Charles and Erik
1979 - 1984
Charles is my best friend, until he isn’t.
It starts when I’m thirteen and mother and I move to upstate New York from the city. It's been three months since my dad died and she decides we needs a change. She finds a job, a secretary position at a private boys school that pays well enough and she can send me there for free. That’s how I meet Charles.
I start a few weeks into the school year and I remember standing in the front of the room, the blackboard behind me covered in numbers and algorithms that made no sense to me, and I’m feeling antsy and out of place. I’m wearing my nice pair of jeans, my Chuck Taylors that are in decent shape, and my favorite genuine Ramones t-shirt that I’d found at a thrift shop, but as I stand in front of the class with all those boys staring at me with their Izod shirts and upturned collars, I feel a few notches below inadequate. I scuff my shoes a little and briefly look down at the ground, then I lift my face and stare at all of them defiantly, sending them a message with my eyes that if they want to say something, I’ll be happy to discuss it after school with my fists.
I’m a punk, or at least I think I am. I listen to the Ramones, Sex Pistols and The Clash. I keep my hair short and let my fists do the talking. Before moving to North Salem, we’d been living in a rough part of the city and I’d learned to fight. My mother had clicked her tongue more than once while washing my cuts with soap and water.
“Erik, Erik, Erik,” she would sing in her slightly German accent, dabbing at a scrape on my forehead or a scratch on my arm, and I would wince, “when will you learn, my liebling? Fighting will never get what you want.”
“Mama,” I would say, “they called me a dirty Jew.” I watched as my mother’s mouth grew pinched, and she no longer chastised me. She would just pat me on the shoulder and tell me to be more careful next time, then mutter something about how these things shouldn’t happen in this day and age.
None of the soft privileged boys who sit staring at me as I stand at the front of the classroom would stay standing long if we got into a fight. I clench my fists until my nails bite into my palms and give my best glare, the kind that suggests strongly that you turn around and walk the other way if you saw me on the street.
“Would anyone like to show Erik around?” the teacher drones, sounding mostly disinterested, as if he’d much rather be eating the chicken salad sandwich he packed for lunch than teaching math to a classroom full of rich brats.
“I will.” A voice rises from towards the back of the class, a bit high and squeaky, and overeager, and I hear a murmur rise from the rest of the students. The person who the voice belonged to leaps eagerly from his desk and stands in the aisle, staring at me, and this is the first time I see Charles Xavier.
The first thing that strikes me was that he looks impossibly young, like about ten years old. I find out later that he is actually is younger than me, but only by two years. His giant intellect caused him to skip a couple grades, which is how we ended up being in the same class. It isn’t just that he was actually younger than his classmates. He is small in stature, shorter than me by a good five inches, his clothes are a tad too big and he doesn’t favor the preppy look of his classmates. He’s wearing a fucking cardigan. His already young face is freckled and dominated by a pair of large, impossibly blue eyes that blink at me in an innocent way that I would learn to recognize as being Very Charles. Overall, he looks soft and academic, terribly sheltered and from the whispers of his classmates as he stands staring at me, wiping his hands nervously on his pants, it seems they are no more impressed with him than I am. They are wrong to think so little of Charles, but so am I. I would find that out later as well.
I don’t want Charles Xavier to be my fucking tour guide for the day. I hate this place already. I actually wanted him to piss off and leave me be, and then I can sneak behind the bleachers down by the field and grab a cigarette during lunch. I don’t like him, this school, or any of the teachers, or even this fucking town. I throw my best scowl at him.
“Wonderful,” the teacher says, “go sit next to Charles, Mr. Lehnsherr.” Before I can even respond, he has turned back to the blackboard and is scratching more numbers on it, and it appears that I have been dismissed to my seat. I make my way to an empty desk that sits next to Charles, refusing to make eye contact with the faces that smirk at me, a sneer on my lips. I slouch into into the desk chair, refusing to acknowledge the smile that my new best friend beams my way.
I am bruising for a fight, so after I sit through an hour of math I don’t give a shit about, I level a glare at the boy who had offered to be my companion for the day, hoping he will get the message, then I walk out of the classroom. Instead of taking the hint, he runs to catch up with me.
