by Lichen Craig
The first time I see him, he is laughing loudly. Too loudly. His laugh bubbles up from the river into the aspens above. He is amongst a raucous group of young males, soaking themselves near the riverbank in a patch of sun. That kind of laughter that only adolescent men engage in – that is designed to posture virility, to advertise presence, maybe to intimidate. One can imagine the same behavior thousands of years past – generations of adults annoyed at that same sound. The boys sit in a circle in the shallow water, occasionally splashing each other, talking over each other. His skin glistens under the waning evening sun of the late August mountain summer. He lies back against one of the boulders that rings the soaking spot next to mine in the river. Long strands of black hair stick to his face and neck, jaggedly cut to make some fashion statement. He has a slow, easy, teasing grin that he frequently uses to communicate to his companions. One hank of hair toward the front is dyed royal blue. An earring glints from the lobe of his ear. I watch the curve of his mouth every time he smiles – it is always a surprise, the unique beauty of the curve; his teeth are even and white.
Soon we’ll all be in shadow, we bathers at the warm springs at Buena Vista – the high mountain peaks behind us will block the remaining day’s sunlight. I consider almost subconsciously, my glance caressing his shoulders and hairless chest, that he won’t likely grow cold as the light falls – it falls terrifically fast behind the mountain peaks at this altitude – because the heat of the natural mineral pool will keep him warm into the darkness, as will the heat of the one in which I concurrently bask keep me warm. His skin won’t ripple with goose bumps, his tiny, dark rosy nipples won’t grow hard. I feel a flush creep up my neck as I avert my gaze and close my eyes, trying to block out the newest clamor of guffaws born of some low-spoken inanity.
Too much testosterone, nowhere to channel it. I remember. I remember that. But I had been too timid to engage in such public play. I had kept it to myself, kept myself hidden away. And in my case, there had been nowhere acceptable to put the testosterone surge of my teens – not until I left home and grew up a little. Or maybe that was the other way around. For the millionth time in the last five years, I feel a flash of regret that I didn’t have any casual sex as a teenager; my only experience has been a few brief but meaningless attempted courtships, and one three-year-long relationship that ended badly. I live like a coward, I know it now at this moment, listening to the sound of these young, braver boys. Life is rushing at me like a freight train, relentless, mocking, willing me to live harder, to stop mucking around with safety.
I am content but not joyous; I am traveling alone but not lonely yet. My small house in the mountain town of Frisco is a haven now – my lover having left me. Or I made him leave me. At any rate the haven is all mine now, waiting in complete calm for my return from my weekend at the springs. It is filled with my books, my music, no more drama. Although I removed my own paintings from the walls long ago – a move meant to make a concession to Chad – I have taken some of my favorite pieces from my gallery and decorated to feed my spirit. I have made it mine – my place in the tiny corner of the world in which I have come to feel safe. There is a river rock fireplace. There are vintage snowshoes hanging on the wall alongside a beaver pelt. The furniture is made of pine logs, heavy, masculine. There is a covered porch where I stand in the morning and look up at the mountain peaks and drink coffee. I frequently have the sensation that my days are spent waiting for something to happen. I have been waiting for fourteen years now.
Now, I feel the bubble of the springs against my bare thighs, a warm whisper. The tension of the week has long since melted from my limbs and floated down the river, down the mountain, away for good. I have come here perhaps a dozen times over the past three months. To sit in these medicinal springs and think – some say they heal: that is a centuries-old rumor that the Indians began. I come here to think about things that maybe I should have thought about a long time ago. Although at this point, after three months, I still have no idea what those things might be. I hold on to hope that these little trips are healing me in some small way. Here, no one knows me or anything about my life. There are no items to sell, no tourists to greet, no inventory to build, no bills. Sometimes I imagine that I could pretend to be anything here. The woman that runs the gift shop in which they sell Colorado-specific trinkets and crafts made of mountain deadwood, aspen leaves, pinecones and rocks, is gray-haired and warm. She calls me “honey”. The guys that take my money at the entrance to the springs are chatty. Their gazes don’t linger over me too long, their voices betray no mistrust. They don’t know me, and so I behave as if I am someone who knows what he is about. Sometimes I pretend I am someone else. Someone who has a big career, who has goals. Someone who has another person waiting for him somewhere. Someone with drive, talent. Someone with nothing to hide, no bad memories, no albatrosses. Someone straight, perhaps.
The pool area is silent as I pad past on my way to the locker room, past the desk just inside the doorway, where the ticket takers have already gone about closing the place down for the night. I must have fallen asleep in the water for longer than I thought. There are no more laughing boys now, no more mothers with children in tow, no more romantic couples, just a quiet conversation from somewhere down the hallway toward the office. Inside the locker room I pull off my wet trunks, avoiding the mirrors. I grab soap and shampoo from my bag, and walk to the showers, glad that I have them to myself. The large teal-tiled room is empty – I have my pick of the ten shower heads, and I laugh to myself like a little kid giddy with the treat of choosing. I pick the one right in the middle on the left wall: the middle because no one is here to see me and I feel like hogging the place, and the left because I’m not the norm – it feels like some comfortable, defiant symbol of my displacement, the way I used to brag that I was left-handed when I was at art school. I lean against the wall and close my eyes as I rest my head on my arm. I feel warm rivulets run between my shoulder blades, to the small of my back, and down over my buttocks. The tile is cool under my feet.
I feel a presence before I open my eyes; I’m startled. The boy with the blue hair is there, invading my claim to space, stepping into a shower at the far end, two down from me. He tests the water with one hand and steps backward into it – a body that is hard, lithe and lean with extreme youth – and looks across the room at me. It isn’t the brief glance that etiquette would require of nude strangers in a shower room – it is a penetrating, lingering look. Perhaps he is too young to know better, I decide. The look invades my eyes, sweeps over my face, down my torso and beyond. I turn my back to him and pretend to concentrate on opening the shampoo bottle. I feel myself bristle. He’s either very stupid, or dangerous. After a time, he doesn’t speak, and I hear him shifting in the shower, soaping. He has turned his attention away from me. So I begin to breathe evenly again. I rinse the remainder of my soap off, and turn to lean my head into the stream of water to wash out the last of the shampoo.
When I open my eyes, he is padding toward me, his footfalls making a slop slop sound. I freeze. He is slow, deliberate, and almost smiling but not quite. His pantheresque stride is a product of the long lines of youth and perhaps an inherent grace. My heart races and I have a thought that a person can’t carry a hidden weapon when they are nude. I stare at the pendant hanging from his neck by a black cord – a patina-darkened feather. When he stops I force myself to meet his gaze. He stands a few feet from me. He is just a couple of inches shorter than I am. He looks into my eyes for several moments, as if he expects me to answer an unspoken question. I wonder suddenly if he might be high or something. His eyes are gray, transparent, bottomless and clear. The rim of dark lashes that surrounds them – and now I notice a touch of black eyeliner, smudged by the shower – gives them a supernatural quality under the glaring light of the shower room. Startling. Enticing. There is some evidence of adolescent beard growth, an uneven darkening over his jaw, shaved away hours ago. He slowly lifts a hand and traces a finger down my right arm, pulling beads of water down to my wrist. I watch it and hold my breath. His fingernails are painted metallic navy blue. My brain is screaming He’s a kid, you fool – what are you staring at? Tell him to back off! But my eyes are riveted to his fingers as they encircle and caress my wrist, and I don’t think fast enough to step away from his reach, before he has turned and walked calmly away, out of the shower room toward the lockers. I watch the lean muscle of his butt and long legs work as he walks, glance at the water dripping from his jet hair onto the nape of his neck, making a thin stream down his back.
