This was how it began.
Early morning and Lex was sitting naked in a leather armchair that could easily take two, his smile lit by a slavish chandelier. A creased copy of the Financial Times screened his lap, pink and brutal over his pale skin. His eyes stared out, waiting for their fill. His one bent elbow was dusky from the ink.
Turning over, a long pane of glass stretched between Lex’s frame and the city grids beyond. It was bright outside, and the grey shadows of the room fell onto Lex’s slender nape, his back, and his lean-muscled curves. A suit jacket hung next to a coat on the stand. A pair of pants were pooled underneath a shirt by the dark steel foot of a coffee table. An office in what was then the LuthorCorp building, maybe, but not the one that was now Lex’s; in the sky-high room, there was no railing to grab hold of.
Across a foldout of a white-on-white bed, a man was draped over Lex, half-asleep, a lock of his dark hair curled around Lex’s fingers. Lex’s thigh flexed above the twisted sheets and his hand pressed against the man’s waist, half a palm away from the hip. He was about to turn him over and make love to him again, body and body retracing the waves already imprinted on the bed. They could’ve been in one of the bedrooms in the Luthor mansion on Centennial Park, but Clark didn’t know which, couldn’t place it, wouldn’t know how to.
The cover read,
Men, September 1999, College Issue
Lex was by the open fire at some old clubhouse, taking his wet, mud-splashed clothes off. Two guys with bare chests were playing pool in the next room, the dark-haired man leaning against the dividing archway, and they were smiling except for Lex. Clark didn’t understand how they fit together and what Lex was doing there. He’d seen Lex drenched in gallons of hairy mutant goo and Lex had waited until he’d known everyone had gotten through okay before he’d gone home at dawn to get clean, laughing behind his bathroom door at Clark for worrying. Lex had never said he didn’t mind stripping down for everyone to see as long as it meant he could dry himself. Lex hadn’t picked being naked in front of Clark and his friends over the virulent hairy mutant pneumonia.
He’d never told Clark he knew what being with men was like. He’d never said he thought it was fun, or something to look forward to, or something good enough to want that he’d help sell it in a magazine.
Clark returned the magazine to its place in the closed stacks with trembling hands and left early for the day, tried not to think about it, did all his other jobs for weeks except the catalog cross-checking he was meant to do. And then one rainy afternoon, his soggy brain kind of laughed about it, finally catching up to this new information that maybe wasn’t really all that new to everyone else.
Chloe probably had the answer. She’d been growing up in Metropolis at the time. She could correct, confirm, contextualize. He imagined telling her, seeing those cheeks burn even though she’d try to keep a cool head. He thought he might sneak her into the closed stacks on his pass, and even though looking at the magazine with her would be awkward times a million, awkward could be the first step to getting over things.
But he didn’t take her, because she was Chloe and it wasn’t safe to let her loose in the restricted section.
He started fantasizing about stealing the magazine instead and keeping it in his room until he could put it somewhere that made sense inside his head. Because it had to end up being sensible, it had to get down to size, or life wouldn’t stop unraveling.
He was in the store on the ground floor, staring at ugly Met U mugs, thinking about ways of getting around stupid magnetic strips that make books go beep, when Sue Ellen came up to him and asked if he’d forgotten to work on the contraband serials. She, being completely worthy of being the boss, knew just how to make him feel bad about having been thought responsible enough to get the work done before the new academic year started.
So he went back down to the chilled cell that was level B2 of Tonbridge and tried, thinking it would all someday make for a funny conversation topic.
Hey, did I ever tell you about that summer I spent with the smut they keep in the library? Did I tell you, Lex? Yeah, you were there. And I thought you were a private kind of guy. And all the things you said about love and Helen and Samantha and Amy and building a home and being grown up? None of it made sense anymore after that.
And on the sixth day, Clark just kind of put his forehead against the hard binding that held the magazines together, running his fingertips over the lettering, and inhaled, thinking he was going to turn into dust.
Everywhere he went, he couldn’t escape the small smiles on the faces in the magazine, like they knew something he didn’t even though he could smile like that too, could stand and sit and lie like they did. If he could just figure it out, he could forget about them and things would go back to the way they were. He could stop wondering if Lex ever looked like that in real life, if he had ever looked like that in the past, if in the moments when Clark wasn’t there that was how Lex would be.
His fall semester elective for junior year was Intro to Art History, which in the past would have been a totally weird choice for him, but he’d heard Lois Lane had taken it when she’d been at Met U, doing exactly the same degree he was doing. Chloe had taken it sophomore year and told him it was totally easy and would come in handy when crashing parties and ticketed events to get a good scoop. He wasn’t sure if she got that line from her cousin and if he would ever be after a story that needed being at parties, but he went, because not being sure was what the enrollment grace period was for.
‘What is art?’ Everyone in the lecture hall laughed with the professor and Clark shifted in his seat, looking around thinking he couldn’t be the only one who didn’t get it. ‘How does a work of art captivate, entertain, fascinate?’ The two blonds with princess hair in front of him stole glances at each other, and the redhead with sharp shoulders three rows down started typing. Clark underlined the assignment specs on the syllabus handout.
On the second week, when he came in feeling kind of sure that the class would be okay, there was a lot of chalk flying around, and a PowerPoint presentation that made him nod off. ‘How can a painting of blue and green flowers, all blurry strokes as if the painter needed new glasses and nothing like the flowers you’ve ever seen in your life, mean something to you?’
‘How is it that a photograph of a friend can change the way you see them when the living, breathing thing is someone you see all the time, someone you think you already know so well?’
Clark pocketed what was left of his broken yellow pencil and thought maybe art history wasn’t really for him after all.
‘It’s general knowledge and it’s good for you to know,’ Mom would’ve said if he were to tell her that he was all kinds of lost.
So he stayed.
Between classes and work and keeping life going on every fundamental front, he sifted through his memories, looking for the Lex that would fit the one in the magazine and the feelings he couldn’t describe, wondering himself inside out.
And that was how, just as if they had never left Smallville and nothing had changed, Lex was back at the center of Clark’s life, like a page continuously falling open because no matter where Clark was in the book, the spine had broken there.
So, really, this was how it began: Lex’s car crashed into him in Smallville, and neither of them got hurt that day.
[1. it will not be long, it will occupy your thought]
Clark shucked off his gloves on the way to the den, finding Pete there like Judge Ross said he would be, watching ESPN with a tunneled-through bowl of chips.
‘I don’t know what my dad’s problem is,’ Clark said, making a soft landing on the couch.
Pete looked over. ‘Yeah? Nice to see you too, Clark.’
Clark blushed. They e-mailed and texted a lot, but they hadn’t seen each other since they split up in August to be freshmen in different states so it was kind of a big deal. ‘Sorry, Pete.’ He reached over for a hug, foot catching on a plate of dip and vegetables, pushing it deeper under the coffee table.
‘It’s all right, man,’ Pete said, patting Clark’s back.
Pete smiled, shook his head, like he really was happy Clark was there, and Clark eased into the couch again. ‘Everything’s great. You know, no complaints. Oh, and I got confirmation before I left, man. Al? The asshole roommate, not the cool one, is finally, finally transferring. So yeah, no complaints at all.’
‘Awesome. How did that happen?’ Clark didn’t really remember the stories, but he knew there had been some drama in Pete’s dorm. Chloe, who’d already snagged a spot on the campus paper, would call him out for that. ‘What’s wrong with you?’ she’d say. ‘Take notes!’
‘We made it happen,’ Pete said, grinning. ‘Anyway,’ he grabbed a handful of chips, ‘what’s up with you?’
Clark shrugged, glancing at the TV, at the Jayhawks and their new stadium.
It was probably not something he should have talked about with Pete. The Rosses weren’t the Sullivans.
But the problem was an old one, and Pete was an old friend.
‘My dad’s being all moody about Lex coming down tomorrow. He was like this last Thanksgiving, too, remember? Except it’s kind of worse this time.’
Pete drew his legs up, balancing the chips on one knee, and moved aside what looked like one of his mom’s law journals. ‘Your dad got into a snit about the pies even though that’s usually your mom’s thing, worrying about pies.’ He picked at the trail of crumbs on his thigh. ‘Clark, man, you know, I don’t know, but maybe your dad thinks now that you’re in college, you’d bring someone new home instead of, you know, Luthor.’
