A Farewell to Arms: part one
It was spring again. Ash was surprised to realize this as he skirted The Pond on his way home through Central Park. For weeks he’d been too busy to notice, then too weary to care. But the breeze on his cheeks was warm, promising. He looked up at the trees; even in the red of dusk, they were all tinged with the matching green of newborn leaves. In just two weeks it would be the anniversary of his and Eiji’s first meeting – two years before in that shit hole of a pool hall. Last year Eiji had reminded him of the date only after chasing everyone else out of the apartment and lighting two mismatched candles at dinner. He’d served Ash steak that night – real meat, for a change. This year they’d both be alone and on opposite sides of the earth.
And thinking about it wasn’t doing him a bit of good.
When he got to his building, Ash nodded at the doorman, who hurried to open the door. “Welcome home, Chris,” he said with a genuinely friendly smile. Chris Winston. It hardly felt like an alias anymore, he’d heard it so much. The elevator doors closed and Ash pushed the button for the seventh floor. He sighed, leaning his head against the upholstered wall. He felt like he could sleep for weeks. Even talking with Blanca that afternoon seemed like work.
He slid his key into the lock, comforted by the familiar click of the deadbolt sliding back. More than anyplace he’d ever lived, Ash thought of this apartment as home. It was where all his stuff was. More than that, it was where his best memories were.
The place was empty, of course. Ash forced himself not to look for him, not to listen in vain for the water running in the bathroom or the clatter of pots and pans in the kitchen. He paused in the doorway to pull off his shoes – Eiji always insisted on socks-only on the carpet – and let his coat drop onto the floor. He locked the door behind him, making sure to pull the chain lock into place. No one was coming over – there wasn’t much need for war councils now that the war was over, and without Eiji around to feed everyone, the gang went back to spending their evenings in dirty bars and concert halls.
The evening sunlight slanted golden through the park-view windows, making the pale walls and neutral furniture look fire-bright and warm. Ash didn’t like it. He lowered the blinds with a clatter and pulled the heavy drapes closed, shrouding the room in darkness. The place looked strange like that. Unfamiliar. Before, even when he was out until four or five in the morning, Eiji would leave a light on for him. Sometimes he even tried to wait up himself, and Ash would find him fast asleep on the couch, the nearly-silent television flickering blue-white light onto his peaceful face.
But not anymore. Exhausted, Ash went down the hallway to their bedroom – his bedroom now. Even Eiji’s stuff was gone. Ibé and Jessica came by the day before to gather it up, both of them dropping two-ton hints about his friend hoping to see him before he flew out. Ash thought that Ibé would’ve understood, even if no one else did. The Japanese man had always been wary of him, always concerned with his protégé’s attachment to such a dangerous person – you’d think he’d be relieved to know that he didn’t have to worry about that anymore.
Instead, he’d pulled Ash aside, putting his arm around his shoulders in an almost big-brotherly way. “You do not need to be strong for Eiji,” he’d said in his accented English. “He wants to see you. He has things to say. And you, you have things you need to tell him, too?”
Ash hadn’t answered. He didn’t know what to say when Ibé talked about needing and wanting. In two years he hadn’t said everything he needed to say to Eiji. Everything he wanted. He had a fleeting fantasy of going to the airport and stealing Eiji away – the two of them running away together the way they did that day they stole Charlie’s car and hid out with Shorter in Chinatown – but everything was different now. Eiji was hurt. Shorter was dead.
His fault, all of it.
Ash closed the bedroom drapes and took off his clothes. It was barely seven, but he had nothing to do but sleep. Eiji’s flight was at two o’clock tomorrow afternoon. Ash wanted to be asleep or busy or at least somewhere without clocks. He didn’t need to know the exact moment Eiji left New York.
He slid into Eiji’s bed instead of his own. It had been a long time since Eiji had slept there, but Ash breathed deeply, searching for traces of his scent on the sheets. There. It was only the barest hint of him, but it was there. Ash pressed his face into the pillowcase, inhaling even as his eyes filled with tears.
He slept deeply, his arms wrapped around Eiji’s pillow, his bare legs tangled in Eiji’s sheets. His dreams were a mishmash of dark colors and accented English. When he woke he was reaching for someone, desperate to hold him even as he vanished.
It was the middle of the night. The bedside clock glowed a fierce 1:45 through the darkness. Ash rubbed his stinging eyes, feeling melancholy and lost and wondering why he woke up. Then he noticed it. There was a book on the bedside table next to the lamp. It was a thin volume, bound in white cloth. Ash picked it up, squinting through the darkness at its spine. The red glow from the digital clock bounced off of the gold-leaf letters: A Farewell to Arms.
Ash jumped out of bed and hurried to the living room. The door was unlocked, the chain swinging gently against the wall. He pulled it open just in time to see the elevator doors close at the end of the hallway. “Fuck.” If only he’d slept with his clothes on – he could’ve followed Blanca, found out what he wanted.
He closed the door and locked it again, wondering how his teacher had managed to undo the chain. And what was he doing there, anyway? Wasn’t he supposed to be halfway to Puerto Rico by now? He trudged back to the bedroom and flicked on the bedside lamp.
The book was old – a discarded library copy, it seemed. A piece of expensive hotel stationery was tucked between the pages.
In case you haven’t read this one. The letter opened casually, with no greeting, no indication of its author other than Blanca’s slanted handwriting. The book wasn’t new to Ash – the summer Blanca left for the islands, he’d binged on Hemmingway’s collected works, seeking but never quite finding what his teacher found so fascinating there.