I stand there stupidly, my showerhead still running, the only sound. I realize I’m hard and I feel a hot rush of blood race into my face, embarrassed at myself. The tiles of the floor are cold under my feet and I shiver, but my cock stays hard. It’s just me here, alone with the sound of water from the shower as it echoes off the tile walls. I take a few moments to make a decision, thinking that he is waiting in the locker room for . . . for what? An anonymous quickie? I’m not the type. I never have been. I’m odd that way – a gay who’s into romance. He’s a child. I haven’t been flirted with for a long time. After five minutes, I finally will my erection down, turn off the shower and head for the locker room. I find it empty. He is already gone.
Outside, I listen to my sandals on the gravel of the dark parking lot. All is silent save the occasional cries of nighthawks and bats. The air is cool and smells like pine and river. In the dark I can hear the aspens shaking in the breeze. There is no streetlamp here, only the light of the moon. I wish I had left a light on in my guest cabin, but I didn’t; I glance around me as I walk. By the time I reach the steps of the porch, I wonder if the boy has been a hallucination, or a ghost. Born of my . . . no, I was about to say loneliness. But I am not lonely. Being alone and being lonely are different things, right? The creaking of the porch steps is loud compared to the quiet around me. There is no noise from the main lodge now, nor from the other five outdoor cabins, just an orange glow in one window in the last one.
I am alone. And I’m fine with it. I needed a break after the likes of Chad anyway. A break. And I have found just that, in the past five months. There is a good book waiting for me inside the cabin, and a quilt-laden bed. I fumble to find the lock with the tip of the key, and drop it. Shit. My hand runs across the rough boarding on the floor of the porch and finally falls upon the key, and I rise and hold it tighter, determined, until at last it slides into the lock.
Suddenly, I feel a hand on my back, and when I turn around he puts his hands on me and backs me into the room and closes the door behind him. I am dumbfounded. Dumb. He pushes me against the door – not roughly, just insistent. He is totally without shame. Without fear. That is something I have never been, even for one day – without fear. He doesn’t speak. He moans as he kisses me and it sounds like youth. His lips slide over mine like they have a right to. In the dark, it is all surreal. His heat, his hand pressing my crotch, his mouth chewing mine, is all surreal. His lower lip is full and he drags it over my mouth and goes after me again. I wonder if it can rub off on me – this fearlessness he possesses, his boldness – if I can drink it in with his kisses.
I don’t do things like this. This is what I am thinking as he drops to his knees and puts his open warm mouth over the front of my khakis. By the time he is pulling them down to my knees, my head is reeling and I am twining his silky long black and blue hair into my hands. Reason has left me.
He lies in my arms in the dark, snuggling against me as if he belongs there. I feel someone’s underwear wrapped around my toe. His hair tickles my face. I trace his earlobe with my lips and kiss it. He smells like sagebrush and cedar wood, and maybe dark chocolate.
“How old are you?” I ask. I try for a tone that is firm, but my voice gets caught in my throat as I breathe him in, and sounds softer than I intended. So I add, “Tell me the truth.”
“Old enough.” I hear him laugh low in his chest. Cocky little prick.
“Yeah, that’s obvious.” I restate it, my tone firmer, “How old are you?” I mean business.
“Seventeen. And a half. I’m legal.” He laughs again, out loud.
“Barely.” I have to take him down a notch. I feel justified. Paternal.
He is silent, the room reverberates with his smile. I feel his fingertips stroke the back of my neck, tangling in my hair. They touch me with a confidence beyond seventeen; I can’t figure out whether that pisses me off or not. His breath is warm on my collarbone. He says, “How old are you?”
“Twenty-eight.” Thank God I’m not thirty-eight. I feel old nowadays.
“You’re beautiful,” he says, and turns his head to softly bite my lip and slip his tongue into my mouth.
I never dream the ending. It always stops in the middle – or what I have a vague sense is the middle – somewhere in my psyche is a nagging thought that there is more. A lot more. And within the dream I am aware that I am dreaming the nightmare, and I will the end to be different. But the end never comes anyway. There is never any satisfaction. Even all these years later.
In it, I watch a boy running. His fourteen-year-old body is screaming with adrenaline as he pushes and scratches and tears his way through foliage in the dark. He can’t see the forest floor and he hopes that a fallen log won’t trip him and slow his desperate flight, or worse, end it. He is momentarily amazed that his bare soles aren’t feeling the twigs that are surely embedded in them by now. He feels the skin ripple on his back, anticipating his pursuers overcoming him. As he has been taught in the fourteen years he has walked the earth, he silently yells up to an invisible god in the sky for help, for luck, for a miracle, for anything that will get him out of this moment. He hears the chirping of frogs and wonders how they can keep chirping as if all is as peaceful as it is every night, when this night he is running for his life – his careening thoughts come so loud, surely even frogs can hear them. As he runs he feels cool breeze against the sweat standing out on his bare chest and is grateful for its touch. He flinches as random branches whip angrily against his face while he moves, and he wills himself not to feel the pain. The scratches and welts and slashes that will be found later will be nothing compared to those already inflicted by intentional hands, and he can’t consider those either because his young mind can’t comprehend those injuries – he had not been able to comprehend, even as they were being married to his flesh.
What is it Robert Frost had said – the poem they had read in English class just three days ago? The woods are lovely, dark and deep . . . The woods never seemed ominous until now; he had loved them until now. Hours spent in childhood – building fantasy forts, climbing granite boulders to gaze down upon Graystone, fording creeks, quietly trekking Indian trails, hiding from imaginary foes – they have all lost their charm forever, from this night. He has never known true terror in his young life, until this night. When he begins to stumble with every other step, he knows he can run no further. So he stops to lean an arm against a wide wall of oaken bark, and rests his forehead and listens to his heart pound. Every breath he drags into his lungs is excruciating. He thinks of the boy Pheidippides, who collapsed and died for having run too fast, too long. And Pheidippides wasn’t running for fear. He wonders if his heart might explode.
But the respite is only a few seconds long, and then he hears them coming. He can’t place the direction – in the dark of the night and the thick of the trees, the laughter and shouting seems to come from every direction. He strains to make out words that he knows are about him. As if it matters what the words are. Then he pushes his legs to run again, promising himself that the edge of the woods and the highway – and civilization where a passing car might see him and help – is inevitable, if he just runs fast enough. But always – when he reaches the highway – before him is Quandary Bridge, and the river below is black and churning and strangely enticing, as if there are arms reaching up and pulling him down, down. And it is then that he wakes panting, sweat-drenched, terrified, and feeling foolish and confused.
When I awaken the following morning, the bed sheets are in disarray, the only evidence that anyone was ever there with me. As I dress I fight opposing feelings: horrified that I stooped so low I had sex with a teenager, and kind of proud of myself that I let myself go and did something so outrageous without worrying about it until morning. At any rate, it is over. It was far from unpleasant for me, and I had repeatedly gotten the message while we were together that he was having a good time. So what does it matter? It’s over. He got what he wanted, and I got . . . something.
As is my habit, I set out for an early and very ambitious hike on a little-used trail. It’s unsettlingly isolated – something I choose to ignore before I set out upon a particular trail, and as I listen to the soft crunch of pine cones beneath my feet I wish I had a dog with me. I used to have one, before Chad, and I feel vulnerable in the deep forest without one. But the air is clear and cleaner than it is even two thousand feet lower, and because the red squirrels scream at me as I walk by, and the chipmunks scatter, I feel content. I grow calmer gradually as I walk, as I always do. By the time I drive my Jeep into the parking lot at the lodge it is early evening.
