For the Wheel's Still in Spin
Drifting at Sea
Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, where have you been, my darling young one?
“A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” by Bob Dylan
October 3rd, 2010.
Steve stares down at the newspaper, which appeared just inside his door overnight alongside a breakfast that’s already cold by the time he wakes up. He hadn’t heard them come in, and he can’t decide if it’s because they put something in his food or because he was just that exhausted with shock. The run out onto the pavement yesterday had been…something. Lights. Sounds. Cars that looked sleek and shiny and hummed quietly at him in a way diesel Jeeps never had. Horns. Voices and shouting. And over it a chilly drizzle, coating the world in a hazy fog. If he thinks about it too long, his mind starts to go white and fuzzy at the edges.
So instead he eats, even though he has no appetite. And he pokes at the newspaper. 36 pages, covered in color photographs with news and advertisements and cartoons. He feels almost overwhelmed just looking at this sheaf of paper. But he reads. And reads. And reads. The Middle East. Terrorism. A black president (Gabe would be proud, Steve thinks.) Half of the paper is dedicated to things Steve wouldn’t exactly call news. Silver screen stars (now not so silver) flirt on page twenty-three. Recipes with exotic names and even more exotic ingredients cover page twenty-eight. Plays from Broadway and books from Random House dance on page thirty. He polishes off his cold, rubbery eggs as he reads the last words on the last page (a long complicated schedule for something called TV) and pushes the paper away. It’s certainly not a coincidence that a man knocks and enters as soon as Steve leans back in his chair, though he’s not entirely sure how they’re watching him. A false wall maybe?
“Captain Rogers, good morning. My name is Jasper Sitwell, and I’ll be introducing you to 2010.”
Steve studies the man up and down, his unassuming suit and his thick glasses, the badge dangling around his neck on a black cord. Pencil pusher, his mind supplies as he stands to shake hands, and Sitwell’s soft skin only seems to confirm the assumption.
“Director Fury wants to start off with technological improvements. If you understand those, we think everything else will be a little easier for you.”
Steve nods and toes on his shoes. The technology pages of the newspaper had been one large block of indecipherable text and he hadn’t even been able to guess at the uses for most of the objects described in the articles.
“If you’ll follow me.”
Steve’s quarters are appointed just like his hospital room had been, neutral light tones and 1940s furniture, bland as oatmeal. They even left him the radio, though it only plays on a loop, passing between that stupid Dodgers game and brass band jazz. Outside his door, though, is another story. SHIELD’s New York headquarters are sleek and sharp, like something out of a cubist painting. The floor to ceiling windows put Steve on edge. How easy would it be to snipe someone? Too easy, he imagines. Sitwell leads him to an elevator that moves all on its own. No gates, no attendants, no cranks. It even takes vocal orders, though the wall is still covered in buttons. Forty-six stories.
“SHIELD has the first fourteen floors, and then after that it’s a load of legal offices, government offices, business offices. Just offices. Don’t bother those people. We’re technically not affiliated.”
“Well, in reality we own all the offices above, too, but Director Fury likes to have front organizations on hand. Helps with undercover work when we’re infiltrating the private sector.”
Steve isn’t entirely sure he understands, but he nods as they ascend to the twelfth floor.
“So this floor is agent training facilities and coordination. We build teams here, acclimate new personnel, determine where they’ll best fit in to the organization. And this,” Sitwell said, gesturing to a small office, “is where you’ll be learning about the future.”
He gives a goofy smile as he ushers Steve in. The windows overlook 8th Avenue, and below, he can see that buzz of activity again, so familiar and yet so different. The sleek cars, the flashing lights. He has to look away. Sitwell is waiting next to a sharp black desk, nearly devoid of office supplies as far as Steve can tell. There’s a strange looking typewriter, flat and black, keys covered in little squares instead of circles, and hell if he can see where the paper is supposed to go. Maybe under? In front of the typewriter is a flat black box, held upright on a stand.
“Today is your introduction to computers. If you’ll just take a seat.” Steve sits and his lesson begins, Sitwell hovering over his shoulder and patiently explaining the nuances of modern technology. There’s so much to know, and it’s so painfully obvious that to his keeper, this is all second nature. With a quick push of a button, the machine is whirring slightly and the box, which had seemed so inert and useless, is now brightly lit, sharp and colorful and strangely beautiful. They start with word processing, and already Steve feels a headache coming on.
