By Simon Young
Photo By Kila Smyth
That afternoon Elliot and I went for a stroll through the city. It was hot and the sun hung high in the sky, afloat in a cloudless sea of blue, baking the cobblestone street and terracotta roofs. My fair skin had taken a red tint, although, like a kid clutching the string of a kite on a stormy day, I held onto the hope that it would yield to tan.
It was busy. People marched, strutted, and wandered in all directions, funneled through the winding, narrow arteries of the town by the tall, leaning white-washed shop fronts and restaurants. Windows, adorned with overflowing flower boxes and pastel shutters, peered prettily out with an undefinable coyness, like a line of Victorian ladies, obscuring the lower half of their faces with floral fans.
We walked hand in hand lazily, idling about in front of any shop with a quirky enough display to arouse our interest. We talked in the same way we walked. Meandering down subjects without a rush, sitting with the words we spoke and heard, entertaining each topic as if it was a close friend. There was such a warmth and contentment emanating from his amber eyes when our gazes latched onto each other. The light they contained reached deep into me and spun my insides into radiant gold. I had already had a few glasses of wine at that point, and it was with great difficulty that I prevented myself from pressing my lips against his there and then.
I got lucky with Elliot. We met at the end of college, but we didn’t start dating until a few years ago after we ran into each other again at a poetry reading in a tiny bookshop in London where we both proceeded to get very drunk. He was slightly taller than me, with wavy hair that rose and fell like the surface of the sea on a breezy day. His olive skin was always perfumed with a vaguely smoky but citrus cologne, cigarettes, and nostalgia amalgamating in a thick, heady aroma that always managed to transport me back to nights filled with stars, red wine, and beautiful words. He spoke in the most enchanting way. Every sentence an intelligent point, formulated into an ornate work of art. I hung on the precipice of his every syllable as he charmed my serpentine soul, loving him for breathing belief back into my life. This handsome, intellectual, kind man who managed to see in me all the things that I adored in him.
I was about to tell Elliot some of this when I saw him. The briefest glimpse at first as I threw my gaze across the crowd but like a sniper, I locked my eyes back on him as soon as I could manage. I would recognise that walk anywhere. That posture. He was taller than I recalled, but just as muscular, just as tanned. He was in an ivory short-sleeved linen shirt and a pair of matching loose-fitting shorts. He had an ankle bracelet, black, probably leather, but he was too far away to tell. We walked the same line in opposite directions, fated into a hell-bent, head-on collision. The crowd, our final defense, dissipated between us like smoke. Our eyes locked. Even though I was still too far away to say for sure I knew they would still be as green as moss after heavy rain and flecked with brown-like speckled bird eggs. I felt something in my stomach give, as if a sack of stones had just been pushed off the peak of my heart, to plummet down through my stomach before crashing into the rough waters of my lower belly. Charlie. my mind whispered sweet and sickly; the words lacquered in strawberry gin. My Charlie.
In the pitch dark, I couldn’t see him bolt the cubicle door shut but I knew he had done because I heard the click as it slotted into place. I had my back pressed against the wall, painfully aware of the loudness of my breath and the beating of my heart. My palms were sweaty. I could just make out the contours of his face, aided slightly by the traces of orange light that managed to slip through the mullioned window just beneath the ceiling, although it was little more than a prison cell slit. He took a step towards me. The space between us felt alive. Twisting and writhing, filled with a caged wildness. Every centimetre closer we got to each other the more feral the silent, invisible frenzy became. I could feel it building up inside of me too. A pressure pushed hard against my chest, shortening my breath, and pulled at my nerve endings like they were loose threads. My stomach roiled. My fingers trembled.
He lent in and kissed me. It was a hungry kiss. One filled with longing and desire. I hadn’t felt that come across on someone’s lips before. Or maybe it was my own lust reflected back. For all my anxiety had dissolved and my thoughts melted away like ice on a hot pan. I moved on autopilot, driven onward by the taste of his tongue in my mouth and the pull of his hands on my hips. I pushed him up against the wall, slamming his back into the cubicle with a reckless aggression. “Calm.” He whispered although I could hear the amusement in his voice. But I did as I was told and became docile once more. We both knew the risk of getting caught.
