The rain was pouring in the vacated streets of London. It was still dark, a little past 6 AM. In this part of town, only a few street lamps lit the roads and some neon store signs reflected in the puddles on the ground.
Phil stumbled into a Catholic church to take refuge from the downpour. He hardly considered himself a religious man - actually he didn’t consider himself religious at all. He’s been to church maybe a handful of times in his 31 years of living. Yet here he was, in the only place that seemed to be open at this time of day in the neighbourhood he was in.
He took a seat on the pew closest to the door. The church was dimly lit, which was making him feel very sleepy. The stress of what kept him awake all these days decreasing with every second he was here.
Phil’s previous relationship ended last week and it was all his fault. He should’ve broke it off with Mallory. He should’ve been a better man instead of taking the “easy” way out by cheating. He couldn’t deny how good it felt to have someone’s hands playing with his hair and grazing the skin all over his body - things Mallory hadn’t done in months. He had slept with a co-worker one night when he was working late at the call centre. Phil hadn’t been home since he confessed; usually heading to a bar after work. He packed a backpack with necessary items and clothes that he stashed in his work locker. He wanted to give Mallory space and time to clear her stuff out.
He gave into his desires of finding someone new to sleep with every night - men, women, basically anyone who showed interest even though he knew it was too soon and too wrong. Phil would either stay and stare at the ceiling thinking about his mistakes with an arm around his waist or he’d slip out and head to another bar to get drunk out of his mind.
He can’t recall when his relationship started heading south, but the break up was long overdue. He wasn’t sure why he took this route, but at the time it just made the most sense to him. Phil’s regret over how the situation played out made him believe he was just as bad as what he did, so why not punish himself by continuing to dig this hole?
Phil knelt down on the kneeler and placed his palms together. Maybe if he spoke to God this one time, it would be helpful in some way. He stared at the giant cross at the front of the altar and stared at Jesus with his thorn crown and blood dripping down his face. The pain on his face depicting how Phil felt on the inside. He bowed his head and began to speak to God in his mind.
Um, hi God. I don’t really know how to address you. To be honest, I don’t even believe in you so you probably won’t want to help me or whatever. This past week I’ve done a lot of things I’m not proud of. A lot of things my mum wouldn’t approve of. Things I never thought I’d be capable of. Now it sounds like I murdered someone, but I didn’t! I guess I gave into lust? Now I can’t shake off that I’m a bad person and I keep doing bad things to punish myself. I’m not 100% sober right now if I’m honest. I’m not even sure what I’m asking you for right now. Help, I suppose. I kind of feel very lost and broken right now.. If you’re real, I’d really like some guidance or something, anything. Amen.
Phil sloppily did the sign of the cross as he sat up and pressed his back against the wood. He began to glance around and take in the surroundings. The stained glass windows that lined the windows on either side of the church mesmerized him with how beautiful the colours were. The little tiny fragments coming together to make a complete mural.
He was so aware of how alone he was in this large building. There was no one around to impress or judge what he does, there was no sounds except the thoughts racing in his mind. He decided to lie down on the pew and stare at the arched ceiling until his eyes felt heavy and sleep found him.
He felt a hand on his arm shaking him awake. He blinked a few times until the figure before him was no longer blurry. When his vision was clear, he saw a man with brown, curly hair dressed in all black.
“Hi. Are you alright?” The man asked.
“You’re a young priest,” was what came out of Phil’s mouth. A thought he hadn’t meant to say aloud, but he was still in this dream-like state where he wasn’t sure if this was reality.
The man just chuckled.
“I’m not a priest. I just volunteer here.”
Phil sat up once he realized he was lying down.
“Is everything okay?” He asked.
“Um, I’d say yes, but I don’t want to be a liar in God’s house.”
A small laugh came out of the man’s mouth.
“Come on,” the man said.
“W-where?” Phil usually wasn’t wary in following strangers, but they usually led him back to their flats to have sex and clearly this wasn’t leading to that in this setting.
“The diner down the road. I’m buying you a coffee.”