“No. You don’t need to hit return after every line,” the Agent says as Steve types out a page, and the tone, the way Sitwell speaks, tells Steve he’s at the level of a toddler. They’ve been at this for an hour, bouncing between documents and a thing called the internet, which he’s only just starting to realize is basically all the world’s books condensed into one tiny machine. Or something like that. He’s still overwhelmed, but he can tell Sitwell is starting to get impatient with Steve’s slowness, and he in turn is losing his temper.
Finally he snaps, neck tight with frustration even as he strives to keep his tone civil. “Listen, I’m sure there are better things you have to be doing with your time. Is there a book or something? Like a guide? I don’t mind figuring this out on my own.”
Sitwell looks simultaneously nervous and relieved. “I…I’m not supposed to leave you to your own devices…” he says, but he sounds like he desperately wants to escape.
“I hate wasting your time like this. I really am ok with just working alone. It’s fine.”
The SHIELD agent considers his watch, pulls another little black box (a screen, he’d called it a screen) from his pocket, and then grimaces. “I’ll see if I can’t find an instructional book for you. But at the very least I need to teach you how to use Google. Google can probably find you anything you want to know.”
And so they turn to the internet again, to the amazing outpouring of knowledge, and Sitwell shows Steve how to access Google. Fifteen minutes later, he realizes he’s alone in the room, but he’s actually ok with that. He’s still keyed up. The shock hasn’t really worn off and he’s nervous about what he’ll do when it all finally sinks in. So he dives into pages upon pages of information, where he quickly discovers the wonders of Wikipedia. Google is shockingly intuitive and it finds virtually anything he could ask for in seconds. “World War II outcome.” More than 41 million answers for him, though he soon learns that with all the good information, there’s also a litany of absolute nonsense. “Johann Schmidt.” Twenty million hits, though all of them are vague on what Schmidt was up to during the war itself. He hesitates over whether to type other things, things he desperately wants to know, but fears the answers. “Bucky Barnes.” “Peggy Carter.” “Howling Commandos.” His fingers hover in space over the “b” key and then he turns away, looks into the wonders of word processing and spreadsheets and the rise of technology. “How to use a computer” turns out more than one billion results, each more helpful than the last. There are even instructional films, clear and sharp and smart. It’s like having a personal theater, and Steve is slightly overwhelmed by the implications.
He’s always been a fast learner, and when he next looks around the room, three hours have passed in a blur of electronic screens, text, and video. Fury is sitting next to the door.
“Sir,” Steve says, standing immediately at attention.
“At ease. I see you scared off your babysitter.”
“’Scared’ is a strong word, sir.”
“Well, if you’re more comfortable figuring this stuff out with the help of Google, I won’t argue with you. But we have plans for your afternoon.”
Steve looks reluctantly at the computer. Now that he’s gotten the hang of it, and feels confident in typing without destroying the delicate, little typewriter (Keyboard. One site had called it a keyboard.) he’s only just started delving into post-War history.
“Relax. There will be more technology training tomorrow. But now you need to eat lunch, and then we want a debrief on what happened on that plane.”
And just like that, the shock washes away, leaves Steve cold and breathless. In the whirl of lights and sounds and 2010, it had been so easy to push everything to the back of his mind, muffle it and cover it. Peggy and Bucky and the Commandos and Schmidt’s face, harsh Tesseract blue and dissolving flesh, the flash of explosives and the roar of tanks. Complete and utter destruction, cities turned to rubble and people turned to meat. In the wash of the computer screen and the weight of seventy years of technological innovation, the past blurred into watercolor pastels and distant memories. But with Fury’s words, his brain reshuffles and he’s again on that flight deck, the cold ice shelf rushing up to meet him and Peggy’s voice in his ear.
He nods reluctantly and follows Fury out the door, ghosts trailing in his wake.
From that moment on, Steve’s life at SHIELD is regulated down to the minute, even more structured than in the army. Debriefings, briefings, history lessons, health exams, training, counseling. He’s frankly astounded that they don’t choose the exact moments he’ll use the restroom. There are meetings to discuss the Red Scare, McCarthyism, Korea, Vietnam, 9/11, the Cold War, all the history he’s missed. Much as he’d hoped that maybe the Great Wars would teach the world to get along, it would seem that humans are bound and determined to keep fighting at all costs. Half of his education takes place through old-fashioned paper files and half of it on a virtual screen. He never leaves the building, instead shuffling from one floor to the next as the organization dictates. His day is reduced to blurs of black and silver and white, and even the food is colorless, tasteless, slack under the florescent lighting.
