Somewhere in all that rain, Liam and Neel’s parents worked. They were both from May and never talked about it, ten years between them. A few gay couples had penetrated mainstream society; one of these had been Neel’s parents, whom neighbors considered uppity and aloof, they weren’t invited anywhere, which worked out well enough for their son—he had another excuse to stay away from the Nazis. Liam’s dad was a Nazi but didn’t talk about it. Liam’s mom left politics alone but did talk about her ex-husband.
It takes an hour to reach Manhattan from May. The trains run with a slight adjustment on Christmas Eve, when Liam emerged from a bodega with wine and a loaf of bread. The rain would stay water. The traffic seemed more irritated than usual. It had been a few weeks since winter really set in, so everybody had gotten used to the cold. Liam carried an unnamable song in his mind while his ex-boyfriend turned a corner into sight, right in front of him.
Liam hadn’t dated many people. He hadn’t seen the point. Mostly he met friends through work, hooked up with them quickly, and afterward in the process of knowing them figured out whether or not he could stand their company. Ren, whom he saw again tonight, had an awful work schedule. When going out, they’d hardly seen each other—which produced the effect, now, that Liam and he had never stopped, and this reunion was happening after yet another long stretch of crossed signals, ships in the night. They hugged around Liam’s groceries: red wine, rye bread. There aren’t many benches on Second Avenue, so they decided, although it was still wet, to settle in the front yard of St. Mark’s Church. A bar would have been too committal, and for some reason neither wanted right away to go away; the weird winter weather would keep their talk short and sweet.
Still, it was cold, so they sat close, and every so often their shivering would precipitate louder gasps for breath.
“Christmas Eve always makes me think I’m gonna die,” said Ren.
“Is that so? I can’t remember if I ever saw you today.”
“No. We used to go see our parents.”
“Where are yours? Dead?”
“Moved away. Yours are—?”
“Alive. Yeah. In May.”
“Alive and kicking.”
Ren lit a cigarette and Liam imagined that it warmed him too. “This hasn’t happened to me before, if you could believe it,” he said.
“What? Sitting so close to a church?” asked Ren.
“No. No. Running into somebody.”
“Right. Well, I think I’m supposed to go home with you and fuck you and your husband. I’m just saying that to help you along.”
“Cool, I’ll think about that.” One half of Liam’s mouth opened in a grin, the effect of which anybody he’d ever dated could report on.
Cars and people passed. You could tell tonight was a ceremony, but not what kind—a funeral, maybe. The older you got, Christmases began reminding you of everybody lost, and how you thought of holidays when younger felt selfish, necessarily.
“We’re having trouble, Neel and I,” said Liam selfishly. He wouldn’t have to say more than that. He was talking to Ren.
“What else is there to have?”
“Well—do you borrow it or have it for keeps, in your experience?”
“I don’t know. I’m talking to you again, aren’t I.”
“True,” Liam said that, and Ren took a drag. Liam watched the non-shape that the smoke and Ren’s breath, hot, made in the dark air that only showed light and grey, few other colors. He continued after the interruption, “I’m trying to decide if being with just anybody is good for me.”
“Would you like my opinion on the subject?”
“No. I wouldn’t. Shut the fuck up, please.”
“Fine.” Ren laughed, for a long time, into silence. Liam was still grinning.
“I miss people more than anything,” said Ren, looking into the smoke he’d exhaled as though it were natural mist. “At the same time, maybe this is the age of being alone, you know? I really do think that. Because what are you when you’re with your family, if you were lucky enough to have a family in childhood, and what are you with your partner, if you have that too—if you can’t be alone, you don’t exist.”
“But being alone isn’t just having no one around,” said Liam. “I’m alone all the time, and I’m still thinking about people.”
“Me? I know. Hard to forget.”
“Cunt,” Liam was smiling again. Joking was always as far as they’d get, and it was perfect.
“I don’t mind that though,” said Ren, looking at the traffic. “I think I was several people, most times. I went from person to person, possibility to possibility, and took what I could get.”
“Who knows if that matters.” Half of Ren’s grin drooped. “I think it’s just all there.”
“I don’t have peace of mind anymore. I used to, but he took it from me. I don’t want to think about another person all the time because I can’t control what he does, and the more I think about it, I mean the more I live, the more it’s true, control is what I want.”