Phil just nodded and got up from his seat. He felt like crap from being woken up after finally getting to sleep. They walked together in silence. It was still early, so the late summer morning was still a bit cool.
Dan held the door open for Phil and the waitress seated them at a booth in the back.
“I’m Dan, by the way.”
“What brought you to sleeping on a pew? That could not have been comfortable.”
“Long story. And actually that was the first time I’ve slept in a few days, so can’t complain.”
Dan clicked the home button on his phone. “Well I have time. I technically didn’t have to be there until 10, but I live across the street and saw you walk in.”
“Oh,” Phil said, feeling bad that he was taking up Dan’s time. “Maybe after I’ve had more coffee.”
The waitress returned with pancakes for Phil and French toast for Dan. Phil always loved pancakes, but he hadn’t had them in 4 years, since before he dated Mallory. She always made sure Phil was eating healthily so he had a lot of grapefruits, porridge, and avocado toasts for breakfast. He smiled at the stack in front of him before cutting into it with his fork and knife.
“How long have you been volunteering?” Phil asked after he swallowed a mouthful.
“About 8 years now. I live with my grandma and I volunteer to make her happy.”
“Oh yeah? What about your parents?”
“They actually sent me to live with her. I was heading down a dark path when I was 18. Got in with the wrong crowd who got in trouble with the police a lot. My parents didn’t want me to end up behind bars or something, so they thought my grandma’s love for Jesus would save me.”
“I mean, do I believe in organized religion? No. But I’ve met some good people through the church. They’re not all in your face about their love for God.”
Phil nodded as he took another sip of his coffee. The waitress came by to top off their mugs.
“I’ve been doing some bad things,” Phil said as he stared into his coffee.
“Yeah? It’s probably not as bad as you think.”
“I don’t know. I think cheating, sleeping around, and getting drunk every night is pretty up there.”
“I..” Dan paused. Phil could see his brain working, trying to choose to right words to say. “I can tell that you feel remorse over the things you do. What you’ve been doing isn’t necessarily bad. Could you have done things differently? Yes, but we make mistakes because we think it’s the right thing to do.”
Phil continued to stare at his mug. He could feel Dan’s gaze on his forehead, but he refused to look him in the eye.
“Is this why you haven’t been sleeping?”
“Sort of. I’ve been giving my ex space to move her stuff out, so I haven’t been home in a week.”
“Where have you been staying?”
Phil finally looked up and into Dan’s eyes. The look in his eye indicated how sad and disappointed he was with himself.
“With the people I meet at bars or at the bars until closing.”
Dan just nodded at his answer.
“Come back to my grandma’s place after and get some sleep, I think you deserve it.”
“I don’t want to invade..”
“Gran’s out at Bingo during the day then she heads to mass in the evening. She won’t really be home all day.”
Phil agreed to Dan’s offer. He could feel his days of unrest catching up to him and his body needed to recharge. Maybe some sleep would be good to help clear his mind.
Dan paid for their meals and they walked back towards his place. He lived above a store front for a cute boutique shop selling thrifted items.
“You can use my bed, it’s the room next to the kitchen. I’m just going to be at the church helping with the kids liturgy, so I’ll be back in a few hours. Help yourself to anything in the fridge. I’m just across the street if you need me.”
“Okay. Um, thank you, Dan.”
Dan just gave him a smile before waving and heading out the door.
Phil did a quick walk through of the flat. It looked small, but cozy. The colour scheme was a lot of browns, dusty pinks, and creams. The furniture was definitely old and vintage, likely purchased by Dan’s grandma when she was younger.
He opened the door to Dan’s room and it seemed like a whole separate vibe than the rest of the house. His walls were painted white and all of his decor and furniture were black, white, or clear. Dan’s room was very minimalistic and aesthetically pleasing.
Phil removed his shoes at the foot of Dan’s bed. Before slipping under the covers, he peered out the window and just saw Dan entering the church doors. As he lied on the mattress, he stared at the reflection of Dan’s moon shaped mirror that hung above his bed through the full length mirror that hung on the opposite wall. Within 2 minutes he fell asleep.