He’s given read-ups on notable characters involved with SHIELD, including all of his Commandos. That’s one of the hardest things. Seeing the name after name stamped “Deceased.” The world spun on without him, and he’d missed them all. Seventy years of love and laughter and tears and tough times and Steve had been cheated out of all of it. And what’s worse, Peggy’s still alive, and he can’t decide if that’s more painful than if she’d been dead. She married Gabe and he’s happy that she moved on, even if it sinks hooks into his heart and tears them away again. He learns about her three children, as well as everyone else’s kids and grandkids. Even Howard, who had seemed like he’d never settle with a dame, had had a son, one Tony Stark now wrapped deeply into SHIELD’s fold.
The counseling sessions are…interesting. He’s never quite sure what to think of them. The therapist they’ve assigned him, Nancy, comes off as soft and gentle, but Steve can see steel in her eyes. He can feel it in the way she pursues his losses, never aggressively, but she never backs down either. They talk about Bucky. About how weird it is that people wander around with their noses in smart phones all day. About his mom and dad. About the Dodgers. About the war. But Steve’s never particularly comfortable with the process and he’s not entirely sure anything is helping, especially when there are still fractured, frozen thoughts he has no words for, memories like crackling electricity and howling wind. He can only ever show her ten percent of what he’s thinking at any time, and she never seems to realize that there’s so much more than just, “The future is strange and the past is dead.” He can sense how badly she wants to help him, but at the end of the day, it’s hard to relate to a guy who’s missing seventy years of context.
Now that his shock has receded, he wakes in the night in cold sweats, hands reaching for Bucky and Peggy or for the Tesseract. Sometimes he can’t remember the dreams at all, but they send him running to the training facilities, where he beats on a heavy bag until dawn rises over the Manhattan skyline. The therapist asks him about that, about why he can’t sleep, because SHIELD knows his every move, but Steve never knows what to say. It’s not like she can control his nightmares for him, and knowing that she knows just makes him feel violated. A man’s troubles should be his own and not the business of a building of complete strangers.
The loneliness eats at him. He misses the camaraderie of the army more than anything else. He misses knowing that there’s always a friend there for him to talk to if he needs it, or to not talk if he needs that instead--someone who’s seen the same trees and held the same guns and watched the same soldiers die. Instead he’s surrounded by indifferent faces, sharp-eyed and wary, unsure what to make of a living legend back from the dead. The walls of his quarters shrink in at night, the strange silence of the SHIELD building swallowing even the hustle and bustle of New York. He can feel the stress building inside him like a pressure cooker, and the tighter he clamps down, the harder it becomes to hold it all in.
It takes him four weeks before everything explodes out in the dead of night, and he wakes fresh from a nightmare, tears streaming in silence until he turns and screams into the pillow. The thoughts whirl in his head faster and faster. Thoughts about duty and what’s fair and how life is rarely fair at all. Memories of his friends, his long-lost family, getting beat up in back alleys and fighting on the front. And what’s worse is this is a problem he can’t fix. There is no plane to send crashing down into the Atlantic. There is no enemy to pursue through Germany. Steve can’t do anything but grin and bear it and that’s the last thing he feels like doing.
He screams again, the tears coming harder now, great racking sobs ripping through his chest and for a truly terrible moment, he wishes he were dead and considers how much easier it would be to just let it all go. But the feeling passes as he collapses into his chilly sheets. If there’s one thing Steve Rogers is not, it’s a quitter. There will be no sleep tonight. The tears are dry on his cheeks by the time he rises and changes into his workout gear, but his face is still blotchy Irish red. He destroys three heavy bags in under an hour, and the fourth has just started leaking sand when he collapses against the canvas, like his strings have been cut. This isn’t helping.
Steve can’t go back to his room; he doesn’t have it in him to face those empty walls again. So he does the only thing he can think of. For the first time since October 2nd, he ventures outside and starts running, legs pumping at a steady pace. It’s 4 AM, and New York is barely even waking, though even at this hour there are people up and about. The early autumn chill casts a fog over the city, but the sun will burn it off quick enough. There are a lot of orange and black decorations in windows, pumpkins and witches, skeletons and stranger things, and he’s vaguely thrown by proof that even more time has slipped through his fingers while he’s been locked away in SHIELD’s headquarters. He makes his way down 8th toward Central Park, legs churning and breath steady, and the air is sharp and beautiful in his lungs. It’s not so overwhelming this way, with the crowds and traffic gone, and he feels like he can breathe again. The buildings vault overhead, tall, sharp, unfamiliar, and in his mind he can see the ghosts of what used to be there. The pain recedes little by little as the sun climbs higher, constant but manageable.