“Charles Xavier,” He says, putting out his hand. As if I’m an idiot who didn’t hear the teacher say his name in the first place. Ignoring his extended hand, I keep walking. I’m not going to give this brown-nosing pratt the time of day, and if he insists on being my tour guide, he can also put up with the fact that I’m going to have that smoke after all.
“Erik, right?” Charles said, having to move his legs fast to keep up with me. I elongate my stride and refuse to glance his way.
“Isn’t that what the teacher said,” I growl, pointing out the obvious. I push open the door that leads outside and Charles sputters something about the lunchroom being the other way. I ignore him and head towards the school’s dirt track that lies across the street. I expect that Charles will turn back at some point but he doesn’t. He just walks beside me, telling me something about the clubs I can get involved in and how good they look on a college application, and I think that this asshole is probably destined for Harvard or some other ivy league school, and doesn’t get that a Jew kid who can only go to his prep school because his mother got a job in the front office isn’t destined for much.
By the time we reach the sports field, I can’t help but admire Charles’ perseverance. It’s becoming obvious that despite my best efforts, he’s not about to be scared off by the likes of me. I walk behind the bleachers, throw my bag on the ground and pull a pack of cigarettes from my back pocket. I take one out and place it in my mouth. Charles watches me the entire time.
"Nasty habit," he says, watching me flick the lighter that belonged to my father.
"Fuck you," I say, cupping my hand to keep the flame from extinguishing. I inhale deeply.
"The surgeon general says..."
"Fuck the surgeon general."
“It’s against the rules.”
I roll my eyes at him. Seriously? We met an hour ago and I just dragged him behind the bleachers so I could smoke. Does he really think I give a shit about the rules? Not for the first time, and certainly not the last, I wonder about Charles’ survival instinct and guess that he has none.
“Fuck the rules.” I say nonchalantly, like telling the rules to fuck off is something I do every day.
Charles says nothing else and I lean against one of the bleacher post, staring at nothing in particular, ignoring the boy who is still standing near me, refusing to be scared away. I hate it here. I want to go back to the city, to my old life.
"This place. It gets better, you know," he says quietly, as if he can read my mind. I glance over at him. He’s looking at me with an empathy that no one else outside my mother has ever offered me. I blink, taken by surprise. Something I will learn about Charles Xavier is that he gives a shit.
“Thanks,” I answer, taking another drag. It’s not so bad having him here after all.
I learn to tolerate Charles. He reminds me of that cartoon with the big bulldog and the little dog who runs alongside, keeping up. I’m the bulldog. Charles is a bit like a chipper chihuahua, coming up to me the next day when I arrive at school and chattering on about something else I don’t care about, but I don’t growl at him to shut up. I don’t smile either. I put up with him, but we aren’t friends. Far from it. He finds me at lunch and I hear all about his morning classes and how an experiment in chemistry went. I answer him with single syllable grunts. Finally I drag him out of the cafeteria and we head to the bleachers where I again lean on them and drag on my cigarette and he stands near me, blessedly silent.
“They’re really bad for you,” he finally says. This time I don’t tell him to fuck off. I just ignore him. I seem to be really good at ignoring Charles. Maybe I should put that on my fucking college application. Excels at ignoring spoiled rich kids. I’m sure that will get me far.
I tolerate him until one day a few weeks after I start at the academy I’m running late and I wonder if Charles has waited for me like he’s started doing lately. I think probably not. I round the corner just in time to see Skip Jones standing in front of Charles. Skip is big and blonde and the captain of the tennis team. He summers in the Hamptons and says all the right things to the adults, but at parties on the weekends he snorts lines of cocaine up his posh nose and fucks half-conscious girls. He’s not my favorite person and in general I steer clear of him. People like Skip Jones are trouble for people like me, but Charles doesn’t see that Skip is any trouble at all. Every time he says hi to the asshole, I wince. Skip’s back is to me and he’s facing Charles, who is wearing an expression on his face that I’ve never seen. It makes my chest clench in such a strange way and I bristle with anger. He looks like he’s about to cry.
“I want to see your answers to the test,” Skip is saying, “or I tell the world that your mom passed out drunk at my mom’s charity luncheon.”