Inside my cabin, a cool shower makes me hungry. I am tying my second sneaker, when there is a tap on the door. My first thought is that something is wrong, and my mind races to think of what it could be as I cross the floor to the door, expecting to see the manager’s face. But I open the door to see the blue-haired boy’s transparent eyes, eyeliner freshly applied. He wears a half-smile. His hands are shoved into the pockets of his fashionably bleached and slightly torn jeans. He probably paid a fortune to buy them like that, I observe. He says, “I wanted to give you time to shower. You want to go eat? We could go into town, get some Mexican.” Just like that, like he knows my name.
“I don’t even know your name.” I offer no trace of humor in the statement.
“Ryf.” (He says it like “Riff”.) He offers his hand in jest. I ignore it. He smiles and drops it. “Ryf.”
“What kind of name is that?”
“It’s a name. It’s my name. R. Y. F.” He doesn’t break his gaze into my eyes. “It’s just dinner. Relax. I’m not asking you to fuck me or something.” He laughs. “We’re both up here alone, right?”
I stand with my hand on the door latch, staring at him, thinking how amazing it is that he is so pretty and I actually slept with him. Like that fantasy boyfriend I had at twelve. But now of course, I’m not twelve. He blinks and says, “So what’s your name anyway?”
I soften slightly. “James . . . Okay.” I turn away slowly, leaving the door ajar. “I need to get my . . . wallet.”
He drives, against my better judgment. But he insists. It’s a practical car, compact, well-maintained. Probably inexpensive, second-hand. As he drives, he chats about the mountains, the weather, his friends at the river yesterday. I comment that he is rather young to be staying alone up here at the lodge. He laughs a dismissal and says he tends to be independent, that they are used to him here, that he has been coming alone since he learned to drive. There is classic rock rumbling from the CD player; I like that kind of music and it relaxes me. I am slightly sorry when he turns it down so that I can hear him talk. But I like the sound of his voice – smooth, sweet, never close to baritone. He is intelligent, he doesn’t babble. I am rapt, in spite of myself.
Over dinner he asks a lot of questions: where I live, what I do and why. I fidget and order a second margarita. I have chosen to drink knowing that he can’t, deliberately: but I figure if he wants to play this game, he needs to suffer the consequences. I find several roundabout statements that reveal a little of my life as the owner of an art gallery in a tourist town. I like living in the mountains, I say. I like the tourists, the excitement they exude when they are on vacation, I tell him. I like surrounding myself with other people’s art. He says, “So . . . is any of the art yours?”
“Nope. Not any more.” I take a sip. A long one.
“I grew up. Need to pay the bills. Other people have more talent.” He is quiet and I know that he knows I’m lying. But he drops it.
Once, I had a good friend – Vincent – who at the age of thirty-one took up with a nineteen-year-old girl. She was flighty, silly, often rude. Occasionally vulgar. She used to bend over and flash her ass out the car window at strangers. She didn’t even need to be drunk. She thought it was humorous. She was really beautiful and completely uneducated. Devoid of talent. Her one talent was picking up strays and taking advantage of them. Strays like Vincent.
Vince was physically beautiful, sophisticated, gentle-hearted, classy, and under-confident with women. He was inexperienced with girls despite his age, due to a series of health problems and life crises. After that, he had been busy building a career and forgot to date; by the time he remembered, he was inexperienced and awkward around real women. So he began to date them significantly younger. You know, the ones who wouldn’t blink at his bumbling, who wouldn’t know better when he dominated the conversation – or the relationship. The presumption with which he inflicted her on the rest of us began to grate at my nerves. He didn’t seem to care that we knew he was an ass without a backbone. A few people said, “Well. . .there must be something good he sees in her.” At one time his propensity to see something good in everyone had been charming. Now it just seemed idiotic.
At a party, she picked at the olive in her drink (she wasn’t old enough to drink of course, but the bartender had served her because like most men he wanted to get into her panties) and asked me – within earshot of the seven people sharing our table – why I didn’t have a girlfriend. I looked her in the eye and told her I had a boyfriend. (It was a lie, since Chad had left town two weeks earlier.) She blinked her vacant big brown eyes a few times, popped the gin-soaked olive between her childishly plump lips, and proclaimed, “Oh. I totally love the gays. I think sometimes I’m probably bisexual myself. Some chicks are hot.” Vincent’s eyes widened at this, and I inwardly guffawed.
After eight years of friendship, I walked away from Vincent. I had fought my urge to judge him, but I had finally put my finger on it: what made me so mad. No, mad isn’t the word – it made me nauseous, first when I saw them together and then later even when I merely heard her name. (How much must you hate someone to not even be able to tolerate her name?) It was the fact that he cheated himself, that he gave up. That he could have had someone who was a real companion, someone he could talk to, someone with similar life experience, similar maturity. A soul mate. But he gave up. He settled for a bubble-brained vagina instead, and expected people to turn a blind eye – or ear, given her indiscreet mouth. I had finally had enough. I never told him why. I just stopped returning his calls. I suspected many of his friends did the same. The firm set to his mom’s mouth in photos where she had to pose beside the girl told me it wasn’t only his friends who were fed up.
Sometimes I feel guiltily irresponsible, that I didn’t drop a card to his mom before I disappeared from his life. But it seems too late now.
“Your name is . . . Torkelson? What?!” He is stumbling on the hiking trail, holding himself, doubled over in laughter. I frown at the exaggeration.
“It’s Swedish. It’s not that uncommon there, where I come from.”
I forge ahead, impatient with the irreverent display. He recovers and trots to catch up. He takes a swig of cold water from his canteen and offers it to me. “So Tork, tell me about where you come from.” I comment on the trees.
It has been three weeks now since we met: we have both returned on each of the three weekends after, without having spoken openly about our plans. I spend my weekdays at the gallery trying not to think about him, trying not to forget the scent of his skin, trying to recall the exact timber of his voice, hoping my face doesn’t reveal to tourists my secret. My part-time help – my friend Avra – wonders why I am suddenly asking her to work all the weekends. “Don’t tell me you met someone. Jamie, did you meet someone?” I blush, I don’t answer. She laughs, “Oh my god. Tell me!”
I keep mum. I hope I don’t offend her, but what am I going to say? “I have been banging a seventeen-year-old eccentric free spirit that I met in a public shower. But damn, he’s gorgeous.”
We spend our days together hiking, biking, and bathing in the hot springs. I read him poetry and he listens to it. He tells me about the microbes in the river and the bacteria on the shower room floor – something I find frighteningly disgusting but he finds infinitely fascinating. He says he is going to study microbiology in more depth when he goes to college next year. One night late, we are the last ones out of the river, the last in the showers. It is quiet, the way it was on that first night we met. Under the shower, Ryf holds me in his arms and kisses my mouth as the warm water streams over our faces and I wipe my eyes. I laugh and sputter because I can’t breathe.
Every night he stays in my cabin. He never asks; he just comes in when I do. Sometimes we crash into one another as soon as the cabin door closes, all eager hands and mouths. He is like a hurricane when he hits me full on – relentless, demanding I return his fervor in kind. He likes to back me against the wall, hold me down on the bed. Once he straddled me on the pine boards of the floor, rubbing against me, whispering, “Shut up” when I started to complain about the hardness of the floor, but he was smiling. He devours me: I am prey and I don’t care. Other nights he is tender with me, as if he is afraid that I am somehow fragile. He lies close to me and kisses my throat and shoulders, without words. My heart pounds in terror that he is supernatural and can see all my secrets all the time by just looking at me – all my past, all my cowardice.