He’s on the other side of Central Park when his stomach rumbles angrily at him, even though he’s barely run a tenth of what he’s capable of. The SHIELD doctors had told him that while he can make due on less, he should be taking in about 5,000 calories a day for his speeding metabolism. The next day, his fridge was loaded with thick protein shakes to help make up the difference, but he hasn’t been drinking them and he hasn’t been eating enough, not when the food tastes like sand in his mouth. And now, when for the first time since waking, he actually feels ravenous, he has no money to buy breakfast at one of the delis and coffee shops opening their doors to early morning commuters.
The inevitable slog to SHIELD lingers large, but where else is he going to get food? So with reluctance, he turns to double back down fifth when he hears a familiar voice. “Hey soldier.” Fury is sitting at a table, coffee and breakfast set before him. “Let’s talk.”
Somehow, Steve isn’t terribly surprised. He’s learned enough about modern technology to know that SHIELD can probably find him virtually anywhere there’s a camera. But at least there’s food.
He settles across from Fury, murmurs a thank you, and tucks in. Hopefully there’s more because eggs, bacon, and pancakes will not even begin to dent his appetite now that it’s awakened. Fury sips coffee and chews a bagel across from him, apparently content to wait until Steve’s less ravenous. The food is mediocre at best, but the coffee is bitter and smoky and sinks into his teeth like an anxious lover.
When he sets his fork down and looks up, Fury has hands steepled in front of his mouth. “Rough night?”
“You could say that, sir,” Steve replies, even as he knows that his hair is a mess, his face probably still blotchy from crying and exercise, and his voice hoarse with lack of sleep.
“Your therapist has given us a recommendation for that.”
“Oh?” he says, sipping coffee, but inside he’s terrified. What kind of recommendation? Has she suggested he be quietly locked away, the way some of the older boys at the orphanage were, when they couldn’t take the loss of family anymore? Or has she decided that the best way to help him is to put him back on the front lines in the Middle East? He’s not sure he could take that. Not so soon.
“She feels we should let you get an apartment of your own, away from SHIELD headquarters. Seems to think we’re overwhelming you.”
Fury’s scathing tone says exactly how much weight he puts on this recommendation, but Steve’s listening closely now. He’s desperate for a way to escape those oatmeal walls and that empty room.
“My second in command is in agreement, and given what you did to the training room last night,” Steve flinches, remembering the sea of sand, “I’m reconsidering my opinion on the matter.”
Fury studies him with that one sharp eye, mouth turned down at the corners like he’s just sucked a lemon. Steve tries to look unassuming, but inside, he’s already reaching for it. Let him escape, please, let him have this.
“What do you say, soldier?”
Steve exhales, air flowing through his teeth, and then meets Fury’s eyes with everything he can muster. “Please let me, sir. I’m going crazy in there.” Across from him, the Director’s expression shifts, becoming more thoughtful, less hard.
“There will be stipulations. We had to fight the army just to get you in our custody. They say you’re military research and rightfully belong to them. We can’t have you stepping out of line and you’re still a long way from being able to function out here. There’s a lot you still don’t know.”
“I’ll take the stipulations if it means getting out of that goddamn room, sir. Pardon the language.”
Fury snorts as though Steve has just told a very funny joke, but he nods. “Let’s get you an apartment, then.”
In three days, Steve has his own place in Brooklyn, twice as large as the flat he shared with Bucky when they both turned eighteen, but the agents who help move him in insist it’s terribly small. SHIELD sets everything up for him. Phone number, computer, cell (Steve is resisting smart phones on principle), bank accounts. That one threw him for a loop; Fury tells him he’ll be given back pay and hazard pay for the time he was in the ice and SHIELD will also pay him as a full-time special ops agent, even though he’s not technically running missions yet. The bank statement they leave on the table forces him into a chair. He’s never seen so many zeros on any of his financial documents before, and they tell him he can access it all with a piece of plastic.
