“How do you understand the words when they go so fast?” Cecil yawned from the passenger seat of the car where he was bundled in a sleepy little ball. The instant they had hit the road, he’d fallen fast asleep. Carlos had shuffled his iPod to contend with the hypnotic lull of the empty highway; it had settled on a run of Spanish pop songs.
“It’s like you and Nicki Minaj,” Carlos laughed.
“At least you can understand Nicki Minaj too,” Cecil sighed, poking his arms through the sleeves of the highlighter yellow NVCR hoodie he wore backwards as a makeshift blanket. “I signed up for Weird Spanish up at the community college you know. I was going to surprise you, but the class was canceled when the professor got lost in the Whispering Forest a week before term.”
“You were going to take Spanish classes?” Carlos smiled over at his boyfriend. “Cariño, I can teach you Spanish if you want to learn.”
“I just wish I had learned by Christmas,” Cecil mumbled.
“Cecil, they’re not going to only speak in Spanish, I promise. When we’re together sometimes we slip into it - sure - but I told them you don’t speak it. They’ll want you to be included.” Cecil seemed unconvinced. Ever since they had accepted the invitation to spend Christmas at Carlos’s brother’s house in Massachusetts, the bilingual nature of the scientist’s family had become a major source of his boyfriend’s apprehension. Carlos had other concerns about the trip. He’d never crossed the city limits with Cecil and had half expected something terrible to happen at the edge of town. Cecil had only stirred slightly in his sleep and mumbled something about a clown. Now that he was awake again, though, he looked considerably more ashen and slightly shaky. “You feel okay?” Carlos asked quietly.
“The air’s different here,” Cecil shrugged.
“Can you breathe it alright?” Carlos took a hand off the wheel to clasp Cecil’s in between them.
“Yeah.” Cecil shifted position again, curling even tighter into a ball. “It’s just lighter than it should be. Like it’s missing something. That and it’s cold.” Carlos turned the temperature up a notch even if it was still a little too warm for comfort outside given it was December. “Where are we?” Cecil yawned again.
“A little less than an hour from Phoenix. You can sleep a bit more if you’d like.” Cecil brushed a lazy kiss to the scientist’s hand before letting go again so he could drive.
One of the things Carlos loved about Cecil was how much Cecil loved kids - the zombie ones, the creepy soulless ones, the boy scouts - any children he came across. It was a mutual affection; children always seemed to be equally fond of Cecil. More times than Carlos admitted, the thought would drift into his mind that Cecil would make a great father someday. But things like marriage or a family were still too many somedays away so Carlos would always push the thoughts to the back of his mind until they would unexpectedly resurface and bring with them an involuntary little smile.
The two had finally stumbled their way through airport security with an obscene amount of coaxing and reassurances on the scientist’s part, and now sat at their terminal waiting for their delayed flight to Chicago where they planned to stay the night with Carlos’s grandmother. In the row across from theirs a mother and young girl dropped worn out luggage into the seats with relief that the connecting flight was fifteen minutes late. The previous leg of their journey must have been rough, since the mother immediately went in search of a garbage bin to dispose of an airsickness bag. The little girl was pale and sweaty and staring very openly at Cecil. With a mischievous grin, he reached up to adjust his glasses, allowing the full moon tattooed across the back of his hand to flicker into an eclipse. The girl’s eyes widened as she sat up straight. Her scrutiny only intensified a few moments later as Cecil pretended to sneeze into the other hand, scattering the geodesic patterns settled across his forearm like confetti.
“How did you do that?” the girl giggled, pushing herself off the chair and wandering across the aisle.
“Magic,” Cecil winked. “Want to see a trick?” The girl nodded enthusiastically. Cecil held out both hands, palms down, and blinked rapidly. An indigo eye opened across the pale skin of each hand. He balled them into fists and tapped them together. The tattoos combined into one large tribal eye - the one that usually resided at the base of the man’s neck. Carlos had quickly learned that although the tattoos were sentient symbiotic beings that moved quite a bit all on their own, Cecil did have some measure of control over them if he focused hard enough. The girl watched transfixed as Cecil tapped his fists together again, causing the eye to disappear completely.
“Where is it?” she asked, craning to check his arms as far as they peeked out from his sleeves. Cecil discreetly smoothed back a lock of hair to reveal the eye’s new location in the center of his forehead. Carlos shook his head with a grin as the girl clapped. “Another!”
“How about this?” Cecil blinked, purposely shifting his eyes from purple to a lime green. Like the tattoos, if he focused hard enough Cecil could shift his eye colors at will. The girl drew in a quick breath of surprise.
“Can you do other colors?” she whispered.
“I can do any color. What’s your favorite?”
“Pink!” she cheered.
