He’s snapping. He’s snapping at Jordan, and he knows he’s snapping at Jordan, and worst of all, he knows exactly why he’s doing it. He knows what’s set him off doing it, like he’s known every other time it’s happened in the past.
But nothing. Not one part of it. None of this is in any way Jordan’s fault.
Joe’s internal, repetitive monologue lurches between you’re so obvious any idiot can see, and it’s all your fault anyway, and worst of all, what if this is it this time, at breakneck speed. He’s barely able to function for the continuous stream of words running through his head, and his lack of concentration has reared its ugly head in an unprecedented number of near misses on the drive to take Jordan back to school today.
Jordan isn’t oblivious either. Perhaps he’s not completely clued into why Joe’s shouting him down at every opportunity, or why when Joe’s not shouting there’s a deathly silence in the car that is so different to how they normally spend this ride back to college. But he keeps glancing over at him worriedly like he knows something is up.
Joe’s internal arguments continue spiraling round in his head, enough to make him dizzy.
If he can just acknowledge. If he can just admit—
But of course, he can’t get the words out, not even within the safe, private confines of his own head.
Does this ever get any easier?
Doug has left without a word before, made his own way back after their annual trip home for Thanksgiving, the three of them normally wedged in the car reminiscing about growing up. He’s disappeared into himself more times than Joe wants to remember, yet every single time he does remember, with absolute, total clarity. He can recall, down to the very last detail, the circumstances leading up to Doug needing a break from him. Every word they spoke to one another leading up to him needing to be gone
Joe remembers how he fought against it, and how he also tried not to fight it sometimes too; it’s a hell of a thing to have followed your best friend from high school across the country because you couldn’t bear the thought of him being gone. The implication of what that might mean. The terror that it might not be what Doug wants.
Joe remembers it all. He should do; he’s been torturing himself over Doug for what must be years now. Because the thing with Doug is. The thing about Doug. See, Doug—
Joe growls at himself, digging his fingernails hard into his palms and biting down on his cheek until he can taste blood.
What if his constant inability to speak to Doug means he’s given up for good this time? That he’ll get back to their shared apartment to find a note announcing enough is enough; that two men nearing thirty with stable jobs that mean they’ve more than enough money to be living on their own is stupid, and it’s time to do that? That Joe’s friendship isn’t worth all the hassle it brings, because he just can’t be honest with him? Joe’s heart pounds at the very thought, and he curses himself for it.
What if he never again gets to feel the heat of Doug near him, that he strains hard against leaning in to, like Doug is his own personal sun?
What if Doug never comes back, never gives Joe the chance to say the things he’s been meaning to say, rehearsing and not rehearsing over and over and over until they threaten to spill out of him anyway? Repeating them silently to himself as he is now, without acknowledging the reasons why he’s having to have these one-sided conversations in the first place. Because he’s too much of a coward to say them out loud.
What if gone really means gone this time? And there is no chance to be brave?
Joe’s slammed enough doors and kicked enough curbs today to try even Jordan’s patience. It’s Jordan grabbing his arm to shake him out of it—which Joe viciously wrenches away from—that opens up the vault. He should be spending time with his brother, enjoying the rare time alone with him and asking him questions about his final year, what he plans to do when he’s finished, if he’s happy in his life.
Instead he’s slamming the car door, stamping away from him, and taking far too long in the service station restroom to pretend to compose himself. And when he returns to the car, he can’t face Jordan, he can’t face climbing in, he just can’t face the memory and guilt avalanche that is slamming down on him from all sides.
He’s suffocating. And it’s all at his own doing.
Joe perches on the hood of the car, his back rigid and turned away from Jordan, unable to face him for fear of just how close he is to breaking down.
Because of course it’s Joe’s fault any of this is happening. If he’d just been honest for once. If he’d just told Doug. If he’d just… done something. Maybe he could have stopped him leaving like he did. Maybe he could have changed things, ended their Thanksgiving on a high note of possibility. Maybe Doug would have stayed, with him.
Jordan gives it all of a minute before Joe hears him swinging the door open and his boots hitting the gravel. The three paces it takes Jordan to come up beside him sound loud enough for each step to be another approaching avalanche that assaults Joe to trap him with his own worst enemy; himself.
Jordan stands, body right-angled to Joe’s shoulder as he continues to stare off into the distance. He’s perfectly still, and waiting, in that ever patient way only Jordan seems to have for the entire world. It’s annoying, frustrating, and right now it is in danger of breaking down Joe’s carefully and not so carefully constructed walls.
Maybe he’s finally going to have to stop running from this thing. Maybe he’s finally going to have to acknowledge the thing that’s been both inner glow and consuming flame in him for as long as he dares to remember.
Joe’s whisper is tortured enough to bring fresh waves of tears running down his cheeks, with Joe resolutely not looking at Jordan at all, even though out of the corner of his eye he sees Jordan square his shoulders, and Joe knows he’ll expect him to speak.
It’s too late for Joe. Those words have opened that dam he’s been fighting to keep in place for so long.
“He’s gone, Jordan. He’s gone. Again. And I don’t know if… I don’t know if…”
“Hey. It’s Doug, okay? He’s used to your arguments. You’ve been arguing like this for years.”
“But what if this is the time he doesn’t?” Joe’s whisper drops lower, so low Jordan has to lean forward a little to hear it. And what he hears to accompany the whisper is a rasp in his throat, a soft choking as Joe fights back things he never wanted to let slip out.
“Joe,” Jordan tries, gently.
“He’s gone, Jordan,” and finally, he does break, in the only way Joe allows himself. Tears leaking down his stoic face that absolutely is not turned to seek comfort. Fists clenching and unclenching at his thigh, occasionally tight enough to bounce off there and leave bruises.
