There was dust floating in the afternoon sunlight that hung around a small stack of cardboard boxes. The walls of the apartment were blank canvases, only a few last pieces of paper lay on the ground. Howard was on his knees next to an open box sorting it out into two boxes – one to keep and one to discard. There was no need for old receipts, pay slips or a forgotten issue of American Scientist: they could go in the recycling box. The next piece of paper made him pause. He picked it up and his heart sank.
"This document officially recognises the application for the dissolution of marriage between Messrs. Rajesh Koothrapali and Howard Wolowitz, dated this the 5th of February, 2011."
It felt so fresh, but at the same time seemed so far away. Not even two years ago...
“No,” Howard sighed into his cell phone, “We’re still at the airport.”
“Don’t yell at me, Howard,” Sheldon said. “If you were more reliable, I wouldn’t have to…”
“Put Leonard on the phone, please?” Howard said with false levity.
“Hey, Howard,” Leonard greeted him.
“I’m going to hang up now. When I get his stupid souvenir, I’ll call.”
“Sounds good. Have a safe flight.”
Howard didn’t even say goodbye.
"Can we stop by the bookstore before security?" Raj asked.
Howard rolled his eyes. They'd been in the airport for barely ten minutes.
"Oh, Raj, come on!" he whined. "Can't we just get to the gate so I can take off this stupid parka and turn off my cell phone so Sheldon doesn’t call me about his yak fur again?"
“It’s not yak fur, it’s musk ox wool,” Raj corrected.
The Conference on Near-Earth-Sized Planets was too good an opportunity to pass up, but they didn't quite understand why anyone would want to hold it in Canada, in February. Thankfully they still had the essentials from their Arctic expedition, which unfortunately wouldn't fit in their luggage. Unfortunately, they had a souvenir request from Sheldon.
"But Oprah just released her new Book Club pick!" Raj said.
"Seriously? You've already got enough Jodi Picoult and Nicholas Sparks in your bag to crash the plane."
"But I don't want to finish everything and have nothing to read."
"It's a four hour flight!"
"Exactly! What if I get bored?"
"Sleep. That's what I'm planning on doing." Howard yawned. "Who books flights at six a.m., anyway?"
“Air Canada flight 569 to Calgary is now boarding at Gate B17…”
"Look, there it is!"
Howard hadn't even noticed the bookstore by the time Raj had already grabbed a copy of the book.
"Lolita?!" gasped Howard. "That's more likely to be on my reading list..."
"It's a classic work of literature and a twist on the typical coming-of-age story."
Howard took the book. "Did Oprah tell you to say that?"
"It blows open a new understanding of the world. At least, that's what it says on the website."
"This is why I love you," Howard said, smiling and shaking his head as he approached the cashier, digging awkwardly through his oversized jacket to look for his wallet. "Let me get it for you, I know how disappointed you get when you buy a book you don't end up liking."
Raj thanked him, beaming, and the clerk eyed them strangely in the warm airport as they left.
Security had been a hassle, with the guards eyeing up Raj and deciding he needed additional questioning, and with their telescopic equipment being peered at inexpertly, and, most annoying of all for the airport employees, their coats jamming up the scanning machines.
After sweating their way onto the miniature airplane and taking up most of the space in the compartments above, behind and in front of them, Howard did as he promised and promptly fell asleep on Raj's shoulder. He woke up just a bit later to a steward offering him refreshments, and Raj with his eyes glued to the pages of Lolita.
"So," he ventured, sipping boxed orange juice from a plastic glass, "do you like it?"
"It's not what I was expecting," replied Raj without taking his eyes from the page.
Howard smiled and squeezed Raj’s thigh. Raj jumped, but kept reading. Howard shook his head and looked out the window. The plane was high above the cloud cover, like they were sailing on an ocean of cotton candy. Howard dozed off in the warmth.
When he woke up again, Raj was pouring over another book and munching on Howard’s snack.
“Gave up on Nabokov?”
“No,” he said nonchalantly, “finished it.”
“How do you do that?” Howard mused aloud.
“Did you know,” Raj said oblivious to Howard’s question, “that there aren’t any polar bears in Alberta?”
Raj continued, with his newly acquired trivia. “Because polar bears need to live within one hundred kilometres of open water. There also aren’t any rats. They’re kept out by the Rat Patrol at the Saskatchewan border.”
“What the heck are you reading?”
“The Lonely Planet’s Guide to Canada,” Raj explained. He raised the book to show its cover, which didn’t stop him from reading even for a moment. “Alberta also has some of the best beef in the world!”
“You’ll feel right at home,” Howard smiled at him.
“Also,” Raj continued like a child with too many facts and too little breath, “the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, where we’re staying, used to be owned by Canadian Pacific Railway, which built the luxury hotels at major points along the original railway line. Lady Agnes Macdonald, the wife of the first Prime Minister of Canada, Sir John A. Macdonald, tied herself to the cattle catcher and rode 1,000 miles through the Rocky Mountains that way. Hmm, I wonder if those are different from the Rockies in Philadelphia… “
Howard stifled a laugh, but Raj caught him.
“What?” he whined.
“Nothing, just that you’re the cutest thing in the galaxy,” said Howard, smiling as he leaned in for a kiss. Raj moved away, his eyes darting around the cabin.
“What is it?” Howard asked.
“Not on the plane!” Raj protested.
“God, can’t I ever just give you a kiss without checking who’s looking?” Howard huffed. “Besides,” he added, “it’s not like the stewards haven’t seen it all before.”
“I think you mean heterosexist.”
“Whatever. We’ve talked about this before.”
Howard sighed. “I know.”
“But on the plus side,” Raj added cheerfully, “the Lonely Planet says…”
Howard listened to Raj rattle off a few more facts in his half-Valley Girl, half-New Dehli lilt.
“I love you so much,” he told Raj when he took a breath between paragraphs.
Raj looked up, and Howard quickly gave him a kiss. Raj turned a shade of burgundy and furrowed his forehead so tightly that his eyebrows almost met. Howard started counting down out loud from ten.
“What are you doing?
“Just proving that the world hasn’t ended…”
Raj tried to pout, but Howard was batting his eyelashes at him with mock-innocence, so it ended in a smile. He went back to his book as Howard closed his eyes, put the thin pillow behind his head, and pulled his blanket up to his neck.
It seemed like no time at all before the steward came around to check that Howard had his seatbelt on and chair up for landing, and soon they were popping their ears as their plane touched down. Raj leaned over Howard and looked out the window at the snow-covered ground that reflected sunshine like a blanket of diamonds.
“The weather looks so nice!”
Just then the intercom came on.
“Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. I’d like to welcome you to Calgary, where it’s a balmy minus 4 degrees Celsius… oh, no, sorry folks, that’s Fahrenheit. It looks to be a cool minus 20 Celsius…”
Howard and Raj exchanged stupefied looks, unable to understand how it could be so sunny and so cold at the same time.
“He’s joking, right? It wasn’t that cold at the North Pole,” Raj said.
“That was July,” Howard noted, trying to reassure himself. “Look, people are wandering around outside, it can’t be that bad.”
Raj squinted at the workers on the tarmac.
“I think those are robots.”
Thankfully they didn’t have to walk across the tarmac to get to the terminal, but they did have to cross a road outside to pick up their car. They balked at some of the more intrepid drivers who were jogging briskly to their cars in nothing more than a pair of shoes, dress pants and shirts as they themselves shivered even in their parkas and winter boots.
“This isn’t the Circumpolar Ice-Drilling AGM!” Raj complained through chattering teeth. “Who thought it would be a good idea to have the Gliese Conference at the North Pole?”
Howard had to remind him that they weren’t even anywhere near the North Pole, and that it had to be somewhat cold if he was still planning on going skiing. Once they got inside the rental car with the heat on Raj quickly forgot about complaining and was glued to the passing scenery instead. They were soon one of the few cars on the near-empty road flanked by snow-covered rolling hills.
“Are you sure this is the right way?” Raj asked, trying to locate any other roads on the map in front of him.
“Of course I’m sure,” Howard said, only slightly annoyed. As if to prove his point, just then they passed a green sign that indicated they were still on the TransCanada, Highway 1, and still had 167 kms to go before they reached Lake Louise.
Howard glanced over at Raj, who was staring, wide-eyed, at the highway.
"What is it?"
"Where... where are all the people?"
