It was Harlem, 1997 and it was Brooklyn, 1997.
There was a sixteen-year-old boy from Harlem and there was a sixteen-year-old boy from Brooklyn.
The boy from Brooklyn came to Harlem.
He came with a pair of scuffed shoes. He came with a tattered jacket. He came with a frayed t-shirt.
He came with a secondhand sketchbook and a pack of drawing pencils.
He sat down on a bench in a park in Harlem.
The boy from Harlem watched the one from Brooklyn sit down on that bench as he sat on another one not too far away from the one from Brooklyn. The other boy…he’d seen him around here before. Many, many times before. He’d seen him smile, seen him laugh, seen him draw.
The boy from Harlem watched the boy from Brooklyn draw and draw and draw.
It was not too long ago when he enjoyed watching the other boy and he knew that he was watched in turn. He used to…he used to love subtly glimpsing out of the corner of his eye at the other boy.
He used to love watching him flip open his sketchbook to an unknown page, but nonetheless a page that possesses some kind of significance. He used to love watching him open his raggedy-ass, secondhand pencil case and riffle through it until he found the one he wanted or needed. He used to love watching his hand grasp the chosen pencil, take it to the chosen page, and scratch-scritch-scratch.
He used to.
Now he’s not sure what, if anything, he loves.
Still, the boy from Harlem sits on his bench at the same time the boy from Brooklyn sits on his bench across the park. The boy from Brooklyn sharpens his pencils, opens his sketchbook, and draws. He draws and draws and draws.
Even when the sun wanes and the sky darkens and the air cools, he draws still. And the other boy watches him still. Even when the other boy goes home before curfew, he draws still.
Two days later, the boy from Harlem comes back to the park, comes back to the bench. The boy from Brooklyn is there yet again drawing and he watches him yet again.
But this time, just before the eve of the sun setting, the boy from Harlem hears something in his ear. A voice he has never heard before, but a voice that nonetheless cascades like cool, soothing water over him.
“On your left.”
The boy from Harlem looks up and standing on his left is the boy from Brooklyn. He looks down at him, softly, shyly smiling, and carries a hefty schoolbag on his back and clutches his sketchbook closely to his chest. He’s just as tall as the boy from Harlem with only his shoulders being just a tad broader. His eyes are full of compassion. The boy from Harlem squints up at him.
Soft brown eyes are cautious. “Yes?”
Sky blue eyes are bashful. “Hi.”
“May I…may I sit?” He swallows. “Sit w-with you?”
Though there was more than enough room to begin with, the boy from Harlem scoots over anyway. “Yeah, sure. That’d…that’d be nice. Sure.”
The boy from Brooklyn sits beside the boy from Harlem. He sits in a way that’s somehow both politely distant but still close enough to be comforting. With a deep breath, the boy from Brooklyn flips his sketchbook open to the page he was working on for all these hours, for all these days, for all these weeks.
He slides the open sketchbook onto the other boy’s lap.
The boy from Harlem obligingly looks down at the page…and sees that it is a portrait of him.
A real, painstakingly-sketched portrait of him.
Just about every detail of the boy from Harlem is tenderly and carefully replicated. Each and every tight, tight curl in his closely-trimmed hair has been given the special detail of a pencil’s very tip swirling and whirling on the page; the gap between his teeth is shown to proud, stark relief. By the sparse shadows in the portrait, he must be sitting in the bright light of mid-morning.
And he’s smiling in the portrait-smiling big and wide and happy. The smile takes up most of the space on his face and most of the attention in the portrait. His dark brown eyes are warm and alight with cheer, with mirth, with hope.
The boy from Harlem slowly, gently runs his hands down the page in awe.
“You just…you never smile. But you look like you used to smile all the time”, the boy from Brooklyn quietly explains. “I wanted to see you smile again ‘cause I knew it’d be pretty. Probably be the prettiest thing anyone’s ever seen.”
“But”, he continues. “I thought it’d be even more important for you to see you smile ‘gain. So…here’s you smiling. You should have it an’ look at it ‘till you can smile yourself again.”
The boy from Harlem blinks away something that he otherwise can’t blink away when he’s alone in his room, under the cover of night. It is several good, long moments before he can find his voice again. But that is alright-the boy from Brooklyn is perfectly patient.
“I can’t…” the boy from Harlem croaks. He tries again. “I can’t accept this. ‘M sorry because this is so beautiful and perfect, but I ain’ got any money to pay y-”
“This is a gift. You ain’ ‘sposed to pay for a gift”, the other boy cuts in.
“But this is quality work and I-”
“Thanks. I know. Believe me-it puts a lil green on my mom’s table. So I know.” He insistently pushes his sketchbook deeper into the boy from Harlem’s lap. “You keep an’ enjoy this page. You do that for me.”
The boy from Harlem swallows heavily and it’s harder to blink back that something that comes when he’s alone in his room, under the cover of night. With trembling fingers, he grips the edge of the paper that holds his portrait.
He glances at the boy from Brooklyn from beneath his eyelashes. “Then…thank you. Thank you so, so much. Can’t tell you how much I ‘preciate this. I can’t tell you.”
The boy from Brooklyn nods with sincerity that’s warm and tender. “You’re very welcome. So welcome.”
“I’m Sam”, the boy from Harlem says.
“I’m Steve”, the boy from Brooklyn says.
“Nice t’meet you.”
“No, pleasure’s all mine.”
“So”, Steve starts. “You were, uhh…takin’ your portrait out? I got a little folder with me in my bag for you t’put it in. So that it won’t, y’know, get damaged or anything.”
“Yeah”, Sam agrees. “Yeah, I…I think that’d be a pretty good idea. This way I can take this home with me, show it to my mom, and keep it with me all the time. I like that.”