Clark turned his head to face Pete and dropped back when his friend didn’t look up. ‘What do you mean?’
Pete rubbed his hands together. ‘Luthor.’
‘Yeah?’ Clark hoped there wasn’t a tirade coming about the Luthors. ‘What about him?’
Pete was still for a moment before he sighed, took a large swig of soda, and said, ‘Clark, he was always here for Thanksgiving when we were in high school. And fine, you’re his friend and your mom’s a bleeding heart, but I guess it was neighborly, too. But then you moved to Metropolis. Or, more to the point, he moved to Metropolis, where he’s got things to do instead of watching shit percolate, so why is he still coming over here for Thanksgiving?’
Clark wondered if that was how Dad was thinking about it. But Dad understood how Lex felt about the plant, about Smallville. It was kind of home for Lex, too. ‘It’s tradition,’ he said. ‘Thanksgiving’s not the same without Lex.’
‘Right.’ Pete leaned over his knees, and resurfaced with what was discernible only at the edges as chips clumped together with dip. ‘So, your parents ever talk to you about him? I mean, he’s not family, Clark. Like, he’s a friend of the family, maybe,’ and Pete looked like he was going to be sick for a second there, probably since it meant a Luthor was a friend of the Rosses by proxy, ‘but he’s not family. And they weren’t always happy about you hanging with him.’
‘Lex? He comes up,’ Clark said carefully, and felt like that wasn’t enough. ‘Do they do that parental talk thing about him? Not so much now, but yeah. Although there’s never anything new being said. You know, ‘He’s a Luthor,’ and ‘You should be hanging out with people your own age,’ and ‘Maybe you should cool things off until you’re a little older,’ and crap like that.’ Clark shook his head. ‘He’s my friend, and he’s a part of my life, and they should get that by now. It’s pretty obvious.’
Pete gave him a look. It wasn’t exactly a funny look, but it made Clark feel all funny inside – as if he’d just done something to give his secret away, as if now Pete knew that he was all freak and no human.
‘What?’ Clark demanded, not sure if he wanted to hear the answer.
‘You know you can tell me anything, right, Clark? Anything.’
‘Yeah. Yeah, I know. Thanks, man,’ Clark said slowly, a little confused.
Pete just kind of smiled like he was happy Clark was there no matter what, but Clark didn’t get the ‘what’ and he thought that wasn’t how it should be between friends if nothing was being left out. ‘Yeah. Sorry, Pete. I think I just needed to blow off steam,’ he said. ‘My dad is my dad, right? Can’t change him. And if it’s not Lex, it would be the feed mix from Jerry or the Sharks or something.’
Pete nodded and reached for the chips, eyes turning back to the TV. ‘Pies. Don’t forget the pies.’
A lot later, when Clark declined the invitation to stay for dinner and got up to go home, Pete said, ‘Make some new friends, Clark. We need more people for fantasy baseball and Lex might own sports teams for real, but you said it yourself, he wouldn’t be interested.’
Lex offered him, Chloe, Pete and any of their friends spring break at the Centennial Park house. Over spongy eggs in the dining hall, Chloe said it sounded like a Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous holiday and she would totally be up for that, but Clark couldn’t bring himself to say yes. In the end, Chloe accepted an invitation to visit Anna from Features in New Orleans, and Pete was always going to go to Florida with his brothers anyway.
Clark figured he’d just have a week on the farm with his family, but his Pepsi got stuck in a vending machine at the campus gym one night and he got to talking to Huong from his politics class about how best to stick his hand up the dispenser and finding something to do in Kansas for break. Huong’s family was selling the dairy his grandparents had built in Wisconsin and moving to Vancouver, and Clark could tell he was morosely pissed off about that. Clark thought Huong was the kind of stray his parents would like to take in, and since Huong was Pre-Law, he also talked to Pete’s mom about a behind-the-scenes tour of the Granville courthouse.
On one of their usual morning calls, Lex asked if he was still going back to Smallville for spring break in a preoccupied voice that meant Lex was looking at his diary.
‘I sure am,’ Clark said, rummaging in his desk drawer for a working pen.
‘I have some business down at the plant, so I’ll give you a ride.’
‘Yeah, about that…’ Clark shoved the Smallville Medical Center pen in his bag, trying to think if he was missing anything for class and work. ‘Thanks, Lex, but my dad’s picking us up,’ he said. Lex’s silence made him think he should probably explain. ‘I’m taking a friend from class to stay at the farm. He’s never been out of Metropolis since he transferred here so we’re gonna go to Granville first, spend the day there. My dad has to see a supplier.’ That was pretty much it, wasn’t it? ‘But you should come, Lex. Pete’s mom is gonna give us a tour of the courthouse.’
More silence, and Clark was aware of a ticking inside his own heart. He was impatient by nature, his dad had always said, but this was something different.
‘I think I’ll pass, Clark. As much as I love local history, I do need to take care of this business.’
Clark threw his Shorthand course pack into his bag and sat down to tie his shoes. ‘Come over after you’re done at the plant and stay for dinner. Please?’
‘I’d like that,’ Lex said, his voice warm.
Autumn came early at the start of his sophomore year, and there was a mad rallying cry against it. They – he, Chloe, friends from school, new neighbors, and boyfriends that summer had brought – got together for a barbecue in the courtyard of their building, running up and down the backstairs for supplies, their wooden banisters already cold to the touch. He’d taken it upon himself to get the grill lit and going, knowing he wouldn’t be around for the cleanup.
After stuffing about half a dozen burgers down his throat, he jumped into the shower one more time to get the intense smell of caramelized onions off him, but when he got out, Chloe was already making a new batch, completely shameless.
Lex was coming to get him so they could go to NoHo to check out Lex’s new apartment, the one that was being paid with what Clark referred to as the pot of Lillian cash, once the fund for bail money and now for Lex to say ‘fuck off, I’m not even thirty yet’ to his own company. Clark wanted to smell right for the occasion.
He was telling Chloe that she was a she-devil when he heard a shout from below.
‘I told you, no outdoor sex allowed until after dark!’ Chloe shrieked back out the window, arms still locked with Clark’s and wrists flicking to injure him with greasy kitchen implements.
Carla from 1A came in the door with some empty cups and plates, and a paperback under her arm, mumbling shyly, and Clark had to ask her to repeat what she had said because smothering Chloe with a paper towel was loud business.
‘Someone called Lex is here for you, Clark,’ Carla said, circling to get to the sink.
‘Have fun, Not-So-Stinky,’ Chloe said, kissing his cheek.
He thanked Carla and went outside, seeing from the top of the stairs that Lex’s car was in the alley.
‘Your boyfriend’s here, Kent!’ Russell hollered when he was halfway to ground.
‘Shut up, Russell,’ he said when he passed by, navigating the small crowd around the plastic table heaving with food and half empty jars of mustard and relish.
Russell Watkins was a loudmouth who ate hoagies like processed meat was going out of style and had a mohawk Clark had decided was a wig made out of straw. He was also the guy Chloe had picked up on their last night at the dorms and a little too in love with her to want to exist for a day at his own place instead. Clark told Pete that one night and Pete said being territorial and whiny wouldn’t help Clark’s own prospects, and didn’t Clark love hoagies too? Clark carried some kind of hating that only never seeing Russell (and possibly hoagies!) again would cure. It made the world a little confusing and depressing.
‘Was just being nice, Kent. Where are your manners?’
‘Why do you have to go out with that asshole?’ he’d said to Chloe.
‘Research, Clark. Research.’
Clark had to take a deep breath.
‘Hey,’ he greeted everyone when he found Lex with Paul Chan and the girl Paul had brought to the barbecue. ‘Uh, did you want to stay for a burger or something?’
Lex looked surprised. ‘No. I just thought I’d say hi to Chloe,’ he said. ‘And old familiar faces,’ he added.
‘Oh. Yeah. She’s inside,’ Clark said, pointing up.
‘I see.’ Lex’s eyes fluttered, and with an economical smile, he said, ‘I’ll say hi when I drop you back.’
The drive from campus to NoHo was fast, as if Lex knew the route by heart. Clark made a joke about it and Lex smiled, ushering him into the building. Chloe had said she’d never thought Lex was a loft-living kind of guy, and NoHo was a strange neighborhood for him to buy in, but when they walked in, Clark got it. Hadn’t expected not to, in any case.