Charles might be considered the least popular boy in our class. I had the opportunity to take over the mantle as the new kid and the charity case, but all it took was a few punches to the nose after school to change my status to the most feared kid. Charles, with his eternal optimism, his baby face, his lack of social graces that lead him to lecture you at the most inopportune times in the most high-handed of ways, is like dangling fresh meat in front of a hungry tiger when it comes to the likes of Skip Jones, and it looks like Jones is about to take a bite. I don’t give a shit about Charles mom, or what she did at any luncheon, or Skip Jones. All I know is that Charles is hurt, and this is the moment I go from just tolerating Charles to being his friend. And no one fucks with my friend.
I walk up to Skip and Charles’ eyes briefly meet mine. They are large and sad, and he shakes his head, as if to tell me that he can handle this and I should walk on by. What a fucking idiot, standing there thinking that he can handle the likes of this asshole, and I don’t even marginally consider actually listening to him. I tap Jones on the shoulder and when he turns around, sputtering with indignation at whoever dares to interrupt his bullying, I pull back my fist and clock him across the jaw, sending his head spinning. Charles is staring at me, his mouth agape, his eyes wide with shock.
“Stay the fuck away from him,” I growl at Skip, who is fingering his jaw and yelling something about making me pay. I brush past Charles who turns and falls in stride with me.
“That...that was…” he starts, and it’s a rare moment that Charles Xavier is grasping for words. He’s looking at me with something akin to worship, then I see him square his shoulders and curl his lip in some sort of play of disapproval, “I mean, I can take care of myself Erik. You don’t have to come to my rescue, as if I’m some damsel in distress, and violence really isn’t something I condone, if you had to…”
“Shut the fuck up, Charles,” I growl, “not everything is about YOU. The asshole deserved it.”
Charles says nothing after that. I walk him to class and then I’m the one who finds him at lunch that day and without a word he follows me out to our spot behind the bleachers.
I end up with a month of detention and my mother tells me I’m lucky they didn’t kick me out and that she had to beg them to give me one more chance. My face burns with her words. Even if Skip Jones deserved a punch in the face, the fact that it caused trouble for my mother makes me feel like a little shit. I do my detention without argument and every day when I walk out, Charles is sitting on the low stone wall by the sidewalk, reading a book, waiting. As always he jumps up when I brush past him then falls in stride with me. After about a week of this, I start looking for him. Then I begin stopping to wait for him to put his book away as he asks how detention was. By the end of the month we’ve become best friends. He might be the first friend I’ve ever had.
We fall into a pattern. Charles comes over to our small apartment after school almost every day. We slouch on our faded couch and watch cartoons and bad after-school specials, drinking bottles of ice cold soda my mom knows I like. Sometimes I wonder why we don’t go to Charles’ house. Surely it’s nicer than my place, with it’s second-hand furniture and the noise of the neighbors drifting up through the floor. I imagine that Charles lives in some sort of castle with servants waiting on him hand and foot. My mother has mentioned that his family is rich. One time I ask Charles if he wouldn’t rather hang out at his place. He looks at me with a strange sadness in his eyes and tells me that he loves my apartment. It’s safe and cozy. The mansion is way too cold. Safe. The world sticks with me as I watch Charles smile despite his sadness. I think about the things the other kids say at school, about his mother’s drinking, about his step father’s temper. I don’t ask him about going to his house after that.
On my fifteenth birthday I realize that Charles and I have been friends for almost two years. He brings me a gift. A cassette tape with songs he knows I like and I look at the playlist and am impressed by the fact that Charles has obviously been paying attention. He also brings me a bottle of wine he swiped from the wine cellar at the mansion, wrapped in a paper bag. For later, Charles tells me. I respond that it appears I’ve been a bad influence on him.
“You’re the best influence I could ask for Erik.” Charles answers, sounding sincere and smiling at me in way that makes my heart hurt. “Anyway, it’s a good vintage,” he says mischieviously. I give him a look and wonder if the preppy asshole has any idea what makes a wine a good vintage or if he’s just saying stuff to sound more grown-up. Knowing Charles, he probably knows exactly what he’s talking about. After we inhale big slices of German chocolate cake my mom bought from the local bakery topped with huge scoops of vanilla ice cream, I ask my mom if Charles and I can walk down to the local park. She smiles, tells me that I’m getting so grown-up then pats me on the shoulder and says to be back before it gets too dark. Charles and I walk together, and for once I’m not walking so fast that he can’t keep up. My gait is lazy as I lope along. I’m happy. It’s been a good birthday.