"Probably at work," Howard offered.
"This is crazy! Do you know how many people we would have passed in India by now? Not to mention donkey carts... This is post-apocalyptic."
"Well, enjoy it while you can. We're back in crowded L.A. in two weeks."
"Crowded? Are you joking? California is practically empty."
"I'll remember you said that the next time you’re griping when we're stuck in traffic."
"Very funny... Wooooow..."
Just then in front of them rose a panorama of grey, snow-covered mountains surrounding a valley. The mountains were so new, geologically speaking, that it looked as though they had jutted from the ground mere moments before. Howard was impressed, and Raj couldn't stop staring.
"Wow, would you look at those mountains?"
"Which ones?" Howard asked him, deadpan.
"Those. And those!" Raj said, pointing.
Raj hadn't even noticed that it was the third time in less than a minute that he had said it, which made Howard smile.
"What are you smiling about?"
That made Raj smile.
"Can I have a kiss now?" Howard asked pointedly, "You know, since there's no one around to see for miles and miles..."
"No," Raj said, still peering out from the bottom of the windshield to see the peaks as they meandered on the road through the valley.
"What?!" Howard started. "Why the hell not?"
"Because," Raj told him, not taking his eyes off the scenery, "you're driving."
"Fine, you can drive on the way back."
About an hour and a half later they stopped to stretch their legs and get some gas in Banff, but decided to skip the Hot Springs, despite Raj's pleading. Howard told him he didn't need to smell like sulphur and chlorine all weekend, despite how great the travel guide made it sound. To make up for it, Howard bought Raj some chocolate bars at the huge candy shop, and managed to get a photo with a cardboard cut-out of a Mountie outside the shop next to it.
As they continued driving, the excitement and travel finally caught up with Raj who fell asleep in the passenger’s seat. Howard yawned, wishing he could cuddle up next to him, and tried to remind himself that he only had another forty-five minutes left to drive. As he watched both the road and the scenery, he switched on the radio, but couldn’t find anything except right-wing talk radio shows on the AM dial. He assumed the mountains were blocking any more reception than that, and was thankful that his cell reception was bad. Even if there were an emergency, it would still make up for the fact that Sheldon wouldn’t be able to get in touch.
Being without any CDs or any convenient method to hook up his iPhone, Howard resigned himself to the silence of the car. Moments later he caught himself swaying to unheard music, and found himself whistling Hey, Jude quietly. He laughed to himself, remembering the trip he and his mother took to visit relatives in Denver when he was twelve. They had brought a tape of the Beatles that kept jamming on that one song, so by the time they got to Grand Junction they had listened to it for what felt like close to a million times. For the last five hours of the drive, as the mountains started to show themselves in all their majesty, they were singing it all on their own, until their ‘nah-nah-nah-nahs’ made their throats sore.
As he kept humming to himself, he grew sad. Out of nowhere, he realised that, while he could easily tell anyone about that trip, he wouldn’t be able to tell his mother about this one. Sure, he could bore her with the details of conference, lie to her about how kosher all the food had been, how unbelievably cold but amazingly beautiful Canada had been, but not how cute Raj had been when he fell asleep, and how he read his guide book like it was a sacred document, how he still didn’t want to be kissed when there were too many people around. Sure, he could tell Leonard and Sheldon and Penny, not that they would care, not that they would want to know, not that his mother would want to know, but there was something about the fact that he wasn’t able to do it that made him long to do just that.
“Hey Jude, don’t make it bad, take a sad song, and make it better…” he sang, just letting his mind wander to the conference, and to general worry as he spotted Moose X-ing signs and mentally calculated the impact of a two-ton animal hitting a car travelling at 70 miles an hour…
Finally he wound up some narrow roads and came out into what he assumed was the most scenic parking lot in the world. The Chateau Lake Louise lived up to its name, with turrets and stain-glass windows, and framing it was a frozen lake with glaciers acting as sentries on all sides. He woke Raj out of his sleep.
“What? Who? Zombies? Where is everybody? Where did everybody go?”
“Nothing happened, silly,” Howard said, pointing to the scene, “Look, we’re here!”
“Wow,” Raj said, then added without pretence, “Look at those mountains!”
Howard couldn’t help but give him a hug for that.
“Did you know,” Raj spouted, “that Lake Louise was named after Queen Victoria’s fourth daughter, Princess Louise Caroline Alberta, after whom the province was also named?”
“I do now…”
“And that we’re only like fifteen minutes from the ski hill?”
Raj kept on chattering as they got their luggage out of the trunk. It was their first experience with black ice, and Howard was happy to have the down padding from his parka when he face planted into the snow. Raj was glad to have his camera.
The inside of the hotel was as lavish as the outside, with oak-panelled walls and light sconces softly illuminating the entrance. They made their way towards a smiling receptionist whose nametag identified her as Candy and indicated that she spoke both French and Japanese.
“Hello, bonjour, konichiwa!” she greeted them, showing a row of perfect white teeth which Raj mirrored.
“Hi,” Howard drawled, fumbling with frozen hands for his iPhone to find the hotel reservation. “We’re with the Gliese Conference. Uh, we should be under Koothrapali/Wolowitz.”
“Okay!” Candy said cheerily. “Here it is, oh dear, I’m sorry, it appears that they accidentally booked you in a room with only a King-sized bed. I’ll just fix that…”
Raj’s smile disappeared, and Howard felt himself break out in a cold sweat. He made a split-second decision.
“Uh, actually,” he said self-consciously, “it’s not a mistake. That’s what we booked. We’d really prefer the King…”
Candy blinked. Her face fell, then turned a bright shade of pink. Howard saw Raj stare at his feet, and he felt his own face going red. Candy completed their transaction with a more businesslike air than that with which she had started it, and passed them their key-cards without making eye contact.
They made their way onto a mirrored elevator with barely a word to each other, except for Raj’s comments on the “nice carpets” and the “nice lake” that could be seen through the twenty-foot high windows.
They entered their room. Howard had expected Raj to bounce into the room and flop down on the massive bed, but instead he wheeled his suitcase to the stand and unzipped it mechanically. Leaving his own bag at the door, Howard came up behind him and put his arms around his waist.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“For what?” Raj asked.
“For… you know, arguing with the receptionist just now. It’s okay if you’re mad at me.”
“I’m not mad,” he said, unenthusiastically. He turned around to face Howard, and leaned his arms on his shoulders. “It’s just… just…”
“Just you wish I wouldn’t be so open about our…”
“No!” Raj interrupted, his eyebrows raised high and his doe-like eyes even wider than usual. Howard was surprised at the softness of his voice. He had been expecting disappointment or even anger. Raj brushed Howard’s bangs back with his fingers.
“It’s none of that, honey,” he told Howard, giving him a squeeze. “I should be the one apologising. I didn’t mean for you to think I was mad at you. It just made me sad.”
He gave Howard a kiss on the nose, and Howard nuzzled him in return.
“I just thought you didn’t want me to say anything.”
“No, no, it’s not that. It’s just,” Raj sighed, “I just wish it wasn’t an issue.”
“Yeah,” Howard said quietly, “or that she could’ve apologised or something. I don’t want to be grumpy about it. I wanted to be excited about this. I know we’ve only been together for a year, but it’s our first sort-of vacation together.”
“We do have a conference to attend, that I have to present at…”
Howard rolled his eyes in mock impatience and let a smile creep onto his face.
“Conferences are always getting in the way of vacation!”
“Conferences are just the start of vacation. And this is going to be a great one! I’m going skiing tomorrow! Are you sure you don’t want to come?”
“No, I think my instinct for self-preservation is too highly developed to strap two planks of wood to my feet and hurtle down a mountain at a million miles an hour.”
“And,” Howard added, “they scheduled the only session that the department let me come for tomorrow afternoon. How could anyone want to miss a panel on Theoretical Remote Planetary Rover Construction, Maintenance and Survivability?”
“You could come for the morning, there’s a bus going back at noon.”
“Um… is having to wash my hair an excuse?”
Raj smiled at him.
“It’s okay, I just thought it would be fun.”
“I’m sorry, sweetie, but to be honest, I’m terrified.”
Raj blinked at him in surprise.
“Why didn’t you just say so?”
“I didn’t want you to think I was a wimp.”
