by Koizumi Shinme (恋墨新芽)
Outside, a Gulf wind blew the rain into sheets like some old B movie effect, lines of water rippling and splatting against the storm windows, gusts rattling the back door where the latch still held, barely, fingers of damp wind trying to sneak in where it was warm and dry.
Inside, the storm-dimmed light of late afternoon was enough to see but not to read. Michael sat hunched over the coffee table, book spread before his knees, its fine black print wavering in the light of three short candles, each labeled ‘pine’, their slightly different smells warring in the back of his mind as he read of Maria, of Galileo, of letters sent through time and desperation between two minds who might as well have been mirror twins rather than father and daughter, the way the bright and dark lines of their lives intersected.
Beyond the candles lay a scattering of cards, a failure of solitaire, a collection of diamonds and hearts and, most importantly, green fields circled by mountaintops on the back. They were a gift, come in the mail three summers back. He had no idea where the picture was taken.
Ignoring them, he read on while the church excommunicated a genius to the scent of spruce overwhelming cedar.
I have the book, and I have the candle, Michael thought, as lightning flashed behind him and letters danced across the page. Shouldn’t there be something else?
The doorbell rang.
He stood, not knowing he had done so. He took a step towards the phone.
No. No, it was the door.
He found the reaching of the door easy, but the reaching for it hard, his hand not wanting to touch the knob, as if it would shock him. Who came to someone’s door on a night like tonight, when Galileo was sinking and Michael himself only just emerging from the bright-dark words to take a breath? Who came in the wind and the thunder and the rain – the rain. Oh, yes. It was raining out there.
He opened the door.
It took a moment. He’d been very far away and strange to himself, and the face before him was no longer familiar, though the voice would be, if it opened its mouth, or the writing, if that hand moved pen across paper. But the apparition stood mute and damp and coatless on his front step, speaking only with the lift of a single eyebrow.
Like a warm wind, that expression blew through him, stripping the beffudlement of history and fake pine scent. “Jay!”
The second eyebrow joined the first, high up on a stubborn forehead, both almost lost beneath dark hair flattened by water.
“Um, come in?”
“Thanks.” Jay’s voice, dry as the rest of him was not, betrayed only that one corner of his lips might be twitching upwards. Or it might have just been a shadow from that final flash.
Thunder rolled over them, and Michael paused, letting that familiar sound ease some nervousness inside him. “Come in,” he repeated more firmly, stepping aside. “You need a towel.”
Jay snorted. “Yeah.”
Through a familiar accident of last names, Michael had sat next to Jay in eleventh grade English. This was long after Jay’d given up poking him with a pencil to distract him – that was third grade. No, Jay’s new form of distraction was more sophisticated: Jay made him curious.
He didn’t know why he was remembering this now, hearing the water run in his bathroom and shaking out fresh sheets for the guest bed, but somehow the sense of still being stuck inside a book called to a moment in second semester. Jay had turned to him with a puzzled frown and held up the Lit book, staring closely at the page. They had it open to a poem and a picture of some Greek guy falling while other people ignored him (it was supposed to be some big metaphor, they all thought, but even the teacher seemed a little bored). Then Jay turned the book sideways, looked at it, turned it again.
“I don’t get it,” he muttered, and Michael couldn’t quite tell if he was meant to hear.
Jay turned the book again. “Where’s the rest of the sky?”
Michael blinked. “What do you mean?”
“Icarus was this guy who flew, right? So why’s the picture showing mostly ground?”
“Because he fell.”
“Michael, would you like to share your thoughts with the rest of the class?” Mrs. Callaway asked sweetly, and Michael blushed, mumbling something about how people mostly ignore other people’s tragedies. Mrs. Callaway smiled at him and took up the theme with more passion, expounding on World War II and Hemingway for what seemed like an eternity. She didn’t seem to like poetry, very much, but she definitely liked the Expats.
