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Chapter one

Flowers are funny things. You never would have expected them to grow inside, trapped in a pot; you would never have expected them to bloom perfectly. They’re supposed to be these wild things, fighting the weeds for themselves. Yet somehow, they do it. They live in captivity. They do more than live -- I have yet to meet a flower that hasn’t had some tiny perfection in it’s own way. And even with the last bit of light you can give it, a plant will still try to grow. It occurred to me once that people are almost exactly like flowers. In the dark or in the sun, we still grow... The only difference is that we can choose where we grow, and how much water we give ourselves, and how much light or dark. That, and we don’t have sex via photosynthesis and the wind and whatever else. I think about this a lot. Not the wind sex thing. The thought came back to me absently, while I wasn’t paying attention. Most good things often do. I stood in the center of my flower shop, scrutinizing, trying to remember if I’d covered everything before I left early for the night -I remembered the sunflowers. Every night I closed the shop at 9 and moved the sunflowers from their display on the wall to sit in the shop’s window, turning their heads and plucking the wrinkled, dead leaves away. It gave them the most chance at getting light when the sun hit this part of the street for a few hours. It was the first time I’d left early since I bought the shop a year and a half ago.


When I shuffled the tall buckets of sunflowers from one side of the long room to the other, I realized with a jolt that they could have a few more hours of sun, and maybe live better or longer and more beautifully, if only I decided to leave early more often, if only I left two hours earlier -And I was having deep philosophical thoughts about flowers again. “I’m not insane,” I told the bucket of hydrangeas by my feet. They did not reply. There wouldn’t be much left sun in the evenings for too long, anyway. October pressed it’s face to the glass of my shop and it chilled me when I bumped my arm against it, setting the sunflowers into place next to the tiny pumpkins I’d put out for decoration. Yes. I am a grown ass adult man decorating with tiny pumpkins in a flower shop, telling flowers not to judge me and feeling guilty about leaving at 6 o’clock instead of 9. There hadn’t been a customer for a few hours, which meant no soil spilled in the aisles or heckling demands, no scooping dropped pennies off the floor when a senior citizen tried to pay. Peace and quiet, interrupted only by the low hum of the coolers lining one wall and the New York traffic outside the door. Nobody would be bothered at all if I closed the place early. Really. The guilt pressing down on my shoulders was completely unnecessary. I checked the clock on the wall, determined not to leave until exactly 6. It was 5:53. I passed through the aisles slowly, winding my way from one display to another until I reached the counter in the back. Wrestling with the knotted


strings of my apron took a full minute. I took my time, and pulled my stained black t-shirt off as well, the shop’s logo on it’s chest nearly peeled right off. The nicest shirt I owned was stowed deep in the drawers beneath the counter. My party shirt. For parties. Because I obviously went to a lot of parties. With one shirt. 5:54. Shrugging into the shirt was slow, and I buttoned it from the bottom button to the top, because I’d read somewhere that doing it like that took longer. This idiocy is the only way I can explain what it feels like to be your own boss and want to yell at yourself for being a crappy employee. “No one’s going to die if I close early,” I reasoned to the vase of roses on the counter. Hell yeah, I could leave whenever I wanted and no one was going to stop me, I could walk out right now -- Keys. I dug for them in my pocket and swung into the back office, grabbing my jacket and closing the door. 5:57. I wondered what my great grandparents would say, working hard every single day all their lives and then seeing me, leaving early to go to a party. Oh God. I never even met my great grandparents. I think they were Italian. 5:58. The string of bells hung on the front door clanged when a customer walked in. The guy moved quick, disappearing down one of the aisles immediately, but I caught the dark blue uniform tucked in at the waist, where a gun and a feverishly polished badge were hung. I knew he was a police officer, and a lump rose in my throat. Not because I thought he was arresting me for shirking my responsibilities or anything, but...


Sometimes flowers grow in different directions than we thought they would. Regardless of floral proverbs, this guy had given me an excuse to stay. I was grateful. “We’re closing early today,” I called to him at the front of the store, satisfied. “I’m dead if I don’t get these flowers.” The voice was deeper and more forceful than I’d expected for someone so... not tall. The only part of this guy visible over the aisle was the top of his mousy brown hair, tousled by the wind. At least I could kind of see over the top. “You’re the last one,” I replied. “Thanks.” At least he tried to sound more friendly. I hung my jacket on the doorknob of the back office and pulled the apron over my head again, tying it tight around my waist and covering as much of my nice shirt as I could. Take no chances when you don’t want to pay for dry-cleaning. The officer moved methodically through the aisles, examining the flowers in a flurry of motion but going from one to the next. I caught a glimpse of his eyebrows, deeply furrowed in what must have been the mightiest of frowns. “You need any help?” I asked. “No,” he huffed. “I can do the whole romance bullshit. I got it.” “Well I can do something custom for you, if you want.” I saw the eyebrows furrow again in thought. Finally, he said “Yeah. Yeah, ok.” I turned my back to the cop and gathered the tools I’d left strewn along the workstation, scissors and a stapler, pliers and wire cutters. Romance bullshit, as he’d put it, definitely was not the right occasion to use my halloween-


themed paper for wrapping the flowers, but I pulled a sheet anyway. If only to see if this guy could sound any more flustered with anger. The sound of boots on the linoleum floor rose behind me, and the rustle of plastic and flowers followed when he set a bouquet he’d picked out on the counter. “Just these.” His voice was suddenly quieter. “Please.” I turned to the officer with halloween paper in my hands. “What kind of--” I stopped short. I stammered. I hadn’t said his name in a long time. “Marco?” The cop grinned, a shocking and breathless thing that changed his whole face. “Jean,” I managed finally. “I can’t believe it’s you,” said Jean. I couldn’t think of a damned thing to say. The silence was a few seconds long, the racing beat of my pulse in my ears and the space in between -- we just stared at each other. His eyes swept every inch of me, from the dark hair I couldn’t get to behave and downwards. I felt my face flush deep red, but where his gaze was intense and thorough, I was frantic; I didn’t know what to look at first. I saw the uniform, but only after I saw the stretch of the fabric across his broad shoulders and the scarred knuckles of his hands gripping his coat, and only after I recognized the tousled lighter hair that tapered to darkest brunette around his ears and the nape of his neck, buzzed so short it must have been doe soft. I saw the metal-plated name tag on his chest that said “Kirschtein,” but only after I saw the firm, familiar shape of his mouth and met his light brown eyes with mine.


“This is crazy,” Jean said at last. “I didn’t know this was your place.” “It’s called Bodt’s Flowers.” I smiled slightly, my heart heaving in my chest. “I know, that’s why I came here--” Immediately, his face went as deep a red as mine. “I go by here a lot, I work in the neighborhood. How have you been, man? It’s been so fucking long, five years?” “I’ve been great,” I replied. It’s been six years. “I’ve got this place going...” “That’s great.” He hadn’t stopped looking at me, not once. “And you... You’re a cop, huh?” I tried to keep my voice casual. “Yep, NYPD. Sorry to say I grew up to be a badass.” Jean gestured vaguely to his gun. “I have to use this thing a lot, all those parking tickets.” He smiled at me again, sheepish, his face still blushed through. I couldn’t look at him for too long without looking at everything, so I turned away, putting out my tools and getting to work on arranging the flowers he’d picked out. “So who are these for?” I said lightly, “are you apologizing to someone you busted? I think I saw that on a cop show once.” “Oh..” Jean looked flustered when he remembered the flowers, and a line between his eyebrows creased in his forehead. “No, no. The guys I haul in send me flowers for not breaking their wrists. These are for my fiancee.” Fiancee. “Jesus, you’re getting married?” “Don’t sound so shocked.” “If anyone’s allowed to be shocked, it’s me,” I said. Immediately, I regretted it. Jean opened and closed his mouth, unsure of what


to say, his face a dark red blush all the way to his hair. “Congratulations, Jean.” My voice was bright. His name lilted on my tongue. “Thank you. And thanks for the flowers.” He nodded at the bouquet that I’d wrapped for him, a bow tied neatly where the flowers began to bloom. “Hopefully they help. I’m gonna need all the fucking help I can get.” I laughed, ringing up the order at the cash register, the counter between us. “You look good,” Jean said quietly. “You look really good, Marco.” I looked up at him from the register, but only for a second, the flicker of his eyes on mine. I was afraid of what would happen if I kept my eyes on him too long. “Thank you,” I said. “The flowers are $18.99.” “What are you doing tonight?” He blurted the words out. “I, um -- I’m actually going to a party. One of my buddies just got back from his tour of duty in Afghanistan, so we’re celebrating... That’s why I'm closing early.” “Oh. I thought.” Jean rubbed the back of his neck. “No. That’s great. Yeah.” He looks older, I thought, but he still talks the same way. I pushed the thought of his neck out of my head before it even had the chance to expand. “What?” I said, smiling slightly. “I just thought it would be cool to... Catch up,” he said finally. I glanced at the clock -- 6:15 -- and let the cash register finish printing his receipt, handing it to him before I said anything. Then I grinned at him, and


Jean’s face went pink. “Come with me to the party, if you don’t need to get these home right away.” “What-- oh, no. She can wait. I might have been wrong,” he said darkly, “but I’m not going to go crawling back to her.” You haven’t changed, I thought violently, suddenly. “Come on,” I said instead, banishing this thought as well. I grabbed for my coat and threw my apron on the counter. Together we stepped out of the shop into the evening lit street, talking while I locked the door. “So... what kind of party is it?” Jean asked, hesitant. “The type of party you bring a cop to and expect him to start dancing,” I replied lightly. “What the--” “I’m kidding. My buddy Erwin just came back from his second tour in Iraq, he’s in the Army. He hasn’t been home in almost two years, and he lost his arm in combat... He’s had a rough time. So someone put this together, you know, to make him feel at home.” “Sounds great. Do you have somewhere I could leave my uniform, though? Being a cop at the party either makes you a stripper or a killjoy.” His afterthought, the bouquet clasped haphazard in his fist: “And these fucking flowers.” “Leave them in my car,” I suggested, “That’s where I’m leaving my stuff. The bar’s only a few blocks away from here.” We approached my car parked some ways down the street from the shop, my tiny eco-efficient baby I’d gotten used a few years ago, and Jean snorted.


“Yes, please, judge my car,” I laughed, “What do you drive, a Hummer?” “You’ve given me too many lectures about the damn environment for me to ever really appreciate those things.” When I unlocked the doors, Jean pulled the passenger side open and threw the flowers onto the seat. He worked enough of the buttons of his uniform shirt open until he could pull it over his head, drawing the white t-shirt he wore underneath along with it up his body until his flat stomach and the crest of his ribcage were bare and rippled with goosebumps in the cold. My mouth felt dry. I didn’t know what car he drove. I didn’t know who had bought him that black coat he shrugged on over his t-shirt, or who had measured it perfectly in the cut of the shoulders and waist. I hadn’t seen him in six years. But the familiarity of him was so overwhelming, the ground felt like it was spinning for a moment. “Are you coming?” Jean looked at me over the top of the car, raising his eyebrows. “I -- yeah.” I threw my jacket onto the driver’s seat and locked the door, stepping back onto the sidewalk and falling into step beside him as we walked. How can a stranger be so familiar? We walked in silence for a while. The city was alive and going at this time of night, the traffic bumper to bumper beside us until we turned onto a quieter street lined with houses. I noticed him looking at me, unabashed, somewhere halfway down this street. “Still so intense,” I said, finally meeting his gaze. “What, do I look really different?” “Yeah,” he replied. “Yes and no.”


“How?” “You got rid of that fucking bowl cut.” Jean laughed. “What, did you like my haircut so much you got it for yourself?” I touched the back of my head where the barber had buzzed an undercut. “The guy kind of did it himself,” I laughed, “so I kept it. My ears are always cold.” Jean’s laugh turned into the smoke of his breath in the cold. “You still smile all the time. That hasn’t changed. And you still have exactly one good shirt you keep for special occasions.” “What-- how did you know--” He laughed again. We crossed the street when the light changed, and after another long moment of silence, Jean spoke again. He was never one to actively attempt to continue a conversation, to feel any awkwardness about not talking, but here he was, getting me to talk. “So you own that shop?” “Yeah.” I smiled. “I got hired as an assistant for the old guy who owned it, and when he decided to retire, I bought it off him. A year and a half ago.” “I thought you were going to be an artist,” he said quietly. I looked up at him. "I thought the same thing about you.” His gaze was intense, unwavering when we looked at each other. There were a lot of things that I could have said, but I didn’t. “Things change,” he said, and fell silent. “So who’s the lucky girl?” I said, trying to be casual, trying to be light... then I stammered. “It-- It’s a woman, right--”


Jean’s eyes went wide, and he blushed deeply. “Yes. Of course --” Of course, he says. The light was dimming darker and darker, and the streetlights came on over our heads. “Her name is Sasha,” he continued. “I met her when I joined the police force. You’d like her. All she does is make fun of me.” “So she’s a keeper.” He smiled slightly. “When she’s not being a stubborn little shit, she’s really great.” “Sounds perfect. I’m happy for you.” For the first time, Jean didn’t look at me when I spoke. “She’s a great cook,” he blurted out of nowhere. “Oh-- Sasha?” “Yeah. You should come over some time, she loves to cook for people. Anything you want, she can find the ingredients for, I swear to god. Even gross shit.” I laughed. “Sounds very appetizing.” “No -- it is, she really is a great cook, she just likes finding really weird things to cook. She’s made bison, rattlesnake... The weirdest things.” “She doesn’t do the roasted bug thing, does she?” “No, but she was tempted.” Jean grimaced. “I told her hell no.” “Sounds fun,” I said, genuine. “I’d love to meet her.” The thought of sitting at a kitchen table he’d gone out and bought with someone else was what made this even stranger; this twisted, twi-lit parallel universe I was in, walking next to a Jean that I hadn’t seen in years, not


knowing where he lived, not knowing him really at all. “How far is this place?” Jean replied, shoving his hands into the pockets of his coat. “Not far. Two, three blocks now.” We walked in silence for a little longer, our breath puffing into the air between us. The shrill cry of my ringtone surprised the shit out of both of us; I’d left it at the highest volume from when I used it as an alarm clock this morning, and the old-timey phone ring echoed like a siren in the street. I whipped it out of my pocket and answered immediately, only stopping to check who it was when the ringing had stopped. “Levi,” I said, more surprised. “Hey.” Jean stood back where we’d stopped on the sidewalk, frowning. “Erwin’s boyfriend,” I explained to him in a whisper. Levi’s voice was low over the phone. “He’s not going.” “What?” “We cancelled the party. Erwin won’t go. He won’t leave the house.” “Jesus,” I replied, “What happened?” “He won’t say. I think he had another panic attack, but he won’t say.” Levi was always calm and collected, to the very last disaster, but I could hear the strain in his voice. “What can I do?” I asked, “Do you want me to go to the bar and tell them, or do you want me to try to talk to him?” “The bar is dealt with, and he’s not talking to anyone tonight.” “I can come tomorrow.”


He was silent for a long time on the other end of the phone. I glanced at Jean, and found him watching me, his expression dark. His eyes hadn’t left my face, and illuminated in the street lamp’s harsh white light, they were tawny, the colour of an owl’s wings, the colour of burnished, faded gold. I didn’t realize Levi had started speaking again for a full minute. I just kept thinking that word, tawny, rolling it around my mouth, getting it stuck in my head. “Can you do that?” asked Levi. “I’m sorry. Do what?” “Tomorrow. Don’t bring up the arm, or I’ll kill you.” Levi hung up. I lowered my hand and looked at the phone, gone black after the call ended. I looked up at Jean and said, “the party got cancelled, man.” His reaction time seemed staggered. After a minute, he raised his eyebrows. “What happened?” “I think it was too much for him. The party, all the people after everything he’s dealt with.” Pity washed over me, and I felt bad for my friend, but trying to help would make it worse. “Erwin just needs to feel safe again. And the arm thing...” “What do you want to do now?” Jean asked quietly. That hadn’t occurred to me. Without the mission of going to the bar, we stood on the sidewalk looking at each other, no more reason to be together provided. We stared at each other, at a loss. The look on his face made my stomach knot. “We could go get a drink,” I suggested. “Or... we could go get something to eat, or -- we don’t have to --” I didn’t know what to say. All at once I wanted to see him and stay with him


and talk to him, but the party had afforded us a crowded environment, a reason to joke around and be light. But I didn’t want to be alone with him, really alone with him, eating dinner, across the table from him, sitting next to him -- I didn’t know how to, without... “Marco,” Jean said quietly. “Hmm?” My face was burning. He came closer, his expression unreadable. A fraction of an inch shorter than me, just enough that he tipped his head back, just slightly, so his eyes were parallel with mine. He searched my face, that intent stare piercing, his brow furrowed, the curve of his mouth, his lips bitten. My heartbeat rose in my throat. A little bit closer, the tiny expanse of space you move when you exhale, and the street lamp’s light caught in his eyes. All I thought was tawny, tawny, fucking tawny. “Jean,” I said softly. When he kissed me, it hurt, but that was always how he kissed when he was afraid. Jean moved with his whole body, primal and reactive, pressing me up against the faded brownstone apartment building we stood before. His hands slipped under my shirt to the bare skin of my hips and pulled me toward him at the same time as pushing me back. I wrapped my arms around his neck and held onto him tight -- he kissed me desperate, pulling away and coming right back, not caring if he ever breathed again. I loosened my grip on his neck and held his face in both my hands. Jean was gasping, but still wanted it, nuzzling his nose against mine, brushing his lips against mine, the softest question. I waited until his breath had evened somewhat. My head clear, my pulse racing, faster than it had in six years, I kissed him again, my hands in his hair.


He deepened it immediately, his response rugged and intense, his hands finding the small of my back under my shirt and pressing me closer, closer, his fingertips sinking into my skin, the familiar taste of him, the smell of him... I wanted him so bad I could feel it everywhere, down to the tips of my fingers. “Please,” was all Jean said when he broke away, the word a hot breath on my skin. “My place.” My voice was shaking. “I-- My place -- three blocks away.”

Chapter two

Waking up the next morning was like drifting from one dream to another. My bedroom looked different in the late morning, the sun high and spreading lanky squares of light across the bed. I peeped at it with squinted eyes and realized I hadn’t been in this apartment this late in a year and a half. The flower shop was always open early, and I had forgotten how soft this bed was. Closing my eyes again and burrowing in the sheets up to my nose seemed like the best idea I’d had in a while. My whole body was tired. Exhaustion thrummed at my temples, and I drifted in and out of sleep, thinking about getting out of bed for food, or leaving the shop closed for the day... thinking about how bruised and sore my lips felt, the taste of his mouth still left at the corners of mine --


It was just a dream, I reminded myself, like all the others, like every other fucking night. The bitterness that settled over me was familiar. I tried to sink deeper into the bed and disappear. The dream was too real, but it couldn’t have been real, so it wasn’t, and that was that. There was no way I was getting up now. I would spend the rest of the day being pathetic and thinking about his eyes, and tawny... But in the dream they had been different, older; the creases at the corner of his eyes where they crinkled when he laughed had deepened. I’m clearly getting more creative. Horny loser. Thinking about the arch of his back and his hands, his hands all over me, starving and fierce, struggling for the keys to my apartment and barely through the front door before I was yanking his shirt over his head, stumbling in the dark and finding my bedroom, his body and his warmth and pinning me to the bed, kissing and biting and licking every last freckle he could find on me, the moans that caught in his throat and turned into my name, over and over, until he was screaming it and I -A deep, sleepy sigh came from somewhere beside me. I opened my eyes wide, too quickly, and the light hurt. When I realized Jean was lying next to me, the pain was soothed. Forgotten. It wasn’t a dream. He slept on his stomach, his arms curled at his side. The messy hair and sleepy frown were bewildering, his cheek pressed against the pillow and his lips parted. I turned on my side to face him and we were inches apart; he twitched


in his sleep and his toes brushed against mine. I didn’t move an inch. I just watched him. Jean was different, but he was the same. Yes, he looked older -- 26, I realized with a jolt, he turned 26 in April, when did he stop being the 19 year old I’d met in college? But he was Jean. The soft purple spread like bruises under his eyes was proof that he didn’t sleep enough. There was rough stubble on his cheek, and the line that deepened between his eyebrows when he frowned stayed there even when he was peaceful. He wasn’t the boy that I first met, I thought. He grew up when I wasn’t there. But I wanted him now, like this, asleep in my bed, more than I ever had. I just didn’t know if he wanted me back. It could easily go down badly. He could wake up and tell me it was a mistake, simple as that. He could try telling me he wasn’t gay again, that one was classic. Panic rose in my chest. Jean sighed again in his sleep. I felt his breath on my shoulder. Now or never. I reached out and touched his face gently as I could, one thumb grazing along his cheekbone. He woke slowly, his eyes confused and angry and out of focus. “Just me,” I breathed. Jean looked at every part of me. I felt my cheeks flush with color, but I stared back, waiting for him to move. Even if all he did was leave. He shuffled to his side and reached out for me. I wiggled closer and wrapped my arms around his neck; he touched my face the way I had touched his, closing the space between, kissing me so softly on the mouth that it ached.


And that was it. “I think I remembered where every single one of your freckles is,” he murmured. “That’s impossible.” I smiled. “No. I remember.” He leaned down and kissed the freckles on my inner forearm, his lips gentle. “You have a clusterfuck of them on your ribs.” I wiped the hair off his forehead when he leaned forward to kiss the freckles on my shoulder blade and laughed. “Poetic.” “Look,” he huffed. Jean sat up and drew the comforter back, exposing my bare chest to the cold. I flinched and shivered at the tenderness of his coarse fingertips along my ribcage. His eyes narrowed at me, triumphant. “See? I remember.” I just watched him and smiled. We were full of silences after that, long and hungry, perfectly content to spend them looking at each other. I felt this insane urge to relearn him, to piece together the lean boy I had first met and make sense of this man. Jean pulled the covers back over us and I drew him into my grip. He complied without a word, snaking his arms around my waist, leaning his face into the crook of my shoulder. I buried my nose in his hair. “You look older.” My voice was muffled. “You do too, you nerd.” “I didn’t expect that.” I didn’t think so much time had passed. “Me neither.” I kissed his hair, and we stayed like that for a long time. The sun rose higher. I


thought he had fallen asleep again, but after a while he trailed his fingertips slowly up my spine. “Sweetheart,” Jean murmured into my skin. “Mmm.” “I missed you. Every day, I missed you.” “It’s been a long time,” I said doubtfully, opening my eyes. I didn’t want to hear anything that wasn’t true. I didn’t want him to say the things that he thought I wanted to hear, even if I did want them. Even if I did want him. Jean shifted out of my grip and sat up, propping his weight on one hand, his shoulders arching over me in the sunlight. His messy hair falling over his forehead. He ignored it. I lay on my back and looked up at him, watching as he struggled for words. Finally he looked at me again, his gaze fierce and, I thought, a little afraid. “Marco,” he said softly, “Every day.” I was too afraid to ask him why he’d waited so long to come back. Instead, I reached up and pulled him down to me again, our noses brushing, his forehead leaning on mine. I closed my eyes. “You still call me Sweetheart.” “I always have.” “Only when you’re happy.” I smiled slightly. Jean kissed my nose, the corner of my mouth, then softly on the lips. “Missed you,” I whispered. “Since the day you left.”


The sudden, low-throated hum of a vibrating cellphone surprised both of us. When it continued to vibrate, one tone after another, we both moved to look for the source. I could see my phone on the floor in the corner of the room, but the screen was blank. I turned back, but Jean had already gotten up. He rummaged through his clothes on the floor and found his phone. He swore when he saw the calling number and sat down on the edge of the bed, looking at it, letting the call go to voicemail. I sat up. “Who was it?” Jean didn’t answer. He drew in a deep breath and rubbed the back of his neck, then stood abruptly and pulled his boxers on. He turned back to me, the phone still in his hand, his expression pained, his brow furrowed. I didn’t have to ask who it was again. The phone started vibrating, a second call. Jean put it down and climbed back into bed towards me. His hand slipped to the nape of my neck and he tipped my head back, kissing me deeply, rough, fierce. This is his apology, I thought. This is all he can say. I reached up to touch his face, to hold onto him, but he pulled away and stood up again. Without a word, he took the phone and padded towards the bedroom door, his feet bare. He only answered the phone after he’d closed the door behind him.


“Hi, baby,” I heard him say. The sheets were still warm where he’d been, and the shame was unbearable. I felt it wash over me, twisting my stomach and making it hard to swallow. My eyes began to burn. Again. I was here again, listening to him pretend I was nothing. This was common procedure, wasn’t it? I should be used to it. He’d fuck me then smile to his parents and his buddies and call me his roommate. His friend. I couldn’t make out the words he was muttering into the phone, but I knew what he was doing. I wondered if I would be “the old friend he reunited with” or just “the florist guy.” Maybe he wouldn’t mention me at all. Six years had passed, and here I was again. Anger spread through me, but the pain was worse, as familiar and cruel as a phantom limb. I got up and pulled on a t-shirt and boxers, my hands desperate for something to do. I made the bed, I combed my hair back with my fingers. I wiped my eyes before he could see that I was crying. Not again, I thought, not again. Not this time. Jean pushed the bedroom door open slowly, his phone in his hand. He sat down on the edge of the bed and waited a long moment before he looked up at me. “Was it Sasha?” I said quietly. “Yeah.” He rubbed his face. “What did you tell her?” I kept my voice steady. “That I got called in for a night shift and slept the rest of it off at the station.


There are beds, it’s like a dorm... I do it a lot.” Jean ran a hand through his hair. “She understood.” “Do you use that line a lot?” He looked up at me. “What?” “Do you tell her you’re just sleeping it off at the station when you go off and fuck someone else?” I was being a child and I didn’t care. “Does it work every time?” “Marco, you’re the only someone else.” I didn’t speak. My throat was tight, and the taste of salty tears welled in my mouth. Jean stood up and came toward me, his hands slipping to my neck and holding my face in his hands, his grip so firm I couldn’t turn away. He kissed me and I kissed him back, but I was the desperate one, the hungry one who couldn’t control myself, who forced it deeper and farther, who reached for him again and took the breath off his lips when he gasped. He reacted immediately, but that was my trigger; I pulled away from him roughly, nearly stumbling over his dark jeans still on the floor. “No,” I gasped out. “No. I’m not doing this again.” Jean stammered. “Sweetheart, I-- I can’t--” “No. You don’t get to do this, we’re not doing this--” “Marco--” “So help me God, I’m not letting you do this to me again, Jean. I’m not going to be your fucking secret.” “I’m not asking you to be!” “No, you’re not. You’re not asking me a fucking thing. You’re getting your


clothes and leaving my apartment, and you’re leaving me alone.” The rage was on, but I tried to keep my voice level, tried not to let it break. “Marco!” “I’m not doing this again.” “I’m not fucking asking you to!” Jean’s voice arced with anger. “Good.” “God damn it! How am I supposed to walk away from this?” I didn’t say anything. I just stared at him, watching the color drain from his face. “Is that what you want me to do?” Jean yelled. “Really? You want me to just walk out of here and pretend it never fucking happened?” “That’s what you did last time,” I said. He stood there in nothing but his boxers, flustered, looking like he wanted to punch me. His hair was still messy where I’d kissed it. I scooped his t-shirt off the floor and threw it lightly across the room at him. “Get out.” “Marco --” “I said get out.” A strange calm settled over me, and I left him by himself in the bedroom, heading for the part of the apartment farthest from him. Standing in the kitchen for a long moment, I took deep breaths. I wasn’t calm. I was numb. I have done this before, this putting myself back together, this functioning.


It was a familiar sensation. Just one step at a time. I opened the fridge. Pulled out eggs, milk, cheese. Measuring cups -- hanging on the wall next to the stove. The frying pan was already on one of the burners. Medium heat, the bursting flame. Omelette recipe... Unnecessary. I don’t know at what point I’d decided on making an omelette, but I wasn’t going to taste it anyway. I cracked the eggs into the pan, and just like that, I was functioning: a moving person, a man making breakfast, one motion and deep breath at a time. That’s all I had to be, and it was easy as that. The eggs seared loudly when they hit the pan, but I could still hear him scuffling around the bedroom. He didn’t say anything to me. When he left, there was only the click of the front door as it shut. Immediately, I abandoned the eggs and headed for the bedroom. If he left one article of clothing, one hair on my pillow, I was lighting it on fire. I made a mental note to buy air freshener and get his smell out of my nose, out of my bed, out of my room. I knew he wouldn’t leave anything, the damned meticulous freak, but I threw over every pillow and ripped the comforter off my bed, kicking my feet along the edge of the mattress in case anything had fallen underneath. I wasn’t going to let him stay in this apartment, in this life that I had built without him, this whole new person who had grown up from the boy he’d left at college and become a man who had just been left again-I only found the note after I’d given up and sat down on the edge of the bed with my head in my hands. The edge of the crumpled yellow Post-it peeped out


from under the pillow on the floor. Of course he remembered that I keep post-its everywhere. I used them for doodles, but I could see the edge of his handwriting on the paper even from here. He’d written something, a few words. It took me a long time to gather the courage to get up and pull it off the pillow case. His handwriting was still the same, a scribbling font in all uppercase with heavy handed curves to each letter. There were only two words, but he’d spread them across the whole square of paper. EVERY DAY, he’d written. I crumpled it in my hands and threw it into the corner of the room.

-~-

Let me tell you what it means to love a man who can’t admit to the world that he loves you back. It’s a unique thing. Somewhere between the pain of unrequited love and the absurdity of dumping someone via text message. It’s a sunburn. You spend all day outside and feel the heat on your skin, and it’s incredible. You feel free and you run faster and you play like a little kid because it’s


summer. You stay out longer and your heart pumps slow, sluggish with the warmth. It is lovely. You want to stay like that forever. Then you wake up the next morning, and all you’re left with is burns. And in my case, more freckles. The longer you spend in the heat, the worse it is; skin blisters and cells die forever and pain. The pain of a burn is so present and aching every moment and there is no true relief. It’s silly. It’s laughable. It’s waking up next to Jean every day for the entire fall semester my second year of college, when we roomed together and his side of the dorm was just piles of his work and his bed was unused because he fell asleep in mine every night. It’s having to walk to class after that with a designated amount of space between you, talking as casually as possible, trying not to remember what he tastes like in case you say anything about it in front of your friends. It’s being terrified when his parents came to pick him up for Christmas break, and you smile and say hello and wonder if they’d hate you if they knew that you turned their son queer. (When he had been the first one to kiss you, stammering and forceful and inexperienced, like he would kiss me until I loved him or punch me in the face, but I already loved him--)


It’s watching him pack his shit and hearing him say that he had to leave, his parents didn’t approve of him studying art or psychology or anything else he wanted to study, how he wanted to make them proud. It’s knowing that when he said leave the college, he really meant leaving me, too. He’ll go to his grave before he admits to anyone else that he loved me. So you deal with it the same way you deal with a sunburn. You do little things to make it feel better -- cold baths, aloe vera, ibuprofen -and you pretend it’s not there. It hurts at first, but you can’t stop moving. You can’t stop living. Sooner or later the blisters will heal over, and the skin will peel, and you will be new underneath. A new man, with a college degree and a job in a flower shop that you actually like and that pays well. And that area will always be a little darker than the rest of you. It will always burn first. But you learn to live with it. You get dressed, turn the stove off, heave the overcooked eggs into the trashcan, wipe your fucking eyes, and go to work. So that’s what I did.