“What!? Of course I wouldn’t,” Raj said, giving him a squeeze. “I’m just glad you were able to come. It wouldn’t be the same here without you, and I would’ve missed you. … And, you know, I know I didn’t say anything before, but I’m kind of glad you stood up for us like that… It was… you know… kind of hot.”
He grinned, and Howard grinned back. He tried jumping sexily on the bed, but misjudged how many layers of mattress and padding there were, and ended up on the ground again. Raj couldn’t help himself, and laughed until he started to cry before smothering Howard with kisses. They somehow managed to climb bed-Everest, probably the most comfortable bed that either of them had ever been on, and promptly fell asleep.
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.
The next morning Howard opened his eyes and groggily hit the alarm clock into silence. He rolled over under the lamp light and watched Raj wake up, get out of bed, and drag his fingers across his head. He knew that the skiing group was leaving early, but Raj was up in a ridiculous amount of time. Before he could get too far, Howard pulled him back down into bed and gave him a kiss.
Twenty minutes later, Raj got up, hastily piled on some clothes and ran a comb across his head before dashing out the door with a dopey grin on his face. Howard fell back asleep.
The late sunrise allowed those few who stayed behind that morning, all gathered around a single banquet table for breakfast, to see the bright red reflection of sunrise off the glacier. One of the participants’ musing sparked a colourful discussion on what a sunrise would be like on a planet like 581c, nearly six times the size of the Earth and orbiting a red dwarf star. Of course the poetic waxing couldn’t go on forever, as a lanky, bespectacled man in jeans and a polo shirt that didn’t quite fit started a debate on whether or not the planet could actually rotate and still be habitable, given its short distance from the Gliese star, what that might mean for its tidal flexing, and whether or not it would make the planet uninhabitable. Howard rolled his eyes and pegged him as the conference know-it-all.
The rest of the morning they had free. Howard knew he’d better check out the store for Sheldon or he’d never hear the end of it. He was quickly corrected that the ‘mukluk’ he was searching for was actually a musk ox, animals native to northern Canada, Alaska and Greenland. Howard tried to keep focussed on her lecture in case Sheldon wanted to know anything he didn’t already, but was distracted by the thought that the musk ox looked like it had come from the ice-planet Hoth. The men’s sweaters passed the feel test (“It should be soft but not rough. If it’s too much like fleece or wool, I won’t be able to touch it.”), the price test (“I know they’re expensive, I will reimburse you, but I will not pay for something more than one thousand dollars.”), and Howard decided he’d risk it passing only half of the size test (“It should be two sizes two big and down to your mid-thigh when you try it on, and one size too big and halfway down his buttocks when Koothrapali tries it on.”) and letting Raj try it on later. He tried not to let his eyes bug out too much when he put it on his credit card and quickly fled the store before the saleswoman tried to make him buy a two-hundred dollar pair of gloves that neither he, nor anyone he could think of, needed. He made a mental note to ask Sheldon why he needed what the woman had called the world’s warmest fibre when he lived in Southern California.
After his purchase, Howard really wanted to go outside and get some air, but he was afraid his lungs might freeze. He bought a few postcards to send to Leonard and Sheldon and Penny, and one of the store clerks cheerfully told him that it was “Only minus seven today!” as she handed him his purchases. He grinned at her as though she had just escaped from an asylum. He compromised by sitting in front of the windows and watching the clearly insane people trying to move around outside with a foot of protective clothing separating them from the elements. One couple was snowshoeing, a pursuit which made them look like oversized penguins stomping over snow, but at least the physics of it had some merit. He hadn’t noticed the ice sculptures on the lake the night before, which reflected the sun like crystal through their amazing shapes. A young girl looked like she was considering sticking her tongue on one, but reconsidered. There was a small boy, who was wrapped up like a yeti, falling over and getting back up repeatedly on the ice rink. He looked like he was swimming whenever he flailed prostrate on the ice, but once he got going he seemed to get hot and started taking off his mittens. Howard shook his head and looked up at the clear blue sky. He imagined that there wasn’t any snow there at all. Just then he was hit with a wave of homesickness that surprised him. It wasn’t as if he had been away for that long, it was just that everything here was so different from back home that he felt like he was on another planet. He sighed and his heart sank as he realised for the first time that this was probably what life felt like for Raj more often than not.
Staring back across the vast expanse of snow, his mind wandered back to Raj’s guidebook cover, and he was sure it was the exact same scene, just a different season. He thought about what Raj had said about marriage in Canada and frowned. Something was bothering him about it. It struck him that whenever he heard about gay marriage mentioned in regard to Canada it was simply a country-wide thing, no exceptions.
It was bothering him enough to look it up, and he took out his iPhone. It seemed to confirm his suspicion, but he decided to check just in case. He bit his lip before deciding to hell with it, and went up to the clerk he had just bought the postcards from.
“Excuse me,” he began nervously, “this might seem like a bit of an odd question, but is gay marriage legal in Alberta?”
She furrowed her brow and looked genuinely confused.
“I don’t know, sorry. Is it even legal in Canada?”
It seemed strange to him that it wouldn’t be common knowledge, but then he supposed it didn’t really matter to a lot of people, so they wouldn’t give it a second thought. That depressed him a bit, but he persevered. He got the same answer in the gem shop next door. If no one in the jewellery shop knew, he decided he would give up. For some reason, as the man behind the counter made his way over to him with a suave smile, he felt he wasn’t going to be disappointed.
“Legal? Well of course it is, sunshine! And don’t you let any of the bigots you come across tell you any different!”
Howard’s mind spun at a hundred miles an hour. He had to lean on the cabinet to keep himself from falling over. He guessed that the clerk saw his goofy grin, because he asked, with his head cocked slightly to the side and an eyebrow raised:
“Is there anything I could help you find?”
Howard tried to bite his cheeks to keep himself from smiling, but it was impossible. He was blushing and didn’t know what to say, so he just nodded.
“All right, so it looks like a game of charades… is it for someone ‘special’ you had in mind?”
Howard nodded again, his eyes now locked on the clerk. The clerk raised an eyebrow.
“Now is it something ‘dainty’ you had in mind?”
Howard shook his head, trying to figure out if he was reading everything correctly.
‘Maybe something a bit more…”
The clerk trailed off, but Howard was panicking and didn’t know what to say. He was paralysed with fear. He didn’t know how to play this game, and he didn’t know what to say. The clerk sighed and took pity on him.
“Look, honey, it’s all right, you don’t have to worry. I’m not going to bite.”
“I’m sorry,” Howard blurted out. “I’m just really overwhelmed. I’ve never done this before.”
“And if everything goes well, you’ll never have to do it again!” he laughed. Then, more subtly, “Can I just come right out and ask? You’re looking for a ring for your boyfriend, right?”
Hearing someone else say it so normally and casually immediately put Howard at ease.
“An engagement ring, actually…”
The clerk smiled warmly and popped up and down on his feet, clasping his hands together.
“Oooh, exciting! Good choice, by the way. He’s very cute, I have to say.”
“How do you know who he is?” Howard asked him, surprised.
“I’ve seen you two walking by. It’s pretty obvious…” he said, then added, “if you know what you’re looking for. Don’t worry, if you still need it to be a secret, it’s safe with me. Now don’t you worry about being overwhelmed, that’s what I’m here for. Where are you from?”
“Well that explains it. That Prop 8 passing just made me so mad! I guess you two weren’t even thinking about marriage back then, hmm?”
“We weren’t even together back then. Not really… But, well, what can you do?”
“Come get married in Canada, that’s what! Let me show you some of our pieces. Now, usually, the engagement ring will just end up being the wedding band anyway…”
The clerk showed Howard tray after tray of rings, and his mind boggled. He started just choosing what caught his eye. The first band he liked had little ridges of deep yellow-gold that looked like lace, with a white-gold inlay that held eleven floating diamonds. After starting at it for a moment, he thought about what Raj would say (“Do you want me to look like a Bollywood porn star?”), and decided to look at something more subtle. He narrowed it down to two, and then to just one. It was a brushed tungsten band with a single diamond laid flush with the surface. He thought it was perfect.
“I’ll take it.”
