by Nijiiro Sumi (虹色 墨)
illustrated by olukemi
Ryan’s phone played that chirp-chirp-beep-chirp that meant he had a text message. He groaned, thought about ignoring it, then finally decided it might be important enough to grope around on the floor for, given that it was actually reasonably late at night. The guy between his legs grumbled. Ryan muttered “sorry” and flipped open his phone. The message was from Alma and said only: i need to talk
Well, fuck, what was that supposed to mean? Ryan was kind of in the middle of something here, and if it was really important, she would have just called, right? But it was kinda late, and Alma was generally not a very demanding friend, and that text message had been pretty cryptic and even ominous.
The guy looked up, his chin glistening with spit. “What?”
Ryan sighed and flipped the phone shut. “I gotta go.”
“Now?” Couldn’t blame the guy for being incredulous; after all, they were in the middle of a blowjob, and what kind of guy left in the middle of a blowjob, even a mediocre one?
Ryan sat up, wincing. “Sorry,” he mumbled. “I’ll call you.”
He was still buttoning his jeans when the door slammed shut behind him, then opened again so a hand could dart out and pull the sock off the doorknob before closing for good. Well, there was someone who wouldn’t pick up, even if he did call him. He hoped the guy hadn’t actually been the love of his life or anything. Ryan pulled out his phone and texted Alma back: 10 mins. That was kind of a stretch, but he’d make it if he jogged; her dorm wasn’t that far away.
Alma greeted him at the door to her dorm, her arms hugging her chest. She was wearing sweatpants and one of those girly hoodies, and sandals. Ryan asked if she was cold, if she wanted to go back inside. Alma said no, her roommate was home, and she wanted to go for a walk.
“She doesn’t understand,” Alma said bitterly. “She doesn’t know this is hard for me.”
“What is?” Ryan asked, baffled; Alma had just sort of. . . went off.
Alma sighed and bowed her head so that her hair fell in her face in a very picturesque way. “I think I’m in love.”
Honey, that’s great! Ryan wanted to say, but Alma didn’t seem very happy about it. “With who?” he asked, and the next moment felt a sudden stab of terror: what if it was him? Everyone said faghag crushes were the worst; they only wanted you because you were unattainable and safe, and they cried all over your shirt.
Alma didn’t say anything at first, and Ryan just about had a heart attack. Then she whispered, “Craig.” She sounded a little embarrassed about it.
Ryan stared. “Craig? My roommate?” Alma nodded, and he stared some more, although this time he had the courtesy to direct the stare at some random tree. Wow. Craig. He hadn’t even thought that they knew each other that well, although arguably you didn’t have to know someone to love or be in love with them. He ran a hand through his hair. “Why?”
“Why not?” she returned. Well, Ryan could come up with plenty of reasons why not, he lived with the guy, but that was plainly not what Alma needed or wanted. “Oh, Ryan,” she said miserably. “What do I do?”
Ryan gingerly placed one hand on her narrow shoulder. “We’ll figure something out,” he told her. “Leave it to me.”
Craig was sitting on the bed picking at his guitar, as usual, when Ryan came in. He looked up and smiled but offered no other response. Ryan leaned against the door and just stared for a minute, wondering what Alma saw. Craig was, well, Craig was sort of weird, and kind of a hippie. He needed a haircut, and he needed to shave, and he was probably going to regret those tattoos when he was fifty, even if they looked cool now. He chewed on his pens and opened the mini-fridge with his feet. He had multiple ear piercings–which was, okay, pretty hot.
Craig looked kind of worried now. “Everything okay?”
Ryan realized he’d been staring and sort of lurched toward the bed. “Oh, yeah. Everything’s fine.” He changed course and headed for his desk instead.
A few thoughtful notes drifted across the room. “How was your date?”
“Date?” Ryan said blankly as his computer booted up, tinkling the Windows startup theme at him. “Oh. Him. Uh. It was okay. I got half a blowjob out of it.”
Craig chuckled. “Only half?”
Alma probably wouldn’t appreciate him spilling the beans. Ryan swiveled around in his chair. “Yeah. Long story. I wasn’t really into him, anyway.” Craig didn’t pry–he never did, that was one of the nice things about having him as a roommate–just stared at the strings as he strummed another chord. Ryan let his mind wander for a bit, then said, “How come I never see you dating anyone?”
“No need,” Craig drawled, tapping his guitar. “Euterpe’s the only lady I need.”
“I maintain that that is a ridiculous name,” Ryan pronounced, and turned back to his laptop. He brought up his friendslist and started scrolling, already knowing what he’d see: boring, boring, drama, boring, drama, drama, drama. . . “But seriously, why not? Being single sucks.”
“Don’t see you in a committed relationship, either,” Craig replied. The music stopped, then started up again, this time something in a minor key.
“Well, it’s not for lack of looking,” Ryan responded. Then he added, “Okay, so I fuck around. I warned you about that.”
