How a Year Can Break a Heart (Or Just Before the End, What Do You See?)

by backlit_fiction


October 29, 2009

Eli had thought that just before the end it would be like they portray in the movies, like people recall after escaping the precipice of death. In the course of a second, your life flashes before your eyes. The moments you never thought to savor come back to remind you of their existence in the sparks of your brain. Or you encounter the light—its all-knowing, white blindness saving you in its envelopment.

But this was different.

As his heart began to fail on the ground of the packed gymnasium, as it slowly stopped its tired clenching and beating, as latex fingers felt his pulse, his chest, he lay, convulsing, shaking at the ceiling. He didn’t see the light and his life didn’t flash before his eyes.

Instead, cool fingers pressed into his palm, twined with his. Wet heat radiated from grass underneath his feet. Cicadas sang their whirring in the trees hanging over the water like mothers sheltering their babies. The barbecue tang of smoke wafted through the air and into Eli’s nostrils.

“Let’s jump.” It was Collin’s voice. They had all their clothes on. “You’ve really only got today.” He laughed, carelessly.

And they jumped.

The cold water sent a chill up Eli’s back, made his whole body shake with it. Then his spine arched with a jolt and a mask strapped over his nose and mouth, providing oxygen. An unknown face hovered into view.

“You’re back,” it said.

He saw the ceiling, its metal crossbeams. And he wondered at endings, wanting to smile.

October 2008

Eli first met Collin in Baker High School’s gymnasium. He wore a white v-neck t-shirt, a pair of gray jeans and shoes that looked like a cross between moccasins and loafers. A wooden rosary hung around his neck. White, smooth-faced plugs stretched his earlobes to the size of nickels. But the most interesting of these was one of his arms, covered in tattoos, black and white, collage-like. He carried a black guitar case. Strands of soft blond hair curled over his forehead and ears. His eyes were liquid amber, shaped slightly like almonds, his chin square under pillowy lips.

Eli wondered if he was there for try-outs.

When Collin saw him staring, he smiled. There was a small gap between his front teeth. Eli didn’t know why he noticed. He supposed it was endearing.

Coach Mark, standing on the sidelines in front of the bench, watching the team scrimmage, approached Collin, and they spoke. Coach Mark patted him on the shoulder before Collin settled on the bleachers. Eli watched him pull out his guitar. It was an acoustic, shined to a perfect mahogany. Collin handled it like it was a delicate piece of art. He strummed it lightly. And Eli watched from the bench, wondering how he could do that when the sound of basketballs bouncing and sneakers scuffing echoed throughout the gym.

October 2008

Eli remembers that day because it was raining. It was coming down so thickly, it felt like molasses was hitting you, sliding down the back of your neck and along your spine. Eli stood under the concrete awning over the front entrance of the school waiting for it to stop. He’d cut through the field after practice and had gotten caught in it. He watched as a black car pulled up to the curb. The driver’s side window rolled down.

“Hey, you want a ride?” The person beyond the window asked, and Eli realized through the gelatinous rain that it was beautiful, blond-haired Collin offering—the Collin he’d learned was Coach Mark’s son, a junior like him, and, since August, a St. Luke’s Panther as well.

Eli hesitated. His shoe scuffed against the ground where it moved a slight step without his permission. Collin smiled. Eli took a couple more unbidden steps.

“Just throw your bag in the back,” Collin said, and that was all it took. Eli jogged out from under the awning, dropped his bag in the back seat, and landed with a plop on the passenger seat of Collin’s car.

Collin smiled at him again as he pulled out of the parking lot. Music played softly on the car’s speakers. Eli was sure he had no idea what it was. He was also sure that it was something suitably hipster. He liked it—the soft clanging of cymbals, the singer’s semi-high voice adding a pleasant smoothness to the melody. The lyrics, on the other hand, were pretty, but what they were about, Eli couldn’t say.

Collin sang along to the music, or possibly only mouthed the words. Eli didn’t hear another voice besides the singer’s. Pale fingers tapped the beat on the steering wheel. Eli followed the lines of Collin’s fingers to the wrist with its prominent nub, to the elbow, with its scars as white as bleached bone. And the tattoos. They began above his elbow and wound around like someone had painted an abstract piece on his skin.

“Do you want to know what they mean?” Collin asked, glancing at Eli (who was certain that he looked like someone had caught him accidentally peeping into their window). He blinked, nodded.

“My mother painted it when I was ten.” Eli nodded again. “She was an artist.”

“Was?” Eli said.

“She’s gone.”

“I’m sorry.”

There was silence. And then Collin said, “Me too.”

November 2008

Eli remembers that day because it was bitterly cold. The temperature had sunk below forty degrees by the middle of the day. He also remembers that day because of the way Collin looked in his car, which was running, the windows rolled up, with Jett, the football team’s first string halfback in the front seat.