I’ve been thinking about our talk this afternoon, about what I should’ve said, things I should’ve clarified. You should know I don’t approve of you continuing on as you are. This life is yours by chance and misfortune, Ash, nothing more; I know I’ve told you otherwise before, but I was wrong. There is nothing compelling you to hold a gun, no hand of destiny keeping you in this role that we both know you despise.
You can start over.
Ash paused. Start over how? He didn’t know how to live any other way. He’d been conditioned – carefully trained – to be this dangerous machine and he didn’t know how to change that. He didn’t think it was possible.
You are always welcome to join me in the Caribbean; perhaps I made the offer selfishly, but it stands. My life in St. Lucia isn’t what you must imagine. I live quietly. No guns. No hint of the past. My neighbors think I’m an elusive and eccentric millionaire with nothing better to do than woo beautiful tourists and comb the beaches, collecting sea glass. In many ways – most ways – this is true. I put that aside and stepped into my old role just to see how you were doing. And now I’m going back. I don’t expect to hold a loaded gun ever again, Ash. It’s not hard to do, you know. You just walk away.
Other than going to Blanca in St. Lucia, whatever the hell part of the Caribbean that was, Ash had nowhere to walk away to. After what happened to Jennifer in Cape Cod, there was no way his father would welcome him back, and why should he? Ash had been followed once and it could happen again. It would happen again. He could walk away all he wanted, but it meant risking the life of whomever he went to.
I’m not saying that you should follow your friend to Japan. I understand your decision to keep away from him, and as long as you are a danger to him, it’s best you stay as far away as possible. But Ash, you should think about what you need. What you want. If Okumura Eiji holds the only key to your happiness, then I think you should find a way to be happy with him. Keep in mind that he is a headstrong, passionate young man. When he comes back to you – as we both know he will – will you be able to send him away again?
Perhaps it’s best to change your situation so that you won’t have to send him away.
He didn’t like Blanca giving him advice on how to handle things with Eiji. Just like Ibé, he talked about wants and needs. It made Ash uneasy. Everyone seemed to think they had such insight into his friendship with Eiji, but what could they know about it? Ash wasn’t even sure himself what he wanted or needed from his friend, other than the need to keep Eiji safe, even if safe meant as far away across the fucking world as he could get.
A dark corner of his mind whispered other things, things that hadn’t passed between them except in dreams. Ash refused to think of it. Just because his childhood had warped him into some kind of sicko, that didn’t mean that he would ever inflict that sort of thing on Eiji. But it seemed to be what everyone was hinting at, what everyone was assuming.
Ash shook his head; it wasn’t the right time to sort through those feelings. Eiji would come back – Blanca was right about that. Ash wrestled a surge of elation and reminded himself that that wasn’t a good thing.
Even with Monsieur Golzine gone, I’m sure you realize that you still have enemies.
Ash’s concentration tripped over Papa Dino’s name, and something confusingly similar to pain pulsed through. In the end, the old bastard rescued him. He had to know he was dying, so saving him from Foxx couldn’t have been for the sick pleasure of killing Ash himself. When Ash thought back on that moment when their eyes met, the instant before Dino stumbled deliberately toward the edge of the building, he felt sick. The old man’s eyes were hard, pained from his wounds and the sheer effort of what he was doing. But there was more. Ash shuddered at the memory. Pride. Sorrow. Love?
He’d spent his whole life believing – knowing – that everything Dino offered him was a dark, twisted lie. That his life with him was meaningless and false. All those years he’d wanted nothing but escape. Now he was free, and instead of being happy about it, Ash pitied the man. He hadn’t thought there was room for anything but hate; now he realized he was wrong, but he didn’t know what to do with the feeling.
Ignore it; keep reading.
You must consider Lee Yut Lung. The NYPD. And I’m sure there are members of Monsieur’s organization who would sooner see you dead than allow you to be in charge. You cannot be forever looking over your shoulders. No one deserves a life like that.
When I left the Soviet Union, I knew too much. I had information that would ruin careers and destroy lives. Defecting wasn’t enough, because there would always be someone who would think I too dangerous to let go. So I died. I got help from the right people and vanished, certain that the people who wanted to see me dead saw just that. The right people thought I was gone and suddenly I was free.
Ash immediately understood the purpose of Blanca’s story and drew the parallels to his own life. The idea had merit. He tried to imagine a life far away, where no one tried to take a shot at him or drag him into some dark alley. He was sad to realize that he had no point of reference for that kind of thing.
But he could never be like him. Even after two years by his side, Eiji was still untainted and beautiful. Eiji believed in things and made Ash want to believe too, but the last time Ash ever believed in anything he woke up with his tooth still beneath his pillow. If the fucking Tooth Fairy let him down, then how could he believe in the world enough to throw away his gun?
This is all just food for thought, Ash. I’m through telling you what to do. Most of what I taught you has been more harmful than helpful, I’m afraid. Though I’m glad that it kept you alive, I worry that it’s not been a life worth living.
You’ve made me proud; I never told you, and I regret that. I also regret that we didn’t meet as we should have – this time or the last. But I’d like to think we parted as friends. Be strong, Ash, but not at the sake of your soul.
There was no closing, just a florid “S” at the bottom of the page. Ash put the letter down, feeling optimistic and yet disappointed at the same time. He wished his teacher had stuck around a bit, so that he could follow the letter up with some good, practical advice. Not that Ash would ever bring himself to ask for it, but somehow Blanca usually knew what was fitting for any situation.
He leaned back against the headboard and closed his eyes. The letter fluttered from his fingers onto the floor. He was on his own now. This decision belonged only to him, and no one – not Blanca or Max or anyone – could help him sort through it. He longed for Eiji.
But that was just something he’d have to get used to.