Castiel was deep within freshman papers for his 100-level World Literature Survey course—a cross the English faculty took turns bearing each semester—putting his office hours to good use. He liked to keep his door mostly closed to allow some modicum of privacy, but left a few inches of space to indicate he was present. Office hours were not usually busy at this time of the semester; with the midterm over and students well back into college life, there was little anyone wanted to discuss. He didn’t mind. There were always papers to grade, and articles to write and get published in order to assure the school they hadn’t made a mistake in tenuring him. Castiel also liked to cleverly place his hours right before classes so that he could use the required office time to make any last minute lesson preparations.
But today papers it was, the early afternoon sunlight striping his desk. Though his article kept niggling at him. He thought he’d explored Jack Allen as well as could be done, but he kept coming back to music. The David Bowie reference was hard to miss, but he wasn’t at all familiar with classic rock, and then Billie had mentioned that if Robert Hayden grew up in Detroit couldn’t “blueblack” also be a reference to the local music scene in his childhood? And wasn’t there a Muddy Waters song that’s maybe referenced in Jack Allen’s “Nights”—but then there was Dean, who’d brazenly brought in a Led Zeppelin song as a favorite poem while everyone else was bringing in Frost and Dickinson and Keats, and Led Zeppelin notoriously drew upon American blues, did they not? (Dean, who had looked so handsome, almost otherworldly leaning against that beast of a car in his leather jacket. And how intuitive he’d been, slashing through years of scholarship with a sharp point, and You have a type, Cassie the voice that sounded annoyingly like Gabriel said.) Castiel breathed out through his nose. There was a lot more reading he would have to do, and he’d been so busy he hadn’t even had a chance to crack open Lord of the Rings…
The Road So Far: The Collected Poetry of Jack Allen sat on the nearest bookshelf to his desk. Castiel eyed the black volume, spine cracked in two places, multi-colored flags sticking out, well read. Well loved. His fingers itched to shove away his papers and pull the book from the shelf, cradle it in his hands. It had been released almost two years prior and collected Allen’s three previously published collections in one. Castiel’s entire awakening, the history of his long relationship with the poet, was innocuous and inconspicuous while closed on his shelf. But inside, inside—!
His fingertips had barely grazed the book when he became aware of raised voices next door. Missouri also held office hours Tuesday afternoons, and it seemed she was having an argument with a man. Tensing, he strained his hearing; years of growing up in a household constantly on edge made him adept at interpreting the slightest shift in tone. But no true trouble seemed afoot: their voices held exasperation, not true anger.
“Do I have to tell you again?” came Missouri’s voice, muffled through the old walls.
The response was too low for Castiel to hear, but then there was the creaking of Missouri’s office door as it opened, and heavy footsteps on hardwood. Which paused, almost immediately, outside his own door. Castiel trained his eyes on where it was cracked open, where as yet no figure had appeared. After several seconds, there was a knock.
Castiel gathered his papers into a neat pile. “Come in.”
Slowly the door was pushed open, and Dean’s head popped in around the edge. Then—shyly, Castiel was tempted to think—the rest of him followed and he stood in the doorjamb, shoulders slightly hunched, hands in his jacket pockets, his bag’s worn strap across his chest. Sun from Castiel’s large windows spilled over Dean as he entered, pulling gold highlights out of his hair.
“Dean,” said Castiel, not sure where to begin. Why had he been arguing with Missouri?
“Hey, Cas,” he said, flashing a smile. “I’m just here a little early, no big deal. Wanted to see how Missouri was doing.”
Castiel knew that this was a white lie; he’d lived in Maple Hills long enough to know all the townies at least by sight if not by name (students took up half the population, after all), and Dean was no townie. Nora from the gas station had agreed; she said he was only there Tuesdays and Thursdays to fill up his gorgeous car, and then was off again west down the county road out of town. Depending on how far out he lived, being on campus early was probably a bit of a deal. “Okay,” he said, after a pause. “What can I do for you?”
“Er, right.” Dean rubbed the back of his neck and scanned Castiel’s bookshelves, as he seemed fond of doing. “I guess I have another question. About last week’s discussion.”
Castiel pushed the papers away at long last, and pushed Dean’s conversation with Missouri out of mind, too. It wasn’t his business, after all, and as Dean had been quieter than usual the last couple of lessons as they plowed through the mid-century, he was more than intrigued to hear his thoughts about it. “Of course. Please, sit.”
Like every time he had come to discuss his writing, Dean carefully pushed the office door back to its former position, only letting a single stream of sunlight escape into the hallway, and sat in the chair closest to the orchid instead of the computer. Also like usual, his eyes lingered on Claire’s bee.
“Huh? Oh. I didn’t—” Dean heaved a short sigh and shifted in his chair. “I was just thinking.”
Castiel smiled. “Usually a good sign. What about?”
“About poetry.” Dean’s posture was a study in casualness: he sat slouched in his chair, one arm draped over the back of it. But his other hand gripped the end of the chair’s left arm, and his handsome face was sketched in tense lines. “And pain.”
“Poetry, and pain.” Castiel hummed. He sat back, setting an ankle to his knee, and laced his hands over his stomach. Dean had the uncanny ability of surprising him at every turn, and with those three words Castiel felt all of his considerable academic focus fall on the other man, and the unhappy twist of his lip. He waited.
“Poets like Sylvia Plath,” said Dean, when he realized Castiel wanted him to expand. “This really deep, confessional poetry. Poets like her, who were depressed and killed themselves, or ones who drank themselves into the grave like Dylan Thomas, or were going crazy all the time like Lowell…they really suffered. And there’s beauty in their poems, you know?” He lifted his arm from the back of the chair and ran his fingers through his hair, eventually settling his elbow back down and resting his temple on his hand, tracing the spines of all Castiel’s books with his eyes. “In the dark poems and in the ones where they keep fighting. And we’re reading and talking about how tragic it is they had a shit life and died young, and kids in class are saying that they’d rather write good poetry and die early than live long, and be forgotten.” He didn’t move his head, but Dean’s eyes slid over to meet Castiel’s, gauging.
He was hardly going to state his opinion when it was clear Dean was bursting with his own. “Some people do feel that way,” he hedged.