“Doesn’t bother me,” Craig said. “Me, I don’t mind waiting.”
Ryan met Alma at the student lounge the next day armed with an idea: “Write him poetry,” he suggested.
Alma goggled at him, both hands wrapped around her coffee, now served in a compostable “green” cup! and then quickly looked down at her hands. “But. . . I can’t, I’ve never written poetry, I–”
“But I have, and I’m told I’m not bad.” Ryan grinned encouragingly at her. “So I’ll write the poetry and give it to him, and I’ll tell him it’s from you.”
Alma bit her lip and shook her head. “But isn’t that like, like plagiarism? That’s cheating.”
“Who’s going to report you to the dean? Me?” Ryan leaned across the table and gripped her hand. She looked up at him through her hair, the picture of vulnerable beauty. “You’ll win him over all by yourself. This is just a hook. He’s a sucker for that romantic stuff.”
She smiled a little at that, at least. “You really think he can like me?”
Alma had large, dark eyes framed by thick lashes, caramel skin, a heart-shaped face surrounded by a fall of long, dark hair, and a slim, curvy figure. She was here studying biology on a science scholarship; she wanted to be a veterinarian; she was a dutiful daughter who called home three times a week. A little too goody-goody for Ryan, to be completely honest, but she was a girl, so it didn’t really matter.
“Honey,” he said, “he doesn’t stand a chance.”
They decided–or rather, Ryan decided, as he was clearly the brains of this operation–to start off simple, with a sonnet. Simple because Ryan could more or less write a sonnet in his sleep, and also because, as Ryan tried to explain to a befuddled Alma, it was sort of a popular and old-fashioned structure for a love poem. It turned out to be harder than he thought; after all, he wasn’t in love with Craig, and he firmly believed that poetry was about emotion.
“I love his smile,” she told him. “And his laugh.”
“Uh huh.” Ryan wrote this down as fast as he could, not trying for rhyme or meter or even structure right now; he just needed something to start with. Weird as it was, though, he was enjoying himself. He’d never had this kind of challenge before.
“And I love his eyes. They’re so blue, and when he looks at you, he–oh, this sounds stupid, but you feel sort of trapped. But okay. Like you don’t. . . mind being trapped.”
It did sound stupid, but he wrote it down anyway. Ryan had also never really noticed that Craig had blue eyes. He normally wore this sleepy, hooded expression that made him hard to read. He only really looked focused and awake when working on music. Ryan could see how it might be unnerving to be on the receiving end of that intense concentration.
“And he’s smart. He almost always knows the answer, but if he doesn’t, he’s honest and helps you look for it.” Alma’s voice had gotten dreamy. When Ryan looked up, he found her staring at an invisible spot on the ceiling. He didn’t even try to suppress his smile. “And he looks very handsome in his lab coat, and when he’s concentrating, he gets this look on his face that — ooo.”
Ryan tried to imagine Craig in a lab coat and failed. Trying to imagine Craig in goggles was even worse, and he had to bite the inside of his cheek.
“And his tattoos are so cool. Do you know anything about them?”
He looked down again and scribbled something about tattoos on the page. “I never asked, actually.”
There was a long enough pause that Ryan was able to finish his sentence, and he looked up at Alma expectantly. She was pink-cheeked, and Ryan waited.
“Do they — how far do they go?” she asked.
Ryan couldn’t help smiling. “Up to his shoulders, and then they kind of suddenly stop. He was thinking about getting something on his back.”
“I want to see that someday,” Alma said, thoughtfully. “I want to touch them. I’ve never touched a tattoo.”
“You will, honey,” Ryan said. He could almost see the notes swimming into position on the page, turning themselves into a poem. “Someday.”
Once he had all his notes together, writing the poem itself took virtually no time at all. Well, compared to, like, a sestina or something. It did require a little bit of extrapolation. Like, maybe the way Craig looked when he was concentrating on, uh, something science-y (a reaction? that was science, right?) was similar to the way he looked when he was perfecting a new song. And he could sort of see how the beard might make him look more masculine and handsome instead of just stupid. And, well, Craig did have nice eyes, once Ryan took the time to really notice them.
After he’d more or less finished the poem — it didn’t have to be perfect, Craig probably wouldn’t notice — he took it down to Alma’s room. Her roommate was lying on the bed with her eyes closed, listening to her iPod, and Ryan decided it was safe to disregard her. Alma told her roommate everything, anyway.
“Oh,” Alma breathed after she read it, eyes huge. “It’s so. . . that would have taken me forever! And it’s like — it’s like you read my mind, or something. How did you know?”
“I’m glad you like it.” Ryan got up from his chair. “So now you just copy it out in your own handwriting and give it back to me, and I’ll give it to Craig.”
“You won’t tell him it’s from me, will you?” She pulled the paper away and gave him an anxious look.
Ryan’s mental processes ground to a halt. “But — that was. . . sort of the point.”