“Great”, Steve says. He takes his schoolbag off his back and rummages through it for said folder.
Sam trails his fingers over his portrait once more. When he speaks again, his voice is hushed. “I really do thank you for this, Steve. I do. I…I think I forgot how to smile. I really think I forgot.”
Steve finally fishes out a smooth, gorgeous forest-green folder and hands it to the other boy. “Mmhmm? I had a feelin’ something must’ve happened. So why’d you forget to smile?”
Sam clutches the smooth folder like a lifeline.
“My dad…he…right in the middle of the street-” Sam chokes and can’t continue. Can’t even see the careless, grotesque newspaper article and picture before his mother and the rest of their community’s outrage forced the editor to take them down.
Steve saw the exact same article and picture and he too felt outrage. The only thing was that he simply didn’t know that he was watching and now sitting next to the son of that man. He vows to draw Sam even more portraits of him smiling and just about anything else Sam wants, anything else Sam can imagine.
“I…I heard about that; I know about that”, Steve quietly offers. “‘M sorry. So, so sorry. I bet your dad was a great man-he didn’t deserve that shit. They caught the guy, but…”
Sam hugs his folder-encased portrait close to his stomach. “Doesn’ take any of the pain away.”
Steve nods slowly. “Hey, Sam? Y’mind if I scoot closer an’ touch your shoulder? Promise my hands are clean.”
“Oh, you promise that your hands are clean, Steve?” Sam asks, a hint of bubbling amusement in his words.
“Uh huh. I promise, Sam”, Steve returns with his own hint of bubbling amusement.
“Well, then…yeah, okay. You can scoot close an’ touch me.”
Steve does just that.
Neither of them are sure they’ve ever felt such…such warmth and vitality than in the moment when Steve’s hand clasps Sam’s shoulder. Upon the contact, any and all tension in both of their bodies saps right out, like rampant energy being exhumed far, far away from them. An involuntary sigh leaves their mouths and they unconsciously sag into each other, bringing each other closer to the other boy. Steve moves his hand from just squeezing Sam’s shoulder to wrapping his arm around Sam’s shoulders and squeezing tightly. Sam encouragingly leans into the touch.
“My dad”, Steve slowly begins. “He died too. ‘Bout when I was a toddler. Afghanistan. Mustard gas.”
“Shit, Steve”, Sam whispers. “‘M so sorry about that. You didn’t have much time with your dad at all; you can prolly barely remember him, huh?”
Steve gives such a soft, soft sigh that it’s little more than an exhale of air. “Don’t remember him at all actually; only know that he was a pretty good guy-just like your dad- from what my mom tells me. Otherwise, wouldn’ know a thing about him.”
Sam moves his hand to gently grip Steve’s free one.
Steve squeezes his hand, takes a deep breath, and continues. “So it…It made me forget how to smile, too.”
There’s a long, long pause in which both boys fall silent and revel in the presence of their newfound friend. Steve’s arm stays warm and steady around Sam’s shoulders; Sam’s hand stays warm and steady around Steve’s.
Steve is the one to break it.
“So how ‘bout…we try to teach each other how to smile again? Would y’like that, Sam? Wanna teach each other how to smile again?”
Right then and there, Sam’s face does something strongly resembling a smile. “Sure, Steve. Let’s teach each other how to smile again.”
It was a café right within the 14 miles that separated the boroughs of Harlem and Brooklyn. Long Island City, a neighborhood within the borough of Queens, was its home. Many a patron cheerfully visited after a stroll beside the East River, after a romantic rendezvous through the Gantry Plaza State Park, or after an educational venture in the MoMA PS1.
A soft, hazily-swirling of browns and reds and creams and beiges made up its color scheme. Just as with the outside, the walls inside were reddish-brown brick; its blue-and-white checkered floor shined softly with weekly cleaning and monthly polish. Each and every little round table both in, outside, and around the building were done in dark oak wood and sported spindly little legs. Three or four equally-little, bentwood chairs accompanied each table; their backs were tastefully and helpfully curved and their seat cushions have made many a patron far too comfortable to want to leave. In the far, far corners and right up against the dark-orange Venetian blinds are close, intimate living areas made of plush black armchairs, wooden end tables, and tiny domed lanterns that give off a warm, soft glow. And above everyone’s heads were alternating ceiling fans and pendant lights hanging from the vaulted ceiling.
To the front of the café was the counter where the baristas easily, smoothly alternate work between filling orders, working the cash register, and everything else in-between. The countertop is the same dark oak as the little tables. Right next to the register rests the tip jar with a smiley face taped on it; many a closing time finds it is brimming and full of generous tips from the patrons.
And right after the tip jar come the long glass display case of the café’s choice morsels and desserts that perfectly complimented people’s coffees. From week to week, they ranged from chocolate chip scones and cinnamon-frosted donuts to glazed bowties and chewy, raisin-free oatmeal cookies. Specials according to the changing seasons were released, too; there were colorful varieties of “grasshopper” cheesecakes for spring, lemon meringue pies for summer, pumpkin-spiced donuts for autumn and white-frosted cupcakes for winter. Each and every pastry was sold with a smile and a wish for the sugary sweet to brighten one’s day.
Behind and above the front counter was the enormous black chalkboard that displayed the diverse menu. Everything was written in print for the hard of seeing and everything was softly color-coded with colorful chalk for the hard of reading and when one was hard of hearing, it was nary a problem for something to be repeated. Its cousin outside, the little foldable blackboard, sported the day’s specials and deals and endeared its fair share of passerby and would-be customers.
There were people who were such regular customers that they already knew what they wanted and so did the baristas; it was the rare occasion when they were encouraged to browse the menu for a new special, a new deal, a new treat. Others were either new or rarely having the chance to stop by and so they were cheerfully aided by the baristas and/or other, more familiar regulars in perusing the menu until they found what they want.