We end up in the woods that line the playground, leaning against one of the huge trees that creates a canopy over us, Charles uncorking the wine (of course the idiot remembered a corkscrew) and I am pulling a cigarette out that causes the usual glare from Charles. I smoke them less and less these days, choosing instead to use our lunchtime ritual behind the bleachers to sit and listen to Charles talk about astral planes and how ridiculous the latest superhero comic is, and that Sharon wants him to apply to Harvard, and Yale, as well as Oxford. He says he’s worried about getting in anywhere but I know he’ll get into one of those. He’s an Xavier, after all, and along with having lots of money, he has brains as well. I try to ignore the pang of sadness that always accompanies Charles talking about going to college. It always reminds me that our time is limited. It’s inevitable that we part ways, the wasp-y kid and the Jew boy can’t stay best friends forever. I have no idea that it won’t be our difference in social status that drives us apart.
“I heard Jenny Murphy say she thought you were cute,” Charles says to me, watching me with careful eyes that I can’t read. I hum a little, which might sound like agreement, although I neither agree nor disagree with the point of Jenny Murphy and how attractive she thinks I am.
“You’re older than me,” Charles says, taking a swig from the bottle. He hands it to me and I take a drink as well. It does indeed seem to be a good vintage, and the taste is velvet on my tongue.
“Is there a point to this conversation,” I ask, sounding more irritable than I feel.
“I mean, you’re going to change. You know, your body. You’re going to want...”
My hand stills. Charles doesn’t finish his sentence but I know what he’s trying to say. I’m going to want Jenny Murphy and all the others lined up behind her, with their carefully combed hair and eyeshadow lined lids, their lips shining with recently applied lip gloss smiling at me. It’s not like they already don’t. It’s not like I’ve ever been interested.
“Are you having flashbacks to sex-ed?” I growl, feeling annoyed with the direction of this conversation. It’s not like I’ve ever imagined talking to my best friend about sex would be like. I more expected comparing conquest notes, discussing if the hand was over the sweater or under the sweater. It’s like talking to my grandfather about sex, maybe because Charles is indeed younger and less experienced than me, but maybe just because it’s CHARLES. It’s in his nature to be clinical. He looks at me quietly, staring at me with those eyes that always seem to see through me.
“It’s just...I just want to make sure you’re careful.”
“This might be the strangest thing I’ve ever talked to a friend about,” I say, and I notice that my cigarette has burned almost all the way down. Charles says nothing after that. We drink more wine, sitting in silence, and when I’m starting to feel a little too warm and my footing is not entirely steady, we wander home, leaving the mostly empty wine bottle under the tree. When we reach my apartment building, Charles turns to me and looks up at me. Although he has grown, I still have quite a few inches on him. He throws his arms around me and buries his face in my chest, and for a moment I am taken aback at the intimacy of this hug. Then I wrap my arms around him and hug him back, because we are both a little drunk and he is my best friend after all.
“Happy birthday, Erik.” Charles says when he finally lets me go. I look down at him and my fingers have this strange urge to reach out and brush a stray hair from his forehead, and I wonder if it’s because at this moment he looks even younger than he usually does. There has always been something about Charles that makes me want to take care of him.
Sex does happen, but it doesn’t happen for me. I am content with heavy petting and necking, and although the girls are pretty and soft, I don’t really care for much more. It makes me a perfect gentleman, or a very frustrating date.
Charles is a different story.
He starts to change. Instead of the baggy cardigans and slacks, he starts to wear tight-fitting jeans to school and sometimes I think I might see traces of eyeliner around his eyes. Sometimes he’s busy on Saturday nights that we used to spend together, and he will never tell me what he’s doing. He’s different and I have a hard time putting my finger on what’s changed, until I find it’s staring me in the face.
The bad stuff starts at the beginning of the summer before our senior year, and once I realize what’s going on, I start to wonder how long it’s been going on, and maybe this is why Charles has been changing. I’m seventeen, which means that Charles is fifteen, but he still looks so young and innocent, and when I look back at what happened, I realize he was too young. It’s like everything with Charles, a neverending mass of contradictions.