He woke up to the sound of someone opening cupboards in the kitchen. He must’ve been asleep for a few hours, just in time for Dan to return. As he glanced at the alarm clock on Dan’s bedside table, he noticed it was 5:30 PM.
After 10 minutes of just staring at the door, Phil decided to sit up from the bed. He lifted the covers and placed his feet on the wooden floor. He slipped his shoes on and hoped that it was Dan behind the door when he turned the handle to step into the lounge.
“Oh good, you’re awake!” Dan was setting up the table when Phil came out. “I was going to wake you up earlier, but you looked really peaceful.”
Phil shot him a small smile.
“Gran, this is um, my friend Phil,” he motioned his hand to Phil while looking at his grandma who was stood next to the stove.
“Hi dear, are you staying for supper?” His grandma was a petite lady with dirty blonde hair laced with streaks of grey. She had an apron tied over her red short-sleeved shirt and caramel brown dress pants. Whatever she was cooking smelled absolutely delicious and Phil’s mouth began to water.
“Hello. I don’t want to intrude or anything..”
“Nonsense, dear. I love having people around. Take a seat! The stew is almost ready.”
Phil took a few steps and sat in a seat Dan finished preparing the table setting for.
“Gran makes the best stew, you’re going to love it.”
“Daniel, will you please come carry this and set it on the table.”
Dan placed his hands in some oven mitts and carried the pot over to the centre of the dining table.
“Help yourself, my boy,” Gran told Phil.
Phil took the ladle and scooped some of the beef stew into his bowl.
“Where did you boys meet? Daniel’s never mentioned a Phil before,” Gran asked as Phil handed her the ladle.
“We just met this morning actually,” Phil responded.
“Phil fell asleep in the church, so I came by to check on him.”
“Oh. Are you homeless?”
“No. But.. it’s kind of complicated.”
“Lay it on me. I’m sure it’s nothing too bad.”
Phil glanced at Dan who just nodded for him to go on.
He relayed all of the information he had told Dan earlier, but with more details. Phil tried to choose his words wisely because he didn’t want to offend Dan’s grandma in any way. He paused every once in a while in search of disapproving looks, but none came.
“Phil, if the Lord was here in this room right now, He would tell you to stop punishing yourself. Whatever you’ve been doing is not unforgivable in His eyes. You’re acknowledging your sins and He will forgive you, but you also need to forgive yourself.”
He sent a sad smile her way. Phil knew that there are worse things he could’ve done. But it was hard for him to feel okay with what he did because it felt so out of character for him. He didn’t feel deserving of whenever he was told he needed to take it easy on himself, although hearing it from Gran did make him feel a little better.
“Oh, would you look at the time? I need to head to mass.”
“I should be heading out too. Thank you very much for dinner, it was delicious,” Phil said as he stood up and grabbed his plate and Gran’s to place into the sink.
“Please, dear. Stay as long as you need to. I’ll be back in an hour or maybe longer because Anne is always such a chatter.”
After Gran rushed out the door, Dan joined Phil in the kitchen with his plate and stew leftovers.
“Stay,” Dan said as he began to clean some dishes, “I want you to have a change of scenery tonight.”
Instead of fighting it, all Phil could ask was “are you sure?”
Dan nodded without looking at him. Phil just grabbed the dish towel on the counter and began to help Dan by drying the dishes. They worked in comfortable silence until all dishes were clean and dry.
Dan led them back to his room and they spent the evening playing card games. They would talk about themselves more during rounds.
“Your grandma’s nice,” Phil said as he placed a card down.
“She is. I was very reluctant to move in with her because I only remember her dragging me to church when I was very young. But her only rules for me living under her roof was that I volunteer at the church, head to mass with her on special occasions, and get a job.”
“That’s a good deal. Where do you work?”
“I work at the pet shop around the corner.”
“That sounds fun. I love dogs, specifically corgis. Mallory never wanted us to get one.”
“You need to come by some time, we get a lot of them coming in every week.”
Suddenly their card game began to get intense and Phil saw how hilariously competitive Dan got.