‘Cozy, huh?’ Lex said, drawing up his sleeves while looking at the papers in the kitchen. The real estate agent looked like she wanted to say something about that, but she just returned to gazing at Clark and waiting.
Clark laughed. He surveyed the double-ceilinged living room, spinning around to catch the row of empty bookshelves on the mezzanine floor above. ‘Yeah,’ he said, even though it wasn’t. It was huge for a place with only one bedroom, wrapped up in Nordic timbering and cool stretches of glass.
But he got it. As far from Smallville as they were, it was the closest they were going to get to ‘cozy’.
‘And the subway lines run all the way down to Suicide Slum,’ Lex said, that satisfied hum soaking all his words.
‘Making stops all along the length of New Troy, passing Downtown, Centennial Park, and Metropolis University,’ the agent added, like there was a line she just had to defend and Lex had kind of crossed it with his remark. ‘And they run the other way to the Financial District, too.’
Clark nodded for her benefit. ‘Great transport links,’ he said. ‘Great place.’
He asked Lex, ‘Does this mean you’re moving out of the house?’
Lex glanced up, finished signing with his fountain pen, and redid his sleeves, thanking the agent. ‘It’s too small for the office to descend on it when work piles up,’ he said to Clark.
Clark grinned. ‘Which makes it perfect, right?’
‘Maybe when I have friends in the neighborhood,’ Lex said, joining him in the afternoon light.
Clark looked at him, trying to think of a reply to that. The agent was pushing papers into folders, pretending she wasn’t there.
They barely saw each other for what felt like a long time, but when spring came, some kind of voicemail critical mass made hanging out inevitable. As much as inevitable could be scheduled around Lex’s diary and his. They were going to the first game in the first Meteors-Cardinals series of the year and sure, the Monarchs would always be Clark’s team, but he was still pumped. Lex came with a driver, which meant he was probably going to be drinking and saying funny things he’d normally reserve for times when they were completely alone, like at the mansion in Smallville or Lex’s little hideaway in NoHo, which now was happening at the rate of never.
The car was rolling out of its spot on the street when Lex’s phone rang. Lex apologized, saying he had to take the call. ‘Harris, those – I’m very well, but let’s get to the point – those numbers are not the numbers I was shown by R&D this morning. Where did they come from and, more importantly, who is keeping track of all these datasets?’
Lex’s mouth grew thin and Clark waited for him to look over so he could give him a smile. ‘No,’ Lex said, face a little pained, ‘I’m not coming back to the office today.’ He drummed on the seat, where the leather went over the edge and disappeared.
His eyes flicked up at Clark. ‘Well, get the figures straight so we don’t waste any more time and call me back,’ he snapped, ending the call. ‘Sorry about that, Clark,’ he said, pocketing the phone.
Clark shrugged, and added that smile when he said, ‘Maybe next time we should just meet downtown, Lex. Or, you know, wherever we’re going.’
Lex seemed to be contemplating his suggestion like it was muy serio business. ‘And would you prefer that, Clark?’
‘Well, you’d save time,’ Clark said. ‘And nothing against your employees, but it sounds like they need you to be at the office as much as possible.’
‘What they need is to be competent,’ Lex replied, and froze. ‘God,’ he said, laughing, ‘I sound like my father.’
‘You don’t. You’re not,’ Clark argued, words jumbled because the mention of Lionel always had that effect on him. ‘You don’t sound like him at all.’
Lex was breathless. ‘I sound like an asshole, and me as an asshole equals my father.’
Clark shook his head. ‘You need to relax a little, Lex. Forget about work,’ he said, and thought right away that it was a useless piece of advice for Lex. ‘Or if you want to talk about work, I’m listening.’
‘No. I don’t think—’ Lex righted and composed himself. ‘Thanks, Clark. I appreciate the offer,’ he said with the kind of smile that was overspill from meetings and lunches and bumping into people who had him on their minds. Clark had only ever been a bystander, catching its residue on the way in or out at the most, but now that smile could also be for him and there was nothing funny or gentle or kind about it anymore.
Three weeks into summer, Clark went home to Smallville for a long weekend. He needed it; didn’t want to burn out in between his library job, an internship at the neighborhood paper back in Metropolis, and the empty spaces that Martha, Jonathan, and Cassidy filled up as soon as he got through the door. On Friday, he helped his parents around the farm, read stories to his little sister, and ferried supplies he had to pick up in town for the new composting system his dad was trying out.
At the end of the day, he stopped by the Talon, where everyone looked incredibly young unless they were someone’s parents. Lana’s warm smile met his own, and he could almost pretend nothing had changed and they were still together like back in high school, being boyfriend and girlfriend in all ways wholesome except for the mutants and the little/big white lies.
‘Hey, Clark. Haven’t seen you in forever. Where’s Lex?’
Clark’s chest tightened. He didn’t know Lex was in town, didn’t realize Lex still had time to come down to Smallville anymore. ‘I don’t know. Why? What do you need?’
She nudged him aside with the ledger she had in her hand and went behind the bar. ‘You know, Clark, that’s not always why someone would want to know the whereabouts of someone else.’
He felt really, really bad. ‘No, you’re right, it’s not.’ He went up to the serving end and touched her shoulder. ‘Sorry, Lana. That was a jerk thing to say. Although, uh, I didn’t really mean it like that.’
‘Sometimes it’s just about caring,’ Lana said, moving on under the lights like she’d used to after their fumbles, credits for old Hollywood movies rising onto the screen upstairs.
‘Yeah. Sure. Of course,’ he said, though he wasn’t sure at all. Lex was always out on the road, always hard to catch hold of, and wanting to know where Lex was for the day was to sign up for sadism and mental algebra.
And then somehow, Lex showed up on Sunday, had two slices of pie, and offered to give Clark a ride back to Metropolis.
‘Lana asked about you,’ Clark said as they approached the turn into town, the green sign for Smallville hazy in the late afternoon sun.
‘We talked,’ Lex said, and drove straight on.
Clark remembered how he and Lex used to call each other every single day after moving to Metropolis. Lex didn’t do emails and he hated texts, but he liked talking. Always had.
Weeks passed like there wasn’t going to be any letup between sophomore year and junior year, and somewhere in the back of his mind, Clark realized they hadn’t talked in a long time but it didn’t seem all that wrong.
In July, he got his first byline ever in the city: Queensland Park Dog Shelter Running on Empty, Says Ex-Councilman Warner by Clark Kent. And Carla, moving back to the West Coast after graduating in the spring, kissed him like she’d been meaning to do it for a long time. It left him reeling because for as long as he and Chloe had known her, she’d never once seem interested in anyone. Three days later, the same hard wash of surprise came over him when he was blindsided in the closed stacks by the magazine.
[2. as a city is occupied, as a bed is occupied]
Clark wanted to know what it’d been like on set, when they’d been arranging the poses, when Lex had taken his clothes off. Clark wanted to know what Lex and the man had talked about in bed. If the guys playing pool had sat around with Lex and they’d made fun of each other like Pete did with his friends.
Clark wanted to know, rubbing up against his own hand in the shower – and once in the closed stacks, but just for a second, like a really quick second – if Lex had been with men like that in real life. If during his trips away from Smallville he’d wanted and felt and touched someone that Clark could’ve been too, needing in parts of himself that hadn’t been holding together on their own, reaching out like they both could’ve occupied the same space at the same time, no distance left as they’d come down.
On the worse days, Clark hated the dark-haired man in Lex’s make-believe bed. Like, with the ‘forever and ever, amen’ kind of hate.
‘You never call me anymore,’ was what Clark wanted to say, but that wasn’t really the point and a voicemail message should just be about the point. So he said: ‘Haven’t talked to you in a while. So, call me, okay?’
Checking his messages after shift, he heard the familiar timbre, and felt that palm-sized ache in his chest. ‘Clark, I never seem to catch you at the right time.’
Clark would think that Lex called only when he knew he wouldn’t get through, except there was the time his digital media lab session suddenly got moved to Thursday afternoon and Lex had left one of his ‘sorry I missed you, Clark, let’s catch up soon’ messages then too.
Mom and Cassidy were in the pantry, playing where-are-the-ingredients-for-mommy’s-recipe. It was just the four of them that weekend, and Clark couldn’t shake off the image of Pete with his girlfriend and brothers at the Talon the night before.
