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Everything but us

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1996

George has always dreamed of the man with the kind eyes, ever since he can remember.

At first the dreams are soft at the edges, barely more than a smile and a warm voice that floats in and out of the other strange images. But as he grows, so too do the dreams, and by the time he is four he knows the man's name – Jim – and more besides, snatches of words that come dancing out of his mouth when he is alone, as if they have been growing there just like his tongue and his teeth.

Often when he looks in the mirror he sees many faces within his own reflected face – the face of a child, a boy, a young man, a not-so-young man – all present together, preserved like fossils in so many layers. They are all the same person, all himself, though that face's nose is a little longer, its ears a little smaller.

His name was George then, too, and Jim was his friend. He knows that, though he's not entirely sure how he knows it. Perhaps this is just how memories work.

George is a serious child, intense, more inclined to listen and observe than to talk, especially when it comes to other children. He sorts them into categories in his mind: the cheerful, the angry, the wild, the ones who live for adult attention and the ones who regard adults as merely part of the scenery of life, like secondary characters. These last are, perhaps, the closest to George himself – he has a sense of being more real even than other children, a sense that the well inside him goes down deep.

He likes stories, but once he's heard them through the first time he finds that he needs to take them apart, pick over each word to understand why it is there and not another that means nearly the same thing. His parents find this all a bit disconcerting, though they try not to show it; George can read it in the lines of his father's face, the way their eyes fix on him when he speaks. His mother calls him her little old man, and his stomach twists at the words. It isn't dislike, not precisely, but after the third time she says it, George decides he ought to laugh more, ought to teach himself to play more like other children.

That night he dreams of himself wearing short trousers, climbing trees, threading conkers onto strings, wielding a stick as a makeshift sword, playing hide and seek in the wood at the end of the lane, racing paper boats across the pond while Nanny looked on benevolently. Something unlocks in the back of his mind, and the next morning at his primary school it's easy enough to join in with the others, playacting at being firemen, doctors, teachers, just like he's always known how.

After a few weeks, the furrow between his father's eyebrows smooths out and his mother's gaze softens into indulgence, and George lets himself smile when 'my little old man' falls out of favor as a nickname, replaced with others. This is his first experience of learning how to be what others expect, to act the story of 'George.' It won't be his last.

He begins to have favorite games, the kind with sailors and pirates, and so his parents take him to swim lessons and buy him a little sailor suit to play in. He wears it often, clings to it when he is unsure just because the crisp white and deep sea blue of the fabric is more vibrant than anything else he knows. Not brighter, exactly, but more. More blue, more white, even when smudged with grass stains and spattered with mud.

He often wonders why everything cannot be as real as those ragged squares of fabric. But though he knows that there is something missing, he is at least not unhappy.

 

2007

George is fifteen, and he has begun to dream of more than words and smiles. His daylight life is all that anyone expects of him – he goes to school and to his friends' houses, swims on the school team, wastes too much time playing video games and watching questionable television. He is calculatedly crude with his peers, performs intelligently but not brilliantly for adults, laughs when he knows he ought to and only rarely says what he's really thinking. The sailor suit is long gone, packed away into a box in the attic, but he reads Moby Dick, Master and Commander, The Sea-Wolf.

And at night Jim's skin is hot under his hands, taut and glowing golden tanned, dappled with sweat as they rut against each other on the rug in front of the fire. George licks up the side of his throat, sucks a kiss into the hinge of his jaw and barely makes himself stop before he leaves a mark. Jim's hand is between them, his broad palm curled around their cocks both together and George can barely breathe for the sheer power of that touch, the way it makes him tremble. "Come along, old man," Jim says, a laugh in his voice. He hitches a leg over the back of George's, hairy shin rasping against the cord of George's calf, pressing them impossibly closer. "Come on now, give it to me, don't make me wait forever—"

It is an awakening in more ways than one, when George blinks and finds himself alone in the bed, hand in his boxers and sticky already.

He has hundreds of memories now for his dreams to draw on, a couple of years' worth of their life together at least: soft, dark encounters in their bed, and on the sofa with candles lit and music playing on the gramophone, and desperately half-bent over the kitchen counter, slicking his fingers with butter – but there are some that his mind seems to keep coming back to, the ones where Jim's eyes are brighter blue than the others. Maybe his favorite of these is the first night they'd met, Jim in his uniform at first and then stripped bare as they dashed into the ocean, laughing, coming together in a passionate clinch under the cover of the waves.

