When Howard opened his eyes groggily again, there was a lamp on in the room and the sun was already behind the mountains. He sat up panicked.
“What time is it?” he asked Raj, who looked up from his Lonely Planet. He noted absently that the cover of the guide must have been Lake Louise in the summer.
“Did you know that you can actually walk on the lake in the winter?” Raj answered.
“Did you realise,” Howard countered, frantically trying to find a clock, “that Mountain Time is an hour ahead of Pacific and we had to be down to register by five thirty?”
“Babe, don’t worry, it’s only four o’ clock.”
Howard blinked at him.
“In the morning?” he asked without a trace of irony.
“No, in the afternoon.” Raj glanced at his watch. Howard could tell he was enjoying this. “We won’t see the sun again until about eight o’ clock tomorrow morning.”
“Wow,” Howard said, surprised in turn. “I guess I never thought how far north we were.”
“Did you know that Lake Louise is one of the darkest astronomical viewing spots in North America? And there’s hardly a moon tonight!”
Raj’s voice had regained its child-like enthusiasm, and Howard snuggled up next to him as he sat cross-legged on the bed.
“Did you know,” Howard began, nuzzling Raj on the shoulder, then crinkling up his nose and changing tact, “that we’ve been on the road for nearly twelve hours and desperately need to shower?”
“You go first,” Raj offered, buried back in his book.
“You could come with me…” Howard offered, but he could see he had lost Raj in a litany of random facts. He padded off to the shower and got lost singing never-ending nah-nah-nah’s in the steam.
An hour later Howard was dressed, waiting for Raj to finish fussing with his hair, and trying not to get perturbed.
“Hey, sweetie, we should probably get going…”
He gritted his teeth and watched Raj move a piece of hair to the other side of his forehead. Practice had taught him that, despite all appearances, Raj seemed to have some sort of internal clock that let him do whatever he wanted until the very last possible moment, at which point it was all business. The trick was figuring out when that last minute actually was.
Finally, after moving the same strand of hair back to its original place five times, Raj beamed at himself in the mirror and announced he was ready to go.
“Do I look all right?” he asked.
“You’re hotter than the rest of the conference put together,” Howard told him, taking his hands.
“That’s not much of a compliment.”
“That’s so mean! And part of the reason why I love you. Ready to go?”
They opened the door, and let go of each others’ hands before stepping out into the hallway.
There was a long line at the registration table and they happened to stand behind one of Raj’s colleagues. He introduced Howard as his friend and colleague from Caltech, and they promptly started talking shop. Howard pretended to listen while watching the sky change from deep violet to navy. It took some concentration for him not to dwell on the fact that Raj didn’t feel comfortable enough introducing him as his boyfriend, and he tried hard not to let it bother him. Instead he stared at the mountains rapidly disappearing into the darkness and promised himself that he would find out the names and heights of each of the peaks before they left.
Soon after they were in a large ballroom for the opening address and a buffet dinner. The address was given by someone whose name Howard promptly forgot, but whose lecture entranced Raj. Howard smiled to himself, but resisted the urge to put his hand on the back of Raj’s chair, and tried not to hum out loud that he wanted to hold his hand.
Halfway through the lecturer’s postulations on the various implications of the debate over Gliese 581’s particulars (“When you’re talking 0.5 in spectral types, it’s a different ball game… Well, that is, if any theoretical planetary inhabitants have developed ball-based entertainment…”), which was eliciting laughter from the crowd, but not for the same reasons Howard thought it was funny. Finally, he tuned out completely. His attention drifted to the windows, which seemed to be ubiquitous throughout the hotel, and he was startled to see that, even though it was barely past seven o’ clock, it was pitch black outside. The mountains, the lake, everything seemed to have disappeared. The black sky, however, was speckled with brilliant stars, more than he ever remembered seeing. He struggled for a moment trying to forget they were enormous stars and planets, and wondered how young he was when he last looked up at them and thought they were sparkling gems put there solely for his own appreciation. Applause from the audience and people moving their chairs to get food brought him back to the room, and he only noticed that Raj was talking to him halfway through his joyful ramble.
“… telescopes! Isn’t that awesome?!”
“You never listen to me…” Raj said under his breath.
“Look,” Howard replied just as quietly, “please let’s not start. I’m listening, tell me again. Please?”
Almost immediately Raj lost all sulkiness as he explained to Howard that everyone was going to meet on the ice after dinner with as much equipment as they had with them for a bit of an informal stargazing party. Howard started looking forward to it, but couldn’t help trying to mentally calculate the temperature, the supposed thickness of the ice, and the weight of everyone at the conference slipping and sliding all over it.