Dean frowned fully now, and Castiel worried he’d made a misstep. But he forced himself still, kept his breath calm, his gaze steady. Dean took the bait. “So people celebrate pain. Admire it. But then,” Dean leaned forward, placing the tips of his fingers on the desk. “These poets for social justice, like Dennis Brutus. Grappling with these real issues, getting shot, imprisoned, beaten. That’s a higher calling, to write about it. That’s real struggle, right? More than someone like—anyone in our class.”
Castiel felt him spiraling closer to the issue. “That doesn’t mean you can’t learn from, even truly enjoy their work.”
“Yeah. Exactly.” Dean shrugged, sitting back. “That’s what everyone wants to read. Those are the stories people want to hear. Like, would Marilyn Monroe be half as popular now if she hadn’t died young? Would people still think Kurt Cobain was a rock god?”
No, this wasn’t quite it; Dean was too agitated. There was clearly something deeper. “It’s hard to say,” he ventured. When that earned him a half-hidden glare—Dean was clearly onto his hedging—Castiel switched tacks. “Let’s stick with Brutus. Do you like his poetry?”
Dean ticked his jaw, deciding on his answer. “Yeah. I do.”
“Why do you like it?”
“Dunno,” said Dean. Castiel raised an eyebrow. Dean sighed. “Okay, fine.” He closed his eyes. Remembering certain lines, perhaps? Dean’s broad shoulders inched down from his neck as he thought. “Warmgold folds,” he said. “Silkchill skeins. That sunlit sensuous voluptuousness / of luxurious indulgence in lush-ripe flesh.” Dean shaped each word slowly, barely letting them escape his lips, and Castiel was transfixed. With a strong internal reprimand he forced his gaze upward from Dean’s mouth, and just in time: Dean opened his eyes and met it head on. “Milkblue.” He gave Castiel a swift, half-smile. “I thought all this talk about craft would take the magic out of poetry, but…when you see a master craftsman at work it just makes it better.”
“I think you begin to see why I’m in this business.”
Dean nodded his head to the side, conceding the point. “When you read his work on the page it’s full of imagery, and rhythm. But when you read it out loud…I’ve never tasted words like that.”
“Uh, I mean…” Dean blushed, a deep pink sweeping over his face. “You know, when you…say the words and, the way they feel and sound, in your…mouth?” He was practically mumbling by the end.
Castiel was torn between smiling and scowling. He’d never seen a man go from gruff to adorable so quickly, but the embarrassment was edged in a deep shame that was all too easy to see. And that, Castiel would not have. “I know exactly what you mean,” he said. “I’ve never thought of putting it that way before, but then again, I’m not a poet. You have a way with words, Dean.”
Dean searched his face and Castiel let him; he had nothing to hide. “Says the guy who tears apart my papers,” he muttered at last.
“I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t help you develop your skills,” he said. But Castiel would not be so easily swayed from the topic at hand. “So you enjoy Brutus’s diction? His choice of words?”
“In some poems he just uses really simple words, or uses a ton of big words, or he makes up these new, amazing words all the time and no matter what, his poetry has impact.” Dean shrugged again. “I feel it when I read it.”
“I notice you didn’t say you like his poetry because of the life he led.”
Dean opened his mouth, then rethought his words. “But he wrote poetry because of it.”
Castiel spread his hands. “Or he wrote poetry because he was a poet.”
“But it gave him something to write about.”
“Dean.” Castiel pulled his rolling chair close in to the desk. “It would help if you told me exactly what’s bothering you. If it’s a question of inspiration, every poet has a different answer.”
“No, it’s not that.” Dean crossed his arms and stared over Castiel’s shoulder out the window, where the school chapel sat on top of the hill. “It just seems like…all poets do is suffer, all the time. Even the ones who make it to a few decades, they just…I mean is that a choice that poets have to make? To let depression and alcoholism take over and kill you, or to…fight these major external forces and almost die in the process? Like Byron did both, right, ‘cause he went off looking for wars but he also totally self-destructed?”
Castiel took the time to think. The question wasn’t a new one; it came up in his classes now and again. The difference here was in the way that Dean wouldn’t meet his eyes, how he was staring out the window jaw clenched, hunched in on himself, like the answer was very important. It could, Castiel supposed, just be that Dean labored under the weight of great compassion, but there was something too personal there for it to only be about people he had never met. For the hundredth time Cas circled back to Missouri’s assurance that Dean had the background required for his course despite his lack of formal education. He wondered, had Dean known a poet who’d met a bitter end? Is that what it could be? Was he in the class for answers seeking to understand someone he knew? Or even, still knows?
No matter the reason, Castiel had his duty. In most discussions it was to act as guide and moderator to help his students come to their own conclusions. But in those rare cases when a student confides—as this now had become something like a confession—honesty was required. “No, Dean, that is not a choice a poet has to make, anymore than other people who drink, are depressed, fight wars. It was quite the opposite for Dennis Brutus, in fact.”
Finally Dean looked back at him.
“He said, if he had spent more time on poetry, he would have been a better poet. But working to end apartheid and other injustices in the world was more important work. And that is how he chose to spend his time.”
“So he did not sacrifice the life he chose to lead for his poetry. And still his verse was beautiful. Do you understand?”
“He’s one guy,” said Dean. “Maybe he was just strong.”
“Yes, he was strong,” Castiel agreed. “That doesn’t mean there’s no strength to be found in others, no matter what walk of life they came from, nor how long they lived.”
“But what if when they’re happy, they have nothing to write about anymore?”
“I don’t believe that,” Castiel answered, “but if it is true, so what?”
Dean was taken aback. “What do you mean, ‘so what’?”
“This idea that poets and other artists should self-destruct for our amusement is a rotten romanticism. There is nothing noble or romantic about that kind of darkness and struggle. There is honesty to be found there, and a commonality to be found in our own struggles, but no one, artist or not, deserves to be put on display as if he were art himself. The idea that someone isn’t a true artist unless they suffer horribly is a terrible lie our society tells itself.”
“But if it’s not a lie?” Dean asked quietly.
“Like I said, so what? Take Jack Allen—the poet I quoted you about your car?” Dean bit his lip and nodded. Castiel forged on. “We don’t know all that much about him. We know he’s American and, well, a he. But he’s highly reclusive. Doesn’t give interviews. All communication takes place through his agent, and she doesn’t talk to people who want interviews. So there are only two more things we know about him. One: he was incredibly prolific. In just a few years’ span, he produced enough high quality work to warrant three collections, and in each one his skill had developed by leaps and bounds. And two: for a few years now, he hasn’t written anything.”