Listening with one ear to Jay and the other to Mrs. Callaway, Michael wanted to say ‘no, that’s not it.’ He wanted to tell her that life was just full of these kind of things – falling things, hurting things – so full nobody could notice them anymore. Nobody noticed anything that didn’t happen to them personally. They couldn’t see it, because then they’d have to admit their ordinary, everyday lives were full of boys drowning.
He didn’t know what he wanted to tell Jay, but the shape of the thought felt like melted wax and feathers.
His thoughts wound inside these tight circles, ground through the interminable minutes until the bell rang, and even afterwards, among the slamming of lockers and the chattering of voices, he could still hear Jay muttering, “It just doesn’t make sense.”
Tucking in the corners of the top sheet on what was to be Jay’s bed, Michael thought that very few things made sense, least of all the distant roll of thunder and the sound of the bathroom door opening and closing across the hall.
“Guestroom’s ready.” Michael came downstairs to find Jay sprawled on the couch. His couch, wrapped in his bathrobe, playing his abandoned game of solitaire.
‘You won’t win,’ Michael wanted to say, but didn’t. “I haven’t won all week,” he compromised.
Jay’s fingers flipped up, green and mountaintops between them, flipped again: a nine of spades. “It was stuck in the couch.”
Michael didn’t know what to say, so he merely watched as Jay won the game, restacked the cards, shuffled, and set them neatly aside. His hands were sure, a guy who’d played many times over the years. Probably with people who didn’t speak his language, didn’t speak any language he knew. Jay was like that. He could make connections.
He’d made a connection with Michael, who never connected with anybody. Who never touched anything but books. Who hid, and smiled, and let himself be patted on the head by friends of his mother, calling him a ‘good boy.’ Who never said ‘I’d rather be Galileo.’
Jay’s eyes caught the book lying open on the table. Ran over it sharply, then looked away. A postcard from Zurich had fallen between the pages, marking nothing but displaying its worn edges and a sticky thumbprint on the lake whose name Michael could not remember, but Jay probably did.
Michael reached out to distract him. “How long were you planning to be in town?”
Jay blinked, eyes on Michael’s fingers as they put out the candles one by one, pinching the wicks.
“I don’t know,” his voice echoed in darkness. “I never know.”
Jay stayed through Christmas.
‘Will you be okay on your own?’ Michael thought he should ask, but didn’t. ‘Are you going home for the holidays?’ would have been useful, but that wouldn’t come out either. Instead, he just grabbed his keys and muttered “I’m heading down to Tony’s. You comin’?”
Three days before Christmas, his mother said something over the phone.
“Michael, dear, did you invite Jay for Christmas Eve?”
He winced. He hated sounding like a girl to his own mother.
“Well, you should,” she insisted. “Ben and Virginia are on a cruise this year.”
Later he thought, ‘what about his sisters?’ But he didn’t ask anyone. He just sat there in the truck, the night before Christmas Eve, with the key in his hand and the springs creaking under him and Jay’s eyebrow rising and rising when he didn’t start the engine.
“You wanna, um.” Girl, again. Sounded like a girl. “My mom says. You should, um. Come to dinner.”
“Tonight?” Jay asked, face front, eyebrow back to normal.
“Tomorrow,” Michael corrected, and Jay seemed to get it.
Michael started the engine.
It wasn’t that he hadn’t spent any time with Jay before. But they weren’t best friends, either. Or something. He didn’t know, wasn’t sure, hadn’t even defended Jay most of those years in school when people said the kind of things people are always saying. Never spoke up – hey, I think he’s cool – when Jay’s family moved to Mobile the first time, when they were seven, and some of the kids picked on him. Didn’t sign the card his mom sent when the Farrens moved away four years later. Wasn’t first in line with the welcoming mat when he came back, sophomore year in high school.
The only thing, in fact, that Michael could say in his own defense was that when Jay’s family had moved away again with three months left in senior year, he’d asked his mom if Jay was going to stay to graduate.
“What a great idea, honey,” she’d said, and Michael had found himself with a roommate six months before college.