And the art. The art of the café was a mosaic of time, of culture, of people. They hung in equal parts along the border of the enormous blackboard menu and scattered all over the walls. Some even set light to the bathrooms with their presence. There were paintings by Lois Mailou Jones. Photographs by Dora Maar. Cartoon panels by Jackie Ormes. Film stills by Hayao Miazaki. It was not a rare occurrence when a local, struggling artist would commission the owner to please, please showcase their work and perhaps also their business card near the register. Such requests were almost always honored and at little charge to the artist.
Women came into the café with their girlfriends or wives; men with their boyfriends or husbands. People of color of all shades and backgrounds and languages and accents came in. Impoverished veterans came in. Those who were disabled-those who used service dogs, wheelchairs, crutches, hearing aids and the like-came in. And everyone in-between came in.
The owner was a Ms. Aneesa el-Sharifi. Her skin was as dark and deep and beautiful as the warm brown tones of her café. Stark silver streaked sparsely through her jet black hair, telling of stories long since passed and of secrets long since shared. Her dark hazel eyes crinkled beautifully at the corners, often melding with the other lines and wrinkles of her face, when she gave yet another warm, easy smile to all who passed through her home away from home. Wide and soft, her lips were often painted in shades of red and pink and mauve while her eyes were softly lined with coats of liner and mascara.
Whenever someone encountered her, they often greeted her with a cheery “Hey there, Ms. Aneesa!” or a “How y’doin’, Ms. Aneesa?” And to all she responded with equal enthusiasm and adoration. It was not uncommon that she herself would work the cash register, work the kitchens, or work the sweeping and mopping of the floors. She loved and valued her employees just as much as she did her customers. And still that easy smile came to her face no matter the sunshine or the rain and it lit up the whole of her café.
Ms. Aneesa’s café.
They called it Safe Café.
It is here, in this Safe Café, where Sam and Steve begin to teach each other how to smile again.
Sam sits outside of Safe Café. It’s well after school at 4 o’clock in the afternoon. He looks around at the passerby while he waits for Steve; when one of the baristas, Xiang, approached him, he told him that he was waiting for someone and politely declined to order anything until they came. His schoolbag sits cradled in his lap. He keeps looking at the passerby.
Less than six minutes later sounds, “On your left.”
With a lift in his heart and a warmth in his stomach, Sam turns his head to the left and sees his new friend standing there.
“Hi, Steve”, he greets.
“Hi, Sam”, Steve returns. He hoists his schoolbag higher up his back and jerks his head to the café’s front double doors. “So y’wanna…do this inside?”
Sam stands up and nods in agreement. “Yeah, sure.” A thought occurs to him and he starts babbling uncertainly. “I, uh…I brought money, by the way. Jus’ in case you might’ve thought-”
“Yeah, I brought money, too”, Steve softly assures him. “It’s no problem; no worries.”
“Oh, great”, Sam sighs in relief.
“Uh huh”, Steve says. Now it’s his turn to look uncertain. “I mean…like, I thought we could split it? Half an’ half? That’s only if y’want to, though! You don’ have to if you don’t-”
“Naw man, I’d love that! I think that’s a great idea actually!” Sam insists.
“So…ready to start learnin’ how to smile again?” Sam asks.
“Yeah, it’s…yeah. Let’s go.”
They walk up to the front double doors of the café, with Steve chivalrously holding the door open for Sam.
Once inside, they easily choose a table towards one of the far corners of the café, set down their schoolbags, and get in line to order. Sam gets a French roast, ground; Steve gets a double-shot espresso with whole milk.
They sit back down together when their order is ready and then Sam does just one more thing before they talk: he unzips his schoolbag to pull out his forest-green folder and cradles it in his rams under the table. Like a teddy bear. Steve watches him with intent eyes, something climbing and choking its way through his throat and something thrumming deep, deep inside his heart.
Sam fingers the rim of his coffee cup with his free hand. He looks up at the other boy through his lashes. “So…how do we start this, huh?”
Steve swallows down that choking so he can form coherent words. He lifts his own coffee cup to his lips and takes a sip of pure caffeine with dairy. “Well, how about…you wanna…you wanna talk about him? Can you do that yet?”
“No, I…no, I can’t.” Sam cradles his folder closer to his stomach. “I just…it’s…”
Steve nods and his are eyes warm and soft with that compassion. He reaches across the table with his hand out, questing. Sam responds by clutching Steve’s hand and takes strength from the warm, sure grip.
“‘S ‘kay”, Steve assures him. “I can’t…I can’t really talk about mine yet, either.”
“Yeah, really. Feels awkward and weird an’ all that. And other times it gets me bawling so much that my mama comes in worrying what the hell got me started.”
“Y’know what? My mama does jus’ about the same damn thing.”
“Makes it even more awkward doesn’ it?”
“It sure does.”
“So…well, we gotta talk about something”, Steve muses. He squeezes the other boy’s hand. “Whaddaya wanna talk about, Sam?”
Sam chews on his lip and then asks, “Can we…tell each other about our days?”
Steve’s eyes light up. “Uh huh. I like that; I think that’s a great idea. You go first?”
“Okay…” Sam swallows and wracks his brain. “I got a 100 on a test today. It was for chemistry class.”
“That’s awesome! Had a feelin’ you were a genius! ‘M so happy for you!”
A pleasured sheepishness comes to Sam’s face. “Naw. Jus’ hard workin’ with next to nothing else to do.”
“Well, it’s hard workin’ genius if I ever did hear of one”, Steve insists.
“Thanks! Your turn now!”
“Hmm…I beat my own record for a mile run in a minute. An’ I completed my painting project for art class, too.”