“Oh, but,” she looked down at her hands, “what if he doesn’t like it?”
Ryan was briefly insulted that anyone could dislike one of his poems. He bit his tongue and told himself not to be an egomaniac. “Well then, what do you want me to do?”
“Oh, give it to him! And don’t say it’s from me,” Alma pleaded. “Tell him — tell him it’s from a girl in your class.”
“A girl. . . in my class,” Ryan repeated, slowly. This was turning out way more third grade than he thought it would. Stunningly so, in fact.
“There are girls in your class, aren’t there? And if he likes this one, then I — you — we’ll write another one, and you can tell him that one’s from me.” She gave him a hopeful look and even batted her eyelashes. Ryan couldn’t tell if that was intentional or not.
Ryan sighed. “Okay. But you need to talk to him or something, then. You can’t just stand around and hope he’ll notice you. At least start a conversation in lab or something next time.”
Alma looked down again. “But what do I say?”
Oh, good grief. “Ask him to pass the bunsen burner,” Ryan suggested. “Or ask him about a song he’s writing. He doesn’t bite, I promise.”
For some reason, that made Alma giggle.
Ryan stepped on Craig’s shoes almost as soon as he got in the door, tripped, and almost fell. He stifled a curse and kicked them to the side, closing the door gently behind him. Not that it made a difference: Craig was in The Zone. He was seated cross-legged on the bed, head bent over the guitar in his lap like the Virgin Mary beholding the Christ child. Ryan leaned back against the door and wondered what it was like to be so utterly consumed by something.
Craig tilted his head to one side and raised one hand suddenly, like a cat presented with a piece of string, then batted out a chord. Then he added a few notes to it, so that it turned out a jerky, faltering melody. Paused, started over, more confident now; he changed a few notes, and suddenly the exercise yawned and stretched out into a song. His eyes were nearly closed as his fingers worked over the strings, as the notes tumbled out one after another. It should have been noise, but somehow he strung them all together into music, into something that wasn’t quite slow, and not quite fast: more than anything it was hungry, and a little bit sad. Ryan thought all sad songs had to be slow.
Music is such a miracle, Ryan thought. How does anyone do it?
Craig brought his palm down against the strings, stilling them, and the sudden silence left Ryan feeling strangely bereft. He looked pensive at first, which was so out of character for him that Ryan almost felt uneasy, but then Craig noticed he was there and smiled. “Oh, hey. What’s up?”
“Oh, uh, nothing much,” Ryan replied, more out of habit than anything else. He stepped away from the door and fumbled the poem out of his back pocket, which Alma had recopied in pink gel pen. “I got something for you.”
“Aw, y’shouldn’t have.” Craig unfolded the sheet and raised his eyebrows at the color. Ryan retired to his desk, tossing his messenger bag on the bed, suddenly feeling inexplicably naked. This was a different, weirder sensation than workshop classes.
“Huh.” It was a perfectly noncommittal “huh,” the kind that Craig was so good at, that often infuriated Ryan for no good reason. “You write this?”
“No!” Ryan yelped. “God, no. It was, uh, a girl in my class.”
Craig raised a skeptical eyebrow at him, shit, now this was gonna get weird — but then he smiled and let the paper drift to the bed, settling beside his knee. “Guess pink isn’t really your color. Well, tell her I dig her poem.” He turned back to the guitar, twisted one of the tuning pegs, then stopped and looked up at Ryan again. “Mind if I play some more?”
Ryan waved a hand. “I like hearing you play.”
Oh, that wasn’t fair — Craig did have a really gorgeous smile. “Well, all right, then,” Craig said, and what he played then wasn’t that long, lean note of yearning from before, but something so buoyant and joyful that Ryan had to grin too, and even laugh, and it warmed him down to the soles of his feet.
His phone buzzed as soon as he got out of class the next day. It was Alma; apparently she couldn’t even wait three hours until their appointed meet-up time in the student lounge. Ryan couldn’t say that he was surprised, or that he blamed her.
She even sounded kind of breathless: “Did he like it?” You’d think that she’d actually written the poem herself.
“He told me to tell you that he digs your poem,” Ryan reported solemnly.
“Ohmigod, he — wait, you didn’t tell him it was me, did you?” Her voice went up in pitch toward the end, and Ryan winced.
“I did not betray your confidence,” Ryan assured her. “I told him it was from a girl in my class.” Wow, that excuse actually sounded pretty lame. No wonder Craig hadn’t believed him. Shit, Craig didn’t think the poem was from him, did he?
“Okay. Okay. Good.”
Ryan waited a few seconds until he realized that was apparently all Alma intended to contribute to the conversation. “So, what’s next?”
“Oh, well. . . I guess you write another poem? And give it to him? And don’t tell him it’s from me?” she added in a rush.
Ryan sighed. “Alma. . .”
“I know, I know. I’m working on it.” She did, at least, sound genuinely contrite. “But. . . well, you know, it’s just the one poem. Shouldn’t we draw it out a little? Prolong the mystery?”
