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Learning to Breathe

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Eliot was sick and fucking tired of the old adage “you can’t run away from your problems!” But here he was, in New York City of all places, after leaving the tedium and conservatism of that town of Whiteland, Indiana. Who would not leave if they had the chance? It literally was a “white land” of wacky fundamentalist Caucasians who had no bounds on their racism, misyogy, or homophobia. It had only four thousand residents - and the high school he went to was just a mishmash of homogeneous towns, the type of place where football games, proms, pep rallies, and other useless shit was utterly imperative to the community. Eliot couldn’t afford to go to one of the fancier schools in New York like Columbia or NYU -- he was a farmer’s son -- but when his acceptance to City University came through, he immediately turned down SUNY Purchase (his safety school) and found his way to New York City the fall after finally graduating from awful high school. And what happened there when he was fourteen...

Moving away was one big step into his own happiness, but memories of a such a father he had, such a childhood he heartbreakingly went through haunted him on the edge of his consciousness. He couldn't escape it at all, nor desired to even deal with it. Leaving and going very, very far away should me MORE than enough! But nevermind any of it, he came to the city to reinvent himself, he was going to keep just doing that. He had his university, his friends, his coffee shop they frequented together, a whole city full of all adventure, getting his Most Liberal Arts degree. Who needs therapy ?, he thought, as he was supposed to immersed in studying for the ridiculous art history exam.

“Wake up, Waugh,” snapped his  studymate.

Eliot smacked his friend’s arm a little too hard, “Stop with your whiny shit, Oroitz. You can barely hear anything in here with all the Columbia twats buzzing about anyway.”

His other studymate Perdita sniffed. “I don’t even know why they chill here,” she said dismissively, “They’re a shit posh school in another neighborhood.”

“Not much less shitty than our neighborhood,” Eliot reminded her with a smile. City College was in Hamilton Heights overlooking Harlem, which was actually far from a “shithole” rich white people might call it. It was one of the greatest centers of culture in the world, and was an such an important part of the African American experience. Columbia was in the bordering neighborhood Morningside Heights, which was just as lovely and diverse. Not that many of the rich kids who bought their way into Columbia would say so. Eliot may have come to the city to reinvent himself - he was a creative project, an art piece in constant motion, and perhaps you might mistake him for a boy whose best friend may have been a Kennedy, but he was no snob and wouldn’t pretend otherwise. He sure as hell couldn’t afford Columbia - the scholarship money from those types of schools were tight.

The white and ridiculous Columbia blue on their sweaters (like, how pretentious do you have to be to have to make your own color blue ) popped out as their students dotted the Harlem cafe, where Eliot and his group of friends had been coming to study since the previous fall semester. Yarrows and rosemaries and thymes in all their brightness and beauty shone in the parks of the city in September, filling the air with a heavenly sent that seemed to make people float about. The willow trees would soon lose their leaves, but the gold and green it would leave was always pretty. Eliot loved it.

“They don’t know how to dress,” Eliot put in with mock pettiness, “it’s like they walked right out of bed and didn’t even bother to shower.” His friends laughed. As if even they did! “I mean it’s only September,” he added, “we’re not quite to the fuck everything and just be dirty because exams.”

Perdita flicked Eliot’s shoulder. “How about we keep analyzing this painting of Mnemosyne, which actually has pretty colors.” Eliot gazed down at his lengthy textbook, the vibrant, deep green against the Greek goddess’s marble white skin was astonishing. Her lips were a certain pink as she held the lamp of memory in all its gold splendour. He ran his long, elegant fingers over the inscription it’s artist Dante Gabriel Rosetti carved in the frame:

 

Thou fill'st from the winged chalice of the soul

Thy lamp, O Memory, fire-winged to its goal.