-~-


I saw them shuffling outside the front window around 6 o’clock, when the shop was at it’s busiest of the day. The three of them shuffled in, talking and laughing amongst themselves, their uniforms matching, badges on their chests over-polished.

I looked up then glanced away immediately, trying not to let my face go red while I talked to the customer stood at the counter. She didn’t notice; she wanted roses but not the kind of roses that were the regular roses -Jean stood quietly at the end of the line and waited. The officer with pale blonde hair cropped close to his head looked like a caricature in the middle of my shop, his arms and chest bulky with muscle, his thin mouth settled in a permanent smirk. He hovered between Jean at the end of the line and the tallest officer, a dark-haired, lean man who towered over everyone else but seemed flimsy, almost fragile. A fragile cop. This joke was almost as bad as the fucking joke standing in line, waiting patiently for what I’m sure would be him poking fun at me, pretending he didn’t know me. Maybe he’d call me a faggot to make his friends laugh. I wanted to kill Jean. “Bert,” said the blonde one, “what the hell are you doing?” The tall cop flinched in surprised at his name and looked up, a bouquet of lilies in his hand. “Oh. I’m getting flowers for Sami.” “What did you do wrong?” laughed the blonde one.


“I-- nothing?” Bert went pink. “She likes lilies.” “How romantic. Faggot.” “Leave the guy alone,” muttered Jean. “Let the guy be in love, would you, Reiner?” “What do you know about that?” snickered the blonde, Reiner. “Just shut up.” Bert stammered. “I -- I’m going to ask her to marry me, but I don’t know when to do it. But I don’t want her to think that I’m not going to. But I don’t want her to guess. So.” “The lilies are 50% off today,” I called to the poor tall cop. Bert went pink again when he looked at me, but he smiled slightly in thanks. “You’re all faggots,” Reiner announced, luxuriating in the word. Jean stared at me. Even when I turned away from Reiner and finished with the old lady and her roses-that-weren’t-roses. Finally, it was his turn. I leaned forward on the counter, my palms spread flat on the tabletop, and I forced myself to look up at him with a pleasant expression on my face. Reiner had moved away and gone to the aisle where Bert stood to make fun of him more. It was just me and Jean, standing before me, his shoulders squared, staring at me with those tawny eyes. “What can I do for you, sir?” “Cut the shit,” Jean replied quietly. I dropped my voice low, too. “I told you to just leave me alone.” “I can’t. I’m not going to.” “Officer Kirschtein, I don’t know what to tell you.” “Just talk to me, Marco. Just talk to me.”


“About what?” I hissed. “Your fiancee?” I backed away from my counter and turned away from him, shuffling papers around, picking up tools and putting them down, unable to focus. He stood up straight and looked over his shoulder, clearing his throat, making sure the other officers weren’t paying attention. “You listen to me, Bodt. I’m gonna come to this damn flower shop every day if I have to. And you can’t kick me out, because I’ll buy something, and if I’m a paying customer then you can’t turn me away. It’s racist.” “What the-- racist--” I turned back around to look at him. “It’s against the law,” Jean said with a straight face. “I should know.” “Why?” “Why is it racist? Jesus, Marco, what kind of--” “Why are you doing this?” I hissed. “Why can’t you just call it a one night stand and walk away?” “Because my shirt is still in your car,” Jean replied softly. “I’ll go get it for you,” I said unhelpfully. He scowled. “I’m not going to do it, Jean. I’m not going to be... they don’t even have a name for it. The other woman? I’m not gonna be the Male Aide to your Greasy Politician.” “All I want is to talk to you.” Jean set his jaw. “Be my friend again, Marco.” Finally, I cleared my throat. “You’re gonna have to buy something, Officer, because I’m pretty sure you’re German, and me kicking you out does not


qualify as racist in this state.” “Bert,” Jean called over his shoulder to the tall cop, “give me those flowers.” “Wh-- Why?” “I’m buying them for you. If Reiner’s going to be a shit, then you’re gonna need someone to stick up for you.” Bert shuffled over to the counter and placed the lilies on the counter. Jean pointed to the bouquet and met my gaze, the corners of his mouth twitching into a smile. “I’ll take these.” I rolled my eyes like a teenager, but scanned them in and let him pay for them anyway. Reiner and Bert headed for the door, resuming their conversation, and Jean moved to follow them. He turned back to me at the front of the shop. “Every day, Marco.” I just shook my head at him, and Jean smiled, then left.

Chapter three

If this idiot was anything, he was true to his word.


Every afternoon without fail -- sometimes right before I closed the shop for the night, other times right at 6, like he’d come in the first time -- Jean Kirschtein walked through the front door. He’d pick up a random bouquet without glancing at the price and wait patiently in line. When he was the only customer in the shop, he took his time, making his way through the aisles, drawing the torture out long as possible, before he finally came up to the counter and handed me the flowers. Sometimes he was still in his uniform, but other times in civilian clothes; he came in anyway, even though I knew he lived all the way on the other side of the district. He wore dark jeans and vans like he always had, and crummy tshirts I recognized from college, Spiderman and Sex Pistols and the long skull logo of The Punisher. The first week, I said nothing to him except “the flowers are $19.99” and “have a good night.” I didn’t want to talk to him, I didn’t want to look at him, I didn’t want to think about the fact that I used to sleep in that Punisher shirt whenever he went home for the weekend back in college. Most of all, I didn’t want to know what he did with the flowers after he bought them. Seven bouquets? Roses, lilies, hydrangeas -- was he really buying them from me, trying to make me talk to him, and then going home and giving them to his fiancee? I didn’t want to know. But I did. Halfway through the second week, when he slapped a bouquet of daisies on


the counter without even looking at them, I cleared my throat. “What do you do with them?” I asked. Jean was shocked. His eyes opened wide, and then he grinned. “What?” “What do you do with these after you buy them? Do you give them to Sasha?” He didn’t even flinch, just kept that smile on his face. Triumphant. Pleased. Shit-eating, I thought darkly, trying not to let my anger lose momentum. “I bring them to the police station. We have like a kitchen-living-room area, so I put them in there.” “And nobody asks why you’re buying them?” “I told everyone I’m trying to win a bet,” said Jean. I grimaced and didn’t reply, handing him his receipt. Jean took the flowers, stuffed his change in the pocket of his jeans, and winked at me. “You’re gonna crack, Bodt.” “Have a nice day,” I muttered. The shit-eating grin was still on his face when he left. The third week, I cracked. By now it was already the first few days of December, but Jean pushed the front door open and I saw him in only the short-sleeves of his uniform shirt, the sleeves tight around the thick muscles of his biceps-Stop. But then I noticed the fresh blood stains drying into the fabric on his chest,


and another smear of blood on his nose. A deep purple bruise blossomed across the crook of his jaw, and he already had a black eye. “What happened?” I called across the shop to him immediately. Jean looked up, surprised. “What?” “Your eye,” I clarified. “Come here.” Jean crossed the room in five slow strides, limping slightly, and leaned forward on the other edge of the counter opposite me. “What the hell happened?” I asked. I examined his black eye, but it didn’t seem swollen, only painful. It gave him that Clint Eastwood squinting scowl, even though he was smiling at me. “Just a stupid kid. I was arresting him for violating parole, he’s been in and out for years with drugs. Usually he’s chill, so I didn’t think much of it, and then he took a swing at me.” “Got you pretty good.” “He’s about a foot taller than me,” he grumbled. I laughed. “You’ve still got blood on your face, you know.” “Oh-- I forgot. I finished shift after that kid went berserk. I just wanted to get the fuck out of there and see you, I didn’t even check.” I blushed deeply. “You have a black eye.” “Does it look awesome?” Jean grinned. “It looks painful.” “Yea, but it got you to talk to me, so it was worth it, right?” I rubbed my burning face. “Are you going to buy flowers or what?” I realized how close he’d gotten, both of us leaning on the counter towards each other, and I straightened up immediately, turning away and going to the


work sink in the corner. I ran a handful of paper towels under the cool water and offered them to him. Jean hadn’t taken his eyes off me, his smile slow and pulling crooked at the edges of his lips. He stood up straight, too, scrubbing roughly at his face. “Your nose,” I said. “It’s on your nose.” His “thanks” was muffled in the towel. I turned away and busied my hands with an arrangement before he could catch me looking at him. I was already trying to figure out a way to get around talking to him, even if it meant being rude, maybe I would just give him the silent treatment from here on out, he just wouldn’t get the damned hint -“Hey.” Jean’s voice was suddenly on the other side of the shop; he had wandered away and stood now in one of the aisles in the front, studying the pots of poinsettias I’d put out. “These are new.” “Yea... The order came in this morning. I always have them for Christmas.” “Are they Christmas-y?” “There’s this story about them... This little girl didn’t have any money to buy a gift to give Jesus -- I think it was in Mexico -- so an angel came to her and told her to gather all these weeds from the church parking lot, and she put them in front of the altar, and poinsettias grew from the weeds. I think the red leaves are supposed to symbolize blood, but we still have them everywhere at Christmas anyway.” “Sounds so hardcore,” said Jean. “That’s really cool.” I glanced up at him from the arrangement. “Since when do you care about flowers?”


“Since you cared about them,” he replied. The warning sirens went off in my head, and my stomach knotted. Not again, I heard myself saying, not again. Standing there in my bedroom trying not to cry and forcing myself to tell him not again. It was a slippery slope and I didn’t know how to get out of it without panicking. “I thought you wanted to be friends.” My voice arched an octave too high. Jean waited until he’d picked something off the shelf and coming back to me, plopping a small, abandoned looking poinsettia on the counter. Only then did he speak. “I do want to be friends,” he said. “Friends care about each other, don’t they?” “I guess.” “I think it’s cool you know all this stuff about flowers.” “Flowers are cool,” I said unhelpfully. “Friends talk about cool shit. Friends hang out. So that’s what we’re doing.” I looked at him doubtfully over the plant. Jean gave me the Clint Eastwood scowl. “Friends tell each other they look badass when they have black eyes and win fights.” “Against teenagers,” I laughed. “And don’t you have a taser?” So we were friends. We cared about each other like friends. He asked me about the flowers. I supplemented the “hanging out” part he mentioned and after another few days, wheeled my office chair from the back room into my work space. It was annoying; I never sat down while I worked, there was too much running around to do. But some nights when Jean came in after work, he looked exhausted, and sat down in the chair without asking. He gauged how


long he stayed by how much I was willing to talk to him, and gradually I talked more and more, comfortable, certain that I could handle it. One Friday night he got out early and hung around the store with me for hours, helping me clean. The moments when he came too close made my chest hurt. Anxiety, I suppose. Nerves. I missed him. As a friend. And he was helping my business. There was only one day he didn’t buy flowers: the last day of the fourth week, when he walked in so late in the evening I figured he wasn’t coming at all. I had already locked the front door from any more customers and started turning off the lights in the shop. Jean knocked on the front door and pressed his hands to the window, trying to see through the frost collecting on the glass. I hurried to open it for him, a powerful gust of wind forcing the door open in my hand and hitting me with icy air. Jean followed suit, losing his balance in the gust as he tumbled through the doorway, falling right smack against my chest and nearly taking me down with him. I held onto him with one hand and with the other pressed the door into the wind and finally managing to close it. Jean rubbed his arms trying to get warm. “Holy fuck,” he whistled. I let go of him at once, wiping the snow that had blown in off my arms and shirt.


“I thought you weren’t going to come,” I said, shivering. “Why wouldn't i, you nerd? God, it’s been hell being out in this all day.” “You -- you didn’t have to come, I mean--” I don’t know why my words weren’t working today. Terrified of making it awkward, I tried to start speaking again, at the same time he did. “I just meant--” Jean started, “I wanted--” We both stopped. My face turned red, and for some reason, his did too. Then Jean smirked. “What happened?” “I -- what?” “What the hell happened that’s making you blush like that, Marco?” I hadn’t held him in more than a month. In the split second of him falling onto me, his hands had caught on my shoulder and arm, and the smell of him still lingered on my shirt. “I was just getting nervous about the snow,” I replied. “I didn’t think you were dumb enough to try and brave it, you idiot.” The smirk was still there, damn him. “You should have just gone home,” I added, sheepish. “I’m just heading back to the station,” Jean said, buttoning his coat up over his uniform. “The reports are saying the snow is going to be really bad tonight, so they want as many of us on cal as possible, and if we want to bring family in we


can. The station has a generator, and the power everywhere else is supposed to be affected... We're all sticking it out in the dorms they’ve got set up. Grab your jacket.” “What?” “You’re coming with me. If the blizzard hits and knocks out power in this part of the city, your shitty apartment is gonna be one of the first to go down.” “Hey! My apartment isn’t shitty!” I laughed. “How would you know where the storm is going to hit, anyway?” “Either way, I’m gonna feel really bad if it does go out and I’m right, which I probably will be, and you’re huddling in the dark like a bitch. Get your jacket.” I did as he said, closing up the rest of the shop as quick as I could and shoving my arms into the sleeves of my jacket, catching myself and slowing down, trying not to look too enthusiastic. Jean held the front door open for me when we left. Stepping outside into the wind was freakish. It got darker earlier and earlier every day -- it was only 8 PM, but already pitch black, and the street lights were bleared and ineffective with the snow coming down so thick. “Squad car,” Jean said in a short breath, smoke curling from his mouth. We ran to the police car parked down the street, throwing ourselves into the seats and slamming the car’s doors against the wind. We both looked at each other, red-faced and gasping, shivering so hard it was difficult to breathe deep. I laughed slightly, and he smiled, his eyes intent, searching my face.


Jean reached over and brushed the loose hair off my forehead. Immediately he drew back and frowned, turning in his seat and shoving his keys in the ignition. “Snow,” he said finally. “There was snow in your hair.” We sat in silence for most of the car ride. It wasn’t uncomfortable in the least; Jean focused on the roads that grew steadily more clogged and blurred with snow, inexperienced drivers and brake lights left and right. I let him keep his mind on the roads and swallowed a lot, trying to calm my stomach and make the lump in my throat go down. The police station was smaller than I’d expected, an old red brick building set back from the road between two apartment buildings. Jean parked around the back with the rest of the squad cars and together we ran through the freezing rain to the station’s back door. I’d expected jail cells and high desks, ringing telephones and dramatic 911 responders and maybe a lime green linoleum tile on the floor like in the Stephen King movie. When we got through the back and followed along a narrow hallway to the last door on the right, I was surprised. There were couches and a dining table, a kitchen fully stocked with cabinets, an open range stove, and a tall refrigerator. It was cozy; a TV was on in the corner, and a well-used foosball table sat in the middle of the room. On every available surface, there were flowers. Some bouquets had been left in their plastic sleeves, lying on the kitchen counters; others had been put in vases and haphazard substitutes, coffee mugs and empty peanut butter jars. There were new flowers and dying ones, the ones Jean had bought from me in


the first week or two, left upside down and drying out. Flowers and plants everywhere. He’d kept all of them. The poinsettia he’d bought sat on top of the TV. I was floored. Jean looked back at me as he walked into the room, shrugging his coat off. He smiled slightly. “I wasn’t kidding. They’re all here.” A deep voice called from the doorway on the other side of the room, “You back, Jean?” “Yeah,” he yelled. “I got him.” He left his coat on the back of one of the chairs at the dining table, and I watched him move around this space, comfortable, at home. Two cops I recognized immediately came in from the adjoining room: the blonde one, Reiner, and the ridiculously tall, shy Bert. Reiner threw himself into one of the chairs at the table, and Jean sat down next to him, rubbing the warmth back into his cold face. I lingered in the doorway, my jacket folded over my arms. “Hey,” said Bert, leaning against the kitchen counters, “Aren’t you the flower guy?” I smiled slightly. “Yep. Sorry about all this.” I gestured to the flowers. “I think it’s worse that Jean actually won the bet,” Reiner snickered. “You’re a dumbass,” he told Jean, “you should have taken them home and given them all to Sasha.”


Jean sat back in his chair. “She would have tried to eat them.” “Yeah, but think of the brownie points. She’d remember what a great fiance you are for so long that it won’t matter when you’re a shitty husband.” “Ever the romantic, Reiner.” Jean looked up at me, but glanced away before I could catch his eye. I leaned back against the wall next to the door, quiet, watching him interact with his buddies. They joked and laughed with each other. Bert blushed a lot. Jean didn’t reach out to touch any of them, or wipe the snow out of their hair. “Yo!” Reiner’s sharp, deep voice interrupted my thoughts. “Bert!” Bert’s face went pink. “What?” “When you going to ask your girl?” Reiner smirked. Bert shoved his hand into the pocket of his jeans, finally finding the small jewelry box and drawing it out. “I -- I have the ring,” he started, “But I mean...” From the doorway beside me, I heard footsteps. I glanced sideways, remembering that Jean had mentioned his fiancee worked on the force with him, wondering if I’d have to spend the night watching Sasha hang off of him-I pushed the thoughts away. The door opened from the other side, and a petite young woman burst in, her long, dark red hair damp from the snow and swept back, exposing the buzzed undercut on half her head beneath. Bert was still talking when he set eyes on her. “... I haven’t found the right moment yet-- Sami?” I think the poor guy broke out in a sweat.


Sami seemed pleased by this, because she smiled at him. “Haven’t found a moment for what?” The height difference between them was comical -- she barely even came up to his shoulder, but I thought it was perfect for him. When he blushed and grew embarrassed, he looked down at his feet and found instead... her. That’s how it should be, I thought. This is how I want it. “Come here you big dope.” Bert leaned down, and Sami kissed his cheek. He reached out for her but immediately she moved away, examining the flowers through the thick frames of her glasses; his outstretched hand trailed along her back, the nape of her neck. The touch was innate, natural. Bile burned in my stomach. “What’s with all of the flowers, Big B?” Sami turned back to him, her arms full of a bouquet of lilies that Jean had bought from me three days ago. “I -- I...” Bert forgot his words. “Where’s your jacket? It’s freezing--” “You idiot!” Reiner’s angry yell nearly sent Bert into a stroke. Beside him, Jean rubbed his face and muttered, “fucking idiot,” into his hands. Sami looked at them like they were insane. “Guys.” Bert narrowed his eyes at them. “What are you doing?!” Reiner yelled. “Ask her!” Sami turned to Bert. “Ask me what?” The poor guy pointed one thumb at the doorway of the adjoined room and gave the two of them at the dining table the dirtiest look he could muster,


which wasn’t much. Reiner snickered and headed off out the door next to me, his feet pounding up the stairs somewhere down the hallway; Jean got up too, nodding at me and going into the next room. I followed, craning my neck over my shoulder to watch. The audience being gone seemed to help. Bert stuttered a little less, and when Sami came back over to him, flowers still in her hand, he didn’t blush so hard. Jean pulled me by the collar of my shirt into the next room -- more couches, some desks and a whiteboard with notes written in various colored markers. He leaned in the doorway and I stood behind him, looking over his shoulder into the kitchen. “Actually,” Bert began, “Um-- What I wanna -- ah...” I could see the stubble on Jean’s neck and jaw, standing this close to him. I could smell the soap he used when he showered. My gaze averted from the girl burying her face in her flowers and the boy, so close, who had bought them from me. For me. I could see the freckle behind his ear. Somewhere deep in his pocket, Bert had found the jewelry box again, and he sank to his knee in front of his girlfriend. He even stumbled over the words and threw in an “um” and a “well” when he asked her to marry him. That was perfect anyway, I thought. This is how it should be. “OF COURSE!” Sami cried, pouncing on him. They fell to the floor together, and Bert wrapped his arms around her, the engagement ring, it’s box, and the flowers she’d been holding sent flying. After that, I turned away, unwilling to watch any more sweet happiness like


that. Not when I could reach out, a few inches, and put my hand on the small of Jean’s back. Instead, I turned him away from the door with my hand on his shoulder, holding a finger up to my lips to tell him to be quiet. Jean jerked around, surprised, and we were nose to nose, inches away from each other. He held his breath, and I found I was holding mine too. Finally, I brushed the hair off his forehead where the snow had melted and left it damp. Jean’s brow furrowed under my touch, his eyes intense and tender and pained. He slipped away from me, and my heart nearly stopped. Jean crossed the room we were in and headed for the closed door on the other side, opening the door with a shaking hand. He looked back at me, his voice low. “Come on, Marco.” I followed him without a word. The door opened to a stairwell, dimly lit and leading to a hallway lined with doors. Jean opened the second door on the left, pulling me in by grabbing for a fistful of my t-shirt, closing the door by nearly slamming me up against it. I made out a bedroom of some kind in the dark, bunk beds and lockers lining the walls illuminated by the snowy, moonlit window. Jean came even closer, his fingers still twisted in my shirt, his gaze desperate and fierce. I looked back at him, at every part of his face, my cheeks burning red in the dark.


I kissed him softly, firmly, and he whimpered against my lips. I wrapped my arms around his neck and pulled him closer, wishing for his intensity, for the dominating kisses and force and his teeth on my skin, but Jean was gentle. He was slow and kind, his hands on my waist. I just wanted him to fuck me, to pretend it was nothing, so I could walk away. But he wanted to make love to me, and that hurt worse than anything had before. Jean pulled away, his voice hoarse. “Marco, I--” “You just wanted to be friends,” I whispered, my eyes burning. “You just wanted to be friends, and that’s fine.” Jean swallowed hard. “I don’t know how to be your friend, Jean.” Shameful tears slipped down my face. “I don’t know how not to love you.” He moved his hands up to my face and cradled it in his palms. “I thought that’s what you wanted. I thought...” “All those flowers,” I choked out. “And Bert and his girlfriend, and they get to be happy together, and I-- I can’t just...” Somewhere down the hall there was commotion, the yelling and playful arguing of some of the other officers as they ran past, challenging each other to foosball or calling each other names. We both froze where we were in the dark,


still pressed against the door, not daring to speak until they had disappeared down the stairs. “I love you,” Jean whispered. “We’ll figure it out.” “How?” my voice rose. “You’re engaged, Jean, you don’t even... You can’t...” “I,” he said firmly, “will figure it out.”

Chapter four The male aide to his greasy politician. That’s how I’d phrased it, standing in my bedroom and telling him no. Not again. There aren’t very many examples of this kind of thing out there in culture, except for the Handsome Senator with his customary wife and two children. But that guy stands at a podium and admits to his affair with the smoking hot guy who was serendipitously hired... because he’s so good at his job, whatever that may be... And then that Handsome Senator smiles and goes home with his wife. I can’t even remember what happens to the male aides, the assistants, the hot pieces of ass. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one give his account of the affair. I didn’t want to spend the night at that station with Jean because I couldn’t spend it with him. After he kissed me, after I wiped my tears like a little kid, after he promised me that we would figure it out, we went back downstairs and pretended it had never happened.


It wasn’t that I was embarrassed for breaking down. I had cried in front Jean before -- I cry at a good part in a movie. Don’t get me wrong. I couldn’t deal with the fact that the only reason I was crying was because I wanted him. How quickly and eagerly I had dropped the facade, given in, told him I loved him-I was damned lucky he felt the same way, because if he hadn’t, I would have gotten down on my knees and begged until he did. At some point I had stopped saying ‘not again.’ At some point, I had started saying ok. Maybe when he got punched by that kid, and I realized I cared. At some point, I had figured out that I loved him, and had just chosen not to deal with it. It hurt too much. This thing we had become, this friendship and this ease with each other, built around knowing each other so deeply and pretending we didn’t... I don’t know when it stopped being “Jean and I” and started being “we.” Maybe that dark room was the beginning of our actual relationship, defining it and deciding it when he promised me he would figure this whole shitty situation out. There wasn’t that much to figure out. He was already in an actual relationship.


That dawned on me when we went downstairs and hung out with the other guys for a few hours. Sitting there with his friends and colleagues, not being close to him for all that time and utterly unable to reach out for him. I realized I had crossed into ‘Male Aide’ status, and here he was, smiling at his friends. Going home in the morning to his fiancee. I couldn’t deal with how much I wanted Jean, and how much I couldn’t have him. I stayed at the station until early in the morning, when one of the guys on patrol came in and reported that the snow had finally stopped. I headed out, my jacket buttoned to my nose. Jean had disappeared to play a challenged match of foosball with Reiner, and I didn’t want to interrupt him. I didn’t want to not be able to kiss him goodbye. The midnight sky after it snows is always purple in this part of New York. I figure that the deep blue mixes with the red of stop lights and flashing brakes, and the street lamps wash it out with their gold luminescence. It was otherworldly, and it was quiet. The air in my lungs was clear and sharp when I breathed deeply, in and out, trying to steady myself. I carved a path through the snow on the sidewalk. It was up to the middle of my calves, and I only had jeans and my jacket on, but I needed the cold. I needed to feel something that I was allowed to feel. “Marco?” I heard a voice call after a few minutes of my trudging. “Marco -wait up!” Jean tried to run through the snow to catch me, nearly failing miserably. His determination kept him from falling face first in the snow. I stopped and waited for him, nudging shapes in the snow with the toe of my shoe.


He reached me, out of breath. “Where are you going?” “Home,” I said gently. “But you-- I brought here because of the snow, and your apartment... There’s probably no power there,” he huffed. “There’s power here.” “I just want to go see. And I want to sleep.” “Well. Let me drive you.” “I’m ok with walking.” Jean examined my face desperately. “What happened, baby?” I didn’t know what to say at first; I’d thought we were still pretending like nothing was going on. I opened my mouth, then closed it, unsure. “You’re having seconds thoughts,” he said quietly. “No. No.” “I love you.” Jean’s voice was forceful. “I love you, Marco.” I smiled slightly. “I love you, too.” “Then why?” he demanded. “Because when I left, I wanted to kiss you goodbye, and I can’t do that.” My throat was tight. “If -- if we’re going to do this again, I’m gonna have to relearn the rules. And I wanted to kiss you, but I couldn’t, so I left. Before I kissed you anyway.” Jean scowled at me, his eyes pained. “I’m not going to be the one,” I said softly, “who tells the truth about us, Jean. I’m not going to tell your parents, I’m not going to break up with Sasha for


you. You have to do that for yourself. And for me.” Smoke curled from his nostrils when he let out the deep breath he’d been holding in. Then he slapped a hand onto my shoulder and pushed me backwards. I fell into the snowdrifts that piled high on the side of the road where the snow plows had passed, and I sank all the way to the into the bottom of the pile, surrounded by snow, disappearing from view. I yelped. “What the--” Jean not-so-gracefully leaned into the drift with me and we sank down further into the snow. Then he kissed the indignation right out of me. I had to laugh when he pulled away, breathless from the cold. I wrapped my arms around him and buried my face in his shoulder, breathing him. “Don’t leave me, you big fucking jerk.” Jean’s voice was muffled. “Don’t leave me.” I leaned my head back against the snow and looked up at him. “Come home with me.” Jean sighed. “I have to stay, my next shift starts at 5.” “You think you’ll make it to the shop tomorrow?” “If I can’t, I’ll call you.” He was close enough that I could reach: I kissed the tip of his nose. He wrinkled it in response, and laughed.


Here we were sitting at the bottom of a heap of snow in the street, and I was happier than I had been in years. “You’re the one,” I said softly after a long silence, “who should be making the promises not to leave.” Jean leaned his forehead against mine. “I already fucked up once and let you go. I’m not doing it again. I love you, you idiot.” “Say it nice,” I smiled. “I love you, sweetheart.” “You said ‘sweetheart’ the same way you said ‘idiot!’” “Same thing.” Jean kissed my cheek. “If I give you my sweatshirt, will you wear it so you don’t get hypothermia and die on the way home?” He nodded to the black hoodie he wore, the thick one he’d put on to help shovel the station’s walkway earlier. I nodded. Together we stood up and brushed ourselves off. Jean pulled the hoodie over his head and handed it to me; I tugged it on then buttoned my jacket on over it. It was still warm. “I love you,” I said for the millionth time. Jean smiled slightly, then waved me away. “Go. Go home, before I change my mind.” I spent the whole walk home wondering what he would change his mind about, my face buried nose deep in his hoodie.


I tried not to face the fact that he’d pushed me into the snow bank so no one could see us together. Random neighborhoods seemed to have gone dark, but mine was one of the few left with electricity; I could see the lights of my christmas tree in my window as I reached the apartment. I peeled off my damp, freezing clothes and left them laid out on the radiators in my kitchen and bedroom. Moving slowly from room to room in nothing but boxers, feeling my toes and fingers come back to life, making tea and scarfing down food and waiting waiting waiting... Until finally, his hoodie was reasonably dry and warm from the radiator. I pulled it over my head, crawled under my covers, and passed out.

-~-

I didn’t see him for a week after that. Jean called me every day though, on the shop’s telephone, the number I had listed in the Yellow Pages. He argued that he was just coming up with a suave way to ask me for my cell number, but it was better this way. God forbid someone noticed him on the phone, and all he had to say was that he was calling my shop. Ordering an arrangement, whatever his excuse, he couldn’t get really guiltily traced back to talking to me. The blizzard had been a real shit storm for the police, as Jean put it. He was working all kinds of overtime dealing with traffic, people and their crappy cars, and in one memorable incident, a man who got completely naked and started pissing a rendition of the Mona Lisa into the snow bank outside of a Starbucks.


I told him that whenever he had free time, he should go home and get some sleep, and he grudgingly took my advice. Jean told me just the funny stories from work, but I knew there were worse ones. People who hadn’t gotten a warm place to stay when the snow fell, and who were found in the morning. Cars kidding on the black ice and slush and ending in critical condition, hauled into the back of an ambulance. He sounded exhausted, and I told him I loved him whenever it fit into the conversation. Which was a lot. On the fourth or fifth day he called me from the station. I was with a customer, and I shoved the phone between my ear and the crook of my neck while I worked. The customer was a sweet, bow-backed older lady who dressed like we lived in Antarctica and always wore a necklace with a heavy, gold, rather violent looking crucifix around her neck. I smiled slightly at her as I worked, putting together an arrangement basket of poinsettias for her, and she smiled back. “I finally have a day off tomorrow,” Jean was saying on the other end of the phone. “Sleep,” I ordered. “Get sleep.” “Ok Mom.” “Shut up.” I concentrated briefly on the flowers and tangled greens in my hand, and I heard him mutter a curse under his breath at something. “You’re grumpy,” I told him warmly. “I’m not grumpy.” “You’re always on some various level of grumpy. I love you.”


The old lady smiled at me from across the counter when I glanced up at her, and my face went red. I’d forgotten she was there for a second. “I love you too,” he said, sounding tired. “I want to come see you. I haven’t bought any flowers in a while.” “My business is tanking without you.” Jean laughed. “I’m going to make you eat that sarcasm later.” I thought he would go on, but then I heard the rustle of the phone as he turned it away and talked to someone else there with him. I couldn’t make out the words, but I zoned out slightly anyway, finishing the arrangement and showing it to the customer for her approval. She nodded enthusiastically, and by the time Jean was back, I was ringing it up for her. “Hey, can I call you later?” He said, his voice low. “Of course.” I said goodbye and hung the phone up in its cradle on the wall, turning my attention to the old lady. “You sound very in love,” she smiled broadly. I blushed beet red again, taken aback by how forward she was. “I -- yeah.” “God blesses us all,” she said, looking like she thought herself shrewd. “Have you asked her to marry you yet? My husband proposed after the third date. He sounded just like you when he talked to me.” Her... She said her. Oh god, she thought I was talking to a woman. I may have to hide Jean, but I don’t have to hide who I am.


