by Alex Hogan
based on an illustration by Eve le Dez
[This story and the illustration first appeared in Forbidden Fruit]
Pat’s door was closed to me. It had been for three Christmases, ever since I kicked him out.
I’d tried last Christmas Eve, came by his apartment with a gift, but he didn’t answer my buzz, though I could see the lights were on in his window. I stopped by again a few days later, but there was still no answer.
I hadn’t actually kicked him out. We’d had an agreement that after one year of living together he’d leave, which he did, duly on the date, much to my surprise. Left my bed, left my house, and within a year had shacked up with someone else.
I’d been the love of his life, or so he had constantly told me for years. We had gone to school together. He’dogged me all the time, almost stalked me. Just because my dad was gay didn’t mean I was. But it did mean I was sympathetic to him, rather than beating him up and calling him names.
I didn’t really know how I felt about him until he left me. Yeah, I liked him as a friend, and yeah, I was prepared to sleep with him – sex is sex – but when he left there was a huge gaping hole in my life.
But he’d gone. He’d worked himself out and had worked out he didn’t need me in his life anymore and that I was dragging him down, and he moved on. Too late for me to wake up to myself and treat him decently, treat him like someone I actually loved.
Well, the story goes something like that anyway. Maybe he hadn’t completely worked himself out, and I know that I haven’t. I’ve been shuffling between girls and boys not really knowing where I am. He shacked up with some kid he picked up off the streets. Or rather off a computer desk. Pat worked at the main branch of the public library, a place he had often described as a workshop for the homeless and mentally unstable. Michael was one of the homeless, lying asleep next to a much sought after internet terminal. Pat roused him and took him out of the library to a cafe across the street, bought him coffee and a sandwich, and fell in love with him. Or was it lust? Underneath the bony frame and oily scraggy hair, Michael had an elfin cuteness about him, and once Pat had managed to get some flesh onto his bones he had a stunning body. But that didn’t stop Michael from being a junkie.
Now it was Christmas again, three years since Pat left. I sat looking at a picture of him with Michael. I admit I never liked Michael. He never liked me either, which didn’t help. I was jealous of him, yes, but I also felt he simply wasn’t good enough for Pat. And Michael was jealous of me, big time. Why?
The Easter before last, when the library reopened after the holiday, Pat got a phone call from the police. Michael had topped himself. Too late. He was dead.
And we all feel guilty. Of course Solon’s laws about not speaking ill of the dead kept echoing in my ear. Did he really need to make that law? Aren’t we naturally afraid to do so? From some sort of voodoo fear that if we do, even if it’s the truth, then maybe they will reach out from their graves and pull us in. I don’t know. Michael was a junkie and not good enough for Pat. He stole from him and treated him like shit. Did Pat love him? He seemed to think he did. Did I hate him only because I was jealous of him? I don’t know. Should I have felt sorry for him? I suppose I should have. Did my feelings affect what happened? Probably not. I hope not. Why wouldn’t Pat see me?
I looked up at the clock. It was Christmas Eve, and getting late in the day. I had to get out and buy some wine for my own parents’ Christmas dinner. Dad and his husband Brian always liked to have me home on Christmas day. Although of course my dads would have been happier if I had someone else to share it with, but I hadn’t for the last three years. I grabbed my coat, scarf, hat and gloves, and braved the outdoors.
The shops were crowded and the crowds getting nasty. Why was I doing this to myself? I jostled through the bodies, and found some bottles which weren’t what I’d wanted – they were sold out of that – but they’d do, I guess. As I worked my way out of the shopping center I scraped past Catherine, Pat’s older sister.
“Sorry, hope I didn’t break anything,” she said, jumping back as far as was possible in the crowd and eyeing the wine bottles.
“Not that I’ve noticed yet,” I said, and tried to smile. We exchanged ‘how’s so-and-so doing’ until we came to a silence, not mentioning his name.
“OK, so how is Pat getting on, since he’s the the only one we haven’t mentioned,” I asked.
She smiled at me – she knew our history. “He’s coming along. Still hiding in his books. But of course he always did, so it’s hard to tell how he’s doing.”
“Yeah.” I nodded, coughed, looked around, and dared to ask. “How’d you think—I mean—would he mind if I… You know.”
“Not sure. Not really sure what you mean by ‘you know’.” She tried to laugh it away, but I could only manage a feeble smile. “Really Artie, I don’t know. I don’t really know what is, or isn’t, happening between you two.”
My smile faded. “It isn’t.” She nodded, patted my arm, and began to move on.
“Oh, if it’s any consolation, he doesn’t have another boyfriend yet.”
I moved on. Walked past a chocolate shop and saw a huge box of those chocolates he and I used to consume by the bucket. We’d sit on the living room sofa watching mindless afternoon TV and pig out. But we were just kids then. The world was perfect, I had someone who adored me and I could push around, and nothing else mattered. What an asshole I’d been.