Dean swallowed. He seemed to be listening. “What’s your point?”
“There are some dark things in his poems, both present and past. If what I think is true, the darkness overwhelmed him and he couldn’t write anymore. But if the common theory is true, and happiness is the enemy to art, then he is happy. And I do hope he’s happy, Dean,” Cas concluded. “And so against my belief, I prefer to think he is. I’d rather have him happy than write another poem, even though he’s my favorite poet. Because he is my favorite poet. I’m simply grateful for what he’s shared with us.”
Castiel watched a series of expressions tug Dean’s face, worried he’d somehow made whatever turmoil his student was experiencing worse. At last Dean laughed, a quiet, broken thing, and pinched the bridge of his nose. He took another breath and looked at Cas. “Jack Allen is your favorite poet?”
“Yes,” said Castiel, allowing him to steer the conversation. “I wrote my dissertation on his work.”
“Shit, Cas,” said Dean. He was laughing again. He leaned over and scooped his bag from the floor. “Thanks.” Bumping the desk with a knee, he hurriedly stood. Claire’s bee bobbed wildly in the orchid pot. “Good talk.” Dean was out the door before Castiel could even come around his desk.
Cas went over to the door to watch him go. Dean was most of the way down the hall, and as Cas watched, he clomped down the stairs, presumably to the second floor where class would soon begin. Castiel was left feeling wrongfooted, and like he’d missed something very, very important.
He turned the other way and poked his head into Missouri’s office. “Is everything okay with Dean?”
She looked up from her computer screen. “He’ll be fine, Castiel. He isn’t giving you trouble in class, is he?”
“No, no of course not. He’s a wonderful student.”
“Good,” she said, and turned back to her computer. And with that Castiel was dismissed.
It didn’t sit right with him, still, but he had no more time to ponder it because class was about to start. He settled for pulling a book from his shelf. It would have to do.
Castiel raced down the stairs to the second floor and barely remembered to slow down before actually entering the classroom. He was still breathing a bit heavily when he strode in and walked to the back corner where Dean sat. His eyes grew wider and wider as Castiel approached, clearly nervous. But of course, Castiel would never continue such an intimate conversation in public, or betray any confidence a student had given him. He just held out the book.
Dean took it hesitantly. “A River Dies of Thirst,” he read. “What is this?”
“Mahmoud Darwish. Read ‘The essence of the poem.’ Near the end. Okay?”
Dean swallowed, and pulled the book toward himself. “Okay.”
Dean could barely pay attention to the lesson, still reeling from what Castiel had revealed. Jack Allen was Cas’s favorite poet? Was it true? Had Missouri known?
When the interminable hour and a half was over, Dean carefully placed himself in the middle of the rush to leave the room, as camouflaged he could get in a place there was no hiding. He drove home, Cas’s little brown book practically burning a hole in his bag beside him on the seat its presence was so strong. When he parked along the curb, he didn’t even get out of the car before seeking it out, and flipping through toward back of the book. “The essence of the poem” was there, just like he’d said.
The road to meaning, however long and branching, is the poet’s journey, Dean read.
When the shadows lead him astray, he finds his way back.
What is meaning? I don’t know, but I may know what its opposite is:
thinking that nothingness is easy to bear.
Suffering is not a talent. It is a test of talent, and it either defeats talent
or is defeated by it.
All beautiful poetry is an act of resistance.
Dean let the book drop into his lap.
Jack Allen was Castiel’s favorite poet. And, somehow, he’d known exactly what Dean needed to hear.
For the next couple weeks Dean felt he was in some sort of dream. He dreaded and looked forward to class equally; every time Castiel spoke Dean wondered how he could know him so well, and know him so little. For him to guess that it was darkness that stayed his pen, but trying to regain a life that had allowed him to pick it back up? He had seen it so clearly while Dean had been seeing it all backwards.
And yet—Castiel had written his dissertation on Dean’s poetry. There must be something he saw in Dean’s words that wasn’t really there. Castiel must have built the figure of Jack Allen into some myth that wasn’t real. Because Dean was just…Dean. No one to write home about. Definitely no one to write a damn dissertation about.
And yet—again—that Castiel could so baldly state that Dean’s work was his favorite, but that he didn’t care if he wrote another poem, so long as Dean was well? That he could so selflessly let go of something he enjoyed for someone else’s benefit?
With all the worrying Dean was doing about it, he would have thought that the question of whether or not they’d study his poetry in class would have crossed his mind. Instead, he was completely blindsided.
The first class after winter had truly set in, and snow spread like a blanket on the curves of the hills and the sun started to set at 4 o’clock every evening, Castiel handed out the poetry packet for their final unit. In the last seat of the last row, Dean was the last to receive it. He flipped through the packet while Castiel started talking about the era of contemporary poets.
Dean didn’t hear him. After Mary Oliver and Maya Angelou, there he was: Jack Allen.
Dean’s head snapped up. Castiel had turned on the projector, and one of Dean’s poems was on the screen. No. God, no. Could this get any worse?
“Dean, will you read this one for us?”
Dean’s heart plummeted. This was personal. It was one thing to publish poetry that nameless, faceless people would read. It was definitely another to read it in front of people, talk about some of the most intimate moments in his life with them, with Castiel. For a brief, shining moment he considered faking illness, running out of the room, but he’d been silent too long. He could see the concern growing on Cas’s face, could almost see the question form on his lips. But Dean didn’t want to hear it. Not when thinking about this.
He sat up and cleared his throat, telegraphing his readiness. Cas positioned himself by his laptop, ready to scroll the text down on the overhead. Studiously ignoring everyone else in the room, he plunged headfirst into a poem he hadn’t read in a long, long time.
“Perfection, by, um, Jack Allen.
“Those nights in that in-between time
In in-between spaces,
Truck stops and 24-hour diners
From bygone eras and unforgiving lights all
Left up bright,
Rundown bars made seedier
By smoke and starlight and fluorescent strips
Warring with half-dead neon,
Dad more than half-drunk on his last job’s last wages,
Drinking to forget Mom (but really forgetting that
Erasing her erases us),
I learned to play pool.