With personal freedom, Steve doesn’t feel quite so claustrophobic. The nightmares are still there, a constant buzz in the back of his mind, but one in five nights, he manages to get in a solid seven hours. Even better, his time isn’t completely micromanaged anymore. He reports to SHIELD in Manhattan four days a week, 9 to 5. He rides the subway with hundreds of other commuters, and if it weren’t for the fact that his shoulders take up enough room for two normal commuters, the denizens of New York would hardly notice him at all.
But once the bell rings for five, Steve is free to do as he pleases, and he does. He walks the entirety of Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens, and the Bronx. He ducks into tiny little back alley restaurants and tries foods he never dreamed of. There are fiery curries from Southeast Asia and India, rich savory dumplings from China, flatbreads and exotic soups from Africa, the strange and delightful tang of sushi. The anonymity of eating at the back of a dive is amazing, if lonely as ever, though he’s under no illusions about SHIELD. They probably track his every move, study his every purchase, analyze his every action. But it’s a little easier when he can’t see them doing it as much.
In some ways, New York hasn’t changed at all. The people are still tough as nails and they still don’t give a shit about fame or fortune, at least not down on the streets. No one ever tries to mug Steve, now; he’s too big for that. But they don’t exactly part in awe before him either. On the whole, they’re still unimpressed with anything and everything, and maybe they’re even a little bit tougher now that the city’s on the other side of 9/11. (Steve visits the memorial three times, but the list of names gives him terrible nightmares about Schmidt’s bombs hitting New York.)
In many ways, though, Steve feels big changes in the city. People aren’t as familiar as they once were. It used to be that he knew everyone in his apartment building, that they had each other’s backs. When Mrs. Pavlopoulos couldn’t afford milk for her little one, Mr. Corruthers would give her his morning bottle. When Bucky’s jacket busted holes in the elbows, Mrs. Sing offered to fix it in exchange for Bucky working on her pipes. Steve was never entirely sure if that was a euphemism or not, but either way, everyone helped each other. Now he’s lucky if he even sees his neighbors’ faces.
He goes to different parts of the city that he used to haunt and draws comparisons in a ragged notebook. The corner of Atlantic and Clinton, the Navy Yard. He visits the War Memorial and feels exceedingly strange when he realizes his name has a place of honor among Brooklyn’s native sons, as does Bucky’s. On the rough paper, old auto shops and bars stand alongside modern counterparts like Trader Joe’s and Haagen-Dazs. He also people-watches constantly, studying these new denizens of the Big Apple, so familiar and yet so strange at the same time. Steve never feels quite as lonely when he can watch people walk their dogs in the park or bike along the congested roads.
Listening in on conversations in diners and restaurants (He doesn’t mean to snoop, but his hearing is sharpened by the serum, and he can’t help himself.), he finds new and interesting things to Google, things SHIELD hadn’t deemed important enough to teach him in his lessons. He spends one night delving into “gangster” which leads him to “gangsta” and then leads him into the evolution of rap. He likes the stuff from the 80s and early 90s, but everything after that just seems to devolve into yelling against a heavy bass. Another evening has him searching “hipster” and he learns about locavores, beat nicks, and drug culture. Sometimes his searches turn out to be duds. One night one of the waitresses says he reminds her of Beaver Cleaver and when he discovers that vein, he feels strangely embarrassed by his own ignorance, as well as most of the 50s.
There’s so much pop culture to catch up on that Steve barely knows where to start, so the TV in the corner of his apartment remains steadfastly off and instead he starts frequenting the library, catching up on fiction and non-fiction. Books quickly build into a haphazard pile on his nightstand, and he reads late into the night when the nightmares are too close for comfort. Kerouac, Ray Bradbury, C.S. Lewis, Steinbeck, Harper Lee, Vonnegut. There are books that are terrible for him to read, but somehow he can’t bring himself to stop. Night by Eli Weisel leaves him in tears early into the hours of the morning, and he can’t listen to violin music for a week without choking. Catch-22 makes him ache for the Commandos, because he recognizes that nugget of madness, how it was in them all, at least a little. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings end up being his favorites, and not just because the heroes of the stories are scrawny little people, often overlooked by the rest of society. Mostly. He likes Aragorn, too. He likes the longing he senses in Tolkien’s words for a world that hasn’t given way to machinery and steam and electricity. When he closes the cover on the last book (He even read the appendices clear through.), he feels both strangely at peace and terribly sad.