Jay was nice about it. Polite. Calm. He didn’t care about things too much, Michael thought at the time. He didn’t care. He would change in the bathroom if that’s what Michael wanted. He would eat whatever was on the table. He would keep Michael’s hours, drink Michael’s gatorade, and never complain, never ask for things. Michael tried, at first, to think of things to give him, but gave it up when he decided Jay didn’t care.
Now he couldn’t believe how stupid he’d been.
After Christmas Eve dinner they went to church.
Jay didn’t have to go. He never had been required – not by Michael’s mom, and certainly not by Michael himself. But he had gone, every time, dressed and ready when the family was, sitting quiet and polite in the car, in the pew, on the folding chairs at the social afterwards. He let the ladies pat him on the head. He shook hands with the men, and smiled at the kids their own age.
Michael had thought he was an alien.
Jay was quiet at home, too, but at least there his smiles, when they came, held a sense of amusement. At least there he would slouch in his chair, drink straight from the gatorade bottle, scratch places that itched. In church, he was like a plastic doll.
So, secretly, Michael was dreading Christmas Eve services with all his meager soul.
The first thing that differed was that Jay didn’t have a suit. He had arrived with nothing but a backpack a month ago, and that sure as heck didn’t include a three-piece stuffed in the bottom of it. So he borrowed one of Michael’s, which didn’t quite fit, being too short in the arms and a bit tight around the neck. Jay unbuttoned the top button, then the next one. Michael watched him, and blinked, and turned away.
The second thing was that Jay changed in front of him. He’d been doing that for weeks, now. It made Michael wonder what kind of people he’d been rubbing elbows with.
The third thing was Jay’s smile. He smiled all through supper; or, rather, he flashed smiles regularly throughout the whole meal. The four of them sat around the kitchen table because Grandma had gone to the cousins this year, and Jay kept smiling, randomly, stupidly, just because someone said something like “pass the sweet potatoes, please.” And he hugged Michael’s mom. Twice. She called him “sweetie” and he called her “Mizzus Dorothy” in a drawl that was never his, and Michael braced himself for something to explode.
“Would you like to go to church with us tonight, sweetie?”
Here it comes, Michael thought.
“Sure, Mizzus Dorothy. But I’ll have to borrow a suit.”
“Michael has an extra. Don’t you, dear?”
And Michael realized, as they both turned to look at him, that he was expected to talk.
“Sure,” he gasped, jerking his head up and down. “Sure thing.”
And that was that.
The fourth thing that differed was that Michael and Jay drove separately from Michael’s parents, seeing as how they had to go home to get Jay changed first. So it was just the two of them in the car on the way to a place Michael had to admit he didn’t want to be, and nobody was talking. Jay fidgeted with his cuffs and looked out the window. Michael worked on breathing normally.
Services should have been awful.
They got out of the car. They mingled. Ladies patted them on the head. Men shook their hands. Kids their own age gave them sympathetic looks as they stood together, trying not to fidget. Trying to look normal.
This lasted until the first hymn.
Jay was a musician. Michael could not believe he ever forgot this. Every other postcard in his mailbox told how Jay made his train fare to Paris by playing his guitar. Times he got busted for busking without a permit. Places where people were generous. Places where they were snobs. The lyrics of “Hey, Jude” in Portuguese. An Italian love balad from four hundred years ago.
Jay was a musician, and angels had never sounded on high like they sounded that night, smokey and light all at once, but utterly, gut-wrenchingly human. Michael’s voice faded into nothing, listening not with his ears, but with his whole body.
People on the streets in Europe got to hear this for free. Michael would have ransomed his house, his car, his promotion at work to be in their place. And now, here he was, without sacrificing a thing. It seemed wrong, like he was missing something, like a gift given before he deserved it.
After services, Jay said “You okay?” and Michael said “Yes.”
“You boys come home and have some eggnog,” Michael’s mom said, and, as always, she got the last word.
It was sleeting.
It had been sleeting since one a.m. It was now four. Four? Four. Michael was pretty sure. But maybe he’d better check.
“What time is it?”
A pause. A shift on the other end of the couch. Finally, a mumbled “Late.”
“But how late?”
