Let's go out in flames so everyone knows who we are
'cause these city walls never knew that we'd make it this far.
We've become echoes, but echoes are fading away
so let's dance like two shadows burning out a glory day.
At some point, the playgound stopped existing. A suspended place in the middle of Vegas, rare grass blades punctuating the sandy surface where they were laying, sun rays hitting their brains like minuscule rifle bullets digging into their skull. Everything was freezed, almost dead, if its own stillness didn't feel so much alive. Their own breath, sleepy and heavy – careless – seemed to be the only thing that reminded the air to move, to lift some sand grains and caress their cheeks with them. Grains up their nostrils, grains inside their ears.
Grains on the border of their wet lips as they lingered on each other enough to touch.
The day was slowly fading out, and so their connection to the world around them. No one ever stepped into this abandoned, crumbled playground anyways – so even if it was close to dinnertime, they could drown in their distant unconsciousness, pretend time was an abstract concept far from them, the taste of pot still strong in their mouths as they slowly digged into each other.
It wasn't something close to the way they crashed at night, cheeks burning, so very aware of the blood running inside of them and keeping them alive. This was more like a dream they only knew the presence of, like watching your blurred image moving its fingers while the only thing you can do is be aware that you are asleep. Tongues wasting their time on each other and they were not moving an inch to stop them, sniffed glue still roaring in their skull, as powerful as the sun forgetting it should have been setting by now.
Drugs, drugs, it was only because of the drugs. It was only because of that childish sleepiness that kept their eyelids shut, but their muscles relaxed. Boris' hand on the side of his neck, his hair so thick some of it brushed Theo's face every other second. Not that he minded. His hands had found a comfortable position around Boris' hips, beneath the border of his dark shirt, and that's where they were going to be for a very long time. Decades and centuries. Third world war and the invasion of aliens. The end of the Earth itself.
When Boris breathed into his mouth, Theo's fingers flinched.
In a short time, they were going to fall asleep. Lips parting from each other and sliding on the side of their cheeks – heads resting in the naked spaces between their necks and their shoulders – heavy breath becoming way lighter as the minutes passed. Dozing while the sun stopped firing their brains, the shadow of a lonely tree shifted its position, bellies started to ache with hunger even in their dreams, made of sunlight, and someone's laughter, distorted frames crossing in front of their eyes.
The only thing they had eaten that day was a piece of bread and butter, sitting on the border of Theo's pool, their feet playing with the chlorine water. They still tasted like chlorine, actually, that drenched their hair and filled their nostrils when they pressed their faces next to each other. So many smells that floated around their bodies, their presence, reminding them once again that they were alive.
Chlorine, sand, sweat, cheap perfume, sticky glue, burnt sausages. Beer, cigarettes, weed, Doritos, stolen chocolate, Pepsi. Blood and dirt when they punched each other and rolled around on the ground. Their own skin, how it smelled when they stroked it with their noses, something close to cuddling when they were way too wasted to realize the need they felt.
When they woke up, it was all about laughing and rolling away from each other, and suddenly they were simply laying in the middle of a deserted playground and staring at a now less bright sky. «My head hurts like shit.» Groaning and trying to sit up, hands pressing at their temples in pain, mouths tasting weird and unknown. Like someone had been dripping poison spurts above their lips while they were asleep.
They couldn't remember when it happened, so they decided not to talk about it.
His left shoulder sends a muffled feeling of pain when Boris pins his body to the the wall behind the bedroom door, hands gripping above his hips and lips violenty biting each other. Theo doesn't even remember if he left his grey suitcase in the kitchen or if it is here, somewhere around the floor, ready for his body to fall because of it and for Boris to collapse over him, to eat him alive. There is no space for tenderness, here, no sleepy whispers under the ferocious sunlight and no gentle touches where the sun burnt his skin. Still Boris' tongue inside his mouth seems to be screaming I missed you, seems to be begging Theo to let him in.
At first Theo doesn't want to. His rational side keeps trying to persaude him to push Boris aside and walk out of the bedroom, because he knows (he knows) that Boris would never run after him and force him to it – he never did when they still lived in lonely, abandoned, wicked Vegas. Boris would never trap him against his will, leave finger marks on his wrists as he tried to escape, bite his shoulder right where it hurts to see him crumble in his arms –
Boris' mouth breaks contact to catch a breath and that's where Theo feels astounded by how terribly painful his whole reality right now feels if their bodies aren't latched together. His teeth hit him again, angry and frustrated, I missed you too, eyes shut as he leaves a bite on his lower lip and his fingers search for the sweatshirt zip somewhere beneath his neck. He manages to tear it down and quickly pull Boris out of the whole unwanted fabric heap as he shuts the door closed behind them.