It was past five on a Friday. Eli had stayed after practice to make up a test. He watched as Collin gestured with his hands. He watched as Collin pointed at Jett and then at himself, as his mouth moved and formed words Eli could only imagine. He watched as Jett shook his head, as Collin seemed to deflate behind the wheel before he looked out the driver’s side window, as Jett moved toward him across the console, touched the underside of his chin. Before Eli could suck in another drag of cold air, they were kissing. They were kissing as if they’d kissed many times before.

Eli’s quick breaths left small puffs of carbon dioxide in the air.

December 2008

Eli remembers that night because it was the first night they’d kissed.

His best friends from the team had dragged him to Peter’s holiday party, citing that he needed to get out more, and Collin caught his bored gaze from across Peter’s cavernous kitchen. He smiled and tucked an errant strand of blond hair behind his ear. Eli thought he recognized the gestures for what they were. He smiled back, let his gaze roam along Collin’s chest, covered in a sweater that allowed soft looking collarbones to peak through in the most flattering way.

Collin made his way over to Eli, gliding around bodies as if he were made for it, his smile never fading even a millimeter.

A few beers later (Eli had always been a lightweight), he wanted nothing more than to get Collin alone in a room, and it was his best guess that Collin wouldn’t have minded in the least. He spoke close to Eli, the curves of his lips almost touching the curves of Eli’s ear. He stood so close they almost touched.

Then, “Do you want to go outside for a minute?” Collin asked. Eli nodded his head.

Outside in the unimaginable cold, Eli watched Collin pull a pack of cigarettes out of his pocket, light one up, inhale.

“How can you smoke in this weather?” he asked.

“Habit,” Collin said, through the cigarette between his lips, and Eli wanted to shove him against the nearest tree and undress him.

“Want one?” Collin asked.

“I don’t smoke.”

Collin exhaled a plume into the air and looked at him with what Eli had always believed, until then, were fabled bedroom eyes.

“I’m kind of tired. Do you want to go back to my place after I finish this?” Collin asked.

“Coach Mark’s place?”

Collin laughed. “Yeah, we do live in the same house, but he’s not home. He’s out of town with his girlfriend for the weekend.”

Eli swallowed. “Sure,” he said.

December Part II

Eli woke the next morning with Collin wrapped around him and the memory of his lips imprinted in his mind. They’d been soft and smooth, but he’d felt that little bit of stubble along his chin, that anti-smoothness that he’d always loved.

And Eli wasn’t surprised to find that Collin was stunning when asleep. His closed eyelids and the insides of his wrists shown almost translucent in the light radiating through the windows, small maps of blue veins apparent, and Eli suddenly got the urge to run away, to just get the fuck out of there before something worse happened.

Something that might have already happened somewhere between their first kiss and Collin falling asleep on him before they could even take their pants off.

Eli couldn’t help it. He had to move, had to get out of there. He felt like he was suffocating.

He slipped out from under Collin as carefully as he could, not daring to look at him. He found his shirt and shoes, slipped them on. He crept along the hallway and down the stairs practically on his tip toes. Collin’s jacket hanging in the closet next to his gave him pause. Eli contemplated walking back upstairs, reclaiming the place next to Collin. He could imagine the warmth still there.

The front door he closed with an audible but quiet click that reverberated through his head the whole weekend.

December Part III

The last day of school before winter break was abnormally warm for December, the sky a bright blue. Eli doesn’t remember that day because of this but rather because of the feeling he got when he saw Collin, like every regret coalesced into a single boulder that hit him straight in the gut. It was a boulder he’d made himself.

When their eyes connected, Collin didn’t smile. He looked and then he walked away, as if Eli was just another uniformed guy walking the halls.

January 2009

When his friends dragged him out of his cave of a bedroom on some Friday nights, Eli expected no more and no less than to have to attend a party. That night he remembers because Collin was there. He stood on a stage at the front of the room, dressed to the nines as usual, though all he wore were a denim vest over a t-shirt and belted skinny jeans. He said something into a microphone. Eli couldn’t hear it because he couldn’t believe the way the light fell on Collin’s hair to make a halo out of its disheveled mess.

Eli knew in his gut that if he wasn’t done before, he was now. As cymbals clashed and Collin’s voice rose to a great imitation of a professional soprano, he realized that he was as close to in love as he could ever be, and he’d fucked up.

When it went quiet between two songs, Eli realized that Collin was staring. The crowded room’s temperature rose about a thousand degrees. Collin gulped down water, his throat working swiftly yet gracefully.

“This one’s for a friend of mine. These are just a few things I have to say. He’ll know who he is by the end of the song.”

Collin would later admit to him that his preface of this last song with Eli in mind was planned, a collaboration with Eli’s friends that Collin hoped would bring him to the tiny, crowded venue.