His eyes rove over me slowly when we are alone, his pupils dilated and softly expressing wonder. He undresses me and places his hands flat on my skin to smooth them over my body and he doesn’t pause or apologize when he brushes someplace intimate, but stops to caress me more fully. I marvel that he never becomes bored, or disappointed. He seems to savor me. He tells me that my hair catches red in the sun, that I will grow even more handsome with age. He teases that I must have turned the heads of the girls in school (I’m sure I didn’t) and a few of the boys (did I?). His mouth travels over my skin, here to there, slowly for hours – his lips whispering against me things I can’t hear, confidences, coaxing me to visit somewhere I’ve never been. He tells me that he never gets tired of hearing me laugh and wishes I would do it more often. He declares it his mission, to see to it that I do. That he – this brave, beautiful creature – finds beauty in me is astounding to me, and I am humbled. It ties my belly in knots, and if I think about it too long or too deeply I break out in a terrified sweat.
As we ride, he removes his boots, leans back in the seat of my Jeep and puts his feet out the window, wiggling his toes in the wind. He pulls his hat over his eyes and sings loud to the songs on the CD while his toes cool. When we are hiking he likes to strip and dip into a cold stream. He tilts his face up into the sun, closes his eyes and smiles to Heaven. I have the odd thought that God must adore him and his big open heart that basks joyously in all creation. He seems to revel equally in the warmth from the sky on his bare skin and the cold of the water. He yelps and gasps and grabs his shrinking penis, getting used to the cold as he lowers himself into the rush gleaming over the rocks. I say, “My God, Ryf, those other people weren’t that far behind us on the trail. Come on.”
He laughs and scolds me, “Get a life. If they want to look so bad, who cares? And get your skinny ass in here with me.”
Later he pushes me back so that I am lying flat on a boulder at the edge of the creek, and I feel my skin shiver as the sun begins to dry the droplets of water. The rock is hot under my back and butt – not quite hot enough to burn. My lower legs dangle in the freezing water. I close my eyes, becoming accustomed to the sense of being naked under the wide sky. I feel sleepy and content. The leaves shake in the trees around us, a Mountain Jay chatters. Ryf hums to himself, flips his wet hair back, and moves in the water around my knees; and then I feel his mouth close around my cock, warming it where it lay limp and small after the shock of the cold water.
Afterward, we stand alongside the creek and pull our clothes on, laughing. Suddenly I notice a fisherman a ways down the creek. He is standing high on a rock, tossing his line into the water and reeling it in slowly, again and again. I wonder how long he has been there; a hot flush creeps across my face. Ryf sees me notice the man, watches my thoughts churn, and grins at me. Later we pass the fisherman on the hiking trail and he tips his hat to us and averts his eyes.
Once, lying beside me in the dark, Ryf says, “I’ve never had a boyfriend. Not a real one.”
Thinking about his prowess at sex, I muse, “You seem to have had several.”
Ignoring me, he pursues, “Have you? I mean, have you had a serious relationship?”
I exhale slowly, “Yeah. Sure.”
“Three years. Two and a half years too much.” It’s out before I think, and I am hoping he doesn’t ask for explanation.
But he is quiet. I can hear his thoughts flying about the room in the dark. I hear an owl hoot somewhere outside. The breeze wafting through the screen is growing cooler and I pull the covers up over Ryf’s bared shoulder.
“How long ago was it?”
“You ask a lot of questions. I don’t know. I guess he le . . . we broke up about six months ago.” How was I to even attempt to explain the intricacies of an adult relationship – even a doomed, affectionless one – to this child?
“I’m serious, Tork. I’m a romantic. I end up always messing around with guys who want to just . . . mess around. They’re too young, maybe.”
I laugh out loud, my guffaw echoing off the ceiling. “Yeah, Ryf, they are all just too young for you.” I know I am tottering at the edge of meanness here, but I am envious of his ease with sexuality.
He rises onto an elbow and peers down into my face, smirking. The moonlight coming in through the window shines off his hair and the plane of his cheek. “I am not messing around here with you. I mean, I don’t know what you are thinking, but I want a boyfriend. And I want you.” Spoken like a forty-year-old.
I swallow hard, suddenly intimidated. “You hardly know me.”
“I hardly know you because you never tell me anything.” He sighs and flops back against the pillow. “You’re scared to talk to me about anything real.” We are silent for a few moments, and then he laughs, “Guess I will just have to wait for you to grow the fuck up.”
On another night, I ask him about the feather pendant – he is never without it. “I don’t know,” he smiles softly, fingering it pensively, “feathers are light, they float, like Life should be. People let life be so heavy, but it is really light, you know? The feather for me is like . . . the lightness of Being.” He squints at me and cocks his head quizzically, then laughs.
The gray-haired lady in the gift shop shows me a map of back roads when I say we want to take the Jeep into the back country for the day – find some old mines and ghost towns, high country passes that stage coaches once used and no one travels now, save a few Jeeps or horses. The South Park region is full of such places, but they aren’t easily reached; in my never-ending quest for the world’s most isolated spots I have explored some of them and discovered a few gems. I want to find one of these with Ryf, sit at the top of the world, looking out over the Park and the neighboring fourteeners – peaks over fourteen thousand feet – and be the only two people on Earth for a few hours. As I stand at the cash register and fish out a ten, Ryf passes his arm across my shoulders and slowly kisses my cheek. The lady looks at Ryf, then at me, an eyebrow raised. My hand shakes slightly when I hand her the bill. Ryf lays his face against my shoulder and grins at her, never taking his eyes from hers. Then a smile melts out of her and she says, “You two be safe today, honey.”
As we cross the parking lot to the Jeep, Ryf states, “We should just share a cabin next week. It’s cheaper.”
When we say goodbye at the end of these weekends, he kisses me in the daylight of early Sunday evening, not caring who is around. I always let him leave first, because I like the drama of watching him drive away. He never looks back, only ahead. With no fear of what may come. I stand alone in the parking lot, watching his car turn onto the road leading down the mountain, and finally turn a bend and out of sight. I find myself hoping that he will travel safe and sound, down the mountains to his parents’ home in the Denver suburbs. At some point, during one of the times that I stand there watching him drive away and thinking about fear, I realize that I have somehow internalized the belief that living without fear invites disaster. Inevitably. Like spitting in the Face of God. Somewhere, I came to believe that there will be punishment for living fully and without care.
And every time I stand there, I wonder if his obsession with me will wane, overnight, as obsessions do when one is young. Every time I watch him drive away I am wondering if I will be the only one to return to the lodge the next weekend.
One day I sit in my gallery, chin in my hands, watching the tourists walk by on the sidewalk. I should be doing paperwork, but I am restless. Distracted. My computer screen is idle before me, my spreadsheets forgotten. I feel an energy in my limbs that is unfamiliar, insistent and sweet; it makes me fidget. I realize with not a small bit of surprise that I feel younger these days: perhaps twenty-eight isn’t so old in the grand scheme of things. I wonder when I had begun to feel so ancient, so worn out in the first place. But I have lived hard, long years in just those few: this I know, although I have never spoken about it to anyone. There are things that I remember . . . and things that I don’t. There are things about the past that I don’t even tell myself. Ryf says that I should tell him about myself, but he doesn’t know what he is asking. What that would take.
The mid-morning sun streams through the glass windows at the front of the gallery and I look around at the old brick of the interior walls and smile to myself. This is an historic building, with character and a story to tell that intertwines with the story of this town, these mountains. I am fortunate to rent this space. Outside, a man with a long beard, whom I have seen around town occasionally, passes by my doorway with a malamute. He waves in to me and smiles a greeting. I have a shop here that brings in a profit consistently, a life that I like most of the time, a few good friends, and now Ryf.