I start to sense that something is wrong, but I don’t find out until the night he shows up at the door of our apartment at eleven o’clock, knocking frantically, whispering my name through the crack. My mother has gone into the city for the night to visit my aunt, so I’m all alone, left with money for pizza and a box of cereal on the counter for breakfast, and my mother had told me to be a good boy as she kissed me on the cheek and headed out to catch the train. Always, I answered back, giving her a big hug. The knocking wakes me up and I pull on my Clash t-shirt and stumble to the door, pulling it open and blinking sleepily, the light from the hallways stinging my eyes. Charles is standing in the hallway of my dingy apartment building, staring at me, his eyes rimmed in red. I stare back at him, and notice that he has a scrape on one cheekbone and a bruise under his eye that is blooming purple. His face is wet with tears.
“Charles!” I say, unable to contain my shock, and it leaks out, making my voice sound a little high-pitched as I stare at him. “What happened?”
“I need a place to crash,” he says, not answering my question and looking away from my gaze. His fingers flutter to his cheek in a failed attempt to cover what I’ve already seen. His eyes look a little unfocused, his pupils pinpoint. The asshole is fucking stoned, I think to myself.
“Are you on something?” I ask, silently cursing him for lecturing me about fucking smoking when he shows up on my doorstep looking entirely wasted.
“I don’t know.” he says vacantly, “There were pills. We were partying.”
I grab Charles by the wrist and he startles a little, and I wonder what the fuck happened to him. I pull him inside and shut the door, then I grab Charles by the shoulders roughly, shake him, and his head wobbles then snaps back, as if he can’t hold it up any longer, and he’s staring up at me .
“Who?” I ask, all of my anger and fear mixing together, and I feel like I can’t breathe, “Who did this to you?”
“Why, Erik?” Charles slurs, as if words are hard, but his gaze is filled with accusation that makes me want to turn away, and my eyes go wide because Charles...he sounds...he sounds angry. He sounds like he’s fucking angry at me? He chuckles a little to himself, a small, tight sound, “are you going to punch them for me? Are you going to come to my rescue again?”
His tone is slightly mocking, but his eyes are bright with tears. My head is spinning and how can Charles be angry at me? I’m not the one who hurt him. I think that finding whoever did this and punching them might actually be a good idea as I stare at my friend. If Charles had given me their names right then I think I would have left him on our couch, found them and done exactly that, except that Charles is moving closer to me and whimpering, and any anger I feel is pushed aside by my concern for him. He dips his head forward and rests his forehead on my chest.
“I just need to sleep it off,” Charles says, sighing as he leans his weight against me, “and I knew you would let me in. Erik. You’re good to me, my friend. So good to me.”
He leans even closer to me and I feel his warmth pressed against me, and I can’t stop shaking with fear for him. I then decide I’d rather punch Charles, and if he weren’t so warm and pliant, leaning against me, I might have done just that, but instead I escort him toward my bedroom then help him into my bed, arranging his arms and legs, pulling the covers over him.
“Stay with me,” Charles says as I turn to leave the room, thinking that I’ll just sleep on the couch for the night. “I don’t want to be alone. Not tonight.”
His request is plaintive and it cuts right to the quick. I cannot say ‘no’ to Charles, mainly because he is almost always the one giving to me, and also because I simply cannot say no to him. I never have been able to, and especially not now. So when he asks something of me, even though I know it’s not something that friends do, Charles is my BEST friend. Surely that means something. I crawl into my bed and stretch out next to him, gathering him into my arms. I feel him relax against me and he mumbles something that I can’t quite understand, then his breathing slows and he drifts off to sleep.
I barely sleep that night. I hold my friend in the darkness of my room and I wonder what someone has done to him, and why.
Charles will never tell me the details of what happened that night. Still, people talk. I’ve never bothered to listen, but now I do. They whisper at parties and backyard barbeques thrown while parents are vacationing in Europe, and I hear terms like ‘queer’ and ‘fucking twink’ flung around when it comes to Charles. These are people I CAN punch, and I end up kicked out of more than one party when I simply cannot control my fist.
“I think you might have a punching problem,” Charles says to me one time as we walk towards my apartment after going to the public swimming pool, our skin warmed by the summer sun, and I’m feeling languid from an afternoon spent in the water. I glance over at him but say nothing. There’s really nothing I can say. I don’t tell him that it’s actually a Charles Xavier problem.