“Pink,” Cecil murmured as his eyelids fluttered closed. It was difficult, Carlos noticed. They had agreed at the start of their relationship to never mention Cecil’s eyes and the transparency it gave to his emotions, but Carlos had still inadvertently observed the patterns often enough to determine their various meanings. To conjure them at will, he assumed, would require intense focus on the particular feeling; in pink’s case - unease and embarrassment. Cecil’s eyes flickered open at a deep magenta.
“Lighter, lighter,” his audience insisted. He blinked and they went a shade of bubblegum. “Even lighter!” He blinked again, this time one eye settling on cotton candy while the other went a pale powdery hue.
“How about now?” His fan applauded again with a delighted giggle, her entire demeanor losing all traces of her motion sickness. Even Carlos laughed a bit. Cecil shook his head, returning his eyes back to their customary indigo.
“What’s your name?” the girl asked.
“I’m Cecil, and this is my boyfriend Carlos,” the radio host replied as he slipped his arm naturally through the other man’s.
“Annabelle!” Her mother marched over and snatched the girl’s hand away. “What have I told you about talking to strangers?” Annabelle cast a worried look to her new friends.
“But, Mama, you should see his eyes-” she protested.
“Go sit with the suitcase,” her mother ordered before rounding on Cecil and Carlos. “You should be ashamed of yourselves for behaving like that in public. It’s disgusting and immoral, and I won’t have you teaching my impressionable daughter that it’s okay,” she spat venomously, turning sharply back towards her seat. Cecil cast a concerned look at his partner.
“Do you think it’s because she saw the patterns move?” he asked as he self-consciously tugged down the sleeves of his sweater.
“It’s not your tattoos,” Carlos assured him quietly. There was an unusual bite to his tone that worried Cecil slightly. He reached for the scientist’s hand, but the man slipped it away nonchalantly with an excuse that they would be boarding the plane any minute now. They found their seats and settled in wordlessly, save a few basic instructions on how the rows numbered and how the seatbelts buckled. Annabelle and her mother took their assigned seats across the narrow aisle of the plane, much to the woman’s dismay. She made a very loud scene of asking the flight attendant for a seat change and an even louder fit as the attendant informed her the flight was full. A tense silence settled in around them as Carlos still refused to even look in Cecil’s direction, choosing instead to watch the afternoon sunlight reflect off the smooth metal of the wing.
“I shouldn’t have to be forced to watch this the whole flight,” the woman huffed as she buckled into her seat.
“I’m sorry,” Cecil offered across the aisle.
“Don’t apologize to her,” Carlos interrupted quietly.
“If I’ve done something offensive, I want to do my best to make amends,” Cecil explained in a whisper.
“You didn’t do anything to her. It’s just - she just..” Something about the innocent, confused expression on Cecil’s face seemed fragile. Carlos hadn’t wanted to break the curiosity and wonder with which the radio host had viewed the outside world so far, but in retrospect Carlos realized he should have spoken with Cecil about it before they even left. So he very carefully took Cecil’s hand in both his own and gently asked, “Cecil, do you know what homophobia is?” Cecil was thoughtful for a minute.
“Is it the fear of being the same? Of being ordinary?” Carlos smiled slightly.
“It should be, shouldn’t it? People should be afraid of all being the same.” Cecil nodded in agreement. “Unfortunately, homophobia is when people hate people like us.” Cecil just gave him a very puzzled look.
“People like...us?” Carlos decided on a simpler approach.
“Have you ever been mistreated for dating other men?” he asked quietly. Cecil shook his head.
“Why would people criticize me for something like that?” His eyes widened suddenly. “Wait, have you?” Carlos dropped his gaze to his red sneakers. “Who? When was this?”
“Lots of people, all my life since I was 17. Today. Her.” He nodded towards the woman seated across the aisle, glad the taxying engines drowned their conversation from prying ears. Cecil looked as if he were piecing together a horrible puzzle.
“So when she said our behavior was disgusting and immoral, she meant because we were...” His aquamarine eyes glanced down in surprise at their joined hands. “That makes no sense - why would it matter to other people who we love? It shouldn’t make a difference.”
“I know, honey. It shouldn’t, but it does. It doesn’t help that we’re a bit of a double threat,” Carlos continued.
“How so?” Cecil asked as he eyed the crowded rows of passengers mistrustfully.
“You remember the Apache Tracker?” Carlos asked.
“Ugh. He was such a-” Cecil stopped himself quickly “good man,” he muttered.
“He was a racist jerk, it’s okay to say it. Unfortunately the world is also full of Apache Trackers who sometimes aren’t good people deep down.”
“They made fun of you for the color of your skin?” Cecil asked in a very small voice. Carlos just shrugged. “Oh, Carlos,” he breathed. “You never told me. Is all this why you wouldn’t hold my hand earlier?”