“Amazing! You must run like a gazelle! Can I see your project when you get it back from your teacher?” Sam balances his folder in his lap to sip his French roast.
“Aww, thanks. And yeah, you’re more than welcome to see anything I make…and yes, I do run like a fuckin’ gazelle. My own mama tells me so.”
“…I have a feelin’ your mama tells you a lotta truths.”
“And I have a feelin’ that you’re right.” Steve takes a sip of his espresso. “Your turn?”
“Oh, right! I finally cleaned out my locker…”
And they would smile and they would laugh if they could. But in place of smiles and laughter they cannot yet manifest, they squeeze each other’s hand again and go back to enjoying their treats.
On and on they talk, until they’re cutting it close to their curfews for dinner at home. It is under the watchful eye of Ms. Aneesa that they part ways with a hug.
Sam and Steve build a routine out of it.
They attend different high schools, but they agree that 4 o’clock gives them both plenty enough time to catch whatever ride they can to make it to Safe Café. If one arrives before the other boy, as is often the case, they’ll wait at a table outside for him. It never takes very long for the other to show up, though, and they immediately go inside and sit down together at a table or at a living area, whichever is available. They feel like the kids they are as they set their schoolbags and whatever extra books and binders they carry in the chairs beside them.
Sam still pulls out his forest-green folder holding his smiling portrait and cradles it in his arms under the table. Cradles it like a teddy bear. And Steve still watches him with intent eyes, something climbing and choking its way through his throat, and something thrumming deep, deep inside his heart.
Even when they get up to order Sam still cradles his forest-green folder. They almost-almost-remember how to smile as they rib and tease each other about what the hell they’ll order. It’s afternoon snack time for them here in the Safe Café-they need to choose wisely. One time, Sam chooses a mocha-caramel frappe with such frothy milk at the top that he can’t help but blow bubbles in it; Steve orders a double-shot espresso with hazelnut and two sugar cookies for the both of them.
As soon as they receive their order, they sit back down at their table or living area. They enjoy their treats under the ever-watchful eye of Ms. Aneesa.
They still begin their lessons on smiling again by telling each other about their day. Even beyond their day, both boys find anything and everything to talk about under the sun. Sam goes on and on about his love for birds, flying, and medicine; Steve goes on and on about his love for sketching, painting, drawing, and more sketching.
By the time their snacks are all gone and they’re once again shaving it close to their curfew for dinner, they still haven’t learned how to smile again. But neither boy is discouraged-this will take time.
Besides, they want to see each other again anyway.
And so they say goodbye with yet another hug.
“Hey, Steve...?” Sam asks over yet another frappe with frothy milk next week. He still cradles his forest-green folder. A plate of chocolate eclairs sits between them.
Steve looks up from his cappuccino and tilts his head at him. “Yeah, Sam?”
Sam squints at Steve as though he’s never seen him before. He scrutinizes him. Steve waits with wide eyes and stilled hands. In the next moment, Sam dips a finger into his milk’s froth and gets its tip nice and coated. Steve can do nothing but stay still as Sam lifts his froth-covered finger and with absolute seriousness…smears it over the top of Steve’s lip. He pulls his finger back from the other boy’s face to inspect his work with satisfaction.
Steve blinks slowly at him. He doesn’t move to wipe the froth from his lips; he couldn’t do it anyway, what with the leftover tingling Sam’s finger left on his skin.
In what he hopes is a dry, unamused voice, he deadpans, “…Really?”
“Really!” Sam nods firmly. He takes a sip of his frappe. “Y’look better this way.”
“Hell was wrong with the way I looked before?” Steve demands. His skin is still tingling.
Sam looks at him like he’s dense. “You ain’ had any froth on your lips before-that’s what was wrong. You should have froth on your lips so you ain’ lookin’ bad anymore.”
“What if my mama likes me jus’ fine without froth on my lips?”
“She’s your mama-she’s ‘sposed to like you any way you are. Jus’ like mine. So she don’t count.”
Steve leans back. “Ohh, that’s how it is?”
“Ohh, that’s how it is!” Sam insists.
“Well then, watch this”, Steve says.
Steve proceeds to dramatically cross his eyes, stick his tongue out and up, and licks the froth right off the top of his lips.
And even though Sam can neither smile nor laugh, he just about dies right then and there.
The first time Steve brings Sam over for dinner, Sarah Rogers embarrasses her only son to hell and back.
The woman that bore him sixteen years ago shamelessly clasps Sam to her in a long, long hug; insists that if he can’t eat what she’s serving for dinner (roast beef, potatoes, and string beans with a brown-sugar-dusted apple pie for dessert), then he’s more than welcome to request something else; kisses both of his cheeks in turn; and clasps him to her again.
Sam only asks that he be allowed to help in the kitchen.
Steve just about sinks right through the floor and stays there.
The first time Sam brings Steve over for dinner, Darlene Wilson squints for a good, long while at her son’s new best friend.
She analyzes Steve up and down; she squints at his blond hair and blue eyes. She then turns her attention to her son and her eyes are both accusatory and confused.
“…I thought you done said he was from Brooklyn.”
When Safe Café isn’t available because it isn’t open, because they don’t have any money for even a small cup of coffee and one cookie to share between them, or because they just can’t get to the café that day…
When that happens, Sam and Steve make their own world, their own home. It’s the steps of the fire escape behind Steve’s apartment. It’s against the equal-parts fluffy and lumpy pillows atop Sam’s bed. It’s on the uneven stoop of Steve’s apartment’s front steps. It’s on the flat roof of Sam’s apartment complex.
In all of those places and more, it is something they carry between each other, within the safe, sacred space between themselves. Their own world, their own home…just the two of them. Something that neither existed before nor can ever be replaced.
Sam and Steve are getting better-they’re getting closer.