Time marches on and Steve’s SHIELD-endorsed history lessons and training continue as well. He’s combat-ready by mid-November and Fury has him instructing new recruits, teaching them how to fight against someone big, intimidating, and fast. Most of the fledglings don’t actually know who he is and he kind of likes it that way, because then they don’t pull their punches or cower in awe. Well, they cower, but only after the first few times he lays them flat. Sitwell continues to babysit him from time to time, weaning him onto touch-screen technology and constantly wheedling at him to get a smart phone. It’s comfortable living, but Steve’s feeling antsy. He was never one to be idle, and while he enjoys exploring the city, he’s starting to ache for a purpose again, a mission or a goal. At the very least, something to distract him from his seemingly endless ignorance of the modern era and the ghosts that are always at his heels, waiting for the dark of night.
There’s an awkward Thanksgiving with SHIELD personnel and Steve meets Maria Hill for the first time. He doesn’t realize right away that she’s Fury’s second. It takes several senior officials deferring to her as “sir” for him to make the connection. She strikes him as a hard woman, not prone to joking, smiling, or merriment of any kind, but she’s also terribly practical in the same way Peggy was terribly practical, and Steve has no doubt that she’s deadly in combat. Looking at her, he feels his ghosts draw closer around him, and chills run down his spine, icy Atlantic water and freezing war fronts in his bones.
When he gets home, he’s struck with another wave of loneliness, remembering Thanksgiving in ’44 with the boys, deep in Poland. They’d splurged and opened up cans of salmon, one contraband jar of caviar, and passed around a bottle of aged whiskey Falsworth had found in a bombed out building. At the end of it all, Bucky had produced one bar of real Swiss chocolate, carefully hoarded for the occasion, and everybody got a square. Steve doesn’t sleep that night.
New York lights up for Christmas in a way Steve’s never seen before. It seems like every street is covered in twinkling decorations, and the tree at Rockefeller Center is far bigger than he ever remembers seeing it. The plaza brings back sharp memories of 1937, visiting the rink with Bucky and two girls, both of whom had fought for Bucky’s attentions and relegated Steve to moving scenery. They’d all skated until they were pink-faced with cold and then stopped and splurged at a soda shop for hot chocolate. He’d caught pneumonia out of the whole thing and was laid up for two weeks, but he still remembers the pure joy of slipping and sliding across the ice.
Every day for a week, he goes and watches tourists and New York natives alike lace up and venture onto the rink. His notebook fills with page after page of skaters: children, college students, the elderly, black, white, Asian, Hispanic. It’s on the fourth day of visiting that something different catches his eye.
There are two young men, probably still college students, skating across the ice hand in hand. The brunette in the lead clearly knows what he’s doing, feet churning and legs sure. His blonde friend is less steady, wobbling until one leg slips out completely. They collapse on the ice, laughing, and Steve sees ghosts of Bucky and himself. He starts sketching the young men as they clamber to their feet, but his pencil halts when they kiss. They’re wrapped around each other, kissing like the soldiers kissed their sweethearts before deployment, and Steve feels a blush rise in his cheeks. Around the couple, other skaters glide by without a second glance. No one is yelling. No one is calling the police. If anyone is displeased, they’re keeping it to themselves.
Steve feels like he’s stumbled on a private moment somehow, even as the young men take off skating again. His pencil starts moving of its own volition and he’s drawing faster and faster, trying to catch all the detail of what he’s just seen. The men kiss three more times on the ice, clearly in the throes of young, carefree love. Or maybe they’ve been dating a long time. Steve’s never been good at judging that sort of thing. But they look so damn happy, it probably doesn’t really matter whether they’ve been together three weeks or three years. When they step off the rink and begin unlacing their skates, he approaches them.
“Excuse me,” he manages to say, and they look up at him, pink-cheeked and smiling. “I just…you were so captivating on the ice.” He rips out the page from his sketchbook and hands it to them, feeling sheepish and intrusive. “I couldn’t help myself.”
The couple looks down at the paper and then back up at him, the blonde looking unsure and the brunette smiling. He’s the one who speaks up. “Thank you. This is really…thank you. Can we get you a coffee or something?”
Steve shakes his head sharply. “No, no. There’s no need. Merry Christmas.” And then he’s off, dashing toward his apartment. That night, his Google search is intensive and lasts into the early hours of the morning. He learns about words like “homosexuality”, “gay pride”, “asexuality”, “cisgender”, “Stonewall”, and “bisexuality.” It’s a lot of information to take in, but there’s one particular piece of information he notices because it ties into his SHIELD files. In the list of noted bisexuals in media, Tony Stark is tucked in between Anna Paquin and David Bowie.