I hustled and ran my luck and got my face
Busted up for my troubles.
I learned to drink beer because drunk people think
Drunk kids are a blast,
I learned to charm bartenders and waitresses and gas station clerks with just the right quirk
Of my lips’ corners,
Learned how to scrounge coins for the coffee machine,
And how the change-jangle heaved the hulking thing
Into spitting out cheap joe, stale from sitting hours in a heated can,
But with money to earn I learned that
First sip is always perfect.”
Dean paused here, wondering if Cas would call on someone else as he sometimes did for longer poems. But his professor simply scrolled the page and looked back up expectantly. Dean took a steadying breath and forged on.
“In those places in-between
Earning money you’re lying in wait for it,
Girls don’t paint thick eyes and lips to look pretty,
They do it to advertise in Coca-Cola red and
Marlboro menthol blue.
But kids don’t need to advertise.
I’d just bite my lips and hit my cheeks hoping the blush
Would hide the hollow pits
And it must have worked, because
Never accepting less than ten dollars, I let men
Use me in-between the in-between,
In the shadows where the dim back door light didn’t go,
In rusting bathroom stalls on half-mopped tile,
In truck cabs rising in quiet rows like metal monuments
To the liminally dead.
I liked the outside best, though, dirt soft on my knees
As I gave everything, everything to please these sorry men
Starving for that instant
Because in the dark, under the shade of my eyelashes
The men could imagine me looking up at them,
While my gaze was up and over them,
Observing the sky and counting the stars
As I bobbed and asking myself,
Is there life?
Is there life on Mars?
The men always came, and they liked to tell me
My mouth was perfect.
“When I think back on those days
I don’t hear the skeletons banging in the closet,
Or see that this country is built
Like a Dust Bowl carnival pitched by deadbeat dads,
Where cotton candy is the only sweet sold
And it melts in the mouth like happiness:
Insubstantial and sticky until washed away
By a single tear,
And the most popular ride is the
Merry martyr machine that goes round and round
And up and down
In endless sighs while blasting broken lullabies,
And you ride and you ride,
Until a snarling unicorn with paint
Peeling from his horn crushes you
Under his heels.
(Though a few, a very few
Rise up to enjoy the view from the top of the
Or so they say.)
“All I see is the next morning,
Dad snoring across the room
And me proudly pouring a bowl of the best cereal
A single dollar can buy,
And Sal smiling at the marshmallows
And me shushing as he slurps milk with his spoon.
The TV’s showing Scooby-Doo,
A bunch of kids in a big car
Cruising the country solving mysteries,
Masters of their own destinies,
And it was perfect.
“I’m telling you,
It was perfect.”
The class fell into the usual silence. Dean took another deep breath, and let it out as slowly and quietly as possible. It was shaky.
It might have been Dean’s imagination, but Cas let the silence linger a little longer this time. “Any thoughts?” he asked them.
“Is Jack Allen a girl?” asked Alicia.
Dean choked down a squawk.
“His agent uses masculine pronouns for him in correspondence,” Cas answered. “Why do you ask?”
“In correspondence? So we don’t know for sure?”
“I suppose not. Can you expand your reasoning?”
“Well think about it,” she said. “Forced to walk the streets, mothers a sibling. Getting crushed by a unicorn, hello Freud! It’s all pretty feminine-coded. Women getting crushed by the patriarchy and all the deadbeat dads, you know? Besides, can you possibly pick a more masculine sounding dudebro name than ‘Jack Allen?’ Please. That’s exactly the kind of plain guy name a girl would use for a pseudonym. George Eliot-style.”
“Holy shit,” said Max.
“Girls aren’t the only prostitutes,” argued Kevin. “Predators go for boys, too. And he explicitly states earlier in the poem that the girls paint their faces, but he, a kid, didn’t have to, setting himself apart from them.”
The class exploded into a heated debate about, how is this even Dean’s life, whether he was a man or a woman.
“Maybe they’re genderqueer?” offered Max. “They quote David Bowie, who’s well known for androgyny and the way he played with gender.”
Dean bit his lip, fighting not to snap out that he quoted David Bowie because sometimes it’s kinda funny, you know, what you think when you’re doing things like that, and sometimes a song was just a damn song.
He felt a sudden, fervent understanding with all the poets they’d read earlier in the semester. Had they been rolling in their graves? He was nearly vibrating out of his damn seat. It was just a poem, damnit! Just a sad little piece of his fucking life my god would they just stop picking it apart?!
“This is all good discussion,” said Castiel, which might mark the first time he was ever really wrong because hell no this was not good discussion. Three-quarters of the class thought his poetry was too feminine because his pseudonym was too masculine. Please. “But I wonder if Jack Allen might want to speak for himself.”
Dean gripped the edge of his desk and looked up at Castiel in horror.
But Cas wasn’t looking at him. He was googling the Poetry Foundation, and bringing up another Jack Allen poem.
“Fuck no, don’t you dare make me read this one,” Dean hissed through gritted teeth.
“’Nights in Pink Satin,’” Castiel announced. “I think I’ll read, so please listen.
“I met her at a bar in New Mexico
I’m nineteen. The ID I made
Makes me a man (age 21)
And I want a beer though I’m a boy
And don’t know what I want.
But she does.
Yes, she does.
““I live nearby.” Her lips are pink.
And I think: I’m a man, she sees it
And she can’t resist.
I’m cocky and offer an hour,
The bartender laughs,
My face goes pink and I see red—
But she grabs my head and gives me a kiss.
She gets pink on my lips.
“Her place is draped in veils, bedroom dark red
As a womb. (Am I a boy? No—)
Leather jackets hit the floor, and more,
Boots and jeans and my boxers, blue.
Her matching lingerie is pink.
Who’d think beneath her denim
Against her skin she wore such pretty satin?
Then I’m on my knees, hands on her hips
I pull down her panties, my lips half on
The elastic trim, trailing after satin,
“Teach me,” I beg
And she grabs my head and leads me to where
“But the night doesn’t end there.
She builds me up, tears me down (not
A boy, not yet a man) takes everything
I give, gives me what I like
And when I’m soft, and sated,
She hands me satin.