“Actually,” I said lightly, “it was my boyfriend. And I think he’d implode if I propose to him before he worked up the nerve to propose to me.” The thought made me want to crack up. The old lady had stopped listening after ‘boyfriend.’ Her face was stony, and when I pushed the flowers across the counter, she lifted her thin, heavily jeweled fingers up in a sign of surrender. “Is something wrong?” I asked. “You should have told me.” Her voice had gone snippy and cold. “These flowers are for the church, young man. We leave these at the altar --- why, I’ve been coming here for years -- children touch these, you know. These are for our lord!” “I -- I’m sorry?” “I’m not offering God any flowers grown by a fag.” The word sounded weird coming from her. I kept my voice level. “God created fags as much as he created flowers, and he’s supposed to love all of his creations. However, I’m not obliged to serve all of them, and in this case, I’m going to have to ask you to leave. Please.” The old lady stomped out without me having to push her further. Maybe she saw it as her own personal anti-homo protest or something she could brag to her friends about later.


She spat a “you’ll rot in hell” at me before she slammed the front door behind her. I stood there, shocked into stillness, still holding the abandoned poinsettias. It was ludicrous. Things like that had happened to me before, but I had thick skin, and it didn’t bother me. I felt worse for my mom, who had raised me Catholic but accepted me when I came out anyway, and who now had to sit in prayer circles in church with people like that old lady. But finally, it made sense to me. This was what Jean was afraid of. The rejection, the hatred, the shame you feel even when it’s just some stranger in the street. And his parents would be worse, with their money and their ideas about happiness; the stigma that would follow him everywhere he tried to go as a police officer... His friends, the ones who used ‘gay’ as a slur... Suddenly, I was afraid, too: afraid that he would always be afraid, and there would always be another old lady, throwing around homophobic slurs like Jesus Christ was a wealthy middle-aged white man who voted Republican. They could scare him into silence forever. I thought about it the rest of the day. I waited impatiently for the hours to pass until he called me again so I could tell him, so I could explain, so I could offer him the words that I couldn’t get out of my head.

It’s ok. We’ll get through this. I will keep you safe. I was in the back office making notes on a customer’s order when I heard the front door swing open violently, the bells hung on the door frame nearly


crashing to the floor. I got up immediately and went through to the register, preparing for something bad -I gasped in surprise. “Jean? What are you doing here?” He didn’t reply, or if he did, it wasn’t coherent. He crossed the space between us of the store, the footsteps of his sturdy boots heavy and determined on the floor. I saw he was still wearing his uniform and his coat; I saw the snow in his hair, and began to ask if he had gotten out of work early to see me -Jean cut my words and kissed me hard, pushing me back against the edge of the counter. Immediately I reacted, trying to calm him, making the kiss less frantic. I steadied his rhythm and he followed my lead at first, but he was desperate. His grip on my waist was rough and he pulled me closer and closer, no matter which way I turned to combat his panic. Even when I pulled away for breath, he leaned forward for more, brushing his lips against mine. I tried to get the words out whenever he pulled away, even slightly. “Wh--mm. What happened?” Jean just kissed me in response, slower this time but deeper, until I was shaking and my fingers were in his hair and I could smell only him, taste only him, meeting him halfway when he ground his hips rough against mine, the rhythm of us driving me insane. A moan caught in my throat, and I managed a breathless, “Baby?” If he was doing what I think he was doing, I needed to lock the front door at


least. Jean pulled away slightly, his breath shallow, his brows furrowed in a deep frown. “Do you still have my hoodie?” He murmured. The change in tactic threw me. I looked up at him, confused. “My hoodie,” he repeated, then kissed the freckles on my neck, an afterthought. “It’s at home. I’ve been sleeping in it.” Jean winced. “Ok, good.” “Why?” I nuzzled my forehead against his. He exhaled slowly. “I’m so sorry, sweetheart.” “What?” “Sasha caught me talking to you. So I told her..” My heart almost stopped. “You told her?” “Almost.” Jean’s voice was very small. “I was going to... And then she saw that it was the number for the shop that I kept calling... And she jumps on me, she thinks I’ve been setting shit up and that I’ve been talking to you about flowers... for..” “For your wedding,” I finished slowly.


“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. She’s on her way over now. She told me to meet her here.” I swallowed hard. His arms were still snaked around my waist, and my fingers were still in his hair. And I was about to meet his fiancee. I thought of the old lady, and I thought of the words that I’d been saving for him. When I worked through enough of the first wave of anxiety shocking through me, I said them. “It’s ok,” I whispered. “We’ll get through this.” I had to keep my own sanity safe before I could promise to take care of his. Jean bit his lip. “You sleep in my hoodie?” “It smells like you,” I said lamely. I wouldn’t let go of him until he forced me. “Not fair,” he said, indignant, smiling slightly. “I want one of yours.” “There’s one in the back. It’s got paint on it, though..” “Perfect.” He kissed my cheek and let go of me, heading for the office. I stayed there, leaning against the counter, cold where he had been, trying to keep my breathing level. I hadn’t let myself think about meeting her. I hadn’t gotten much past trying to deal with the idea of a fiancee in the most abstract sense: not only had Jean not yet come clean about his sexuality, but he was so far in the closet the mythical subjects of Narnia were probably planning to crown him as King. I had thought that was the biggest problem we were dealing with here. My stomach was in knots.


Jean came back with his coat folded over one arm and my navy college hoodie tugged on over his uniform. It was oversized and faded and paint-stained, and sexy as hell on him when he shoved the sleeves to his elbows. “I remember this one from years ago,” he said, pleased with himself. A car door slammed outside the shop in the street, and we both looked up. “She’s here,” he said quietly. I took a deep breath and nodded, trying to look relaxed against the counter. “We can do this. It will be fine.” Jean moved slowly towards the door, turning over his shoulder to look at me, his eyes wide. His voice was barely there. “I love you, Marco.” “I know, baby. Try not to look like you just hid a body.” The bells on the door rang when it opened again. The change in Jean’s behavior in those first few minutes was astounding. He slouched more, and his expression was almost apathetic, like he didn’t really care about the flowers or anything at all. Gay mode to straight mode, I thought with a jolt. He’d been doing it for years. Hell, even I had believed him and fallen for it. I liked him from the beginning for the sexy intelligence and the cocky attitude, and fell in love with him when he turned out to be a softie. She might have fallen for him the same way.


Sasha walked in with a McDonald’s carton of french fries in her hand, unabashedly eating and enjoying them immensely. She was tall and brunette and adorable; she greeted Jean by offering a fry to him with a smile. I liked her immediately. She had that same comfort with herself that Jean had, or appeared to have, and it was hard not to want to be around her. Jean leaned down and kissed the side of her head, where the strands of dark hair slipped from her ponytail, and murmured a “hey” before taking the french fry. “Now I know how you got him,” I laughed slightly. Sasha looked up at me, her eyes bright. “You’re the flower guy!” “That would be me. I’m Marco.” She crossed the room and eagerly thrust her hand out to me. “I’m Sasha, I’m that brat’s girlfriend. Fiancee,” she corrected herself absentmindedly. “Great to finally meet you.” I shook her hand and kept my smile. “So... So you guys are interested in doing your wedding flowers with me?” I didn’t know what else to say. If that was our excuse for him calling me, then that was what we were going with. “Absolutely. I have no idea about any of this wedding bullshit, so help is appreciated. And when Jean said he’d started hanging out with you again, I thought it was perfect timing.” Sasha talked quickly, fitting all her thoughts in with no filtering in between. But I caught that last part. Perfect timing.


I lost my smile for only a moment. Sasha didn’t notice; she was eating another fry. “How did you two meet, anyway?” she said, her mouth full. “Oh-- uh--” I stammered. “We were roommates in college,” Jean interjected. He stood in one of the aisles, poking half-heartedly at some of the flowers. He wouldn’t look at me. “Until I transferred out and went to the police academy," he clarified. “I was wondering where that crappy hoodie came from," Sasha said to him over her shoulder, "have you always had that?” “I dug it out of my closet this morning,” Jean grumbled. I knew him well enough to notice that his cheeks went pink when he lied, but Sasha turned back to me without a second thought. “The grumpiest grump that ever grumped,” she smiled slightly. “Where do we start?” “I, uh... Well, do you know what kinds of flowers you want?” Sasha shook her head. Jean raised an eyebrow across the room. “Ok then. Do you know how many people you have in your wedding party?” “Wait, we’re supposed to plan another party?” I bit my lip. She saw the twinge of frustration in my expression and laughed.


“Ok,” Sasha said, “how about this. You come to this Christmas dinner party thing we’re throwing tomorrow, it’s just a bunch of our friends and lots of booze and stockings, the whole thing, and you can go Wedding Flowers 101 with me, because this will take a while.” “I --” I was surprised, suddenly dazed by the thought of sitting with their friends in the living room they’d decorated together, watching them cook together, praying that there wasn’t any mistletoe so I didn’t have to watch them kiss. The blood drained out of my face. “Sasha,” said Jean from the other side of the shop, “we already have a shitload of people coming, honey.” He hated that pet name. Or at least, he’d told me he did. “Whatever. I want you to come!” Sasha told me, determined. I smiled slightly. “What time do you want me? And should I bring anything--” “Seven o’ clock! And absolutely not, I am obsessed with cooking for people. All you have to do is come over and be hungry.” And that was that. There were a few more pleasantries, an address and an exchanged phone number she scribbled on my business card. I liked her, really, but I couldn’t breathe. Jean opened the door for her, and glanced back at me. Not long enough for me to really make eye contact with him; not long enough. She took his hand as they disappeared into the dark of the street.


Chapter five

My one and only nice shirt was still in the dryer at 6:45. I paced the apartment shirtless, waiting for the cycle to finish, trying not to think about everything at once while simultaneously forgetting half of what I was supposed to be thinking about. For example, I couldn’t get the fear that I would be sitting in their apartment, relaxed and having fun with their friends, and carelessly rub Jean’s thigh. Or kiss his cheek. Or laugh at something he said and let an “I love you” slip, because he made me act like I was a lovesick fifteen year old, and I did that a lot. But I forgot to tie my shoelaces. I tripped over them twice before I finally realized. I didn’t even try to let myself think about Sasha. The guilt was overwhelming. The dryer finished at the exact moment that my cell phone started to ring, the screen lighting up and flashing the number Sasha had written down for me. I dove for the phone, fumbling it in my hands, answering accidentally and then dropping it on the floor. Sasha would laugh, I knew already, but I didn’t hear her on the phone. I heard his deep voice, sounding strained even from here. “Hello? Marco?” I scooped up the phone from the floor. “Jean?”


“Yeah.” He was flustered. “Yeah, hi.” “Hi.” Silence. I didn’t know what to say. I wondered if he had me on speaker. “Sasha just wanted me to remind you,” Jean said finally, “the party is at 7ish... We’re not having many people over after all, but she wanted to make sure you could come...” “Absolutely,” I said brightly. “I’m just waiting for my one nice shirt to be clean.” Despite himself, I heard him laugh slightly. “Where are you?” I added, cautious. I am an awful person. “I’m on the landline she keeps in our apartment, she told me to call you... She went to the store a couple of minutes ago, yelling something about cheese. I don’t know.” “Are you alone?” “Yeah.” “Then why haven’t you told me you love me yet,” I said softly, “you big dork.” I can’t help it. I can’t help it. I can’t help it. “I didn’t think you wanted to hear it from me today,” Jean said, hushed. “I need it the most today.” “I love you. You don’t have to come over if you don’t want, I --” he stopped. “Are you scared?” I said.


“Of course I’m fucking scared.” I swallowed hard. “I’m not going to do anything to blow it, you know that. I’m not going to touch you, I’m not going to hint, I’m not even going to drink anything.” “You never shut up when you’re drunk,” he agreed. “Well I hate to break it to you, but you like to make out when you’re drunk, so maybe we should both lay off the spiked eggnog today.” I heard that huffing sound he makes when he smiles, but he went silent again, and I knew the smile was gone. “I’m not going to screw it up,” I said softly. “I’m not worried about that. I... Just promise me you won’t leave.” “Leave what? The party?” “Me,” he said very quietly. I didn’t say what I was really thinking: that this night would be a turning point. The longer we sat in that room with his friends and his fiancee, the more fucked up the situation would feel, the worse the guilt, the worse the pain. The easier it would be for him to come to terms with the situation and do the right thing. The last thing I could do was leave now. I sat down and rubbed my face. “I’m not going anywhere, my love. Next year we’ll just spend Christmas sitting on my couch in reindeer-themed pajamas and getting drunk.” “You know what happens when I get drunk.” Jean’s voice went husky, sexy, playful.


I laughed. “Unfortunately.” “What do you mean ‘unfortunately’ you liked it and you know it--” I heard a door burst open, and the rustle of plastic shopping bags over the phone. Jean stammered immediately, the mock anger in his voice gone. “I, uh --” his voice cracked. “I’ll talk to you later, Mom.” I couldn’t help myself. “Good luck being straight, honey. Mommy loves you.” Jean muttered something as he hung up. I think I heard ‘moron’ somewhere in there. That made it worth it... Until it hit me that when Sasha walked in, he couldn’t even admit to talking to me on the phone. As a friend. I fished my nice shirt out of the dryer and put it on, my keys already in my pocket, the bottle of wine I’d bought to take over already in my car. But still I hesitated in the middle of my apartment, trying to decide. Finally I went into my bedroom and hunted underneath the pillows on my bed until I found his sweatshirt I’d been sleeping in. I tucked it under my arm and locked the front door behind me. I would just leave it in the car. For support. A reminder.

-~-


They lived on the wealthier side of this district -- of course they did. They were both police officers, so their pay was mediocre like mine, but Jean’s parents had always been forcefully privileged. By that, I mean every time Jean wore a shitty t-shirt he’d bought at a concert, his mother died inside a little. Jean and Sasha lived on the top floor of a third-story brownstone across the street from a small park. It was perfect. Sasha buzzed me in when I rang the doorbell without even asking who it was; her trust in this neighborhood and her protection and her happiness was that deep. I almost turned back twice while climbing the stairs to their apartment. The place that they’d bought together, decorated together, where they ate dinner together and probably watched movies in their underwear on Sunday mornings together. Like we used to. The door at the top of the landing had been left open; I knocked on the door frame anyway, peeking in. “Is that Marco?” called Sasha from the kitchen. “Merry Early Christmas,” I called back. “I brought wine...” “YES.” There was a flurry of laughter from the kitchen, more voices that I almost recognized, but Sasha popped her head round the corner of the kitchen’s doorway, finding me standing there in her front hall. Immediately she came over to me, wearing an apron over her grotesque Christmas sweater. She kissed my cheek with a laugh.


“You like it?” She tugged on the hem of her sweater. “It sparkles.” I laughed, too. “It’s beautiful.” Sasha took the wine bottle off my hands and headed back for the kitchen. “Come on in!” I followed her, getting glimpses of the other rooms whose doorways lined the front hall. There was a living room that looked lost somewhere between an interior decorating magazine and a heaven of comfiness, and an office with papers on every surface. The door to their bedroom had been left slightly ajar, too; I saw an unmade bed, a pile of his clothes on the floor, and beside it, left astray, a random pair of her underwear. The knots in my chest made it hard to breathe deeply. I went for the kitchen, the last door on the right. I think the kitchen was the biggest part of the apartment; its size eclipsed even the bedroom I’d just seen. There was enough room for a whole set of cabinets and appliances as well as a dining table, which was decorated and covered with weird-looking snacks and appetizers. I recognized Bert and his fiancee, Sami, sitting on one side, and at the head of the table Jean was leaning back in his chair, smiling slightly as he talked. He was wearing my hoodie. He looked up at me when I appeared in the doorway, and the smile wavered on his lips. I couldn’t look at him, or else I couldn’t do this. “Hi guys,” I said brightly to all of them.


Bert greeted me with a warm smile; Sami in the same way, with a wave. “Hey, man,” Jean said easily, sitting forward, leaning his elbows on the table. “You made it.” “More people are coming,” Sasha said over her shoulder. “This is going to turn into a buffet, because a bunch of people can’t make it or can’t stay... Connie and Reiner should be here soon, and my friends from Vermont are in town, they should be over tonight.” “Soup kitchen is a better word for all this food,” Bert suggested kindly. Sasha laughed. “Exactly. Perfect. Make yourself at home, Marco! Who wants wine?” I sat down across from Bert, a seat away from Jean. And that was how it went. The atmosphere in that kitchen was warm and light: everyone joked with each other, and from the depths of her oven and the stacking bowls along the counter, Sasha produced more food that smelled fantastic. More of their friends came in and out as time passed, just as she’d predicted, and she greeted them happily. Then they would turn to Jean and he would shake their hand or clap them on the shoulder, or even hug them if they were close. He didn’t speak to me directly again. There were jokes, and we all laughed, but he didn’t look at me. Not really. It was like watching a warm-hearted holiday movie, feeling this love and


humor and seeing friends reunited, and suddenly remembering that you’re sitting in the theatre in the dark, by yourself, watching it all play out on a screen twenty feet away from you. By nine o'clock it was just the four of us again, and Sasha had finally finished what she called “the dinner course,” even though we’d all been eating everything she handed to us the entire time. “What more food could you possible have, woman?” Jean turned to her with raised eyebrows. “If you’re gonna complain, you’re not getting any leftovers.” Sasha came over to Jean and leaned over the back of his chair, wrapping her arms around his neck from behind and kissing his cheek. “Do you want to cut the turkey, Macho Man?” “You’re actually going to let me?” Jean smiled slightly, turning to look at her. “Yeah, but only because I want to sit down. And I want to talk to your boyfriend, you’ve been ignoring him all night.” Jean stiffened. Sasha didn’t notice; she’d looked up at me with a smile. “I’d apologize and say he’s not usually rude, but he’s usually rude.” I managed a grin. “You’re the one who has to marry him.” “Good point.” When Jean slipped out of his seat without a word, Sasha took his place, picking up his wine glass and taking a sip. “What about you, Marco? Are you seeing anyone?”


I twisted the handle of my fork between my fingers. “Yes and no. I don’t even have time to really go out and meet anybody, with the shop.” “You said yes as well as no,” Sasha prodded. “Is there someone?” “An ex-boyfriend who can’t make his mind up,” I said finally. “I love those,” replied Sami. Bert looked at her in surprise. “Play with him,” advised Sasha, “then leave him in the dust. He’s an exboyfriend for a reason.” There was a loud clang of metal silverware against porcelain. Jean stood at the counter with his back to us, carving into the turkey, but he’d dropped the knife on the plate. I saw his hand flex into a fist at his side and turned away. “You really think so?” I asked her, my voice unsteady. “Marco, you’re wonderful, and I only met you yesterday. Yes, I think so. If he was a big enough bitch to let you go the first time, then what makes him better the second time?” Sage words from a woman who sipped her fiance’s wine while he wore my sweatshirt. “You deserve the best,” Sasha insisted. “Thank you.” My gratitude was genuine and my throat felt like it was closing. “Maybe he changed,” Jean said suddenly. We all looked up at him. Jean’s face was red, and his brow was deeply furrowed in a frown. “Maybe he


finally feels like he’s mature enough to be with you, and be in that relationship. Maybe he just wasn’t, the first time around. Mature, I mean. Ready to deal with it.” “I think I’m just waiting for him to admit to that,” I said quietly. “Boys never admit to anything,” Sasha sighed. “But that was a nice thought, honey. I love it when you say romantic things and you get all grumpy.” “-- What? I’ m not grumpy.” Jean turned away, frowning. “Wait...” I said slowly. “Sami, your ex-boyfriend comment...” Sami relaxed against the back of her chair, where Bert’s arm rested along the top. She glanced at him over the rim of her glasses and fought a smile. “I thought he was your first boyfriend,” I finished, sensing incongruity. “You don’t have any ex-boyfriends..?” Bert was turning pink, and looking down at her a little concerned. “Oh,” Sami chuckled, “he is. We were high school sweethearts. I just say things like that to make Bert sweat.” Sure enough, her fiance’s eyes opened wider, and he looked like he would indeed break out into a sweat. I laughed, and Sasha laughed too, when Bert surreptitiously wiped his forehead with the back of his hand. Sami kissed his cheek, and I realized, like the bursting of a flower bud in the back of my brain, that I was the only one here by myself.


The thought took root and made my blood feel cold. I imagined this moment, only a fraction differently, in an apartment I shared with him in a kitchen where we moved around each other, laughing with our friends. Happy. Not like this. “Even if you’ve never been married,” Sasha said, interrupting my thoughts, “I trust you completely with the wedding flowers. I was talking to my mom, and she said that she’s planning on having a shitload of people coming... Can you do something that size?” “A shitload?” I smiled slightly. “If you give me enough time.” She smiled. “We were thinking the date would be in this spring. Jean’s birthday is April 7th, so maybe close to that.” “That sounds really great.” It was a wonder I kept my voice level. “And Sami and Bert are talking about late January, but theirs is smaller. Sami, you should totally have Marco do the flowers for you.” Sami nodded enthusiastically, and she asked Sasha a question about... I don’t know. Flowers. Arrangements. Getting married and living happily ever after. I didn’t hear it. Jean came over to the table with a heavy, steaming plate of the carved turkey and set it down in the middle of the table. He took the seat next to me and pulled the chair in closer to the table. He leaned forward across the table to retrieve a bottle of wine and pour himself another glass. He leaned back, pouring steadily with his right hand, and his left hand rested on my leg. He managed to keep his face straight, clearing plates around the turkey and taking more of the side dishes, all with his right hand.


He squeezed my leg, and I cleared my throat. I put my left elbow on the table and leaned my chin in the palm of my hand, feigning interest in Sami and Sasha’s intense flower conversation, moving forward in my seat so his hand and mine on my leg were hidden by the long table cloth. I traced his knuckle with my thumb, and he flipped his hand over, palm up, still resting on my leg. “... Bert’s family is all the way over in California,” Sami was saying, “so I don’t know how many of them can actually get there.” “A small wedding is never a bad thing,” I offered helpfully. Covering my tracks. I laced my fingers through Jean’s and squeezed. He traced his thumb up and down the side of mine, tender and rhythmic, not letting go. This was all that I could have of him. This would never be enough. When my cell phone rang in my pocket, it scared the shit out of both of us; Jean let go immediately, sitting straight up in his chair, and I fumbled for my pocket. Erwin Smith, the screen flashed. Shit. I’d completely forgotten about everything: the party, his coming home, everything. “Shit -- I have to take this, excuse me--” “Erwin Smith,” Sasha read, “Is that your ex boyfriend?” “I -- yeah.” My face burned red. “Tell him to kiss your ass,” she said kindly. “Be strong, Marco.”


I thanked her and got up from the table. Jean stared at his plate. I left the apartment entirely; I couldn’t stand in there anymore, I went all the way down the stairs and into the dark of the street. Only then did I answer. “Erwin -- Man, I’m so sorry, I haven’t had the chance--” “It’s Levi.” The voice was aggravated and low. “Oh. Shit, I totally forgot... How is he? How’s it going with the arm--” “Don’t ask about that.” “I’m sorry, man, I’ve had a lot of shit going on.” “Can you come now?” Levi said over the phone. “What?” “This is the first time in two months he’s gotten dressed. He got out of bed and went outside last week, but this is new. And he asked about you. Come over.” “Can you give me an hour?” I said after some hesitation. “See you in an hour.” Levi hung up. I’m still not sure if he likes me honestly, but the thought of seeing Erwin cheered me up somewhat. Especially if he was in a good place. I stood on the sidewalk outside Jean and Sasha’s apartment building and contemplated going back up to say goodbye, or just leaving. Sasha had been so sweet to me. I had to go up and explain. But if I had to see Jean for two seconds more, happy and content in his perfect life, I didn’t know how I could make myself leave unless he was coming with me. The slam of the building’s glass front door shocked the hell out of me; I heard his footsteps, heavy on the front steps as he approached me.


“Marco.” Jean’s voice was ragged. I turned to look at him, trying to decide if I should punch him or kiss him. “Who was that? On the phone?” He demanded. “Are you kidding me?” I said suddenly. The anger washed through me. “You said he was your boyfriend? Who is he? If you’re seeing someone else--” “Don’t you fucking dare, Jean. You don’t get to do this.” “I don’t get to ask who you’re seeing?” He got in my face, his voice low and muffled when he clenched his teeth, angry. “I don’t get to ask who you’re fucking?” I went right back at him, nose to nose. “Not after I just spent all this time sitting in your kitchen,” I prodded him in the chest with my finger, “talking to your fiancee,” prodded him again, “about your wedding,” prodded again, “and your fucking happy perfect life.” “Don’t touch me,” Jean growled. “What are you going to do, Jean? Are you going to punch me? Are you going to fucking fight me, because I’m being so cruel to you, because maybe I’m seeing someone else? I’ve got a goddamned newsflash for you.” “Who is he?” His voice was rough. “Who is it, Marco?” “He’s just my friend,” I said violently. “The war vet. I only said it was my boyfriend so your fiancee wouldn’t ask any more questions about my exboyfriend.”


“Yeah, who you fucking trash-talked.” “I said one goddamned thing. Your friends and your fiancee just happened to feel that how you’re treating me is extremely shitty.” “I’m trying, Marco. I’m fucking trying.” “You either do this, you break up with her and you tell the goddamned truth and you be with me. Or you don’t. And you stay here in this perfect life, and I walk away. You either do it or you don’t.” Jean turned away from me violently, taking a few steps away. I could see him seething, and I was glad; I wanted him to hurt. “It’s not that easy,” he said finally. His back was turned. “It's actually simple. Tell the truth. Marry me.” My voice broke. “It’s not that fucking easy!” Jean roared, turning to look at me. Immediately, he lowered his voice. “I lose my friends, I lose my parents, I lose my fucking job potentially. You know you can get fired for being gay, right? Does anyone fucking tell you that while you’re in your little flower shop? I could get killed over this, it happens every fucking day, Marco! I wipe these gay kids off the streets in the morning and have to call their mom from the number she sewed on the tag of their fucking backpacks when they were little!” I was silent, shaking with anger. I knew he was right, and it terrified me. But I couldn’t face letting him walk away. “It’s terrifying,” I said quietly. “It’s fucking terrifying, Jean. But I’ll be damned if I’m going to lose you because of what other people think. This is hurting me too bad. This is killing me.” I could see him shivering from the cold, the sleeves of my hoodie pulled down


to his wrists. I didn’t even feel it. I just stared at him, waiting, getting more and more frightened the longer he was silent. “I don’t want to hurt you anymore,” Jean said finally, his jaw set. “You’re going to keep fucking hurting me. Every day I wake up and you’re not there, you’re going to keep hurting me.” “I can’t do this to you anymore. I can’t fuck you up just because I’m fucked up.” I didn’t understand what he was saying at first. “What--?” A car flashed it’s headlights at the end of the street, and suddenly it hit me: I felt the cold, the dark of the sky pressing into the street, the face that every single neighbor and the goddamned cat could be sitting in their windows, watching. I didn’t care. But he did. Jean was ghostly pale. His voice sounded choked. “Marco, I love you...” The car was a taxi cab, drawing closer. “But I can’t do this to you anymore,” he finished. The cab pulled to a stop in the street beside us. I saw the silhouette of someone fumbling with cash in the back seat, but my brain wouldn’t make sense of it. Suddenly the front door of Jean’s apartment building burst open, and Sasha bounded down the steps. “Connie!” she yelled.


The door of the cab opened, and a short guy with his dark hair buzzed down to his skull climbed out of the backseat. She jumped on him and he caught her, spinning around somewhat masterfully, cackling with laughter and falling over. Together they tumbled onto the sidewalk, landing on the luggage that fell out of the cab after him. They laughed, and she kissed his cheek, yelling about how glad she was to see him. All Connie could do was laugh. Jean and I stared at each other. I saw the wet streaks on his cheeks; he wiped the tears away forcefully, with the back of both his hands, like a little kid. I rummaged for my keys in my pocket, headed toward my car a few spots away from where the cab had dumped Connie, and got in. And then I left.

Chapter six

I didn’t make it far. A few streets away. My vision was blurry. Trying to parallel park was awful. I turned my car off and sat in the cold. God fucking damn it.


I slammed my hands so hard against the steering wheel that the horn went off, and my horn hadn’t worked in months. God fucking damn it. After a while I forced myself to sit up straight, to wipe my face. And then I saw it. His hoodie was on the passenger seat where I’d left it. That made it worse, so much worse, and I couldn’t breathe. He gave up on me. I had promised him I wouldn’t leave, and then I did. But he had wanted me to. Even when I buried my face in my hands -- even when I nearly screamed -even when I grabbed blindly for his sweatshirt and held it to my chest, the smell of his sweat and his soap -- even when I gasping -The pain wouldn’t stop. The tears did, and then the gasping, and I sat in my car with a stuffy nose and salt in my mouth, breathing normally, seeing clearly, the dark soothing, the hoodie crumpled in my lap. But the pain wouldn’t stop. Every thought not spent on keeping myself going was wasted on memorizing him. The way he held my hand. The way his face had looked when he told me he didn’t want to do this anymore.


He gave up on me. He’s done it before. Don’t think about it. Don’t think at all. One step at a time. Just like before. Breathe. Wipe the hair out of your eyes. Wipe your face. Throw the sweatshirt in the back of the car, where you’ll forget about it. Keys in the ignition. Drive. You’re supposed to be at Erwin’s in twenty minutes, you think he wants to see you sniffling? The pain wouldn’t stop, but I worked around it. Step by step, I stopped being a fucking mess and started being what I needed to be. A man driving a car; a man heading across town to see his friend and pretend like nothing was wrong; a man obeying every driving safety regulation he could remember from Driver’s Ed, because the last thing he needed was to see a cop right now. A single guy with a successful career and a successful life and at least one shred of self respect. A guy who kept his promises to his friends when he could. So that’s what I did. It was another half an hour before I finally found my way to Erwin’s condo complex. It had started to snow, and maneuvering through some of the side streets in the dark was not easy. I parked my car behind Levi’s black Mustang and got out with the slam of my door; I saw the curtains in the front window of the first floor rustle open, then closed. I stopped being the sick loser crying over his boyfriend and started being the Marco that Erwin would need me to be. When I knocked and Levi opened the door, my smile was ready.


Levi gave me a sour look. “You’re late.” “I’m sorry.” My voice sounded stuffy from crying. “I got held up.” Don’t think about it. He stepped backward and let me into their condo without comment. I followed him through the living room, a space that was usually so immaculate now littered with beer cans and blankets. This connected to the kitchen, which Levi had still managed to keep neat up to his standards, and through the sliding glass door that led out to their small garden, I saw Erwin. The last time I had seen Erwin Smith, he had been handsome -- that’s the only way I could think to describe him. He was the gay Captain America, with more wisdom and a less humiliating costume; he was attractive and charming, and everyone knew it, but his stoic and thoughtful approach to any conversation made him magnetic. You wanted to hear what he had to say, and you wanted to watch him say it, too. I had been platonic friends with Erwin from the very beginning three years ago, but even I remember thinking that. The last time I had seen Erwin was two years ago, before he’d left for his second tour in Iraq. The man sitting in the deck chair under the awning on his porch, watching the snow fall, looked radically different. But then again, no he didn’t: he still wore his hair the same way, and he seemed fit and healthy. Regardless of the phantom space in the blanket draped over his shoulders, even the missing arm didn’t make him look that much different. It was the way he stared at the snow, grimly, like it was the last time he might see it.


