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The missing stone in the graveyard

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A few days before Christmas, Jack and Nath stand side by side, other men standing in ones and twos in front of, behind, and on either side of them, at a funeral. Florida's winter is not the winter of their childhood. There is no snow on the ground. The sun is shining. It is too warm for the solemn suits they wear. It is the third funeral they have been to this year. There were four more they did not go to, for men who went back to the families and places they came from to die. Every one of them reminds Nath of his first one, of Lydia.

Jack and Nath go home to their apartment afterwards. There are two bedrooms, because so many people don't know that Jack is anything other than Nath's roommate. Nath's clothes occupy the closet in the one they don't use. They undress and go to bed together, where Jack sobs against Nath's shoulder. Nath holds him tightly. His own tears slide down his face quietly.

Later, when they are lying side by side staring at the ceiling with only their hands clinging together, Jack says, "I could have been one of them. If you hadn't wanted me."

Nath hears, too, all the things Jack does not say: if he hadn't wanted Jack. If he had but hadn't realized it. If he'd only known too late. Nath sometimes finds it hard to believe that he was in time.

His first year of college, Nath dated Cynthia, a nice Chinese girl in the mathematics program who looked surprised when she saw a picture of his whole family together, his mother, but said nothing about it. They went to parties, studied in the library together, fooled around when they could find a space and time for it.

Nath went home for Christmas, to a place of what felt to him like forced cheer, the first Christmas after Lydia. He felt her absence so much more strongly at home than at school.

He saw Jack only once, when his family went to the movies and ran into Jack in the lobby. He looked the same, but for the bump on his nose from where Nath had hit him.

Nath broke up with Cynthia before summer break. At home, he chafed under the attention of his parents. He took Hannah to the lake during the days, and he took to sneaking out of the house before anyone else was awake to go for a walk.

On one of those walks, he saw a figure at the end of the dock at the lake and let his feet carry him out to where Jack and his dog sat. Nath sat down next to Jack, the two of them looking out over the lake where Lydia died.

"How's school?" Jack asked.

Instead of the annoyance that flared when his parents asked him about school, Nath found himself glad to be talking to someone about it, about how different Harvard and Boston were from high school and Middlewood.

"What are you doing?" Nate thought to ask.

"Working at the hospital," Jack said with a shrug. "I'm an orderly, you know, all the stuff the nurses don't want to do. We can't all be geniuses." He smiled at Nath to show he didn't mean it to hurt either one of them.

When Nath went back to school, he would find himself, in odd moments, thinking of that bump on Jack's nose, of Jack's face and his mark on it.

At Christmas, he walked down the street and knocked on the Wolffs' door, thinking only too late that he didn't know if Jack would be at home or at work.

The door swung open, and Jack stared at him.

"Hi," Nath said.

"Hi." Jack stepped back. "Come in."

They went up to Jack's room and listened to records and talked about nothing and everything until after the sun went down and Nath walked home in the cold night to a worried family.

Nath came back in the summer, spending hours with Jack in his room.

"Why not your house?" Jack asked him once.

"My house," Nath said, trying to put how he felt about the house he'd grown up in, his family, his life here without Lydia into words, "isn't comfortable."

Jack had looked surprised by something in that, and he asked, carefully as if he didn't want to ruin anything, "You think my house is comfortable?"

"Yes," Nath said. They were very close to each other. He could count, again, the nine freckles on Jack's face. It was a face he thought of, he realized, more than any other, more even than Lydia's.

Jack didn't say anything else, only watched him in silence while all these things went through Nath's head. Nath watched him back, a face he cared about. A face he wanted to touch.

Nath reached out, and gently traced the line of Jack's nose and the bump he'd left there.

The whole world seemed to hold its breath.

Then Jack said, "Nath," in a tone of such longing that Nath had never heard before, from anyone.

Nath moved his touch to Jack's cheek, to the freckles there, the shape of his jaw.

Jack came closer. Jack kissed him. Jack kissed him and Nath thought, Oh, and again, Oh.

When Nath went back to school, Jack went to Boston with him.

Now Nath thinks of the life they almost didn't have, a life where Jack could have been one of the men they've lost, a life where he himself could have been alone.

It is almost too much to bear, and he turns to hold on to Jack with his whole body.

 

They fly home two days before Christmas. Jack's mother picks them up at the airport in Cleveland.

"My boys!" She gathers them into close hugs, Jack first, then Nath.

She asks after their flight, and they ask after her drive.

Only when they are on the highway does Jack, in the front seat, looking out the window to his right, ask, "How do you do it? Watch your patients die? I don't know if I can anymore."

Jack's mother is silent for a moment. "I think you learn that sometimes your patients die and there isn't anything you can do. It's harder when they're your friends."

Tears drip down Jack's face. From the backseat, Nath reaches forward and rests a hand on his shoulder.

"We had our first AIDS patient last month," Jack's mother tells them. "He went so fast. I thought, what if it had been you?" She reaches over too, and touches Jack's arm. "That was a hard one."

Jack wipes his eyes with the back of his hand. "It won't be me. There's never been anyone for me but Nath."

The first time he said that to Nath, Nath asked, "What about all the girls in high school?"

Jack shrugged. "Most of them were just friends or trying to seem cool. The rest of them don't count."

Cynthia, the girl Nath dated his first year at Harvard, felt like she didn't count either, not in comparison to the overwhelming love he felt for Jack.

"I'm glad," Jack's mother says. "I used to drive around the lake sometimes, when it was bad and I didn't want to come home to you while I was still feeling it."

Jack and Nath stay with Jack's mother when they come home. They get settled into Jack's old room with its too-small bed before they walk down the street to Nath's parents' house.

Nath's family is waiting for them. His mother steps forward to hug Nath close, and then give a lighter hug to Jack.

There is always a moment where Nath isn't sure what his father will do, a moment of hesitation for the both of them, even after all the things that have been said in the wake of the summer Lydia died. It is a hesitation that seemed to take on more weight when Nath told his family about Jack. He doesn't know if it is because Jack is a man or because he is white.

They do not hug. His father shakes his hand, both of his hands closing over Nath's.

Hannah hugs him. She is tall now, nearly as tall as he is. Her hair, the arch of her eyebrows, remind him of Lydia. She stands straight and her smile is unshadowed. Their parents do not press down on her the way they did Lydia.

Hannah hugs Jack too, her arms wrapped tight around him for a very long moment where he hugs her back.

Nath and Hannah's parents exchange confused looks, but do not interfere.

Later their parents go upstairs to bed and leave Nath and Jack in the living room with Hannah.

"You're sad," Hannah says. She says these things now, the things that Nath and Jack have come to understand she used to know only silently.

"We went to a funeral a few days ago," Nath tells her. "A friend."

"He had AIDS," Jack says.

It is not a thing they would have said in front of Nath and Hannah's parents. They do not talk about Jack's work caring for AIDS patients with Nath's parents. They do not talk about Jack and Nath's relationship with Nath's parents. They do not hold hands in Nath's parents' house. Things have changed since Lydia died, but it will never be a comfortable place for Nath.

Hannah moves to sit between them on the couch. She takes each of their hands in hers, as if she is a bridge between them here.

They will think of this later, the next time a dying friend can't go home because his family fears his disease, the next time they discuss holiday plans, the next time they come back to Ohio. For now they sit on either side of her and let her touch comfort them.