He shouldn’t be here, still here, cozied up on his mother’s couch and wasted out of his mind on rum and sugar. He felt like his blood would boil if he moved. It was steaming already.
“We should go.”
A long, long pause, like his words had dropped into darkness and vanished. Then, “Where?” The word was like a groan.
“I think we can walk all three blocks. Prob’bly.” Actually, Michael wasn’t sure. It depended on the sleet, he thought. Shiny sleet, slippery sleet… God. He hadn’t been this drunk in years.
Six and a half years, to be exact.
He could remember the night of their graduation party in painful detail: the way he’d been feeling itchy and shy and wanting someone to talk to him, wanting not to look stupid in front of all these kids who seemed to know what getting drunk and touching each other was all about, what laughter was about. The envy was eating him, and the nervousness, when something brushed his elbow and he jumped.
“Let’s get out of here,” Jay said, dropping his hand, and Michael was so glad to have someone talking to him that he nodded, willing to go anywhere if it meant he could stop smiling and nodding and holding his beer like he knew any of these people, like they knew him, or cared.
Eighteen years and three months of living in Mobile, Alabama, and Jay Farren was the only person in the room talking to him.
Also the only person getting him drunk.
He probably hadn’t meant to, but with the punch and most of a beer, that half a bottle of cheap red wine (and they were good, so good, about sharing – one sip for you, one sip for me – and the level went down so fast, so startlingly fast) mixed with all the butterflies in Michael’s stomach so that when Jay put a hand on his knee and said something incomprehensible in his deepest voice, Michael’s response was “I don’t feel so-”
Jay held his shoulders while he decorated the bushes.
When he’d stopped shaking and Jay had poured the last of the bottle out on the grass, they snuck onto Michael’s back porch and slept there on the porch swing, head to toe in the cramped space, because they knew if they opened the door Michael’s mom would wake up and find out they were drunk.
She surely knew they were drunk now.
“I can’t sleep here,” Michael moaned, knowing it was true. He could not face his mother first thing in the morning. He needed his own bathroom, the silences of his own house to pull him back together.
“Okay,” Jay said, but it was a while before either of them moved.
Ice-rimmed, the world spun around Michael’s head as the street slipped beneath his feet. Only Jay’s fingers clamped around his elbow kept him upright.
They were atop the hill just past his parents’ house. It had always seemed to slope so gently, but tonight, coated with fresh sleet, it seemed like a bright cliff-face waiting for them both.
“Wait,” Jay whispered, his hand appearing from nowhere beside Michael’s nose. “See that?”
“What?” Michael blinked. He saw rather a lot of things, all of them jumbled.
Christmas lights twinkled everywhere, as far as the neighborhood extended, and then, further off in the city, to the edge of their tree-rimmed horizon. It looked like a postcard. “Oh.”
“Ignore the inflatable Santas,” Jay advised him.
“And the Pooh-Bear?”
They stood and took in the view for a moment. “It’s nice,” Michael admitted. Then he squinted, shading his eyes against a non-existant glare. “Why’s it dark over there?”
“By Davis.” The high school was invisible.
“And there, too.” Jay pointed to a patch of darkness where the Methodist church should be displaying its creche. As they watched, the darkness grew: street by street, neighborhood by neighborhood.
“Power’s going out,” Michael said unnecessarily. Jay nodded, the last gesture Michael caught before the lights around them flickered and died.
“At least we can’t see the Santas anymore.”
“You remember that night I called you?”
In the darkness, Jay’s voice was very close. Michael nodded, then realized he would have to speak.
“Yes,” he replied. There was only one night. Only one call. No amount of ice beneath his feet or alcohol in his brain could distract him from that. From his mother saying ‘Who is it, honey?’ and Michael saying ‘Just Jay, Mom. Go back to sleep.’
Just Jay, stuck at school for a long weekend because it was too far to go home to Oklahoma from New York. Just minutes and minutes that seemed like hours of little nothings, of strange comments on the weather, reliving that summer day they got stuck in a tropical storm because they were too stupid to go in when the warnings came, descriptions of fall in upstate – an interminable age of Michael waiting for the other shoe to drop, waiting so long that when the moment came, he almost missed it.