‘It’s all wrong,’ Clark muttered, watching the forks scatter in the sink under the gushing tap water.
‘What did you say?’
‘Clark, what’s this about?’ His dad asked from the table, where he was supposed to be doing the crossword instead of getting into other people’s business. ‘I barely see you nowadays and when I do, you look like you can’t do anything without a frown on your face. And right now you’re talking to yourself, making it sound like life’s no good anymore.’
‘It’s nothing, Dad.’ Clark sighed, turning the tap off. ‘Maybe I’m lonely, okay?’ he said over his shoulder. ‘I haven’t seen my old friends in a while. Makes me feel like we’re not really friends anymore.’
‘Clark, you saw Pete yes—’ Jonathan cleared his throat and started again, ‘People grow apart sometimes. It doesn’t mean they stop being friends.’ Clark felt a hand on his shoulder and the soft nub of what was probably his dad’s pencil. ‘Listen, son, the older you get, the more there is of life. It happens to everyone. Responsibilities, jobs, relationships. And wait until you have a mortgage and a family to worry about. If you keep this up, you won’t have any energy for even one kid, Clark.’
‘Dad, I’m twenty.’
‘My point exactly.’
Campus had emptied out by Wednesday before winter break started. He was printing a couple of papers on the first floor of the Ton when the doors to Acquisitions opened and Sue Ellen strode through, looking really glad to see him. He knew then he’d be staying until Friday. Chloe was kind of happy about that because she was still working on her data modeling credit for Patterson’s Visualization class, but the last thing he wanted to do was spend more time at work.
He had to go down to B2 with Sue Ellen’s list to collect books marked off for transfer into Special Collections because, in her own words, ‘the liberals in Topeka finally grew a damn spine’. He thought they wouldn’t mind if he dropped off his papers first and went to sleep for the first time in three days.
On Thursday morning, he was probably the only undergrad left in the library except for the people on the reshelving shift. He found a free cart outside the Classics reading room and took it down the service elevator. The automatic stacks on B2 were on sleep mode, humming like a dreaming metal caterpillar. He slid his pass through the scanner and waited for the locks to disengage before dragging the cart with him into the restricted section. The lights staggered to life all along the aisles as he headed for the APs to pick up the bound volumes of Playboys and Playgirls.
On his way out, he glanced at AP 24 .S16 v.3 1999, thought he could see an imprint of his nose there oiling the leather, and brushed it with his hand.
It felt cool to his fingertips, and innocent the way one pebble among many always was.
He took his hand away because the days when he’d stare at Lex on display, smiling that ‘See anything you like, Clark?’ smile, were supposed to be over. Art History as therapy was supposed to be working.
He was startled by a noise he made, and realized the tightness spreading down his jeans was the drag of his own hand, palm open, fingers clutching at the fabric. He leaned into the shelving, face buried along the spines of bound periodicals. Lex had books like them in Smallville, and they smelled rich, and different, and full of possibilities. And once Clark had told himself he would read them all, but there had always been too many, and their life had been too full of mutants and hide-and-seek-the-past.
Sinking down to the concrete floor, he tugged AP 24 .S16 v.3 1999 out of the shelf. It tumbled into his hands, opening to the creased pages of Lex, Lex naked in the chair, in the office, in the bed with the guy who was not Clark. Lex in the college club, a streak of mud on his shoulder. Clark set the hardbound volumes down on the ground, where the cover struck loudly and pushed against his thigh. He thought of rubbing against Lex’s bare chest, kissing his neck slowly, asking if it was all right to touch himself, asking if Lex wanted to watch as he unbuttoned, pulled his zipper down and stroked through the warm air escaping from underneath his clothes.
He held on to the edges of the lowest shelf where it met the upright bar, touched Lex’s open face, the eyes waiting for something, for someone. He rubbed the paper until it felt like it would tear from his damp fingers, bit into his sweater until it was wet hot, and stroked himself. His breathing seemed like it filled all the dark spaces in the aisles that the ticking of the timer on the lights couldn’t, and he thought of how Lex used to sidle up to him from nowhere, smiling for a shared secret. He came in his boxers, spilling down the insides of his thighs. His hands were shaking when he closed the magazine, and it felt like the world had slowed down but his heart wouldn’t follow because it was still chasing a somewhere else.
He scrawled an apologetic but officious note on the book cart, pushed it to one side so it lined up neatly against the stacks, and went home.
After a really long shower full of stupid feelings that wouldn’t dissipate, he dragged Chloe out to the diner around the corner because she needed to have something other than coffee grounds between her teeth and he needed to tell someone.
‘So he modeled,’ Chloe said, scooping up some baked potato from her bowl, chunks of cheddar going rogue over the rim.
‘Naked,’ Clark said. ‘With other naked guys.’
‘Like, nude shots?’ She chewed. ‘You know, Robert Mapplethorpe-y.’
He didn’t know who she was talking about was so he just explained what was on the different pages, putting in the details so she’d get the picture.
‘Oh.’ She flushed and put the spoon down. ‘Are you okay?’ she asked. After a moment, she reached out for his hand but withdrew before she got there.
Maybe he was looking kind of unhinged because that was definitely how he felt about her reaction. ‘That’s it? That’s how you’re dealing with the news that there’s a magazine in the library with Lex naked in it for … you know, for people to jerk off to?’ And he knew he was blushing then, and there was no way ever that he would tell her about the other thing, the I-jerked-off-to-it-myself-in-the-stacks thing.
‘Sorry,’ she said, clearly not meaning it. ‘After the severed hand that came in a box, I stopped being shocked by Lex.’
‘Okay,’ Clark said slowly. ‘So you’re not shocked. Okay. Fine. But aren’t you even curious about it?’
‘You mean, do I want to see it?’ she asked, eyebrows furrowing. ‘No, I don’t, Clark.’
‘Why don’t you want to see it?’
Chloe stared at him. ‘Why would I want to see it?’
‘It’s not because it’s gay porn, right?’ he asked, fiddling with what passed for a paper napkin in a campus neighborhood.
He got an eye-roll for his troubles. ‘It’s because he’s my friend, you douche. I don’t need to see my friend in porn, okay? Even if it’s softcore or artistic or whatever.’
Clark had to think about that. ‘Yeah. Sure. I get it.’
She leaned back, fork jabbed into the side of the potato. ‘Do you?’
It wasn’t going to be the last time they’d talk about Lex and the magazine, but whenever the subject came up again, there was a kind of mutual agreement about how he couldn’t get it out of his mind and she could if only he would.
Winter wheedled and schemed his junior year, and spring had to come twisting for the days to break green. The sidewalks were soaked with rain, and Clark had his head down, hating himself in varying degrees when he woke up in the mornings.
When he went downstairs to get the door one Sunday in April, it wasn’t who he’d been expecting. He paused on the landing, watching Lex stand very still outside, hands gloved like he might have driven down himself.
Clark wanted to open the door and reach out, draw Lex in from the wet, and inhale the scent of his damp collar. But the morning in the closed stacks, hands clammy and heart beating fast, flashed across his mind. He felt really awful.
‘Didn’t realize you still know where I live,’ Clark said as he opened the door. It was meant to be friendly, but it came out like a kick to the stomach and he was half-afraid that Lex would just turn around and leave even though right there he was close enough for Clark to touch and drag his fingertips down.
Lex made a face like he got how Clark was feeling, but he couldn’t have. ‘I don’t know what you want from me, Clark,’ he said after a moment. ‘I know I haven’t been around much, but I’m here now and I don’t think even I deserve that kind of welcome.’
‘Whatever, Lex,’ Clark said. ‘It was a joke, okay? Relax.’
They stood there, the open door letting the sound of rain in.
‘It’s been a crazy year,’ Lex offered in the silence.
‘Chloe,’ Clark’s stomach dropped at the mention of her name, ‘thinks you haven’t been yourself lately. I thought I’d stop by and be able to assure her that you’re fine, that I don’t need to worry about you when I’m all the way in Asia, but I can see I was wrong. I’ll be back—’
‘What did she say?’
‘—in a couple of weeks,’ Lex said. ‘Let’s get together when I get back. I’ll ask Anneke to clear my schedule and we can hang out.’
‘What did Chloe say to you, Lex?’ Clark pressed, all hollowed out.