They lay together in the grass in the Gantry Plaza State Park. They lay head-to-head and so close that their faces nearly touch; every now and then, one of their meandering hands lifts to idly caress the other boy’s cheek, caress the other boy’s jawline, caress the other boy’s chin.
Steve lays more in the shade of a tall tree’s leaves so he won’t burn (“So you get red like a lobster an’ then peel like a lizard?” Sam asked. “Damn, that sounds straight out of a horror movie…”) while Sam spreads out, loose and languid, in the warm, welcoming blaze of the sun.
Sam idly twirls a lock of Steve’s hair around his index finger. “Daddy used t’make the best freakin’ flapjacks and waffles you ever had. But I mean, not in the same mornin’, y’know?”
Steve nods as eagerly as he can without dislodging Sam’s hand from his hair. “Uh huh. I hear you. G’on.”
“So…I dunno how he’d do it, but he always made ‘em high and fluffy and nice an’ sweet as hell. Most delicious things ever an’ the best things first thing in the morning”, Sam continues, voice far, far away with remembrances he once thought he lost.
His grip in Steve’s hair reminds him that he’s grounded in the here and now. “Mama and I always said that when he made that kinda breakfast for us, our days were jus’ that much better.”
Steve snuggles his head against Sam’s. “Any time he’d make it for a special occasion?”
“Yeah…” Sam swallows heavily. “For my birthday. That was always my birthday breakfast and he’d be such a goof, puttin’ a candle on the very top flapjack or waffle. An’ then he’d light the damn thing even though I’d get a birthday cake later that night.”
“Aww, Sam”, Steve sighs.
“Yep. An’ while Mama and I thought he was a mess, he told me that he seriously wanted me to blow out the candles there: he wanted me to think long and hard about a wish, make sure that it’s a wish that I want, and then blow out the candles wit’ everything I got.”
“And you did? Always?”
“Yeah, I did. Always. ‘Cause he worked hard to make that for me and he wanted me to have a happy birthday.”
“Very cool. Sometimes he’d surprise us an’ make them with peanut butter, blueberries or strawberries. It’d be one of the best surprises ever.”
“Oh! Even raspberry pancakes, too?” Steve asks.
“Yep! Once or twice! Those were Mama’s favorites especially.”
“Yeah, I imagine…that all sounds delish. Purely delish…”
So…how ‘bout yours?” Sam lets go of the lock of Steve’s hair to bury his fingers in the whole mass. What d’you remember?”
Steve snuggles his head even closer to Sam’s. It’s his turn now to use Sam’s hair to remind himself that he’s grounded-he lets the pads of his fingers run over the tight curls and whirls of his hair, taking strength and delight in the texture.
Sam leans into the touch.
“My dad’s thing”, Steve quietly starts. “Was laundry. He could cook really, really good, just like your dad. But according to my mom, his best thing was the freakin’ laundry.”
“Wow. So he was some kinda magician with the washer and dryer?”
“Kinda! But see, it wasn’ actually the washer and dryer that he got his magic from”, Steve cautions.
“No? Then how…?”
“Well, he would always prefer to air dry our clothes. He was old school like that”, Steve clarifies. “Mama would always get on his ass ‘cause air drying takes a whole lot more time than ‘just using the damn dryer, Joseph’. But he always insisted on it.”
Sam blinks uncomprehendingly up at the sky. “But how the hell did he…? Y’know how long it takes to air dry shit? ‘Specially thick things like jeans and coats? And then…surely a whole lotta things are gonna have leftover wrinkles in them, right?”
“Exactly”, Steve agrees. “Mama would apparently rip him up for that, too! Some of the stuff that was heavy-the jeans and coats, like you said-he would relent an’ use the dryer. But with everythin’ else, he’d get around it by gettin’ up early as hell in the mornin’ on Thursdays or Fridays-4 o’clock most of the time. And he’d start then.”
“…Okay, now that’s commitment”, Sam remarks.
“Sure was.” Steve concentrates harder on the beautiful texture of Sam’s hair. “And so as soon as they were done in the washer, he’d take them out, shake ‘em out, and hang them up on the clothesline. The clothesline…w-we had it way before I was born. It was on part of the fire escape…”
“Oh, yeah? Was it a very long clothesline? Did it have a lotta pins?” Sam asks.
“I…I think so”, Steve says slowly. “Mama took it down not long after Dad died, but…yeah, I think it was kinda long. And there were a lotta pins on it.”
“Oh, that’s good”, Sam breathes. “That means that he could put up a lot of clothes at one time. Less trips back and forth, huh?”
“Yeah that, too. And…and when the clothes were all dry and he would take them down from where they were pinned, they’d just smell…like freakin’ heaven. Like…clean detergent, sunlight and fresh air.”
Steve slowly shakes his head against Sam’s. “…How the fuck he ever got clean laundry hangin’ outside in New York City to smell like ‘fresh air’, I’ll never know.”
“Your mama’s in the same boat, huh?”
“Same damn boat!”
A silence falls over the two boys. A soft silence, a comfortable silence. Steve’s hand stays on Sam’s hair; Sam’s hand meanders back to bury itself in Steve’s. Sam looks up at the sunlit-sky with its sparse clouds; Steve looks up at the tree’s verdant leaves waving in the breeze and casting patterned shadows wherever they land.
Sam is the one to break the silence.
“…Steve?” Sam asks, voice nearly choking out on him.
If possible, Steve moves his head even closer to the other boy’s. “Hmm?”
“I wish…” Sam’s voice actually does choke out on him and he swallows several times to try and regain it. When he thinks he’ll make something sounding like comprehensible words, he tries again.
“I wish I had a flapjack or a waffle with a birthday candle in it for me to make a wish right now. And I wish I could wish for our dads to come back an’ never leave again. I wish…I wish I could do that.”