“Do you believe in kindred spirits?” Jay’d asked, and Michael had blinked. ‘What a girly thing to say’ he hadn’t said. No, he’d been very clear in his mind. Thinking, ‘Jesus says we’re all brothers and sisters’. Thinking of shaking hands in church. Thinking of the way everyone in town seemed to stand an arm’s length from him, none too far, none too close – thinking all that, he’d been very clear.
“No,” he’d said, and after saying it, he’d known it was the kind of answer you could never take back.
“Okay,” Jay had said, and hung up.
Now Michael couldn’t believe how stupid he’d been, felt the warmth inside and the cold out and Jay’s hand on his arm, and said “Yes. I remember.”
Jay swayed and let it go, and Michael thought ‘You shouldn’t.’ But he couldn’t tell Jay to push, and he couldn’t tell him to hang on.
They walked home as separate souls, staggering, and the house was dark to greet them.
Drying Jay’s hair with a towel because Jay’s arms were too uncoordinated to do it, Michael tried to think. Rum slowed him, but he could get this far:
One) No lights.
Two) No heat.
Three) We are too drunk for stairs.
These all added up to a matress on the floor, reminiscent of Jay’s days rooming with him in high school, except for one problem: he didn’t have a spare matress that wasn’t upstairs, which brought them neatly back to problem number three. Stripping his own wet suit from Jay’s body piece by uncoordinated piece, Michael finally made up his mind.
Jay would sleep in his bed.
It wasn’t as big a deal as he was making it out to be. Really, it wasn’t. He just had to find a pair of boxers and a t-shirt for each of them and get the covers untucked enough to roll Jay under.
“I missed you,” Jay mumbled sometime during the process, and Michael just nodded. ‘Sure, yeah, whatever,’ part of his brain was thinking.
It was only after he slipped under the covers himself that another part of his brain caught up, sort of: ‘I missed this,’ it said, where ‘this‘ was something he didn’t understand, except that there were wet clothes all over his clean floor and he was drunk off his ass and the power was out and it was like an adventure, a winter world all swirling and cold around the warmth of his bed and the smell of damp hair drying on his pillow.
They were late to Christmas morning, but Michael’s mom never said a word.
Opening presents, Michael was startled to see what Jay’d given his mom: a silver bracelet with the Hail Mary etched on it in Greek letters. Hadn’t he left Cypress last June? Had he known, even then, that he would be spending Christmas with Michael’s family? Or had he gotten Michael’s mom a present last year, and the year before, and Michael just didn’t know about it?
Then he had no more time to wonder because Jay was handing him a flat, heavy package wrapped in blue.
He knew it was a book, which wasn’t silly because everyone got him a book. Except last year when he got the house, everyone assumed the safe thing to do was to get him something printed. If he’d had more friends, he would have worried that someday he’d run out of space in the house.
This book was wide and heavy, hardback, probably something really nice. Michael weighed it in his hand as he slipped a fingernail under the tape and teased it open. Everyone was watching, the same bemused smiles on their faces that people always wore when they were waiting for him to open a package, as he popped open the side and ran his finger down the middle seam, peeling the paper back.
It was in French. There was Notre Dame on the cover, or half of it – the other half was on the back, he realized, as he finished carefully stripping off the wrapping, and the title was in French. Huh. He opened it, let it fall to whatever page it wanted, and was startled with a picture of the rose window at Chartres.
“It’s about cathedrals,” he realized.
“All the famous ones in France,” Jay agreed, and then lowered his voice. “That one’s better in person, though.”
‘I’m sure it is,’ Michael thought, running his hands over the lights.
His contemplation was cut short by Jay reaching out one long arm and saying, “This one for me?” Michael wanted to say ‘no!’ He wanted to take it back and get something else, but Jay was already ripping into the paper and lifting out the book of letters from Galileo and Maria, still trapped in her convent.
“Hey, cool!” Jay exclaimed, but Michael just wanted to disappear. Jay’d gotten him a beautiful hardback book in French – in French! – and he gave a used book in return, it’s edges already worn by Michael’s fingers. How cheap.