 

There was something ethereally touching about it, it somehow spoke to him down deep into the depths of his soul - which at times seemed so shattered. He smiled sadly and looked up. His eyes were immediately drawn to lovely coiffure of glimmering long brown hair, with a certain bounce to it that made Eliot a bit envious -- why couldn’t his hair be naturally like that? His curls drove him batshit crazy! She was not dressed drabb but had on a nice fitted white sweater that complimented the beauty of her darker skin. He wasn’t into women romantically, but he could always appreciate a woman - he loved and respected them. And she was beautiful! His appreciation of beauty is what made him so talented art history. Suddenly a red cheeked young man came up with two coffees, handed one to the young woman, and twirled her hair playfully in his fingers. He at once caught Eliot’s eye, with his golden brown hair, covered by a knitted grey beanie. Who would cover such beautiful hair like that?! Eliot thought. He dresses weirdly, with a light blue collared shirt topped with brown striped sweater and a deep brown jacket! It wasn’t exactly cold outside that day, either. But he found it somewhat charming. He hadn’t even realized he was staring so much until the awkward young man flicked his light brown eyes in Eliot’s direction. The young man’s fringe was bouncing awkwardly in his eyes, but Eliot could still see the glitter in them. His cheeks flushed a deeper red with a small, shy smile contouring his face; Eliot's own cheeks too flushed, and his heart fluttered strangely. They both looked away from each other, feeling awkward.

Eyes now fixed on his textbook again, the colors of the goddess ever visceral and touching, he overheard the young woman say to the young man, “What, what is it, Q? Why are you being such a dork?” After a pause, Eliot then heard her say, with a hint of mischief to her melodic voice, “Oh, him .”

“Shut the fuck up, Julia,” he snapped, a little too loud.

Eliot felt a jarring throb in his chest that, at once, excited and scared him. What the fuck is wrong with me? He dared not look back up for a while, and attempted to study but in vain. Finally, he got the courage to look back up, only to see that young man who he shared that strange moment - can you even call it that? - was walking out the door: his eyes too turned to Eliot’s, smiling shyly into Eliot’s sparkling hazel hues.

An infectious smile Eliot returned in kind.

-

That certainly wasn’t the last of Eliot and this mysterious young man beholding each other’s eyes. For a couple weeks, every school day, they would see each other, blush, and just smile. Eliot’s friends wondered what the fuck was wrong with him. But true to form, Eliot really couldn’t say anything - but not because of shyness, because Eliot was anything but. He had his flirtations and affairs since moving to New York, but this was something...sweet. He was not used to that at all. He began to look forward to the smiles, yet was terrified too.

It wasn’t until one day he didn’t see the golden haired boy when he got to the coffee shop late (parties in New York were insane) to meet with his studymates that he realized how much he looked forward to seeing him. It was the only day the whole last couple weeks of the semester it rained a bit, but there was also a strange, bright silver lining of clouds above Eliot’s head - it made him feel a invigorated, excited. And it near died when he got to the coffee shop, classical art history text book in hand, waving at his friend’s he’s going to buy his coffee - and in that moment the feeling was not only saved but strengthened. Unawares, someone walked right into Eliot from the side, a forceful and clumsy crash that nearly sent Eliot to the ground, catching the person than ran into him in his arms.

“Holy shit!” Eliot cried, “are you okay?”

Coffee had spilled all over the floor, though mercifully Eliot was spared the splash save his fingers holding onto the soaked brown jacket of that same young man he’d been making eyes with all this time.

“Jesus! I’m-I’m sorry,” the young man repeated, as Eliot swiftly grabbed napkins off the counter to press to the other’s coat.

Eliot only smiled, somehow amused at his terrified and astonished expression. Wiping at his collar, Eliot replied with amusement in his voice, “I’m Eliot. And you are….?”

“I’m Q-Quentin,” the young man finally said, grabbing napkins from Eliot’s hand and trying to help him.

“Quentin,” Eliot repeated, caressing his name as if smoothing out fine silk.

Quentin looked up sparkly-eyed through his eyelashes at Eliot, finally smiling himself with crimsoning cheeks. “Eliot.”