There are nights, too, when it's only the two of them curled together on the sofa, knees interlaced, George reading Metamorphosis and Jim reading Breakfast at Tiffany's, nights when he dreams of standing in front of a class of increasingly bored teenagers lecturing about Shelley or Dickens or Orwell, nights when he has extremely detailed dreams of doing the weekly shop, which always makes him roll his eyes when he wakes in the morning thinking urgently about bread.

Last year his parents had finally bought him a smartphone and he'd started keeping notes in a password-protected file, names and dates of who he'd known and when they'd met (Charley, November 12, 1934), things they'd said to each other, books he'd read and what he'd thought of them, the essential points of his lectures. It makes some of his schoolwork quite easy, though attitudes towards Hemingway have certainly changed in the last forty years.

Other things have changed, too, and after a bit of discreet agonizing George comes out to his family; it's harder than he'd expected to pretend he isn't surprised when they they hug him and tell him he's very brave and that they love him just as he is. He feels a little ashamed, after that – for letting his fear take over, for making assumptions – and so he tries to think more of them, tries to believe them real in the same way that he himself is real. To an extent he succeeds.

He can't say the same of his classmates, who seem more like caricatures to him than anything else. Sometimes when he isn't trying they catch his eye in flashes: a split second of Danny's mouth, flushed red like a ripe strawberry; Jamal's white tee-shirt stuck with sweat to his chest so that George can see the dark skin underneath; the muscled planes of Phil's back and shoulders as he swims, or his hands callused and strong on his arm as he pulls George along to meet his parents after the meet, laughing.

If George had been someone else, he'd probably have asked Phil out by now; perhaps they'd even have made something of it. But Phil isn't Jim, was never going to be Jim, and George knows too well what he's missing.

He wonders, sometimes, how they'll ever find each other, if they'll ever find each other. He puts out feelers on the internet, little messages left in out of the way places where it seems like Jim might go, but he starts getting creepy responses and after a while he deletes it all. If they're going to meet again, it won't be like this.

The dreams don't go far enough to let him see them get old together, not yet. George just wants to know how their story ends.

 

2013

At twenty one, George is at Oxford. He's got himself labeled as a good solid student, nothing spectacular (one professor had called him a bit old-fashioned, which had made him smile, but after that he'd gone to a bit of an effort to learn some of the new types of theory, even embrace them when he didn't find it all too ludicrous). He's made friends, casual ones anyway, on the swim team and the boat club and in his tutorials, settled in about as well as anyone could expect. He's even joined the queer students association – by and large they're a fatuous bunch, but there is the occasional gem, someone with a bit of humor to them, and even the most ridiculous of them feel solid, tangible.

He still dreams of Jim every night. But as his university years go by with no sign, George can feel cynicism beginning to creep in. He's been reading Maurice for his latest tutorial and the parallels are unsettling. The dream, that damned dream. Was that all it had ever been?

Because how can Jim be real? Or any of it, really – but especially Jim, with his kind eyes and warm hands, the way his body had fit right up against George's. The memories are too good. They'd fought, of course, over important things and stupid things alike, but they'd loved each other too intensely for any of that to matter in the end.

It's the love that tells him it can't be real. Nothing else lives up to it – and this is the world, this is his life, so if his own life can't measure up then what can that mean?

It must mean that he's conjured it up, that it's all just the part of his subconscious that's always felt different (too observant, too sharp, too queer). The part of him that wanted some explanation for why he felt so old. A past life is an easier answer than 'just because,' isn't it? A more romantic answer, at least. He'd wanted that dream – wanted the promise of someone like him, the promise of a friend.

No, Jim can't be real. (If Jim were real, they'd have found each other by now.)

One afternoon in a fit of rage George deletes all his files of notes, the ones about Jim and Charley and all the rest of it, scrubs his backup drive and his Dropbox folder, too. After it's done, he tells himself he'll look at other boys now. He tells himself he feels free.

That night he dreams of the phone call – that horrible phone call. ″The service is just for family.″ And then after, all the color and warmth and joy leached out of the world, leaving nothing but ice. Having to get through the goddamn day, and the next, and the next. Two days in, one of his students had laughed and he'd nearly crossed the four feet between them and throttled the boy.