But Jay wasn’t looking at the book that way. His eyes were lit up and his mouth twisted a little, and when he looked up to catch Michael’s eyes, he asked, “Did he really drop balls and feathers off Pisa?”
Michael huffed a laugh. “Who knows?”
That night they lit pine-scented candles and read, each in their own world, but occassionally speaking up, reading lines, passages, images that caught their eyes. Afterwards, they put out the candles and Jay went upstairs, but as he rolled over trying to get comfortable, Michael realized his pillow still smelled like drying hair.
He left it there, telling himself he’d wash it in the morning.
But the next morning, Michael instead got out the deck of cards and looked, really looked at the backs. Wildflowers in front, yellow and white, small. Taller mountains in back, white-capped and faintly blue. Green hills in between. In the middle of this study Jay came downstairs, yawning, scratching his stomach where his shirt rode up.
Michael turned and looked at Jay, really looked at him, and realized he didn’t know anything more about the guy in front of him than he did about the mountains.
Jay had stopped, looking back at him, half-wary, half-waiting. And finally Michael saw it.
“You’re gay,” he said. Stated it. No question. “That’s why you don’t go home. That’s why you go everywhere but home.”
Jay didn’t move. His arm dropped carefully at his side. “I don’t mind being foreign. I like going places.”
“You can be anything you want,” Michael continued, speculating. Wondering. “You can move on, if it starts to suck.”
“I can see the world,” Jay agreed.
“But only the places you haven’t been before.” There were some drawbacks here – big, glaring. Michael felt them like sharp rocks, digging into his sides. “Only people you’ve never met.”
“I just hate being an alien in my own house.”
It took a moment for Michael to realize that Jay’d said it, not him. He huffed a laugh. “I get that.”
One eyebrow went up. “You don’t care?”
A fair question. Michael searched himself. “No. Do you?” Jay shook his head, eyes wide.
They spent the rest of the morning in silence and a little distance, but it was companionable. At lunchtime, they went down to the hardware store and picked up the new faucets for Michael’s dad, but didn’t deliver them. Instead they went to Tony’s across the street and sat in a red-plastic booth, ordered a sausage and pepperoni pizza, and talked about tropical storms. Outside, it threatened rain. Inside, the windows steamed and they sat in a separate world, talking around a thing they weren’t quite sure of, this recognition that all the long years ago Jay had been right: they were kin.
Home once more, they sat on the couch playing cards. The power was still out in their neighborhood, so they had the candles lit again, and it was hard to keep track of what he had in his hand by the flickering light. Equally hard to hide them from Jay, who sat so close beside him their legs were almost touching. Michael shifted nervously and cleared his throat.
“Maybe we should, uh, play solitaire?”
At this point he couldn’t have cared less if he sounded like a girl.
“There’s two of us,” Jay pointed out, all husk and amusement.
“More chances to win,” Michael declared.
“Yes,” Jay said, and Michael at first thought he was talking about cards. Then Jay’s left hand came down on his thigh and Michael flashed back to a moment six years ago, sitting on his back steps drunk off his ass and Jay’s hand on his knee, saying something incomprehensible.
“Oh, Jesus,” Michael whispered. “Oh, Jesus Christ!”
“You okay?” Jay asked, face worried. He started to move his hand.
“Yes,” Michael declared. “Yes.” Finally.
He put his hand over Jay’s to hold it there.
Jay’s eyes widened for a second, like he hadn’t expected that. Like he’d expected another interruption, a few more years of strung-together moments that right now were falling into place all around Michael like the strains of Hallelujah by some decidedly earthly chorus, and he had a moment of worrying about his immortal soul, but he was used to thinking of himself as damned. He just wasn’t used to was having company.
And if Jay’s hand sliding slowly up his leg was any indication, he was in very good company indeed.
Jay’s free hand was slipping around his waist, slowly, as if worried about startling him, but once there it wasted no time tugging him closer to Jay’s warm body, pulling until he found himself straddling a warm, hard, blue-jean covered thigh. Consciously, he let his legs fall open around it.