“You seem cheery today.” Avra is planted on the floor, legs outstretched, arranging a series of tiny stone bird sculptures on a shelf. She rubs each carefully with a dust cloth. “Must be your new boyfriend.” She smiles slyly without looking up.
“He isn’t my . . . he’s . . . “ I feel stupid, unable to articulate a simple fact.
“So there is someone. What is he then?”
“I don’t know. Yet.”
“Have you slept with him?”
She smiles again, glancing briefly at me. “Well, if you have, then . . . he is something, isn’t he? And you’ve spent six consecutive weekends with him in Buena Vista.” She places the last of the sculptures on the shelf and lays the cloth down, pulls her legs up to rest her chin on her knees, and gazes at me. “I don’t mean to be nosy, sweetheart. I’m just happy you are seeing someone. You should have someone.”
I laugh, “Why do you say that? That I should have someone?”
“You’re a good, sweet man, Jamie. You should have someone in your life to depend on.”
“I do. I have you, Freddy, John . . .”
“It’s not the same. You know what I mean.” Her voice is soothing, firm. I feel a familiar surge of affection for her. She was my first real friend when I settled in Frisco five years earlier. I do trust her. She isn’t given to frivolity; she always tells me the truth.
“Avra . . . I want to tell you something, but it can’t leave this room, okay? I’m serious.”
She looks at me unblinkingly, “You know you don’t have to say that.”
“Yeah, sorry. I’m sorry. Well . . . the thing is, this guy is really . . . great. In a lot of ways. He’s funny, he’s smart . . . and he came after me. Me.”
“Is he cute?”
She laughs. I continue, “And I like being with him. I really do. Every minute. I feel . . . and this is weird . . . safe. Like he never judges me. He just lets me be. He is so free. It’s like, with him I am finding out who I am.”
“That’s saying something.” Her expression is earnest, respectful.
“So this is serious?”
“I just met him. Well, seven weeks ago, but I haven’t spent that much time . . . “ I clear my throat, fiddle with the pile of receipts on the desk. “Avra, he’s a little young.”
She lifts an eyebrow, curious. “How young?”
“Well, a few years younger than I am.” I stand and brush imaginary lint from my jeans. “I’m going to get lunch. I’ll get you a salad. Uh, hey, he is coming here this weekend – it’s his birthday.” I stick up my chin and walk out the door as casually as I can muster.
My father remembers something that I don’t. I am sure of that. I would never have had the guts to ask him what that would be – even if I had any contact with him. All I remember is that he sent me away.
I was fourteen. I woke up in my room one morning with cuts and bruises. A lot of them. My back hurt. My gut hurt. My head hurt. I had a stone so heavy and deep in my core that I couldn’t find the wind to push out words. So I didn’t speak for weeks. My mother put salve on my wounds, rubbed my shoulders, straightened the bedclothes. When I sat on the toilet, I cried in pain as I defecated. She helped me step into the shower and helped me stand there and washed me. I was exhausted afterward and she would help me step out, dry me off and walk me out of the bathroom, across the hall and to bed again. She wept silently all the time she did these things. I was fourteen, and I should have had shame when my mother helped me sit on the toilet, shower, washed and dried me. But I didn’t. The burden of the stone was so heavy that even shame didn’t well up in me.
The days passed slowly – I gave up trying to keep a sense of time. My father came home from the church office periodically during the day, and stood in the doorway and watched me. He didn’t speak, except to put his hand on my forehead and say, “You’re a good boy Jamie.” Sometimes he sat in a chair across the room, his head in his hands. I knew he was praying. I don’t know if it did any good.
In the end he sent me away anyway, when I was stronger again, to a school in the high mountains. It was small, intimate. We lived in dorms, we were well-fed. There was an honor system – they wanted to mold our characters. Between classes we played ball in the high mountain meadows, we rode horses across the pastures. In winter they brought mugs of hot chocolate into the classrooms on exam days; in the summer they brought tacos for lunch. We were treated with fairness at all times, and often with kindness. No one knew me, and after a year or more, I let just a few of them know me. I had my own private room at the dorm, while most other kids shared with a roommate. An art instructor took me under her wing, gave me clay, gave me wood and carving tools, gave me soapstone. She taught me to mix paint and stretch a canvas. The stone started to melt into me – becoming soft and gooey and then smaller and no longer an obstacle, but forever part of my blood.
I often thought about my parents, who didn’t come to see me. I knew they weren’t angry with me when they were nursing me, and when I left. Even my father had cried as he put me on the bus. I thought that perhaps I should have been mad at them, that they did away with me. But I couldn’t be, because as the months and years passed at the school I began to settle in, I learned to speak by putting my hands around a hunk of clay, and I found my voice again. I wondered how they paid for that school, my parents. My father’s income as a church pastor was adequate to raise a family on, but not large. I had two younger sisters coming up as well. I never knew how they came up with the money – but the three years I spent at that school were years that changed me. I stopped missing anything about home. As my junior year began, I was told that I would have a full scholarship to the university of my choice, in order to study art or whatever I chose. I didn’t see my parents again, and I wasn’t sad about it. It was just simply the reality set before me. But I was ashamed of it all, that they had discarded me, and I never spoke about where I came from. Not even to the school therapist who tried to pry a story out of me.
I begin to rise early every morning, with the dawn. I don’t have to open the gallery until 9:00 and I want to take advantage of the light. I set up an old wooden folding table in the middle of my great room and drape a large piece of plastic over it. I have ordered a 2’ x 2’ block of clay and the morning after it arrives, I have it out and already on the table. I stare at it for the two and a half hours I have free on the first morning.
The second morning, I take a deep breath and place my hands on it. By the end of the week, I have formed a sort of elk’s form, looking away, long jaw bone, deepset eyes at the side of the head, and I begin the antlers but they don’t feel right. I force myself to keep at it, ignoring the taunt inside my mind that I haven’t had my hands on clay for nearly three years. During the weekend I am with Ryf in Buena Vista, so I have to leave the elk behind. But throughout the two days in which I am away, I see flashes of antlers, their fingers pointing and reaching. Once back at my house, I rush to lay my hands on the clay again and form the finger-tines of the antlers, but to my astonishment I begin to form feathers. I use an awl and a knife to painstakingly draw tiny, sharp, fine lines, forming the texture of each feather.
Chad used to stand and watch as I worked, his arms folded. He would scrunch his face into a concentrated frown before delivering his critique. Later he would want me to fuck him.
His car pulls off the street and into the gravel in front of my small log house at the outer edge of Frisco. It is a fresh sunny Friday afternoon in October; I am glad that some of the fall-yellowed aspen leaves remain and that there is no snow yet. I feel my pulse quicken as I glance one more time around the room, where that morning I have risen early before work to dust, remove piles of magazines from the hearth, put away the books lying around, wash the dishes piled in the sink since three days ago, throw a load of laundry into the washer. As if Ryf will care about any of these things. But the creation of some order allows me to believe that my life is ordered, and I want Ryf to believe that I have some grasp on my life’s order. The twenty minutes that I have been home from work waiting for him I have spent pacing aimlessly.
I hop down the steps of the front porch as he turns off the engine. He grins at me through the windshield, his eyes obscured by shades.
“You found it,” I say as I round the front corner of the car. I open the back door and take out his duffle bag. He steps out of the car and throws his arms around my shoulders, nuzzles and inhales my neck and sighs. As we stand there for a few minutes, he slides a hand down my back, under my waistband, and rests it on my ass.