My stomach turned. I kept my voice light. “Erwin?” He looked up at me, shocked almost to trembling, until he realized who I was. Erwin smiled, and I saw the hollows of his cheeks. “Well I’ll be goddamned. Marco.” “Hey, buddy.” I sat down in the deck chair next to him, shivering at the cold of the frozen metal through my jeans. “Long time, no see.” “How are things going? How’s the old man at the shop?” Erwin remembered everything. “I bought it off him, actually.” I grinned. “It’s mine now, for the last year and a half.” “That’s great.” “How about yourself? How are you doing?” I could tell that somewhere Levi was watching us, probably seething, but I didn’t care. I’ve been friends with Erwin for three years. “The snow,” Erwin said thoughtfully. “I’ve been watching the snow.” “We’re supposed to get more,” I offered. “I didn’t think I’d see it again,” he replied, his voice level. We lapsed into silence, comfortable for him at least; I watched him from the corner of my eye, but he couldn’t take his eyes off the sky.


I could only begin to imagine the hell he had gone through. The things he had seen. It made my life feel so much smaller. It made the pain in my chest throb differently, like a reminder I needed to hear. What was I doing here crying over an inconvenient romantic situation, when every time Erwin turned a corner, he experienced a horrifying memory from overseas? “You should come to the shop some time and hang out,” I said. “No more old guy to yell at me from behind the counter.” “I haven’t thought about flowers in a long time,” Erwin replied softly. “They’re as beautiful as this snow. More beautiful, even.” I stood up. “You should get some rest, buddy.” “I’m fine here. Merry Christmas, Marco.” “It’s only December 20th, Erwin. I’ll come see you before Christmas. Or you come see me.” Erwin nodded slowly, then looked up at me. “Merry Christmas.” I touched his shoulder in response as a goodbye, the one from which the arm ended mid-bicep, the end wrapped tightly with bandages. Then I left him to the snow, and went back inside. Levi stood in the doorway of the kitchen, a full head shorter than me, looking fiercer than I imagine I ever could while still managing to look unimpressed. He looked at me for a long time with that expression, and I let him, waiting patiently. “You’re the first person he’s talked to besides me and his doctor,” he said stiffly.


“How are you doing, Levi?” I asked. I saw a flash of surprise on his face. “This has to be hard on you,” I added gently. “I do what I can,” he said finally. “He will be alright. Let me know next time he’s feeling up to it, I’ll bring him some flowers.” After that, I left. I could see it on Levi’s face, even if it was just barely visible under the layers of sourness and courtesy he buried it in. Pain. Fear. Leaving that condo was like stepping out of a strange parallel world. I stood next to my car for a while and took in deep breaths, accidentally catching the snowflakes on my tongue. Erwin might never really be back to how he was before. But Levi stayed, doing everything he could to help, even if it meant calling me. And it struck me so deeply that my heart raced and a sudden frantic urge swept through me, nearly knocking me down in the street. Jean was safe and whole and here, the way he’d always been, from the dorky smile downwards. He was right here. A twenty minute drive away if I didn’t get lost again. How could I let that slip away from me -- how could I let that go, just because of complications? When things could have been so much worse, how could I have just given up on him? The answer made my eyes burn. Because he had given up on me.


Breathe. Wipe your eyes. Get in the car. Foot on the gas pedal. Turn left at the end of the street. Don’t think about it. Don’t think about it. Don’t think about it.

-~-

He didn’t call. I stayed late at the shop every night for a week. He didn’t show up. If he had anything, it was his conviction. I didn’t sleep right. I didn’t eat much, or else I went overboard, eating a whole huge meal that would normally last me days, finishing off a whole twelve pack of beer in my fridge. I functioned, a step by step process. The pain would stop soon, I swore to myself. Just get through it. I’ve done it before. I had put up the sign in the front window at the shop two weeks earlier, announcing that I was closed Christmas Eve through the 27th. Now I wanted to take it down, rip it in half, and stay. There was always more work for me to do here, and nothing at home but his hoodie, which I had thrown into the same corner of my bedroom where the note he had left me that first morning


still lay crumpled. Of course I hadn’t thrown it out. On the night of the 23rd -- a week since he’d given up, held my hand, called me sweetheart, let me drive away -On the night of the 23rd, I stayed at the shop as late as I possibly could. I finished every odd job that had been lying around unfinished; I put every flower left in the place into the coolers, preparing them for being stored away. I swept, I mopped, I wiped that floor until the plastic soles of my sneakers slipped across it and I fell on my ass. Then there was nothing to do but sit there and wonder if I should just sleep there. Getting home was slow. Even in this part of New York and this late at night, the streets were a mess from the impatient drivers and fresh heaps of snow that narrowed the lanes even worse. I sat in the traffic and didn’t think about anything; I parked all the way at the end of my street and walked to my apartment, my eyes trained on the sidewalk. I didn’t know what I would do when I got home, anyway; maybe play a video game. Maybe eat the rest of my food. It was probably time to consider getting a dog. I climbed the flights of stairs to my floor instead of taking the apartment building’s elevator. I wanted to feel my lungs burn, and not think about anything but how stupid I was. How tired I was. I reached the sixth floor and pushed the door to the stairwell open, wondering if I should go for a run, or walk all the way up to the roof. No. Sleep. I found the front door for my apartment and leaned up against it, fumbling for the right key. The wood was cool when I rested my forehead on it,


and even when I found the right key I stayed like that, closing my eyes. Down the hall, there was a sharp beep, and the tarnished doors of the elevator slid open. Don’t look at me, I thought vehemently, wishing whoever got out of the elevator would completely ignore me. Maybe it was the gecko lady from down the hall. She had years worth of weird on me, she had no room to judge. There was a loud thud, the sound of cardboard and aluminum cans and a heavy bag hitting the thick carpet underfoot. I glanced up, confused. It turned out to be a duffel bag, a six pack of beer, and a pizza box. He stood in the middle of the hallway, staring at me. Immediately, I straightened my posture. My throat was tight. I watched him struggle for words and swallow hard. He looked tired. “I --” he started, then stopped, then started again. “I brought pizza.” “Jean,” I said softly. He closed the space between us immediately, and I found myself moving towards him, too. When we reached each other we hit hard, grabbing for each other, desperate, holding on for dear life, losing our balance and tumbling down onto the carpet against the wall, our legs tangled, and I just held on tighter. Jean had fistfuls of my jacket in both his hands, gripping for more until his fingers found my skin and he held me closer, squeezing me tight, his face buried in my shoulder. I heard his breath hitch; I heard him choking back


the sob. I stroked his hair, and my eyes burned. “Shhh,” I whispered. “Don’t, baby, it’s ok. It’s ok.” Jean wouldn’t let go. His grip was starving, like this was all he would get, and I held onto him just as tight. “I’m so fucking selfish.” His voice was broken and muffled in my shirt. “I can’t-- I can’t stay away from you.” “Shhh.” I loosened my grip on him, but only to hold his face in both my hands, pull him closer to me, wipe the tears off his cheeks with my thumbs. “Don’t cry.” Jean kissed me hard, and I was home. By the time he pulled away we were both breathless, and I managed a smile. “‘I brought pizza,’” I murmured. “That was your opener?” He leaned his forehead against mine and sniffled. “It was going to be more romantic.” “Well, it worked.” I wiped his face again. “I’m so sorry,” Jean whispered. “I’m so sorry, sweetheart.” “I thought you gave up on me,” I whispered back. I still held his face in my hands, and he leaned into one and kissed my palm. “I didn’t want to hurt you anymore. I thought it would be better.”


I just shook my head. He kissed me again, this one tender. “We should go in,” I said finally. We were still a pile of tangled limbs on the floor in the hallway, and I didn’t want to get up. I didn’t want to let go. Apparently, neither did he. Together, without a word we untangled ourselves and got up. I went for the door and unlocked it, holding it open for him; Jean hauled his duffel bag over his shoulder and set the pizza and beer down in my living room, dropping the bag to the floor again. Then he turned to me and watched me, unsure what to do next, looking vulnerable and utterly at a loss. His eyes were still rimmed with red. I moved close to him again, my head bowed, unsure whether we should talk or touch, not knowing which one would get the point across better. He brushed the tip of his nose against mine, his lips grazing mine so softly. Then with one hand Jean turned my face toward him and kissed me until I was shaking, until I was his, and he already knew the way to my bedroom.

-~-

When I woke up the next morning, he was gone. I stayed very still lying there in bed, breathing deeply to a rhythmic count in my head, trying to deal with the panic. From the darkest depth at the back of my brain, there was a reasonable, thorough, cynical thought. It was all a dream.


Then I heard the metallic, hollow clatter of a frying pan as it hit the floor in the kitchen. And through gritted teeth, his deep voice. “Shit.” I nearly fell out of bed, tumbling out of the twisted sheets and fumbling for my boxers on the floor. I yanked a t-shirt over my head and nudged the bedroom door open with my foot at the same time. “Jean?” I called down the hallway. “No,” he called back. “Go back to bed.” Well if he was going to be sassy, I needed to brush my teeth first. I found Jean in the kitchen, the freshly washed frying pan crackling on the stove where the water touched the heat. He had just cracked eggs into a bowl he held with one hand to his chest, and with the other he whisked them with a fork. He looked up at me as I lingered in the doorway, and turned his back to me immediately. “No,” Jean huffed, “Get outta here.” I came up behind him and put my hand on the small of his back. He was wearing one of my sweatshirts. “Are you making me breakfast?” My voice was still thick with sleep. “In bed,” Jean said, still whisking, “that was my intention.”


I kissed his neck. “Thank you. I can take over if you want.” “I got this.” “Do you?” I murmured into his shoulder, fighting a smile. Jean put the bowl down and turned around, drawing himself up to his full height, which was just barely level with mine. “I just know you don’t.... like cooking,” I continued, trying to keep the smirk off my face. “I am going to punch you right now,” Jean said, smiling slightly. “Oh, you’re going to punch me?” I poked him in the stomach. “You wanna go?” “Let’s fucking go. I will fight you right now.” He wrapped his arms around me and pulled me close to him, leaning back against the kitchen counter. “Good. Let’s rumble.” I put my arms around his neck. “Let’s take this outside.” “I will ruin you,” he growled, fighting that dorky smile. “I know,” I said softly. I kissed his cheek when he blushed, then slipped out of his grip and went towards the coffee pot in the corner. It was already half empty. “No wonder you’re being productive,” I laughed. “Did you use the sugar?” “It’s here, sweetheart.” Jean had turned back to the stove and was pouring his


whisked concoction into the frying pan. The glass jar of sugar was sitting among a random variety of ingredients on the counter beside him. I went over to him and reached for the sugar, my other hand on his back again, and tried not to sound too discouraged by the color of the thing in the frying pan. “Did you put all this stuff into... that?” I said slowly. The look on Jean’s face was priceless. “I,” he began ceremoniously, “am an officer of the law.” “Ok, Javert.” “And I,” he continued, louder, ignoring me, “just decided not to kick your ass, but instead make you breakfast. So go get back in the goddamned bed.” I nuzzled my face into his shoulder blade. “I’m glad you stayed,” I mumbled. Jean faltered, but kept the demanding voice. “Go. Right now.” “I love you very much.” “Nothing you say is gonna work. You’re eating this. In bed.” “I don’t think we’ve had sex in the kitchen yet,” I said thoughtfully. Jean’s turned around so fast that I burst out laughing. He shoved me lightly away, and I went back into the bedroom with my mug of coffee, climbing into bed and listening to him move around my kitchen.


I had forgotten how to be this happy. I had forgotten it existed. Finally, Jean came down the hallway carrying a tray he’d found in one of the cabinets. He set it down on the edge of the bed, his face burning a dark red all the way up to his messy hair. He’d brought me a bowl of cereal. “I fucked up the thing,” was all he said. I laughed. I laughed until he flopped down next to me and kissed me to make me stop, and then I did stop, and he tasted like coffee and cereal, and when we knocked the tray off the bed and the milk spilled all over the floor, neither of us noticed.

-~-

We spent all day together. We took a shower together and got dressed; Jean had brought a whole bag of his stuff, but all he wanted was one of my shirts. I gave it to him, and then dug through his duffel bag until I found his Punisher shirt. He told me, through broken phrases and utter avoidance of Sasha’s name, that he had told Sasha he needed to work from today all the way to the 29th, so he was excused from going to her parents for the holidays. The truth was that he only had to work on the afternoon of Christmas day. That meant we didn’t just have hours together; we had days. We had Christmas. It made me feel light


headed. We went grocery shopping together. He’d used a lot of my ingredients that morning, and I wanted to get real food to make for dinner on Christmas. I hadn’t thought about real food for a week, and turns out, neither had he; we just ordered pizza for dinner on Christmas Eve. We sat around and played video games for hours. Stretched out on the couch under a blanket, we watched movies, which he could never stay awake for -- I watched movies, and he fell asleep with his head on my chest. We were 19 again, happy to be with each other and avoiding responsibilities; but we were 26, apart for so long and starving, and I could never look at him enough to ease it. Jean was the same, his gaze intense. He woke me up the next day when the sun was already high in the sky, and he was wearing his uniform, sitting on the edge of the bed next to where I was splayed out. I squinted at him in the sunlight, still tired, still recovering all my sleep. “Don’t go, baby,” I mumbled. “I have to.” Jean leaned over and touched my face gently, his thumb tracing along my cheekbone. “I’ll be back by eight.” “Marry me,” I said. Not as groggy as I wish I could say I was. “You know I will,” he whispered when he kissed my forehead. I didn’t want him to leave, but I started noticing just how much he still lingered even when he was gone. His toothbrush was in my bathroom; he left his sneakers by the front door, and his mouth had touched the rim of every


glass he left around the apartment, which was a lot. Cooking dinner went much better than I could have expected. It even smelled nice throughout the rest of my apartment, and I was pleased. Martha Stewart would have loved this gay man. But then eight o’clock came and went with no sign of Jean.

Chapter seven

I wasn’t worried at 8:30. It was Christmas day, and I could only imagine the batshit extravaganza that was going on in almost every single household in America. There’s a reason why I didn’t go home for Christmas myself. Jean would have enough to deal with at work, and had probably just been forced into overtime. I was a little frustrated by 9:30. At 9:45, I realized I hadn’t told him Merry Christmas when he left this morning. At 9:46, I dialed his cell phone and hung up immediately. I didn’t want my number to show up on his phone bill, and have Sasha see it. Even now, I couldn’t bring myself to leave evidence. By 10, I wanted to punch him in the face.


I sat at the tiny breakfast table in the corner of my kitchen, surrounded by the heaping plates of food I’d made, and watched them go cold. I didn’t want to start without him. By 10:30, I was scared. If something happened to him, no one would know to call me. Maybe we’d been found out. Sasha had caught him in his lie, or smelled my shower soap on his skin. Some male form of the lipstick-on-the-collar innuendo. “But that’s impossible,” I reasoned to a bowl of mashed potatoes. And there I was, talking to inanimate objects again. But I was right. It was impossible, with Sasha five hours away with her family in Vermont, and Jean was actually at work like he’d said he had to be. This was the only time he hadn’t been lying. My phone rang at 11, and the picture I had taken yesterday of him scowling appeared on the screen under his flashing number. I picked it up after the first ring. “You had better be dead or dying, buddy.” Jean’s voice sounded strange, thick. “I’m ok,” he grumbled, “I’m fine. ‘mFine.” “You scared the shit out of me,” I told him.


“Oh m’fucking god, it was just a car accident.” His words slurred. “Big fuckin’ deal--” My blood went cold. “What? Baby -- what happened?” I heard fumbling on the other end of the phone, and Jean’s muffled voice was arguing with someone, a curse thrown in after every other word. Then a different voice, deep and perfectly alert, spoke. “Marco? This is Reiner.” I cleared my throat. “Reiner-- What did Jean say about a car accident?” I wondered, panicked, if he’d heard me call him baby. “He’s fine,” Reiner assured. “We were out doing patrol, following a call in about a guy with a warrant out on him, so we pursued it. But by the time we found that son of a bitch he had stolen a car... He kind of just played bumper cars with a couple of cruisers, you know what I’m saying? We got him anyway,” he added proudly. “Is he alright?!” “The guy? He better not be after the damage he did to my car --” “Jean. I meant Jean.” My heart was hammering in my chest. “Oh, yeah. The doctor said his arm is broken, and his shoulder got dislocated. That fucker hit Jean’s side of the car pretty hard. We’re at Brooklyn Mercy, in the ER. We’ve been waiting here for hours... He just told me he wanted me to call you, man.”


“Tell him I’m sorry,” I heard Jean say groggily in the background. I was already out of my seat, shoving the shoes by the front door on my feet and juggling the phone while I pulled my jacket on. “Did they give him medication?” “This kid is high as balls,” Reiner laughed. “They have to pop his shoulder back in, so they just doped him right the fuck up. I’m so tempted to play ‘Never Have I Ever’ with him right now, he’ll tell me anything.” “Just do me a favor and hold off,” I huffed into the phone, taking the steps in the stairwell three at a time as I ran for my car. “I’ll be there as soon as I can.” I knew Jean well enough to know exactly the kinds of things he said and did when he was under the influence. For example. The first time we got drunk together in college was the first time he kissed me. A few prodding questions from Reiner, and this would quickly turn into an episode of Dr. Phil. Or Jerry Springer. Neither of those things needed to happen tonight. “Thanks a lot,” Reiner was saying. “Because I need to go home, but they won’t let him leave the hospital unless someone else is driving him --” Jean interrupted him. “Fucking tell Marco right now I said I’m sorry I missed dinner.”


“It’s Christmas,” Reiner muttered, “and I’m hanging out with a guy who turns into a 70’s porn star and calls everyone ‘sweetheart’ when he’s high.” “It only gets worse.” I started my car. “I’ll be right there.”

Brooklyn Mercy was the closest hospital to where I lived, and I got there under ten minutes flat, trying not to let my hands tremble on the steering wheel. If this was the ER he’d been brought to, then the accident must have been nearby. While I was mad at him for being late, he was getting hit by a car. The wrong angle, the right speed, and he could have been killed. And I was talking to mashed potatoes. I frightened the nurse behind the desk in the lobby of the Emergency Room half to death. She led me through the lobby and pointed down a hallway lined with doors -From somewhere down the length of the hall, I heard Jean cry out in pain, and the dry, brittle crack of bone. Then his voice, hoarse and breaking from the pain: “Jesus fucking Christ.” Reiner emerged from one of the doors on the left, his face crumpled in revulsion until he saw me. “Thank God, I’m out of here. I am a large ass man and even I think that was disgusting.” “Did they just pop his shoulder back in?” I asked faintly, watching as a doctor shuffled out of the doorway from behind him and headed the opposite


direction. Reiner grimaced. I took that as a yes. “Wait... Did he... Did he say anything weird, or...” “He didn’t say a word until the doped him, then he just kept saying shit like ‘I’m gonna marry him,’ just gibberish. The guy can’t keep his own grammar straight.” My chest ached. “Thanks for taking care of him,” I managed as he walked away. There was still a nurse hovering around Jean’s hospital bed when I went in. She tightened a sling across his chest and secured his left arm. I could see the wicked purple bruises across his forearm even through the transparent mesh of the sling. Jean’s face was grey, his jaw set and his brow furrowed at the pain. When he looked up and saw me, his expression softened slightly with relief. I sat down in the chair next to his bed. “Reiner just called me, I got here as soon as I could.” I wanted to take his free hand, but I kept an adequate amount of space between us, careful. “Marco,” Jean grumbled through gritted teeth, “fucking kiss me.”


The nurse glanced up at him, and when he caught her looking, I saw his nostrils flare. “What?” His voice was defensive and rough. “I just got my shoulder forced back together by th’fucking doctor, and you people won’t give me any more drugs, and I’m gonna kiss my fuckin’ boyfriend if I wanna. D’you have a problem, lady?” I was floored. I’d never heard him say anything like that to anyone about me. Drunk, high or sober. The nurse just shook her head. “You could have asked him nicer, son.” Jean sank back into his pillows, his face burning. “Oh.” I got up and kissed the small cut on his forehead, stroking his hair. Then I turned to the nurse, the nice older lady that she was, getting sworn at on Christmas. “He uses ‘please’ pretty sparingly,” I said gently, “I’m sorry. He’s... The pain...” Secretly, I was thrilled. I had never apologized for Jean being too open about our relationship before. “Say no more, honey.” The nurse finished wrapping the minor cuts on his wrist with gauze and collected her supplies. “The hard cast for his arm should be ready soon, and the last few x-rays for his shoulder. Then you can take Prince Charming home. Merry Christmas.”


I wished her a merry Christmas too, then looked at Jean, still shocked. “Fucking kiss me please,” he said quietly, his eyelashes fluttering closed. I sat on the edge of the bed next to him. “You know what you just said to her, right?” “She can judge all sh’wants. What’s she gonna do, take my appendix?” “Is this the drugs talking?” He opened one eye and scowled at me. I kissed him, turning his face toward me with one hand, then buried my face in the crook of his neck, on his good shoulder, and breathed him in deep. He rested his cheek on my hair. “Sorry I missed dinner,” he mumbled. “It’s waiting at home, baby. I’m just happy you’re safe.” I stayed like that, steadying my breath, listening to his heartbeat until I was sure it was going to continue. And even then, I couldn’t move. I couldn’t let him go. Jean snaked his good arm around my shoulders and slowly rubbed my back. “’S ok,” he murmured into my hair. Then I felt Jean freeze, and his touch was gone instantly, his arm falling limp to his side. I looked up at him, concerned. “What--”


“Uh,” said a deep voice from the doorway, “am I interrupting something?” Reiner stood there, his eyes widened in surprise. Immediately I sat back, nearly stumbling back off the bed and onto my feet. “I forgot my coat,” Reiner said slowly. Then he laughed. “Damn, Kirschtein really does get gay as hell when he’s on drugs.” Jean looked like he was going to cry, or he was going to throw up, or like he was going to get out of that bed and beat his friend and colleague until he was eating his meals through a tube. “Shut up,” was all he said. “Just shut up.” “Reiner,” I said, my voice calm, “I’m gay as hell 24/7, and I would appreciate it if you wouldn’t act like that’s a bad thing.” Reiner went pale. “Oh. I’m -- I’m sorry, man. I didn’t know. I was just joking about him...” “I’m not fucking gay.” Jean’s voice cracked. I looked at Jean and realized, bit by bit, that this was much different from the incident before with the nurse. He wasn’t going to defend me. I just had to accept it in that moment. He knew Reiner. He respected him. He worked with him.


There was no way he was going to tell him about me. I changed tactics. If he wanted to pretend we were platonic, then that’s what I would do, because a few hours ago, he could have been dead. “I think if you’d just had your arm and shoulder broken on duty, you’d be looking for emotional support from anyone that crossed your path, too,” I said quietly. “I was just teasing,” Reiner said finally. “I was just teasing, dude,” he said to Jean. “You’re gayer than I’ll ever be,” Jean replied weakly. “Probably,” Reiner conceded. “Feel better. I’m sorry,” he said to me again. I clenched my teeth and just nodded until he left, closing the door behind him. Jean let out a shaking breath, then another, and I heard him start to gasp, gulping for air, his breaths coming short and shallow and uneven. I turned back to him, and he tried to bow his head so I couldn’t see his face. So I couldn’t see the panic in his eyes. But I saw it. I sat down next to him and pulled him into my grip, gentle as I could be around his bad shoulder and his sling. He held onto me tight with his good arm, trying to breathe deeply. “I -- He --” Jean choked on the words. “God. God.” “It’s ok,” I soothed, “It’s alright. He doesn’t mean anything by it.” “I’m such -- I’m such -- a coward.” “It’s the medication, and the pain. You’re panicking. It’s alright. It’s alright.”


“I should’ve-- I... I should’ve said yes.” “To what, baby?” “Don’t,” he said roughly, trying to pull away. “I don’t -- I don’t deserve--” I sat back so there was enough space between us and watched as he slowly got himself to calm down. “You deserve me,” I said softly. “Coward,” was all Jean said. “I’m a coward.” “You’ve been through a lot of pain--” “He said I was gay, and I should’a said yes. I should have said ‘yeah, so what’ and told him to go fuck himself. But I didn’t. I didn’t stand up for you.” His words were still jumbling together from the medication. If he was ever going to tell me the truth about how he felt, this was it. It was now, with the drugs and the fear and the vulnerability. He looked lost. I reached out and wiped the hair away from where it clung to his forehead, damp with sweat. “Jean, you already did that tonight. You told that nurse I was your boyfriend, remember? You’ve never said that to anyone before.” He didn’t say anything. He stared at the blankets in his lap, and I leaned down in front of him until he was forced to look at me. “Remember?” I said again. Jean nodded slightly, his eyes dark. I shuffled into bed with him as I talked, my voice low and soothing. “You held


my hand in the grocery store yesterday,” I said as I brought my legs up and stretched out next to him. “You were holding my hand and yelling at me about how nachos were better than mozzarella sticks. Which they aren’t.” “Yes they are,” he muttered. When I pushed him forward gently, he moved under my touch; I sank back into the pillows and slumped down, and he lay back on my chest. “And then you kissed me. In front of everyone in that aisle, and everyone in that store. You’ve never done that before. You know what that means, don’t you?” “Hmm,” he mumbled, closing his eyes. I could still feel his heart beating fast. I didn’t speak again until it evened itself out, and I rested my cheek on the top of his head. “We’re in for the long haul. I’m not going anywhere.” Jean didn’t answer. The pain meds, the exhaustion, and the panic must have finally lulled him to sleep. “We’ll get there,” I murmured. I give myself that pep talk every hour of the day that I’m not with him. Sometimes, to deal with the pain, the little physical expressions of love are all you have; the words could be misinterpreted, the emotions confused, assumed. I remembered every time he’d touched me in public over the last two days, and I treasured it, and I counted them like gold coins in stacks on my miserly desk,


over and over, greedy. Holding his hand in the grocery store. His fingers on my waist when he turned me around in one of the aisles to look at something. When he had laughed and pulled me toward him and kissed me in the middle of the aisle, then flushed bright red. He’d forgotten for a moment how to act like he didn’t love me. He didn’t tell Reiner the truth, no. But he was slowly telling everyone else. That was enough for me tonight.

-~-

At some point, I must have fallen asleep, too. The light overhead in the hospital room had gone off automatically. I only woke up when the door opened, and a figure shifted into the doorway, cutting a shadow into the harsh fluorescent light that flooded into the dark room from the hall. I blinked, trying to make sense of what I was seeing. When I recognized the figure, it took every ounce of my self control not to jump out of that bed. I didn’t move a muscle. The only thing worse than this would be if Jean woke up right now. He was still asleep on my chest, his head tipped back in the crook of my neck. “Sasha?” I whispered to the figure. “What are you doing here?”


Sasha stepped into the room and the overhead lights flicked on. “The hospital called me when he was admitted. I’m his emergency contact,” she whispered back, “I just got in the car and drove... I saw what happened. They’re talking about it on the local news.” I glanced at the clock hung on the wall. It was two in the morning. Sasha sat down in the chair. “How’s he doing?” “We’re still waiting on the hard cast, I guess.” I cleared my throat. “He’s kind of a mess from the pain, and they doped him up.” “Yikes. He turns into a puddle when he’s on meds. Thank you, Marco. Thank you for taking care of him. I’m sorry about this,” she added, gesturing to Jean cuddled against me. “No problem at all,” I managed. “You can go home if you want,” she said softly. “I’ve got him.” “I know,” I said very quietly. “I know you do.” I shifted underneath Jean, and he whimpered, screwing his eyes shut tight in pain. “I have to get up,” I murmured to him. Please. Please let us get through this. Please let the drugs have worn off, and let him be his normal self. If this whole mess we were in was going to blow up, I didn’t want it to happen like this.


“Jean,” I breathed. He turned his face into my neck with a sleepy sigh. “Stop wiggling.” “I have to go,” was all I said. “Mmm,” he mumbled. “Stay, baby.” “Sasha is here.” Jean opened his eyes and sat up so fast that his shoulder and bad arm jerked painfully, and he seethed. Sasha stood up and went over to him, hugging him with one arm so she wouldn’t hurt him worse. “I’m so glad you’re ok!” This was my chance to let go of him completely. I slipped away, out of the bed and towards the door. “I’m fine,” Jean was grumbling, back to normal. “I’m fine.” He looked over Sasha’s shoulder and caught my gaze. My throat felt like it was closing and my stomach knotted a thousand times over. My whole body was reacting to this loss. This swift motion of him from my arms to hers. We just stared at each other, him and me. “I love you, sweetheart,” Jean said to me.


“I love you too,” Sasha replied, still hugging him, assuming he had said it to her. “And I’m sorry my parents couldn’t come, but since it was so late...” I didn’t hear the rest. I left. I don’t remember getting my car back to my apartment building. I don’t remember sitting there until the sky started to go pink with the dawn. I don’t remember falling asleep in the driver’s seat. I just remember knowing, most certainly, that I couldn’t go back up to my apartment. I couldn’t look at all the food. I couldn’t smell him in my sheets and see his toothbrush on my sink and his clothes on my floor. I just couldn’t.

-~-

Maybe he was right. Maybe he was a coward. Maybe I was too blind to see it. Or maybe this was the beginning. Those little physical reminders were baby steps, and we would get there someday, and I just had to survive the interruptions in between. I couldn’t get Sasha’s face out of my head. Maybe the first theory was correct. Maybe the second one. Maybe neither. I didn’t want to think about it.


I had slept until late in the morning at an awkward angle in my car, but it didn’t matter; my shop wasn’t open until tomorrow, anyway. When I realized that my phone had died overnight, I felt along underneath the seats until I found the charger for the cigarette lighter and plugged it in. I could very successfully live in my car. I never had to go back up to that apartment again. Jean had called me five times since this morning. Each time, he’d left a message -- the small rotary symbol appeared next to his number. His picture beneath it, the scowling one, the one I’d taken when he was sitting on my couch and I’d tried to shove my freezing cold feet underneath him. I wanted to delete them. I wanted to forget. Right now, I wanted to go to work and deal with flowers and spilled soil and angry customers. Not this. But I couldn’t. Literally all I had the capacity to do in that moment was listen to his voice. So I did. The first message was short. “Call me back,” Jean ordered, his voice normal. The second one was quieter. “I got discharged... My cast is blue. Sasha... She’s staying down here for the rest of the week, so I can’t... Call me back, Marco.” The third one was a whisper. “Please don’t give up on me. I love you.” The fourth one. “Call me back, Marco, god damn it.” The fifth one was the longest, I could see how many seconds it would last before I tapped it open on my phone. I hesitated, not sure if I could hear it


right now, but the sound of his voice was too much of a draw. I hit play. It started off silent, and I wondered if he had recorded this one by mistake... Until I heard him clear his throat. “I, um,” he began, then took a deep breath. “I wish that Sasha had walked in on us making out or something. I wish I could just be the disgusting cheater, caught in the act, and get it over with. I wish I knew how to stop making excuses. I wish... I wish I knew how to stop being afraid.” Jean cleared his throat again. “She loves me, Marco, and she’s one of my best friends, and I don’t want to hurt her. But I want... I want you more.” A long, shaking breath, then he surprised me. He laughed. “I want you, and I want a shitty house and a shitty white picket fence with you, and I want kids with you, and I want to marry you and smush wedding cake all over your face, and I want to be the badass dads in the shitty PTA with you, and I want to be with you until I’m old and fucking crazy and we die trying to race each other in our fucking wheelchairs. I’m so scared. I’m so scared I’m going to screw this up.” There was a long silence. I thought the message had finished, but he spoke again.