“You can’t have that.” Ren brushed his ex’s shoulder with an index finger. “You don’t even want it.”
“And then I feel like a kid most of the time. And I need him to prove that I’m—something else, something older. Is there anything worse than that? To die as a child, never having grown up, even though the years say you’re well over middle age, or even thirty.”
“That’s what they want.”
“Just look around,” Ren said softly. “If they keep you thinking you’re a kid, they keep you powerless, like you can’t access the people really making decisions or changing shit.”
“I don’t want to make any decisions. I just want to stay the same.”
“That’s something.” And Liam had to repeat, “That’s something. I fucking hate this holiday because it makes you think of where you’ll be in ten years. People put this together for the kids, you know—am I even going to have kids? Have anybody?”
“You don’t even mean that question.”
“I do, though—do you ask yourself that, ever?”
“Because you’re asking me, yes, yes, I do. But you run through life not really talking to anyone, and then you meet you, Liam, on a corner on Christmas Eve and end up smoking in front of the most historic church on the Lower East Side, or one of them. Merry fucking Christmas. You’re asking yourself that question just to keep company.”
“Do you have company, Ren? Most of the time?”
“I don’t, no. Who does?”
“Religious people, I guess.”
Ren laughed and laughed, and threw the fag on the floor. “And how good is that company?” The laughter was strange, but his question made sense.
“Pretty shitty, if they have to keep praying.”
“Because they aren’t even praying—are they? It’s just asking for things they don’t have yet. That’s not prayer, prayer takes more imagination. You have to want what you don’t even have the means to imagine—then it’s selfless, then you’re not covetous but really, truly noble.”
“Are you like that?”
“Not at all.”
Ren had said that like somebody had died. They hugged, their heads so close together each felt like brushing their cheeks against some great intrepid mammal you’d ride crossing deserts. Trembling, warm, ready.
When they broke away, Ren said something to the effect of, “I don’t know how many years I can keep beginning again. I make a lot of jokes, but that’s not one. I know—most people feel like that, are here with me. But I guess it bears repeating, then.”
Christmas Eve stayed cold. They were two men on a church bench, seated on a slight incline, as more people passed clad in black down waterproof coats disguising who they were. The people weren’t carrying packages, and not much shopping was being done. You could see who had plans tonight, and who hadn’t. December was the worst because you felt the lack. That many expectations were involved—and Liam could remember his dad, the Nazi, being a father, setting up decorations and things, setting up the presents and reading little booklets of directions once those presents were opened, completing these rituals as though going down some morbid checklist; or, the checklist was morbid now as Liam did nothing with it. Remembering takes on a very different meaning once all that is lost. He and Ren hadn’t talked much about parents; conversely, he and Neel knew far too much.
A lot of what Liam remembered that night on the bench next to Ren had to do with being sheltered. The first times you hook up with somebody, sometimes, you are. Not only by how little you may know about them but, if you’re young, the blank compulsion of possibility that drives you into being different people, trying different things, and only entertaining measures of caution that you later intend to break. To be frank you’re still kids. And then, later, when your role switches more to that of parent, even when you don’t have kids; it’s just a level of awareness that can’t or shouldn’t be turned away from. Like entering all the world’s major city train terminals at Christmastime, the chaos, and knowing precisely what to do, how to perform direction even when you don’t have any. And alone: realizing you might have liked some company, or at least somebody waiting for you at your journey’s other end. Because Ren would leave—Liam would too—and resume their ordinary lives, which didn’t include each other’s, not really proving loss but stirring a formless shade of regret.
They said goodbye: Ren reminded Liam to take his groceries. Liam thought about who, at home, would recognize these groceries were late. He left the wet church and pressed on.
Way back, a long time before, he had an idea of where the world had come from. Sitting in church with his family on Christmas morning, he thought each of the stained-glass portrayals of Christ were different people, and that the state of prostration on the cross looked much like one’s stretching their arms after getting out of bed. How sleepy the figures looked, their chimerical clothes, and primarily the chains around their waists, united with the natural history of dinosaurs being the topic he’d looked into most, made him think that in church they revered or at least talked about a race of people that had gone extinct, cavemen or something. They had risen from bed one morning, found chains around their waists with all the wantonness of the arriving asteroid, couldn’t leave their rooms, couldn’t eat, and eventually wasted away. The idea that religion had anything to do with hope came to him as a teenager, and then, as something other people believed. As a child, like most children, Christianity seemed to only be about purity and order, which some adults doubted and others doubted even more.