“Now you’re just laying it on,” Ryan grumbled. “But, okay, whatever you say. You’re the boss. We still on for lounge at two?”
“Great. See you there. Bye.” Ryan snapped his phone shut with a click. He supposed he should have something ready for Alma at two. What could he write in those hours? That depended wholly on whether or not Craig was home. He glanced at his watch. Not another sonnet, although that would be short and easy; he didn’t want to repeat himself. Something more lyrical, maybe. Something more like a song. Craig was a musician, after all.
The door was locked, which meant Craig wasn’t home. Bonus. The room rang with silence, and Ryan felt uncommonly elated. This was fun, in an almost wicked sort of way, writing poetry to his roommate on behalf of a girl. Something he could laugh about, ten years down the road.
He picked around Craig’s side of the room, looking for inspiration. It was surprisingly neat, considering Craig didn’t seem to take great pains in his personal appearance. Books: mostly science textbooks, a few music magazines, and one book on guitar techniques that looked like it’d never been opened. Nick Drake featured prominently in his CD collection, along with the Beatles, John Butler Trio, the Mountain Goats, several more artists Ryan had never heard of, and a surprising amount of classical and world music. Ryan didn’t want to go through Craig’s drawers or look in his closet — that was crossing a line. He did, however, take a look at the guitar, which was perched on its stand by the bed, looking less like a holy relic and more like a guitar.
It was a pretty funny-looking guitar, or not so much funny-looking as just a type of guitar that Ryan had never seen before. All his friends who’d tooled around back in the day had your basic electric or acoustic guitars that their parents had bought for them from the local music store for not very much money; they were pretty much the dictionary illustration of “guitar.” Craig, however, had some sort of seriously hardcore guitar, with maybe twice as many strings as Ryan was used to seeing, and a weird grill/bulge thing in the middle of the body, under the strings.
Ryan squatted down next to it and, without quite knowing why, held his breath and plucked one of the strings, the second-largest one. It resisted more than he thought it would, and when he let it go, it gave off a deep, resonant twang that sent Ryan scurrying back to his side of the room, uncertain why his heart should beat so fast.
Craig read the terzanelle twice, or maybe even three times, or it felt that long, anyway. Ryan resolutely checked his friendslist instead of sitting and watching Craig read, which still made him feel weirdly vulnerable. Finally, Craig blew out a sigh and said, “Huh.” It was his intrigued “huh,” though, so Ryan turned around.
“That’s cool,” Craig said, leaning back, as if physical distance from the poem would give him more objectivity. “I like it. The rhyming and the repeating and the — yeah. It’s real cool.”
“It’s a terzanelle,” Ryan said, a little helplessly. “That’s a cross between a villanelle and a terza rima.” Stop talking, Ryan. Stop. Why was he so awkward around Craig all of a sudden?
“I like it. It’s,” Craig twirled one finger in a spiral, “circular.” He leaned over and snagged the guitar, dragging it up on the bed. Still staring at the poem, which was now balanced on his knee, he strummed a few chords. “I been playing with this idea for a while,” he said, and then nothing more, because he somehow had two melodies going at once. The one on the upper strings was a quick, perky little tune that Ryan recognized from the past few weeks; the one on the bass strings wasn’t one he thought he’d heard before. The sound was rough and awkward, discordant in places, but occasionally there was a moment of brilliant harmony. Then a few bars later, just as Ryan was really getting into it, it suddenly changed: the bass melody leapt onto the upper strings and was replaced on the lower strings by a completely different melody. And again. And again.
Craig was really working at it, head jerking over the strings, tongue between his teeth, and occasionally the notes faltered and stumbled and quite often they clashed. But he kept going, and once again the bass melody usurped the main melody, and now the one that took the bass melody’s place was —
“Holy shit.” Ryan couldn’t help laughing, because the song was a fucking terzanelle, circling back on itself. “Holy shit!” Craig grinned up at him, brilliant and effervescent. “You asshole!”
Craig let the song — if it could be called that — dissolve into a series of chaotic chords. He was breathing hard. “How does that make me an asshole?” But he was still grinning.
“It doesn’t — I meant it affectionately.” Ryan was having trouble getting his breath, too. “Wow. That was awesome.”
“Thanks.” The terzanelle–the poem, that is–had fallen off Craig’s knee and onto the floor in all the commotion, and Craig had to put the guitar aside and lean way, way over to get it back. Ryan caught a glimpse of his long, tanned back, and thought that Craig was really flexible, and thought that a tattoo on his back would look really nice. Then he stopped thinking altogether.
“What should I call it?” Craig asked, when he was upright again, his hair disarranged.
“How should I know?” said Ryan. “Just call it ‘Terzanelle.'”