“I will do this. I’ll figure it out. We’re in for the long haul.” The tone at the end of the voicemail beeped twice, and when I didn’t respond to the phone, it called him back automatically once the voicemail had finished. I buried my face in my hands and listened to the dial tone ring. He didn’t pick up, but his message was his voice, charming and courteous and snarky, recorded when he sounded happy, and that was enough. The beep for the voicemail came. “Not if I smush the cake into your face first,” I said softly. Then I hung up.

Chapter eight I wanted to be reckless. I wanted him. I wanted to hold on to every time he’d touched my hand and kissed me and every time he told me that he loved me. It’s what I’d always wanted. It was keeping me going. I wanted to be selfish, to live this life where the minutes I spent with him were the only minutes I breathed. But it was never enough, and I was always left light-headed. Gasping. And slowly, I realized I was already all of those things. Reckless, selfish, and


reaching for what I was beginning to see I could not have. Seeing Sasha had changed everything. I wanted time to stop so I could just love him. But it didn’t. And one day, two weeks after Christmas, I woke up before the sun had even risen. I stretched out across the bed, my whole length, my joints cracking, muscles tensing. And I stayed like that, alone, my thoughts racing... And I remembered how to breathe without him. Jean came by a few times in that two weeks, but always to the shop after work, never back to my apartment or anywhere else. We talked and sometimes he made me laugh, but we didn’t know what to say to each other, not really, the guilt and the fear and the tenderness hanging between us like humidity. When he kissed me, he was Jean, and I loved him. I loved him. But every time I looked at him, his 5 o’clock shadow starting to get scruffy and the cast on his arm electric blue, I saw the boy in college. I saw him panicking in his hospital bed. I saw the voicemails saved on my phone under his picture. And I saw Sasha, the figure in the doorway of his hospital room. And then Sasha started coming into the shop every so often on her days off to talk about flowers for her wedding and Bert’s at the end of January. I could see how tired she was and the lilt of her smile. We were both tired, and our conversation was frazzled and funny to us for no reason. Every time I asked her how she was doing, she would hesitate -- just a moment -- before she told me things were great. I hadn’t let myself deal with the guilt. I had existed in tunnel vision for two


months, seeing only the high of being able to love him again and the low of letting him go. Up and down, up and down. When had I stopped noticing other peoples’ feelings? When had I stopped being myself? I spent more time with Sasha in those two weeks after Christmas than I did with Jean. It was killing me. It was tearing me apart. Every day she came in, I spent the night pacing my apartment, whispering to inanimate objects like a little kid. I love him. I can’t let him go. I can’t. Sasha had driven five hours to get to him once she’d gotten the call from the hospital. She loved him, and she was dedicated to him. But so am I. So am I. So am I. I wanted to apologize to her but I couldn’t because she didn’t know. I wanted to tell her that without me, Jean would have spent the rest of his life with her trying to be something he wasn’t. But I couldn’t admit to anything, because I wouldn’t do it for Jean. He had to do it himself. I thought about the message I’d left him when I was sitting in my car the day after Christmas. I thought about it a lot. I could see the image so clear -- him in a tuxedo with the top buttons of his dress shirt left open and his tie loose, him scowling because he didn’t want to cry while reading his vows, him laughing when I smeared wedding cake all over his face, him trying to kiss me like that. It was too real. And it wasn’t mine. He’d already promised it to someone else,


and that someone else was now real to me; I couldn’t make myself forget anymore. I couldn’t look at him without knowing that someone else looked at him the same way. I was drowning. I didn’t recognize myself. I stopped looking in the mirror. I hated my freckles. Jean felt it, he felt the change, and he kissed me harder every time he came in the shop, like if he could find a way to kiss me better, he would. He didn’t care if there was a customer there, if they saw or not, and I thought in a small part of my brain, he’s trying. He’s getting there. But he couldn’t kiss me better. And then one day, three weeks after Christmas, he came in when I was with a customer, and instead of kissing my cheek and heading to the back office like he normally did, he held back. He stood behind the woman and waited in line. When she had left the shop, Jean stood there across the counter and just stared at me. “Enough,” he said firmly. “Talk.” I didn’t know what to say. “Marco, you look at me like you hate me.” “I don’t hate you,” I said quietly. “Real fucking comforting.” I pressed my hands palm down against the marble of the counter and leaned forward on them, bowing my head. “She drove five hours just to get to you when she heard you were hurt. I can’t pretend that didn’t happen. I can’t


pretend that it’s just the two of us anymore.” “You think that’s what I’m doing? Pretending?” “I think that’s what we’ve both been doing.” “Marco, look at me. Look at me.” I straightened up and met his gaze. “I love you, Marco,” Jean said forcefully. “I bet you told Sasha that this morning. I bet she believed you.” My voice was shaking. The color drained out of his face. “Marco, I haven’t told her I love her since Christmas.” “Stop saying my name,” was all I managed. Then I turned away from him, heading into the back office. “We haven’t even slept in the same bed since before then,” he said, following me. “Marco, me and Sasha -- we don’t even --” “Stop!” I cried out. “Just stop.” “No, you fucking listen to me, Bodt. I’m not pretending anymore.” I sat down on the edge of the desk, addressing my feet, the wall, not him. “I can’t get her out of my head. I can’t...” “I know. I know it’s killing you, you don’t think I see this?” Jean’s voice rose in anger. “My life is a lie, and it’s taking me a long time to accept that, and it’s taking me a long time to get out of it. But that car accident -- this--” He lifted his arm with the cast. “It woke me up.”


“So you’re awake.” I turned around. “And I’m awake, too. And I’m done sitting here holding on to all the little things, the tiniest hopes that won’t amount to shit, and all I’ve ever been these past three months was a secret. That’s all. Three months of lying and hiding, and three months of Sasha’s life she’ll never get back. And three months of mine.” Silence. Jean was bewildered. “You regret this?” I sat back down on the edge of the desk, my back to him, and swallowed the salty tears welling in my mouth. “You do,” he said stiffly. “I --” my voice broke. I started again. “I have loved you always. Always. And I never regretted it. But six years ago, loving you just meant hurting me. It just meant keeping us a secret. And now-- it means hurting Sasha, and it’s totally different, and I couldn’t see that until the moment she walked into your hospital room.” “You don’t think,” Jean said quietly, “that I look at her every day and imagine the fucking pain I have to put her through?” “So you think putting it off is going to make it better?!” I yelled at him. “I’m doing what I can!” He roared back. “I’m trying not to be so fucking terrified, and I’m trying not to lose you, and I’m trying not to hurt her, and --”


“You’re doing all of those things, Jean! All of them! Every day you wait longer!” Jean opened his mouth, then closed it again. “I’m losing you?” he said finally. I rubbed my face with both my hands. “I don’t... I don’t recognize myself anymore, Jean. I’m not this person. I don’t know how to spend my life in this fucking purgatory, waiting for you. I shouldn’t have to be this person just to be with you.” “I’m sorry, sweetheart. I’m sorry.” I just shook my head, my eyes burning. “I never realized that I have spent six years being that person. I have been waiting all this time for you to walk through that door, for you to be the man that I know you can be.” “I want to be him,” Jean said desperately. “I want to be the one you want.” “You’re doing to Sasha what you did to me in college,” I said quietly. “And I’m not going to sit by and watch you torture her because you don’t know how not to torture yourself. I’m not going to sit by and let you torture me just because I love you, and I know how to survive it.” “What if I do it? Right now?” Jean’s voice was rough. I looked up at him. “Do what?”


“I’ll tell her the truth. I break it off. If I show up at your apartment with all my shit packed tonight, would you let me in?” I couldn’t keep the tears from streaking down my face. “Why do you have to do that?” Jean closed the space between us and with his good hand, wiped them away. “Do what?” he said softly. His eyes were red. “Give me hope.” “I’ll go right now.” He still held my face in his hand, and he tipped it back until I had to look at him. “I’ll do it right now. And I’ll show up at your apartment, and I’ll leave my socks all over the place just like you hate, and I’ll cook you a really shitty dinner, and I’ll be yours. Just tell me.” He wiped my cheek again with his thumb. “Just tell me you still want me. Please.” “I got lost in you,” I whispered. “I got lost.” “You’re here,” Jean croaked. “You’re right here, sweetheart.” “I don’t-- I don’t.” I took a breath. “I don’t know how to be anything but the boy who waits for you to tell the truth. I don’t want to be that anymore. And there’s always going to be something else you want me to hide.” “Please, Marco. Please.” We stayed like that, just looking at each other for a long time.


Then, I closed my eyes. I swallowed. And I shook my head, my face turning into the palm of his hand, my lips brushing against his skin. Finally, Jean let go. He took a step back, and he stared at the floor. “So that’s it.” His voice was hoarse. I didn’t say anything. I waited for him to slam his fist into the wall. I waited for him to break whatever he could get his hands on. I waited for him to tell me no, he wouldn’t accept it. After a long silence, Jean left the store without another word. I was aching. I was crying. I was relieved.

* -~*

Six months is enough time to start breathing again. July is always interesting in New York City. It’s the kind of place you see in those coming-of-age films from the 1970s, or in the faded photographs of your


parents playing in the street when they were little. The heat makes everything slow and bored; I could literally hear the kids who live around this neighborhood floating restlessly up and down the street, passing my shop and complaining. Finally on summer vacation, and it was too hot to do anything fun. Sometimes I would give them the buckets of flowers I was throwing out, and they’d launch the buckets of water at each other. I’d lock up at night, when the sun was only just setting, and I’d see the flower petals on the sidewalk under my feet. That’s how we are, I guess. I was seeing symbolism in flowers again. I was smiling again. I was me again. Six months is long when you count it by moments of pain, but short when you think about how much you can change in your life. And I had changed. I was me again. And I was happy with myself. And that was finally enough. The morning was already getting hot; I felt the rush of stagnant, humid air when the bells clanged together and the shop’s door opened. “Erwin!” I called across the shop with a grin. He looked healthier than he had in months, the color back in his face and more weight on his lean frame. He moved easily, no longer like he was frightened, and I had forced Levi to admit to me that his panic attacks were fewer and


farther between. I saw Erwin often now. That was one of my things. One of the moments over the past six months when I had stopped just functioning and started being me again. I hung out with my friends. I was there for them. I was breathing again. “Hey, kid.” Erwin leaned against the counter. “How’s it going?” I retrieved the desk chair from behind the work counter where I always kept it, wheeling it forward for him. “I’m bored as all hell, sit down. Don’t leave me alone.” “You?” Erwin chuckled, taking the seat. “Bored with flowers?” “I just haven’t had a customer since 7:30. Between that, and the heat.” “Levi hates it.” Erwin smiled slightly, his demeanor calm, his voice low and steady. He didn’t flinch when someone spoke to him. It was amazing to see. “I think he’s going to start keeping paper towels in his car so no one sweats on his seats.” I laughed. That was another one of my things. I could laugh, and there was no shadow behind it. It went high on the “List of Things I Learned How to Do Without You.” I was proud of myself.


Erwin and I talked easily. It was another hour before the shop’s door opened again. The cop who walked in was blonde. Tall. Built and muscular like a caricature of Robocop. It took me a minute to recognize him -- I had blocked him out. “Hey, Reiner,” I said, surprised. Reiner took off his sunglasses and squinted at me before he smiled. “Hey, Marco! I haven’t seen you around.” He approached the counter, his strides long and his boots clicking across the floor. “How’ve you been, man?” “I’ve been great.” I meant it. “How about you?” “Same old, same old. I just need to pick up some flowers for my boyfriend’s mom.” I stopped dead in my tracks and looked at him, trying and failing to keep the shock off my face. Reiner grinned. “Didn’t see that coming, eh?” “You... You have a boyfriend?” He nodded. “I met him while I was subbing for another jurisdiction, and we clicked. I say gay things like ‘we clicked’ now, but other than that, nothing’s changed much.” I was floored. “You... You used to make homophobic slurs... Every time I saw


you...” “I’m the poster child for denial,” he said, sounding proud. “And something you said once made sense to me. You called me out for acting like being gay was a bad thing -- and the way I grew up, it was. It was a really shitty thing. But you were always so open and honest about yourself, man. And I thought, I’m big enough to beat the snot out of whoever makes fun of me, so why can’t I do it if you can? And then I met this guy, and I pissed off his mom last night, so here I am. Buying flowers from you. Trippy, right?” I was nearly speechless. “That’s really incredible, Reiner.” And in the back of my mind, a thought. If he saw Reiner now, if he knew how accepting he really was, he could have done it. It could have worked. The truth was that I didn’t know if he had ever said a word. He never called me, and I never called him. He would be married by now. And I was finally ok with myself, with or without him. We talked as I worked, putting together a bouquet for Reiner. He told me some of the crazy shit that had gone down with the force, things I’d only heard about on the news, of bomb threats all over the city. And then he asked me, offhand. “Hey, are you seeing anybody?” I hesitated. “No, I’m single. Still figuring everything out.” “Oh,” said Reiner. “Well. You look happier. I mean, you always used to smile a lot, but you were never... You look happy, dude.”


This big lug who I had completely underestimated picked up on the smallest details of my personality. I smiled slightly and changed the subject. “How’s everyone at the station? How’s Sasha?” Reiner shrugged. “Last time I saw her, she was happy, pregnant, and planning on moving back to Vermont soon.” So they had gotten married. And they were expecting a baby, and they were moving to a nice place and buying a house together with Vermont snow and big backyards and... a baby. He wouldn’t be in the same city as me anymore. He wouldn’t walk past my shop again. “Can I use a credit card here?” Reiner asked, breaking up my thoughts. “Oh. Yeah, of course. Sasha’s pregnant?” “Yep. Crazy, if you ask me, but she loves the weirdo she’s with.” He paid for the flowers, and they looked comical and frail in the grip of his large hands. “Nice talking to you, bro. Really. And thanks again.” I nodded, offering a faint goodbye as he left, and stood there, my hands on the counter, staring until my vision grew unfocused. “Marco,” Erwin said slowly, “Isn’t Sasha the one with...”


“Yeah.” I turned around, leaning back on the counter, to face him. “Yeah, that’s her.” Erwin nodded, watching my face. “I’m glad they’re happy,” I said. “They must be happy.” “You’re happier than I’ve ever seen you,” Erwin pointed out mildly. “You’re right.” I smiled slightly after a moment, and began clearing the work station where there were flower petals and cut ribbon left in disarray. We didn’t speak again until we both heard the sound of an engine cut outside the shop; I looked up and saw the delivery van, its driver getting out and opening the back doors. “Hold on,” I called to Erwin, heading for the front door, “It’s just next week’s flowers.” I greeted the delivery man and together we hauled box after box into the front of the shop, flat narrow ones full of bouquets and big awkward ones with holes in them for the plants. When we’d finished and the van had pulled away, the piles of boxes were waist high on me. “Come make yourself useful,” I laughed to Erwin. He came over to me and started pulling the tape off the top of a planter box. He did everything masterfully with his good arm and hand now, and I didn’t offer to help him like I might have once; together we worked on opening the boxes, organizing them by where they would go on the walls or in the aisles. “You ordered a lot of this purple one,” Erwin mentioned after a while, standing


over a large plant box. I leaned over and looked into the box at the small potted vines. “Oh yeah, they’re wisteria. Make sure you leave those toward the back, ok? I’ve gotta slice and dice those things.” “You’re going to cut them?” “I have to,” I replied, yanking open another box and finding more wisteria. “If you don’t cut them down and let them regrow, then they get too tangled. They twist themselves so out of control you can’t even help them. I know it looks you’re destroying them, cutting away all the nice parts, but really they’re hurting the plant. Starting fresh helps them grow better.” “They’re like people in that way,” Erwin said thoughtfully. I looked up at him, surprised. “The purple is nice,” he added, glancing sideways at me. “Take one if you want,” I said absentmindedly, mulling over what he’d said. Neither of us spoke again until I’d finished unpacking the plants and brought the wisteria boxes to the counter to set to work. Erwin sat down in the desk chair again and scrolled through his phone, murmuring something about calling Levi later. Then I heard his phone hit the floor with a thud. I wheeled on him. “Are you alright?”


Erwin took deep, steady breaths. His hand was still extended where he’d held the phone, and his eyes were wide and frightened. “Calm down, buddy, calm down.” I scooped up his phone and put it on the counter. “Look at all these dumb flowers, alright? We’re in my shop. You’re safe. It’s alright.” Erwin swallowed hard, his blue eyes settling on the boxes of flowers at his feet. Soon enough, he had calmed down again. I picked his phone up off the counter and touched the screen so it lit up again. “What freaked you out?” I said gently. And then I saw. A link on his Facebook someone had posted led to an article about a shooting going on in the city. I read further, scrolling past the pictures and getting to the part where they told me that the shooting wasn’t that far from this district; it had happened in a department store that I had gone in once or twice for christmas presents. “Sorry,” Erwin said, his voice even again. “Sorry.” “It’s cool.” I waved his apology away with my hand and kept reading. The gunman had already been linked to the bomb threats that had been going on, the ones Reiner had mentioned earlier. He walked into that store with two


M-16s and a bulletproof vest. It had happened less than an hour ago, and they were still counting up casualties, witnesses, and victims. This explained the police sirens I’d heard while I was unpacking the delivery, but I hadn’t thought anything of it. This was New York, even on this quiet street we heard them. The article went on. A lot of the first responders were police officers from this area until the SWAT Team had gotten there. Nobody had enough information about the shooter or his movements in the first few minutes, and 12 officers had been shot. Five had been killed. My throat felt like it was closing, but it couldn’t have been him. He was in Vermont, he’d moved there with Sasha, he was safe. He had to be safe. My own cell phone started vibrating. I put Erwin’s down and groped for mine in the pocket of my cargo shorts. Sasha’s number flashed across the screen. I picked it up after giving myself a second, a heartbeat. “Sasha?” “Marco?” She was out of breath. “Have you seen it? Have you seen the news?” “You mean the shooting? Yeah, I just saw it. Are you alright?” “I -- They called me, I guess I’m still listed as his emergency contact, the hospital--” My chest got tight. “Sasha--”


“He was there, Marco. I -- They -- I think you should come.” She was crying. “Jean-- he’s-- it’s bad. It’s bad.” I didn’t hesitate. I didn’t breathe. I didn’t question why she was calling me when it was her husband we were talking about. I didn’t wait. “I’ll be right there.”

Chapter nine

You think it will take a thousand years. You think it will take a second. Nobody tells you that life goes on even when you don’t know how to. No one tells you that a minute is still worth sixty seconds, that there will always be awful traffic in New York, and that you might not get to say goodbye like you want. It took me thirty four minutes to reach Brooklyn Mercy. Two thousand and forty seconds I couldn’t have left with him. Minutes and years wasted. The hospital was in chaos. A steady ebb and flow of doctors and nurses pushing gurneys moved from the entryway of the Emergency Room to the inner doors that led to surgery, outpatient care, the Intensive Care Unit, or the morgue. Every time an ambulance arrived, this rhythm picked up, and another casualty of the shooting was brought in. And there were a lot of ambulances.


There were faces everywhere: the shocked expressions of the people who had been at the shooting, the terrified eyes of the families who were still waiting for word. They blurred together. My heart was beating too fast. I couldn’t find Sasha. There were so many people. There was so much blood. I approached the front desk and caught the attention of the first nurse I saw standing still. I didn’t realize I was panting, out of breath. “Kirschtein--” I gasped out, “I’m looking for Jean Kirschtein, he was one of the officers at the shooting--” The nurse pressed her lips into a thin, firm line. “Any of the officers who came in were transferred to the ICU. And you have to be immediate family to get access.” “He’s -- I --” “He’s family,” called a familiar voice behind me. I turned and saw Sasha heading over to us from the swinging inner doors, her eyes red but her expression determined, the swell of her stomach visible under her t-shirt. As soon as she saw me she sped up her pace and I met her halfway, hugging her tight. “What’s your relation to the patient?” the nurse asked her, forceful. “I’m listed as his emergency contact. This guy is family, let us go.” Sasha took my hand and led me away, through to a wide hallway where more people waiting on news of the shooting were gathered. “Is he alright?” was all I could say.


“He’s in surgery.” She was following the signs leading deeper into the hospital to the ICU. “All they could tell me is he was shot three times. Twice in the chest, I think once in the leg. He lost a lot of blood, but they haven’t told us anything else -- Marco?” I had stumbled sideways into the corridor wall, my shoulder hitting the concrete hard. I couldn’t see. I couldn’t breathe. Sasha wrapped her arms tight around me and squeezed. “It’s ok. It’s alright. All we can do is wait, honey. They’re doing what they can.” “I -- I can’t--” I didn’t know what to say. I was choking. Shot three times. I should have been the one comforting her, the one pretending, not the ex being comforted by the wife. I didn’t understand, and I couldn’t pretend, and I didn’t want to hurt her. Sasha took me by the shoulders and pulled me forward, facing her. “I know about everything, Marco. I know everything. It’s alright, ok? I called you here. Cry if you need to, but right now, all we can do is wait. Now come on.” She took my hand again and neither of us said a word until we reached the lobby of the ICU. There were less people and less noise swarming in the areas where we were allowed to be, but the faces were paler. The eyes were more frightened. We sat down in two free seats along one wall, and Sasha put her bag down in the one next to her. I couldn’t look at her; she’d said it so plainly, accepted the truth, called for my presence.


I swallowed hard. “I don’t -- I don’t understand. Why you’re being nice to me after everything... And you two are still...” Sasha looked surprised. “He didn’t tell you, did he?” “What?” “That stubborn son of a bitch,” she muttered, then looked up at me again. “Marco, Jean and I split up in January. It’s been months. We agreed to split like three weeks after Christmas. We were both in love with other people, we didn’t-- I’m with someone totally different now, and I’m still friends with him, but that’s it. I’m only here because Jean is one of my best friends, and besides, he was too goddamned lazy to take me off his emergency contact list. It should have been you they called.” My eyes were so wide it hurt. “The baby...?” “You remember Connie, right?” Even with her eyes red from crying, Sasha was pretty when she blushed. “I married that big idiot in Vegas a month after Jean came out to me, and here I am. And I’m happier for it, so don’t you dare blame yourself.” “He came out to you?” Sasha laughed slightly. “It’s not like I didn’t already suspect. Yeah, he does the whole macho sexy cop thing well, but Jean is an ass man, and he certainly wasn’t looking at my ass.” “I can’t believe...” My voice was small. “He told you everything?”


Sasha looked me dead in the eye. “Everything. And it hurt, and it took me a while to really get it, but you know what? I was relieved. And then Con came back into my life... Jean and I loved each other, but we weren’t in love, not like I love Connie. If Jean hadn’t met you again, I would be stuck in that. I wouldn’t be happy. I’ve had a lot of time to deal with this and move on, Marco, and I’m telling you the truth.” “I told him I couldn’t do it,” I said softly. “I couldn’t be with him if it meant hurting you. And I haven’t seen him in months.” Sasha rubbed my arm. “You still love him, though, don’t you?” I leaned forward in my chair, my elbows on my knees, and buried my face in my hands. “But the last time I saw him, I told him that I didn’t. And now -- he --” I didn’t go on. I couldn’t. Sasha rubbed my back, and for the first time in months, I was grateful to her without feeling guilty. She knew. She understood. She was happier because of it. Jean had told the truth. He had done it, and he hadn’t told me, and I-Sasha and I sat together without speaking for a long time, and I stayed like that, my head in my hands. Whenever someone approached us we both looked up desperately, hoping that it would be a doctor with some news about Jean, but it was always just someone looking for a seat or a nurse running to another part of the hospital. After a while, Connie found us; with a quiet “hey babe” he kissed Sasha’s cheek and handed her a cup of hot chocolate, slumping down in the seat where she’d thrown her bag. I faintly recognized the guy, his dark hair kept buzzed like he was a soldier or something, but I couldn’t remember him without remembering Jean standing on the sidewalk, his eyes dark and hurt and the--


“Hey,” Connie said solemnly to me. “So you’re him.” I nodded slowly after a minute. “I’m him.” He shook my hand, then sat back in his chair, and joined us in our quiet. I silently thanked him for that. I just sat there, leaned forward, staring at the ground. Swallowing everything and really comprehending meant thinking about everything, good and bad, the elation and the fear, the terror -I hovered on the edge of that panic, giving myself silent pep talks and scaring myself more, moving through that vicious cycle. He’ll be fine. No he won’t. He’s strong. Not this strong. Three gunshot wounds. It never ended. Suddenly, Sasha smacked my arm to get my attention. I looked up, and she nodded towards the doorway of the lobby. I saw uniforms: four police officers lingered by the nurses’ desk. “Reiner,” I called, my voice hoarse. He looked over, and immediately he headed toward me, sitting heavily in the seat next to me. “Hey, Sash. What are you doing here, dude?” He said to me. “I--” I stopped. “I called him,” Sasha said quickly. “Jean’s in surgery still.”


“Oh, he’s here.” Reiner looked over at the other officers, still standing at the other side of the lobby. “Jean’s here, guys,” he called, then turned to me. “We couldn’t figure out where they took him, all the buses -- the ambulances were going left, right and fucking center.” “You guys are alright?” I asked. “I just saw you, man, I couldn’t believe...” “We’re good. No one on our force was too badly hurt except Jean, but we got there towards the end when SWAT had already figured out where the shooter was. Jean...” Reiner sighed. “I guess he was on his way over to the station, and he happened to get the call, so he went. He was one of the first responders, he went in blind, the stupid risky bastard.” The three others had come over to us, and I recognized Bert towering over us, his wide eyes reflecting sympathy to me and Sasha and a superstitious worry on Reiner. “He did what we all would have done,” he said gently. I managed to keep my voice level. “Do you... Do you know what happened? How he...” “How he got shot?” Reiner frowned, and waited a long moment before he spoke. “One of the guys from another jurisdiction who was there found him... He got up to the third floor, where the shots were coming from, Jean did, I mean. He and another officer started trying to get people to evacuate down through the stairwells... By the time the shooter found him, they’d gotten a lot of people out. A lot of them. But that fucker killed the other cop, and Jean... Well, anyway, by the time they found him...” He cleared his throat. “He got a lot of


people out.” Sasha put a comforting hand on my back. I just stared at my hands. He helped so many people. He went in without knowing, without strategy, just to help. All I saw was an image of him dying alone on the floor. We sat there for hours. Reiner and the other officers left occasionally, but they always came back, making light conversation and then saying nothing at all. We just sat there. And then a nurse stepped into the room still wearing scrubs from the OR. We all looked up at her, and she glanced at us, then at the clipboard in her hands. “Are you all here for Officer Kirschtein?” she said doubtfully. “This is a restricted area for family only...” “He’s one of our own,” Bert said firmly. “He’s our family.” “That’s a nice thought,” replied the nurse, “but I can only allow two people in to visit at one time, and you guys will have to choose.” Sasha and I stood up immediately. “Is he ok?” we both said at the same time. The nurse looked up at both of us. “I’m guessing you’re the two. He’s post-op, there were a few complications in the surgery and he’s still not out of the woods yet, but he should be waking up now. Follow me.” And without any


warning, she turned away. We tried to keep up with her, following her through the swinging doors and darting through the people crowding the hallways. Sasha took my hand. His room was the last one on the right, the whole wall separating the room from the hallway made out of glass; I could see the lights on in his room, and then I saw him. Sasha let go of my hand. “You go first,” she said softly. “You go.” I pushed the glass door open and went in by myself, lingering in the doorway. Jean’s chest was bare under the thick dressings and bandages wrapped around his stomach and ribcage. I could see it rising and falling evenly with his breath, and it made me breathe, too. His right leg was bulky under the bed’s blankets, wrapped with dressings and set in a hard cast. He sat up in the somewhat vertical hospital bed, and his head was tipped back against the pillows. Long cords were hooked up to him, a heart monitor and an I.V. dripping behind him; an oxygen tube twisted it’s way from under his nostrils and around, behind his ears. His face was deathly pale, his brow furrowed and the edges of his closed eyes crinkled in pain. There was still blood dried in his messy hair. And then he opened his eyes and looked up at me. “Fuck.” His voice was raspy. “I’m definitely dead.” I closed the door behind me and moved toward him slowly, sitting in the chair next to his bed. He watched me, his eyes searching every part of me methodically.


Tawny. I just looked at him. I just stared. And then I got up, leaning forward and, gently as I could, touching his face. My thumb across his cheekbone, along the edge of his mouth. I wiped the hair off his forehead and left my hand there, just to touch him. “Jean,” I whispered. He closed his eyes. “Call me...” he swallowed painfully, “...50 Cent.” Despite myself, I laughed slightly. “Didn’t he get shot like twenty times?” “Nine times.” He turned his face into my touch, his lips grazing my palm. “You only got three.” He opened his eyes and smiled slightly. “Fifteen Cent, then.” I swallowed hard and laughed aloud. “You’re so stupid. You’re so stupid.” And I got up and sat on the edge of his bed and held onto him as much as I could without hurting him, my cheek against his, his face in the crook of my neck. And that’s all I kept saying, until my voice was breaking. “You’re so stupid.” Jean wrapped an arm around my neck, his fingers in my hair. His words were muffled. “I didn’t think you’d show.” I leaned back and wiped my eyes. “I showed. As soon as Sasha called me. I


showed.” Jean leaned his head back against the pillows, his eyes still on me. We just looked at each other. He was so pale that the bags under his eyes looked like bruises. But his breathing was even, and that was enough. Then he frowned. “Sasha’s here?” “She’s still listed as your emergency contact, so they called her, and she was the one who called me.” He sighed heavily. “Crap. I haven’t seen her... in months.” I stroked his hair. “I know.” “You know?” “I know.” “What do you know?” Jean grumbled, raising an eyebrow at me. I smiled at him. There was a soft knock on the door, and Sasha pushed it open. “Hey there, Superman,” she said, raising her hand in a wave. Jean looked up at her and smiled slightly. “Hey, Sash.” She sat down in the chair. “I would beat your ass if Marco wasn’t here, you know that? Going in blind. Stupid. Idiotic. Rookie move.” “I think beating him up is a good idea,” I told her mildly. “I think we could take


him.” Jean scoffed. Then he bit his lip, staring down at the blankets and lapsing into silence. “What?” I asked. “Did they get him?” was all he said. He meant the gunman. I could see it on his face. “Yeah,” I said softly. “Yeah they did.” Jean nodded slowly. “There was another guy, a cop from a different division -he -- I saw him get --” He stopped, then tried again. “Did he make it?” After a moment, I took his hand in mine. He nodded again and swallowed hard. “Ok.” “You helped a lot of people, Jean.” Sasha made herself sound positive. “And you even lived to tell about it, you idiot.” “There’s nothing more to tell,” he replied grumpily, glancing sideways at her. “Apparently you already told Marco everything.” “Oh, because you were gonna be honest?” Sasha chuckled. “What, were you just waiting for the right moment?” “Yes,” he growled.


“You’re such a baby.” “You’d know all about those, wouldn’t you?” They went back and forth, her playful and him raspy and tired and grumpy. I laughed, and he squeezed my hand. It was vertigo. It was a hallucination. It was a parallel universe. It was peace. We got him talking more. I could tell he was exhausted, but every time I mentioned letting him sleep, he gave me a dirty look. Or his version of a dirty look, the scowl that creased his forehead a little less every time he did it. Jean wouldn’t let go of my hand. After an hour, there was a knock on the door, and the nurse that had showed us to his room was back. Behind her in the corridor stood a petite, severe older woman and her husband, a hulking man whose mousy blonde hair was laced with grey. “Your parents are here,” Sasha said quietly. Jean paled. “Shit. Oh God.” I started to get up and pull my hand away automatically, but he clutched at it, lacing his fingers through mine. “No,” he said shakily. “No.”