Better to have the bedroom locked. They can leave Antwerp and the previous eight years of life outside of it, and drown into fragments of desert again – comforting darkness and cluttered sheets and cocaine specks up their noses, thumbs brushing against their nostrils between one kiss and the other as they step closer to the mattress.
What have they been doing before this twisted dance of clothes and bodies, leaving behind shoes and socks, his fingers curling against what is now bare skin and not stiff denim anymore? Theo remembers leaning their heads towards the white plastic table, the kitchen lamp light violently clashing against his eyes, everything surreal while he told himself just some other blow and it will all stop hurting, because that's what Boris said anyway, pressing his index finger against his nose, pupils revealing the white color that surrounded his minuscule, darkened iris.
He'd looked transfigured under that light, hair caressing his eyebrows and long, skinny fingers slightly shaking as he collected the last powder left.
The sudden realization of being in love with him was one of the most terrifying things Theo had ever felt.
Now the room walls start twisting around, melting into grey liquid as they lay on the mattress – shoving each other, actually, and Theo's shoulder hurts again where Boris first hit it, finding himself pinned underneath his body for a second time. Hands everywhere, everywhere, and he can't tell Boris apart from the bedroom around them, wavy hair and panting breath and the ceiling above them mixing into one thing alone, its strong taste bitter into Theo's mouth.
A tattoo on Boris' bare chest, a wagtail, maybe. Or maybe it is the Goldfinch itself, flown away from his painting – their painting, perhaps – to find rest next to his heart, free from its chain at last. The bird stares at him, and Theo stares back for a couple seconds, until his lips are beneath the black ink and his heart suddenly starts to race, pumping blood so fast he can't even find air to exhale anymore. Can one man survive by breathing sweat and skin?
It's like when they're kids again, night blurred into quiet noises and rolling their eyes in the back of their skull, gripping each other's bones, nails digging until everything hurts – and at the same time, nothing does, nothing could ever. Morning with the light that tries to break through the lowered shutters, too many clothes on the floor for it to look comfortable, or okay. Not talking until it's been about forty minutes since they've waken up, so that maybe their muscles feel less stiffened, their voices less drowsy, and it's easier to forget about each other's touch.
Morning means hungover and regretting ever letting the drugs to win. They can't understand why it happened, so they decide not to talk about it.
It will happen again.
Nothing caused him more pain than to hear Theo whisper I love you in the dead of the night.
It didn't happen that often, and mostly, when he was so wasted he couldn't even remember where he put his shoes half an hour before, he simply started to snore or whimper quietly. He curled up on the sheets, held his knees and squeezed his eyes shut, muttering nonsense words Boris didn't even try to catch. Sometimes he dared to brush his hair or his shoulders, sometimes he simply leaned closer and listened to that blattering until they both fell asleep.
There were other times, though – bad days in the month, hours after his father slapped him and they got drunk and high in front of a sad 90s movie, or maybe they caught a mother and her child shopping at the mall, looking through the shelf next to them, her kissing her son's forehead and calling him baby – times when Theo's mumbling made sense, and he fell in some sort of half-sleep only Boris was aware of. His dreams probably started to take concrete form, and they brought Theo very far away from him, some distant place they could never physically reach.
«I love you,» he softly wept. Heavy breath and shaking lips. «I love you. Don't leave me, please. I know it's my fault, just – don't leave me, I beg you. I love you.»
Boris couldn't sleep when those kind of nights came by. Leaning on his right shoulder, he tried to pierce through Theo's lowered eyelids (eyelashes long and pretty like a girl's), step in that parallel universe and shake him back to reality. Or maybe rest there as well, if it was a nice universe – one where mothers didn't disappear in the fog to return only in misty dreams, one where their mouths tasted ice cream and strawberries instead of tobacco and vodka; one where Theo said I love you out loud, and Boris knew who he was talking to, and they were awake and sober and sitting in a park somewhere sunny and windy, who knows.