Jay’s breathing went fast and shallow quite suddenly, rapid hot breath against Michael’s ear that made him squirm, and then the hand on his leg – Jay was left-handed, Michael suddenly remembered. What an odd moment to – Jesus! – that same left hand cupped his groin, squeezing lightly. Michael shuddered and went still.
“Is this okay?” Jay’s voice asked, rough and deep.
“Yeah,” Michael gasped out, thinking that that would probably be the last coherent thing he could manage to say and hoping that Jay would ask less with his mouth and more with his hands. Then he felt a warm wetness against his shoulder where his shirt didn’t cover, felt it trail up his neck to his ear, and he thought ‘okay! mouth’s okay!’
Jay’s hands were moving, too. The right one had gone from holding Michael’s waist to sliding up under his shirt, slowly, rubbing up and down, as if to get Michael used to the idea that someone was touching him under his clothes. He was silently grateful. The other hand was just cupping between his legs, letting him feel his own heat and Jay’s, building, until the right hand brushed across a nipple. Then Jay squeezed with the left, and Michael made a sound.
He might have been embarrassed if Jay’s fingertips hadn’t been dancing playfully over his chest, if Jay hadn’t been rubbing slow and hard against him with his palm. As it was, he couldn’t care about anything in the world except being held up like this, braced on a leg, against a torso, being touched. It was the world rushing to meet him.
A wet tongue dragged across his ear, and Jay said “I’m gonna open your fly, okay?”
‘Okay,’ Michael thought, but didn’t have the breath to say it.
Jay’s fingers were deft. For a moment only, there was coolness where heat had been, then the sound of a button popping and a zipper going down, then Michael was free and popping out, caught up again by that expert hand.
“Oh,” he said, and decided he didn’t sound like a girl. He sounded like a guy. A guy with another guy’s hand down his pants.
“Michael,” Jay whispered in a smokey, sing-song voice. “Michael, Michael, Michael.” He rubbed in time with his words, stroking his palm down Michael’s shaft, back up over the head, and Michael’s head, his real one, the full one that thought it might explode at the mere thought of everything that was happening to him, fell back on Jay’s shoulder. He let himself be held up, buoyed up by Jay’s strength and Jay’s voice and Jay’s hands, moving faster and faster on him as Jay’s breathing came harder, more ragged, and Michael was gasping for air against lights that danced across the backs of his closed eyelids.
Jay squeezed, and stroked. Michael whimpered, panted. Jay’s fingers twisted, catching his balls. Somewhere, a nipple was pinched and pulled but it was just one more sensation in the crescendo that was building as Jay pushed and pushed, gripped him once to tug upwards, then pushed again, squeezing.
“Oh, God,” Michael moaned, as every muscle in his body tensed.
“Yeah,” Jay whispered, and Michael let go.
He didn’t see stars, just the bright flashes from squeezing his eyes too tightly shut, but he felt like he had somehow been thrust upwards from some deep place and was now breaking out into the light, opening everything inside of him in one rush – opening his eyes, too, to catch the flickering of candles in what would have been an ordinary room, if not for Jay’s hands still holding him firmly.
They didn’t say anything for long moments. Michael was recovering. Jay – well, he didn’t know Jay’s reasons, but he could feel a warm spot prodding him in the hip and thought that was probably it.
“You want me to-?” he started to ask, but Jay said, “Just let me-” and they were sliding sideways on the couch, sliding down to lie there with Michael still on top, still facing away.
‘What am I supposed to do in this position?’ Michael thought for just a moment, then Jay’s hands were busy at his hips, hooking under his jeans and underwear and pushing them down to his thighs. Michael froze.
“It’s okay,” Jay told him, petting his stomach, kissing his shoulder. “It’s okay. Trust me. Okay?”
Michael nodded, jerkily.