I sat back down without a word. The older woman pushed the door open, and her tawny eyes swept sharply across the whole room. Jean’s father followed, and he looked like he refused to see anything. The nurse leaned in the doorway. “Two visitors at a time in this unit.” When an awkward silence fell over the room, the nurse crossed her arms and leaned on the doorjamb, waiting for us to make a move. I looked up at his mother and found her staring at me like she was trying to will me away with nothing but the power of her own mind. “Lovely to see you, Sasha,” she said, not taking her eyes off me. Her accent was faint, the faintest of German, just enough to make everything sound formal. Sasha stood up and heaved her bag onto her shoulder. “I’ll come see you again, huh?” She said to Jean. “I’m glad you’re alright, Macho Man. I’m gonna have the guys at the station keep me posted. Come on, Marco.” Jean had been nodding half-heartedly until the last part; then his eyes went wide, and he held my hand tighter than I thought he would’ve been able to. “It’ll be fine,” I soothed. “Don’t go, Marco. Don’t go.” His voice was shaky. “I’ll be back. I’ll be back as soon as they let me, ok?” Jean let his head fall back against the pillow, scowling.


“I’m coming back,” I whispered. “Come here,” he mumbled. He gestured with his free hand and I did as he asked, leaning closer to him like before. He straightened up and kissed me softly on the mouth. That was the only way Jean would let go of my hand. I glanced up at his parents as I passed them with Sasha to head out the door. Both of them just looked past me like I wasn’t there. Sasha and I followed the nurse through the winding hallway back to the lobby where we’d been waiting earlier. The guys were gone, and there were significantly less people waiting. I wondered whether they had gone home for the night with good or terrible news. Connie was still waiting in the chairs where we’d left him, his head leaned into his hand, fast asleep. Sasha poked him awake and they left together after she’d given me a hug, made me promise to let her know how he was, and offered some advice: “Don’t even try to make his parents like you. They won’t.” After that it was just me, slouching in that chair and nearly falling asleep a few times. I hadn’t been this tired in months. I watched the people coming and going in this unit, at one moment quiet then the next filled with commotion, and I could just watch them. It occurred to me that I should hate myself for giving in. For showing up, for sitting here, for going back to him after I’d spent all this time the last few


months forcing myself not to. But it was different. This felt different. And I would never have forgiven myself if I hadn’t shown up, and he hadn’t been alright. I don’t know at what point I did doze off -- I don’t know how long his parents were in there with him. I woke to a biting grip on my shoulder, shaking me awake, and when I opened my eyes, she was standing over me. “He’s sleeping,” Jean’s mother said, her voice low. I stood up, rubbing my eyes. “How is he?” “That’s none of your concern.” I dropped my hand to my side in surprise. “Mrs. Kirschtein, I don’t know if you remember me at all --” “Oh,” she said, “I remember you. The gay roommate.” She said it like a slur. “Jean is an upstanding member of society,” she continued. “His face was all over the local news today, did you know that? He’s being called a hero. And before this year, he was doing well for himself. He had Sasha, an approaching wedding, his career was taking flight.” Mrs. Kirschtein moved closer to me, her eyes tawny and fierce. “If I find out that you had anything to do with that perfect relationship collapsing, you will regret it.” “The disguise of perfection is usually a symptom of deep issues in a relationship,” I said quietly.


“This ‘disguise,’ as you call it, is what true upstanding citizens of this country thrive for,” she responded, her German accent flaring thicker. “And it is what I want for my son.” I shut my mouth quickly when I noticed I was gaping at her. “Ma’am, I don’t know what I did --” “I have given my son everything I could to make him a strong and good man, and he was that man today. I’m not about to let a fool with a degree in finger painting and a dead-end job take that away from him just because he’s weak.” I was taken aback. “Jean is not weak.” Mrs. Kirschtein set her jaw just like her son did. “Jean is impressionable and sensitive and easily misguided. He is a strong leader and good at his job, but he is a weak man. He is weak for clinging to you.” “So being gay isn’t his only flaw, then?” My voice rose. “You are his flaw,” she said sharply. A woman I didn’t recognize cautiously approached us. She wasn’t wearing scrubs or a name plate, but she spoke gently and concise like the other nurses had before her. I was too furious to notice much else more until she interrupted us. “Excuse me,” she said, “is there a problem here? I overheard a pretty strong conversation.” “Are you a nurse?” Mrs. Kirschtein asked, her tone cold.


“Uh. Yes.” “I want this man barred from my son’s room. His visitors will be restricted to his immediate family only.” The nurse fished a pen and small notepad out of her pocket and started scribbling on the page. “What did you say your son’s name was, again?” “Jean Kirschtein.” “He’s twenty seven years old,” I burst out. “He’s the only one who decides who can see him and who can’t.” “He’s my son, and he’s in pain, and I think I know what’s best for him. Having his gay lover and his pregnant ex-fiancee present while there are so many people looking at him right now is not what’s best for him.” The nurse was writing feverishly. Then she snapped her notepad closed and smiled at the older woman. “That will be taken care of.” Mrs. Kirschtein nodded curtly, looked up at me with those cold tawny eyes again, so unlike her son’s. Then she turned on her heel and left. I hadn’t noticed Jean’s father standing behind her the entire time, refusing to say a word. I turned to the nurse, who was already heading in the opposite direction. “He’s 27,” I called after her. “They can’t really block me from seeing him, can they?” “Do whatever you want, kid,” she replied absently, and pulled her phone out of


her pocket as she walked away. So I did. I kept my fury below the surface, mulling over the things his mother had just said to me but making myself pay more attention to finding the right room number. It made me realize just how much I ought to treasure that he kissed me in front of them. That he wouldn’t let go of my hand, even in front of Sasha, even in front of his parents. When I found his room again, he was sound asleep. I knew he hated sleeping on his back, and I knew that he was still feeling the pain from the surgery, and I stayed as quiet as I could when I came in the room and closed the door behind me. Jean moaned slightly in his sleep when I kissed his forehead. Then I pulled the chair closer, leaned forward onto the edge of the bed next to him, and fell asleep with my head on my arms. At some point in the night, he took my hand again.

Chapter ten

I woke up to empty hands and a crowded room, and nothing made sense. The light in the windows was dim, the sun barely risen; I blinked rapidly, licking my dry lips, trying to understand where I was.


The hospital room came into focus, and I remembered everything. The crowded room was really just a big group of doctors gathered around Jean’s hospital bed and more in the doorway, whispering to each other. Jean was awake already, frowning in frustration. I sat up and stretched, the muscles in my shoulders aching from the way I’d slept. Jean glanced at me briefly, the edge of his mouth turning downwards, but looked back at the doctor who seemed to be in charge of this team gathered around the bed. It took me a minute to realize the doctor was speaking to him, and speaking English. She talked so fast. Her dark hair was falling out of its ponytail and every time she gestured with her hands, her thick glasses slid down her nose. “-- Don’t mind if I have my interns in here, do you?” she was saying, “early bird gets the worm, and these guys show up at the crack of dawn for the good surgeries, you know what I mean, and they can really learn a lot just by being present for checking up on patients like this.” Jean looked disoriented, overwhelmed by all the doctors. “I... If it’s necessary. Am I a good surgery?” he said slowly. I glanced at the clock hung on the wall. It was 6:30 in the morning. “A great surgery!” sang the doctor. When she saw I was awake, she thrust her hand out to me. “I’m Dr. Hanji, I operated on Officer Kirschtein yesterday evening, great to meet you. You should get those freckles checked out for


abnormalities or cancer, you know.” She said it in the most friendly and considerate tone. I couldn’t tell if her last name was Hanji or if she was just one of those people who used their first names. Dr Hanji. Dr Phil. My eyes widened. I shook her hand. “I will... Nice to meet you.” Hanji stepped back with a smile and leafed through the papers on the clipboard in her hand. “Alright, team. Who’s presenting Officer Kirschtein’s status this morning?” While the interns in ill-fitting lab coats all proceeded to shuffle their own notes, I looked up at Jean. He was frowning, giving up on trying to make sense of all the people and the noises and how tired he was, his eyes on the blankets in his lap. I poked the tip of one of his fingers with mine on his hand closest to me. He glanced up under his brows. I poked his hand once more, and he curled his fingers around mine and held onto my hand again. Finally, a thin blonde man stepped forward. “Jean Kirschtein, twenty seven,” he started unsteadily. When Hanji nodded, he continued reading a chart. “Presented last night with three G.S.W.’s, one to the chest resulting in two broken ribs on the left side, one to the abdomen with muscle tear and substantial blood loss but no damage to his organs, and the third to his upper right thigh, both an entry and exit wound clear through, tissue damage as to be expected but the femur is fractured.”


I squeezed Jean’s hand. “Well, Officer,” said Hanji brightly, “I would definitely suggest getting your bulletproof vest checked for malfunctions before returning to work.” “I wasn’t wearing it,” he said quietly. “I was just driving to work when I got the call, I didn’t have time.” My stomach knotted. Hanji seemed thoroughly impressed. “No wonder your injuries are so interesting.” “Interesting--?” Jean began to say, but the blonde doctor kept speaking. “Chest and abdomen trump leg, so the focus of his care will be on the G.S.W.’s until he is cleared from ICU and can start physical therapy. For now, we’ve got your fracture in a brace we can take on and off to check how the tissue is healing.” “Which will be difficult,” Hanji said to Jean happily. “The fracture should heal quickly but we won’t start working with the damaged muscles and tissue again until after the rest of your injuries have improved and you’re cleared for physical activity.” I could see Jean getting more frustrated. I cleared my throat. “So you’re saying it’s going to be a while before he’s up and walking, back to normal.” “It could be anywhere from 3 to 6 months for the whole healing process,”


Hanji replied. “And ‘back to normal’ is the hope. But PT is a real difficult ordeal sometimes, and most likely he’ll need crutches for a while. Or a cane, whatever your preference,” she added to Jean. “I’m here for 3 to 6 months?” His voice was small. Hanji chuckled. “No, we’re busting you out of here in maybe two weeks, if there’s no further complications. And since you’re up and talking, I’ll have you transferred out of the ICU hopefully by today, to a room where you can have more visitors, TV and everything. Did anybody write anything down?” She said, turning to her interns. Jean’s lips were pressed into a thin, white line. “Doctor?” I said hesitantly, waiting for her to stop talking before I spoke up. “I just have one question.” Hanji nodded, looking like she was waiting for me to ask something dramatic about his diagnosis or throw myself across his bandaged chest. “Can he drink coffee?” I asked. “He’s kind of a coffee-in-the-morning guy.” She turned to Jean. “How does decaf sound?” “Fucking awful,” he mumbled. She laughed. “Stick to water for now and keep your hydration up. One of our nurses will come by to check your dressings soon.” After checking a few more things on the clipboard in her hand, Hanji and her team of doctors left, heading for the door across the hall. His room felt huge now.


Jean was staring down at his blankets again. I stood up and kissed his cheek. “I’ll come right back, ok? I’m just going to get coffee from the cafeteria downstairs.” “You don’t have to,” he said suddenly. “Don’t have to what?” “Come back.” Jean looked up at me wearily. “You don’t have to stay.” When he didn’t go on, I sat back down in the chair. “Out with it, Kirschtein.” Jean looked away. “You’ve got somewhere to be, you’ve got someone to be with, you-- I get it. I can take care of myself, what the hell do you think I’ve been doing all this time? I’m not going to be the guy who makes you drop everything just for me. Last night... This morning, I can take care of myself. I’ll be fine. So you do what you need to do. I’m glad you came by, really, Marco, but do what you need to do.” His voice was still weak with exhaustion, but he tried to sound as brave and forceful as you could with an oxygen tube under your nose. I laughed slightly. “You done?” Jean glanced sideways at me. I leaned down over him again and held his face, his cheek in my palm. I kissed him gently, his head tipped back against the pillows, and even when I pulled away, his eyes were still closed.


“You didn’t have to be so dramatic,” I chastised with a smile. “You could have just asked if I was single.” Jean opened one eye, his eyebrow raised. “Are you?” “Do I need to kiss you again, or is the answer to your question still fuzzy?” “Fuzzy,” he mumbled. I kissed his forehead. “Don’t make me smother you. Or worse, get you decaf coffee.” He groaned, closing both eyes again. I let go of him and headed toward the door. By the time I’d closed it behind me, I think he was asleep again.

-~-

When I got back with a cup of coffee in one hand and half a bagel in the other, his hospital room was empty. My heart felt like it had calcified in my chest, heavy as stone and unable to beat. Then a nurse slipped past me through the door with a curt “excuse me” and went to the bed, pulling off the sheets now stained with his blood.


“What happened?” I managed. “What happened to him?” The nurse looked up and saw my terrified expression. She waved away my concern and went back to stripping the bed. “He got moved, honey. He’s on the fourth floor, Judy in the lobby will give you his new room number. Calm down.” I didn’t calm down until I’d finally tracked down Judy, found my way to the fourth floor, and stumbled into the doorway of his new room. Jean looked up at me, surprised. “You’re ok,” I said, out of breath. “They said they might give me jello,” he replied, his eyebrows raised. I took that as a “yes I’m ok” and sat heavily in the chair next to his new bed. My coffee was still hot, but my anxiety made the bagel look unappetizing. I put them on the nightstand next to his bed. Jean eyed the small styrofoam cup. “Gimme some of that.” I just shook my head, catching my breath. Of course he was ok, why would I have possibly thought he wouldn’t be ok, the blood all over the sheets in the ICU-Calm down. Jean was watching me, confused. “You’re freakin’ sweating, sweetheart.”


I shook my head, my heart rate finally slowing. “I’m fine. I didn’t know where you were. You called me sweetheart,” I added, smiling slightly. “Oh,” he faltered. “Sorry. I’m sorry.” “Why are you sorry?” Jean didn’t respond for a long time, twisting the blankets compulsively between his fingers. “I just want to do it the right way this time,” he said finally. I knew what he meant, and my stomach knotted again, but not out of fear. I got up slowly and sat down on the edge of his bed, leaning closer to him. “Alright, Officer.” I couldn’t keep the smirk off my face. “Ask me out.” Jean’s eyes opened wide. “Come on,” I prodded him, “You never actually asked me out before. I want a cheesy pick up line.” “I-I--” His face started to burn red. I put my hand on his thigh and felt the adjustable straps and hard plastic of his brace cast, and I lowered my voice. “Officer Kirschtein, is that a broken leg under this sheet, or are you just really happy to see me?” He blushed harder, getting flustered.


“Oh no,” he said, his voice still rasping, “You are not going to be the one asking me out. I can do this. I am doing this.” “You don’t have to,” I murmured gently, my hand still on his thigh. “Mmm. Shut up.” Jean lifted his hand a fraction. “C’mere.” As slowly as I could, I put my legs up on the bed and turned onto my side facing him, bending my arm under my head. He winced whenever I shifted the bed, forced to lay on his back and the new dressings tight on his chest, but he turned his face to me, his eyes not leaving mine. “They gave you a hospital gown,” I noticed, touching the thin material on his shoulder. “Hey," he said abruptly. “Hmm?” Jean’s smile was mischievous and exhausted. “Do you have a shovel?” I raised my eyebrows. “Because I am diggin’ that ass,” he finished. I wrinkled my nose. “You’re so sleazy when you’re on pain meds.” He snickered to himself, closing his eyes. I laughed, too. “Go to sleep, ya pervert.”


“I can’t, I’m asking you out,” Jean mumbled. “Will you go out with me?” “Of course I will,” I said quietly. He didn’t answer. When I realized he had knocked out again, his breath slow and steady on my shoulder, I moved closer to him and closed my eyes, too. We both slept like that for a couple of hours, and it was a strange thing: we stayed very still, Jean because he had to and me because I didn't want to hurt him more. We’d fallen asleep together so many times, but we always moved all over each other -- I obliged by being a heavy sleeper and never waking up to notice when he used my shoulders, my stomach, my back or, once, my butt as a pillow. I remembered waking up in college all the time either facing in a completely different direction from him, or else wrapped up in him, stuck in his tight grip. But this was different. It was better. When a nurse came in to check his vitals and give him another scheduled dose of pain medication, she woke both of us up. Jean opened his eyes. He looked at me with that sexy drowsy look he got, he looked at the nurse, and then he went back to sleep without giving it a second thought. That had never happened before. He’d never woken up next to me without being afraid. Sleeping together in his hospital bed was as cautious and nerve-wracking and butterfly-inducing as a first date. I told him so when Jean woke up later in the afternoon, rubbing his eyes with the back of his hand that had the heart-rate monitor on his index finger.


He smiled slightly. “Does that mean I just slept through my first real date with you?” “I was wondering why you seemed bored with the conversation,” I murmured. Jean raised an eyebrow. “Little did you know that I’m a fuck-on-the-first-date kind of guy. Surprise.” He was still too gaunt, too weak, and in too much pain, but he was smiling. I wiped the hair off his forehead. “You are definitely a sloppy-nervous-kiss-onthe-first-date kind of guy. A this-is-too-much-tongue kind of guy.” Jean grimaced. “So you remember our first kiss.” I laughed. “I know you do.” “Alright. Shut up. This is going to be the first one. None of the other ones count. Especially not that one.” I sat up slightly, leaning on my elbow against the pillow, until I hovered over him and he looked up at me, searching my face with those eyes. “This is the first one?” I said softly, brushing the tip of my nose against his. Jean nodded, his lips brushing on mine, his breath hitching in his throat. I kissed him.


And my pocket started to vibrate against the side of his leg. Jean opened his eyes and looked down. “Does that mean you liked it?” I scoffed and laughed and kissed him again before I sat up and pulled my phone out. “It’s Sasha,” I told Jean as I answered it. “Hey, Sash.” “Hi, Marco.” Her voice was oddly restrained. “How’s he doing?” “He’s great,” I replied. “They moved him out of the ICU, so he can have more visitors now, and the doctor seemed... enthusiastic. They said they might discharge him in two weeks or so, and then physical therapy afterwards.” “That’s great, really great, really. Tell him I say hello.” I passed on the message, then turned back to the phone. “Sash, are you alright?” There was silence on the line, then Sasha sighed. “Have you been watching the news at all?” “Watching the news? No, we... He’s been asleep for most of the day. Why, what’s going on?” “Just turn it on, Marco.” Sasha’s voice was hushed. “And hold his damn hand.” I got up and fumbled for the remote control on the nightstand, pointing it at the ancient cube of a television suspended in the corner of the room. It groaned to life with a static sound and I waited for it to warm up, sitting back down next to Jean and taking his hand like she’d told me to.


The picture came on the screen clear, and I asked, “Sasha, what channel?” She gave me the name of one of the local news stations, and I found it. The headline at the bottom of the screen was the same, the name that the local news had given to the shooting in huge block lettering. Beneath it ran other sublines, details of the shooting, news of the shooter’s confession and court date, updates on the conditions of some of the victims, reports of candlelight vigils being held. And then I saw it, running in all caps along the bottom of the headline. “GAY LOVER AND PREGNANT EX FIANCEE AT HERO COP’S BEDSIDE.” And then the subline inched up the screen, another statement crawling up beneath it, and the bland news anchor cleared her throat and began to read it aloud. She said Jean’s name, explaining briefly his actions at the shooting and his injuries. Then a picture of him flashed onto the screen, an official photograph of him with a stony expression, wearing his police uniform and holding his hat in front of an American flag. I turned to look at him, my hand and the phone clutched in it falling to my lap in shock. He had sat straight up, his eyes wide and glued to the screen. And then I heard the news anchor say my name. I turned back, and a picture of my shop was on the news. “...Reports of a scene in the hospital later on in the evening between Mr. Bodt


and the police officer’s mother were confirmed by our inside reporter, Jane Ashby. Jane, what can you tell us?” The news anchor’s screen space was cut in half when another woman appeared and began discussing the report, standing outside in the afternoon light and holding a microphone. I recognized the hospital in the background. The top right corner of the screen said “LIVE.” And then I recognized the woman she’d introduced as Jane Ashby. The nurse who’d interrupted Jean’s mother and my conversation last night was on screen, and the notepad she’d been writing in stuck out of her shirt’s pocket. His mother had practically said the exact words of the headline to this woman. She had given her the story. “Thank you,” Jane Ashby said, speaking fierce and concise into the microphone in her hand. “I was indeed the witness to a heated argument between Mr. Bodt and Mrs. Beata Kirschtein, both of whom declined further interview--” “You argued with my mom?” Jean’s voice was faint. “You got offered an interview?” “No,” I said firmly. “Yes, I argued with your mom, but I didn’t know who that woman was! She was pretending to be a nurse! And no, she didn’t ask me for an interview! I had no idea, Jean. I had no idea.” Jean’s face was grey and his hands were trembling; I heard the steady beep of


his heart rate monitor going up and up with his frantic heartbeat, and immediately I dropped the phone and the remote and went over to him. I took his hand with one of mine and with the other stroked his hair, touched his cheek, anything that would calm him down. I kept my voice low. “It’s alright, baby, it’s alright. It’s just scandal, everyone needs scandal to forget about the bad stuff, you know that, you know that, my love. It will go away, it’s alright.” “Turn it off,” he choked out. “Turn that shit off.” I did exactly that and scooped the phone off the end of the bed where I’d dropped it. “Sasha?” I said into the phone. “Are you still there?” I heard her voice in the background, then she came on the line again. “I’m here. It’s awful, Marco, it’s awful, they completely twisted everything just for a story.” “I need you to do something for me. I need you to call the news station --” “I already gave them a piece of my goddamned mind, I told them they were lying bastards with no respect. None.” “Just do as much damage control as you can. My main focus is keeping any of these guys out of the hospital away from him. I’m gonna go talk to security about keeping his room locked down, call me if you have any more information or issues, alright?”


When Sasha agreed and hung up, I dropped the phone and went back to Jean. He had slumped down so far into the bed that his hair stuck up against the pillow, and his scowl and his exhaustion and his fear made him look like a little boy. “Everyone knows now,” was all he said. Everyone had already known about me, I was about to say, but then it hit me: he didn’t just mean everyone in our lives that we knew and cared about. He meant everyone. All of New York. Whoever got this channel across the country, whoever saw his face on the screen. That woman had just outed him to everyone. “Don’t panic,” I pleaded. “I’m not.” Jean closed his eyes for a minute, then looked up at me. “I’m not.” He reached out for my hand. Immediately I lifted it to my lips and kissed his knuckles. We were silent for a long time, just looking at each other. His heart rate returned to a more steady beat, and I just held his hand in mine, trying to settle the hammering heart in my own chest. I was waiting for Jean to let go. But he didn’t. “Saves me a lot of time and energy,” he said finally.


“What?” “Everyone knows now. The guys on the force. My dentist. My neighbors. I don’t have to bring it up awkwardly in conversation, at least. They’ll just know, and we can get the fuck on with our lives.” I was nearly speechless. “You’re ok with this?” Jean pulled himself up against the pillows and set his jaw. “I have no choice. If this is what they want to focus on, after everything that happened, then I can’t change that. But this doesn’t change anything, me and you. I’m not going to lose you again just because I’m afraid of their reactions.” I could have tackled him right there. Instead I kissed him long and then his neck, burying my face in his shoulder, trying to tell him without panicking or freaking him out worse that this was all I needed to hear from him. Jean wrapped an arm around my neck and stroked my hair. “I think we should leave the city,” he said quietly. “I think you should consider selling your shop. I think we need to get the fuck out of here before there’s retaliation.” There was a deeply rooted, poorly hidden fear in his voice. “As soon as you’re well enough,” I said, straightening up. “You’re ok with that?” he said after a minute, surprised. “Hell yeah," I said. "Let’s go somewhere weird. You can be a mall cop, and I’ll sell flowers out of the back of a van. It will be fun.”


The look on Jean’s face made me laugh despite the shock. “I have connections,” I soothed, “I have friends in different cities. Opening another shop would be no problem, if I sell this one. There’s too many memories in this one, anyway. And you can be a police officer anywhere. But we’ll figure this out when you’re better, alright? Right now, we’re safe, and I’m going to talk to the hospital security about keeping everyone out.” I kissed his hand again and let him go, standing up and shoving my phone in my pocket before heading to the door. “Marco.” Jean’s voice was hoarse when it rose and he called after me. I turned around. “I love you no matter what,” was all he said. He looked very tired again. “What did you used to say to me?” I replied, leaning in the doorway. Jean smiled slightly. “Every day. I love you more every day.” I smiled and closed the door behind me, stepping out into the hallway and trying to determine which way I should go to find the fourth floor lobby. The snap of a camera’s shutter going off echoed in the hall. I turned around and saw the young man holding the camera, a camera-bag slung on his shoulder and a lanyard with what looked like hospital passes and ID hanging around his neck.


“Smile,” he called to me as he lifted up the camera again. I just bit back my fury and turned away, making sure Jean’s door was closed firmly before heading in the opposite direction.

Chapter eleven

The next few weeks were hell. The kind of hell that Renaissance painters liked to work with. The one that has whole levels dedicated to specific sins, with different rings and poetically graphic punishments. The kind where the sufferers spend eternity doing exactly that -- suffering. And then there’s one moment every so often, one peaceful moment: the thirsty get some water to drink and the tortured get a minute to heal. A bliss before the pain begins again. And that’s how they survive, with these little moments tiding them over. I spent all the time I could at the hospital. At first, the shop was closed most of the time unless Erwin was feeling well enough to open it up for me a few days a week. It helped him, dealing with people in small doses and being around the flowers, and even when I started going back to work regularly, he stuck around.


It was good to have someone behind the shop’s counter whose Facebook profile picture wasn't plastered on the evening news. I could handle the backlash. I could handle the graffiti on the windows and the creepy emails and the hate mail delivered to my shop and my apartment daily. It was brutal, sometimes violent, usually religious or riddled with typos. The buckets of flowers I left outside the shop in the mornings would end up dumped all over the pavement by the end of the day. The first time I found them like that, with tire tracks clearly marked in the destroyed flowers, I saw the kids sitting at the far end of the street on their bikes, watching me. The kids I’d been giving flowers to at the beginning of this summer. I could handle it. I was angry and frustrated, but I was glad they were targeting me. So long as it was me and not Jean, so long as he was focusing on getting better, I could handle it. It was awful for him. It was awful, and he told me it wasn’t, but it was. Jean’s biggest struggle wasn’t the pain. It was being trapped in bed by the pain, not being able to move or even sleep on his stomach because of it, restricted by something he couldn’t help. The guy whose day job was running and doing things that resulted in black eyes couldn’t even walk until his doctor told him he could. He was doing alright with it for a while. After a couple of weeks, I thought he was going to start screaming. I did what I could, but sometimes it wasn’t enough. We would be playing a board game or watching television, and Jean would start an argument with me over nothing. He would raise his voice, and sometimes I couldn’t help myself, and I would raise mine too. Arguing was better than the look on his face when


he felt like I was patronizing him; he wanted me to fight back, to pretend he wasn’t still being monitored for internal bleeding in his chest. So we argued. Sometimes he couldn’t even look at me. He was too embarrassed by how pathetic he felt. Sometimes the only thing I could do to help Jean was to go home. So I would kiss him, even if he didn’t make eye contact with me, and head for the lobby to leave the hospital. The reporters were always waiting for me. This out-of-context Jerry Springer shit show had been picked up my multiple news stations, and every single one of these vultures had questions and microphones and cameras. They needed an update for their story or at least some good drama, but I refused to speak to them, and they were never allowed anywhere near Jean’s room. They asked if I had intended to ruin his marriage. They asked if Sasha’s baby was really his and not Connie’s. They asked if I had any political aspirations. You know, since I was fucking the son of Mrs. Beata Kirschtein, the president of some high society foundation for conservative white women in pantsuits, and Mr. Gunther Kirschtein, the defense attorney who played golf with the governor. I hadn’t even known that his parents were so powerful. I had known they were wealthy, and they forced Jean into their ideals, but I had only ever cared about the negative effect it had on him. I cared that after all these years, it made sense to me why he was so afraid of coming out to his parents. But it didn’t matter now. They knew. Their wealthy friends knew. Hell, the governor probably knew by now.


His parents stopped coming to the hospital altogether. His dad called him on the phone a few times, but they refused to deal with “the spectacle,” as they called it. Neither one of them said a word about me or to me again. Sasha had to stop visiting as much, too. Every time she came to the hospital, she ended up threatening to punch a reporter in the face. A strained looking Connie pointed out that the extra stress and constant possibility of fighting in the street probably wasn’t good for the baby. It was ok. We understood, and most of the time, Jean only wanted me. And then he stopped wanting anyone at all. I kept the news off the television and never brought it up, but I couldn’t protect him from the coverage. I couldn’t protect him from the embarrassment and the shame of having his whole life casually discussed by strangers. It was mortifying. It was ugly. I couldn’t keep all the rumors and lies straight anymore. They were talking about people who weren’t us. Whenever the shooting came on the news, we were the sub-headline. We were the trashy story that comforts you when you’re feeling depressed about reality. But this was our reality. Jean’s doctors said he was recovering a little slower than they’d hoped, and the emotional stress wasn’t helping. They planned on keeping him in the hospital until they were satisfied with the way his gunshot wounds were healing. The fracture in his leg was minor, though, and healing well; Hanji wanted to start


Jean with physical therapy immediately. Physical therapy was a whole new challenging, frightening ring of hell for him. But every once in a while, there would be a moment of quiet. Of peace. When I snuck him his favourite pizza for dinner. When we convinced the nurse to let him have video games, and we spent all day playing with my old PS2. When he gave into his stubborn, broken pride and let me hold him until he fell asleep because the more they took him off his pain medication, the worse his nightmares about the shooting became. He would wake up trembling, soaked to the skin with sweat. I just held him. And the next morning, I’d wake up and get a mouthful of hair when I tried to kiss him and he turned away. We went up and down like that. It got worse before it got better. And then one day it changed. It was already September, and the argument that morning had been fucking awful. Bad enough that I wasn’t sure if I should even go back to the hospital after work. I didn’t know what had started the fight, only that it ended with me saying “I love you” like I was actually telling him to shut up. I didn’t want to deal with how frustrated I was, and I didn’t want to watch him struggling like that, and I didn’t want to leave him alone to struggle by himself. So I went back to my apartment first, showered and pulled on one of Jean’s hoodies I’d taken from his place when I was there last. It was still humid from the end of summer, but I needed some encouragement.


I went back to the hospital. Not making eye contact with the nurses who whispered about me when I passed them in the parking lot. Ducking my head as I walked past the crowd in the lobby, picking up their cameras as soon as I stepped out of the elevator. I just turned away from them and shoved my hands in my pockets, moving slowly down the hallway towards his room. Giving myself time, trying not to dread more arguing. More frustration and more hopelessness because no matter what I did, I couldn’t help him. Halfway down the hallway, I heard Jean laughing I picked up my pace, wondering if he’d gone into some kind of hysterical shock that would make him laugh like that, like he used to, like he was happy -When I half-slammed my shoulder into his doorway, afraid of what I was going to see, I found the bed empty. Jean was sitting in a wheelchair with look of mischievous glee on his face. He looked up at me and grinned, wheeling himself over to me, the muscles in his arms pumping. “They let you out of bed!” I said with a surprised laugh. “About goddamned time!” Jean reached up and twisted his hand around the drawstrings of my hoodie, tugging me down to his eye-level. Then he kissed me fierce, unable to keep the smile off his face. “J-- mmm,” I laughed against his lips. “Come on, show me.” He let go of me and wheeled himself backwards, swiveling so I could get a


better look. “How do you feel?” I closed the door behind me and sat down on the edge of the bed, watching him. “Like I could wrestle a bear right now,” he grinned. “Come on, let’s have sex.” I laughed. “Easy there.” Jean wheeled over to me and sat in front of me, sticking the socked foot of his good leg out and nudging my calf with his toes. When I met his gaze, he bit his lip, and we were quiet for a moment, just looking at each other. “What, baby?” I said. “I’m a miserable bastard,” Jean said finally. “I’m miserable 99% of the time, and you don’t deserve it, and this... It will get better. And I’m sorry I called you an asshole this morning.” I leaned forward, my elbows on my knees. “You didn’t.” I smiled slightly. “You didn’t call me an asshole this morning.” “.. Oh.” “But now that I know you were thinking it, I will definitely never forgive you.” “Never?” His rogue grin was back. “Probably never.” He nudged me again with his foot. “Have sex with me right now.”