‘She said you’ve been spending most of your time alone, and mostly in the library. She was especially worried about the library,’ Lex said, sounding kind of amused about that. Clark didn’t think his tone would be so light if Chloe had told him about the whole thing with the magazine. ‘Her theory is that you’ve run up wild gambling debts and now have to work all day and night just to keep the bookies at bay. I told her you’re probably just getting serious about school now that you’re a junior and the year is almost over.’ Then Lex grinned apologetically, eyes searching Clark’s. ‘And I’ve checked with all the bookies in Metropolis. They’ve never even heard of you.’
They shared an awkward laugh, and Clark wanted to say how much he wanted things to go back to the way they were.
‘What’s up, Clark?’ Lex said, so softly that any answer in the world would probably land safe and sound.
Clark toed the doorframe. ‘I’m fine, Lex,’ he finally said, lifting up his head. ‘You’re right. I’m getting serious and that’s all. I mean, thanks for caring, but please don’t waste any more of your time looking stuff up,’ he said, everything coming out in a rush to take the place of bigger things. ‘Have a good trip, Lex.’
‘No, really. Have a good trip.’ He grabbed Lex’s shoulder for a rub, slow because he was trying to be gentle, to respect whatever it was they had now. ‘Call me when you get back.’
He was waiting for Chloe when she came back from lacrosse practice, face streaked with wet hair.
‘Shoes off the bed, Clark.’
He scooted and decided to stand up while he was at it. ‘Chloe, why did you go and tell Lex that you were worried about me? Why didn’t you just tell me?’
She set her gear down carefully. ‘I don’t know. It just happened.’
‘Things don’t just happen.’
‘No, you’re right, Clark,’ she said with a sharp smile, whipping a towel out of her gym bag. ‘Things don’t just happen. Thank you.’
He was almost regretting that she had a couple of big sticks nearby.
‘Clark, there has to be a reason for what’s been going on with you. People don’t just shut themselves up in the library unless there’s a reason for it, Clark.’ He knew what she was getting at and he burned with embarrassment. ‘They don’t just stop spending time with their friends or talking to them unless they’re pissed off or sad or something,’ Chloe said, in a low voice now. ‘And they especially don’t act as if their best friend doesn’t exist anymore unless some major reason-induced fallout happened.’
‘Who are we talking about here?’
‘You! You and Lex,’ she said, sounding a little sad, and he hated that. ‘And you and Pete, and your parents, and Cassidy.’
‘My family’s fine.’
‘They haven’t seen you in months, Clark.’ She sat on her chair, setting her elbows on the adjustable arms, digging herself in. ‘You used to go home every couple of weeks.’ Her frown deepened. ‘Lex used to drive you there.’
‘What? That has nothing to do with Lex. I’ve been really busy with stuff. You know my schedule. It’s nuts! Whatever you’ve made your mind up about, not everything has to do with Lex,’ he sputtered. ‘I’ve gone home without him plenty of times. I’ve gone home even after he got too busy to go down to the plant himself.’
She quietly searched his face.
‘Honestly, Clark? Do you really think he took those trips with you because he wanted to check on the plant?’
‘What are you saying?’ he asked, not really wanting her to answer.
‘Did you guys start dating in secret and then break up or something?’ she asked, and bit her lip. ‘That’s what Pete thinks,’ she told him. ‘And if he’s right, you don’t need to tell me the reason why. I thought you were overreacting, except not, because you grew up in Smallville, but then I thought you were still being kind of weird about it anyway and so all this time—’
‘No. I don’t know. No! No, that’s not it at all,’ he said, rambling because he just wanted her to shut up. He sank back down onto the bed. ‘Why does he think that? Do you think that?’
She smiled softly. ‘It would make sense except you suck at keeping secrets.’
He thought of Lex flipping open the pages of a magazine and finding him there, naked, standing in the storm cellar, opening the grey ship that carried him to earth, the bright light shining on his body. He thought of lying on his side in the caves, the sigil on his chest, the power coursing through every blood vessel in him, and Lex catching sight of everything. He wondered what Lex would have to say about his smile.
He couldn’t decide if it was unfair that the memos he’d missed in life would, one way or another, reappear as porn.
He rubbed his face with his hands and took deep breaths. ‘You asked me a while back if I cared about him being gay or bi or maybe being neither but at least totally okay with featuring in a gay porn mag, and I said no, but actually I do,’ he said. ‘But only because, like, maybe if I’d known, all these years I wouldn’t have just been his friend or whatever.’
Chloe sighed and didn’t say anything, just swung over from the chair and hooked her arm around his.
Two weeks later, an email from someone called Sam said Lex was back at the office and he would like to have dinner with Clark on a night that worked for them both.
In the elevator up, Clark thought of the view of the city grids below and realized how much he was looking forward to seeing it again. When the doors opened, he was smiling to a floor too loud for seven in the evening.
‘Lex says you know the way?’ someone who might have been Sam said, folders in one arm and a bag of chopsticks in another.
Clark nodded, making way for a cart of document boxes whizzing into another elevator. ‘Yeah. Thanks. Two lefts and a long right,’ he said, already walking.
From the long, glassed-in corridor, he could watch the traffic on Metropolis Boulevard inch forward both ways, lights flickering red.
The doors to Lex’s office opened and two people came out tapping into PDAs and asking each other questions that sounded like punctuated strings of numbers. They’d clearly worked for Lex for a while. The cream carpeting inside glistened under the lights cranked up from wall to wall. Bad conditions for night viewing, he thought. He gave them a nod as they passed and stepped in.
There were three clusters of people in the office, two around the coffee tables in the far corners and one at Lex’s desk, where Lex wasn’t.
He was trying to isolate Lex’s voice when Lex stood up from one of the low armchairs and came over, sleeves rolled halfway up his forearms and dusky at the edges. He was glowing with what smelled like a takeover bid in the works. ‘I’m very sorry about this, Clark. Give me a half hour?’
God. Clark was just happy to see him. Nervous, but happy. ‘No problem, Lex.’
‘Sit down,’ Lex gestured at his desk. ‘Use the computer if you want. On second thought, I’ll get someone to give you one. Grab a chair over there,’ he said, pointing to where he’d been earlier. ‘And help yourself if you’re hungry,’ he added, and Clark noticed the trays of wraps and sandwiches at the bar.
Clark grabbed a soda so Lex would get back to work and headed to the side of the office facing downtown and, far off in the distance, the Bay.
He was right about the glass in the magazine. It was all wrong. The photograph hadn’t been taken in Lex’s office, or what would’ve been Lionel’s back then.
It would be different here, he thought, because of the memories. Sometimes they’d be spread over the sofas. He’d be doing homework and Lex would be running through the operations databases, both having freshman years of sorts. Other times they’d be on the floor, full of Chinese or pizza or hoagies, staring at the impossibly high ceiling. Lex would be talking about weather patterns or canine disorders and Clark would just lie there listening to the sound of Lex’s sentences and punctuations. And there was the time Clark had been cramming for an exam he’d thought he’d fail, and Lex had guided him through a whole semester’s worth of work. At the desk, Clark had hovered over Lex, watching him cut the online material down to size. In all those hours, he could’ve rested his chin on Lex’s shoulder, could’ve kissed his neck, feeling the blowback of his own breath against Lex’s cool skin. He’d been giddy about something, but not about being with Lex in that way because, whatever they’d been, nothing like it had happened.
He looked up and saw Lex watching him in the glass.
‘Freshman year,’ he heard himself say, ‘I was flunking Intro to Communications and you stayed up all night to help me cram for the exam. I never thanked you for that.’
‘You never had to.’
‘Yeah, I did. But I didn’t think about it at the time. I just wasn’t thinking it.’
The expression Clark was learning to read on Lex’s face was of Lex not knowing what Clark wanted from him.
‘I have to go,’ Clark said, turning away from the Lex in the glass. ‘All this talk about thinking …’ he started, setting his soda down. ‘Let’s do dinner some other night. You’re busy and I just remembered I have an in-class exam in a couple of days and I haven’t started studying for it.’
Lex frowned. ‘Don’t you still have a month until all that?’
‘It’s more like a pop quiz, but it’s going to count for twenty percent,’ Clark told him. ‘I only know about it because I overheard Dr. Posner talking about it with the TA when I was coming out the bathroom.’ That part was true, at least. ‘I’m sorry, Lex. Catch you later, okay?’