Howard thanked him after he placed it neatly in a small black box. He refused a bag, took a receipt, placed it in his pocket and left the store. The whole thing had made him giddy, and he let himself skip a bit down the hallway when no one was watching. He was smiling so much it hurt, and when he stopped to think about it, he couldn’t explain exactly why. Maybe it was just the fact that he was in this place where he could do the same thing everyone else could, and not be told “no.” And actually be encouraged to do it! He wanted to scream and laugh and jump up and down like a kid looking at a pile of wrapped presents on his birthday. He shook his hands out to try to get rid of some of the nervous energy. There had to be something he could do. His elation overtook his embarrassment and he whispered aloud, “Thanks, Canada.”
After dropping Sheldon’s sweater and the postcards off in the room, he sauntered aimlessly through the corridors for a while, turning the ring box over and over in his pocket, nearly delirious with happiness. It finally struck him to look at his watch. He started when he realised he had missed lunch and the session he was supposed to be attending was about to start. It didn’t matter about the food, as it had never made any sense to him why conferences insisted on feeding people constantly. Maybe it was a way to keep them glued to their chairs half-comatose so that even the worst of the presentations would get a captive audience.
There were only three other people and two presenters in a room with a handful of chairs, and he nodded to the people who looked up at him before he took a seat. The small turnout wasn’t a surprise, but it looked like the presenters were waiting just a few extra minutes to see if anyone else would show up. Two more people joined them, and there was a move to open the session. Just as one of the presenters was about to open her mouth, the same man from breakfast, in the jeans and polo shirt, rushed in.
“I hope I’m not late!” he announced before sitting down and nodding and smiling to everyone who looked at him. Howard rolled his eyes again. Most everyone ignored him, and the presenters began.
“I’d like to welcome everyone to our panel on Theoretical Remote Planetary Rover Construction and Survivability. I’m Dr. Iris O’Yeung, and this is my colleague Martin Foster, from the University of Calgary. I was hoping that, after a brief introduction of our current investigations into the topic, we could open the session up to a more participatory format…”
As they continued, Howard let out the breath he didn’t notice he had been holding, and felt his shoulders relax. So far he had felt out of place listening to astronomers ramble on about their fields, half the time bored, the other half lost, but here he was in his element. The rest of the audience as well hung on the presenters’ every word, except for the latecomer, who was looking sceptical and taking copious notes. Even that gesture was making him grate on Howard’s nerves.
Aside from that, everyone was enjoying the format, giving their input (Howard shared his expertise of on-planet rover manoeuvring, giving some ‘theoretical’ advice on what to do in a crisis) and asking thought-provoking questions of each other. Just as the room was developing a sort of camaraderie and theorising on potential collaboration, the man in the polo shirt raised his hand and spoke without hesitation, and before anyone could even acknowledge him.
“Dr. Aristotle Wickhorst, departments of Mechanical and Mechatronics, and Management Engineering, Waterloo.”
He managed to work an air of condescension into the very first syllables from his mouth. Howard raised an eyebrow and drew in a breath, reminding himself that everyone deserved at least a second chance.
“It’s been fascinating listening to your little discussion, but the one point that anyone has failed to bring up is the project follow through. You seem to be missing the obvious problem of distance: that merely sending any exploratory units so deep into space, not even accounting for the hitherto unmentioned dilemma of continuous propulsion, would be nearly impossible to manage because of the time span involved. You’re talking about collaboration between various institutions over the course of what would work out to be over a hundred years! It’s just not feasible.”
The whole room was stunned into silence for a moment, and a smug look spread over the know-it-all’s face. There was a small sound of someone clearing their throat. A tweed-suited, bow-tie sporting gentlemen, with wispy white hair who had introduced himself earlier in the discussion as Professor Amandeep Choudry from the University of British Columbia, asked if he could have the floor.
“Thank you,” he said in his soft voice with the slightest hint of a British accent. “Dr. … Wickhorst, is it? Yes… If you don’t mind my speculation, I would say you couldn’t be over thirty years old? I must say, congratulations to you on your accomplishments at such a young age. I don’t believe many people can be as proud of themselves as you, sir, and I am sure you have been instrumental in spearheading many fine projects in even the short time you have been in your position, am I correct? However, there is one thing that you will grow to understand as you mature in your field and in your career, and that is the power of human relationships. I don’t mean to sound as though I am bragging, and indeed I am not, but not only have I been involved in the launching of myriad projects between my universities and others, but, perhaps more importantly, I have been entrusted with carrying on the important work and collaborations of the dedicated men, and women, who have come before me. To be sure, it takes much hard work to develop, cultivate and maintain such dynamic relationships, but I believe that desire is a fundamental part not only of the work we do, but of simply being human.”
The professor’s speech elicited a small but heartfelt round of applause from the room, and managed to silence Dr. Wickhorst’s pessimism. He was the first to disappear from the room at the end of the discussion, but everyone else hung back, exchanging information and making connections.
Afterwards, Howard sat in on a session about far-distance radio transmission and re-receiving, then headed to dinner with a slightly larger crowd, expanded by those who had returned from the ski-hill half way through the day. The larger group of skiers, of which Raj was a part, still hadn’t returned. Howard hoped they were enjoying themselves as he sat down to dinner with some of the people he had met earlier in the day, including the infinitely patient Dr. Choudry. Everyone was enjoying themselves, and Howard was relieved that there was no sign of Wickhorst. Halfway through dinner he did appear, but he was speaking to a colleague, or another conference participant, or perhaps just someone who didn’t know what they were getting into when they innocently started a conversation.
At the end of dinner it was dark again, and Howard excused himself and went to go lie down in the room. He lay on the bed with the lights out, enjoying the faint new moon spotlighting the dark ring box on the nightstand. It had felt like the whole day was abuzz with discussion, and he felt his ears ringing slightly in the quiet room. The blissful silence let the pieces of the day settle in his mind. He felt butterflies flapping excitedly in his stomach again over the ring he bought. His mind raced and he was giddy – he was going to propose! He and Raj could get married if Raj said yes. (His heart jumped a bit at that.) But would it be a good idea? But wouldn’t it be fun? What would be the point? Why not just go ahead and do it? A hundred other pros and cons flitted through his mind: it wasn’t for the right reasons; it would be fantastic; it might not be right for them; it would be so exciting to tell everyone; it was too soon; the chance was staring them in the face; it might not, in the end, work out…
He was so absorbed in his thoughts he didn’t notice the time pass. He looked at the hotel clock – it was already seven. He tried not to be concerned that Raj wasn’t back yet, but assumed the group had gone for dinner. He pulled out his phone and checked his facebook, updated his status, texted Leonard about Sheldon’s sweater, tweeted about the conference so far, got lost in tumbler, got distracted by a few links, then imdb, then a game or two... When he looked at the time again, an hour and a half had passed. He sat up and switched on the lamp. It looked like it was midnight outside, and had been dark for hours, and they couldn’t still possibly be skiing. What if something had happened?
“Don’t panic,” he told himself. When he regained a bit of composure, he chided himself for being so anxious and just sent Raj a text. Two seconds later he heard a loud buzzing, and turned to see Raj’s phone on the night table.
“It’s okay, don’t worry, you’re stressing over nothing,” he said out loud, and tried to think of something else besides overturned buses and avalanches. He played with the ring a bit, then paced and looked out the window. Surely someone would contact him if there was an accident. But what if they didn’t think of it? What if they didn’t even know to contact him, and tried getting Raj’s parents in India? Or what if something happened and Raj ended up in hospital. Would Howard be able to see him? Surely in a country where even gay couples could get married, it wouldn’t be a problem. But he remembered the conversations he’d had earlier that day, and what if hospital staff didn’t know? How could he prove that he should be able to see Raj like a family member, and not just like a friend?
There was a noise at the door, and Howard jumped. Raj came in wearing just a sweater and ski pants with his boots, and carrying his coat in one hand and some bags in the other. Howard attacked him almost before he could get through the door, throwing his arms around his neck and giving him kisses. Raj’s face was cool, and Howard pressed his cheek against his.
“You so totally ruined my ‘honey, I’m home’ line,” Raj said, returning the embrace.
“I’m sorry,” said Howard, giving him one last kiss before releasing him, “I was just worried something had happened. You’re back so late!”
“No, I’m sorry, honey, I forgot to give you our schedule. We went night skiing! Well, I mean, after skiing most of the day. It’s amazing up here! And it wasn’t even that cold!”
Raj kept chattering as he plopped himself down on the bed with his bags.