As Theo's breath grew closer and soon touched Boris' shoulder, and he couldn't help but curl his arms around his trembling thin body, there came the awareness that this was as close as they were ever gonna get. Communicating through dreams and cold tears that fell on Boris' skin, tasting like salt. He knew this, because tears were running on his cheeks as well, reaching the border of his lips. The air was so hot it almost took physical form and quickly erased every trace of water on their bodies, yet they clung on each other like abandoned children now, and Theo was still quietly whispering I love you somewhere near his left ear; and even though those words digged a hurtful hole inside of Boris – because they talked about long lost memories, and unknown feminine features that had the scent of butter and painting frames – he wanted to keep hearing them. I love you. Close to his heart now. Fingers playing with Theo's brown curls.
He knew Theo would've never said that in the daylight, and he knew he himself would've never admitted he heard that, so that was it. Never really trying to find out if Theo was aware of who he was holding when those things left his mouth. Egoistically keeping them inside his brain.
A lullaby to survive the night with, even many years later – some stranger lying on the other side of the bed, him sitting with a cigarette in his mouth, staring into the void again.
«Hand me a fucking cigarette. The entire packet. And your lighter.» He throws a hand through his hair, pulls it away from his forehead, then shrugs. «Know what? Keep weed somewhere, right?»
«Aren't you high already?» His eyes have a reddish shade, blink maybe too fast.
«Well, maybe I want to be more high.»
Theo keeps weed somewhere. Specifically in his bedroom night table, hidden under a glasses case, even if Kitsey is sort of aware of it and he wouldn't even need to cover its existence in the first place; because that's supposed to be the rule of every marriage, no more secrets, we tell each other every unpleasant thing. A rule that isn't followed by neither of them, because Kitsey has her own hidden stuff as well, and Theo isn't going to throw his nose where he isn't supposed to look.
«Are you going to tell me why you decided to burst into my house without warning?» he asks after a while, holding the reefer between his fingers and pointing it at Boris. They're sitting on the bed and there's a strangely silent air, smoke filling the place where words are supposed to be.
«She dumped me.»
«Not Chelsey, dupek! The other one. The girl you saw at the party in Manhattan like two months ago? The one with red air, blue eyes. Trisha, literal love of my life. I had so many plans with her in my mind, moving to Canada, let go of drugs, start a farm –»
«Didn't you have similar plans with Chelsey as well?»
«No, listen, Chelsey was a mistake. I know we weren't right. Always fighting, always crying and throwing things, and the sex was just so tiring! You realize something doesn't work when sex becomes a chore. Well, never did with Trisha. Never does! Just need to convince her that we are really perfect together, because I have never loved anyone the way I love her.»
«Oh yeah?» Rubbing the roach between his thumb and index finger.
«Yeah. I'd stop breathing for her. Throw away everything, start going to church, wear a brown tunic and cut my hair and I don't know what other shit. Where do you find so much love in this rotten world anymore? I know, I know –» he adds, shaking his free hand to stop Theo from mouthing something, «Am not the perfect boyfriend, made many mistakes, but I've told her multiple times I was drunk when I slept with Nancy last week, and what does matter anyway if I told her I love her?»
«What was the last thing she said to you?» Theo asks laughing, crossing his legs and sitting a little closer.
«Can't remember. Probably something about me being a cunt that ruined her life.» He sighs and then, actually not very surprisingly, a chuckle slips out of his mouth. «Am such a sukin syn, right? Always fucking people's lives up. That's my job.»
It is not very surprising when Theo kisses him either. It was always planned, since Boris first stepped inside his house asking for a cigarette and threw his shoes next to the kitchen door. Because that's how they handle things: every three or four months, Boris gets a new girlfriend and disappears from his life, so that Theo can deal with his disastrous marriage, have some unsatisfying, chore-like sex with Kitsey that leaves both of them frustrated and bitter, and fall into a depressive state again. Then one day Boris comes back – talking about how love went wrong, and he tries hard but always loses, but that won't stop him from loving because that's just his inner nature – and in a matter of time they find themselves like this, discovering new layers of skin again, even if they'll try as hard as possible to rip the word again out of their minds.
Because this isn't supposed to be happening, right? This is not what childhood friends do when they meet after some time.
Around dinnertime, Boris gets up, retrieves his shoes from the kitchen, buttons his coat up and slips out of the house door, trying not to walk in front of the car parking in the alleyway, because he knows who it belongs to and he doesn't want her to see him.
Kitsey knows anyways, of course. And Theo probably knows she knows, even if it is actually pretty hard to tell, since they won't ever mention the subject. She has this look in her eyes, though, as she sips a cup of coffee when they're clearing the table and Theo's fingers are still visibly shaking.