He dreams of the months after, shambling through the world like a husk of a human being. Trying to convince Charley that he'd stopped mourning, just so she'd shut up about it. The empty bottles of scotch, accumulating like red pen on the manuscript of his life. Not the moment when he'd determined to kill himself, but the moment when he realized that he'd determined to kill himself, when he looked down and thought of how easy he could make it. Writing the letters – to Charley, to Alva, to Grant – and setting out his suit and tie (stupid to think of it now: would they even have been able to dress him in all of that if he'd blown his damn head off?).

He dreams of Kenny in the bar, in the surf, laughing and sly, too much like Jim and not enough. He dreams of the moment when he'd decided to live. He dreams of the moment when his body gave out.

When he wakes in the morning, George is sick at the thought of himself. So that was how it had ended. He didn't know whether to regard it as tragedy or farce.

He rises, dresses himself, eats a leftover handful of crisps just to ease his hunger, although they taste like nothing more than ash. He sorts his papers into his briefcase – an affectation, in this day and age, but at Oxford hardly anyone even raises an eyebrow.

In his morning tutorial he is quiet, hesitant – too much so, if he's to judge by his tutor's raised eyebrow. But they are talking about Maurice again today and he is too hollow, too empty to talk.

As he's walking back after with a few of his fellow students, a sound makes him stop in his tracks.

Across the quad, there is a group of students, nine or ten of them at least, all walking together and jostling each other in that way that young men do. They are dressed in sweats, as if they've all been out running together or something of that sort, and are all heading off towards one of the halls. George can't even see their faces. And yet he sees Jim, picks him out of all of them. Knows him instantly just by the ease of his gait and the way he holds himself, the ring of his laugh.

Before he really knows what he is doing, George drops his briefcase and abandons his tutorial-mates, crossing the grass in long, swift strides. When he gets close enough, the boy at the rear – Jim, it must be, it must be – turns at the sound of his footsteps. George staggers back from the polite confusion on the boy's face. The world goes abruptly grey to his eyes, misting away at the edges like smoke.

And then recognition dawns on Jim's face. He smiles, that broad smile of his, the one that shows his teeth. It's the smile that George had fallen in love with.

Jim says, quietly, "Hello, old man. I was wondering when I'd see you."

Color rushes in again, a bloom of light and sound. They reach for each other in the same moment – Jim's hands to the lapels of George's shirt and George's to the proud curve of of Jim's jaw. They kiss. Jim is warm to his touch, trembling a little in a way that belies the casualness of his greeting. George feels something inside himself crack and give way.

Nearby, one of the other boys gives an exaggerated wolf whistle, and further off someone begins to catcall them genially. More and more voices join in, until they're at the center of their own little whirlwind of laughter and hooting. George barely notices it. He slides one hand to Jim's shoulder, letting his fingertips just brush the back of Jim's neck.

Eventually the hollering dies down, and one of Jim's fellow students clears his throat pointedly. They come apart reluctantly, both breathing hard.

″Shit—″ Jim says. ″I have to—″ And then, ″Swap numbers. I'll text you tonight.″

George fumbles for his phone, then realizes that it's in his briefcase and has to jog back across the grass to grab it. His tutorial-mates are sniggering, but one of them claps him on the back as he turns around again. George feels punch-drunk with happiness, almost too stupid to type his number into Jim's phone, but he manages it in the end. He checks it twice, just to make sure.

When the group finally leaves, George watches Jim go until they all round the corner of the building and disappear. His phone is clenched tight in his hand, but even when it starts to hurt a little he hangs on. At least that way he can know that it was real.

That night Jim comes to his room. They make love in silence, with the lights on, re-learning each other's bodies. Jim is thinner than he had been at the end, lankier, still slightly more boy now than man. His arms are a bit longer, his face a bit shorter, and he has lost the little tuft of hair just behind his left ear that George used to like to run his fingers over. But he still kisses with that same endearing sweetness, still gasps when George's hand curls around his cock, as if the air has been punched out of him, as if it's a surprise. He still tilts his head back oh so invitingly, bares his neck for George's mouth and shivers when George bites down. He still has hairy shins, still wraps them around the back of George's calf as George slides into him, slow and steady and tender.

It's the most alive George has felt in twenty one years.

Afterwards, he presses his face to Jim's face, sweat-dappled and kiss-marked and so goddamn beautiful he could weep. "Don't ever leave me alone," George says. "Not like that. Not again."

Jim cups the back of his head. "Everything is different now,″ he says. ″Everything but us. You'll see."

George thinks, now that Jim is here, that with time he might be able to believe it.