I bought a box of the chocolates. As I left the building I saw the garden center was selling small plastic trees and plastic branches of mistletoe. I bought one of the latter. Stupid. But too late, the money had been exchanged. I stuffed it and the chocolates into my car and drove to get drunk.
I didn’t get the chance, or not right away anyway. After getting home and staring listlessly into a cup of coffee, I got a phone call. Who could be ringing? Could be anyone. The ringtone wasn’t one I knew. Could it be him? Some creepy little elf started whispering in my ear, sending shivers up my spine. Of course it wasn’t him. But the hope made me go to the phone and then linger too long to actually get it. It went onto the answering machine.
Hello Artie. Cath here. Listen, we’re having some drinks. Just family. Maybe you’d like to come along. I can’t exactly say who’ll be here, if you know what I mean. OK? Hope you get this message. Just if you want to come. See ya.
Catherine. She was sweet, always trying to do the right thing. I stared at the phone. The seconds ticked, not that the clock made any sound. I went back to my coffee and slowly sipped it. He wouldn’t be there. Or he might be. What would he do if he saw me there?
I didn’t see his car outside Catherine’s house. Inside I was accosted by kids. Damn, I didn’t have a present. “Sorry, but Santa will bring one for you tomorrow.” Not sure if they liked that or not. Cath shooed them away, then ushered me inside. Her siblings were gathered around in the living room, with partners and friends. I looked around edgily, hoping and hoping not. But he wasn’t there. My eyes alighted on Elizabeth, Pat’s younger sister. She gave me a secret grin. I sat down awkwardly.
The evening progressed with discussions about the year’s happenings, interruptions from excited children, laughter, annoyance, and wine. And more wine. Maybe I could get drunk as I’d aimed to.
At some stage someone had put some music on and the group started dividing up into smaller groups. As the voices grew louder, and the children still kept running in and out, incapable of staying in bed, I ended up next to Elizabeth. She was more buxom than Catherine, and had become even more so over the years. As I looked her way I found myself peering down her cleavage, revealed by the open buttons on her shirt. My loins stirred. I looked away. No way did I want to go there again. Or did I? I turned back to her.
“Long time since that other party, eh Liz?”
“Way too long.”
Liz was young then and I had been trying to escape Pat’s attentions. I colored at the memory. “Oh Liz. I’m so sorry for all of that. I can’t believe I did it.” There, the apology I’d been hiding from all these years. I grinned at myself in pride.
She smiled back. “Artie. Don’t apologize. Not to me anyway. I was just as much a part of it as you. I wanted it more than you did. So none of this stupid guilt over corrupting a poor innocent girl. Jeez! I knew what I was doing.”
I shook my head again.
“I’m the one who should apologize,” she went on. “Apologize to Pat.”
“Oh, but you didn’t know about Pat.”
“Of course I did.”
“Well, you didn’t know about Pat and me.”
“Of course I did.” I stared at her. She started to blush. “I was young, yeah, but I wasn’t stupid.”
“That just makes me feel worse.”
“I should apologize to Pat.”
“No. It’s just between you and me. And it was years ago.”
“But I should, to both you and him.”
“You are sweet.” I leant over and pecked her on the cheek. “But no, Liz. Don’t. Where is he anyway? Why isn’t he here?”
“Well, yeah, good question.”
Elizabeth walked away to the kitchen. I followed. As I came through the door I saw her on the phone. Surely she wasn’t…?
“Pat? Pat? Oh hi. Got you up, did I? No? Why aren’t you over here? Oh jeez! Listen, Pat, there’s something I’ve always wanted to say, do you remem—” I grabbed the phone from her.
“Liz! You can’t!”
“I can!” She tried to pull it back.
“No! He doesn’t know!” We stared at each other. The phone still in my hand, and Pat still on the other end.
Doesn’t know what?
Liz tried to take the phone off me. I pulled away and put it to my mouth. “Pat?”
“Hi. I—I’m just over at Cath’s. I mean, she invited me. For Christmas drinks, you know.”
“Um… I thought that, you know, I mean, I thought you might be here, just…”
No. Oh Art. You know me. That’s not me. All that chit chat stuff. No.
“So. You’re not. I mean… You OK? How’s it going?”
Then there was silence. We both waited for the other to speak. I could see him holding on to the phone.
“Could I come over?”
“But… Just to say hello.”
Well, I don’t know—
“Pat. I want to see you. I need to see you. God, it’s been so long. It’s Christmas. I can’t stand to think of you all alone.”
I’m happy alone.
“You gotta get over him.”
And you think you can help me do that?
Now it was silence from my side. “I don’t know,” I said finally.
“I am over him, but I’m not. I’ll never forget him and no one can make me. But… I’m getting there, Art. I must go on.”