Inside, I give him a cold beer. “Thank you,” he says and his eyes travel around the room. “I like this place.” He gazes out the window, down the mountain, “God, you can see the reservoir from here.” He walks to the wall by the fireplace and brushes his hand across the beaver pelt. “Please tell me you didn’t shoot this.” He laughs. His laughter bounces around the red log walls like warm orange light.
I watch him explore the room, amused and happy. I sip my beer and sit down on a high stool at the counter that separates the cozy great room from the kitchen. I say, “I can’t believe you don’t have something better to do on your eighteenth birthday than spend it up here in Frisco.”
He turns and looks at me, blinking. “I want to spend it with you. So where is your bed?”
Later we sit naked amidst mussed bedclothes and stroke one another’s faces and shoulders as we talk. I bring him a heavy box wrapped up with brown and silver glittery paper and a big chocolate brown bow. As he gleefully rips the paper away I wonder if I have made a mistake. What was I thinking? I should have gotten him an MP3 player, or a stack of videos.
He peers into the box and sits back on his heels and thinks, saying nothing. Then he rips the sides of the box down around the elk to fully expose it. I watch his eyes study and caress its lines, finally pausing to linger on the feathered antlers. His mouth is slightly open in a soft O. Sweat breaks on the back of my neck.
Then he looks at me and quietly says, “You can’t give me this. It’s too beautiful.”
I smile and start to protest, but he lays the tips of his fingers on my mouth. “You have to keep it here and keep looking at it. To remind you what you can do.” His eyes are earnest and they don’t waver from their grip on mine. When I hold him in the night, my fingers smoothing his silky hair back from his temple before I kiss it, I tell him that I hope I am his boyfriend for a long time.
That night the dream comes, for the first time since I have been with Ryf. The young boy is running, blind in the darkness of the forest, the branches whipping against his flesh and cutting him. The laughing voices are gaining on him as he claws his way through thicket after thicket. When he runs out from the woods and onto the highway, when he is standing before the bridge, I am suddenly looking through eyes from inside his head . . . and I realize that the running boy is me – and he always has been. I rush to the edge of the bridge and look down into the blackness of the water and I see Ben – the one I loved first. The one lost to the water off Quandary Bridge all those years ago.
I wake wondering who is yelling his name Ben! and am disoriented for a few minutes before I realize it was my own voice. But Ryf doesn’t flinch as I reach to grab onto him. He wipes tears from my face and holds me for the few hours that I lie shaking, without saying anything.
On Saturday night, we arrive at Avra and John’s condo just after eight. The usual group is already there. Freddy opens the door and looks Ryf up and down as we step over the threshold. Then he gives me a look. When we walk into the living room, Avra stops in the middle of a sentence, and Mary Jo stops chewing. John is holding his drink in midair, like a robot whose arm has lost power in the middle of a task.
I put my arm around Ryf like he is a little brother. “Hey, everybody. This is Ryf Tallis.”
It takes them all a minute to compose themselves and return the greeting. Ryf, disarming grin on full throttle, says, “I’m really glad to meet you all,” and hooks a finger in my belt loop. I try not to wince, and fail.
When Heather, Michael’s girlfriend, hands Ryf a beer, she says, “Are you old enough?” and winks.
Three beers later, Ryf is dancing in the dining room with Heather and Mary Jo, twirling them, making them dip him, eliciting giggles. Michael and John avoid me. In the kitchen, I help Avra collect plates and forks to carry to the terrace, for the birthday cake they have gotten him. She doesn’t speak to me, until after five minutes or so she comments, “I didn’t know how many candles to put, so I didn’t put any.”
“Eighteen,” I say and stare her down. She rolls her eyes, picks up the forks and stalks out of the kitchen and to the terrace.
Outside, I stand and look something between busy and preoccupied in order to avoid sitting with Ryf. I wonder what possessed me to agree to this gathering. Poor Ryf – the cake isn’t for him really – it’s for me, a celebration that loser Jamie is finally dating again. There is only a phony birthday celebration here. The participants are people who are judging me, pitying him. It suddenly strikes me as cruel, this birthday charade – Ryf deserves better. He will only turn eighteen once. What was I thinking?
Mary Jo spends a good twenty minutes staring at me as if she will see printed on my forehead the fascinating and perverted reason why I would want to bed a teenager. She averts her eyes every time I catch her, which is in the dozens. Freddy, ever the kind one, tells Ryf about the history of the town. Ryf asks John if he might use the telescope to look at the stars. They stand side by side, John leaning close to explain to Ryf what he is seeing; Freddy raises a glass to me. I start to breathe evenly.
Ryf has left to use the bathroom. I think about going into the house to find him, to check if he is okay. But as I start to turn toward the door, Heather says, “He’s cute, Jamie!” and so I have to turn back to acknowledge her with a nod and a weak smile.
“And he can dance!” says Mary Jo. Everyone chuckles.
“What else can he do, James?” says Michael. More laughter.
I wonder why I still have a stupid smile on my face now.
“Really, Jamie,” says Avra, “what are you thinking?”
“Is this legal?” Heather scrunches her nose and looks around at the others inquiringly. I realize that we have all become way too comfortable – incestuous one might say – within our little clique. We seem to have lost all sense of boundaries, of any respect for the details of one another’s personal lives.
“It’s legal,” says Freddie, loudly putting his glass on the table for emphasis. “He was seventeen.”
“Unless . . .” muses John, “he is holding out, waiting until Jamie’s a little older.” Now the laughter is unrestrained. The joke has been made, and it’s a big one. Fodder enough for hours to come.
“Well,” sighs Mary Jo, “all I can say is he must be good in bed.” Leave it to her to put something twisted into it.
Freddy, the kind one, says, “I get it Jamie, this isn’t a boyfriend, it’s a sex toy.”
The laughter comes to an abrupt halt as Ryf’s voice comes from the open doorway, “Actually I’m a pretty good fuck. Jamie is okay.” The tiny hairs on the back of my neck and down my arms stand up straight. He puts his hand out to Avra, “Thank you for the cake, that was nice of you.” She takes his hand slowly, without meeting his eyes. He says nothing to the others, but simply turns calmly and walks back through the door.
I flash them all the nastiest glare I can dig up – out of character, so I’m not good at throwing really nasty ones – before following him. He is through the house and has his jacket on before I can catch him. “Ryf, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have . . . I’ll take you home.”
“I don’t want to go home with you.” He zips his jacket and turns to open the door and step through it.
In the driveway I catch his arm and put the keys to the Jeep in his hand. “Here.”
He throws them at me – hard – and walks away into the night.
Inside, I pull my own jacket on and fight my shaking hands as I try to zip my jacket. “Fuck!” I give up. Avra comes into the room, John behind her. She tries to apologize but I don’t let her. I scream instead, “Why the hell did you ask us here tonight?! To humiliate him? Or me? What is wrong with you?!” I have never in the five years we have been friends even raised my voice to her. She puts her hand over her mouth and her eyes fill with tears. I don’t care. They all need to wallow in embarrassment for a while before I forgive this. But at the same time, I know that it’s myself I’m most angry at: I didn’t stop them. I didn’t defend him. I am not yet thirty and all I know is how to live like a coward. I can look forward to seventy more years of this shit.
A few years earlier, a young man had disappeared in Frisco. He was a tourist, there with his family on some sort of celebration. He was nineteen years old. He had an argument with his dad in some restaurant, and said he would walk to the hotel. But they never saw him again.