Boris's kiss had always been a mystery to both of them. A plea for Theo to stay? A gesture to say goodbye? The sudden, shocking realization that they would've probably never seen each other again, and that many other people would've kissed their mouths, and that moment was the last chance the odd fate had given them to leave a kind-of-sober mark?
What mark, had Boris thought over the years. He'd thought about it much. He doesn't even remember it.
So it feels weird to be back, sitting on the sidewalk where they’d last met before everything else had happened – before their lives went by. Thirteen years and nothing, at first, seems to have changed: the sun prepares to set in the same direction, running to hide behind the roof of a city building they’d never reached in their long walks; the same smell encumbers the air – if ‘hot’ could have a smell, it would be a blend of smoked and salt, the feeling sand grains give you when they sit on your arms and you realize you’ve been part of it all along.
The pool doesn’t have shiny chlorine water anymore. It’s filled with sand, and as Boris walks past it – almost gives up to the impulse of crouching down to brush his fingers against it – old memories flash in his mind: afternoons spent staring at the bright blue sky, pretending to be dead (hoping to be dead, sometimes), humming songs in a low voice. Don't carry the world upon your shoulders, for well you know that it's a fool who plays it cool.
He’s wearing a 300$ coat, his teeth are all white and neat, he knows that as soon as he gets to the house he’s bought there’s a warm bath to welcome him, and if he still gets eye bags and tachycardia it’s because some habits are hard to let go and drugs have never stopped tasting nice, even if he’d have the chance to let them go. But if he stares into the void hard enough, he can see himself thirteen years ago, ribs almost sticking out of his thin body and clothes that are definitely not his size, either lent by his dad or Theo, who cared. So often barefoot he’d even forgotten to wear shoes to school once. Always hungry, biting his inner cheek. Sometimes staring at Theo like he could provide him everything he needed, food, a house, new clothes, sex, earphones, enough alcohol to forget why he was laughing. Not to forget who he was, that was Theo’s drunken mood. Sort of.
Theo’s already inside the house by now. He’s had to lift Popchyk from the floor, because the poor creature couldn’t make it walking on his own paws: too old, too tired, too blind. The other boy doesn’t move when Boris closes the door behind him and sits beside him on the couch: only Popchyk slightly turns the head in his direction, ready to be pet on the head. Which Boris does, and it’s another heavy throwback: same position, same lighting in the room, same silence. But Popchyk is so much younger in this flashback, light shining through his minuscule dark eyes – and they are younger too, wild thick hair on their shoulders, 70s music playing from the phone abandoned on the table nearby.
Is it nostalgia, the feeling that rattles inside him? Does he want to go back?
«I think he’s happy here,» Theo says. It’s the first time he speaks since they’re in Vegas – hopped down the car and left it a mile from here, walked a hour in the desert, mouths shut. Sometimes it’s like their minds can communicate all the same, taking hints by the way their thighs brush against each other as they walk, Boris spontaneously humming lullabies in Polish. Lullabies he thought he had forgotten.
Popchyk whines a little, his eyes closed. His way to say yes.
«I often think that he could’ve lived a better life,» Theo continues, caressing his fur with an absorbed expression. Boris listens, stares at him carefully. «I bet Xandra would've payed him a shit ton of money if she didn't win it back then, this race of dogs usually costs. I don’t know, maybe he could’ve ended up in an actual rich family with some slight care for him, instead of…»
«Following us around.»
Theo shrugs. «Yeah. Following me around. I tried, okay – I tried – but living beings… they are difficult to deal with. Sometimes you just want everyone to go away. Including your dog.»
«I should’ve kept him instead» smiles Boris, and Theo shoots him a skeptical look. They both know that Popchyk’s life conditions would not have improved if he’d spent his years on Boris’ side, all that moving around and meeting weird people and sleeping in trash bins that sometimes had happened. But it’s nice to speculate about things.
«What about us?»
Theo’s eyes dart in his direction again and his jawbone stiffens. Boris tries not to look at it. «Us?»
«Have never wondered what would’ve happened if you had stayed?»
«I don’t know.» Theo moves his legs under Popchyk, scraps his chin in distress, his voice much slower and more hesitant. We’re getting into an uncomfortable field here. Boris can see it by the way he’s suddenly staring at his feet. Too sober for this shit.
«Come on, przyjaciel,» he nudges him with his free arm – the other one still occupied in petting their dog. «Thought about it, y'know. Us, and Popchyk... hiding along the loan of a truck that was passing by, waiting till it got us to Arizona. We would've wandered off a bit, and then...»
«We would've died.»