Eli never admitted that he hadn’t understood a word of the song Collin had sung.

February 2009

Piece by piece the articles of clothing fell to the hardwood floor: a blue flannel button-up, khaki shorts, a black t-shirt, sable skinny jeans, long socks, gray boxer shorts, inky briefs, until they both stood as bare as newborn babies. Eli blinked at this new world, the tattoos curling around Collin’s upper thighs like tendrils of hearth smoke, marking him in abstract ebony, what Eli thought looked like hieroglyphics.

Collin was history’s living home. Collin, with his beautiful white skin, the poetry on his chest. He grasped Eli’s shoulders and Eli became conscious of his own skin—of its consistency—in Collin’s roving grip. It was as if he’d become conscious of sensation itself, awakened from slumber to the universe of it.

Eli turned his lips into Collin’s hand on his cheek, closing his eyes. Collin pressed against him, moved against him, and all he could think about was the curve of his dick, how it slanted to the side just that little bit and when Eli clutched a hip, a thigh, Collin moaned into his mouth. Eli fumbled palming him, and they toppled onto the bed, Collin wrapped around and underneath him.

Collin’s fingertips were cold against Eli’s back, his thighs hot around Eli’s waist, and the sounds he made as Eli pushed into him were enough to make Eli rethink his initial urge to take it slow, to make it last, and before he could stop himself he was crashing into Collin. The headboard knocked against the wall. Collin moaned so loudly Eli thought the whole block had heard.

As Eli finally slowed the manic pace, Collin said, “You feel so good, Eli.”

Eli came then, Collin’s lips against his.

October 30, 2009

When he awoke in the hospital, it was to balloons and cards and teddy bears, all bearing the sentiment, in varying forms, of “get well soon.” Seated beside him, reading aloud from The Alchemist, was Collin. And he remembered being rushed by the ambulance to the hospital, the tests, seizing again. He had a dream-hazy memory of waking in a different room, wondering where he was until he’d seen his mom. She had stroked his hair. Her eyes might have been glistening.

“Collin,” he said. It hurt to breathe, to move his shoulders.

Collin smiled.

“You must feel sore. I can get a nurse to give you some more painkillers.”

“What exactly happened after they brought me here and ran all the tests?”

“Let me ask for the doctor. He can explain it better than I can,” Collin said, his smile fading.

“Tell me, Collin.” Eli’s chest hurt, right where his heart was, but it wasn’t anything like he imagined it could be.

Collin pressed his hands together, as if to pray, and leaned even closer to him, speaking in a low tone. Eli had a heart condition, one that caused most cardiac arrests in people under thirty-five. The doctors had operated after he’d had the second seizure, placed a contraption just under his skin that would elicit an electric jolt whenever his heart began to beat erratically, before it could stop.

Before he could die again.

Collin didn’t speak the last words. Eli could hear them, like the others he spoke before, in his steadily low tone, his perfect-pitch gaze.

The seizures had happened when the flow of his blood through arteries and capillaries and veins lessened to such an extent that his brain began to suffocate.

“You should rest and sleep some more. They have to monitor you. Let me go get a nurse.”

“I don’t need a goddamn nurse.”

Collin only stared. Then he said, “Then what do you need, Eli?”

“I need to apologize–”

“It can wait til–”

“No, it can’t wait. I almost died. I did die. So it can’t wait. Not a damn important thing can wait.”

“Don’t worry. I didn’t tell them. They don’t know anything,” Collin said, turning his head to face the wall in front of Eli’s hospital bed.

Collin said, “I’ll be right back.” And he walked, just like that, from the small, bland hospital room.

Eli glanced at the arm rest of the bed. A red call-button with the outline of a nurse was built into it.

When his family returned from the cafeteria, his mother cried and hugged his head. Joe said he had them all worried, as though Eli could control what his heart did. His brother smiled at him and little Joni, in Tyrell’s arms, said is brother okay?

A cardiologist told him about his condition, in simpler terms than Collin’s. A nurse took his vitals, offered him more pain killers.

Collin never came back.

And Eli wanted to call him because he wasn’t okay, but his mother never left his side.

November 1, 2009

“I need you to call me back, please, Collin. I know I scared the shit out of you, but we need to talk.”

Minutes after Eli hangs up his phone and places it on his bedside table, he hears a knock. Collin shuts the door behind him, and Eli is struck by how beautiful he is, once again, even with red-rimmed eyes.

“Hey,” Collin says, standing next to Eli’s bed and curling his hands together.

“Come here,” Eli says. He moves to clear a space on his bed, and in that instant Collin is on him, nestling into his lap, burying his face into Eli’s shoulder.

“I’m sorry,” Eli says.

“Don’t apologize, please, Eli.” Collin kisses him. “I’m just glad you’re here.”

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