt; because he is too important, too luminescent to ever have to be smudged with the undignified shade of his awkward hesitation, of not knowing how to start.
They’ve been dancing; oh, how long have they been dancing. One of them will step forward to claim a kiss, a touch, a smile meant only for the other, and the other will then follow, only to pull back again, then lead with his own routine. It’s dizzying, this need that swells in him, more absorbing than anything else he’s ever felt, and coupled with the knowledge, the unyielding certainty of knowing that he is wanted back, well, that’s a little intoxicating.
But he can’t misstep, he can’t hesitate for too long, can’t bear to be the one that taints even a fraction of his smile, because he is too bright, too vibrant, to be anything but happy. It shouldn’t be allowed; he will not allow it, and more important than perhaps anything else, he will not be the one to ever tarnish that smile again. He’s done it too often, both meaning and not meaning to, too wrapped up in his own confusion to ever be good enough for what he might be wanting with him.
But he does want him, that much is clear; he’s never been shy with his affection or intention, so it’s a little surprising, when he reaches out, only to see his eyes widen in a fraction of alarm, before he takes a stumbling step back.
He never stumbles. And he never wants to be the one that makes him stumble; he’s too steady, too sure of himself to let such an unwieldy creature as himself be the one that knocks the backs of his knees, the air from his lungs. The spark from his eyes.
Is he wrong? Is this step he’s proposing too much too soon, or a move that was never destined to happen?
Worry, he hears, and vulnerable, and it’s laced with self-doubt, self-preservation, and so much contradiction; it’s like the want is there, lurking right behind his irises, but beneath his skin he’s twitching, churning. Fearful to reach out, fearful to take, in case he’s pushed away, permanently this time.
He wants this; does he not already know how much he wants this? Can he not tell by the tremble in his lip, the quake of his shoulders, that he wants this, him, so very badly, yet is half-terrified to reach for it as well?
He is an anchor, a port in a storm, a safe haven when the world is too much and the rain of that world comes crashing down to drown him. But he’s also the spark that ignites him, the curve in his lip, the beating of his heart in ways he didn’t ever dare to imagine he’d get to feel, to experience in his life.
This calls for bravery, a courage that he’s not sure he’s really wielding. But he wants this, in fact, he thinks he needs it, that they both need it; maybe if he can surrender his fear of falling, and he can lose his doubt of ever being caught, then they will meet somewhere in the middle. And that loneliness that swells in his gut, that he’s sure he’s seen peering out the corners of his eyes; maybe they can lose that. Maybe they can bolster each other.
What better way to find out? What better time than now?
He has to keep going, he has to keep pushing, because if he pauses for even a second, that strength and certainty he’s pretending to feel will crash and crumble, and if he steps back, for even a moment, maybe he’ll see in his eyes that this, he, is not really what he wanted after all. Not for more than a frivolity, a passing moment, a shiny new thing to brighten one of his endless days before discarding him again.
He can’t be that. He is not that. But what he is, is terrified; how can it be possible to feel so many emotions all at once? Is this what they always warned him against? Not that they could make you weak, but that they would overwhelm you; blur into and over one another, until you have no sense of time or meaning, when you are trying to feel, and be everything, all the versions of yourself, all at the same time?
He smiles then, delighted as he steps back just enough to really look at him, gripping tight enough to reassure that this is what he wants as well. It is freeing, to be on the receiving end of such beauty, to stare it down as though it is a sun he knows is going to burn him, but he won’t ever mind being forever scorched by. Not by him, and not like this; not when he’s leaning in to kiss him all over again, and the door slams closed behind them, and his heart sings at the knowledge that it is coming home.
By the candlelight from the comfy chair, I made believe I could see you there, Flame casting shadows across your face. My fingers yearn that skin to trace. Light stubble of the length of day, And tiredness your eyes betray, Although, for me, you would but smile. You’d take my hand, talk for a while. But you’re not here, and I’m not there. So all I can do now is stare At candle flame and flickering light, Wishing that you were here tonight.
From this hilltop the city is a sea of fairylights, with a distant lullaby of soothing sounds set to lull even the most restless soul to sleep. For all the calamity seen here, there is calmness. Pockets of hope and pieces of sanctuary, strewn across a velvety backdrop, twinkling up like diamond facets, and like shining sequins, like smiles of delight when caught just in the right light. The right light makes all the difference, shifting monochrome to technicolour, and mournful tones to joyful songs, depending entirely on which direction the looker looks in. Which lyrics they wish to hear.
There is no stone at this altar. No offerings, no sacrifice. No sense of something missing. A quiet appeal for reason and kindness, the kind of things hoped for when the world is at peace, and the only thoughts rippling through a person’s mind is about what they can give, not what they do not have. It’s peaceful here. Quiet and contented, that pause between breaths that knows with certainty what is happening, having experienced something wonderful, full of anticipation now of only good things to come. My wish; this is the reality that I dream into existence for you.