Jay’s hands moved under his butt for a moment, slid under and twisted, and Michael realized he was opening his fly. Jeez. He wanted to jump up. He wanted to grind down. He couldn’t, he couldn’t-
“It’s okay. It’s okay,” Jay kept saying, his hands now free to run over Michael’s body, which was trying to relax back into the moment but not succeeding because his brain kept twisting it up. “It’s okay, Michael.” And that was the magic word, his name in that voice, because Michael let felt the tension run out of him, let his hands fall back to the couch, open.
“Okay,” he whispered, and he could feel Jay’s lips smile against his neck.
“Okay,” Jay agreed, and began to push.
He kept one hand flat on Michael’s hips and rolled beneath him, holding him still for it, letting him feel the way Jay’s heat had become a solid object beneath him, slippery with their sweat. The other hand roamed, not teasing anymore, just reassuring with its touch. ‘I’m here,’ Jay’s body was saying. ‘You’re here. I’m touching you.’
‘Thank God,’ Michael’s body said in response.
The pushing built slowly. Michael had time to register details that hadn’t caught him before: the scent of the candles, invading his nose; the squeak of the couch springs. The little hitching sounds Jay made in his throat as he thrust. The way he didn’t really seem to be getting anywhere.
In matters of theory and design, Michael was an expert.
With both hands he grabbed the couch and pushed himself upwards, spreading his legs as far as his jeans would allow, which wasn’t far, but just far enough that Jay’s heat could slip between his thighs. He squeezed around it.
“Ah!” It was Jay’s turn to sound like a guy with another guy wrapped around him, and he didn’t sound unhappy about it. At all. His hand on Michael’s hips became an arm wrapped fiercely tight, and his thrusts went from steady to frantic.
“Michael! Michael!” He sounded almost like he was crying, but Michael knew the feeling, so he understood what it really was: connection.
And that rush, that sudden rush, that had Jay shuddering against his back and dampness spreading between his thighs. “God,” Jay said, and went limp beneath him.
On reflection, Michael realized that he was lying on his couch on top of his best friend, his jeans around his knees, their clothes soaked with sweat and other things better left unmentioned, but if anyone had told him he was in heaven, he probably would have believed them.
Jay left the day before Mardi Gras.
They went to the local parade on Sunday, which Jay said was the better one anyway, and flights going out of the area were cheap as dirt that day. So Monday morning he stuffed his clothes and the book Michael’d given him into his battered backpack and let Michael drive him to Birmingham.
They didn’t talk much on the way.
At the airport Michael felt awkward. Jay was on standby, so they weren’t even sure he’d get a seat, but he had to be in the boarding area anyway. Michael walked him to the security checkpoint, then stood there, shifting his weight back and forth.
“I’ll visit,” Jay said.
“You could come visit me,” Jay suggested. Michael huffed a laugh.
“Don’t be a stranger,” Jay said, and kissed him on the cheek.
‘That’s my line,’ Michael thought, but Jay was already moving foward, setting his bag on the conveyer belt.
“Where are you going?” Michael called out across the room. He’d forgotten to even ask.
“Italy,” Jay called back, and smiled. “I’ll send you a postcard!” He turned away and stepped through the scanner.
“Italy,” Michael echoed, and thought of Galileo.
Coming home from work one night in March, Michael found a postcard mixed in with his junk mail. It was of a tiny white house perched on the side of a green hill, with mountains in the background. The reverse was covered in a familiar handwriting, telling him how the town was two hours north of Florence by train, where the sender was living with an old lady who loaned him her back room in return for fixing up the old house like her son used to, before he went off to school.
The last two lines said: “Heading for Pisa next month. Have to see if the tower’s still standing.”
Michael flipped the card back over. White house. Green hill. Distant, white-capped mountains. And there – there, if he looked really close – tiny white and yellow flowers scattered across the fields.
Three days later Michael shouldered a bag and shuffled forward in the boarding line. He had a hotel receipt, a guidebook, and a deck of playing cards. He didn’t think he’d be bored.
Half an hour later the plane sped up as it roared down the runway, pressing him back into his seat. Michael’s lips twisted into an unfamiliar grin.
He had no idea where that picture was taken, but he planned to find out. And if not, well, there was always Pisa.