“Oh my god, Dan, I don’t think these walls are soundproof. Your neighbour probably thinks you’re getting murdered, you keep screaming.” Phil was laughing harder than he had in a really long time.
“Mr. Kim next door’s hard of hearing, he probably can’t hear me.”
They ended their game after Dan won his third round. Now that the sun was setting, Dan’s room was dark enough for him to take his constellation projector out to shine on the ceiling.
“These look really pretty,” Phil said as he lay on his back on the rug in Dan’s room, looking up.
“Yeah, my grandma bought it for me the first day I moved in. She remembered my obsession with space from when I was younger.”
“Do you guys get along well?”
“Yeah, bless her. She really doesn’t care about what I do except following her rules and just being a decent human being. When I came out to her, I was expecting a negative reaction with her being so religious, but she just pulled me into a hug and told me she loved me.”
“Wow, best grandma ever.”
Gran knocked on the door when she returned and told the boys goodnight. They had been staring at the stars without speaking for an hour and a half.
“You can take the bed. I have an air mattress I can blow up to sleep in the lounge with.”
“Don’t be dumb, you take your bed and I’ll sleep on the air mattress.”
“How about you take the bed and I’ll put the mattress in here?”
“Fine,” Phil said, not wanting to argue the issue.
Before they fell asleep, Dan said, “Phil, I don’t think you’re a bad person” before rolling on his side, back facing Phil.
Phil continued to look up at the ceiling, taking in Dan’s words before shutting his eyes.
Three days had passed with Phil staying in Dan’s flat. Him and his grandma made Phil feel right at home. It was nice having a consistent place to return to every night that didn’t involve unfamiliar faces and the consumption of alcohol.
He helped Gran cook meals whenever he came back from work. He played video games with Dan and laughed more than he had in the past 2 years. He learned a lot about Dan and Dan learned a lot about him.
“I think I’m ready,” Phil said after dinner, as he and Dan were sat on his bedroom floor. It had become a bit of a tradition for them to play some sort of game after they ate.
“Ready for..?” Dan asked, confused.
“To head back to my flat.”
He didn’t miss the slight frown on Dan’s face.
“Tomorrow night. You can come with me if you want. Mallory usually works nights at the hospital, so she shouldn’t be home if she’s still around.”
“I think it’d be good for you to go back,” Dan agreed.
The following night, the two of them called a cab and travelled to the other side of town.
“You came a long way,” Dan said after they’ve been riding for 25 minutes.
“I work near your neighbourhood, so it’s just easier to stay around there.”
They stepped onto the sidewalk in front of Phil’s building after they paid their fare. Phil’s heart was racing from fear that Mallory would be in the apartment. He felt Dan’s hand interlock with his to give it a quick squeeze.
Phil took a deep breath, held it in for 15 seconds, then exhaled it. He nodded his head and begun to lead the way.
They rode the elevator to the 3rd floor. Phil led Dan to the end of the hallway, in front of door 322. He shakily placed his key into the slot and turned.
Once he flipped the light switch on, he noticed how much emptier the flat looked. The couch and TV were missing, appliances from the kitchen gone, and the mattress was naked.
Next to the door, there was a note from Mallory.
I took everything I paid for. Have a nice life Philip.
The feeling of guilt he was trying to suppress the last few days began clawing to the surface.
“Are you okay?” Dan asked.
Phil’s only response was to pull Dan into an embrace and silently cry into his shoulder.
Dan rubbed his back while repeating that he was going to be fine over and over again.
When Phil finished crying and mumbled out a “sorry” to Dan, he began searching for linens to make up the bed.
Dan walked around his flat and was intrigued by the beautiful photographs on the walls.
“These photos are really pretty, Phil.”
Phil peered his head out from the bedroom to see what Dan was talking about.
“Oh yeah, I took those years ago.”
“What? I’d pay for these. Why aren't you pursuing photography?”
“Um.. Mallory didn’t think it was a stable way to make money so she pulled some strings and got me a job at the call centre.” He shrugged.
Dan helped Phil with setting the bed. The two of them laughed continuously because they struggled way too hard to cover the duvet. By the time they finished, it was midnight.