Jordan shuffles a little but holds his position. “He’ll have calmed down by the time he gets home.”
“But what if-”
“He’ll be there, Joe. You know he will.” Jordan’s voice grows worried, even though he tries to sound confident. He’s clearly confused by Joe’s reaction, and that just sets Joe off even more.
“You know what the worst part is?” Joe bites out bitterly, wiping an angry, rough hand over his face to snag away tears that just refuse to stop appearing. “What I said to him. Right before he went. I said… I said I didn’t even need him around, Jordan. I said that we didn’t… that I didn’t…”
Joe’s words are overtaken by a rapid gunfire of choked sobs, and now Jordan really is startled, hesitating as he reaches out a hand to rest on Joe’s shoulder in an attempt to comfort him. It doesn’t work.
“What if… what if he hitchhikes? Or has an accident? Or just doesn’t show up? What if the last thing he ever thinks is that…is that I… that he’s not…” Joe is broken. his eyes wide in horror as he clutches and unclutches at thin air.
“Hey,” Jordan tries, punctuating it with a reassuring pat. “We all say things we don’t mean. He’ll know you didn’t mean—”
“But what if he doesn’t? What if he doesn’t, Jordan? What if this time’s the time I—” And Joe is lost.
Jordan will probably be able to count the number of times Joe has fully broken down in front of him on one hand, and none of them will have been as messy as this. Not once has Joe ever literally turned into his arms, fingers digging tight into his sides, face soaking the shoulder of his shirt as Joe mumbles over and over about missing his chance, about this being the last time, about… so many incoherent things Jordan can probably barely make out.
All Jordan can do is try to hold on to Joe whilst he works through whatever it is he’s going through. And when the sobs die down, and all that’s left is a hacking, wrecked gasp, Jordan takes a tiny step back to give them both a little room to breathe.
“Joe. I’m missing something, aren’t I?”
“He’s gone, Jordan.”
The agony in Joe’s voice is too much for Jordan. It’s like being shredded, inside out. He winces, unsure of what the right thing is to say, or do. “Yeah, I know that Joe. And…not to sound cruel? This isn’t exactly the first time you guys have had an all-out fight like this. It’s… practically a Thanksgiving tradition for you guys.”
Jordan stops, swallowing roughly, the contemplating look he’s giving Joe morphing into one of understanding.
He keeps looking at Joe, hard. “You’ve never reacted like this before.”
And no, perhaps Joe hasn’t. Doug comes home with them for Thanksgiving because he’s an only child, his parents dead, and he’s been part of the furniture in their family home since they were about fifteen. Joe and Doug have always been the best of friends, but it’s always been a fiery relationship, ready to yell at each other at a moment’s notice one moment, then sit in the most comfortable silence it’s possible for two people who know each other that well to have with one another the next.
Joe’s been in love with Doug for almost half his life, always hiding it because he’s terrified of other people’s reactions, yet never able to tear himself away. Joking out of comments by mutual friends about how they already live together and finish each other’s sentences, leading to meaningless sex with strangers and not coming home until morning, with guilt surging in Joe’s gut so hard he can’t even meet Doug’s eyes.
The way Doug looks at him sometimes is part of the problem, because on those occasions it’s so easy for Joe to believe he wants him back. In fact, everyone comments about the way they sometimes lose themselves to staring at one another—even over that Thanksgiving dinner.
There’s a light of understanding flickering for Jordan, but he’s not quite there yet to connect the dots. Of course, Joe has nothing to say to help him with that either.
“Joe, what aren’t you telling me?”
To say Joe is not one for words would be an understatement. But for Joe, words aren’t even needed for him to be able to bare his soul. All he has to do is raise his eyes to Jordan’s, and open them. And it’s written as plain as anything there for Jordan to see. This isn’t just the fear of losing a lifelong friend. This is the fear of someone who is terrified they have lost their entire world.
Jigsaw pieces must slot into place in a puzzle Jordan didn’t even know he’s been seeing all this time. The looks, which he’s teased Joe about himself. The stares. The touching, the lingering, the way they move around each other with an air of inevitability. It’s all there, bright as the sun.
Joe’s eyes register Jordan’s understanding, and added to the nakedness of his admission there is now a pleading request to understand, to not judge. Which of course, in a million lifetimes, Jordan would not. Love finds its way in the most unexpected of ways, Joe knows that, and that after long, long years trying to hide it, love is never something to be controlled.
And that’s what this pain is. That’s the thing that’s driving Joe in circles all this time. Love, that he’s so afraid of having, yet terrified of being without. Fearful of what it means about him, yet too scared to try.
“I’ve never told him,” Joe mumbles, broken, defeated, shoulders slumping so far forward that by rights he should roll to the floor.
But Jordan holds him up. He seems to need a pause to school his thoughts and come up with a response that might do something to help Joe through this. He clears his throat. “He knows, Joe. Of course he knows.” But Joe’s stance doesn’t change at all.
Jordan tries again, softer. “It’s not like it’s something he doesn’t need to say to you either.”
Joe’s continuing his staring, this time laced with are you sure and don’t mess with me and please don’t just say things to make me feel better. Too much weight to put on his kid brother’s shoulders, but then Joe’s only selfish about this one, hidden thing. He thinks—he hopes.
Jordan squeezes Joe’s shoulder, ducks a little so they are at eye level. “He knows, Joe. And you’re gonna go home, and then you’ll tell him anyway, okay?”
Jordan holds his breath, and waits, never altering his gaze, never removing his hand from Joe’s shoulder.
Joe gives the smallest, tiniest of nods.