Raj hardly stopped talking about it as he piled his plate high with rolls and buns and salads and an extra helping of roast beef from the carving station at the end of the table. Howard tried a bit of everything, and, despite an intense craving, decided to avoid the shrimp, trying not to wonder what on Earth it would taste like in a landlocked province.
It was close to nine o’ clock before everyone filtered from the dining hall, and fifty of the most intrepid attendees and some other curious tourists that they had picked up made their way to the lake, Raj with his telescope case in hand, chatting merrily to everyone around him, apparently now immune to the cold. Howard shoved his gloved hands deeper into his parka pockets and pulled the fur as close around his face as he could with still being able to see. Once they got to the shoreline, there was a set of three stairs that led down to the ice. Howard stopped on the last one, and a cold shudder ran up his spine. He knew logically that there was nothing to worry about since everyone else was already on the ice, but he could feel his pulse pounding in his head and he felt dizzy.
“Come on, Wolowitz, take the plunge!” someone shouted at him, and he stepped off onto the snow-covered ice. When he didn’t fall through into frigid water immediately, he started breathing again, something he hadn’t realised he had stopped doing. His second fear of slipping didn’t come true, either, as the snow was packed hard on the ice except for the small area to the side that had been cleared for skating. It crunched solidly beneath his feet as he made his way to the crowd a fair distance from shore. The mechanical part of his brain finally relaxed completely as he made a quick calculation that the ice was at least five feet thick, and he turned his gaze skyward. The freezing night air seemed to make the stars clearer, and he stared upwards as everyone else set up their equipment and chose different objects to look at. Howard got lost in the stars and the constellations that he remembered memorizing as a teenager, but which mostly escaped him now, and meant much less to him than to everyone else out on the ice.
He declined everyone’s polite offers to check out this or that constellation from up close, and instead just looked up at the endless sky. It felt like he was back home on a cloudless night, lying on the lawn in the backyard, the sound of his mother watching t.v. fading into the background, feeling like the stars were there for no one but him. If he stared straight up, he couldn’t see them disappear on the horizon, and it seemed like he was floating in space. When he turned around slowly, he didn’t even get dizzy.
There was no measure of time out in the darkness, but he felt his feet get painfully cold, and tried to ignore it. He finally mused out loud to no one in particular not to worry, that everything was fine, they had warmed up again. He was laughed at by the Canadians and told to go back inside before he got frostbite. Leaving Raj and everyone else who was stamping their feet and clapping their mittened hands every so often to keep circulation going, he followed the expert advice and headed back inside.
The room was empty in a way that only hotel rooms could be, feeling more like a showroom than a living space. He jumped when the phone on the bedside table rang, and picked it up in surprise.
“Hello, Wolowitz,” Sheldon said, his smugness travelling through the phone lines. “I see you thought that you could avoid me by turning off your phone.”
“No,” Howard groaned, not even trying to hide it. “There’s not very good reception out here.”
“Nevertheless, I have found you. And I will assume by your less than enthusiastic tone that you have not yet fulfilled my request.”
“The shop was closed.”
“A bald-faced lie!” retorted Sheldon. “Their website clearly indicates that they are open until nine o’ clock. It is merely eight!”
“We’re an hour ahead.”
Howard grinned at the silence on the other end of the line. He let Sheldon feel awkward for a little while longer.
“Sheldon, why don’t you just have them send you something?”
Sheldon was incredulous.
“And risk having a fibre that is untouchable? Or two sizes too big or too small? How many times have we been over this, Howard?”
“Too many. You know, you could just order a shawl…”
After a long lecture from Sheldon, Howard promised to check out the shop in the lobby first thing in the morning.
It took a while after he hung up for Howard to realise how deeply cold he was, so he decided a hot bath was in order. He felt like he was burning up, but once he got accustomed to the water, tiredness crept up on him and he dozed off. When he finally dragged himself from the tub and got into his pyjamas, he found Raj already under the covers, reading. He put the Lonely Planet guide on the night table and smiled, flashing his bright white teeth, as Howard crawled up on the bed next to him.
“Did you have a nice time?” he asked.
“Oh my God, it was amazing! I’ve never seen the sky so clear! We found Gliese without any problem, but then Northcott said he could see 581c, and everyone scrambled to try to get a glimpse. You should’ve seen it, it was so amazing!”
“A little wavy dot in the middle of nothing? You’re such a geek...”
Just for that, Raj tackled him onto the bed. Howard grinned up at him.
“Did you know…” he asked Raj.
Howard just grinned.
“Did you know you’re the cutest thing in Canada right now?”
“I kind of figured I was,” he said with an impish grin.