“And it was gorgeous and sunny but the snow was perfect, not even melting, and it’s weird how you can still go skiing, there were even people wearing shorts! And then halfway down the slope there’s a pub with a snow fort…”
Howard’s panic disappeared as he listened to Raj relate his day of skiing, eating, shopping, skiing again at night (“Under these huge stadium lights, it’s so cool!”), and eating more all at a million miles a minute. He hadn’t noticed before how often he would just sit and listen to Raj after a stressful day, and how it would calm him down when most people couldn’t take more than a minute or two of his babbling.
“And then we went to the Hot Springs! Did you know that you sit outside in the pool? And it’s really fed by a natural source. And they rent these old time swimsuits.”
“That’s why you smell like rotten eggs…”
“I still wish you were there, too.”
Howard smiled and kissed him.
“I know. Oh, I forgot to ask, how was your day?”
“You go shower, then I’ll tell you.”
Howard stretched himself out on the bed and draped his arm over his closed eyes. The sound of falling water was soothing, but he found he was still shaking slightly. He laughed at himself for being so ridiculous. A few minutes later the water stopped, and shortly after that Raj crawled up next to him. Howard pulled Raj’s arm to drape over himself.
“You’re so warm…”
Raj settled in.
“So, tell me about your day.”
“Aw, it was boring. Bought Sheldon his sweater, so you’ll have to try it on, too. Actually my session was fun. Went to another one in the afternoon. It was less fun. You would’ve liked it. Other than that, just did a bit of wandering around, window shopping…”
“Oh!” Raj exclaimed, popping off the bed and coming back with his bags. He started unpacking souvenirs and clothes and gifts and talking about where he’d gone and what the stores were like. He showed off some of the things he bought for their friends back home: a Hot Springs towel for Leonard, a bag for Penny, a t-shirt for Sheldon.
“And look, more candy!”
Raj detailed everything he had got as he found it: toffee, jawbreakers, nougat, liquorice babies, chocolates, something called Moose Droppings (which Howard vowed to avoid), maple sugar candies, cinnamon hearts, blue whales, cola bottles, lemon drops, salt water taffy, Rocky Mountain Pebbles, sponge toffee, chocolates shaped like two-dollar coins…
“And Fruit Pastilles! I haven’t seen these since I was twelve. Oh, and…”
Raj pulled out a purple candy.
“This is for you.”
“Oh my God, a Ring Pop! I haven’t seen one of these forever! I used to love these as a kid.”
“I know, you told me once.”
Howard took it out of its plastic wrapping, put it on, and smirked.
“The other kids used to make fun of me for it. Called me Princess Howie.”
“Well that’s their loss. You’re my princess now.”
Howard smiled and took a lick of it before taking it off and putting it on the nightstand. He grabbed the ring box quickly and tried to hide it behind his back. He was too slow.
“What’s that?” Raj asked, trying to peer around him.
“Just wait!” Howard said, slapping him gently on the hand. “I did some shopping myself today… And some investigating…”
“What are you talking about?”
“Well, did you know…” He trailed off.
“Actually, I’m serious this time. Did you know that your Lonely Planet it out of date?”
“What?” Raj asked, pulling it out of his backpack and flipping through it. “I bought it on Amazon!”
“Yeah, but most of their used things are new. Well, you know what I mean. Where is the publication date in this thing?”
After a full two minutes, they finally found that Raj’s copy was from April 2005.
“That explains it,” Howard mused.
“Well, I did a bit a bit of research and asking around, and it turns out that marriage was extended to gay couples across Canada in mid-2005. Even in Alberta.”
Raj’s expression changed slowly from pensive to surprised. Howard wrapped himself around him from behind again.
“Yup. I even checked in-person.”
“Let’s just say: someone in the know.”
Raj sat dumbfounded, and Howard let him absorb the information.
“Wow…” he commented after a while.
“And you can just do it, just like that?”
“All you need is love, right? Well, that, and a marriage certificate and someone to do the ceremony. But otherwise, yeah.”
For a moment they just sat in silence, trying not to get nervous about what Raj was thinking. He wanted Raj to be really excited about the fact that they could get married, but he wasn’t, and Howard’s mouth was going dry and he felt like he was hyperventilating and he was going to faint.
“Anyway, so, yeah… so, um…” he stumbled on his words. It struck him that maybe he should have planned this. “I… Raj… you… You know how you were saying, about in 2008 with everything that was going on… and you were really depressed and angry…”
Raj was giving him a strange look, so he stopped and changed tact. He took a deep breath.
“Raj,” he began again, more slowly, “I don’t really know how this is supposed to go, but… Well, we’ve been friends for the last seven years, and for about a year we’ve been… more than that… and the whole time has just been the happiest time of my life, and things just keep getting better, and I just want to know that we’ll always be together, with each other, forever and ever… and, well… I never thought I’d get to say this…”
Howard was trying to hold back tears, and he smiled in spite of himself when he saw Raj was doing to the same. Howard offered him the ring.
“Raj, will you marry me?”
At that point Raj couldn’t help himself and he burst into a smile and into tears and clutched the box and threw his arms around Howard.
“Yes, I will. Yes, yes yes!”
Howard burrowed into Raj’s neck and laughed and cried with him. Just focussing on being there with him was calming him down. As he breathed in, he wondered when it had started that he had started missing the smell of Raj when they were apart.
Raj finally looked at the ring and tried it on.
“It’s beautiful… but what about you?”
“I’ll get one later.”
“Maybe tomorrow,” Raj said, yawning. “I’ll find you something just as nice…”
They cleared the bed of bags, got out of their clothes, and crawled sleepily under the covers.
“Good night, sweetie. I love you so much.”
“I love you, too. Good night, and sleep well, you’ve got a big day ahead of you tomorrow.”
Raj was the first one up the next morning, again, already dressed at six a.m., this time looking over his notes, twirling a USB key through his fingers, and pretending to rehearse. Howard watched him through half-closed eyes, pretending to be asleep. It struck him that he wasn’t just looking at his boyfriend anymore, he was looking at his fiancé. He could text Leonard that he was engaged – that he could actually get married. The thought made him giddy and he giggled into the covers. The noise made Raj jump.
“Sorry,” Howard said, holding out his hand.
Raj took his hand and bent over to give him a kiss.
“You all ready?” Howard asked, playing with the ring on Raj’s finger.
“Just a bit nervous,” Raj said, letting go of Howard’s hand and readjusting his ring.
“You’ll do fine, I promise.”
“You’re going to come, right?”
“Of course I am, I’m your fiancé! But even I’m not going to be there three hours before it starts.”
He got a smile and a kiss on the forehead from Raj.
“I’m going to take a walk. Meet you at breakfast?”
Alone in the room, he closed his eyes to go back to sleep, but couldn’t stop his mind from going in its own direction. Raj had seemed somewhat distant, and his eyes had been clouded. It wasn’t just the presentation he was nervous about, it was something else. Howard wished he knew what Raj was thinking. Another thought popped into his mind: what if not knowing what Raj was thinking meant they weren’t a good pair? Shouldn’t you always know what your significant other is thinking? Maybe this wasn’t the right match. Maybe this just wasn’t right at all. If millions of people were opposed to gay marriage, to gay people at all, that was so many people - didn’t it mean they had to be right? Logic told him, of course, that was a bandwagon fallacy, but emotionally it was so hard to fight against the wave. He turned over and shut his eyes tight, willing himself to go back to sleep. Raj had seemed so happy last night, but maybe it was a stupid thing to do the night before his presentation, and now he was up wandering the halls. Maybe he would have done that anyway. And it wasn’t like Howard had brought it up in the first place: Raj was the one who read it out of the guide book. Was it just another random fact, a point of interest that he was bringing up, or was it more? Had Howard read too much into it? He felt so stupid for proposing. Why had Raj brought it up, though? Why had either of them continued talking about it if there wasn’t something there? Maybe Raj just needed some time to get used to it.
There was another thought that kept bothering him, because he didn’t feel right thinking about marriage that way, but wouldn’t getting married just be… fun? And sweet, and romantic? Dressing up nicely, writing vows, saying them out loud to each other in front of someone else, saying “I do”… I do promise to keep loving you, to make this work, to always be there for you. Exchanging rings… Howard closed his eyes.