I never directly ask him, but that night turns out to be the first of many nights Charles ends up coming to my door with bruises that summer, asking for my help. I never turn him away. I never demand to know what’s going on. The closest I get is one time when Charles lets slip that someone got too rough but when I push him further, he clams up and tells me that he just wants to sleep and burrows further into my chest. This goes on through the summer but when school starts again, it stops. I don’t ask why then either.
Then one day Charles tells me.
One might expect to experience true confessions while drunk, or stoned, but this one comes on a rainy day after school has started and summer has ended for sure. I’m working on an essay for English and Charles is leafing through college application packets. We’re sitting in my room, Charles stretched out on my bed, me sitting at my desk, staring at a page in my English textbook and wondering why Macbeth must kill EVERYONE. It’s a damned bloody play. I’m making some notes on a pad of paper when I hear the soft sound of Charles clearing his throat. I turn my head to see that he has set his application packet on my bed and he’s staring at me, and he looks...he looks afraid. Of what? Of me? I don’t know, but as I stare back at him, the mood in the rooms shifts quickly into something I don’t quite understand.
“Charles?” I ask, “What…”
“I fuck men. I’m gay, Erik.” he says quickly before I can even finish my question. His voice is so quiet that I can barely hear him, and he has his hands braced on his knees as he stares at me, his face a conflicting mixture of fear and bravado. His words are blunt and straightforward and are accompanied by Charles taking in a deep shaking breath. My jaw drops a little but I say nothing. I just look at him. He continues, voice shaking a little, “This summer, those times. Those were dates gone wrong. Guys who got too rough.”
“Charles,” I say, my voice cracking. I want to take him by the shoulders and shake him, to tell him that he’s a world class idiot. He could get hurt badly enough to end up in the hospital. I can’t think as I picture Charles being hit, Charles hurt. Then I think about AIDS. He could get sick if he's not careful. He is staring at me, and I see that he’s afraid. Afraid that I will reject him. My heart leaps into my throat.
“I hope you don’t hate me. I mean...I...you are my best friend and I....I...I just wanted you to know.”
Charles and I have always ignored the social constraints on physical space. I blame it on Charles and that sense of neediness that seems to accompany him. Maybe it’s growing up in that big house with a mother who drinks herself to sleep almost every night, or a stepfather who communicates mostly with his fists, if he communicates at all. Charles is ultimately lonely, and I have always wanted to ease that burden for him, to let him know that he’s not alone in this world, so I don’t mind when he touches me, loops an arm around my waist, tucks himself into my shoulder. I’m his friend and if he needs this kind of closeness, I don’t mind giving it. As he sits staring at me, trembling, I can sense that this is one of those times when he needs more than just my understanding. I stand from my desk and cross the room to stand at the edge of my bed. He’s staring up at me and I settle myself on the bed next to him and put a hand on his leg. Charles is only fifteen, and while I’ve started to fill out a bit, he seems eternally gangly, all arms and legs. I reach for him, fold him into my arms, his thin chest pressing against mine, and I hold him as he starts to sob.
“I’m so lost,” Charles says into the soft fabric of my t-shirt. I rub my hands up and down his back in the same way my mother does when I’m feeling melancholy. I think about how comforting that always feels, and I hope it helps my friend who is radiating sadness so strongly I can almost feel it.
“You’re my best friend, Charles,” I say, and I mean it. I’ve never had a friend like him in my life. I want my words to comfort him but instead he heaves a great sigh against me and sobs even harder. I'm at a loss for words so I just keep rubbing his back and wish there was more I could do.
When I look back on that night I’ll realize that it was the beginning of the end, but at the time all I could see was Charles needing me, and I wasn’t about about to turn him down. He needed to tell me about himself, about who he was and what he did, and knowing this about him would change things, but not in the way that was obvious. I didn’t have a problem with the fact that Charles liked men. That wasn’t the issue. It was something else. Something I had yet to name within myself.
Charles stays the night and I hold him in my arms all night. I’ve grown used to this since it’s what I did every time he came knocking on my door over the summer. I think nothing of stretching out next to him and letting him nuzzle into my shoulder. I feel Charles sigh, feel his cold nose pressed against the fabric of my t-shirt.
“Whatever you’ve been doing, are you done doing it?” I ask him in the darkness of my room. I’m afraid of what the answer will be.