“Have you tried walking yet?” I ignored him, fighting a smile. Jean grimaced. “That’s a yes. It didn’t go well?” He ignored me. “Come here, I’ll take your pants off for you, god damn it.” I leaned down in front of him, my face inches away from his. Then I raised my eyebrows and smiled. Jean’s eyes opened wide with surprise. “Really?” My voice was low and suggestive. “Only if...” He couldn’t take his eyes off my mouth. “Only if what?” “Only if you walk around for me.” He frowned. “Then you can do whatever you want with me,” I finished. “Anything.” “I’m too tired,” he grumbled. “You just threatened to wrestle a bear.” Jean wheeled himself away, towards the door. I opened my mouth to protest because I thought he was going to leave, but he just turned his chair around so he faced me again. He lifted his hand and flipped the light switch, plunging us into darkness; the moonlight streaming through the blinds and the light under the door became the only illumination in the room.


“Jean?” I said after a minute, worried. He sighed. “I just don’t want you to see me like a fucking mess, ok?” I stood up, lingering somewhat closer to him. “Ok.” My eyes grew accustomed to the dark, and I watched him sitting in his chair, staring at his lap, focusing. I made myself stay where I was. Jean moved slowly, putting his feet on the ground and standing up. The baggy college t-shirt they’d let him wear over his chest dressings draped forward when he leaned heavily on the arms of the wheelchair, but he straightened up again, tenderly testing the weight on his bad leg. He took a step forward, and it was ok. So he took another one, and that one was more difficult. A few small steps later and I could hear his shaking breath. I closed the space between us immediately, putting a steady hand on his waist. Jean leaned heavily into me, his hand gripping my shoulder. I could feel the bandages on his chest against me. I pulled him closer so we were cheek to cheek and I could hold him up easier. “That was great,” I told him. “No it wasn’t,” Jean said through gritted teeth, bowing his head so his forehead grazed my shoulder. “I’m supposed to be better at this.” “You’ll get it. How about this,” I said softly in the shell of his ear. “Dance with me.”


“How the hell--” Jean stopped and swallowed hard. “I can’t even walk.” “So think about how impressed the PT guy is going to be when you tell him you were dancing.” With my free hand, I pulled my phone out of my pocket. “What do you want to dance to?” “Death metal,” he huffed after a minute. “So you can’t hear me fucking wheezing.” I turned the volume all the way up and hit the ‘shuffle’ option on an acoustic playlist I had saved. Tossing it on the bed when it started to play, I took his other hand in mine like we were waltzing. But really we just swayed to the slow music, high-school style, his forehead against the side of mine. He was heavy in my arms, but I didn’t mind. I hadn’t seen him like this in weeks. I hadn’t held him this close without being afraid -- afraid of hurting him, of losing him -- for a long time. Little by little, I would take small steps backwards and forwards, and we moved together. “You’re taller than me with your shoes on,” Jean grumbled after a while. I pulled away slightly and kicked my sneakers off into the corner of the room, so when I turned back to him we were both in our socks. “Still taller than you,” I murmured, smug. “We’re talking tenths of an inch here, flower boy.” We laughed together, and he stood a little straighter, and my chest felt like it was swelling with warmth. We lasted a few songs, more than I’d expected. Jean moved slower but still


kept going, and we stayed like that, holding onto each other, quiet. “I’m sorry,” he said softly, surprising me. “For what, my love.” He was quiet for a minute. “That it’s been so hard. That it’s taken so long.” He meant us. He meant this. My throat felt thick for a moment. I turned my face and nuzzled my forehead against his. “We wouldn’t be who we are,” I replied, “and we wouldn’t have what we have if we didn’t go through all of that first.” Jean sighed. “I love you.” “I love you, too. Are you just being romantic to get into my pants?” “Yeah, is it working?” I laughed, rubbing his back. I could feel his tensed muscles through his t-shirt, and my hand grazed the skin where his sweatpants hung low on his hips. I wasn’t really going to do anything with him tonight, but Jesus. I wanted to. “Ok,” I said after a while, “if you can walk me back to the bed, I’m all yours.” “Mmm.” Jean prepared himself and we moved slowly, me stepping backwards and supporting the majority of his weight. But he was walking, and I couldn’t


keep the smile off my face. By the time we reached the bed his jaw was set and he was frowning, so I pulled him down the rest of the way. He sat down next to me and lay on his back, covering his eyes with his arm and letting out a shaky sigh of relief. I turned the music off and leaned over him, wiping his damp forehead with the sleeve of my sweatshirt. He moved his arm and looked up at me. “Alright.” Jean sounded exhausted. “Pants off like you promised.” “The things you do for sex,” I chuckled. With this head tipped back like that, I could see the silhouette of his face in the moonlight: the edge of his jaw shadowed with that dark stubble, his eyelashes fluttering when he searched my face with his intense gaze, the soft lines at the corners of his eyes where they crinkled when he laughed, the hair at his temples darkened with sweat, the curve of his mouth, the broad muscle of his shoulders, the hard line of his collarbones under his shirt. Jesus. Jean snorted. “The look on your face right now.” I sat up, dragging the covers on the bed back, my cheeks burning in the dark. “You know we’re not doing anything tonight, right?” “I know.” His voice was drowsy, but he was still smirking. “I’m just appreciating it. Takin’ it in. I may be weak as hell, but my game ain’t.”


“Yes. You have game. Congratulations. Get in bed.” We moved around each other until he was laying with his head on my chest and he was in a comfortable enough position with his leg and his chest that he could sleep. I drew the covers over both of us.

-~-

The next morning, I told his physical therapist myself about Jean’s achievements. I wouldn’t let him downplay them or be nonchalant, and even though he made me leave while he was training like he always did, I could see it in his eyes. He was proud that I was proud. His demeanor changed. When I came back from the shop at night he always had more good news to tell me, and when he was discouraged, it only drove him to work harder. After a week had passed he could walk short distances, he had gotten the hang of crutches, and his chest was healing better. His doctors agreed that he could be discharged. We spent that night packing everything I’d brought from his apartment or mine to try and make him feel better. The press was still waiting outside our door and Jean still had a long road of physical therapy and recovery to do before he could go back to work, but we celebrated the little victories like kings. “We’re leaving at the crack of dawn,” Jean announced, sitting in the


wheelchair with a pile of magazines in his lap for me to put in my car. “I don’t give a shit. I’m getting out of here.” The crack of dawn didn’t exactly sound appealing to me, but sure enough, he was poking me awake so early in the morning that I needed coffee just to use words. But I smiled because he smiled. Jean couldn’t decide what to get done first: he would start doing one task then get distracted and pick something else up. He was in the middle of brushing his teeth when he remembered something he had forgotten to pack, and he wheeled himself to his duffel bag on the end of the bed, toothpaste still foaming in his mouth. Then he saw the discharge papers I was filling out while he was changing; he pulled his t-shirt off and signed the discharge papers himself, bare-chested, bandages still around his ribs and stomach. The damper on Jean’s excitement was the wheelchair thing. It was hospital policy that he should be wheeled out to the parking lot when he was discharged, but he’d started to hate relying on the chair. My instincts told me he was looking forward to walking past the reporters in the lobby with his head held high. Even if he had to do it on crutches. “It’s better this way,” I said, pushing his wheelchair myself. “Me and you.” I hauled his duffel bag onto my shoulder, and made sure he was holding onto his crutches. Together, we left his hospital room. Jean’s posture in the chair straightened, and his knuckles were white when he


squeezed the arms of the wheelchair. He’d had to deal with the mobbing press, but not the way I had; no matter how bad his cabin fever got, if he stayed in his room, they would leave him alone. The cameras and microphones and voices yelling over each other were waiting for us in the lobby. And just when we thought we’d made it past that, the elevator a quiet moment for us to take a breath, the doors slid open and there were more of them. More bystanders and more reporters. I knew in that moment that someone -- maybe a nurse, maybe another patient there for all I knew -- had tipped them off that today was the day he was leaving. Jean kept his head up the whole time, his face pale but his jaw set, determined. He’d been humiliated in the worst way by these people, but he was going to be dead before he let them see that. When they asked him rude questions or shoved their microphones in his face, he didn’t flinch and he didn’t answer. I loved him. When we reached the parking lot, we saw the full extent: news vans were sporadically parked all over the hospital’s lot, and various camera equipment had been left around on the pavement. I put the brake on the wheelchair and circled around it, about to help him up, but Jean stood up by himself and shifted his weight onto the crutches with ease. We walked in silence to my car; we both looked straight ahead, knowing that though they weren’t in the parking lot, the cameras were all still trained on us. I let Jean put his crutches in the backseat and get in the car by himself, because I knew he would kill me if I tried to help him in front of those people. That wasn’t because of the gay thing, or even because of the public eye thing; that was an Old Jean thing, a stubborn pride, a sign that he was back to normal. It made me smile.


We left the hospital and drove four blocks before either of us said a word. When we reached a vacant parking lot a little farther down the street, I pulled into it and turned the car off. We were sitting between a Chinese place and a small grocery, but I didn’t care. I sat back in the driver’s seat and looked over at him. Jean looked back at me, his face flushed, his eyebrows raised. Silently he held up his hand, and we high-fived. “We should go to my apartment,” was all I said. “There’s an elevator.” Jean nodded. I started the car again, and he laughed, and that was that. We didn’t notice anything strange about my apartment building. I helped Jean get up the stairs to the front door, but he didn’t mind, because the street was quiet. No reporters had thought to follow us home, I noticed. Thank god. He got into the tarnished brass-colored elevator with me, and hit the button for my floor. Seeing him in my building again was vertigo, after all this time, after all that had changed. I told him so, and Jean teased me. We were too busy looking at each other. We didn’t notice that the front door of my apartment was wide open until we got there and stood in the doorway.


The door had splintered at the hinges where someone had kicked it in. “Jesus fuck,” Jean muttered, shocked. My apartment had been ransacked. My couch had been slashed and my lamps were broken on the floor; all across the floor my clothes, my CDs, my paperwork for the shop had been scattered. My sketchbook was lying face up, its pages ripped out. I felt a strong breeze blow through the room and realized that the windows had been smashed. I moved to go into the apartment, and Jean began to shift his weight on his crutches to follow; I threw my arm out in front of him. “Stay,” I told him, my voice low. “Stay here.” Jean hesitated, but didn’t argue. I went through the splintered doorway and stepped carefully, holding my breath. I moved through the living room, inspecting the damage but not moving anything and not making a sound. I wouldn’t touch the evidence. This could have happened last night. This could have happened ten minutes ago. Whoever had did this could still be here. My hands were fists at my sides. I kept going. The kitchen was trashed. I found some of my boxers strewn across the hallway. Someone had hated me enough to go through my goddamned underwear drawer. The curtains on my bedroom windows fluttered in the morning breeze. The


glass had been smashed. More of my clothes had been thrown around, and the sheets on my bed had been slashed to ribbons. I noticed the closet had been left alone. Everything else had been ransacked but this. The door was closed. My heart was thudding hard in my chest. I tried to see through the slats of the door, but I couldn’t make anything out. Just dark shapes. “We’ve had enough,” I said quietly. “Enough.” There was no answer. I scooped up some of my t-shirts and underwear off the floor, shoved them under my arm, and left the apartment without another word.

Chapter twelve

“We have to call the cops.” We sat in my car in front of the apartment building, silent for a long time


before I spoke. Too frightened to stay but too determined to leave, we sat there. Someone had put their hands on everything I held dear to me, smashing what they could, destroying just for the sake of destroying. I couldn’t imagine going back in there and trying to clean it up. I couldn’t imagine sleeping in my bed again without waking up and looking at the closed, intact closet door. It wasn’t that I thought anyone was in there. It wasn’t that I thought the person who had broken in was hiding, waiting. I knew my closet, and I knew it was stuffed enough that no one could hide in there successfully without something falling on their head. It was the small neglect. The fact that the burglar had forgotten to destroy it in the heat of the moment. I couldn’t pretend to myself that a tornado had swept through, systematic and emotionless, and left nothing untouched; someone had been so busy ripping my stuff apart, ripping me apart, that they had just... forgotten. A human experience. “Jean,” I said quietly, “we have to call the cops.” Jean stared out the windshield, his expression carefully blank. I could tell his mind was working fast. “No,” he said finally, and he looked up at me. I saw the fear. He hadn’t let any of his friends on the force see him this whole time. Not since the shooting and not since the media circus, when everything had come out. He hadn’t yet mustered the courage it would take to tell his big, tough, marginally masculine friends that he was gay. He didn’t want them to look at him differently, so he hadn’t let them look at him at all.


I took his hand and squeezed it. “I know. I know. But this is more important right now, this is our safety.” After a very long silence, Jean’s voice was small. “Call Reiner.” So I did, dialing the number Jean gave me for the police station and put the phone on speaker, not letting go of his hand. Reiner’s deep voice was strained and serious when he picked up, echoing in my car. “Officer Braun, Department no--” “Reiner?” I interrupted him. “It’s Marco.” He usually responded with his somewhat offensive enthusiasm, but the other end of the phone was quiet and hesitant. “I was just going to call you,” he said grimly. “We’ve got reports coming in about a break-in at Jean’s apartment building.” I took a deep breath. They’d gone for him too. I squeezed Jean’s hand, my fingers lacing through his, and his thumb traced rhythmically along mine, comforting. We were safe. We were safe. He was safe. I saw the closet door again. And every fear I felt for myself, I felt for him, too. “My apartment got trashed too,” I said finally. “We just found the place like


that.” Reiner swore. “It’s just assholes doing it for the news. We don’t think anything was taken, but it’s smashed up pretty bad. I heard Jean was getting discharged today, is he with you?” “Yeah, he’s right here.” Jean looked over at me and shook his head violently, drawing a line with his finger across his throat. “Tell that bastard I said hello,” Reiner said, sounding a little brighter. “He says hello back,” I replied. Jean rubbed his face with his free hand, desperate not to talk to his friend. “...I’ll have a couple guys head up to your place as well,” Reiner was saying. “Why don’t you come over to the station and we can go through the paperwork, and Jean can stop avoiding all of us.” I thought about it, weighing our options. Jean wanted to avoid the station at all costs, yes, but we didn’t really have anywhere else to go. He was feeling better, but I knew he needed somewhere he could get away from the stress and rest, and neither of our apartments were an option. The shop was out, too, in case it was targeted as well. Sasha and Connie had already moved up to their place in Vermont, we weren’t on speaking terms with Jean’s parents, and I wouldn’t have put such pressure on Erwin and Levi. We didn’t really have any other option.


“Sounds good,” I told Reiner. “And thanks a lot. For the help.” “Ah, no problem. You guys are our own, you know what I’m saying?” After that, he hung up. I put the phone down and looked over at Jean. “No,” was all he said. “There’s nowhere else to go,” I said softly. “Let’s just go fucking sit in a coffee shop somewhere.” “We can’t stay there for hours, and you know there will be cameras. And there’s beds at the station, we could stay the night if we have to.” Jean shook his head. “I can’t. I can’t, Marco. I can’t.” “They’re your friends. They’re your force, they’re your team. And the station is your second home.” “It was. I can’t do it.” Jean swallowed hard. “I can’t-- I can’t walk in there and know they’ve all been-- that they all saw--” He stopped, and I heard the breath hitch in his throat. “They all saw what you did in the shooting,” I said. “They saw you do your job. They saw you be brave.” “You’re really gonna say that, when you know that every other word out of Reiner’s mouth is a goddamned homophobic slur? You really think he’s gonna just ignore the whole media circus? He’s going to tear me apart.” Suddenly, I laughed. I had completely forgotten to tell him, after all these


months. He was so terrified about his masculine, heterosexual buddies, and probably afraid of Reiner the most. Jean glared at me. “How long has it been since you’ve seen Reiner? Before the shooting,” I clarified, “did you see him a lot?” “No. He went undercover and was working with another jurisdiction, and then he changed shifts so we weren’t working the same hours. It’s fine by me, the guy is an asshole.” “No, he’s not.” I leaned over and kissed his cheek. “We’re going to the station.”

-~-

The closer we got to the police station, the more Jean panicked. He had to let go of my hand while I drove, and for once I was glad; I could see his fingernails digging into the fabric of his seat. He stared out the window with his teeth gritted, and by the time we had turned into the station’s street, he couldn’t even look at me. He just leaned his elbow on the car door and buried his face in his hand. I parked somewhat farther down the street so he could have some time.


“This is the last step,” I told him. “This is the big one. It’s gonna be ok.” Jean didn’t answer. He didn’t move. “I don’t have to come in with you if you don’t want to,” I added after a minute. “Don’t even fucking say that.” His voice was muffled in his hand. “I just meant if you’d rather we didn’t... You know...” Jean dropped his hand from his face and stared out the window. “I do it with you, or I don’t do it at all. We do this together. If you want to,” he added, apprehensive. “I want to.” He leaned his head back against the headrest and ran a hand through his hair. “I can handle it if they laugh,” he said quietly. “I can handle it if they talk shit, I just... If they look at me like... Like I’m not the same person...” “Hey,” I said. “Look at me.” Jean glanced briefly at me, still frowning, then his eyes flickered away. He looked at the collar of my shirt, at my hands in my lap, at everything else before he met my gaze again. I shifted in my seat and leaned closer to him, and he met me halfway, his hand coming up to my face and his fingers in my hair. I thought he would kiss me hard, like he always used to when he was afraid, like he didn’t know if he should pull me closer or push me away.


Jean just leaned his forehead on mine, closing his eyes, and that was enough. “We do this together,� I said. We stayed like that until he kissed me softly, then opened his car door. I let him get out by himself, shifting his weight unsteadily from one leg to the other while he pulled his crutches out from the back seat. I stood on the sidewalk and watched him, thinking about the fact that last December, we had been standing in this exact spot. He’d had to push me into a snowbank and hide just to kiss me, even in the middle of the night, even with nobody around. I thought of his mother two months ago telling me that her son was weak. I had never seen anyone stronger. The closer he got as we walked to the station, the more worried Jean seemed, until he was biting his lip and I could see his shoulders arching forward as if he were trying to steel himself physically in the hopes that it would protect him mentally. But we kept going. I pulled open the heavy front door of the station for him, and he glanced at me before he went into the front hall of the police station. The huge work space I had seen quiet eight months ago was now alive and


busy. Phones were going off and there was a steady stream in and out of officers, lawyers, visitors and people who sat down to wait on the benches along each wall. Rows of desks sat behind the imposing wooden barriers, and more police officers were scattered along these little cubicles, filling out paperwork, talking to each other, dealing with cases. I recognized a lot of them, the men and women who had come and gone from the lobby of the hospital, hoping to see Jean. I looked at Jean, and his eyes were wide and afraid. Reiner and Bert saw us before I saw them; I only noticed Bert because he towered over the others as he worked his way through the desks to the barriers. Reiner was in front of him, pushing his way through the people and making a path for the taller cop. “Hey, Jean!” Bert called with a smile. The whole front hall suddenly went quiet. The conversations died away as more and more people, officers and civilians alike, looked up from what they were doing. They followed Bert’s gaze and saw Jean standing as tall as he could on his crutches in the entry way. His mouth was pressed into a thin hard line. Reiner kept pushing his way through the crowd, muttering a few “scuse me”s and “fucking move”s before he reached the wooden barrier and stepped through. Then he slowed and met Jean’s gaze, his face solemn. Reiner started to clap. Everyone else picked up on it quickly, dropping what they had in their hands to applaud him. The sound bounced all around the front hall and echoed in our ears, some of the guys on his squad calling his


name and cheering. A drunk guy sitting in the corner raised his handcuffed hands and put his fingers in his mouth for a wolf whistle. Jean bowed his head and swallowed hard. His face was burning bright red, and when tears slipped, he wiped his cheeks hastily with the back of his hand, like a little kid. Some of his friends came over to him then, letting the rest of the teeming hall get back to work. These were the people he trained with, the ones he went on call with, the ones he had learned to trust his life with. They hugged him and smiled, flooding around him, and I stepped back to give them room. They called over each other, and it was hard for him to focus on everything they said. “Hey stranger!” “You look great!” “How’s your recovery going?” “Show me the scars right now, I have money bet on these things, come on --” “You saved thirty six people, Jean. Thirty six.” “When are you coming back to work?!” Reiner and Bert finally reached the crowd around him, and Reiner slapped him on the back. “I’d call you a hero,” he said gustily, “if you hadn’t been such an idiot.” Jean looked up at him warily. “Thanks, man.” Reiner grinned. “Did you get the flowers my boyfriend and I sent you?”


Jean nodded. “Yeah, thanks, they--” then he stopped. “Did you just...” Reiner nodded in my direction. “Marco met him a couple of days ago actually, when we went to get the flowers. His name is Sam.” “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me!” Jean yelled at him. “All the times you called me a faggot! I’m going to punch you in the face, I swear to fucking god, hold my crutches, right in the fucking face--” Reiner was laughing. “You are a fag, aren’t you?” “Well-- so are you!” Jean sputtered. “Damn right I am, and I’m also in fighting form, so if you really want to get your couch-potato ass kicked, come at me, Kirschtein.” Jean let go of his crutches and hugged Reiner. It was a manly hug with one arm and a hard clap on each other’s backs, ending with both of them clearing their throats and making it really awkward. But a hug nonetheless. Then when he had gotten his balance back, Jean turned to find me. “You knew?” he yelled. I smiled and mouthed, “sorry!” Jean grinned at me before he turned back to his friends.

-~-


We had agreed to do it together, but for this part, he didn’t need me. What Jean needed in this moment was to talk to the people he’d been afraid of and see that nobody was pitying or judging him. When we had finished all the paperwork for the apartments, we went through to the back area of the station reserved for the officers. I left him threatening to beat the shit out of Reiner in foosball. I hauled his duffel bag over my shoulder, with some of the clothes I had taken from my apartment stuffed in with it, and wound my way up the stairs and through the hall until I found it. The room of bunk beds where he’d taken me that night a very long time ago. When I had admitted to not being able to stay away from him, even if it hurt me, even if it hurt everyone else. It looked different in the afternoon light. But everything was different. I dropped the duffel onto a bottom bunk that looked unoccupied and shuffled onto the mattress, resting my head on the bag. It smelled like him, and I closed my eyes. So much had changed. I was relieved, and happy, and frightened, but most of all just exhausted. I think I slept, or at least dwelled in that half-dream place where you move without moving and see without seeing. I remembered that night in this room eight months ago, and I remembered dancing with him. I remembered making


love to him the last time before I left him, and I remembered the skinny, punkass kid with the attitude and the undercut who had walked into my dorm room on the first day of college. I remembered the first night he had come into my shop, and I remembered the untouched door of my closet. By the time I woke up, the sky outside the windows had darkened, and there were arms wrapped around me from behind. When I tried to shift in the narrow space of the bunk bed, I heard him grumbling, but his grip loosened. I turned to my other side, and Jean shuffled closer to me, his eyes barely open, his hair messy from sleep. I leaned my face into his chest, and he put his arms around me again, his fingers grazing sleepily up and down my spine. “Hello, idiot,” I murmured, nestling my forehead against his shoulder. “...Hmm?” was his mumbled, confused response. “Idiot who waited all this time being afraid of his friends.” Jean yawned and rested his chin on the top of my head. “‘S your fault.” “Oh really,” I chuckled, shifting out of his grip and sitting up slightly. I pulled my phone out of my back pocket, and Jean scooted under me so I was leaning on my elbow over him and he looked up at me, his head tipped back into the thin pillow, his eyelids still heavy. “Sasha called me,” I told him, the missed call appearing on the phone’s screen. I hit the redial button and listened to it ring, pausing to kiss the tip of his nose. Jean smiled and closed his eyes, folding an arm over his face and yawning again.


“Marco?” Sasha’s voice sounded anxious over the phone. “Hi, Sash. What’s the matter?” “I saw that Jean got discharged today... And I saw the break-ins at your guys’ apartment on the news just now, I wanted to make sure you were ok.” “We’re good. We’re at the station, actually, we had to file reports but we figured we’d just stay here for the night.” I couldn’t think of any better options, and he seemed comfortable enough. “That’s the other thing,” said Sasha, “I wanted to know what you thought about coming up here to stay with me and Connie for a while.” “Vermont?” I said, surprised. “Yeah. With all the press and the break-ins on top of that, and with Jean trying to get better, I just figured you guys coming up here would help a lot. It’s quiet, this town is just a little tourist destination for all the ski lodges in the winter, and it’s beautiful.” “That’s really nice, Sasha,” I managed after a minute. “And it sounds like the best idea we’ve got going for us right now, honestly.” Jean moved his arm and looked up at me with one tawny, questioning eye. “Are you sure it wouldn’t be too much?” I added, doubtful. Sasha laughed. “To tell you the truth, they’re not letting me do very much at work anymore, and the hormones are making me crazy, and I think Connie is going to jump out of a window if I start crying over a Hallmark commercial


again, and -- I think you guys are the perfect distraction.” “Hold on.” I muffled the phone into my chest and looked down at Jean. “Vermont,” I said. “Vermont?” Jean asked, raising an eyebrow. “Sasha wants us to come stay. Get out of the city for a while. Give you time to get better away from everything here.” “What about the shop?” I shook my head. “I can talk to Erwin about that, he’s opened for me almost every day this week. He could take it temporarily while we’re up there.” “As long as I don’t have to wear fuckin’ golf sweaters and talk about the foliage.” I smiled slightly at him, and said into the phone, “Jean wants to know if he has to wear golf sweaters.” “Of course,” replied Sasha, “that’s obviously all we’re allowed to wear in scenic New England. Golf sweaters, horse riding boots, and fur muffs. And underwear made out of money. Tell that idiot to shut up and come hang out with me.” “She called you an idiot,” I said to Jean. He closed his eyes. “You’re all bullying me.”


I traced my fingertip absentmindedly along the edge of his mouth. “Ok, Sasha, you’ve got a deal... But what do you think about us coming tonight?” “I think that’s great!” she yelled into the phone. We put together a few more cursory details, and when I hung up she was already pulling ingredients out of her fridge. Even if we got going now, it would be more than five hours by the time we reached her, but still. She was making dinner for us. I let the phone slip forgotten in the bed’s messy covers and stroked Jean’s hair off his forehead. “Why tonight?” he asked, “why not tomorrow? You’re tired as hell.” “If it was this bad on the first day,” I said quietly, “then I don’t want to stick around and see how bad tomorrow is going to be.” Jean nodded slowly. “Yeah. It’s a good idea. It will be good.” I held out my hand. “Rock Paper Scissors who drives.” We went through the rhythm, one two three -- he threw scissors and I did too. “Best two out of three,” Jean demanded immediately, sitting up. He threw paper. I threw scissors again. “You’re just going to try everything else but scissors,” I told him, my voice patronizing, “and I’m just going to keep throwing scissors.”


We did it one more time. He threw rock. I threw paper. “You little shit!” Jean poked me in the stomach. “Wait -- I can’t even drive yet.” “I know.” I scrambled out of the bed over him and hit the floor running before he could angry-poke me again, letting out a laugh at the look on his face.

-~-

We left soon after that, piling what stuff we had with us in the car and loading up on snacks at a gas station. Jean fell asleep almost immediately, but he still had pain medication for the healing wounds on his chest and stomach, and I wasn’t surprised. I was wide awake, looking forward to the quiet time where all I heard was the sound of the engine and his steady breath. We got there at 1 in the morning, the GPS chirping agreeably on my dashboard when I drove through the small town. It looked like something you see on the postcards in gift shops, and even more so at night; frost was already creeping across the window panes of the old storefronts. I saw a pharmacist’s, a book store, some restaurants, a few hairdressers and more than a few tourist locations with t-shirts and souvenirs displayed in the front window. No florist’s shop. I noticed that, too. Sasha lived close to the inner downtown, a few streets off the main road in a renovated farmhouse. It was beautiful, and better than that, it was something that she and Connie had put together themselves; Connie had done most of the


renovation work, and Sasha decorated. It was warm and nice and quirky, exactly a reflection of those two. I left the car running so Jean wouldn’t be cold and climbed out quietly as I could, making sure not to wake him by slamming the door. Shrugging a hoodie on over my head, I leaned back against the outside of my car and looked up at the stars. You could see a million of them from there, with the light pollution so limited. They rose over the tops of the trees and forest encircling the town. They were beautiful. A block of yellow light spread suddenly across the front lawn, and I looked up to see Sasha opening the front door. She and I met halfway in a laughing, relieved hug, glad to see each other, and more glad to see each other safe. Her stomach had ballooned since the last time I saw her, and she was pretty even in pajama pants and one of Connie’s New York Yankees shirts. “Thank god you’re ok,” she said three times. “Thank you for having us,” I said four times. We were both just scared together for a minute. I don't think either of us heard each other. The past few months had been almost as hard on her as they had been on me. Sasha let go of me and threatened to help carry some of our stuff in, but I sidetracked her with the pleasant task of waking Jean up. While I took his duffel and a box of his bathroom stuff he’d had at the hospital, she opened his car door and promptly messed up his hair as much as possible, fluffing it aggressively, snickering to herself and not letting go.


I heard the scuffling, and the raspy grumbling that turned into him yelling, “wh-- you--- STOP-- DID YOU J-- Did you just give me a noogie?!” “That’s for not talking to me on the phone!” Sasha cried out in triumph. Then she laughed and headed toward the house, calling something over her shoulder about dinner. When Jean got out of the car, I handed him his crutches, trying not to laugh. The back of his hair was standing straight up, and the rest of it flopped mercilessly, mousy brown and probably a little too long. “Shut up, you,” he growled, then glanced around him. “Where the hell are we...” I kissed his messy hair, then heaved the box in my arms and started toward the house. “Home,” I told him.

Chapter thirteen

I had never lived somewhere so quiet in my whole life. When you live in a city, the traffic and the things you hear through the paper-thin walls of your apartment become white noise; I used to tell what time it was by the rattling of my windowpanes when a train went past.


We’d already been staying at Sasha and Connie’s house for three weeks, and I was still not used to how quiet it was, and how loud everything I’d once thought of as quiet had become. I would hear the scrape of the oak tree’s leaves against the side of the house and be startled. I sank deeper into the bathtub in Sasha and Connie’s master bathroom, stretching my legs out and disappearing up to my nose in the hot water and thick bubbles. They hadn’t had a shower put into the house yet, but I wasn’t complaining. The tub was just long enough for me to stretch every one of my muscles and relax. It was just me in the house; Connie was helping one of his friends across town with renovations, and Jean had gone with Sasha to work on her shift this afternoon. He’d given me a vague explanation about seeing the station she worked at, something about one of the police dogs she was training, and left with a hasty kiss and a burning red face. He’d been keeping something from me for a week, I could tell. The man couldn’t lie for shit. That’s how I knew that whatever he was lying about, he was happy with it; he was proud of it, and therefore wouldn’t say a word until he was sure it was the right time. That’s how he was about me. About everything. If he didn’t think it was worth protecting, he would have let it slip a week ago. I closed my eyes and listened to nothing but my breath and the soap bubbles popping and stirring on the water’s surface. Quiet and loud all at once. We were safe. We were ok. It was taking a long time to believe that. I had to keep telling myself.