He was down in the jewellery shop again, looking at rings, Raj pointed something out, the clerk smiled, gave them the rings… he had on thick glasses, was dressed in a gown and kippah, with a thick brown beard and long curls at his temples. He was reading from the torah, they were standing under a huppah painted with stars, and the rabbi was shaking his head and looking at them disapprovingly. But they were outside and there was nothing, no shop, just stars and the sky and it wasn’t even cold and no one else was there except him and Raj looking at two silvery bands of metal sitting in his hand, then sadly back up at him and shaking his head. Then Raj wasn’t there either, the rings were gone, they were in the snow, somewhere, and Howard got down on his knees and dug to try to find them, it was so hard to see, there was no moon just the light from the hotel in the distance, but still the snow was dark but it was sparkling. He dug and dug but the rings weren’t there, and the snow wasn’t even cold to the touch, and then a loud noise was coming from the hotel…
And he slid his finger across his phone to turn off the alarm and sat up. It was eight, and he needed to get going if he was going to make it to breakfast. That was a strange dream, and where had he been, how had he got there? And the… who had been holding the rings? He smeared toothpaste on his toothbrush… why was it sparkly, like snow? What was he digging for? He got in the shower, felt hungry, hoped they had eggs, and that was a weird dream… Especially when… what had happened? As he turned off the taps, the dream made its way completely out of reach like a balloon flying off into the sky. He couldn’t reach it anymore, it was gone. He had never dreamt it.
Howard couldn’t find Raj at breakfast, but hoped he hadn’t skipped eating altogether. He took some eggs and toast, skipped over the bacon for some reason that he couldn’t explain even to himself, and grabbed and apple and an orange for Raj for later, just in case. He wouldn’t go to the session until just before it started, knowing that Raj didn’t like to be bothered before presention. When he got to the room he was happy to see that it was full – or as full as a presentation on The Theoretical Postulation of Trans-Neptunian Objects in the Gliese System was going to be. Howard took a seat among the twenty-or-so people and leaned forward onto the chair in front of him. Raj glanced at him a few times while he spoke, and Howard shot him back a smile for support, trying not to be too conspicuous. Raj answered all the questions posed to him from the audience with ease and expertise. At the end he smiled as he was given a small round of applause. Howard was so proud that he wanted to nudge the person next to him and say “See that smarty-pants there? That’s my boyfriend… no, wait, he’s actually my fiancé! Isn’t he awesome?”
After the presentation, most people left, but a few milled around in the room talking to each other, and someone approached Raj with another question. Howard held back a bit until he was finished, then stepped up to him.
“Hey sweetie, good job,” he said, holding out the fruit to Raj in both hands. He had a momentary flash of Raj’s hands holding two rings – when was that? Only Raj had one so far… Right, that was in his dream… Strange, he couldn’t remember what happened next.
“It’s ok, I’ve eaten,” Raj said, pushing Howard’s hands away.
“Oh, okay. Well, great presentation. What I understood of it, anyway…”
“It useless, really. Even I didn’t see the point.”
Howard frowned at the tone in Raj’s voice. He placed his hand on Raj’s arm and Raj pulled away, darting a glance at the people still in the room.
“I told you, don’t!” he said, irritably.
Howard was taken aback. He felt tears stinging his eyes.
“What did I do?” he asked quietly, trying not to draw attention to their way.
“It’s what you always do,” Raj said, whispering but full of vitriol. “You start these things without even thinking about them.”
“What are you talking about?”
“About this,” he hissed, holding up his hand with the ring. “You didn’t even ask me!”
“What do you mean? I asked last night!”
“That’s not what I’m talking about,” Raj said a little louder after watching the last two people wander away from the doors, oblivious to what was going on. “I’m saying that you have these big ideas and you don’t consult me, you just jump into whatever stupid thing you want to do next. And then you expect me to go along with it. Well did you ever ask if I wanted to or not? No, you just bring these things up and don’t care what other people want,”
Howard made to protest, to remind Raj that, actually, he had brought up marriage in the first place, but he couldn’t get a word in.
“You don’t even know why I don’t want to do this,” Raj continued, his voice rising. “I don’t need this to add to my resume of Reasons Why People Look Down at Me. You have no idea what I have to deal with every single day, that I have to worry about just opening my mouth to anyone because they’re going to either tell me straight out that I talk funny and make mistakes, or not say anything at all, but I just watch it in their eyes, their opinion changing of me on the second – by the second, whatever! And I can’t even argue without making mistakes! And all anyone ever thinks of me is that I possibly can’t have anything to say when I can’t even speak English.”
Howard was fuming almost as much as Raj, and he regretted the next words out of his mouth before he even said them, but didn’t stop.
“Maybe those people have a point because you certainly don’t seem to understand what we’ve been talking about!”
“You fucking bastard!” Raj yelled, now seemingly completely unconcerned if anyone heard them.
“What?” Howard added, now full of adrenaline and finding it impossible to come down. “You think you’re the only one who has problems? You think you’re the only one who had to fight?”
“Don’t you dare! I had to fight to get Caltech to recognise my degrees from India, like Indians are still too stupid to prove that we know what we’re doing! Or that my qualifications don’t mean anything because it’s just one Indian telling another that they’re smart, and what does that count? Not like some dime-a-dozen Master’s degree from MIT!”
“Yeah well at least I didn’t buy my PhD from some street vendor!”
“See? See how racist you really are? You don’t even have to think before you cut me down. But I could talk until I’m blue in the face - I don’t expect you to understand. You’re selfish and self-absorbed and you never think of anyone but yourself!”
“Now you’re just repeating yourself,” Howard interjected. Raj ignored him.
“And you don’t know how it feels that no matter how long I live in the States, no matter how much I try to make it my home, when people ask and I tell them I’m from Pasadena, how they get that patronising look and ask: ‘No, where are you really from.’ I already have to constantly prove myself, defend myself every single moment of every single day and it’s so exhausting and I’m sick and tired of being so tired all the time!”
“Well maybe you should just leave then.”
Raj froze. Immediately, his face immediately lost all emotion.
“Fine,” he said, his voice calm and rational. He pulled the ring off his finger and pushed it at Howard. “And you can have this back.”
Howard didn’t react in time to catch it, so the metal band pinged on the ground and rolled away as Raj walked out.
Howard stood rooted to the spot for a full minute, staring into nothingness, feeling like he didn’t exist. When he could finally move, he took a deep breath and got down on his hands and knees to look for the ring. He had to swallow and keep looking up and blinking to stop himself from crying right there and then. Once he found it he checked to see it was all right, then clenched it tightly and shoved his hand in his pocket. He left the room, hoping not to run into anyone anywhere, and walked quickly through the hallways.
Raj was right about him being selfish, and, as much as he wished he could say otherwise, he was right about him not understanding. Here he was, acting just like he was a moping teenager, he hadn’t even come out to this mother yet, and defying everything he was brought up with, and for what? Raj didn’t even want to get married, and here he was forcing him into it, doing his own thing, not asking for Raj’s input, and wasn’t that what a marriage was supposed to be, two people making decisions together, and not just one person waiting for the other to propose and no one having any clue what the other person is thinking?
Skipping the elevator to avoid running into anyone he might have to talk to, Howard jogged up the stairs as fast as he could. Outside the room, he was out of breath. He let himself in, collapsed on the bed and let himself cry. He buried his head in the pillow trying to stifle the sound of his sobs. The phone rang, and he let it ring itself out. Moments later his cell rang, and he let it go to voicemail, knowing it would be Sheldon asking about his damned sweater. He sobbed some more, remembering that he had wanted to tell Leonard that they were getting married, and would now have to tell them that they were breaking up. He’d ruined everything.
Finally, so exhausted from crying that he needed to catch his breath, Howard turned onto his back. The room was grey from the overcast sky outside, but it was still bright, and he rested his arm over his eyes. His ears rang and his eyes stung. His throat was salty from tears, and his chest shuddered with sobs. He focussed on his breathing, and focussed on nothing but the darkness.
When he opened his eyes he had to blink to get them in focus. It was snowing outside, little flakes being swept this way and that by the wind, and the sky was darker. It was only three, but the final session would be winding up, and most people would head back to Calgary and the airport. They might even have wrapped things up early with the snow and sent everyone on their way. He and Raj were staying over and heading on to Calgary in the morning. He wondered if he should think of cancelling the room at the Palliser, and seeing if they could change their tickets to go back to L.A. early. Just the thought made tears run down his throat.