“I didn’t want you to hear the words I’ve heard or be called the things I’ve been called. I wanted to protect you from this side of the world.” Cecil very distinctly locked their fingers together in his lap, using his free hand to tilt the scientist’s downturned expression up to face him.
“You can’t protect me from your world any more than I can protect you from mine.” He offered a small smile. “Is everyone here like that though?”
“Oh, no.” Carlos shook his head. “There are lots of people like us, and even more people who aren’t, but agree that it shouldn’t make a difference. It’s just that the hateful people can be the loudest and most violent.”
“Your family isn’t homo...” Cecil tried to remember the word.
“Homophobic,” Carlos finished. “No, my family came to the conclusion a long time ago that love is more important than church tradition.” He paused for a moment. “My brother’s wife will probably inform you at least twice that you’re going to hell, but what does she know? She married into the family, so she just has to put up with it.” Cecil smiled a little, but all traces of his excitement at the prospect of flying had completely vanished. Despite his attempts to appear unshaken, he kept shooting uncertain, suspicious glances around the cabin - especially towards the woman a few feet away. “Do you want to trade seats?” Carlos offered once the seatbelt sign switched off. “I don’t mind it all so much anymore.” Cecil shook his head. “You sure?” Cecil just nodded with a smile that was all lips and no eyes. “Well here, I brought this along for the trip.” Carlos reached into his carry on and pulled out a thick hardcover (municipally-approved) book - Cecil’s favorite collection of Night Vale-ian fables. His boyfriend’s face lit up at the familiar bit of home. Carlos leaned over and planted a quick kiss to his cheek. “We’ll be there soon.”
The flight went smoother once they had been in the air for a while. Between his in-depth explanations of the morals to be found in The Little Chainsaw That Could, and his frequent unexpected invasions of personal space to peek out the window at the darkening clouds, Cecil relaxed considerably. By the time they had loaded all their bags into the trunk of the taxi, he was back to asking a near-constant stream of questions.
“Why are we taking a taxi? Didn’t you say it’s pretty far to get to your grandmother’s?” Cecil pressed his nose to the window, his breath fogging up the frosty glass.
“The alternative is to take the L trains. They’re like subways, but elevated tracks instead of underground,” Carlos explained. “I didn’t think you would want to take public transit.” Cecil shrugged.
“If we went together it wouldn’t be so bad. But I did get pretty hungry all those years with no snack stops, so probably a good decision,” he agreed as he reached into the colossal bag of jelly beans he had immediately rescued from their safely-packed cubbie in the suitcase. “It sure is cold here,” Cecil shivered despite his multiple layers of clothing, including Carlos’s own denim jacket. The scientist had packed extra layers in anticipation - if Cecil was cold even in the desert of Arizona, he would definitely need extra bundling further north. Cecil sighed and leaned on his boyfriend’s shoulder, cuddling in close for warmth. Carlos had barely gotten his arm around the radio host before he was back to the window again. “Snow,” he whispered in quiet reverence. Absently, his hand felt around behind him for the jelly beans that Carlos had discreetly slipped back into his duffel bag. A hurt look crossed Cecil’s face at the realization.
“Cariño, the absolute last thing you need right now is more sugar. Besides, Abuela Rosa is going to have dinner waiting for us when we get there.” He rubbed his boyfriend’s back calmingly. Cecil slumped back down against the cracked leather seat and leaned on Carlos’s shoulder.
“Sorry, I’m just nervous,” he mumbled.
“Don’t be, she’s going to love you,” Carlos assured him.
“I know, it’s all just a bit overwhelming I guess. Everything is so different from home. The air is different, the people are different, the weather is different, even the traffic is different.” Carlos glanced out the frosty window at the endless stream of taillights on either side of their taxi. “How are you used to this?” Cecil asked quietly.
“I grew up here,” the scientist shrugged. He tried to think of a way to ease the culture shock. “How would you describe this traffic?”
“Slow,” Cecil sighed.
“No, I mean, if you were reporting this over the radio, what would you say?” Cecil sat up a little straighter and stared back out the window.
“The cars go on endlessly, possibly eternally. The drivers within stare ahead, desperate to reach their destinations. They are resigned to their speed, to the stop-and-go crawl because they know that although they may arrive to their destinations, they will never truly complete their journey. Sunrise and sunset lose meaning as both fade into a vast ocean of headlights and taillights. The road goes on forever in both directions. And deep down they know they will forever remain...empty,” he finished with a shiver.
“Need help with the bags?” the taxi driver interrupted as they pulled up to a dilapidated brick apartment building.
“We’re alright,” Carlos said quietly - not entirely sure if it was a response to the driver's question or the slightly terrifying traffic report.