The media circus had died down considerably once Jean had been discharged from the hospital, especially after no leads were discovered as to who broke into either of our apartments. They simply left us alone because they didn’t know where to find us, and if the burglars had intended to come back for us, the same went for them. I had told no one but Reiner and Erwin where we were just to make sure no one let it slip. I went back to New York by myself a few days after we drove up. Just to check on the shop, which had gone untouched by the violence and was running well with Erwin behind the counter. He seemed brighter and more steady than he had even the last time I saw him, and I looked around the shop I had built up over the last two years and noticed that it survived without me. That it brought out something in him it hadn’t given me in a long time. Finally, these flowers and my last name on the door weren’t the only things in my life that made me happy. I had stood in my apartment again, a couple of bags of salvageable stuff in my hands, and known for a fact that even if I spent the load of money it would take to fix it all up, I still wouldn’t want to be there. They could fix the windows and they could install an alarm system, but it would probably never help me feel safe. We had to go back at some point. I knew that. We couldn’t live with Sasha and Connie forever. But until then, Jean was doing well, and all the stuff I’d taken from both of our places was piled in the backseat of my car, and I got to wake up next to him every day in Sasha’s spare bedroom, and spending time with Sasha and Connie


was hilarious and eye-opening, and this bathtub was great. And we were ok. We were safe. I’d left the window in the bathroom open to let the steam out, and I stayed half submerged in the water, watching the afternoon sunshine fade and the shadows slowly drift across the tiled floor. I liked the trees here, right outside the windows, and the way they moved the light. It made me want to paint again, and I hadn’t painted in years. The sound of a car on gravel broke my train of thought. I heard the engine cut and Sasha laughing, Jean’s deep voice deadpan and rising into a laugh as well. I sat up in the tub and wiped my face with fingers that had pruned in the hot water. They came in through the front door downstairs with a burst of sound, the rustling of grocery bags and Sasha laughing about something and his footsteps, without the crutches, across the hardwood floors. I heard slow footsteps on the stairs, and then he called out, “Marco?” “Bath tub,” I called back, slicking my wet hair back. After a minute, Jean pushed the door open. He couldn’t wipe the big smile off his face, even when he bit his lip. I raised my eyebrows, trying to keep my face straight. “Can I help you with something, Kirschtein?” Jean closed the bathroom door behind him, his voice dropping to a growl. “No, but I’m gonna help you with a lot of things.” I laughed. “Oh no. We are not having sex in their tub again. I already feel bad


enough.” He crossed the room slowly, walking much better even though he was still careful with his bad leg. Jean leaned over the bathtub, his hand gripping the edge of the porcelain, and kissed me. “Come on. I haven’t seen you all day,” he said, his mischievous smile back. “You’ve been avoiding me all day,” I reminded him, keeping my tone perfectly innocent. Immediately he turned red. He tried to hide it, sitting down on the tiled floor next to me and resting his arm along the edge of the tub. I laughed. “Don’t even say no.” Jean dipped his fingers into the bubbles and flicked some water at my chest. “I’m not avoiding you,” he intoned, stubborn. “Mhmm.” I purposefully sidetracked. “How was work?” He stirred his fingers across the surface of the water. “Pretty cool, actually. It’s a lot slower at the station than back home, but they have a whole set up specifically for training search and rescue dogs. And the guys I was talking to while Sasha was doing paper work were cool.” “Sounds awesome, baby.” Jean leaned his chin on his arm, and the rogue smile came back.


I sat up, drawing my knees to my chest, so I was almost nose to nose with him. Then I narrowed my eyes at him. “Are you gonna tell me, or what?” Jean raised his eyebrows. “Huh?” “Are you gonna-- mmm. M-mm.” He had kissed me to make me stop talking. Jean laughed when he pulled away, and flicked water at me again. “Tell me,” I demanded. He ignored me, smirking. “What are you doing tonight?” “Not you, if you won’t tell me.” The look on his face was worth the empty threat. I snorted. “Come on. I know you’re hiding something. I just want to know if it’s a good thing or a bad thing.” “Good thing,” Jean grinned. “It’s good. And I’ll tell you tonight when we go out.” I sank below the surface down to my shoulder, reaching for the plug and pulling it so the water started to drain. “Where are we going?”


“So many fucking questions.” Jean was enjoying withholding the information, teasing me. He gripped the side of the tub and stood up, then pulled my towel off the rack, unfolding it in his hands. I stood up, the water line already drained down to my calves. His eyes were all over me, every part of me, and his mouth was hanging open a little. I felt my face burning. “Towel, please.” Jean handed it to me, but when I wrapped it around my waist and stepped out of the tub he was already moving towards me, one hand slipping to the small of my back and the other tracing along my hip, just under the towel. He kissed my neck, nibbling, goddamn. “Oh no,” I laughed shakily into his hair, “not until you tell me. If you’re teasing me, I’m teasing you.” Jean groaned. “Damn you and every single one of your damned freckles.” But he let go of me, his hand on my hip the last reluctant hesitation. “Now you’re all wet,” I pointed out smugly. “Your shirt.” Jean looked down at the damp soaking into the front of his shirt and started to undo the buttons from his neck downwards, letting it fall open so that with every button I could see his chest, the smooth muscle of his stomach... and the gnarled scars from his gunshots, still not healed completely yet, a few shades lighter than the rest of him. Jean saw the look on my face and glanced down. He was used to them, but I wasn’t.


“It’s fine,” he murmured, grabbing my hand in his. “It’s fine, see?” He pressed my fingers to his ribcage, to the bigger wound of the two, the one that had broken two of his ribs. I felt the coarseness of the scar, the thickened skin, and I felt his steady heartbeat underneath. I swallowed hard and moved closer to him, my hands slipping from his scars to his back until I was holding him close to me, my arms wrapped around his bare torso under his flannel. “Ok,” I said into his shoulder, “maybe one time before we go out.” Jean chuckled. “Pity sex?” “Glad-you’re-alive sex.” He kissed my wet hair. “Later. We’ve gotta go before it starts getting dark out.”

-~-

I tried to gauge where he was taking me by what he changed into, but Jean just tugged his usual black pea coat on over a v-neck and jeans and shoved his feet into his favourite old sneakers. This didn’t help, he wore that all the time, but I didn’t want to question him; I wanted to figure it out for myself. When we said goodbye to Sasha and headed outside, I immediately started


toward the car. Jean caught my hand and pulled me back onto the gravel driveway that turned into the sidewalk. I looked at him, surprised. “We’re walking?” I asked. “Are you sure?” “Stop worrying.” I made sure we walked slowly anyways, keeping a casual pace, still holding onto his hand. We passed the houses lining the street that gave way to a liquor store and some restaurants, until we stood where Sasha’s road met Main Street and we continued along it, heading downtown. The longer we stayed up here and the closer it got to the fall and winter seasons, the more tourists we saw. They were here to watch the leaves change, and for ski season, whatever else you do when you have vacation time and small kids and fanny packs. I liked the people; I liked watching them, hearing little parts of their conversations. I told Jean so, and as we walked he would catch a few words from someone walking past us and lean over, whispering in my ear how he thought the rest of the conversation might have gone. Which was usually sleazy and in a downward spiral. He even had the strange accents right. At one point he made me laugh so hard I had to stop walking and he pulled me into his arms, muffling my cackling into his shoulder. After a while we reached the quieter part of downtown where the tourists didn’t wander as much; this was the real part of this town, seemingly reserved for the people who lived here. It was homey and relaxed where the tourist


attractions we’d left behind were chaotic and funny. The sun had finally sank behind the buildings lining the other side of the street, and the antique-looking street lamps came on overhead. “It’s like a freaking movie,” I said with wonder, reaching out with my free hand to touch the peeling black paint on the lamp next to me. “I know,” Jean replied. I noticed his voice was tight. When I looked over at him, he was frowning. “What, baby?” I squeezed his hand to get his attention. We stopped walking, and he glanced up at the buildings on the other side of the street from under his furrowed brow. Then he looked at me, his gaze intense and nervous. “I need you to be ok with this,” he said finally. I smiled slightly at him. “Your surprise doesn’t involve jail time, does it?” “What -- no.” Jean took a deep breath, then let go of my hand and dug in the pocket of his coat. He pulled out a small velvet box. My heart missed a few beats. Jean smiled at me out of sheer nerves. I could see his hands shaking. “Ok, ready?”


I nodded my head the tiniest fraction, my voice unreliable. He got down on one knee. Slowly, and with a small groan of pain, but he did it, right in the middle of the sidewalk. His expression had grown serious again. “Marco...” He started, then stopped, then started again a few times. “I... The thing is, we... I’m not asking you to marry me.” “..Oh.” “You already asked me, remember?” Jean’s voice trembled a little. “I’m marrying you. You know I will. You’re stuck with me. We’ll just get there when we get there.” I couldn’t keep the smile off my face, even if he was trying to be serious. “Right now,” he continued quietly, “right now is about you and me, trying to find somewhere. And I found it. Marco, my dad sent me money.” “...Wait, what?” Jean cleared his throat. “He felt bad about how shitty he and my mom treated me, so he sent me money. A shit ton. Like a no-worrying-about-money-forthe-next-few-years amount. And the only thing I could think of that would be better than giving it right the fuck back to him was spending it on you. With you.” I was speechless, confused.


Jean pointed across the street. “You see that over there?” I looked up at the empty storefront building he had motioned to. Though it looked like it could use a coat of paint, it was beautiful, like something out of a vintage movie with it’s frosted pane glass windows along the whole storefront, a “For Sale” sign taped up on the inside. Above the first floor of the shop, there was another story with wide windows on all sides, facing the street on this side and the mountains that rose up into the twilight not far from here on the other side. The sloping roof revealed a third floor with port windows. Vines of ivy crawled their way across the side of the building, where a narrow path led to the small, walled-in garden behind it. Jean opened the velvet box in his hand and revealed a brass key-ring with two old-fashioned keys attached. “You bought me a shop,” I said faintly. “You bought me a shop?” “I saw it the other day walking down here with Sasha, when the realtor was here, so she gave us a tour... It’s fucking amazing in there-- There’s a garden and a huge kitchen, and the whole attic floor is open, like a studio. And the shop is even bigger than the one in New York.” There was a lump in my throat that made it hard to speak. Without a word, I helped him to his feet and held onto him tight as I could. It was the only way I knew how to say thank you. “You like it?” he laughed, breathless. “Oh my god, Jean.” I let go of him and then tugged at his hand, pulling him


across the street. The closer I got to it, the more I loved it. There was fine woodwork detailing around the edges of the windows, and the ivy made it smell like home. When he handed me the keys and I unlocked the shop’s front door, it made a satisfactory, heavy clicking noise in the lock and the door swung open. We both stepped inside, Jean closing the door behind him, and went silent for a minute. The whole front room was open and airy, with windows along the opposite wall letting the last of the afternoon sun in and spreading it across the tiled floors. There was a long counter stretched across the whole right side of the room, like a bar, and behind it, I saw a staircase disappearing up to the second floor. “Jean,” I said softly. “I... I figured you could keep the shop in New York if you wanted, I mean we don’t have to stay here if you don’t want to, it just... It looked...” When I turned to him, he was rubbing the back of his neck and watching me nervously. “This is it,” I told him. “This is you and me. This is our somewhere, like you said.” Jean grinned at me. “Wait til you see the second floor, it’s fucking insane.” I followed him up the stairs behind the counter; the second brass key unlocked


the door at the top. When he opened it, there was light: the hall ran all the way down the length of the apartment to the living room, where the setting sun cast long blocks of light along the floor. I went from room to room, speechless. It was everything I’d loved about my apartment, the light and the windows and the warmth, but it was better. It was cozy and open. It was ours. When we reached the master bedroom, I turned my head and saw him lingering in the doorway, watching me closely. Jean’s face started to go red when he noticed me looking at him, and he rubbed the back of his neck again. “You like it?” he asked, sheepish. “Do I like it?” I held my hand out to him. “Come here, you big romantic nerd.” Jean came up behind me and took my hand, wrapping his arms around me and resting his cheek on my shoulder blade. We stood there like that for a long time, until the sun had sank further and the rooms of our home started to get dark.

-~-

I drove down to New York a few days later. All at once, things drifted together. My first stop was my apartment to deal with my landlord, the insurance coverage, getting my stuff, and paying the rest of my rent for year upfront so I could leave my lease without feeling like a bad tenant. I paid with Jean’s father’s money like Jean had told me to, and I figured if I had to use it, it could


go toward making other people happy. The landlord stopped giving me the stink eye and even patted me on the back a few times as we talked. That was good enough for me. By now the windows in my old apartment had been replaced, and there was virtually no structural damage to any of the rooms -- it was just my personal belongings that had been targeted. I gave the landlord a few extra hundred dollars, trying not to look so nervous about handling all that money at once, and asked him to please get rid of the destroyed furniture for me: the couch that had been slashed open, my kitchen table with a broken leg, even my mattress that had been hacked open. I took what was important to me, what I could fit in my car, and left the rest. Honestly, I didn’t plan on coming back. All the things I had worked so hard to get myself, that apartment, that furniture... I was more accepting about giving it up than I thought I would be. I was ok. Jean’s apartment was both easier and harder. He owned it, so we just had to deal with selling it ourselves. But he had more stuff that was in usable condition, which made me think to take it... until I realized it was all the stuff he’d bought with Sasha while they were together. It wasn’t that it upset me. I just looked at their kitchen table, and I saw him holding my hand under the tablecloth at Christmas what felt like a thousand years ago. It shook me up. I sat down at the table in the chair that I had sat in almost a year ago and


called Jean’s phone. Hearing his voice helped, and I asked him what he wanted me to take. “Whatever fits in your car,” he huffed, out of breath. “The couch delivery guys just came, it took me and Connie and one of the guys just to get the fucking thing up the stairs. I think Con passed out.” “Did the mattress come yet, or should I bring yours back?” I asked, running one finger along a dent in the table top. Jean answered immediately. “Leave it. Leave all of that shit, sweetheart, it’s not worth the effort. And the mattress came this morning, thank fucking god, the things I’m gonna do to you when you--” Connie started yelling in the background of the phone, drowning out Jean’s words, and I laughed when Jean held the phone away and yelled back, embarrassed: “HEY I DIDN’T FUCKING KNOW YOU WERE AWAKE OK I --” “-- THIS IS HOW YOU REPAY ME FOR HELPING YOU BRO I’M OUT OF HERE--” “-- I THOUGHT YOU WERE ASLEEP --” “ -- YOUR PHONE SEX --” I laughed and put the phone down on the table, listening to them yelling at each other, enjoying Jean’s embarrassment, silently relieved. We had our own couch. We had our own bed.


I ended up taking the rest of his clothes, his books and movies and games, some of the stuff his grandparents had given him... and an easel, along with a small hoard of painting supplies he had kept from college. All of our stuff fit in my car, and I don’t think either of us wanted to come back for anything else. My next stop was the station to see Reiner. Jean had already started figuring out his transfer up to the force with Sasha, and with no useable evidence or leads from the break-ins, there was nothing we could do about the investigation anymore. I just wanted to shake Reiner’s hand. I drove around the city for a while after that, until I realized with a jolt that it was already October. This time last year... I finally pulled over in front of the flower shop. My name was still on the front window, but it looked different; it wasn’t really mine anymore. Erwin had kept the front decorated for the season, and when I stepped inside the whole place was military clean. No dirt in the aisles or pennies on the floor. Erwin was behind the counter, and I saw Levi next to him, sitting in the office chair behind the work space the way Jean used to. That was enough for me. It made me certain. When I offered to sell him the shop, Erwin’s thick eyebrows raised so high I thought they would disappear into his blonde hair. I would have sold it to him for whatever he had in his pocket, but Levi insisted on brokering the deal, figuring out the shop’s worth and buying it properly. As long as we could do it online over the phone, I didn’t mind.


Every time a customer walked into the shop while I talked to them, the bells would clang together on the front door. And every time I would unconsciously, instinctively look up to see if it was Jean walking in. I had to keep reminding myself about Vermont. That it was real. As I was leaving, my aprons and a box of my paperwork and personal stuff from the back office in my arms, Erwin caught up with me and offered me a housewarming gift: one of the small potted wisteria plants he still had around from the delivery we took in July. He had cut them back for me a few months ago, the way I had explained to him when he called me at the hospital. “The flowers just started growing back,” was all Erwin said. And he was right, the vine twisting delicately from the root had begun to blossom, the buds soft purple with white and yellow throats. I rode the rest of the way back to Vermont with the little plant tucked safely in on the passenger seat. It was bittersweet. It was happiness. It was a cynical voice in my head, wondering if at some point I was going to wake up from this dream. But we had been through enough, good and bad, that I knew it was real. When I finally got back to our new apartment, the windows on the second floor were wide open and all the lights were on; I could see from here the painter’s tape still up, lining the ceiling, and the fresh white primer on the walls. I took my box of paperwork from the shop and the little plant out of my car, but left the rest for later. I even liked the sound of the keys in the doors of this place. I liked the sound of


the stairs creaking under my feet. When I opened the door to the apartment, the smell of paint and new furniture and tomato sauce hit me. “Hello!” I called out, and my voice echoed down the hall. I kicked my shoes off and leaned into the doorway of the living room, noticing the couch we’d bought the other day sitting in the very center of the room, away from the wet walls. I put the box of paperwork and the wisteria on the floor and sat down, sinking into it exactly the way I’d liked at the store. This thing was the most buttfriendly chair I had ever had the pleasure of sitting upon, but I’d never been able to afford much more than a futon from Walmart before. Simple minds, simple pleasures. It was awesome. I heard his footsteps coming down the hall, and Jean appeared in the doorway. His Punisher t-shirt and his cargo shorts were streaked with white paint. He leaned against the doorjamb and crossed his arms over his chest, his smile unnerving and... proud. “You’re making dinner, aren’t you?” I said, a little concerned. “Hey, shut up.” Jean was determined. “Sasha taught me how to do it, it’s going to be good.” I leaned back and put my arm along the back of the couch, and Jean plopped down beside me, peeling his socks off his feet, which I noticed were streaked with paint too. “Don’t you dare,” I told him, my voice low. Jean glanced sideways at me, the edge of his mouth tugging into an evil smirk.


He flung one sock, then the other, in a totally random direction. I groaned, but he just laughed, drawing his legs onto the couch and lying on his back so his head was in my lap. “I’m just preserving the sanctity of this rad couch,” he said reasonably. “The cause of death in my obituary is going to be ‘tripped over lazy boyfriend’s randomly abandoned socks,’” I told him wryly, stroking his hair. “You’ve got paint on your forehead.” “We got a lot done today,” Jean replied. “Connie got the living room and the bathroom painted, and I finished the bedrooms. And I got the rest of our shit out of Sasha’s house, so we’re technically officially moved in.” “And you’re making dinner.” We were silent for a long while, looking at each other. “Am I fucking crazy,” Jean said slowly, “or does this not feel real?” “It’s all a dream,” I chuckled. “Dating Inception. Real Estate Inception. Vermontception.” He snorted. “Erwin gave us a plant,” I added, nodding towards the little pot on the floor. Jean glanced at it, then looked up at me. “We have a plant,” he said with raised eyebrows.


“Mhmm.” “We have a couch. We have a mattress. We have an apartment.” “Mhmm.” “Are you happy?” he asked me softly. “I’m very happy.” I wiped the hair off his forehead. “Are you happy?” Jean closed his eyes. “Finally.” A sharp, blaring alarm cut right through the quiet moment, scaring the hell out of both of us. It kept going, and we looked at each other. “What the fuck?!” Jean yelled, “Is that--” “I think it’s a fire alarm!” I yelled back. “I didn’t know we had a fire alarm!” “SHIT.” Jean scrambled off the couch and ran for the doorway, tripping over his own socks. “The fucking dinner--” he called over his shoulder. I followed him into the kitchen, smoke rising in the hallway. I couldn’t stop laughing. And that was enough for me.

Epilogue


- 5 Years Later I woke up in my bed alone. The room was dim and golden with the early morning light. Very early. Too early. I groaned and tried to sink deeper into the mess of pillows and comforter and thick woven blankets. It was quiet, so quiet, not even the sound of the December tourist traffic outside yet... Too quiet. And the blankets on the empty side of the bed were pulled up and somewhat neat. I knew exactly what had happened. It took me a few minutes to make myself wake up. Vigorously rubbing my eyes, stretching until my joints cracked, letting out a groan from the soreness, twisting the wedding ring back on my finger where it had loosened while I slept. I was in the middle of psyching myself into getting up, wondering exactly how many milliseconds it was going to take me to get out of bed and pull on a sweatshirt and thick sweat pants over my boxers. It was always freezing in the morning. Then I heard him, the sound of his bare feet padding along the hallway, and his voice a low, soothing hum. “Alexandra,” I heard him sing softly over and over. “Ally, Ally, my Alexandra.” Jean pushed the bedroom door open with his toes, his hands full cradling the baby girl to his shoulder. He leaned his cheek on the crown of her head, where the softest downy dark hair was tousled from sleep. “Hey,” I said sleepily.


“Daddy’s awake,” Jean murmured to my daughter. He sat down in bed and slid under the blankets next to me, moving slowly, still trying to lull her to sleep. But I could already see Alex’s eyes wide open, settling brightly on me. “Yeah he is,” I said with a smile, sitting up. “Merry Christmas, my loves.” “Mmm. I forgot,” Jean mumbled, sinking down into the pillows. He held Alex on his chest, and she was still too young to sit up by herself, so her chubby cheek pressed against his t-shirt and her rosebud mouth was an O. Her watchful eyes never left me. I tugged gently on her onesie. “We didn’t forget though, did we, honey? We got Dad a hair dye kit since his hair is going grey because you’re so cute, huh? Yeah we did.” Jean shot me a drowsy dirty look. “It is not.” I leaned over and kissed him softly. “Stay here.” He complied, letting his eyes slide closed, his thumb rubbing, rhythmic and soothing, across his daughter’s back. I pulled my warm clothes on and couldn’t take my eyes off of them. When I got back from the kitchen with a haul of christmas presents and two mugs of fresh coffee balanced in my arms, Jean had sat up again, and Alex was lying in his lap, gurgling happily and reaching up for his fingers when he tickled her.


“Christmas presents, little thing! Christmas presents!” He told her in a silly voice. I put down the coffee mugs and spilled the presents across the end of the bed before climbing back in with the two of them. Softest bed. So early in the morning. Ugh. “You think she’d notice if we went back to sleep?” I said. Jean swallowed a big gulp of coffee and shook his head. “It’s her first Christmas.” I leaned over and kissed Alex on the forehead. “She’s six months old, she’s not gonna remember...” “This is our first Christmas as a family,” Jean grumbled, “so shut up and look happy.” I ran a hand over his short hair. “Hmm, are those grey hairs I see?” Despite himself, he smiled. We had developed a tradition with christmas presents, nothing big, nothing expensive, not too much, just stupid things, but that had changed with Alexandra. I didn’t think two relatively rugged and masculine dudes could get this excited about toys for a baby girl, but Jean gasped and crooned to her whenever he unwrapped a gift and held it out for her to touch with her tiny hands. They grabbed onto everything she could reach, like starfish. Seeing the two of them made me laugh. Jean gave me a watch, because mine had broken a few weeks ago while I was


working in the shop. I still had the thing in a drawer downstairs, intent on trying to figure out a way to get it fixed... He’d found the exact same one for me. It was perfect. I gave him a legitimate, official New York Yankees jersey, since he’d started watching games with Connie this year, and I always teased him about not noticing the Yankees until after he’d moved out of New York. Also, I told him I had a big thing for baseball players. As soon as he opened it and saw what it was, Jean yanked his t-shirt off and put the jersey on, giving me that rogue grin of his. The scars on his chest were only faded now, a few shades lighter than his skin. We slumped back against the pillows together, shoulder to shoulder, and watched Alex playing with one of the ribbons off the presents. “We should have just gotten her a bag of those,” I mumbled to him. “Mmm.” Jean rested his head on my shoulder. “Too much excitement for her to handle. She would have woken up even earlier.” “Thank you for getting her this morning.” “Mmm.” “Do you want to go back to sleep?” I murmured into his hair. Jean whimpered. He was already passed out by the time I’d gotten out of bed and scooped Alex


out of his lap. He was still sitting up, his head tipped back against the headboard of our bed, snoring softly and still wearing his baseball jersey. I carried my daughter into the kitchen and settled her in the high chair, moving drowsily around the cabinets and getting her breakfast, some mashed baby jar concoction with a strange color and fruity smell. This week it was the only one that she would eat, so whatever it took. I loved feeding her. I loved how whenever she was about to cry, I swear to God, she made the same grumpy face as Jean. I loved how she smeared her mashed peas and pureed bananas all over everything, and then looked up at me with those big eyes. She was ours from the hour she was born. She might have started as someone else’s, but Alexandra was ours. My morning progressed as it usually did, with the small exception of the shop: since it was the holiday I left it closed, but the front door was unlocked for when Sasha and Connie a few other friends came over later. Regardless, me and this little girl had a good thing going; I didn’t want to call it a routine, because whenever Jean tried to use the ‘r’ word, Ally would rebel. But that’s what we had; she was always either with me in the shop during the day, or upstairs taking a nap, and I kept the baby monitor in the pocket of my apron. I fed her and then put her under the hanging toys of her play-mat, usually in the living room but this time in the kitchen, so I could make myself breakfast and start getting ready to cook dinner for later tonight. I let Jean sleep as long as he could, since he’d gotten home late from a shift at the station last night so he could have Christmas off. This meant trying my best to make sure Ally didn’t start crying; he always woke up when she cried, no matter what.


The phrase ‘overprotective father’ didn’t even begin to cover all the apologies I was going to be making sixteen years from now, when some poor high school kid would come to pick her up for a school dance or something, and Officer Kirschtein would open the door. It was almost noon when I stood at the kitchen counter peeling vegetables and I felt his chin on my shoulder, his arms round me from behind. “Hello, sir,” I said. “Are you alive?” “Alive? Yes,” Jean said. “Alive enough to be Christmas-y? Almost.” “Tell that to your monster, I gave her that bow to play with again and she tried to put it in her mouth.” He snickered to himself and let go of me, heading toward her on the floor and sitting down cross-legged. He didn’t get to see her very often during the day like this because of the force, so he took full advantage. “Are you trying to eat Christmas?” he quizzed her, smiling. “Did you eat Christmas, Ally baby?” Alex kicked her legs and babbled at him. “That’s my girl. Grinch for life.” Jean sat on the floor and played with her until she started to get tired, then scooped her up and declared it nap time. I followed him down the hall when he went to go put her down and went into our bedroom, sifting through piles of clean laundry I couldn’t be bothered to put away. I decided on a sweater he had bought me our first Christmas together -- when we had just moved up


here, and the shop was brand new, and we were still sleeping on a mattress on the floor, and we didn’t do very much sleeping. “You wear that every year,” Jean said from the doorway. I looked up at him, still pulling it over my head. “Hmm?” “You wear that sweater every year on Christmas since I got it for you.” I looked down at it, then up at him. “I never even noticed.” He smiled at me with that knowing, determined expression in his eyes and slipped out of the doorway. I didn’t question it, just got dressed and went back to cooking. Jean wandered in and out of the kitchen while I worked. He cleaned and set the dining table up, he left the cheesy Christmas movies on the television in the living room. Every time he passed me, he touched me: running his hand along my shoulders or my back or down my arm as he passed, an almost unconscious movement. I responded with handing him things as he went, a piece of bacon, a spoonful of stuffing, a glass of wine. We were made up of these little moments now. It was 3 o’clock before I realized he was still walking around in his boxers and the baseball jersey. “Sasha and Connie are coming in fifteen minutes,” I laughed. Jean looked up, then looked down at himself. “Oh shit.” “And remember not to swear. Sasha will kill you if both of her kids’ first words


are ‘fuck.’” “That is definitely not my fault,” he called as he disappeared into the bedroom to change. It definitely was his fault, but that was ok. We had both accepted that it would probably be Alexandra’s first word, too. So it goes. When the doorbell rang downstairs half an hour later, Jean emerged from the bedroom fully dressed to go answer it, and I noticed he was still wearing his jersey. Sasha and Connie were always a smiling, slightly exhausted pile of kid stuff nowadays. Their son Henry was almost five now, and I couldn’t tell who liked all his plastic dinosaurs and action figures and video games more: Henry, or his dad. As for Sasha, she had her girl, and two year old Maya was an exact replica of her and always holding onto her mother in some way. She was the cutest thing ever. Sasha kissed my cheek hello when they came into the apartment, Maya hiding her face shyly in her mother’s hair, Henry bounding up the stairs with a fuzzy Chewbacca toy in his hands, Connie practically yelling about how cool Jean’s shirt was. I heard Alex wake up and start to cry in the nursery. “Merry Christmas, dearest Marco,” Sasha said warmly, putting Maya down on one of the chairs at the dining table. “I’ll go get her. Where’s my Alexandra, queen of the ancients?” She asked as she disappeared into the hall, heading for the nursery.


“There she is!” I heard her say. “You’re so big!” Our christmases were always like this. It was different every year, especially with Alex now, but they were always the same. It was home, and it was my closest friends, and it was Jean, happy and comfortable and unconsciously twisting his wedding ring on his finger when he was thinking about something. He did it when he sat down at the head of the dining table, Connie having gone off to put Maya down for a nap and Sasha in the living room with Henry and Alex. I glanced at him over my shoulder and noticed him, twisting it over and over, his expression far away. I caught his attention. “Come here, baby. Help me cut this.” When Jean looked up, I motioned to the turkey I’d taken out of the oven. He came over to me, rolling his shoulders until they cracked. I handed him the carving knife and fork, and he set to work. I knew exactly what he was thinking about. The afternoon a hundred years ago, or maybe only six years ago, when we’d sat in Jean’s apartment with Sasha under very different circumstances. When he couldn’t give me anything except painful, desperate kisses and holding my hand under a tablecloth. When I had looked at him carving a different turkey at a different Christmas dinner in a relationship with a different person, and I had the first glimpse of what we could be. The skinny, punk-ass kid I’d met in college who, in that moment, started being the person I wanted to be my husband. Me and him, moving around each other in our own space, together, happy.


Jean reached around behind me and stole an oven glove off the counter to move the pot the turkey sat in. “You think about it every Christmas,” I said to him, “don’t you?” He glanced sideways at me, then nodded, his eyes on the turkey. I let him be silent. We worked next to each other. “It was the first time,” Jean said quietly after a while, “that I looked at you and saw how really, really stupid I was. For letting it all slip away so goddamned easy.” “Pretty stupid,” I smiled slightly. “I know.” He put the knife and fork down and turned towards me. “So I think about it every year, and I make myself madder and madder, and then I’m thankful that you kicked my ass into gear. And then I kiss you like this.” Jean surprised me when he turned my face toward him with his finger and kissed me. I was breathless when he pulled away. “You kiss me like that every day,” I pointed out softly. “I know,” Jean replied, picking the knife back up. “I’m always gonna kiss you like that. Every day.” We went back to making dinner together in comfortable silence.



Wisteria