Clark paused for a moment when he was about to pass Lex. He wanted to put a hand on Lex’s shoulder, wanted to say something more. But he couldn’t do it.
In the long corridor, he heard Lex’s voice. ‘Clark. Hold up.’
He turned around and stood still under the glow of a ceiling light where the night, if he were to turn to look, would be the deepest ink blue.
‘What was that back there, Clark?’ Lex’s shoulders were squared, the shadows brushed away from the white of his collar.
‘I have to study, Lex. And you have work to do,’ Clark said. ‘Tonight isn’t looking like the best night for dinner.’
‘You’re welcome to study here, Clark, if you don’t mind the crowd back there,’ Lex said. ‘We can order the Japanese in,’ he added, his smile wry. ‘It’s possible I was being optimistic about being done in half an hour.’
Clark held his hands open. ‘I didn’t bring my stuff with me.’
‘The materials aren’t online?’
‘Come on, Lex. It’s really not going to happen tonight.’
Lex rubbed the back of his neck. ‘All right. So let’s reschedule,’ he said. ‘Tomorrow night?’
Clark would love to blow off his study group, but they’d already booked one of the rooms in the Ton and those were hard to get. ‘How about this weekend?’ he suggested. ‘I was thinking of going to Smallville on Friday. Do you need to go to the plant for anything?’
Lex exhaled and put his hands in his pockets. ‘No. I don’t. And I have a big meeting on Friday.’
‘Then drive down for dinner when you’re done,’ Clark said, although it sounded more like he was asking if Lex could, if Lex would and wanted to.
‘Sounds good, Clark,’ Lex said. It was him who rubbed Clark’s shoulder this time, and it was Clark who left. He wondered if at his doorstep Lex had wanted to lean into his touch too and stay right there.
Clark heard the telltale sounds and headed for the stairs, pausing to check if he looked all right when he went by his parents’ room and their huge-ass mirror. On the landing, he passed his dad, arms full with Cassidy’s bath stuff and face shining with ‘hey, I’m the luckiest guy in the world’. Clark could hear her in the bathroom, talking about how girl ants really liked to dance in lines so boy ants did too.
He got to the kitchen in time to see Lex walk in.
‘Sorry about that, Mrs. Kent. I didn’t think I’d make it if I didn’t take the chopper,’ he said, embracing Clark’s mom. ‘I’ll get someone from the plant to check on the field first thing tomorrow morning.’ His mom clucked at Lex and said she was happy to see him again. Lex put the box he was carrying down on the counter, fingers caught for a moment in the baker’s string and smiling.
‘What’s that?’ Martha asked.
‘Something for breakfast so you don’t have to think about it,’ he said.
‘Honestly, Lex. If I don’t tell you off anymore, it’s because I’m getting old and I’m tired of repeating myself.’
Lex laughed, hip leaning against the sideboard with the ducks on it. ‘I’m more than all right with that, Mrs. Kent.’ He was watching her, a small smile on his face, and Clark thought he knew what Lex was thinking because he always thought it too when he got to the farm.
The table was set, and the food was almost done, and Lex probably knew that, but his eyes would soon sweep around, looking for something for him to do because at these dinners, Clark’s parents didn’t entertain. So Clark stepped forward, hands in his pockets.
‘Hey, Clark,’ Lex said, eyes meeting his.
Clark was about to say hey back, but there was a commotion barreling down the stairs and Cassidy, who was insanely fast on her feet for a tiny human being, jumped up into Lex’s arms and buried her face in the crook of his neck. ‘Hey, little lady,’ Lex laughed, swaying from the impact. ‘You got so big.’
Martha smiled and told Cassidy to get down, but Cassidy wanted to tell Lex about the ants. Jonathan passed around Clark, patting his shoulder, and went to shake Lex’s hand, taking Cassidy off him. And then the bread was coming out of the oven and it needed plating on the table. And dinner was ready, and they had to sit, eat up, don’t be shy. Clark sat listening to Lex talking to Cassidy, and his dad talking to Lex, and Cassidy talking to his mom and asking for more milk, please, and watching Lex pour a glass for her, and Clark stopped wanting to say something.
Much later, when the food was finally settling down in his stomach, he heard his mom say through the wall that separated his bedroom and theirs: ‘It was nice to see Lex again, wasn’t it? Scoot up, Jon.’
‘Are we going to be expecting him every time Clark decides he’s willing to see us? Is that the compromise?’
Clark sat down on his bed, careful not to make it creak. He didn’t want to listen to them, but if he had to, he wanted to hear everything, loud and clear.
‘Not everything is about you, Jonathan Kent,’ his mom chided. ‘And don’t start making up stories about Clark and compromises. Who knows what kind of life he’s trying to live? Not you, that’s for sure.’
‘Did he ever—Did you ever hear him say anything?’ Clark said, balancing Chloe’s books in his arms. A grad student sighed pointedly from the table at the center of the reading room. ‘When we were in Smallville, or later?’
‘No, Clark,’ she said, absorbed in her OMG FINALS HERE WE COME list and not needing clarification. She knew whom he meant in his non-sequiturs. ‘But, as much as it pains me to say this, life isn’t only about getting all the quotes.’
Turning twenty-one didn’t feel like anything special, but he made a show of being happy and excited. When Chloe had rambled about a supper club and snazzy drinks, Clark had thought she’d meant a diner that served mix-your-own malts and had a jukebox in the corner, not a place with dancing and a cover big enough to be a present for his birthday; but he’d said he was up for anything and he knew Chloe needed to let off steam after weeks of studying.
‘There he is! Lex!’ Chloe shouted in her shimmiest shimmying dress. Across the ocean of beautiful people on the dance floor, Lex turned and smiled at them, as if he was the one with super awesome hearing. Chloe pulled hard. ‘Come on, let’s dance over.’
Clark didn’t budge. ‘You know I don’t dance.’
‘Well, I’ll dance,’ she said, grabbing his waist, ‘and you can pretend.’
She wasn’t as agreeable when she said, ‘Don’t over-exert yourself, Clark,’ as he tried to approximate some kind of stepping back and forth to the beat.
The first and last time Clark had seen Lex in a club was in the shell where Club Zero had stood. Lex had almost died and Clark had been thinking he wasn’t sure who it was he’d come there to save, but he’d wanted to save him nonetheless.
It wasn’t so different from how he felt right now, except Lex wasn’t in mortal danger and he didn’t need saving anymore. And as he and Chloe danced closer, he saw that Lex wasn’t just standing there holding a drink. Lex’s head was tilted toward someone to his left as if he was making a big effort to listen close over the music.
Lex laughed, tipping his head back, and Clark saw the face of the person he was with. He was about the same age as Lex, fair-haired, with the kind of sly, intelligent smile the philosophy grads at Met U had. Lex and the stranger shared a look and Clark wondered if they would hold it and whether he and Chloe would be breaking the moment because they were almost there now.
A moment later the guy was pulling in for a kiss, slow like a long throw from the outfield in little league, and Clark really didn’t know what to do then other than stop like his chest was being hammered into a thousand times over.
Chloe yelped, saying something about her foot. She followed his gaze and tugged at his shirt, eyes soft. ‘Now we know,’ she said, gesturing in Lex’s direction. ‘And he knows we, or more importantly, you know that about him. It’s all good, Clark.’ If his head wasn’t already spinning, it spun then.
Before he could ask what she’d meant, he felt his phone buzz. He took it out to look, hand unsteady.
21! Huzzah! Beers on me when ICU Love U man no matter what Pete
‘He capitalized! That’s sweet,’ Chloe said, reading upside down.
‘Hey Chloe, Clark,’ Lex shouted, kissing Chloe’s cheek and pulling Clark into a quick hug. ‘Happy birthday!’
Clark smiled even though he didn’t want to and let go of Chloe’s hand. ‘Thanks, Lex.’
Lex introduced the fair-haired guy as Harry Crawford, and Chloe and Clark as old friends from Smallville. Something in Harry’s eyes when they shook hands made Clark feel no less uneasy.
‘Come to our table,’ Harry said. ‘It’s easier to talk there. And you’re probably hungry?’
Chloe grinned. ‘Clark is always hungry.’
Harry led Chloe up a short set of stairs and Clark followed, glancing back at Lex, who only smiled.