I moved my lips down to his neck, biting his skin lightly, kissing my way up to his cheek and his ear, while he gasped, whispering my name like it was the holy rosary and my body his string of beads. “Benedict” He murmured breathlessly, running his hands through my short hair, sinking his nails into my scalp, and pulling me in closer. “Benedict…” He moved to my uniform trousers and hastily undid my belt. I mirrored his movements, swiftly unfastening his own trousers and slipping one hand up his shirt to clutch at his toned abdomen while the other crept beyond the elasticated waistband of his boxers.
“I love you, Ben…” he groaned into my ear. “I love you.” I felt myself smile in the dark.
There was no escaping each other. The crowd had parted, forming impenetrable walls on either side. I refused to avert my gaze. Drinking him in stubbornly like his figure was vodka on a day where I was particularly hungover but still obligated to get drunk. Elliot had faded into the background. Joining the buildings, the sun, and the crowd on the periphery of my consciousness, a lonely citadel of neglect circling Charlie and me, framing us against the backdrop of their gathering irrelevance.
It struck me how little things had changed. Him. Me. The feelings that rampaged blind through my body. Each emotion was a cold-blooded killer, starved as the hunter’s hounds, and wilder than a tempest. I felt my breath catch in my throat, my mouth drying into a deserted wasteland. Elliot squeezed my hand, tugging lightly at my arm but I didn’t react. I didn’t know how. His words were hitting my ears in a meaningless jumble like the disarrayed contents of a toy chest that belonged to a child I didn’t know. I snatched my hand from his grip, sweat slowly dripping down my fingers. Charlie had dropped his gaze. He had become transfixed by his phone, flicking his eyes up to look at me every few seconds as if he suspected I was Medusa but felt being sure was worth the risk. “Can we go?” I heard myself whisper, my voice flat and croaky. “I don’t feel so good.”
Elliot put an arm around my shoulder and pulled me in close. I closed my eyes and trusted him to guide me. Shielding myself from the world beneath the blackness of my eyelids and the sweaty musk of his flesh fighting for dominance over the lingering remnants of his cologne. I longed to slip between the stitches of the world’s fabric and disappear into the nothingness that it contains between each thread, like a stone wholly consumed by the darkness of a bottomless well.
I raised the corners of my mouth and pretended that I was enjoying the sun.
“She broke up with me,” I said, staring into his eyes, allowing my sentence to linger between us. Charlie met my gaze. We were sat across from each other. It was late and the locker room was empty. We had football training that evening, and it had rained non-stop leaving us soaked to the skin. Charlie’s hair was plastered to his skull, its usual dark brown now an inky black. “Did she say why?” he asked, a forced lightness in his voice. I shook my head. “She just said she didn’t feel the same anymore.”
“I’m sorry brother.”
I shrugged and half-smiled, still falling headfirst into the pits of his pupils. “It’s not so bad, I thought it would be worse. And at least now I have more time for other things.” A grin flew across Charlie’s face like a swallow swooping up from nowhere but then disappearing into the eaves of an abandoned house. “Things like what?” he asked coyly. I began to feel myself heat up beneath the desert sun intensity of his stare. “I think you know.” He nodded and didn’t say anything.
I don’t know why I did what I did next. It broke every unwritten rule, it crossed every invisible line we had carefully drawn out together, slowly and silently, guided by the cold grip of fear. But for that moment all worry was wiped away by the wave of longing that swept through me. I reached my arm out and rested my hand on his. He let it sit for a second, staring at it with his face blank. But then, pensively, like a toddler just beginning to fathom having control over his limbs, he covered my hand with his other, swallowing my pale skin on both sides with his warm, tanned flesh. I felt him squeeze and it was as if all the blood went from my hand to my heart for I was sure it was going to burst. “I love you,” I whispered.
“I love you too.”
I opened my eyes and saw him just to my left. He brushed by me, looking straight ahead, but I felt his heat on my shoulder, I could smell him. He still wore the same cologne. A clean but earthy aroma that managed to fall somewhere between wood smoke and lemon. My stomach churned and my skin grew hot. I could feel myself turning red. “Asshole.” I hissed vehemently, spit flying from my lips and exploding into splatters on the ground like fireworks. Elliot looked at me, concern and confusion written in lavish font across his handsome face. “Benedict, what’s the matter?” I just shook my head. I’d tell him. I would. Just not now, not yet. I pushed myself away from him and walked separately onward. The scent of him rolling off Elliot and hitting me like a battalion of blood-frenzied suicide soldiers. My stomach twisted. I thought I was going to vomit.