“I’m a man!” I push them away but don’t make it
Very far, “Boy, you don’t know who you are”
And she knows what I like, so I let her
Hand me pink panties.
“My legs are long but her hips are
Wide, she wasn’t too far off
Thinking they’d be my size, and she slides
Them up and drags at the hair
From the night’s start. They are so soft
And satiny and I kinda like it.
Yes, I like it!
“Holy the night in pink satin!
Holy the panties, holy the pink on cock, holy the woman
Straddling the man, making him man!
Holy the blush! Holy the scratches!
Holy the lacy bras and lipstick traces in bars!
Holy the man who knows to wear satin!
Holy the kink and revelation!
Holy the pink!
“The next morning, a kiss on the cheek.
“You’re a man,” she says, “I’m a
Man,” I agree, because there are many ways to be a
Man, even ones that Kansas can’t understand,
And so what if I ain’t the world’s most masculine man?
I know what I am.”
This time the post-poem quiet was a distinctly uncomfortable one. Dean’s face felt so hot his blush was practically burning him. Why did he let Charlie convince him that was okay to publish?
Finally, Max broke the silence. “Hawt,” he drawled. The class fell into giggles.
Dean sunk further down in his chair.
“Conclusion, class?” asked Castiel wryly.
“I guess we needed more evidence,” Alicia conceded. “He seems pretty cool, though. Does he write a lot about gender norms?”
“No way, can we stop? That shit’s not normal for a man,” complained Todd.
“Dude,” said Kevin.
“Excuse me, Castiel?” asked Billie, raising her hand.
“If he’s so uncomfortable, I would very much like to read out Sharon Olds’s ‘The Connoisseuse of Slugs’.”
And when Billie read out a really vivid comparison between slugs and dudes’ dicks, and the other guys in the class blanched (except, of course, for Castiel), Dean wasn’t grossed out or offended. He was just really grateful.
Charlie was not helpful when he stopped by her new apartment later. He’d been too chicken to bring it up with Sam. Because he suddenly realized that if Sam read his poetry, he knew that he kinda, sometimes, maybe, liked to wear panties. As if the day could get any worse.
“You’re fine, Dean,” she said when she was done laughing. “Besides, what’s wrong with being a woman? Our team is cool too.”
“Nothing! I know that. It just, sometimes, you know…”
“Makes you feel like a pussy?” she supplied.
He sighed. “I just didn’t want all my dirty laundry up in front of the class. I felt really…exposed.”
“Ugh,” she said, throwing herself back on her couch dramatically. “So many places I could go with what you just said, but it would be too easy, like kicking a puppy. Anyway, you only have a couple weeks left of class, right? That means you only have to see these people a few more times and they have no idea it’s you anyway, so there you go.”
“One more response paper and I’m done. I’m not doing a final paper.”
“You gonna write it on Jack Allen?”
“Shut up, you and Sammy have the same bad jokes. No. I have no idea. I can’t think right now.”
“What about Carol Ann Duffy?” Charlie suggested. “You have any of her stuff?”
“She’s really cool, I’ll lend you the books I have. I think you’ll like her.”
“Sure. I trust your taste.”
“As it should be, padawan, as it should be.”
With three regular class periods left to go, they handed in their last response paper. The last week of class was to be spent peer reviewing and revising for their final paper, which they should have already been working on. But Dean hadn’t.
He waited until everyone else had left and walked up to the front desk where Castiel was packing up his things. His skin was golden in the yellow light of the classroom. Dean didn’t look directly; he stared at their reflections in the dark early evening windows and waited for Cas to look up.
“Dean, what can I do for you?”
“Just wanted to say that this is my last class. And, ah, thank you. I learned a lot.”
Castiel’s face fell, visibly fell, and Dean’s breath caught. But he covered it quickly with his “I am here for you” professor face. “You won’t be handing in a final paper?”
“No. Sorry. Do I still get a pass, teach?” he joked weakly.
“Of course you do,” said Castiel, serious as he usually was. “And thank you, Dean. I enjoyed having you in class, and all your writing. And the discussions we had.”
Dean ducked his head at the memory of their last discussion. “Me too,” he said. And then almost laughed. Isn’t that what he’d told him after their first class together? Well, it didn’t matter. After today Dean was leaving the world of higher education behind, and he would probably rarely see Castiel again, if ever. But that’s how it was.
The chrism is on thine head,—on mine, the dew,—
He almost said it. But of all people, Castiel was sure to recognize the reference. So he did not. “Goodbye, Cas,” he said instead.
Castiel swallowed. “Goodbye, Dean.”
Dean left then. He imagined, hoped, that Castiel at least watched him go.
The next Tuesday, when Dean was supposed to have gone to class, a melancholy swept over him. He kind of missed the discussion, but mostly he just missed Cas. Even just seeing him. It’d be so good to hear his voice.
With Jack off at daycare and nothing else to distract him with heavy December snowfall keeping him inside, he inevitably found himself with notebook and pencil in hand. And for the first time since he’d started writing again, he wasn’t looking backward. He was awake now, wide awake, but—
What’s dead should stay dead, he wrote.
He wrote, and he wrote.
It made him pretty poor company, when he was on a writing binge. It never used to matter with John Winchester, who was too wrapped up in his own problems, but Sam and Eileen left him be, and even ran interference with Jack sometimes, unless they thought he really needed the interruption. But the urgency didn’t truly lift until Christmas, his first real Christmas in…he couldn’t remember how long.
He used to drive off during holidays, and his birthdays. He didn’t want to see anyone, because holidays just weren’t the same anymore. But this year showed him a different way: a way that included Sam and Eileen and a wildly happy Jack delightedly chewing his allotted nougat, and Charlie too, and gifts sent by the Singers under the tree. A real damn Christmas tree that smelled of fresh pine and winter. By all rights he should have been content, but he wasn’t.
When the New Year rolled around he picked up some part time work at a nearby garage, enough hours to help support the house but still be able to watch Jack every other day. After a couple weeks settling down into his new routine, the ache in his chest lessened to a hum. But it never went away completely, a persistent what if, what if, what if that whispered with every beat of his heart.
He was almost even looking forward to his birthday. Almost.
He still worked down the garage that day, and was looking forward to a quiet evening spent with his brother, sister, and nephew. Eileen had promised there would be burgers and that no one would make a fuss, and she was a dirty rotten liar.