Something–maybe the poetry–had changed the way Ryan looked at Craig; now it was like he saw poetry all the time. It was there in the curve of Craig’s spine, the tattoos that spiraled up both arms in dark-inked whorls, the way his long, knobbly-knuckled fingers felt their way across the strings, how his throat worked when he took a long drink from a bottle of water. There was even poetry in that stupid beard, and of course those blue, blue eyes, and that quick flash of a grin that lingered in his eyes even when his words were serious again.
Which was a good thing, because Alma refused to either give up the project or graduate it. It was always, “Just one more, Ryan, your poetry is so good,” or “Next time, I promise.”
Ryan begged. He cajoled. He threatened. He offered to teach her how to write her own poetry. He did everything short of outright yell at her, though he was sorely tempted. It was infuriating. It wasn’t that he disliked writing poetry–he enjoyed it very much, as a matter of fact–but, well, this wasn’t really his story, was it? It was Alma’s, and here she was living it through him. That was weird, to say the least.
So Ryan wrote poetry. A triolet here, an ode there, a terza rima here, even a found poem. Even a few forms he made up, just to challenge himself. Craig seemed to like them all, though he didn’t spontaneously compose any more songs after that terzanelle. Ryan was actually disappointed, and then he was disappointed in himself for being disappointed.
Alma, at least, had started talking to Craig. She related all of their–in Ryan’s estimation–incredibly mindnumbing conversations, which were usually about science. He still couldn’t imagine Craig in a lab coat.
“You should tell him the poetry’s from you,” Ryan said, suddenly, after Alma finished relating a conversation where Craig promised her a backstage tour if she came and saw him at the concert tomorrow night. Ryan hadn’t even been aware there was a university concert tonight, featuring local (or at least one local) and university artists, despite the large purple banner hanging over the Student Union. Craig had never mentioned it.
“What?” Alma asked, wide-eyed. She was barely even reading the poetry anymore; Ryan would hand her a completed poem, and she would immediately copy it out again in the gel pen of her choice. Today it was glittery green.
Ryan suddenly really, really wanted this entire farce to end. “Well, you guys are sort of friends now, right? You talk about stuff besides class. You should tell him the poetry’s from you.”
Alma flushed, bit her lip, and shook her head.
That same day, as if through some conspiracy, Ryan handed Craig another poem, and Craig said, “You ever gonna tell me who this girl is?”
“Huh?” Ryan said, intelligently.
“This girl in your class that keeps writing me all this poetry.” Craig unfolded the paper and skimmed the lines, and one corner of his mouth twitched. “I kinda want to know.”
“Oh. Um. No, she’s uh. She’s shy.” Ryan unloaded his bag onto his bed and sat down at his desk. He’d gotten used to Craig reading his poetry, but he still didn’t want to look at Craig while he did it.
“What’s she like?”
Ryan felt the back of his neck prickle, and he turned around to find Craig staring at him, looking unusually serious. His stomach clenched. “Um, she’s. . . she’s really pretty. And really sweet.”
Craig nodded, once, still not taking his eyes away from Ryan. “She have a name?”
Ryan looked at the deeply fascinating carpet. “I can’t tell you that.”
Craig didn’t say anything for a long, long time, long enough that Ryan thought about going back to his computer and checking his email like nothing had ever happened. Then, Craig said, “Well, let me know. I’d really like to meet her.”
“Sure,” Ryan said. “I’ll see what I can do.”
Ryan wasn’t sure why he was so angry, or why he was compelled to attend a party he hadn’t been planning on going to, but it ended with him getting his cock sucked in the bathroom. That was always a good way to end any night, except for how the sink pressed against the small of his back. The guy knew what he was doing, though, fabulous technique, and was attractive in that skinny Asian kind of way, with blue hair and silver jewelry and a disarming grin. Not that Ryan could see any of that when the guy’s head was between his legs.
Why was he so pissed? This had been part of the plan the entire time, right? Ryan would write some poetry for Alma, Craig would get all interested in this mysterious girl that kept leaving notes in his locker, eventually the truth would come out and Alma and Craig would end up living happily ever after, assuming that Alma didn’t spill the beans about who really wrote those poems or Craig didn’t ask her to write any more poetry. Okay, so it hadn’t been that well thought out, but Alma and Craig seemed to be getting along, everything was on track except for how Alma wouldn’t proceed with Phase Two of the plan, and here Ryan was being a cranky little bitch.
Then he came, which was pretty much always nice, and he leaned against the sink and tried to catch his breath. How would the guy want him to reciprocate? He might let this guy fuck him, actually, but Ryan didn’t have any condoms on hand.
“Who’s Craig?” the guy asked, leaning against the wall next to Ryan.
“Ah, shit,” Ryan moaned. Had he been talking out loud? Did he say something when he came? Now this was just embarrassing. “Nah, nothing.” He flopped one hand. “He’s just my roommate.”
“You’re in love with your roommate?” the guy said. “That’s messed up, dude.”
“I am not in love with my–” Ryan started, and then stopped, because it was like something opened up in his head. “Oh, shit. Oh, shit. I am so fucked.”