A bottle of champagne came to the table, and what would be finger food except there were forks and knives for eating them. They clinked glasses in honor of Clark’s birthday and at some point, Clark shared a smile with Chloe because it was really kind of great that they’d been friends since junior high and now they were adults together.
After only melting cups of sorbet and cream were left to eat on the table, and they were all silent in the noise of the club as they started on their third bottle of champagne, Harry cleared his throat and took Chloe away for a dance.
‘She’s a great girl,’ Lex said, looking over Clark’s shoulder at the dance floor. ‘And one of your best friends.’ He took a swig of champagne. ‘You’re very lucky, Clark.’
Clark stared at Lex, watched his throat work the drink down and couldn’t say anything but: ‘If you think you’re on a double-date, you’re wrong, Lex.’
Lex finished his glass and poured another. ‘So, no one is on a date tonight,’ he said, eyes on Clark.
‘I know we’re not in the habit of giving presents to each other,’ Lex started, stretching his legs. It used to be funny when Lex said that because he’d be saying it while giving Clark a present. Now the statement was true all down to its bare bones. ‘But it’s your twenty-first and as someone who’s done the whole twenty-first birthday thing, I feel I should ask you what you want to help you celebrate.’
‘We’re hanging out. That’s good enough for me,’ Clark said, smiling back at Lex, unsure if being so close and alone was all right.
‘Is it?’ Lex laughed. ‘That’s the Kent spirit of making do with what you have, right?’
Clark turned to look at Lex and somehow ended up reaching out for his sleeve, grasping at his wrist. It wasn’t all edges like he’d imagined it to be.
‘I’m… I don’t have anything planned. I’m just—’
‘—trying to see where life is going to take me, and just looking over where it’s taken me so far, you know?’
Lex shifted and carefully retrieved his hand. His laugh was dry. ‘I think this champagne is starting to take you places already.’
‘And I think you’re being a coward,’ Clark said boldly, looking straight into his eyes.
‘If you only knew, Clark,’ Lex said. He looked incredibly bitter.
Clark leaned in, trying for Lex’s face but ended up catching his neck instead because Lex had outmaneuvered him. Lex’s skin felt electric, the goose bumps a tread Clark wanted to follow forever and ever.
‘Stop,’ Lex hissed.
‘Because you don’t want me to kiss you?’ Clark asked into Lex’s skin.
Sucking in a breath, Lex got up. ‘You don’t want this, Clark.’
‘Why?’ Clark followed and tried to grab Lex when he stepped back, pushed Clark away. ‘Lex?’
‘He’s like a brother to you. He’s a really good friend,’ Harry snapped from behind Clark. ‘You said he wouldn’t know what gay was if it hit him on the head. Well, looks like it’s hit, Lex.’ When neither of them replied, he shook his head and walked away.
‘Harry, wait,’ Lex called after him. ‘Shit.’ He grabbed his cell from the table and signed his name on the tablecloth like a crazy person. ‘You and I, we’re going to talk,’ Lex said to Clark, and went after Harry.
Harry didn’t act like he wanted to give Lex the time of day, and Clark hoped he wouldn’t, hoped he’d just leave, but he gave in like everyone always did when Lex was serious about something. Harry shot Clark an irritated look and minutes later, he and Lex both were leaving the club.
Through the crowd of dancers and the half-abandoned tables, Clark watched them go, trying not to seem disappointed and hurt, and spectacularly failing because his eyes were staging a mutiny.
‘Maybe he didn’t mean tonight,’ Chloe said into his ear, probably having seen everything. She hugged him, swaying slowly, pulling his attention away from the doors.
After too many shots which apparently Lex’s ballpoint graffiti would pay for, they crawled home and into her bed, where she managed to perk up for a moment before nodding off. ‘Screw finals and screw Lex and that hairball Harry. We’ll celebrate more tomorrow, Clark, so don’t give up on your birthday yet.’
Clark gave her a kiss on the nose and got up, thinking he was an adult now and capable of being one.
‘Sorry about what happened tonight,’ he said into the phone. ‘I wasn’t thinking. I’m all messed up. I’m not sure where we’re at.’ I don’t know what to do about the things we didn’t have.
He ended the call before he could delete the message and went to take the longest sleep of his life, dreaming of Lex right up to all the edges of his bed.
Clark was rifling through Chloe’s Journalism Ethics printouts in the living room when the phone rang. It was his parents, yelling HAPPY BIRTHDAY! in unison. He squelched the feeling of wanting to speed home to hug them.
‘How was your birthday, Clark? Hope you’re still going to be ready for finals,’ his dad said, now on the phone alone, or almost. ‘Yes, Martha, I know. I remember!’
Clark told him about going out with Chloe to celebrate and digging in to study the next day. He said nothing about Lex because there would be too much story to tell or maybe to defend and he didn’t have all the right pieces for that.
‘Everything all set for this weekend, son? Your mom’s been practicing from a new recipe book. We’ve been eating cake for five days straight.’
That would explain the intensity of their cheer earlier, Clark thought. ‘Yeah, but I’ll be there Friday night, Dad.’
He could almost hear his dad grin. ‘Not done with your papers yet?’
‘No, it’s not that. Sue Ellen wants me to come in on Friday.’
‘Finals week and they’re still working you hard, huh?’
‘We’re trying to wrap up in the restricted section,’ Clark explained, feeling achy. ‘The Head Librarian wants a report.’
‘You know, in my day, students couldn’t get in there even if they were—Hold on. Your mom wants to know if any of your friends are coming,’ his dad said. ‘Hold on.’ There was a rustling like the phone was rubbing up against something, and he could almost hear his mom in the background. ‘Martha, do you want to speak to the boy yourself?’ his dad asked, a little gruff.
‘Clark, she said you need to tell her if anyone has allergies. Don’t want another episode like the one a few years back. What was his name? Wong?’ Another rustle, and the click clack of two people moving around the kitchen. ‘Huong! Huong!’ his dad said, apologetic. ‘You were always better with languages than me, Martha,’ Clark could hear him say, all gooey, and he couldn’t help but smile.
After a celebratory breakfast with Chloe, Clark went into the Ton and headed up to Sue Ellen’s office.
‘You’re late and she’s in a meeting,’ someone said from across the hall. The man waved Clark in and pushed some papers at him. ‘Make sure all these are in order and double-check that the items are still there,’ he told Clark, as if in the shuffle from the restricted section to Special Collections someone would’ve dared to steal something. ‘She’ll talk to you next week, if you’re here for the summer.’
Clark nodded, but the man wasn’t looking at him anyway so he left and took the stairs down to B2. He could hear a couple of people talking in the automatic stacks, and then a hush as he passed by.
He worked following the aisles, the match of locations and numbers all in his head like something buried so deep he didn’t have to think it about anymore. At the APs, he saw the call numbers for Men on the list, didn’t even have to look at the title, and knew they weren’t going anywhere. He wondered if his access to the restricted section would be taken away when his work was done, wondered if today could be that day.
There was no harm in looking one last time, he thought, and sat down with it, opening the pages to the 1999 September issue, to Lex, a little worn from Clark’s thoughts all year long.
Clark’s fingers ran across the pink newspaper in the photograph, Lex’s bare knees and the curve of his ankles. He’d felt Lex’s skin underneath his lips now, could imagine with some authority what it would be like to kiss Lex’s feet and trace them with his nose pressed close, inhaling.
In the office that wasn’t Lex’s own, Clark could imagine sitting on the desk and asking Lex if he wanted Japanese, if they could go again against the glass before dinner came. And Lex would laugh and give over his wrists for Clark to take hold of. Clark would cling to him and ask him to tell a story in between hitched breaths and punctuations that ran up and down Clark’s back.
On the bed that could be in the bedroom in NoHo, though Clark didn’t know if Lex had kept the place, they would be lying together, hands frantic, saying nonsensical things as if there were no other days for them. Clark would have Lex’s scent on him, as the sheets did, as the pillows did, as the deepest flesh of his heart did. And Lex would ask if Clark would move in with him for senior year, and Clark would say no because he loved living with Chloe, but he totally would if Lex could wait a year. And he’d say please, Lex, don’t forget to ask again.
Clark exhaled, stomach twisting, lost in all the paths they couldn’t take. When he heard the footsteps echoing down the aisle, it was too late. He squirmed, the weight of the bound spine sinking deeper into his lap, taking the place of his cheating palm there.