Because he walked in the door to practically find a party. Not only was Charlie there, but so were Missouri and Patience, Jody, Donna, and the girls, and even Kevin was there. Most surprising of all was that both the Singers and Turners had flown in from South Dakota. And they all, to a one, made a big damn fuss.
At least there were burgers.
He had to admit, it did warm him some when he and Bobby bickered good-naturedly over the grill on the patio out back, which had been shoveled for the occasion. There was no wind that evening, either, so everyone else bundled up and sat at the patio table or on camping chairs in the snow, and Charlie chased a screeching Jack around the backyard, both of them stumbling around in the drifts. Sam shored up a fire in the pit, and the aroma of freshly burnt wood and wet pine needles hung like a cloud over the yard.
When all the burgers were devoured, Eileen went inside and made a strong Irish coffee for everyone who wanted one. When she returned, Sam scooped up a fast-fading Jack and went over to Dean.
“Say goodnight to your uncle,” said Sam.
“Night, Uncle Dean.” Jack wiped his nose with a mitten.
“Goodnight, buddy,” he said, giving him a quick hug.
When they went inside, Dean closed his eyes and relaxed back in his chair. He let the conversation wash over him; he treasured the sound of all the voices he adored. It was cold but undeniably cozy, the mug of coffee in his hands, the logs cracking in the fire. It was just about perfect.
Then the doorbell rang and flashed, the bright bulb startling him into opening his eyes. Eileen made to stand, but Dean waved her back. He went inside and found Sam at the edge of the stairs, Jack in his pajamas with him and rubbing his eyes.
“I’ve got it,” said Dean, and Sam gratefully disappeared from the landing.
Dean opened the front door. A man stood there, snug in a long dark coat, a blue wool scarf, and matching hat. But there was no mistaking those eyes.
Castiel lifted a gloved hand—black leather—and pulled down his scarf. His breath escaped in a dragon’s plume. “Hello, Dean. Happy Birthday.”
Dean stood there like an idiot for a moment longer, blinking in surprise. “Uh, thanks. Come in. Please.” He stepped back to give room for him to enter. Castiel brought in the cold air with him, and a whiff of cologne. He stamped his feet, but Dean stopped him from bending to take off his boots. “We’ve got a fire out back. Come say hi.”
Cas nodded. “I hope it’s alright, Dean,” he said quietly, looking unsure. It was very different from the easy grace he carried himself with in the classroom. They walked through the kitchen and passed through the patio door, back out into the cold.
“Of course, yeah. It’s, uh. It’s good to see you.”
The others greeted him loudly, several winter scarves to the wind. He introduced Castiel to the Singers and Turners and watched in some consternation as Bobby and Rufus began quizzing the expert on his knowledge, as if he were the student. Dean sat back, and couldn’t quite stop himself from being pleased at the way all the most important people in his life were accepting this other…important…person.
Dean was startled from his reverie when a touch came at his elbow, just enough pressure to alert him through his coat. He turned to find Castiel, large snowflakes perched on his hat and shoulders, something like a question in his eyes. “I must have missed presents,” he said.
Dean felt himself blushing all over again, and hoped the shadows masked it. He ducked his head but immediately forced it back up with a shrug and a smile. “Right after dinner.”
Cas returned his smile, though this one was small with a spark of amusement, like he could tell just how much Dean was affected and trying to hide it. “May I give you mine now?”
Dean’s fingers twitched, halfway to his head in an aborted gesture to run his fingers through his hair, before remembering he’s wearing gloves and a new hat. “You didn’t have to, really, I mean just because you were invited—”
“Dean,” said Castiel, quietly but still with that command that stopped him in his tracks. “I wanted to.”
He searched his eyes, blue and wide and utterly sincere. Dean licked his lips and nodded. Cas undid the first two buttons on his coat, revealing hints of a soft sweater, and reached a gloved hand into an inner pocket. He drew out a small rectangular gift, wrapped in sparkling black paper and one of those silver bows that were really more tinsel shaped into a glittery fountain. Also taped to the front was a small silver card that read Happy Birthday! in classy cursive. The stock was thick enough he could flip it open with a gloved finger. Cas had filled it top to bottom with his tidy script. It read:
To say it was a pleasure to have you as a student would be an understatement. Not only did you keep class discussion lively and intriguing, but whenever we talked one-on-one it brought home to me that I hadn’t had such rigorous poetical debate in years. I’ve grown to respect you as a peer and, I hope, a friend. Please accept this gift of poems, written by a man who reminds me of you: someone who, despite hardship, makes his way through life with empathy, righteousness, and an abundance of soul.
My best to you now and always,
Dean looked up from the card, a laugh strangled halfway up his throat. To think that he was in any way a peer of Castiel’s was a joke. But Cas just gave him an encouraging nod. Dean ripped the card from the front and shoved it in his pocket. Then he made short work of the wrapping paper only to find that Castiel had given him a book.
Not that he owned a copy of this one. It was a pristine copy of The Road So Far, the collected works of Jack Allen, and he hadn’t really wanted anything to do with it. Dean supposed he was grateful for it because it was what had gotten Charlie speaking to him again after he’d blown up at her. The publisher had offered a decent deal for a poetry collection, which didn’t actually add up to much, but she had thought it was a good offer. He’d agreed to it mostly out of apology, and told her to do what she wanted with it.
The cover design was a clear homage to the City Lights style that the old Allen Ginsberg collections were printed in, with the black and white inverted, and just different enough to be its own thing. He did not deserve Charlie Bradbury. He’d have to thank her later. But for now… “Thanks, Cas.” He couldn’t quite hide the emotion in his voice, from Charlie’s past kindness, to Cas’s current kindness, and mostly, how every time hope rekindled for Dean that he could reconcile his feelings for Cas the man just had to go and put Jack Allen up on a pedestal, again. And the reality that Dean could never live up to it.
“You’re very welcome, but are you alright?” Castiel looked worried and confused, and Dean felt bad enough already. He wanted to explain but he couldn’t, he just couldn’t.
“Hits a little close to home, that’s all.”
“Ah,” he said, looking somewhat mollified. “Then you did like the poems of his we read for class. I’d wondered, but you never said.”
“Heh. Those were some discussions,” he evaded.
Castiel smiled, eyes crinkling. “That they were.”
