His mind wandered, taking every piece of their last encounter with it to dwell in the box on the desk, resting among the leaves of unburnt plants and forgotten pastimes. His mother choked while he stood, staring at the corner of the tiled floor and wondering where his life had led him. Not to the stages of New York, but to the pit of an apartment he loosely called “home.” To his dying mother, to his severe anxiety, to his unrequited crush on a drug dealer, of all people.
Out of everyone he could have liked, could have loved, it had to be that stupid, scraggly, no-good-still-somehow-beautiful wreck he tried not to call on a daily basis. If anything, his last attempt had been his best, but, as with everything, it seemed, his most futile.
He realized, then, that his passes at kindling a flame were merely him spraying water on a flickering ember at his feet. He was hopeless.
So he took his time, resting atop the sofa he had tried so hard to make his stepping-off point, and he picked up the phone. And he dialed. And he hung up.
So he opened up his laptop, did a quick search, and found the new number, the number he didn’t trace on his arm to fall asleep at night. A new number, perhaps to get him to revisit the old in due time.
And he picked up the phone. And he dialed. And he waited.
“Dr. Schriner’s office, how may I help you?”
He did phone calls, at first. Then, weekly video calls. Then, every other week. And then, an invitation.
He didn’t feel ready—not after spending his whole life here, not after his mother needed him so dearly.
But even she encouraged him, ensuring him that leaving for an hour wouldn’t be so bad.
His first steps weren’t frightening, initially—walking down the stairs wasn’t so bad, and walking out the door wasn’t, either.
But seeing, in the distance, the crush of crowds and the hum of conversation—he couldn’t take it.
He blacked out.
A couple of weeks later, he tried again—this time with his therapist on the phone, guiding him. It went a bit better than last time, granted—no black-outs, and no running.
But there was a moment where it seemed like his lungs would cave in, his eyes would fall back into his skull and his arms would curl and shrivel and all he wanted to do was fall back to the ground.
But the voice was there, and for a moment, it sounded like him.
And, for that single moment, he didn’t feel so terrified anymore.
Steps were slow, but eventually, after months (almost a year) of trying, he made it to his therapist’s office.
Stepping inside, he almost collapsed from relief, and he finally came face-to-face with Dr. Schriner.
She was plain, but kind, and she hugged him when he came in, and he didn’t mind so much because it was coming from her.
He called his mother from the office and she sounded so pleased, so much so that he thought she might cry.
When he hung up, they talked, and they talked, and they talked some more.
And he went home.
Two weeks later, he worked up the nerve to tell her about him.
She asked him what the guy did for work.
He tried to dodge the question, but she knew him too well now, and she persisted.
And he broke.
She said he sounded lovely.
He said that was the best word for it.
She said tell him.
He said no.
She said try.
He said maybe.
His mother slipped away three weeks later, after he had finally worked up the nerve to call him again.
She lay next to him as he dialed, the numbers feeling warm and easy under his fingers.
Then, she sighed, closed her eyes, and died.
After all the coughing, it seemed rather anticlimactic.
But, then again, she was his mother, and that was how she went.
He was able to go to the funeral, though it was small and attended by less than ten people—his live-in lifestyle extended to his mother, unfortunately—but as he turned from the grave, he blinked.
The guy was there.
He patted his arm, looking solemn and ridiculous in his usual get-up, and he mumbled an “I’m sorry, man. I’m so sorry.”
He shrugged, but after everything he had gone through just to get to this moment, he couldn’t think of anything to say.
He thought of his mother, and his shirts, and his fear, and the box still sitting on the desk at “home.”
And he started to cry.
Embarrassed, he tried to wipe them away, but the guy just looked at him with such sympathy that he let himself continue.
And without warning or preamble, the guy wrapped his arm around him and held him, just like that.
Just like that.
And what could he do but cling to him like a lifejacket.
After he had hastily wiped his eyes and apologized, and after the guy had shrugged and said “No worries, man,” they stood in what must have constituted as an awkward silence, but he wasn’t sure, with him.
Then the guy smiled, and said, “You know, it’s good to see you out of that apartment, man. Out and about. Might do you some good to see the sun.”
He looked back at the guy, and smiled, genuinely, for the first time in years, and said, “Yeah. It is good. Thanks.”
And though the guy didn’t know it, the “thanks” was meant for him, and only him.
It would be the last he saw of the guy for a long time. But seeing him, knowing him as real and genuine and human, would last much longer.
He had been stuck in what he thought was love for years.
Now, he knew, that was only infatuation.
This, this, was love.