There’s something about the way the light catches him. Something curiously soft about how it falls across his face. I tell him repeatedly what I see in the highlights and in the shadows—scars and freckles I’ve discovered—the hills and the valleys. He doesn’t protest my worship, he just chuckles a bit and let’s a smile slip out of the corner of his mouth until it falls. He turns away from me pulling the covers up around his chin, as if he’s bashful, ignoring that we’re wrapped up together.
It’s Saturday morning observations like this one that might seem the pedestrian thing of love. The quiet, in-the-middle times of a relationship where there’s nowhere in particular to be. The stuff of rom-coms and high school romances. But to me, at the edge of thirty, they are new, and exciting, and scary, and everything I wanted but could never have. So I genuflect to each second that is ours, and pray that none of it will ever feel normal.
We went to a play last night, after walking along the East River. Soaked with alcohol and a cold winter rain, we forced our way to will call, seeking refuge in the warmth of the eager theatergoers. We slide into our seats in the mezzanine. As the house lights dim, I watch him surrender to a deep sleep. Behind his heavy lids, he is oblivious to the comings and goings of actors he told me minutes earlier were some of his favorites.
“The book is long,” interrupts my obsessive gaze on him. I turn my attention to the stage just long enough to realize that the lovesick protagonist reminds me too much of a twenty year old me. “It’s a long book,” his grandma repeats with an oddly-soothing assertiveness, “This is just one chapter—a dark chapter.” “There will be another,” she assures him, as his fears, the ones over life and love and his place in the universe, disappear from his face.
My eyes wander away from the stage and I am transfixed, again, by the reds and the blues of the stage lights casting softly across his sculpted features. Looking at him in that moment, I fall in love all over and over and over and over again. It won’t be until the final curtain call, the standing ovation, that I nudge him out of his quiet escape. He doesn’t know it, but “The book is long” echos in my head as we weave our way slowly out of the theater and into the slick, dark streets lit by Broadway bulbs.
It’s a decade earlier and the warm, midwestern air weighs heavy on my body. The streetlight pitches across the cinder that scrapes against the sidewalk with every passing step. I shuffle up the stairs and open the door to see my roommate relaxing on the couch and the butterflies hit me. My girlfriend is waiting just blocks away, but all I think is “Don’t leave.” And I think maybe if I stay long enough he’ll confess that he feels the same way and validate that feeling I can’t shake. But he doesn’t.
In Louisiana several years later, I’m reminded of that night as I once again shuffle up the stairs, this time into a shotgun house. It’s darker out this time, the street is lit only by a lonely light at the end of the block, and the wet southern air feels heavier. The butterflies? They’re the same. “Don’t leave,” I think again. And “Maybe, just maybe,” I wonder, holding back the tears as best I can. It’s then, in a back room just beyond an old kitchen, that I finally tell another man how I feel. But he doesn’t feel the same.
“The book is long.” A year passes, and that darkness, the streetlights, they still keep me company on lonely sidewalks at night—this time in DC. I spend my time trying to forget those days though, and I busy myself with an ambling routine from here to there. But the weight of the future and the terrifying hopelessness of facing it alone slowly overwhelms by self-induced amnesia.
A year later I snap out of it, I walk out into the street, flag a taxi, and force the names of the cross streets of a gay bar out of my mouth. Crawling out of the cab alone and walking up to the door, I worry that the doorman can tell I’m a fraud. And quickly, I realize I’ve never been surrounded by so many people and yet felt so alone. I see someone I know against the wall. We talk until I lean in to kiss him—what would have been my first kiss if he hadn’t dove his cheek to the ground before I got there. In that moment, he confirms what I’ve always thought: I don’t belong here.
“This was just one chapter—a dark chapter.” Over drinks years later, a friend will cut through my cloud of tired indifference: “I’ll introduce you to my friend,” she says. She follows through and weeks later, I knock at the door of a crowded apartment. At that party, I learn to fight that years-old, out-of-place feeling. So weeks later, in a bar around the block, I get butterflies staring across the table the table at a crush who, for the first time, is capable of loving me back.
I learn quickly though that progress doesn’t necessarily beget results. Awkward dates pass here and there, as a flurry of headshots, sterile and prepackaged, flit across my phone. When that error screen pops up, letting me know that there’s no one else to judge, I think: “There’s literally no one for me.” And I worry more than ever about things like life and love, and my place in the universe.
The next few months the night haunted me. It suffocated me, as I walked the drably lit streets aimlessly. I’d take refuge in the random places—a small coffee shop, the company of a bartender who admitted over several visits that she too wanted out of this town. So I decided, finally, to burn it all down. I turned out the lights in the house that I had bought on a quiet corner, the place I was never supposed to have to leave, and moved to New York City.
“There will be another chapter.” Immediately upon arriving, the busy hum of the City gave me purpose, even if false at first. I was moving. Everyone was moving. There must be places to be, things that need doing. And when I least expected it, that’s when I meet him after all these years.
I’m nervous as I turn left off of Eighth Avenue onto 34th Street and peer through the bar’s plate glass window. I see him sitting at the end of the bar, staring into his phone. I wonder if he’s nervous too, as I walk up to him and shake his hand because I didn’t know what else to do. I watch him smile as he sets his beer down, and I can’t help but smile too. I fumble from one question to another until, an hour later, I warn him: “You have a train to catch.”
Months later, as we’re walking down the street holding hands warmed by the sun on a cold winter day, I’ll learn that he thought I wasn’t interested in him on that first date. I’ll learn that I abruptly told him he had to catch his train, as if I wanted him to catch his train. So I tell him how I was scared he’d lose interest if he stayed any longer. And, most importantly, I tell him how slipping out of the bar and into the night that night didn’t feel like all the other ones. The darkness didn’t haunt me, the air didn’t weigh on me. There was no loneliness.
So as we stand in the subway off of Union Square not wanting that lazy Saturday to end, time writes sentences around us. I think about how tightly he’s holding me, and how he looks at me with those freckled eyes when he pulls away. “Kiss me again,” I hear. After our lips separate, he turns finally, pushes through the turnstile, and dives into the crowd. I wait, hoping to squeeze a few more sentences out of the day and think to myself as I turn away, “The book is long.”
Image courtesy of James Nord. Some rights reserved.