“I’m not gay Benedict.”
I stared at him. The coiling cobra in my gut was confined in too small a space and was starting to choke on the clawed demon it was attempting to digest. The bar was heaving with our classmates, all of them running on an end-of-exam high as well as an indeterminate amount of alcohol. Charlie and I were hidden away in an alcove just far enough from the makeshift dance floor to have a half-audible conversation. It was dark, but I could make out his face in the flashes of green and red from the flickering lights attached to the ceiling.
“Bullshit!” I hissed, crossing my arms and leaning away from him, trying to steady my gaze and body against the gravitational pull between the floor and the naggin of vodka coursing through my blood. “You can’t get more gay Charlie! It was both of us.”
He refused to meet my eyes, instead, he stared at the space on the floor between our feet. “I only did it because you pressured me.” His voice was monotone, deprived of any emotion. He shuffled his weight between his legs. “It was all you.”
I stared at him, my voice robbed, my anger melting away into a sorrowful confusion, like how I felt when I was five and Mum told me Grandad was gone and not coming back. “Charlie, don’t say that.” I whispered, “I didn’t make you do any of that. You wanted to.” He shook his head in response. “I can’t do this anymore Benedict, I’m done.” He moved to leave, and on feeling a panic build up inside me like steam filling an airtight container, my hand darted out and grabbed his forearm, stopping him, and forcing him to look me in the eyes. “Don’t do this.”
For a second I thought he would crumble, that he would accept the inevitable and rush into it with me at his side. But a storm cloud descended over him, furrowing his brow into a deep crevice and contorting his lips into a blade-thin frown. He snatched my arm that had reached out for him by the wrist and squeezed it in a vice grip, twisting my skin and pulling my shoulder from its socket. It hurt, but I didn’t flinch, I didn’t move. Our love had always been a violence.
“You can’t say you don’t care about me.” My voice had grown steely once again, cutting through the air between us like a gladiator’s challenge.
“If you were murdered, raped, and hung naked from a balcony Benedict, I would not care.” Those words rested limply like a fetus suspended in a jar. Grotesque, unsightly, but mostly sad. The passion in his voice hit me more than anything else. The conviction to hatred poured out of every syllable, every twitch of his mouth. I released my hold on him. I tried to pull my arm from his grip, but he wouldn’t let go and eventually, I stopped fighting, acquiescing to him like grass bowing beneath the wind. “Babe!” Anna squealed, stumbling over to us and throwing her arms around Charlie, nuzzling into his neck like a blind newborn pup looking for her mother’s tit. “Where have you beeeeeeen?” Charlie dropped my wrist, letting it fall back down to my side, which for some reason hurt so much more. “I’ve just been with Benny babe,” he responded, talking down to her like she was an infant, “talking football.” She looked at me, just noticing my presence, “Oh, hi Benedict.” I smiled weakly in response but couldn’t find it in me to speak. They both stared at me, Anna looking quizzical and Charlie uncomfortable. “I have to go” I blurted, before dashing away from the alcove, keen to put as much distance between myself and them as possible.
I rushed out the bar door, nursing my wrist that had already started to turn blue. Football injury I decided over the mounting banging of my heart and heaving of my breath. I sucked in air in greedy gulps, but my lungs might have been a pair of needle-pricked balloons. I stumbled towards an alley, the world spinning into a formless light show of neon orange, red and green. Smudges of colour filled my vision like bouquets of flowers only to flicker out and change at the last second. Inconstant, unreliable but stubbornly beautiful. I leaned against a wall and sank to the ground. I didn’t want to cry, why should I mourn the loss of something I never really had? But tears fell anyway. Rushing down my cheeks to throw themselves off the cliff of my jaw like over-eager divers, not thinking of the rocky shallows that lay beneath.
“Fuck him,” I whispered over and over again, trying to resign myself to hatred. But I couldn’t. I never would. His love was my pain, those punches, my kisses. With an iron poker heated over hot coals, he scored himself into the soft clay of my soul, drying me out as he mutilated me, cementing me in place, ugly and broken for the rest of my life. But I’d never regret him. I knew that. He taught me that love existed in shades of blue and it has been my favourite colour ever since.