He’d looked at television enough to recognize that his family and all his neighbors and most people he saw every day were white; there were other people, who looked different, as well, and he didn’t harbor any fear or bad feeling towards their images on the screen, but there must have been a reason why he didn’t see them anywhere else. No word from his parents or teachers interfered to suggest this wasn’t just the way things were, and always would be. Meanwhile—whenever he heard about the clear differences between boys and girls, or the biological determinism that would remake his feelings towards girls by and by, his skin bristled, something in whom he was commanded that this was something he had to listen to selectively because it wouldn’t be here always, it couldn’t. And most simply, if that law would change, others had a possibility of getting dumped as well.
The city changes you, and years of life accumulate, but some things you don’t forget.
Their apartment was a walk-up. As often happens with stories like this one, you had no idea how they afforded it, though Liam and Neel worked often and hard. Liam could remember the rare sense of coming home Christmas Eve, a little before midnight, with gifts his family had picked up from extended relations—inexplicably leaving them to be forgotten about until tomorrow morning, under a green fake plastic tree, and hurrying off to sleep. But those moments after arrival and before sleep were like the seam of the holiday when you could see what adults all were trying to pull off. Some days, Liam noticed as he got older, connected the present to the very far past, and this was accomplished through habit: Liam’s parents and aunts and uncles had all seen each other on this day for as long as they could remember, so a braid, as it happened, had been devised. In a few days’ time, the present would be swallowed by fear of the unaccompanied future, when everybody would be dead. Liam went to sleep on the twenty-fourth and awoke on the twenty-fifth to the kitchen radio playing sleigh bells.
Approaching his front door, Neel had the radio on, too, but Liam didn’t listen to it because music, he’d found by now, impaired his ability to talk. There was no direction or habit for what he had to say. They used to get together with friends on Christmas, but this December each had realized he didn’t want to see anybody. There seemed to be enough strangers in the world. When he opened the door, his partner didn’t look up.
Neel was at his blank book again. He took to writing whenever he knew that he and Liam were about to fight. The sight of that stupid book wasn’t good, Liam knew. At the very same time the opposing looks of tenderness and rage his partner directed at the page, sometimes striking paper so angrily that the flattened object shook—this was something else entirely, Neel wasn’t a violent man. Neel wasn’t a violent man. They’d talked a lot about this, dating: how even the stories they grew up with, fantasy novels, books in series for children, offered violence as a necessary component of life, as long as those committing it felt a faith in their cause real people could rarely confess to without exaggerating, or lying. When parents and reviewers lauded these books as teaching children about the victory of good over evil, parts of Liam and Neel objected, wordlessly: at what cost, what’s the evil? A lot of this—maybe this was a thought of Neel’s book—had to do with the Christian story, the back story, that one of Satan’s central origins was in dissent. That that, besides the malice, was what made Lucifer so bad—was like malice itself. Nobody thought about these things on a daily basis, but when you’re trying to write in a journal about your boyfriend, you reach for all kinds of weird shit to avoid the topic at hand.
“Merry Christmas,” Liam greeted stupidly.
Neel looked up from his writing. It was clear he hadn’t wanted to; this was succumbing to habit. Sometimes Liam remembered what they both looked like when they were younger, like a fine plane of sand that’s been washed over with water before tourists come disturbing it with their feet. And he could remember what Neel smelt like, the spit, what his ballsack smelt like when his face got there, like he hadn’t held any man for a very long time. Every time they fucked it felt like too much time had passed. Even now the taut curl of Neel’s—or Liam’s, for that matter—body when he came reminded Liam of that fist around the just-moving pen. He set the wine and bread down on the table. He had a mind to take a glass of wine and then hesitated. Some cold air outside had gotten into the apartment.
Liam got a glass of water, and when he turned back around the notebook had disappeared.
“Are we family?” asked Liam.
“I guess the problem,” said Neel, leaning on the table’s edge, “is that family isn’t love, it’s control. But, if that’s the form of love we’re working with, or towards, we really don’t have any hope, do we.”
Cover art: “Under the Veil of Avalon” by Beth Horton