Dean glanced around a bit. The others were involved in another conversation, so he took a chance. “Will you tell me why he means so much to you? Jack Allen, I mean? I get if it’s personal, but I’m not your student anymore, so…”
“No, you’re not.” Castiel looked down, clenching his jaw in deep thought. But after a moment he met Dean’s gaze, and nodded. “Alright.
“I grew up in a very strict, very religious household. All the old clichés were true: we were to be seen and not heard. We were to be good. But most of all, we were to obey. And even after a couple of my older siblings rebelled, I still didn’t see the light.” He shook his head. “No, that’s not right. I mean I was confused and hurt, just very, very repressed. There were things I knew, but didn’t let myself know. Like that I might not be straight.” He paused, ever so slightly, to gauge Dean’s reaction. It was giddy fucking internal screaming, is what it was, but he nodded for Cas to go on. “I was going to the college my parents had picked out for me, studying economics like they wanted. But I was taking a required English class when the professor gave us an assignment to pick up a recent literary journal and talk about a piece in it. And that’s where I found him.” He looked fondly at the book in Dean’s hands. “Our library happened to have his first collection, and by the time I was doing post-graduate work very much not in economics, all three of his collections were out.” Cas hit him with a sly side-eye. “And so was I.”
Dean barked a surprised laugh.
Castiel blushed, but looked pretty pleased with himself. “My sexuality was only a part of it. The way he approached his battles in life was so righteous and open he didn’t just wake me up. It’s more than that. He showed me how to live. It’s like he taught me…free will.”
Is that possible? How could Dean have had any kind of effect like that on the man Castiel was today? There was no way that he, mid-twenties and practically broke, working constantly and serving his ailing father hand and foot could have changed intelligent, gorgeous, amazing Castiel with a couple shitty poems.
But the evidence sat in his hands.
He had no idea how to respond to something so enormous, how he could even begin to explain why it mattered so much to him, not without the last curtain between them falling away. More than that, he understood now that this fantasy, this Jack Allen that Cas had built up in his head was too important to him in his life. Dean couldn’t rip that away from him, especially not in his moment, when he’d been more open and human to Dean than he’d ever been before.
Just then, thankfully, Charlie punched him in the arm and asked him if he’d seen the new Marvel trailer. With a fleeting smile at Cas, just enough to show him he’d heard and understood, he let himself be distracted.
But he didn’t let go of the book.
It was not, it turned out, the last Dean and Cas saw of each other. When Charlie eventually eked out of Castiel that he hadn’t seen Lord of the Rings, she orchestrated some of the dinners at Missouri’s to turn into movie nights as well. They had no choice but to orbit each other, spiraling ever closer together, but every time Cas got too close—Dean reminded himself of what Jack Allen meant to Cas, and pulled away.
Somehow, his definition of too close got narrower and narrower. Soon he was foolishly agreeing to small hikes in the mountains, which Dean wasn’t that fond of, except he might have, maybe, been fond of seeing Cas in shorts. And sitting alone with him on lookouts over the picturesque New England landscape. And teasing him about his homemade trail mix.
“You are the most New England ever,” Dean joked.
“Nonsense,” said Cas. “I eat my granola just like you, one cluster at a time and drizzled in maple syrup.”
The best part, though, was when they returned to Maple Hills starving, and settled in together at small tables in the small town’s even smaller restaurants.
It was on one such spring evening when they left the local Indian restaurant, Castiel eating the candied cardamom they kept at the register, when they found themselves walking along the riverbank. The low sun pulled in the water threads of gold and orange.
“Have you ever been on the pedestrian bridge?” Cas asked him.
“No. There’s a pedestrian bridge?”
Cas grinned. “Come on,” he said, and led him in the opposite direction of his apartment. They walked away from the bank and onto the street, walking down the sharp descent that mirrored the waterfall. Two small town blocks later, Cas led them back toward the river where the old buildings opened up, revealing a wooden bridge low over the water.
Intrigued, Dean walked to the middle of it and found it gave a perfect view of the waterfall, the large brick bridge that crossed above it, and the still wheel of the old mill next to it that used to power the town. It was gorgeous. Poem-worthy. “Thanks, Cas,” he said without tearing his gaze away. “Always showing me things in new perspectives.”
After another minute of etching the sight in his memory, the willow on the left bank perpetually weeping into the water, the sparrows circling their nest in the eaves of one of the buildings, the water foaming and sparkling as it joyfully tumbled under their feet, Cas pulled at his arm, and Dean let him.
Gently Cas turned him and pressed his back against the wooden railing. One hand he slipped under Dean’s leather jacket and wrapped around his waist; the other he used to cup the back of his head. Castiel inched closer, pressed their chests together so tenderly. His mouth was just a breath away, warm, rich, tasting of cardamom. “Dean,” he whispered.
Dean inhaled his name, trembling. “Cas,” he begged.
Hearing the plea for mercy in his voice, Cas stepped away. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, I thought—But I was wrong,” he babbled. “Forgive me Dean, please.”
Dean couldn’t stand the anguish in his voice. He reeled Cas back in and hugged him close, though he was stiff and didn’t reciprocate. “Not yet,” Dean whispered in his ear. “Not yet.”
Cas slumped in his arms. Slowly, he returned the embrace. Then he was trembling, too.
The next night Castiel was about to leave his office, not able to grade a single assignment more, when he received a text. He fumbled his phone from his pocket, and saw it was from Dean.
An image flashed in his head—how Dean looked at him with such sweet surprise in the sunlight on the bridge, waterfall at his back—but not yet, he’d said.
Not yet couldn’t mean…now, could it?
Castiel froze in his doorway, wondering if he should read the text, or wait until he got home.
Who was he kidding? He swiped open his phone.
In your office?
Can I stop by?
Castiel dropped his bag, uncaring, and hurriedly tapped out a reply.
About to walk home
Cas held his breath waiting for a reply. Unfortunately Dean had it set up so that Cas was unable to see whether he was typing.
In the lot where I usually park
Could drive you?
Cas put his phone away and hurriedly locked his office door. He was the only person left in the building, outside an evening class on the first floor, so it was no problem dashing down the stairs and then the front steps. The cool spring air blasted him but the thought of Dean being so nearby was intoxicating. He practically flew up the hill from the English building, past the chapel, and down the other side. He made quick work of the green—newly green again, after the winter—and soon was at the far parking lot where, sure enough, Dean’s “Baby” sat waiting, her engine a welcoming rumble. A promise of power, and warmth.