Our hotel room was cleaned while we were away. It was small. Just enough space for the double bed, an end table with a reading light on either side and a single wardrobe. We had been fortunate enough to get a balcony, if you could even call it that. In truth, it was little more than a narrow outcrop of stone with doors that opened inwards so two people comfortably sandwiched together between the stone arch could lean out onto the black wrought iron railing and look out over the street below. The door had been left open, ushering in the breeze to fidget with the light white curtains, buffeting up the ends then allowing them to drop gracefully like snowy parachutes before raising them once more just before they managed to relax and reach the dark wooden floor. I shut it closed as soon as I entered.
Our empty suitcase lay empty on the other side of the room, the lid upright against the spare patch of cream wall nearest the wardrobe. Its sightless absence seemed to stare at me as I paced around the room. Its gaping socket watched me expressionlessly like a victim too innocent to know it had been wronged, like it knew I had been the one to gouge out its contents, but in its blindness, it still couldn’t quite trace the causal nexus between its pain and me. I marched over and slammed that lid shut too.
“Benedict,” whispered Elliot, his voice marinated in red wine and glazed in honey, “are you ok?” I didn’t respond. I didn’t know how. My mind was racing too fast to express it, Elliot might as well have been a pedestrian on a motorway, trying to read the number plates of all the cars that flew by in roaring blurs. I walked over to the edge of the bed and sat facing the door into the room, catching sight of myself in the mirror nailed to it. I couldn’t help but feel a flicker of anger at the hotel then, staring at myself in the feeble light from the window. They should have a peephole! My head hissed. Why would you have a mirror where you should have a peephole?
Elliot knelt down in front of me, flooding my vision with that handsome face and I felt my heart swell. He smiled gently, his eyes reaching into mine, throwing a lifeline into the rushing river of thought in my mind. I grabbed it and slowly pulled myself back onto dry land. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” I said breathlessly, my shoulders slumping and head dropping, my body caving beneath the weight of the unshed tears I was swallowing down. “Hey, hey, hey stop that.” He crooned, placing one hand on my waist and the other on my cheek, raising my head so our gazes could level once more. “Who was that guy Ben? What did he do to you?”
I considered feigning ignorance. I could lie and if I did it enough times maybe I would believe it too. But the oceans of concern and love cradled in Elliot’s eyes washed away all thoughts of deceit like rain showering clean fence posts of fresh paint. “Somebody that I used to know. Somebody I’ve worked hard to forget.”
He nodded, tilting his head slightly, “Do you want to talk about it?”. I shook my head “I will. I promise. But not now. Not yet” He smiled again, and nodded “Is there anything I can do to make you feel better? I hate to see you this way”
“You need to get new cologne,” I whispered, barely registering what I was saying, but still mustering up the will to contort my mouth into a half smile. Elliot laughed, in that quiet, private manner of his, like he was saving all his enjoyment for me. “Of course, baby, anything you want.” He moved between my legs, still on his knees, and enveloped me in his arms, encircling my body tightly, his hands bearing kisses of heat, rubbing my spine lightly.
“I love you, Benedict.”
“I love you too.” And I meant it. I did. But my eyes remained open, searching my reflection in the mirror, cradled in his embrace with that expressionless stare and a slack mouth. It’s strange to love a corpse, I thought.
We stayed like that for a time, whispering cliché assurances of love like hurting couples do, applying declarations as salves to real and imaginary wounds. I played along on autopilot. I couldn’t peel my eyes from the mirror. My gaze burrowed through itself, passing beyond the tricks of light and sensory limitation, until in my mind sat nestled a picture of the hallway outside. Grey carpet. White walls. Lights flickering. A path going in two directions. Both moving beyond. And me, stuck between. Living and unliving, happy and unhappy, an open-casket corpse barely stinking of formaldehyde, masking all the rot that lurks within. “I love you. I will always love you.” I whisper and Elliot squeezed me tighter. He didn’t understand that I died of infected wounds long ago, and how could he when his love did such a beautiful job of puppeteering my marionette cadaver? But I knew. And I said the words anyway. For him. For Charlie. For myself. All I know how to do is love and die slowly. So I do it. And I’ll keep doing it, until it ends.
Simon Young is a 3rd-year law student at UCD originally from Kilkenny. Simon has always adored reading and writing, although has only recently thrown themselves into writing with the view of sharing and publishing it. It has become my favorite way of digesting the world and coming to understand it, and ultimately where Simon communicates themselves best. Presently, the main creative influences include Sylvia Plath, Emily Dickinson, and Donna Tartt.