“Yes,” Charles whispers, his voice muffled. “I haven’t hooked up with anyone since school started.” I feel his shoulders shake with a little laugh, “Oxford, you know. My mom is on my case. I don’t have time for other stuff right now.”
Other stuff. I swallow thinking about what Charles means when he says that. At least he’s not doing it anymore. I want to sigh in relief but instead I hold my body stiff and careful. “Good,” I say, and I want to bend my head and inhale the scent of his hair, but I don’t. I want to keep him here with me forever so on one can ever hurt him again, but I can’t.
“I love you, Erik,” Charles says softly, his face still buried in my chest, my fingers stroking his shoulder. Being Charles he doesn’t know that this isn’t something teenage boys say to each other, but I let it slide because I know it’s true. I lie there, holding Charles, tears stinging my eyes.
Something shifts after that. There is a strange discomfort lodged in my belly that will not go away. On the outside everything is exactly the same. Charles still waits for me in the morning, perched on the stone wall that lines the sidewalk outside the school, his face brightening when he sees me. We eat lunch together. He sits crosslegged on the grass behind the bleachers as I smoke, watching me with careful eyes. I tell him about the date I went on Saturday night. It was with Suzanne, Sylvia, whatever her name was, who works at the drugstore, always flirting with me when I come in to buy soap and my mom’s favorite Suave shampoo. He sounds interested, asks me if I had a good time. I answer yes. It was a fine time. I don’t bother to add in the fact that I took whatever her name was home early and all I could think about was Charles the entire time. He tells me he’s finished his essay for Oxford. It’s exactly the same as it always has been, except it isn’t.
I start to notice the glances some of the boys in our school give Charles, their hot eyes following him down the hallway and the way he glances back, licking his red lips. I think that I don’t know one single girl with lips that rival his, even when they coat them in shiny sticky sweet cherry lip gloss. It’s not that the boys weren’t looking before. They probably were, but now their eyes on him makes me bristle, and I don’t know entirely why. I find that I am glaring at these boys, narrowing my eyes and picturing my fist hitting their face, and Charles sometimes puts his hand on my arm.
“It’s okay Erik,” he says in an almost whisper one time as my head is swivels to follow some guy named John who is looking Charles up and down as they pass in the hallway, his hand on my arm as if to still me, “it wasn’t any of them. They didn’t hurt me.”
I blink in surprise at what Charles is saying. Does he think this is about the summer and whoever was hurting him? If I thought any of them were responsible, nothing would keep me from slamming any one of those boys up against one of the lockers and punching him senseless. No, it’s not that. I’m not quite sure what it is. I just hate the way they look at him. I want to tell that they can’t have him. He’s MY friend. He’s mine.
“Oh, ”I say, feeling confused, stumbling over my words, “yes, I mean good. I’m glad.”
I’d never considered that whoever had hurt Charles might be someone from the school. I just...I was just…. I didn’t know how I could possibly explain what was going on when I wasn’t quite sure myself.
It starts to become harder to be around Charles. That vague sense of uneasiness becomes the most unbearable in the quiet moments, like when he’s looking up at me, laughing, the winter sun catching the red highlights in his hair, as he tells me about a movie he wants to see the next weekend. Or when I can’t stop staring at him as he chews on his bottom lip and he looks at me in this strange way and asks me what I find so interesting. I start to flinch whenever he touches me and Charles touches me all of the time. His fingers touch my arm, his hip bumps mine as we’re walking, he tilts his head into my shoulder. He’s always been that way, but for some reason the familiarity has started to ache, sometimes so badly that after we’ve finished our homework and he says goodbye to me, gives my mother a warm hug, I crawl into my bed, pull the covers up over my head and cry from how much it has started to hurt to have Charles around. I cry because it aches and I cry because I’m starting to understand that this friendship is going to end soon. It has to. I can’t go on like this.
I start to avoid him. I get to school early and when Charles finds me at lunchtime, he tells me he missed me that morning. I shrug and tell him that I came early to work on a paper. He looks a little hurt and tells me I should call him next time. I don’t call him and it only takes a week of purposely avoiding him before he appears to get the hint and the next time I arrive on time to school I feel my chest clench because Charles isn’t waiting for me. When I see him at lunch he’s looking at me with the same pain that I’ve seen so often on his face lately, and I avoid his eyes, throwing my sack lunch on one of the tables that sit in rows in the cafeteria. Charles slides onto the seat across from me.