It took everything Sam’s voice had for him to finish. He now clamps his mouth closed and squeezes his eyes shut as burning tears he thought he could be fucking done with threaten to spill.
A familiar something caves inside of Steve’s chest and he turns his head in the grass so his forehead can rest against Sam’s. He closes his own eyes and presses his hand deeper against Sam’s hair.
“Oh, Sam, I know you do”, Steve whispers. “God, I know you do. I wish you could do that, too. Wish that more than anythin’.”
Sam can’t answer; he can only turn his head as well. With their foreheads touching, Sam squeezes his eyes even tighter and swallows down the welling up in his throat.
“…You ‘bout to cry?” Steve asks softly.
“No”, Sam gasps. “No need for me to do that an’ make you freak out.”
Steve lightly bumps his head against Sam’s. “‘M already freaked out-someone as amazing as you exists and I got to meet you. I’ve been freaked out, Sam.”
“Huh”, Sam says nonchalantly. “Thanks. But I think I shoulda been done cryin’ a good long while ago. ‘Sides, if I get back home with tear tracks on my face, Mama will know what’s up. She won’t so much as let me go t’bed without tucking me in.”
Steve is silent for such a long time that Sam would’ve thought he fell asleep. But then Steve says quietly, “…‘S’okay to cry, Sam. I’m…I’m still learning that myself, but it really is okay. How’re we ‘sposed to learn how to smile again if we can’t cry?”
A few tears are spilled. “Steve-”
“Rainbows and sunshine don’ come around unless you had a rain shower first.”
Even more tears follow. “…So if I do end up cryin’, what’re you gonna do?”
Steve’s own crying is starting up again. But he swallows his own welling so that he can answer, “Umm…help you up, get both of us right under this tree for a lil privacy, hold you, and let you cry. ‘M gonna hold you right there. And cry with you.”
“Okay. Sure.” Goddamn, he’s soaking the grass now.
“So sounds like a plan?” Goddamn, he’s about to soak the grass right alongside Sam.
They do just that.
And when they come home with telltale tear tracks on their faces, they are indeed tucked into bed.
A fine, soft sheet of snow grows into a blanket of snow all over New York City. Frost coats windows, decorations go up, choirs sing praises, and dangling lights shine. Schools are letting out soon for the holidays.
It is when, after a vicious snowball fight (Sam won fair and square), Sam and Steve are sitting in the warm and toasty sanctuary of Safe Café when Steve asks a question.
“Hey…Sam?” Steve fingers the handle on his cup of double-chocolate hot cocoa with extra whipped cream on top.
Sam swirls his milk-chocolate hot cocoa with honey and frothy, frothy milk around. His forest-green folder with his portrait sits in a bag on the chair next to him. “Yeah, Steve?”
But Steve doesn’t answer immediately and Sam looks up at the other boy through his eyelashes. His best friend’s sky blue eyes are an intriguing combination of sheepish and determined. Shy and bold. Scared and brave. Out of the corner of Sam’s eyes, he can see Steve’s hands gripping his mug like it’s a lifeline.
And then Steve finally begins to ask his question.
“I wanna ask you if I can-may-do somethin’. D’you mind?”
Sam blinks. He leans forward in what he hopes is an encouraging gesture. “Sure, Steve. Ask me whatever you want.”
“May I…may I kiss you?” Steve croaks out.
Though they have the privacy of their own table and Steve certainly didn’t shout, it feels like the whole of Safe Café falls still and silent. A long, long pause hangs over the two of them as Sam stares at Steve. The longer Sam stares, the more that look in Steve’s eyes-that sheepish, but determined look-amplifies more and more and Sam can see Steve is preparing to defend himself against a coming blow of rejection.
Once the wheels begin turning once more in Sam head, he thinks…he thinks that he wouldn’t mind one bit if Steve kissed him. Hell, he’d love it if that happened-it’d be one of the best things to receive as a Christmas gift, one of the best things to happen to him all this year. Besides, Sam’s caught himself thinking about his best friend kissing him…far more times than is just friendly exploration and the usual adolescent hormones.
Sam’s eyes drop down to Steve’s lips. Certainly not for the first time, he wonders how soft those lips would be, wonders how they’d press against his with the gentlest pressure. He looks at Steve’s bottom lip-the full, pouty part that he’s dreamed of pulling into his own mouth with his teeth. And even though it’s dead in the middle of winter, his best friend’s lips are as pink and rosy and soft as ever.
Sam could sit here for the whole rest of the day just fantasizing to himself about Steve kissing him.
And Steve in turn has been fantasizing for really the whole of the year about kissing Sam. He hasn’t just daydreamed about Sam’s perfect lips-no, he’s daydreamed about Sam’s everything. Even though it’s dead in the middle of winter, every single part of his best friend’s body is warm and soft and moisturized like spring and summer never passed. Against the illumination of the fallen white snow, Sam’s dark brown skin stands out in beautiful, glowing relief. When Sam pauses to look up at the snow falling, a light comes to his dark brown eyes and it’s such a hopeful light that Steve is sure has never been seen in any other part of the world before. Sam is fucking…fucking perfect.
Right now, Sam sits across from Steve in dumbfounded shock. Those gorgeous brown eyes are blown wide, wide open and just staring at the other boy.
But Steve is still very much waiting for an answer and is still very much looking like he’s braced for rejection.
Well, as soon as he can find his voice again, Sam is going to have to help that.
There’s simply one caveat.
“W-why do you want to kiss me, Steve?” Sam finally asks.
Steve’s response is quick and sure. “Because I want to keep helping you learn how to smile again an’ I think that’ll help you learn.”
Sam tilts his head. “…So you just want to kiss me to make me smile, but it won’t make you smile?”