-

Julia, in the background, smiled mischievously. She whispered to James, “I’m making this happen.”

“Make what happen?” James asked, kissing her on the nose.
“Them.” Julia nodded toward Quentin and the dark, curly-haired babe who Quentin was too scared to talk to after all that eye sex.

He shook his head. “So you think you’re Emma Woodhouse now?”

Julia pinched his cheek until it turned pink. “I am glad dear, you are reading Jane Austen, like I’ve been telling you to do.” She winked at James, then in two strides was at Quentin’s side, smacking him playfully on the back.

“Maybe you should go and sit outside Q, to dry in the sun,” she suggested, with a flash of a smile at Eliot, who returned one good heartedly.

It’s literally forty fucking degrees out , Quentin thought irritably. He knew well what Julia was trying to do - ever since high school back in New Jersey she was always trying to hook him up, especially after she started dating James their junior year. Julia knew Quentin was bisexual, and was quite comfortable with that identity - and now, living in New York City, why not explore ALL those options not available at a shitty Jersey high school?!

“Yeah, okay, Julia,” he said blankly, reaching to pick up the emptied coffee cup off the floor, wincing at his shoes wetted by his dearly departed latte. But as he did, another hand had grabbed for it to - and when he looked up sharply, it was Eliot’s hand he was touching. Quentin let him take the cup.

“I feel bad I let you run into me,” Eliot said kindly, tossing it in the trash. Quentin hadn’t realized until now his beenie had slightly fallen over his eyes. “I’ll come sit out there with you,” Eliot offered, feeling the burn of the blush upon his cheek. Get it to fucking together, Waugh, he chided himself. His body betraying his emotions he tried so hard to guard both terrified and embarrassed him. He almost smacked his own cheek as if to tell the heat to fuck off! (Not that it would work.)

“Oh, I--” Quentin started, with Julia pushing him lightly forward toward the door. He flashed a disapproving look at her, before returning a soft gaze at Eliot. “Okay.”

-

It was already sprinkling outside when Quentin and Eliot sat on the hard, stone public seats facing a lush Morningside Park, its winding paths dotted with  aloe and tulips and red and blue salvias glistened by the weather. They led to a bumbling, cascading water fountain, which was particularly loud today with the rain drops falling on it’s smooth stream. Quentin focused his racing thoughts on the drip drops, trying that mindfulness stuff his therapist invited him to do when feeling distressed. He was getting better at it - it helped - but Christ, why did everything seem SO fucking hard? He got into Columbia after all, being from a working class family in Jersey, somehow managed an amazing full scholarship that eluded most applicants - and yet, it was all so challenging for him.

Eliot’s looked over at Quentin with a low sigh, and a tender smile full of warmth. Eliot loved this park, and frequented it in quiet moments at night when he needed to just breathe , apart from all of the bullshit.

“Here,” Eliot said, taking off his green scarf glinted with flecks of metallic gold and offering it to Quentin. “It’s freezing as fuck out here, and your jacket is soaked.” He looked hard at Quentin’s sullied coat on his lap, and went to grab it.

Quentin looked at Eliot sharply, eyes full of pathos. l “Hey, no, no, it’s okay. This shit was my fault anyway.”

Eliot made a face. “You’ll get a cold out here, Quentin.” It felt so strange to Eliot to have this young man’s name on his tongue!

Quentin nodded and took the scarf, letting Eliot take is coat. But he had a hard time of putting it on himself-- just like all those times he’d go somewhere and struggle with simply pulling his sweater over his head when he got hot! - cursing under his breath, until Eliot, with gentle fingers, reached out and tidied it for him.

Eliot flushed when his cold rings graced the nape of Quentin’s neck by accident. “Sorry,” he said quietly, both their steady breaths apparent in the cold. Quentin breathed in the scent of Eliot’s cologne, an exhilarating essense that Quintin quite couldn’t put his finger on what is was.