As he approached Dean leaned over the passenger seat and manually unlocked the shotgun door. Castiel wasted no time opening it and sliding onto the leather bench seat.
They smiled, and it wasn’t until Dean cleared his throat and shifted gears that Cas thought that maybe the look had been a little too long.
The Impala made short work of the distance between campus and town. Dean guided the car into the alley behind Castiel's old building where he knew he was allowed to park. The night was very quiet when the engine ticked off. Dean grabbed a package when they left the car, which Cas noticed for the first time. It was one of those interdepartmental office envelopes, and it was very full. He thought he caught Missouri’s name as the most recent recipient.
But he said nothing; just led Dean up the back steps, the aromas of the cafe curling up around them.
The apartment was cozy and he'd left it clean enough, Castiel figured. Dean at least didn’t seem bothered by the few dishes in the sink, just gravitated toward the window that overlooked the small river which ribboned through the town, as he usually did.
Cas licked his lips. “Something to drink?” he asked.
“Nah. I—” Dean turned around abruptly, envelope clutched in his hands. “I need to tell you something. Just let me talk because I gotta say it now or maybe I won’t, okay? I write poetry.”
Castiel opened his mouth, then remembered Dean wanted to do the talking. So he nodded. Was it such a big deal? If he just wanted Castiel to read his work…
“I’ve written poetry since I was sixteen, in Dr. Moseley’s summer school English class in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.” Dean’s voice shook, but all the lines of his body screamed determined. “She was the first person to encourage me to send my work in to different journals. After a year or so I won a contest put on by USD.”
That sounded familiar, but what—
“But I didn’t want my name to be on it. I didn’t want anyone to know. Well, Missouri knew. So she told me to just pick a name. And I was really into the Beats at the time, so—”
“No,” Castiel breathed.
“You can ask her,” Dean said. “I swear. Charlie and Sam know too. And Eileen. I just—I just wanted you to know. Because it felt too much like lying when I—just read this.” He held out the tan envelope. “Now that you know, read this.”
Cas stood frozen, his trench coat hanging off only one shoulder. Slowly he let it drop the rest of the way to the ground. He took a step closer to Dean, two. “Now that I know what, Dean?”
“Don’t make me say it.”
“What’s your pseudonym?” Castiel had to hear the words straight from his mouth. Because if this was a cruel prank, Dean should at least have the balls to say it to his face. And if it wasn’t a prank…
Dean gave him a sad, defeated smile, like he could see just what Cas was thinking. “Jack Allen,” he said. “My pen name is Jack Allen.”
It made absolutely no sense, and far too much sense at once. How could someone completely removed from writing programs, literary circles, and other poets get so much circulation based on the strength of his work alone? But Missouri’s insistence that Dean had the necessary qualifications for his course. The way she’d been one of the few people in the community who could go toe-to-toe with him about his dissertation, and didn’t treat it like an eccentricity. “So few of us appreciate him, up here in our ivory towers,” she’d said.
Dean stepped closer, still offering the envelope.
Castiel took it. Both their hands were shaking.
He unwound the worn red string and opened the envelope. There was a thick stack of papers. He ran his thumb along their edges to quickly flip through: poems. Pages and pages of poems.
He scanned the first page.
My first waking thought is: what’s dead should stay dead.
Stirring in my grave, pain cracks open my limbs
As they heave off the heavy cloak of deathly lead
And darkness woven expertly around me by deep depression,
A humble funeral shroud for my turbulent mind and body,
Rendered lifeless in this life, and for good reason.
The waking is endless. Each of my extremities
Trembles, tearing apart dry muscle from brittle bone,
Nerves popping as blood quickens, and gritting teeth
I punch past my coffin’s cheap wood. I atone
For my sins with ruptured knuckles, for my lies
I breathe in the grave dirt that was my home.
When I breach the surface I hear the poet’s lines;
They grip me tight. It fills me with dread
To be alive, looking into a kind man’s eyes.
What’s dead should stay dead.
Castiel let out a breath he didn't realize he'd been holding. “Is this—?”
“For you,” confirmed Dean, barely above a whisper.
Castiel read the next poem, and the next.
I was there—
I’d rather have you—
Love poetry. The only genre Jack Allen had never dipped his pen in.
“Why are, why are you telling me this now?” Castiel said, heedless of the tears threatening to spill. “Why wait so long?
“Because the way you talked about Jack Allen, it wasn’t me. I didn’t want to ruin the fantasy, but…I just couldn’t keep it from you anymore.” He laughed. There was something desperate in his eyes. “I ain’t exactly a role model.”
“That’s not true,” Castiel denied at once. “You changed me. You changed the course of my life, Dean. I can’t…” He shook his head. He couldn’t take his eyes off of Dean, his eyes, his mouth, the dip of his nose and the curve of his cheek. So many times he’d imagined what it would be like to meet Jack Allen, but never could he have imagined this. “I owe you a debt. How could I repay…?”
“Don’t you see, Cas?” He gestured at the poems. “You changed me too. Because you were right. I wasn’t writing anymore. The darkness had taken me but you taught me how to live, too. And I’m writing again because I’m alive. Because I’m maybe not now, but I could be happy. I think I could.” He swallowed. “With you.”
Slowly Cas turned away, and softly set the poems on his kitchen island. He allowed the moment to stretch, hang over them, letting it sit in an unmoment, between what was, and what could be. When he felt brave enough, he turned back around. Dean was still there, eyes trained on him, waiting.
Cas couldn’t bear to make either of them wait any longer.
In three long strides he ate up the ground between them, Dean reached his arms out to pull him close, and they kissed.
At first it was rushed and clumsy, Dean laughing in broken relief, in tentative joy. Cas trailed kisses along his jaw until the laughter had spent itself and then he gripped the back of Dean’s head, turning him into a deep, heated kiss. They found their rhythm, found each other, and it was glorious, and exciting, and they were free.
They were alive.
I swear your love
would raise me
out of my grave,
in my flesh and blood,
hungry for this,
and this, and this,
your living kiss.
~Carol Ann Duffy