By 1:10 a.m. my worry has begun to morph into terror. But what does 1 a.m. mean to a seventeen year old? Oh god, eighteen. Is 1 a.m. still early? I inhale deeply and try to loosen my grip on the steering wheel, feeling my hands start to cramp. I drive slowly, my eyes prying through layers of darkness to examine every storefront, every stretch of sidewalk, the space under each streetlamp. At stoplights I curse until they turn green, as if the stoplight gods should know the urgency of my mission and set them all at permanent green just this once, according to my path. But after a time I realize that I have covered the town three times over; my search through the dark streets seems futile. I drive back to the old main street and park. I get out of the Jeep and walk, not so that I can do anything productive, but so that I don’t go crazy. Anger has long since blown out of me with the cold wind; I left it somewhere out on the freeway, on a semi truck rolling off down I-70 toward western Colorado and Utah and beyond.
Across the interstate and to the immediate east lies the small town of Dillon; to the immediate west, Copper Mountain. Or headed in the opposite direction, if one were to drive up Highway 9 away from the freeway, up higher into the mountains, one would come to Breckenridge. He doesn’t have his car, so he would have had to hitchhike. I tell myself that I have to remain calm and reasonable: why would he leave this town? He’s just pissed, he isn’t crazy. He’s here somewhere. I have to keep looking. I’ll find him and tell him . . . what will I say?
At 1:10 my cell phone buzzes again: incoming from Freddy. This is the third time; I ignore it. I thought about calling Avra hours ago, thinking they will all still be there, discussing my lack of sanity well into the night. I know that I wouldn’t have to beg them to help me search. But I don’t, because they don’t deserve to help look for him. I will do this myself for him. I don’t want to give them the satisfaction of making it up to us.
I wonder if he would be in a bar, a nightclub. He would have had to lie or charm his way in, but he is charming if anything. He hardly drinks. I don’t do clubs. I enter one late night haunt, then the next and the next, paying the entrance fee or the price of a beer that I leave untouched, scanning each place until I am satisfied, checking the toilets, the halls, the back entrances, asking a few questions, leaving again. In each building I have to be absolutely certain I didn’t miss him, that he didn’t pass me quietly in a shadowed corner as I looked in the opposite direction. I have to be sure. Every face I study is older than his. He is only a kid. And his face is so pretty, so open, so without defenses.
My innate shyness falls away, and I find myself shaking a hand here, tapping a shoulder there, leaning in toward a table full of strangers as I strain to be heard over the music. I am someone else, someone I don’t know: I am someone searching for a loved one. In each place I look at every fucking face before I give myself permission to move on. Then I step out into the cold again to look out over the streets of Frisco, Dillon, Breckenridge, and head for the next drinking hole. It’s all I can do. I can’t think of what else to do.
At 2:40 a.m. I stand shivering on a Frisco street corner, trying to decide whether to cross to the other side or keep going where I am. I watch the last inebriated patrons leave a bar. One by one, the last lights on the street are going out. The town will sleep for three or four hours now, and silence will reign for a bit. Maybe in silence I will be able to hear him, his footfall somewhere. From where I stand, I can hear the freeway traffic in the distance. My eyes burn in the wind so badly that they spill over. I wipe salty wet from my cheeks, and as a tipsy couple steps around me, the woman looks at my eyes with pity. She probably thinks I’m homeless. Or mentally unstable. Crying on the street corner. Freezing in the wind.
I go back to my Jeep. I climb in and sit there for fifteen, twenty minutes with the window rolled all the way down. I don’t want a glass barrier between me and the night, out where he is. At some point I allow the realization to invade me, that there is nothing more I can do to find him. He is gone. So I turn the key in the ignition and roll slowly down the street toward my house.
When I pull up front my tires grind on the gravel. It is 3:54 a.m. I close the car door as quietly as I can, because it helps me to pretend that he is inside sleeping. I go inside and leave the lights out. In the bedroom, the bed is unmade, empty. I roll onto it with my jacket still on, and curl into a ball, clutching my stomach. I catch a whiff of him on the sheet – at least I imagine I do and insist to myself that it’s real – and wonder if he will ever lie there again. If I will ever wash it again.
I feel a tug on my boots, one and then the other. His hands on my ankles, pulling off my boots, his fingers peeling off my socks. I wait for him to speak, but all is silent. I sit up and look into his face as he helps me off with my jacket and pulls my sweater over my head, but he doesn’t look at me. He taps lightly on my chest, encouraging me to lie back, and I settle against the pillows. He unsnaps and unzips my jeans as if I’m a manikin, and pulls them off. Then he tugs the sheet and blankets over me and leaves. I look at the clock on the nightstand. It’s 5:15, but he has pulled the blinds clear down to the windowsill and the room is calmly darkened against the pending day. I close my eyes and tension drains from my muscles into the softness of the bed sheets.
I come to a half-wakened awareness when he climbs into the bed. He smells like soap and toothpaste. He pushes his hand and then his arm under my waist, and with the other arm draws me into his chest. I rest my head there, my face against his clavicle. I have never done this – let him have the upper hand in an embrace, his head higher on the pillow than mine. At this moment, that suddenly seems oddly arrogant. He enfolds me in his Ryf-cocoon and I let him. I listen to his heart beating and the whoosh of air in the rhythm of his exhales.
After a time, he quietly whispers into my hair, “I understand why you are embarrassed by me. I think.”
His words are like a slap. I swallow hard and breathe into his neck. Then I say, “I’m sorry.” It doesn’t seem like much, considering. So I say it again, adding for emphasis, “I’m sorry I’m an asshole.”
I expect to feel the rumble of a chuckle in his chest, but I don’t. In the increasing quiet my heart pounds, and I know he can feel it. His silence is unnerving, unraveling me. I was prepared for more fighting, maybe tears, maybe apologies, his usual mis-timed and inappropriate bits of humor. But not this. Not this lack of drama. He is stoic. I fear that he is closed down, closed off. I silently panic – he won’t even fight with me now. I am panicked that when he drives away down the mountain this time, he won’t come back – not to me. And I am too ashamed and afraid to question him. If I ask him if he intends to come back he will tell me the truth – Ryf never lies, because he is never scared enough to lie. It seems beyond his understanding to deceive in the name of self-protection. I am afraid that if I ask, I will hear the truth. So I can’t ask.
Ryf sighs and says, “They think you take care of me, I guess. But really, I take care of you. You’re a mess, man.” So that’s it. He knows the truth about me. And still he holds me.
Through several hours of sleep, I pull him toward me, closer, closer. I don’t care when my face is buried in his skin and I can’t breathe. If I can’t feel his heartbeat, his lungs rising and falling under my arms, I can’t stand it and pull him in again. The damp sweat of sleep we exude mingles and bonds us. His lashes tickle my nose. I warm my hand in his armpit, twine my leg with his. His breath feeds me.
I try to claw my way out of a dream where I am on Quandary Bridge, looking down into the water, wondering where Ryf is. It is deep in the night, and a bitter wind is blowing. I wonder if it might blow me off, as I move too close to the edge in my eagerness to spot him. Funny, there used to be a railing here. Suddenly I wonder if the wind has blown Ryf off the bridge, and a wave of panic overwhelms me, waking me with a start, my chest thumping, beads of sweat breaking out on my forehead. I listen to the silence in the still room, then I hear him begin to sigh his way out of his own dreaming. I am still clinging to him, my fingers wadding up his t-shirt, my cheek damp against his shoulder.
He doesn’t say good morning. He doesn’t start chirping about what we might do this day – or what is left of it. He just lies quietly beside me. I hear birds right outside the window, tweeting at each other in the midday sunshine. I will need to open a window, let the fresh day in now that it’s turned warmer, now that the cold night has passed. He says, “You held me all night – I mean all the time we were sleeping. You never do that. You usually roll away when you fall asleep.”