“Tough luck,” the guy said sympathetically. “Want to suck my cock?”
Oh God, he was so fucked up. Maybe the 4RIDE kid had even noticed. Probably he wouldn’t squeal on him, though. This was college, after all, and part of the college experience was getting high/drunk/stoned at a party and staggering home at obscene hours with the help of the campus safety escort system.
He really, really, did not want to see Craig, and great, now he was probably going to wake Craig up. What an asshole he was. Craig wasn’t much of a partier, but he was usually nice enough to warn Ryan beforehand and try to stagger home at a decent hour. There was really no excuse for this. Ryan winced as he hauled himself up the stairs. He managed to find his door through sheer willpower and muscle memory, and the sudden darkness when he opened it forced him to stop and blink, and then he maybe forgot to open his eyes afterward.
“Dude,” Craig croaked. “You’re letting in the light.”
“Sorry,” Ryan mumbled, or tried to; what came out instead might have been a slurred something or other. He got himself properly inside the room and shut the door behind him, and even managed not to trip over something and break his neck on the way to his bed. He just barely crawled under the covers before realizing he was still in all his clothes and thought about trying to wriggle out of his jeans. Then something cold and smooth pressed against his forehead, and he yelped.
It was a glass of water. Craig had a glass of water. Ryan groped around until he found Craig’s arm, and followed it to his wrist, and then to the hand that held the water. He couldn’t feel the tattoos. Craig left the glass in his hand, and Ryan drank and drank and drank the sweet, blessed water.
“Painkillers on the table,” Craig said, and Ryan heard the tap of the medicine bottle against the bedside table. “You need something to eat?” He took the glass from Ryan.
“Nah,” Ryan said, rubbing one hand over his face. “Thanks.” He listened to Craig pad across the room and fill the glass again from the sink. “God, I–I don’t deserve you, Craig.”
“No, you don’t,” Craig agreed, although he sounded amiable enough about it. The glass clinked against the bedside table. “But here I am.”
Ryan opened his eyes the next morning and immediately regretted it. He slammed them shut and buried his face in the pillow, as if that might make the little gnomes in his skull stop trying to escape with the use of sledgehammers. He reached out for the pills and naturally succeeded only in knocking them on the floor. Ryan groaned, thought about dying, mentally promised himself to never drink again–well, until the next time, and groped with one arm over the edge of the bed, hoping that his fingers would collide with the bottle through sheer force of will.
The door squeaked open, and Ryan ground his teeth together.
“I’ll get it,” Craig said, sounding amused. Ryan lay complacently on his stomach, one arm still hanging off the bed. His eyes flew open when Craig picked up his hand and shook two pills into it, the feel of his calluses shocking against the back of his palm. He drew his fingers shut more out of reflex than anything else. Craig smelled good, like coconut and toothpaste. Ryan turned his head so that he could see; Craig’s hair was still wet from the shower and stuck out at funny angles from a vigorous towel-drying. He was dressed in a badly frayed robe that looked like it’d come from Goodwill.
Craig handed him the water glass next, and Ryan obediently took his painkillers just so that he didn’t have to look at Craig anymore. Craig turned away while Ryan drained the rest of the water, and Ryan found himself watching Craig anyway, distorted through the glass. He was getting dressed. Ryan wanted to put his tongue on the seam of Craig’s tattoos, at his wrists and shoulders. He wanted to run his fingers across the ink. He wanted to taste Craig’s earrings.
“I gotta go,” Craig said. “You gonna be okay?”
“Yeah,” Ryan said, not liking how hoarse he sounded, but there was nothing he could do about that.
“Cool.” Craig picked up his bag and–hesitated, a gesture so uncharacteristic for him that Ryan wasn’t sure he was quite awake. Then he said, “You coming to the concert?”
Ryan blinked. “Um. Yeah. Yeah, of course.”
Craig grinned, and Ryan bit his tongue. “Cool. I’ll play a song just for you.”
But not give me a backstage tour, Ryan thought, when Craig was gone.
The room was very quiet and empty without Craig, who was presumably doing pre-concert things. Ryan stared into space, went to class, listened to music, failed to write poetry. At seven o’ clock, he went to the concert.
Someone had, in their infinite wisdom, decided to put this in the Student Union and make it open to the public, which made it more hot and cramped than Ryan would have liked. They’d put a stage and some sound equipment at one end of the room, and at the other end of the room were jugs of wine, sodas, bottled water, some chips and dip. It was standing room only. He spotted Alma near the front, but she fortunately didn’t see him, and he immediately went to hover near the back, next to a nervous-looking teenager.
Ryan found a program of sorts. There were maybe a dozen artists; probably everyone got to play only two or three songs, if they didn’t want this to last for days. At the bottom was obviously the headliner in large, fat letters: The Abstract Noun. Funny.