A while later he sat up, not bothering to look at the time. He didn’t want to know. He schlepped to the bathroom, dropped his clothes on the floor and stepped into the shower. The water was warm and he let it trickle over his back as he leaned against the wall, hands hanging limply at his sides. His eyes started to feel better, and he reminded himself he didn’t deserve it, and tears welled up in them again. He shook his head at himself for being so stupid and pathetic. It didn’t feel warm enough, so he kept inching the faucet hotter and hotter until the room started to steam up.
When his skin turned red and started to hurt, he let the water run for another few minutes, then turned it off. He stepped out of the shower and stood, dripping wet, on the bathmat, staring at himself in the full-length mirror on the back of the door.
He was dumpy and ugly and he had a big nose and small eyes and tilted eyebrows and stupid hair that was wavy like a drowned rat when it was wet. And he was so skinny, there was nothing to him, and he was small and unimpressive where it counted, and his legs were too short and… he had to put on towel because how could anyone stand him?
Somehow he eventually found himself back in the room, his hair tousled and towel-dried, wearing a loose button-up shirt and a pair of jeans, sitting on the chair by the window with his legs pulled up to his chest and his arms wrapped around them. There was no sunset because of the snow, but just darker and darker shades of grey. He wondered if he sat there until it got dark if he’d just disappear completely.
He didn’t realise when he had taken Raj’s ring out of his pocket and started playing with it, but he was amazed how it looked so brilliant even in the faint light. He twirled it loosely with his thumb around the top of his finger. First he would make it so the diamond showed, then turn it around so it was just plain. He put it on his right ring finger, for safe keeping.
He yawned in spite of himself and glanced at the bed. Now he understood a bit what Raj meant when he said he was tired of fighting, but he couldn’t even begin to imagine what it must be like to feel like this every day. He wanted to crawl on the bed, but he didn’t want to do it alone. He hugged his legs tighter, but it was no substitute for having his arms around somebody else. Well, not just anybody else… He looked at the clock and saw it was just after five. He swallowed his hurt and his pride and went off to look for Raj.
He tried to look but not look around the still-busy lobby, but there was no sign of him. The banquet hall where the wrap-up session took place was locked, and there was no light from under the door. His heart raced when he imagined Raj walking outside in the cold and the snow without his jacket. It made him jump and he had an idea, or rather his feet had an idea, he couldn’t quite tell where he was going. He was a bit puzzled to find himself outside the small room he was in that morning for Raj’s presentation. It was dark, too, lit only from the weak and rapidly fading light from the windows, all he could see were chairs stacked by the walls, and he wondered why he’d come back here. There was a sound from inside, like a chair moving, and someone exclaiming in pain. Howard squinted into the darkness.
“Raj?” he called out quietly, not knowing if he was allowed to be there. There was no answer, so he made his way over to the dark figure he saw kneeling by the chairs. He kneeled down beside Raj, who was on his knees, rubbing his head with his hand. He couldn’t see his face clearly, but he could see his outline.
“What are you doing here?” Howard asked softly.
“Nothing,” came the petulant reply.
“You sure? Do you want to go upstairs?”
“You’re just going to stay here in the dark?”
Howard wished he didn’t find him so adorable at that moment and wanted to give him a hug right then and there. He knew, however, that it wouldn’t be appreciated.
“Do you want me to go?” he ventured.
There was no answer.
After a moment’s silence, he heard Raj sniffle.
“What is it, honey?”
“I can’t find it, I’m sorry!” he bawled, “I took it off and I threw it at you and it’s lost and I can’t find it! I lost it and I’m so sorry!”
He started sobbing and Howard grabbed him in an embrace and pulled him close and started kissing his hair.
“No honey, no, listen,” he pleaded, “you didn’t lose it – it’s not lost, it’s right here.”
He felt for Raj’s hand in the dark, and slipped the ring off his own finger and onto Raj’s.
“I’m so sorry,” he bawled, clutching Howard’s hand.
“No, please, baby, no, don’t apologise,” Howard begged him, still holding him close, trying to shush him gently to calm him down. “It’s not your fault, I’m sorry – I’m sorry I said all those things, I swear I didn’t mean any of it.”
“Neither did I,” Raj sobbed. “I just, I just felt like it’s all too much and I want to do it so much, I really do, but it’s just so scary and I’m just so tired.”
“It’s okay, baby, it’s okay.” Howard nuzzled his hair a little more, trying to keep himself from crying again.
“Say, what if we do it,” Howard suggested, “but we do it for ourselves. We don’t have to tell everyone – we don’t have to tell anyone if we don’t want to.”
Raj hesitated for a moment.
“You’d do that?” he asked.
“I’d do anything to make you happy, Raj.”
They held each other in silent agreement, as the sun finally expired behind the grey clouds and the room faded into complete darkness.
They took the rest of the night a bit gingerly and a bit slowly. Raj showered and dressed, and they wandered down to the now-nearly-deserted lobby, not hand in hand, but letting their fingers brush accidentally as they walked. They sat far away from the only other people in the dimly-lit restaurant in a corner near the window, and held hands across the table under the candlelight. They didn’t talk much, but they didn’t have to.
When they got back to the room without a word, they laid next to each other and kissed and kissed and kissed until their lips were so wet they were dry. The smiled at each other in silence, then tried not to laugh, enjoying the rules of their little game. They continued in the same vein, through absolutely everything, staying perfectly quiet except for their breath and the small noises their bodies made against each other, even at the height of joy, and only Howard made a mistake when he nuzzled into Raj’s chest and whispered: “Good night.” Faithful to the end, Raj just kissed him and squeezed him, and turned off the light.
Howard couldn’t get used to waking up in the dark, but there was something different. Part of the room was bathed in a blue light, but the television was off. Then he recognised the occasional clattering of a keyboard and click of a mouse, and he turned to Raj. He was sitting up in bed typing away at his laptop.
“What are you doing up so early? We don’t have to be anywhere today.”
Raj smiled at him and then went back to the computer.
“Good morning, sunshine!”
Howard pulled a pillow over his head and yelled, “It’s not morning!”
He couldn’t hear what Raj was saying, so he took the pillow off.
“… officiant who’ll come to wherever you’re having the wedding, and I found a registry where we buy a marriage licence that’s three blocks from the hotel, and two more within five block either way, just in case, oh and one of them you can get to just through the Plus 15…”
“Shoot me for asking, but…”
“They’re a chain of enclosed walkways fifteen feet above the ground that are a great way to get out of the cold and avoid fresh air.”
“You should propose to the Lonely Planet…”
Raj stopped and planted a kiss on his lips.
“And we can see the whole city from the Calgary Tower, and there’s ZooLights, oh, no, wait, that ended… but there’s the Titanic exhibit at the science centre…”
“You saw that in L.A., remember?”
Raj rattled off their three-day itinerary in complete detail, and Howard’s heart swelled. It was for the silly little things like this that he was elated that they were getting married.
After Howard dealt with Sheldon’s voicemail by calling him back at work (“Why would I need a sweater like that? Don’t be ridiculous – what if I got lost in the desert and died of cold?), he sat and stared at his phone.
“You know what I said about not telling?” Raj asked.
Howard looked up at him.
“Thank you for not doing it, but you can if you want, you know.”
Howard broke out into a full smile, but turned his phone off.
“We’ll surprise everyone when we get home.”
They spent the rest of the day together playing tourist around the resort. They passed the day darting in and out of the other shops on the outside parade, giggling at souvenirs and prices and modern art, and holding each other’s hand. Howard squeezed a little too hard sometimes, in disbelief, but Raj never let go.
They took photos of the stained-glass hotel windows, and the walls and the decorations, and themselves in front of the lake and the glacier, and then packed and checked out. Raj said goodbye to everything (the lake, the sculptures, the glacier, the bridge, the black ice) as they left, and then they got in the car and were off.
Howard didn’t make Raj drive back because he was enjoying him enjoying the scenery too much. They pushed through, stopping only quickly for gas and to pee once along the way.
It was early afternoon by the time Howard pulled up to the hotel in Calgary, and Raj was sound asleep. He woke him up, and the valet took the car while the porter carried their luggage. The Palliser sat right on the train lines and was a luxurious sandstone building, built, Raj informed Howard, at the turn of the last century. Raj was in awe of everything, not least the red carpet that ushered them into the lobby.