“Well, yeah it’ll make me smile-it’ll make me shoot straight through the fucking roof. But will you forgive me if I say that I always think ‘bout you first?”
Sam nods slowly and just as slow a light comes to his face. “Yeah, I hear you; I think about you first all a’the time, too. But, Steve?”
Steve’s heart pounds in anticipation of kissing Sam. Unconsciously, he leans forward in his chair. “Mmhmm?”
Sam stays right where he is in his chair. “My answer is ‘no’. No, I don’t want you to kiss me just yet.”
“...‘Yet’?” Steve asks. He struggles to hold onto that clarifier for dear life, lest disappointment makes him come crashing back down to earth.
“Yeah, ‘yet’”, Sam agrees. He reaches across the table to grasp Steve’s hand in his in a reassuring grip. “Instead, I want us to kiss when you really, really, really wanna kiss me too ‘cause it’ll make you smile, too. I think we’ll both know when that time comes. Not a day too soon and sure as shit not a day too late. Hear me?”
Steve has to open and close his mouth several times before he can formulate a reply. God, he’s never felt like he crashed so hard down to earth only to be lifted up higher, higher, higher than he ever thought possible.
“Okay, Sam. I’ll wait for that time; I can’t wait.”
“Great. But I will do one thing today…”
Steve’s heart picks up. “What’s that, Sam?”
Sam squints real hard at him for a long, long time. And then he once again dips his finger in the frothy top of his milk, coats his finger and once again smears it over the top of Steve’s lip.
Once again, Steve dramatically crosses his eyes, sticks his tongue out and up, and licks the froth right off the top of his lips.
And once again, though Sam can neither laugh nor smile, he just about dies right there in the Safe Café.
As soon as they finish their treats, they bundle each other up in their winter gear, and go back outside. Three more vicious snow fights ensue.
Sam wins two out of three.
On both Christmas Eve and Christmas day, the Wilsons stay at the Rogers’ apartment.
Just before school starts again next week, Sam and Steve are in Safe Café again. Sam drinks herbal tea while Steve drinks an iced coffee. Sam still holds his forest green folder holding his portrait. They just finished sharing more stories about their fathers and lamenting that the snow is melting and, thus, their snowball fights have dwindled.
And now they enjoy their beverages in that usual comfortable silence. Sam still cradles his forest-green folder holding his portrait.
Steve swirls his coffee around. “…Hey, Sam?”
“Yeah, Steve?” Sam looks at him over the rim of his cup.
“Uhh…” Steve swallows and tries to call upon strength through his nervousness. “W-we still aren’t smiling or even laughing, but and we ain’t even kissed, yet. But I love you. Y’know that, right?”
Brightness, warm and vibrant, comes to Sam’s face as he nods. “Yeah, Steve. I been knowin’ that. And I love you, too.”
Steve nods slowly. “That’s really awesome. That is.”
“I think so, too.”
I love you.
They visit Safe Café more and more.
They’re getting closer and closer to smiling.
Over sugar cookies and English breakfast tea, they talk more about their father’s culinary skills.
Over plain, tall glasses of milk, they talk about their school projects.
Over caramel-flavored iced coffee, they talk about their hopes and dreams for the future; Sam wants to go into medicine or possibly psychology while Steve wants to go into the arts.
They remind each other that they love each other.
They talk and talk more and more within the safety of Safe Café. They’re almost smiling…almost smiling…
Almost there…almost there…
The world warms and awakens once more in its thawing of winter. It’s late spring and the nearing of the end of the school year. Sam and Steve are in Sam’s kitchen struggling and failing miserably to make Sam’s mother a homemade surprise birthday cake.
They secretly prepared for two whole weeks to pull this off. They came up with a grocery list together of all the things they’d need, allocated their allowances, and decided which one of them would get what and when. And then they made extra, extra, extra sure that Sam’s mother wouldn’t be home at the time and that Steve’s mother wouldn’t know what they were up to.
All of this preparing and…
“Steve? I kinda think…we might’ve put a lil too much sugar here. How ‘bout you?” Sam asks with a wince. He stares down at the messy, disastrous mixing bowl like it’s the aftermath of a hurricane.
Steve nods slowly and stares down at the bowl in his hands with much the same face. “Or maybe…it needed more salt instead? Did we misread the recipe on that front…?”
“Well, we can’t really start from scratch. So d’you think we can stir out a little bit of it and then add more flour?”
“Yeah, I think we can do that”, Sam cautiously agrees. “And while we’re at it, we can probably add some more of that salt, too. Jus’ to make sure.”
Sam and Steve spend just another fifteen minutes painstakingly making sure (and probably once again failing miserably) that every ingredient is added properly. By the time they’re just about ready to mix it with the electronic egg beater, the whole of the kitchen counters look, well…a damn mess. Flour is dusted nearly all over the place to the point where it looks like it snowed inside. Pieces of broken eggshells and tendrils of their yolks lay amongst the flour; a little bit of milk, water, and scatterings of sugar add to the destruction, too.
Damn, it’s a freakin’ mess.
Steve winces at the carnage. “Look, Sam before your mom comes home, I’ll-”
“Naw, man, it’s alright. We’ll clean up together when we’re done. This is jus’ as much my mess as it is yours”, Sam assures him with a warm pat on his shoulder. “In the meantime, lemme go get a towel from the bathroom since we kinda, uhh…destroyed most of the kitchen ones to laundry-hell an’ back.”
“Yeah, that’s…that’s a good idea.”
As Sam leaves the room, he calls over his shoulder, “But when you mix it with the egg beater, remember don’tlift the beaters outta the mixture while they’re still rotating!”
“I remember!” Steve calls back. “Promise!”
Sam enters the bathroom to the sound of Steve setting the eggbeater on to a high setting. Some digging through one of the cupboards produces a rarely-used and big enough towel to at least start to clean up the mess.