Craig was seventh, and Ryan listened to the other acts with half an ear. There was a girl with a guitar trying to be the next Ani DiFranco; a band calling themselves the Modern Young Tigers whose instruments ranged from keytar to musical saw to a jug; a pianist who at one point jumped up and plucked the strings inside the piano; one artist who didn’t even show up and treated them to a surround-sound recording of hair-raising synthesized gobbledygook.
Craig took the stage after the stage ninjas wheeled away the Apple laptop, and the audience looked a little relieved. Oh, look: a guy with a guitar. This should at least be normal, listenable. Ryan’s fists clenched.
“Hey,” Craig said into the mike, then looked startled by how it projected his voice to two different speakers. “So, uh, my name’s Craig, and I don’t sing. I can’t write lyrics for crap, and I think music without words is. . . more universal. So I’m, uh, I’m gonna play now.”
And he did. For fourteen solid minutes–the length of his set–he did nothing but play. No breaks, no pauses, just his fingers sliding over the strings. It started out soft, built to something high and ferocious, tripped and stuttered into something quirky, unpredictable, quiet. At one point it swung into a dance, and then wormed just as easily into something sweet and joyful. It was never solemn, and it never slowed, and if Craig ever tripped up or played a wrong note, it was impossible to tell because he just kept going. Ryan wasn’t close enough to see his face, but he knew the expression: the hooded eyes, the set mouth, the concentration that held no room for anyone or anything else in the world.
At the last, the music charged up like a wave, almost wailing–and then suddenly, it stopped. For the first time since the beginning of his performance, Craig looked up. Grinned. Brought his hand down one last time, for a final crashing chord.
Silence. And then, a smatter of grudging applause, which slowly grew louder. Ryan wanted to yell at them: didn’t they know what stunning musicianship that was? Didn’t they realize what a treasure they’d just seen? Craig got up from the chair and shuffled off the stage with barely a wave.
Ryan barely heard the rest of the concert. More people trickled in toward the end, clearly just to see/hear The Abstract Noun, who inspired cheers when they came on stage. The tall, lanky frontman grabbed the mike and yelled something that Ryan didn’t really care about. Abruptly, Ryan decided that he really, really didn’t need to listen to the rest of this and went to find Craig.
He found Craig all right; he was with Alma at the stage door. Their heads were bent close together. Ryan didn’t slow, didn’t stop, just turned on his heel and walked away. One step after another, until he was quite sure he’d left them behind.
After that, Ryan wasn’t really sure what to do next. He could spend the night at the library, or at the lounge. He could write poetry, or play a game on his DS, or just nap on one of the couches there. He could catch up on his reading. He could find a quick lay, and spend the night there.
In the end, though, Ryan ended up going back to the room. He needed stuff, if he planned to spend the entire night avoiding Craig. As it turned out, though, Craig was already there, sitting on the bed, although for once without the guitar. Euterpe was in her stand. Craig had his back against the wall and was just staring into space.
“Hey,” he said when Ryan came in.
Ryan shut the door quietly behind him and leaned against it. “Hey.”
“I didn’t see you,” Craig said. “At the concert.” He didn’t sound upset about it. He didn’t sound like much of anything.
“I was there. In the back.”
Craig looked down and smiled, briefly. “How was it?”
Ryan decided to try a joke. “Was that the song you said you’d play for me?”
Craig levered himself off the bed. “Yeah.” Then he came and stood very, very close to Ryan, close enough that Ryan’s mouth went dry.
Flight or fight response kicked into high gear. “Wh-where’s Alma?” he stammered.
Craig looked away, and Ryan took the opportunity to breathe and try to slow his heart down. “She left,” he said. “She seemed kind of upset.”
“R-really?” Ryan swallowed. “Why?”
“Said she liked me. Said she wanted to go out.” Craig looked back at Ryan again, and this time Ryan felt a little bit lightheaded. “Told her I couldn’t, because you were maybe about to make a move.”
Ryan was fairly sure his heart stopped. But he was still breathing; he was still alive; Craig was looking at him like maybe he could read his mind, which Ryan was no longer willing to discount. And then, because Craig seemed perfectly willing to just stand there, just inside Ryan’s personal space, Ryan leaned forward and kissed him.
It was one of those brief and tentative kisses he hadn’t really had since high school. These days, if he was going to make a move, he made sure it was assertive and impossible to misread, usually with the help of a hand pressed against the other guy’s crotch. With Craig, though, he couldn’t–wouldn’t–do that. With Craig, he was terrified. He had no idea what was going on, and running away was still a definite possibility.
Craig had no problems with this. He moved in and pressed Ryan up against the door. Not aggressive, just firm. He put one hand up on the door, next to Ryan’s head, and kissed him back, his beard tickling against Ryan’s chin. Their bodies pressed up against each other in one warm line, and Ryan put his hands on Craig’s sides. Then he put his hands on Craig’s arms and ran his fingers up and down the skin, gently. Maybe he could feel the tattoos with his lips, or his tongue.