Steve shuts the computer off at 3:24 AM, but he knows this is going to be another sleepless night. His mind trips through years of catechism, and he remembers slurs shouted back and forth in the army. But then, he also remembers how his faith had shivered in the face of racial prejudice, how he’d always been uneasy with the way the Church had belittled people of other faiths. He remembers how after his mom had passed, he’d attended less and less, feeling more and more uncomfortable with how sometimes sermons felt less like teaching and more like bullying. He remembers the men and women in art school, people he’d known didn’t fit into societal norms, but somehow that never bothered him, especially when they made such beautiful art. Holly with her short, short hair and chain-smoking and wide-brimmed hats, so quick to start fistfights with the boys. Ethan, who was as small and willowy as Steve had been, but so much more graceful, like a dancer, always dropping gentle touches on other men’s arms. Steve can see them in his mind, clear as day, and wonders if they’d all been born in this century instead of the last…
But mostly he remembers the way he felt about Bucky, a tiny flame, fragile but sure, burning brighter in the face of the war, the certainty that nothing was certain, and how he’d felt about Peggy, smoldering and flustered, but equally warm, steady as the sun. At 4:21, he goes out for a run and his legs carry him thirty miles before he finally goes back home and collapses into his bed.
After that, Steve takes several trips to Chelsea and Greenwich Village, and now that he knows what to look for, he sees homosexual couples everywhere in those neighborhoods, unabashedly kissing or holding hands in public. He watches as two young women share an ice cream cone in defiance of the frigid January weather. People sit across from each other, eating dinner and sipping wine over candlelight, and no one seems to care if women are with women, men with men. There are men dressed in drag and women dressed like dock workers and men in sharp perfect suits and women in flowing dresses, and Steve has to work in his mind over and over again to refrain from mentally labeling anyone. He just tries to let it flow over and around him. His sketchbook fills with these beautiful people, dancers and artists, office workers and stay-at-home parents. And the more he sees, the more comfortable he becomes when he realizes he finds some of the men attractive.
Once, Steve even gathers his courage and walks into a gay bar. It’s still early, and a Wednesday to boot, so the place is not terribly crowded and the customers are still pretty subdued. He hunkers at the bar, orders a beer, and observes. It doesn’t take long for a man, someone in his mid-twenties Steve would guess, to approach him.
“Haven’t seen you around before.”
“No. I’m new.”
“Care to dance?”
Steve flushes and thinks of Peggy. “I’m a terrible dancer,” he replies, because that’s easier than explaining that dancing is reserved for someone who’s out of reach.
“Mind if I keep you company, then?” The man offers a sweet smile, white, white teeth and the flash of an eyebrow piercing.
“Sure. Go for it.”
“Nice to meet you, Matt. I’m Steve.”
Matt orders a Jack and Coke and settles on the stool next to Steve, close enough to be more than friendly, but not touching.
“So what do you do, Steve?”
“I’m, uh, I’m in government work. You?”
“Actor by day, bus boy by night.”
“Working for the big break?”
“Always,” Matt says with a laugh, and it’s a nice laugh, short and light.
“Just moved to New York?”
“No. I’m from Brooklyn. Been…a little isolated. I’m trying to get out more.”
“Oh, you just came out? Or working on it?”
“Uh…Well, I’ve been to Chelsea a few times before,” Steve says, and he can tell from the tone of voice that Matt might not mean what Steve thinks he means.
“How’s your family taking it?”
“I, uh, I don’t have any family.”
Matt’s smile dissipates then, and he gives Steve a look of genuine sympathy. “I’m so sorry, man. I didn’t mean to bring up a sore spot. Let me get you another drink to make up for it.”
“You don’t have to…”
“I insist.” He flags down the bartender and orders Steve another beer. Steve wants to talk to him more, but the flirtatious air has dissipated and Matt slinks off after another awkward minute. Steve’s a little sorry to see him go, but maybe it’s for the best. He’s not exactly looking for a relationship anyway. After the beer’s gone, he pays his tab and leaves, but he’s learned a few things about himself even from this short exchange. Then again, maybe “learned” isn’t the right word. Maybe it’s “accepted.”