“Didn’t realize how late it was, Gran’s probably waiting up.”
“It’s kind of a bad neighbourhood, maybe just stay until tomorrow morning?”
Dan had a look of contemplation on his face before eventually agreeing.
“I’ll just give her a call.”
He stepped out into the lounge and pulled his phone out.
Phil was able to hear some of the conversation because Gran’s voice was loud enough to be heard.
“Be safe Daniel. Use protection.”
“I just want my grandson to be healthy okay.”
“Ugh. I’ll see you in the morning.”
Dan turned around to Phil giving him a smirk.
“I’m guessing you heard all that,” he said while his face turned bright red.
Phil laughed as he said, “yeah.”
Phil lent Dan some pajamas, which he took in to the bathroom to change. He quickly changed into his own PJ’s in his bedroom.
“I would’ve offered you the couch, but Mallory took that. So I hope you don’t mind sharing the bed.”
“Not a problem at all.”
They settled in under the covers with a pillow length space in between their bodies. Silence filled the air before Dan broke it.
“What was your relationship with Mallory like?”
“Uh. The first 2 years were really good. She just finished her nursing program then scored a job at a hospital she really liked, so she was really happy. Then on the job one day she messed up her back by lifting a patient wrong. From there, she was always in a lot of pain and always irritated with me. It was always my fault if I didn’t show a ton appreciation for things she did for me. It was always my fault if I got her something that she didn’t like. I tried to break it off a year ago, but she would twist my words around and basically said “no that wasn’t happening.” I guess I felt cheating would be my only option because that’s the thing she’d never tolerate after her ex did it to her. I felt like such a jerk doing it because I never thought I’d be one to cheat, but here we are.”
Dan turned on his side to face Phil.
“Phil, you didn’t deserve to have gone through that. I think I probably would have done the same thing in your position.”
“Yeah?” Phil turned to face Dan.
“I know I’ve only known you for a few days, but I can tell that who you are isn’t what you did. You just felt helpless in a sense. I’m gonna shower you in a billion compliments if it’ll help you believe you’re not a bad person.” Dan took his hand and placed it on Phil’s cheek.
Phil leaned into Dan’s touch and scooted closer towards him.
“Is this okay?” Dan asked as his gaze switched from Phil’s eyes to his lips. Phil knew exactly what he was asking as he responded by nodding his head.
Dan leaned in slowly and placed a chaste kiss on Phil’s lips.
“I love how soft your lips are,” he said.
Phil just smiled with his eyes still shut. He then proceeded to lean in towards Dan to initiate a lazy make out session.
It began to get a bit heated and Dan’s hands unintentionally drifted lower and lower on Phil’s body.
Phil caught Dan’s hand and separated their lips.
“Do you mind if we go slower?”
“Shit, yeah. I’m sorry. You just got out of a relationship and you’re dealing with stuff,” Dan said as he lay on his back again.
“I just.. I just don’t want it to be just sex with you. I really like you Dan, I promise.”
Dan turned back to face Phil with a big smile on his face. They fell asleep with Dan’s chin over Phil’s head, and Phil’s face nestled into Dan’s chest.
After another week of casually seeing each other. Phil started feeling better. If things hadn’t played out like they did, he probably never would’ve met Dan.
He enjoyed heading to Dan’s place to help Gran cook and just have chats with her. He liked whenever Dan would call him from the pet shop to come pet the corgis that came in.
Dan asked Phil if he wanted to take a job at the church as a photographer, which paid more than his current job and he enjoyed much more. He photographed the staff, the priests, and any events to keep as memories for the church. It wasn’t what he thought he’d be taking photos of, but it was a start.
It was Sunday and Phil was meeting Dan after the children’s liturgy. He stood at the doorway of the room and smiled as the children were huddled around Dan in a group hug while chanting “we love Dan!” Dan noticed Phil and gave him the biggest smile, complete with eye crinkles. Phil raised his camera and snapshotted the precious moment. It made him feel excited for his future with someone who makes him see the best in himself.