‘The Met U collection of smut and incendiary literature. How I’ve missed you,’ Lex said, sighing happily at the shelves all around them.
‘How… How did you get in?’ Clark stammered. He needed to shut the magazine, shove it somewhere. Turn the pages to another issue, at least. But he couldn’t move.
Lex smiled. ‘My library card turned out to still be good.’ Clark knew Lex was lying. A library card couldn’t get anyone into the restricted section.
‘She told me I could find you here.’ Lex sat down next to him, knee hitting the edge of the hardcover so the bound volume bounced in Clark’s lap. ‘And I’m very glad she did. I needed her to, Clark.’
Clark tried to take in the implications of that. ‘Lex, I’m—’
Lex looked at the magazine over Clark’s shoulder. ‘It’s disgusting how skinny I was.’
‘—sorry,’ Clark said, feeling himself blush furiously.
‘That might’ve been the year I went on that no-carb diet. Hell. Those were shitty days. Say no to diets, Clark.’
Clark couldn’t process his own train of thought, let alone Lex’s. ‘Lex, I can explain. It was—God. It doesn’t look good, does it?’ he said, voice strained. ‘I am such an asshole.’
‘Only when you don’t share,’ Lex said, smirking. ‘So, Clark, am I included, or are you just into this?’ he asked, eyes on the bound issue of Men in his lap.
Clark couldn’t believe how calm Lex was being. ‘What do you mean?’
‘Sex with me,’ Lex said, gesturing at himself, ‘and sex with me, or a combination thereof,’ he pointed to the magazine, ‘are all different things, Clark.’
Clark couldn’t meet Lex’s eyes. ‘I want… I want something.’
‘That’s a good place to start,’ Lex said as if they were talking about a tricky problem set.
‘If I told you it helped me think, would you believe me?’ Clark asked, and he passed the bound volumes to Lex because he didn’t feel like holding on to them anymore, because maybe they were due for return a hell of a long time ago. ‘It’s not just that, all right? It’s you. It’s us. Like, I thought we were friends. Just friends. But I don’t know if I read that right.’ His voice was shaking and he had to exhale, take deep, deep breaths. Lex’s silence was so kind and Clark was so, so thankful for it.
He put his palm on the concrete floor, the coolness soaking through like it could set him back down to neutral.
‘Lex, you gave me a fireworks display on my birthday when I barely knew you.’
‘It was affordable and I needed new friends.’
Clark glanced at Lex. ‘You gave me tickets to Coldplay so I could go on a date with Lana because I really liked her and you wanted me to have a chance with her.’
‘I’m very good to my friends.’ Lex was turning the pages of the magazine, looking at the pictures of himself, running his hand down his body on the printed paper.
Clark looked away. ‘You cut your honeymoon short when my mom had complications carrying Cassidy. And please don’t say Helen caught a bug and wanted to recuperate in Metropolis. Just don’t,’ he said, staring at shelf upon shelf of periodicals stretching back years. ‘Whatever it was, you were there.’ He shifted and their knees bumped together. ‘You’ve always been there, Lex.’ He swallowed. ‘Did you want me? Did you ever?’
Lex put the bound volumes down and leaned in, his shoulder edging Clark open. His lips rested on Clark’s neck and Clark thought all the happy things in life had to stand aside and make a place for this now.
Kisses came slowly up to the underside of his jaw, Lex’s hands pressing against his back, and Clark clutched at Lex’s suit jacket, turning his head so their lips met, warm battling cool for the small drags of skin that told him Lex had been slipping in and out of waiting and not waiting because hope had its hurts too.
Lex fell into him, taking them down, grazing the spines of books and periodicals and all those now silent things as they came to rest on the floor, Lex’s body over his.
When he laid his head down, Lex obscuring his view of much of the aisle, a thought that Sue Ellen or the higher higher-ups could find them there passed through his mind, but it disappeared, following Lex’s hand down between the folds of Lex’s clothes and his. Between his knees, Lex shifted and Clark’s breath hitched. They moved together now, and all his wondering felt like it was coming to an end. He was being put back together again in the slide of their bodies, the weight of Lex in his lap, the tangle of Lex’s leg with his as Lex leaned over to one side and pressed harder, his hand over Clark’s pants, unbuttoning, unzipping, grasping.
Tasting Lex’s mouth with his tongue, he ran one hand down Lex’s back and let the other drop back, where Lex captured it on the floor in his, bringing Clark to thoughts of the new and the good, and the honest and breathless ways of saving a life. Lex’s fingers smoothed his and Clark took hold, said he wouldn’t let go, he wouldn’t ever let go. A sound escaped from Lex’s mouth, his eyes telling Clark all the things they might have danced around, might have wanted, might have thought improbable.
When Clark came, it was with a desperate clutch at Lex’s fingers, and a press of his body up against Lex’s, so hard that they turned over together, shoulders on the floor, arms crossed tight, his quickened breath in the spaces in between.
Lex was still hard against him, but when Clark moved closer, there was a small shake of the head that Clark took to be a promise of later and again, and again.
Clark looked up to the sweet slack of their hands on top of each other on the floor and smiled, feeling Lex’s eyes on him, covering all the patches of the past. He couldn’t get enough and pressed closer anyway, breathing the moment in.
It felt less good a lot later when he scrambled up and saw the state of his clothes.
‘I think I’m going to lose my job.’
‘Clark,’ Lex was leaning against the shelves, head tilted as if to get a better look at him, as if it really mattered that he did. ‘They’re not going to fire you.’
‘They will when they see this huge jizz stain on my shirt!’
Lex glanced over his shoulder. ‘And if they don’t see it, they’ll have heard about it anyway.’ He began to chew on his lip and decisively stopped. ‘Come on,’ he said, taking hold of Clark’s arm.
Clark stepped back, batting Lex off. ‘Can’t. My shirt.’
Lex drew a breath. ‘All right,’ he said. ‘Wait here.’
Interminable minutes later, Lex came back with a Met U T-shirt from the store on the ground floor. Clark wanted to kiss him, and ask how the hell he was getting through the secured door. ‘Thanks, Lex,’ he said, undressing, voice muffled by the fabric rubbing against his face. A moist patch hit his skin and he shivered at the memory of being under Lex’s hand.
He picked up the bound volumes from the floor and shared a glance with Lex of the spread in the magazine. Lex gave him a small kiss and he closed the book, leaning down to put it back in between AP 24 .S16 v.2 1999 and AP 24 .S16 v.4 1999.
When he was done, Lex pulled him by the shoulder into a hug, kissed him, tugged him into step out of the restricted section. At the elevator, they were side-by-side, bodies touching, and Clark didn’t want the car to come dinging down; he was okay with being there for hours and hours more.
The levels of stress and self-belief that had been overloading the Ton over the past few weeks had come down, but the grad students were still around, shushing and studying. Clark didn’t envy the reshelving crew for the work they had ahead of them. Even the usually impeccable first floor, where the desk librarians sat in the middle of the action, needed some righting.
Clark and Lex exited the library from the front entrance, hands brushing at the doors. The warm air outside was bringing a flush to Lex’s cheeks. Clark kept Lex in his line of sight down the meandering path dappled with light coming through the American ash trees, letting others weave around them. They were walking toward Anglesea, where Lex was probably parked. It would be nice to sit down somewhere first, Clark thought, but he knew Lex didn’t do lawns.
On the bright sidewalk, he scratched at the clothes tag rubbing against the nape of his neck. ‘Shoot. Wait,’ he said, a little tremor running up and down his legs. ‘I left my shirt in the stacks.’
Lex deactivated the car alarm and crossed Clark’s path to get to the driver’s side. ‘Don’t worry, Clark. I threw it in the trash on the way up.’
‘What? I like that shirt!’ Clark stopped, twisting around to look back at the library. ‘And that shirt has—I was wearing it when...’ He blushed. ‘I like that shirt.’
‘You’ve got five minutes,’ Lex said with a sigh, although Clark could tell he was grinning. ‘I’ll pull up out front.’
Clark started back towards the Ton, but a strange feeling took his breath, drove a thrum down his spine, and he had to turn around, not-so-successfully wading through lunchtime foot traffic in his haste. He grabbed hold of Lex’s shoulders, pulled him close, and kissed him slowly. ‘I—This is good,’ he said in a whisper. He smiled when Lex did and rested his forehead against Lex’s. ‘I want this.’