Eliot felt incredibly charmed; at least now he could blame his balmy cheeks on the temperatures. He wrapped the scarf neatly in place around the soft skin of Quentin’s neck. “Perfect.” And the two shared an affection smile.

Eliot suddenly felt something hit his leg. He looked down to see a deck of cards splayed in the gravel. Quentin flushed with absolute mortification. Eliot reached down to pick them up. “Uh, your cards fell out,” he said shakily, pressing them gently into Quentin’s hands.

Quentin looked down ashamedly, his fingers trembling. “I-I used to play with this stuff a lot in high school, with my friend Julia - just to keep up with her, she’s so good at it - but now--”

Eliot cut him off. “ Now you must show me a trick.” Eliot felt a slight terror inside himself….but who could blame him after what happened? But in this moment he waved those memories away as if a distant nightmare. “I bet you’re super good at it.”

Quentin’s features squeezed into a shy smile. He simply nodded and with ceaseless fingers, shuffled the cards as deftly as any true magician would. He held the deck in his hand, and - with cautious excitement - prompted Eliot to take the top card. The playful grin Quentin had when their hands touched filled Eliot with sweetness.

“Ace of clubs,” Eliot said with furor, placing the card back on the deck face up.

Quentin flipped the card back over, and inserted it into the middle of the deck. He made an adorable show of it, shaking the cards as if he was doing some actual magical spell. They both laughed like school children. Quentin called out “one, two, three!” and the very same Ace of Clubs jumped into Quentin’s hand on full display for Eliot.

Eliot’s eyes widened and he shook his head with genuine surprise. “I don’t know how you magicians do that shit.” But he clapped with a playfulness that made Quentin feel much less self-conscious, his heart swelling. “Seriously, you’re really good at that,” Eliot continued thoughtfully, “It’s almost like it’s real.”

Quentin put the card back in the deck. “Almost,” he echoed sadly. Oh, how he had spent so much of his existence wishing magic was just fucking real -- while Eliot feared it, whatever it was, above all else. “I’m just a kid who has spent too much time playing with cards,” he said, his smile faded. Quentin suddenly felt stupid and childish.

“Hey,” Eliot said kindly, delicately touching Quentin’s wrist, feeling Quentin’s heartbeat beneath his gentle touch. “ I loved it, which means like...a lot, okay? Because I’m never fucking impressed with anything.”

Quentin raised his head, and grinned deeply. “I’m glad I can impress you.”

Eliot, quite charmed (was it all magic afterall?), opened his mouth to say something, but Julia suddenly jumped between them.

“Hey, nerds!” she said with vigor, putting one arm on Eliot and the other around Quentin, her glossy hair whipping their faces. “Eliot, right?” she asked. “Tonight James and I are going out tomorrow to celebrate it finally being fucking Friday, I invited Quentin but he didn’t want to third wheel. You should come. You live around here right? We see you all the time.”

Quentin was literally dying inside of embarrassment. Julia, this is bullying!, he wanted to cry out.

Eliot simply glanced meaningully at Quentin. He wasn’t at all put out by the idea, and if Quentin wanted to…. “I wouldn’t mind to, at all.” he said in a measured tone, his gaze never wavering from Quentin, who exchanged a meaningful glance with Eliot.

Julia slapped both of their shoulders. “Great! Meet us here at seven tomorrow. We’re probably going bowling!”

Oh, fuck, Eliot groaned to himself, That’s literally the straightest shit ever.

But no matter, Quentin would be there, after all. How could Eliot resist? He was enchanted. He could endure hetero shit for ...whatever this is.

After they had said their goodbyes, Eliot realized as he walked back to the uni campus -- high on that peculiar, frightening, thrilling moment with Quentin - that he still had Quentin’s jacket in his arms. And that Quentin walked away wearing his scarf.

Eliot, in all his second guessing and the terror that accompanied it, couldn’t take back going out with them now - they had to see each other again.

And it was far from unwelcome -despite his insecurities knocking at the door. For now, for this very  special moment, he wouldn’t open it.