I move my lips to explain, but don’t find any coherent words. I am numb with confusion, insides fluttering with fear. I rub my stubbled cheek onto his, inhale his hair, and say close to his ear, before I can change my mind, “I love you.” It sounds like I am listening to someone else saying it.
He jumps – a tiny jump within his skin – surprise. His surprise shames me. He doesn’t speak. I remember again my thoughts a few hours ago – that when he leaves, he won’t come back. I need to play all my cards, the game doesn’t matter anymore. Winning doesn’t matter. Self-preservation doesn’t matter. I whisper into his ear, “I was scared. We are so close to the freeway here . . . so close to the . . .” I don’t know if he knows what I mean, if his young mind grasps that kind of implication. Semis tumbling away to forever down I-70.
Later, we get up and I shower. I offer to take him to an early dinner at my favorite Italian place. He smiles softly. When we get there I tell him to order whatever he wants – he always does that anyway, but I want to tell him out loud. I order an iced tea. We get lasagna and seafood pasta, and trade half of our portions. I goad him into conversation. He is not sullen, not pouty, just quiet. Sweet, reticent. His eyes settle on mine and wash over me cold pools of melancholy. He tries to give me cash for half the bill, but I don’t let him.
When he throws his bag into the back seat of his car it is nearly 10 p.m. It will be past midnight when he gets back to the city. “I don’t care,” he says.
“Please come next Friday,” I say and take his gloved hands in mine.
He looks up at the silhouettes of the dark peaks rising into the sky around the town, and then up to the bright autumn stars. “My folks haven’t had me home for a weekend in two months.” He smiles and kisses me lightly on the mouth and climbs into the car. As he pulls away I catch his face through the window and he looks relieved.
“I’m going out to get us lunch.” Avra speaks gently to me nowadays, as if she’s afraid I’ll fire her; I rarely answer. We dance around each other in the shop, she more nervous than I, never quite connecting. On Fridays I leave her paycheck conspicuously on the counter until she happens to find it. It’s been three weeks since the party from Hell, three weeks since I’ve laid eyes on Ryf.
She shifts her bag under her arm and scratches her elbow. “Jamie. You aren’t eating. You’re getting thin, sweetie.”
I look up at her, glaring. I want to say . . . and your point is? But I just say, “Anything. Salad,” and go back to my task of ordering merchandise. The shop needs to be full for the coming holidays and ski season, and subsequent deluge of tourists. I am not looking forward to it this year.
While she is gone I text Ryf’s number, as I have many times: I miss you. Sometimes he answers, and the unpredictability keeps me doing it, like a gambler. Once he said, You need to get some new friends. He never says he misses me too, he never says he will come. He is never unkind, he is simply distant. He saw my character, my lack of character, and he has made a choice.
Today he doesn’t answer. When Avra brings lunch I take two bites and toss the rest. My icy silence dares her to nag. By 2 p.m. I grow weary of staring at the computer screen without comprehending it, and tell Avra I’m leaving early. On the way to my Jeep I study the cement of the sidewalk and wonder which square foot of space once felt his footfall. Instead of going directly to the Jeep, I browse the windows of my neighbors’ stores. It keeps my mind busy. Keeps me sane. Keeps my thoughts from Ryf. It keeps me from going home, where I will have to think about the two days we spent there together. As I pass a menswear shop, I suddenly remember that he had admired a hat there. Inside I find it – a rust-brown felt fedora. It’s ridiculously expensive, and I buy it. “It’s for a friend,” I smile at the clerk when he asks if he can wrap it. Then I add, “My boyfriend.”
“I might have a box,” he says without missing a beat, and disappears into the back.
I look at the articles under the glass counter and find a watch – it has a hand-tooled leather band, a Western design. It’s masculine and unusual. Ryf never wears a watch. When the clerk comes back, carrying a box with the same logo that is inside the hat, I say, “I think I’ll take this too.”
Taking my treasures home – these gifts I can never give to a lover I don’t have anymore – lifts a little of the heaviness so that I can find the courage to walk through the door of the house, feed myself, do something with myself in the coming hours of late afternoon and evening, and finally tumble onto the bed that once I tumbled across with him. As I lie waiting for sleep, I text him again: Sleep well. I sigh, knowing that I am now pathetic even in my own eyes.
In the middle of the night, unable to maintain a sleeping state for more than twenty minutes, I stumble to the great room and pull a large box from under the dining room table. Another large block of clay – I had ordered it in a moment of inspiration back when I finished the elk. I cut off the plastic wrapping that keeps it wet and soft, lift it and lug it onto the kitchen counter.
By morning I have the beginnings of a lake trout. She will eventually have feathers trailing down her back. The lightness of life.
By mid-November, enough new art has arrived to fill the shop for the holiday season. I get caught up in the rush and it keeps me busy. I feel some sanity returning. Avra decorates the windows and tables and counters with pine boughs and glittery balls and bundles of cinnamon sticks that make the whole place smell like ginger snaps. Once in a while she asks me to come to dinner at the condo. I decline.
One Friday I text Ryf as I lock up. Everything looks like Christmas here already. You should see it. I walk to the Jeep in the early evening darkness, pulling my collar up around my neck against the wind. Ryf returns, Yeah, I know. It makes no sense to me; I fear I have missed some joke. But his reply heartens me.
The weather service has been predicting snow all day, and now the first big flakes are falling. This means that the weekend will bring skiers, tourists, business. I’ll have to be up early, and I’m grateful. I have learned now – during the past four weeks – to keep my mind occupied by hard work, whether in the gallery or at home bending over the blob of clay. I have found a sanity-preserving routine. It doesn’t include socializing, but I’m fine with that. I gather myself into myself, stoic, hardening. The lightness that eludes me, that has eluded me for my entire life, fascinates me now, and I search for it as my fingers mold the clay.
After I finished the feathered trout, I started on what was planned to be a bear. But it turned into the smooth, furless, wiry torso of a young man. His shoulder blades intrigued me, the lines of his back, the trail of his spine. I began to build feathers on his back, over the rib cage. I am thinking about this, about how I will build it up this night, as I pull off the road and into my drive. I am surprised to find another car parked there, and then annoyed that I will have to deal with another human being when I was looking forward to solitude. I wonder if Freddy has finally become fed up with my iciness and come to hunt me down. In the dark of the night, I can’t make out the color.
As I turn the key to stop the engine, I see Ryf sitting on the railing of the porch, waiting. I sit still for a few moments, not believing. Once I open the car door I feel every cell of my skin pull me toward him, the way one magnet strives to connect with another. As I hop up the steps he stands and offers a soft smile, holding up his phone. I stand before him with my arms at my sides, taking him in with my eyes. He is beautiful. His hair is longer, falling into his eyes – the blue streak is still there. He shivers slightly in his long black wool overcoat and breathes out a sigh that makes a trail of steam in the cold air.
When I reach for him he steps back. Then his eyes are instantly apologetic. He lifts his arms, but only halfway, and shrugs slightly as if the thought to embrace me is there but he can’t do it. One of my hands rises, and then falls. We both laugh, embarrassed. Finally, he sighs and steps forward, and leans to kiss my cheek. I grab him with both arms and press him into me, gathering handfuls of his coat in my hands, burying my face in his collar. I breathe him in deeply – the familiar soap and cologne. I wonder if the metal of his earrings is making his ears cold.
“Come inside,” I say and move to unlock the door. My hand is shaking and stiff from cold, and I fumble with the lock. His hand closes over mine and he takes the key gently and slips it into the slot.
(This is an excerpt from “Quandary Bridge”, a larger work by Lichen Craig. “Quandary Bridge” will be available later this year.)