“What are you doing?” Craig murmured into his mouth.
“Take off your shirt,” Ryan said, distracted by Craig’s eyelashes. He bit Craig’s ear, gently, and laved the earrings with his tongue.
Craig hissed. “I can’t take off my shirt while you’re doing that.” Ryan stopped while Craig pulled off his shirt, and then he did what he’d always wanted to do and put his mouth on Craig’s shoulder, where the tattoo suddenly stopped, a break as clean as if made by a ruler. Craig plucked feebly at the back of Ryan’s shirt, and Ryan reluctantly broke the kiss to strip his own shirt off as well.
And once they had their shirts off, well, the next natural step was the bed. Craig’s bed was closest to the door, and they headed there, trying to get their pants off without letting go. Ryan just barely managed to slough out of his jeans before they fell on the bed; Craig’s were still only halfway down around his knees. That was good enough for Ryan, who all but toppled on top of him and commenced grinding. There wasn’t any room or time for finesse here, and Craig didn’t seem to mind: Craig threw his head back and gasped, eyes closed. Ryan had never wanted to watch before, but he couldn’t take his eyes away now.
“I never–you never–what–” Ryan began, not knowing what or why he needed to ask. Craig opened his eyes, and probably Ryan would have babbled out something entirely stupid and sentimental if Craig hadn’t reached between them and put his hand on Ryan’s cock. Ryan shut his mouth with an audible click of the teeth and breathed hard and fast through his nose until he came.
He lay there on top of Craig until he became aware that Craig was, well, still there, and still hard, blowing warm and quick against Ryan’s neck. Ryan smiled and slid down Craig’s body, loving the way Craig’s eyes slid shut again, and took Craig’s cock in his hand. He loved the warm weight of it, the smell, and Craig was uncut, which was a neat bonus. Craig’s breath hitched when Ryan sucked him in, and Ryan decided that he wanted to make this nice. Not just scratching an itch, not just a challenge; this was Craig, after all, and if anyone deserved to have their cock treated with a little respect, it was Craig. So he was gentle, and firm, and paid attention to the noises Craig made, and when Craig finally came, he swallowed and held Craig in his mouth after.
Afterward, Ryan helped Craig get his pants off the rest of the way, and then he crawled back into bed while Craig pulled the sheets over them. It was a tight fit and completely unnecessary, since Ryan’s bed was less than ten feet away, but if Craig wasn’t going to say anything, well, Ryan wasn’t going to either. Ryan tucked his head under Craig’s chin and closed his eyes, and he fell asleep with Craig’s fingers in his hair.
He woke the next morning feeling remarkably uncramped and rested, which was not par for the course when sharing a twin bed with a full-grown man. Then he discovered that Craig was already up, the freak, and sitting on the floor with his back against the bed, looking naked without his guitar. Ryan reached out and ran his fingers through Craig’s hair, and Craig smiled up at him. “Didn’t want to wake you.”
“Would’ve been a nice way to wake up.” Ryan stretched. “Go ahead. I’m awake now.”
Craig didn’t need to be told twice. Ryan remained in a supine position on the bed, eyes closed, listening to Craig tinker with the strings.
“Ought to apologize to Alma today,” Craig said, starting on a slow, joyful tune.
Ryan buried his face in his arms. “Oh God, she’s never going to speak to me ever again.”
“She’s sweet. She’ll get over it. Find a better man.” The song changed, sliding into something deeper, gladder. “Don’t be a jerk.”
“I won’t.” Ryan peered over the edge of the bed. He’d never watched Craig play from this angle before, one hand sliding something over the strings while the other plucked. “How did you know?”
“Know what?” Craig asked, without even missing a beat.
“That I wrote the poetry.”
Craig paused then, only briefly, before picking up where he left off. “You get this look on your face when you’re writing poetry,” he replied, and Ryan’s stomach turned, but not in a wholly uncomfortable way. “Made me want to kiss you. I’ve been in love with you ever since I read your poetry in the Campanile.”
Ryan jerked at that; he hadn’t thought anyone read the school’s literary mag except the professors, which was one of the reasons he submitted poetry there in the first place.
Craig was still talking. “But you kept pretending like it wasn’t you, and it was in someone else’s handwriting, and you didn’t want me, and you came home late smelling like another guy’s come.” The music stopped.
For once, Ryan found himself empty of words. There were many things he could say: “I love you,” or “I’m sorry,” or even “Why me?” And then, because there was nothing else to do, he wormed onto the floor and kissed Craig, even though his eyes were still crusted with sleep and they both still had morning breath. Craig kissed him back, no hesitation there. It was, he thought, a very nice kiss; one of the nicest he’d ever had.
Stupidly, Ryan said, “Will you write a song about me?”
Craig looked taken aback. “Dude, every song is about you.”
And at that, Ryan had to lean into Craig and take deep breaths, because God, he really, really didn’t deserve him, and here he was anyway.