After they checked in (without incident, this time) they wandered to the windows down the hallway to get some photos of the trains outside for Sheldon before settling in to their room. Howard was exhausted from the drive and the door closing softly was the last thing he heard before he fell asleep fully clothed on the bed.
He awoke in time for dinner and to hear Raj’s stories of downtown and of having booked the officiant for the wedding for the evening the next day, so they would have to get their licence the next morning. Chills ran down Howard’s spine when he thought of it, and he found himself stealing a kiss from his fiancé (he said it over and over in his mind) as often as he could.
The next morning they rushed through the plus fifteens and got their paperwork with relative simplicity. They even giggled at who they were going to list as the bride and who as the groom after the girl at the counter apologised for having run out of the gender-neutral forms. By two in the afternoon, Howard was already getting the jitters, and, contrary to Raj’s belief, standing on a glass pane ledge 525 feet above the ground in the Calgary Tower, with four rambunctious children testing its support capacity, was not helping.
At five o’ clock, an hour before the officiant was to arrive, Howard had a panic attack over what he was going to wear. Raj said he had assumed he’d brought something for the conference, but Howard reminded him that he hadn’t been presenting so he didn’t think of it, and only had black pants and a white shirt. They asked the concierge, who managed, unflappably, to rustle up a black bowtie and cummerbund, as well as a white jacket.
Sitting in the lobby at a quarter to six, listening to the live pianist play soft music in the background, Howard was playing with the sleeves of the jacket and getting fussy.
“What’s wrong?” Raj asked.
“I look like a waiter.”
“You look like the person I’ve loved for so long.”
“Don’t say things like that, you’ll make me cry. And then my mascara will run and I’ll be a mess for the photos.”
“All right, then…” Raj said, his lips quivering and finally breaking into a smile. “Oh my God honey, you do look like a waiter, I’m sorry!” he blurted before dissolving into laughter.
“Ten more minutes of being single…” Howard said, stealing a kiss.
“Hmm, maybe I’ll go see if there’s anyone hiding in the toilet for a quickie.”
“I’m just joking! Oh,” Raj said, pulling a small ring box from his pocket, “I think it’s only fair that I show you your ring before, too. I got it yesterday when you were asleep.”
Howard was speechless. Time, which since the day before had been rushing like a tidal wave up to this point, stopped. Raj opened the box to reveal a thin ring with half-circle facets on the top and the bottom.
“It’s an engineer’s ring,” Howard said incredulously. “Those are hard to get just like that…”
“Yeah,” said Raj, “who needs gold when you can have iron? Look on the inside.”
Still in awe, Howard pulled it out of its box and looked closely. Engraved around the smooth inside were the words:
No matter what happens.
Howard threw his arms around Raj’s neck and didn’t let go. He reluctantly pulled away when the officiant showed up, right on time, at six o’ clock. He introduced his assistant, and asked if they had brought a witness of their own. Raj’s eyes grew wide, but Howard had a quick word with one of the waitresses who had been watching them from the restaurant across the lobby. She enthusiastically volunteered, introduced herself as Juliana, and told her co-worker she was taking her break. She gushed about how she loved weddings and was a witness at her sister and her wife’s wedding two years earlier.
They began the ceremony with little pomp, and much talk. Howard didn’t hear a word of anything that went on, not even the wedding vows that he read from a selection given to them by the officiant. He didn’t remember a word of Raj’s either, but he heard the lilt of his voice and started to tear up looking in his eyes.
Somehow they had their own rings on their fingers, and Howard almost missed it when they were told they could now kiss, and was surprised to hear a small round of applause from the lobby. He was even more surprised to hear the pianist start into a lovely version of Blackbird.
“How did you know?” Howard whispered to Raj.
“Just checked the top 25 playlist on your iPhone…” he grinned. “And you hum it all the time without noticing.”
They swayed a little bit to the music, then signed the paperwork, and it was over. The officiant left, but Juliana ushered them to a table for dinner. They drank champagne and ate chocolate and didn’t leave until well after midnight.
They stumbled into their room, newlyweds all over each other, and pushed and pulled each other towards the bed, losing clothes along the way. They tugged each into nakedness, desperate for the feel of skin, so much more and nothing more than just the feeling of skin against skin. They were so close, wanting to get closer, were both ever-present and completely lost, pulling on hair for no reason other than it was there and always surprised how good not painful it feels, and over and over, good and painful and pain and good, oh God, so good! And they clung to each other, wanting to separate but not be alone after collapsing on the sheets and draping themselves over one another, and rolling away from each other, and finally falling asleep with their backs touching and their hands clasped together awkwardly, but not wanting it any other way.
Howard was surprised to be the first one up, and he wrapped himself around a still-sleeping Raj. The room was filled with sunlight, and it felt like they were home even though they weren’t, because they were married! Howard tried not to squeeze Raj too hard, in case he woke him up, but even though it was just one thin piece of paper and two little metal rings that separated yesterday from today, everything felt different. Howard took off his ring and beamed as he read the inscription. He put it back on and twirled it around the base of his finger with his thumb. It felt so strange to have something on his usually-empty hand, but so right at the same time.
After a while longer holding him, Howard realised Raj wasn’t getting up anytime soon. He felt like a child, being so excited that he wanted to wake Raj, but the adult in him knew he should just let him sleep. He decided to burn off his extra energy by going for a swim, and was happy when there was no one else at the pool. When he returned to the room he didn’t want to disturb Raj, so he hopped quietly into the shower. When he stepped out, he was surprised to see himself again in the mirror, and he blushed at the thought that he was actually cute. He grinned at himself for seeing what it was that Raj had always seen in him.
It turned out Raj was already up, sitting on the end of the bed and staring at his laptop. Howard plunked himself down next to him and gave him a kiss on the check. Raj didn’t move.
“Hey babe, what’s wrong?”
Raj still didn’t move, he just stared at the computer screen. Howard panicked a bit, and peeked over his shoulder. Raj had been reading something called the Canada Marriage FAQ, on the GLAAD website. His eyes scanned the page…
What should I say when I am asked if I am married?
You are legally married, and you should describe yourself accordingly… You should be aware, however, that discriminatory laws and practices still exist… If you do no say you are married, your answer could be considered fraudulent…
Howard’s shoulders fell, and he felt as if he had just been physically hit in the stomach.
Raj finally moved.
“Please,” he begged, his voice dry and without an ounce of energy left in it, “please don’t ask me to fight for this.”
Howard squeezed Raj’s hand tightly, and shook his head.
“No, baby, I wouldn’t ask that of anyone…”
They had nothing left, so they just sat there, clasping each others’ hands.
They started their efforts to go about divorce proceedings with a funerary demeanour. It wasn’t hard finding a lawyer to accept them as last-minute clients. Since they were both willing parties, the procedure was simple, and they collected the paperwork easily. They barely spoke as they gathered their things at the hotel, just occasionally let their hands touch, or their shoulders brush against one another. Everything they did was with an air of solemnity, as if they were saying a silent goodbye. Howard guessed that Raj was feeling the same as he was: after having been engaged, married, and divorced within the last 48 hours, there didn’t seem like there was much left to do that they hadn’t already done. Maybe two years down the line they’d go their own separate ways. Maybe sooner. They had been so certain about their lives before all this, but it was as if, since they’d had a formal commitment and then gotten rid of it so quickly, uncertainty was the only avenue left.
When they got to L.A., Leonard was waiting to pick them up. He told them they looked good from their vacation, then looked a little closer and decided to say nothing. When the silence was just too much for him to bear, he finally piped up.
“So, did you guys do anything interesting while you were up in Canada?”
Howard sniffled as he turned the divorce paper over and over, not really knowing what he was looking for, but feeling there was something missing.
“Are you still looking at that silly thing?” came a voice from behind him as Raj slipped his arms around his waist.
“It still kind of sucks.”
“Yeah, but on the plus side, we still have this…”
Raj reached into the box and pulled out the next piece of paper in the pile. It was the marriage certificate that had arrived in the mail two weeks after they had returned from their trip.
“We should get it framed.”
“Okay, but not today. Come on, let’s get moving!”
They hastily put the papers back. Howard handed the one box to Raj and picked up the other one. He stopped and stood in the room, looking around.
“I’m going to miss this place,” he said.
“But just think - now we’ll have our very own place, one that we chose together.”
Howard kissed him. He took one last glance at the old apartment, then stepped out and let the door close behind them.