“Did you know…”
Howard didn’t finish.
“Did you know…”
“No,” said Raj, “I don’t know, tell me!”
“I’m waiting for you to finish! You were reading the book again, I thought you’d have another interesting fact or two.”
Raj feigned a pout.
“Is that all I am to you, some sort of fact-spouting-off machine?”
“Fine, no more facts until you change your mind.”
Howard raised an eyebrow, and Raj tried not say anything, just to keep him hanging. He finally burst.
“Did you know that they have gay marriage in Canada?”
“Really?” Howard asked. “What do all the straight people do?”
“No, silly, I mean that gay people and straight people can get married.”
“To each other?”
“Stop! I’m trying to tell you something!”
Howard pressed his lips together and tried not to smile.
“Anyway, so it’s really weird because they do it province by province, and like almost everyone has been okay with it since 2003, except for Alberta and PEI, and then two territories up north.”
Raj lay down on Howard’s shoulder and stared at the ceiling while Howard played with his hair.
“Why do you bring it up?”
“Oh, I don’t know…”
“Have you been thinking about it?”
“A bit. I guess.”
“Maybe more than a bit?”
“Well, maybe… Have you ever thought about it?”
“What, getting married? Well… I guess I thought that I’d be married at some point in my life, kids, weekends at grandma’s, the whole deal. But I don’t know, it kind of felt like a family expectation. I don’t know if there’s that expectation now. … How about you?”
“I guess I always assumed I wouldn’t get married, so I didn’t really think about it. I was kind of against it. I mean, what does it mean, really?”
“Well, I dunno… I guess it just means ‘this is it.’”
“Well, not in a bad way, I suppose… not like people joke about marriage being the end of freedom or anything. But it just seems like signing a contract or something saying ‘we’re really going to try to make this work for good, no matter what happens.’”
“I guess I never thought about it that way, but that’s really sweet.”
Raj was quiet again for a moment. Howard looped a strand of his hair around his finger and let it fall.
“I guess,” Raj began, “well, I guess when I moved to California I thought things would be different, you know? You always hear about the U.S. being a sort of utopia for everything – streets paved with gold, your own house in a lovely suburb with a lawn and a car… I guess what I imagined was somewhere where it didn’t matter who you wanted to date or sleep with or anything, and people just sort of talked about being gay and it didn’t ever matter, you know? Just the way that straight people talk about going on a date, and not having to worry that other people are going to scold them or lecture them or avoid them for the rest of their lives. I knew there were places in Delhi where gay people hung out, I mean they still have to worry about getting caught by the police, but at least you’d be a bit more comfortable around other people, you wouldn’t have to watch what you said all the time. That was the way I imagined California. I mean, it’s California.
“Then when I got there, and it was sort of like Delhi, but with funny accents and more white people. And I was so depressed and angry; I didn’t want to go back, but I couldn’t believe this was where I had dreamt of coming to and wanting to spend my life. As stupid as it sounds, it really stopped me from being myself and doing what I wanted to do with my life.”
Beneath him, Howard felt Raj tense up as he spoke. He gave him a kiss on the forehead and let his lips linger. Raj relaxed and continued.
“I don’t think I ever really thought about marriage until just around 2008, when everyone was in a tizzy about the whole marriage thing. I guess I had it ignored it back home because it seemed like something that was expected, you just did it to please your parents, give them some grandkids, and start resenting your spouse because neither of you were really happy. And then all of a sudden it was a law, a real thing you could do right there in the place I lived, and I finally had the choice if I wanted, and that was when I started really thinking about it for the first time. It was like, since it wasn’t something I had to do or I couldn’t do, I started wondering if it was actually something I wanted to do. And I thought about it then, and figured that, if life led me in that direction, sure, why not? But if I was destined for something else, that was okay, too.
“And then, well, we the rest.”
They were both quiet for a moment, then Raj exploded.
“It wasn’t even six full fucking months!”
Howard put his arms around Raj to comfort him, and also to steady his own nerves. He wished he could have been there for him back then, that they could have been there for each other, instead of still playing the game of hiding around each other and around their friends.
Finally, Raj let out a sigh, and wrapped himself around Howard.
“Howard?” he asked sleepily.
“Do you ever think we’d get married?”
“Aren’t we already married? Our friends and even our friends’ parents certainly thought so, even before we started going out.”
“That doesn’t count.”
“Well, I don’t know if we can really talk about it when it can’t happen…”
“Are you avoiding my question?”
“So is that a yes?”
“Raj… I don’t think there’s anyone else in the world I’d want to try to spend the rest of my life with.”
“I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
Raj couldn’t answer – he was already asleep. Moments later, Howard joined him.