He’s not worth this devotion. “Pat?”
“Can… Do you want to see me?”
Not if you’re trying to get into bed with me.
Art. It’s over, it’s past. It’s ironical, I know. All those years you were trying to get rid of me, and now it’s me shutting my doors to you.
You need to get over me, Art.
And he hung up.
I put the phone down, cast a quick glance up at Liz, who was still standing there, waiting to hear what happened. But I walked past her quickly and out of the room. The noise and Christmas cheer was deafening. I moved through the people as quietly and unobtrusively as I could. Last thing I wanted was fussing caring females. I grabbed my coat and other apparel to keep me warm on a mid-winter night, and slipped out the front door. It was bitter cold, my breath almost freezing. No snow had come as yet; the moon had gone to bed, it was dark and dreary. Why Christmas at this time of year? I remember Pat explaining to me, back in the dim past as we sat in front of a roaring fire in my dads’ place on a Christmas Eve when they were out somewhere with other gay friends, that Christmas was all about creating a magic so the world would be reborn again and not continue into further cold and darkness and, ultimately, annihilation.
I moved out onto the path. Frost crackled under my feet. I thought that after this Christmas I might emigrate to Australia to escape these freezing Christmases. I thought about home, my bed cold and empty. My life seemed empty, pale and wafer thin. What had happened? I once had people who doted on me, adored me. But somehow they’d stopped, told me they needed something else in their life, that adoring me didn’t satisfy them, that they wanted some adoration back. Did I adore Pat? Or did I envy him?
I made my way slowly home. Once there I threw the keys onto my table and stared at the chocolates and cold coffee. I moved over to the tiny toy Christmas tree I had sitting near my TV. What a cold, lonely night I was in for. The wind whistled around the windows. Rain was now starting to patter on the sills.
I grabbed the little Christmas tree, went back and collected the car keys, the chocolates – gift wrapped by the shop – and the plastic mistletoe. Outside snow was now starting to fall. I stood and looked about. The street lights gave a romantic glow to the air. I got in the car and wound my way through the city streets to Pat’s apartment. His lights were on. I walked up to the building and pressed the buzzer. I stared at the door. The wind worked its way under my coat. My breath filled up the space in front of my eyes.
Nearby I saw an old discarded Christmas hat next to a bin. How sad was that? I went over and picked it up. Just as I did, of course Pat answered his buzzer. I quickly put on the cap and ran back. “Pat? Pat, it’s me.”
“Art?” There was a pause. “OK then,” and he clicked the door open.
I made my way up the steps of the old apartment building. His was the first floor up. My footsteps echoed in the empty stairwell. My heartbeat matched the sound.
I clip-clopped over to his door and knocked. I brushed snow off my coat. The door opened.
Pat stood there, an old book in his hand, well-read, with a page covered in handwriting falling out, and sticky notes attached to other pages. Pat, the perpetual student. Behind him I caught site of a photo of Michael on the wall with a black ribbon taped across the corner. How could he be dead? I lifted up the mistletoe. Pat pulled a wry grin.
“No, Pat, only joking, honest. But can an old friend come in and sit by the fire – so to speak – on Christmas Eve?”
He slowly opened the door, the warmth of the central heating beckoned me in. I stepped over the threshold and heard Pat close the door behind me. I looked up at the photo of Pat’s lover. I stepped up to it and hung the mistletoe on the hook that held the photo. Pat peered at me quizzically. “I can’t read you, Art.”
“Pat, I just want you back in my life, as an old friend, like I said.”
I held out my hand, he stared at it for a while, then took it and shook, smiling uncomfortably. Then his smile turned to a real grin. “What’s with the corny hat?” he flicked at my Christmas cap.
“Oh. I found it outside on the sidewalk near a dumpster. Seemed a shame, it all out there alone on Christmas Eve.”
Pat stared at me, then pulled me into an embrace. “I’d love to have you back, Artie,” he whispered, his voice muffled by my coat.
I was still holding the present and it started to get in our way. I clumsily handed it to him.
“Art. No presents. We’re just friends. That’s all.”
“Yeah, a present for an old friend. Go ahead, open it.”
He took it reluctantly and began slowly to unwrap it. “The chocolates! I haven’t had those in years.” He grinned wide. “Come on in.” He led me into the living room. The lights were low and lounge seats were grouped around a coffee table.
“Not exactly the open fire at my dads’ place,” I said, “but cosy enough.” I placed the chocolates on the small table.
Pat poured us a drink and opened the chocolates. He took one for himself and gave another to me, my favorite kind. Then he handed me a wine glass, and held the other up himself. “To the past. And the future. Which is what Christmas is: remembering the past, but looking toward the future.”
I nodded, and we both drank.
Story © Alex Hogan. Illustration © Eve le Dez. All rights reserved.