Sam triumphantly returns, holding up their salvation. “Steve! I found a good towel!”
The other boy turns around, mixing bowl and eggbeater in his hand. He calls back over the noise, “Oh, great-”
With his eyes on Sam, Steve forgets to keep the fast-turning eggbeaters…in…the mixing bowl.
In the next few seconds, the whole kitchen is splattered and coated with shitty birthday cake mix. The two boys gasp as their faces and most of their upper bodies are hit with the mixture, too, and they can only stand right where they are and stare as the mess of the kitchen becomes a goddamned hurricane. Just about every surface is newly coated, now: the refrigerator, the stove, the sink, the clunky dishwasher, the rickety kitchen table and chairs, the aged tile floor, the plaster-peeling walls, and even parts of the ceiling.
Shit, even the new towel in Sam’s hand wasn’t spared.
Steve somehow gleans that turning the eggbeater off is a good idea and then he and Sam are really standing around and staring helplessly. The kitchen is twice as bad now with over half of Sam’s mother’s birthday cake mixture is splattered all the way out of the bowl.
Steve swallows thickly, sets the bowl and eggbeater down on the counter like they’re bombs waiting to go off, and then rushes over to Sam. He gently clutches at Sam’s upper arms with egg-covered hands.
“Sam”, he pleads. “I am so, so, so sorry. I am. I really fuckin’ am. Jesus, I-I’ll clean all a’this up myself. Shit, I-”
The look on Sam’s face stops Steve’s panicked worrying right in its tracks. He freezes, hands still on his upper arms and eyes staring into those soft brown eyes…those soft brown eyes that he used to be able to read, but now…now he can’t.
“…Sam?” Steve whispers guardedly.
Sam is staring right back at Steve and he can’t…he can’t breathe. Something…something is climbing up from his stomach, to his chest, and then to his throat. It’s climbing, climbing, climbing up, up, up. It’s bubbling, rolling, and spreading as it ascends.
It’s not…not choking. Not sobbing. Not crying. Certainly not screaming. Sam’s halfway-numb mind wracks itself trying to identify it and then tell Steve what it is, tell Steve not to worry. But no matter how hard he tries, Sam has no idea what it is.
All Sam knows is that he’s powerless to stop it.
Utterly, completely powerless.
And for the first time in a long, long time, he’s not so sure that that’s a bad thing.
He slowly lifts a shaking hand to touch a slab birthday cake mixture on Steve’s chest. His fingertip dips in it and picks it up. As Sam lifts his finger to blankly observe it, he’s vaguely aware of Steve watching him with wide eyes and bated breath. But Sam still can’t verbally answer him.
Instead, Sam stares and stares at the bit of mess on the tip of his finger. That something…that something that keeps climbing and climbing starts to reach the inside of his mouth and then he can’t breathe. He opens and closes his mouth in an attempt to gulp down air, but nothing seems to come in. So he struggles to gulp again and again in the hope for air…all to no avail. That climbing is only getting higher and the shaking in his hand travels up his arm and to the rest of his body. Yet another, different something is pricking at the corners of his eyes.
“Sam?” Steve whispers again. “C’mon…talk to me…Sam…?”
Sam’s eyes snap up from the bit of mixture on the tip of his finger. That shaking has taken over the whole of his body now; he swears there’s an entire earthquake reverberating throughout him and it’s all he can do to remember that Steve’s hands are still on his arms, keeping him safe and grounded and still.
He struggles to focus on the visage of Steve’s face, struggles to remember how to form words. But that something is about to come right out of his mouth and he can’t stop it…he can’t stop it. It’s coming and he still doesn’t know what it is, but he still wants to tell Steve, but he still can’t talk and-
It bubbles out of him in a rainbow of mirthful sound and the more he hears it with his own ears, the more he adds to it and the more he laughs.
Yet another something opens, breaks, bursts and then his face is splitting and he’s smiling.
Tears from pure energy spill out from his eyes and he can’t stop him. He feels bigger than his body as energy both pours from him and pours into him. He can’t…he can’t…
And Steve…Steve can only stand there stunned as his best friend finally laughing and smiling. Smiling.
Steve inhales and inhales and it’s like he’s inhaling all of Sam’s renewed laughter, renewed joy…and then Steve is laughing and smiling, too. Tears begin to fall down his face, too.
Steve’s answering smiles and laughter further sparks Sam’s and then both boys are smiling and laughing and crying right there together. The whole of the apartment rings with the miracle of their joy; every corner, every nook and cranny sings with it. And it doesn’t stop-it doesn’t stop.
In the next instant, Sam tugs on Steve’s soiled shirt, leans forward, and kisses him right on the mouth. It’s all but instinct as Steve eagerly encloses the other boy tightly in his arms and kisses him right back. They laugh into each other’s mouths as they enjoy both of their very first kiss-their sloppy, messy, happy first kiss. They kiss with fervor, with passion.
At some point, they sunk to the messy floor in each other’s arms. But it’s just as well-they take a few much-needed moments to catch their breath and then they dive right back into each other’s lips.
And so Darlene Wilson returns to find such a scene in her home: her kitchen thoroughly destroyed by what would’ve been her surprise birthday cake splattered all over the place, and the two boys just sitting in the middle of it, hugging and kissing and messy and laughing and smiling.
It’s one of the best birthday presents Darlene Wilson has ever received.
It’s certainly one of the best presents Sam and Steve have ever received period.
From then on Sam and Steve’s faces are sore from all the smiling they do and their stomachs are sore from all the laughing they do.
They return to Safe Café.
They smile and smile and smile in the haven of Safe Café and under the ever-watchful eye of Ms. Aneesa, making the whole of it warm and bright with their mirth.
With their healing.