«You don't know that. Am a resourceful person, and you too, if you try hard enough.» Boris grins, and pinches his cheek with his thumb and index finger; Theo just scoffs, but there is something familiar about all of this, their bodies touching each other and Popchyk breathing on both of their legs, his nose too dry for it to be healthy. Everything's quiet. Almost comfortable.
Seventeen years are a lot time to be alive even for a scarred human being, let alone a starved house dog that was meant to be raised between beauty contests and lemon baths, or whatever – how the fuck is he supposed to know, of all people. Popchyk went through all sort of shit because of them, and yet here he is, quietly loving them for being touched, for being adored in their own fucked-up way.
But years pass. And it seemed only fair to them for Popchyk to die in the same place he's found that love.
Theo bites his lip, eyes wandering around the old room. They've only managed to get the door open thanks to the keys sent to him by Xandra – some sort of pacification, a final goodbye that can even if barely tame his hatred for her. Some feelings never leave, they can simply be put to sleep: Boris knows that well enough. He remembers fragments: her walking around in her pink tank top, heels way too high, looking hot even in her early 40s. He'd wanted Theo to understand, at first. Look at her! I'm not saying you should shag her, but wouldn't you at least touch her ass, if you had the chance? It was so basic, in his opinion. Two plus Two equals Four. The Earth rotates around the Sun. Xandra's sexy as fuck.
With time he'd understood the many reasons why Theo just couldn't see that.
«I just – » Theo starts saying. His right hand fingers shake in the air. «There were things – things I wanted to do. To happen. A fucking miracle, but who cared back then? I dreamed.» They're in the same position of the same couch of all those years ago, but now he looks so much older than he actually is. Like he's in his fifties. A tired, middle-aged man with bags under his eyes as well. «At times I'd say, I don't care about shit, Popchyk, we're leaving for good. We're going out of the States. Do you like Canada? Or maybe we should try Mexico? One week, when I was nineteen, I went on doing research about Norway. It was nuts. I wanted to escape Hell. New York was Hell.»
Boris doesn't open his mouth; he manages to get his lighter and a pair of Winstons out of his trousers pocket without having to push the dog away. Theo accepts one with a thankful shrug. He takes a drag staring at the shut off TV. «I – wanted to get to you. Wherever you were. Things just couldn't fix by themselves, and I thought – I don't know. Vegas wasn't a light chapter. But we had our way to get through stuff. I felt empty, alright, but I still feel empty. I haven't not felt empty since I was twelve, so what?»
«You never left New York.»
Another nervous drag from the cigarette. «Because I'm no fucking Harry Potter, Boris! You know the evil kid in the Potter movies, the one that messes everything up and ends up on the wrong side of everything? That's me. I never left because I had nowhere to go, because Hobie was giving me a house to be safe in and I felt so in love with Pippa – miles and miles from where she was, but my mind had it all written down. Looking for what I needed wasn't worth the effort.»
He stops talking, and silence falls for some minutes. Popchyk's breath is becoming heavier; he's clearly struggling to inspire and expire like he's always done. We're getting older, kochanie. All three of us. «So... you needed me,» he states. A smile in the corner of his lip.
«I did. I do.» Deadly serious, smoke weaving around like a twisted aura.
Boris wants to say something. He wants to tell him everything, every little emotion he ever felt, walking down lonely streets without his voice following him around, nights spent thinking at possibilities; the self-hatred and the regrets, the fear and the hope that, somehow, everything will eventually fix itself. He wants him to know about the belly-aches, about the red eyes, about metamphetamine bringing him to mental places where he was waiting for him. He wants to spill it all out, get rid of it – to embrace it at last.
кохання: that's how he would write it down. Never say it out loud, even if Potter cannot understand.
Instead, he does something strange: he tilts his head in Theo's direction and then rests it on his shoulder. Potter smells like always, tobacco and sweat and cologne, nothing new, and that's reassuring: it brings him back to holding him in the middle of the night. Not the heated hours; the quiet ones, when they were both mostly asleep and felt like actual children. Proper pre-teens, not rotten almost-adults who looked for things to feed their flames with.
Even if Popchyk is dying, his eyes closed and his breathing so slow, and even if everything around them is pretty much dead as well, and life seems an endless run until oblivion comes (struggling for what?), even if they feel so heavy, they are somehow children again. Maybe for the first time at all.
«Ty moy dom,» he manages to say, and Theo closes his eyes. Fingers leaning to brush against Boris hair.
That's something he can understand well enough.