“No bleachers?” he asks. I shake my head ‘no’ and pull out the sandwich my mother had packed for me that morning and start unwrapping it.
“I’m giving up smoking,” I lie. I hate that this makes Charles face light up and he offers me a large, genuine smile.
“Filthy habit,” he says. I grimace and take a bite of my sandwich. The bread is dry and I really hate peanut butter and jelly, but chewing the sandwich is better than being forced to make conversation with Charles, who is still looking delighted at my lie, and this pisses me off, and all I really want is a cigarette now.
“So,” Charles says, shifting a little on the bench, “homework after school?”
“Can’t,” I mumble around my bite of sandwich, and I wish I had grabbed a carton of milk. My whole mouth feels dry. I watch as Charles goes from happy to crestfallen and I want to feel satisfied that my plan is working but all I feel is a tight clench in my chest.
“Okay,” he says, his voice small, and I want to take it all back, to tell him that I’ve been an asshole and I’m avoiding him, and it’s killing me, but I don’t say anything. I just chew. After sitting in silence for a while longer, Charles tracing patterns on the tabletop with a slim forefinger, his usual inane chatter absent, me finishing my sandwich, he stands up and tells me that he has some math to finish before our next period. I watch him as he walks away and suddenly I feel ill. I squeeze my eyes shut and hold back the tears that seem to be ever present, always about to leak out.
Charles is my best friend, until he’s not.
Winter break comes and it’s been almost a month since I’ve last seen Charles. My mother sits across the table from me at dinner one night and asks if Charles and I have had a falling out. “No, mama,” I answer, picking up a spoonful of mac-and-cheese and shoving it in my mouth, “we are just...he is kind of...different.”
It’s not fair that I make my mother think this is about Charles. Charles has done nothing. It’s about me. I’m the one who has avoided him. I’m the asshole.
I’d thought the pain would go away if I stopped being friends with him, but I was wrong. I watch him as he walks down the hallway of the school, his bag slung over his shoulder, and I am greedy as I stare at him, memorizing him. I miss him so much it hurts and I don’t ever stop to ask myself why. Maybe if I had, things would end up differently. Maybe if I’d considered the fact that every time someone looked at Charles, every time he licked his lips, something inside me clenched so tightly I felt physical pain, I might have finally been able to see something in myself I’d been turning away from. Ever since Charles told me that he’s gay, that he fucks men, I have not been able to stop thinking about him in that way, and it makes me burn with something I don’t entirely understand. Until one night. After that night, everything will become crystal clear.
The snow has been coming down for a couple of days and I’m grateful that there is no school because it means no homework. Mother is making one of her trips into the city and I end up spending the entire day lounging on the couch and watching television, flipping from soap operas to reruns of Gilligan’s Island and Bewitched, then MTV. She’s supposed to be back by bedtime. I glance outside. The snow is starting to fall heavily and the street lights start to flicker on one by one. I wonder if mother will end up having to stay in the city overnight when the phone rings and it’s her. She tells me that she’ll be at my aunt’s and to heat up one of the frozen dinners in the freezer. I tell her I love her and I’ll see her in the morning if the trains start running again. I turn on the oven, setting the temperature at the degrees suggested on the package, then I go back towards the living room when there’s a knock on the door. It’s soft, almost tenuous, and I go to the peephole and look out.
He’s standing in the hallway, a light dusting of snow on the shoulders of his wool coat, a hat pulled snugly over his head. He’s looking around nervously and I see him lift his hand and rap on my door one more time. I swallow, and part of me wants to pretend I’m not home, but as I stare at him, I see a look on his face that cuts me to the quick. I undo the locks, pull open the door and I’m staring at Charles for the first time in weeks. He stares back at me, and I notice that his hands are shaking.
“Why do you hate me?” Charles says before I can say anything at all, the words rushing out as if he’s been holding them back. He’s staring at me, eyes shining with tears and I open my mouth but nothing comes out. He looks at me. “Is it because I’m a fag?”
I wince at the term he throws at me. Is it? I don’t have an answer to Charles’ question. I also know I don’t hate him. What I feel for him is so far from hate that his question makes my mouth quirk in a small ironic smile. As if I could ever hate Charles. I don’t answer.
“Not here,” I hiss, and I grab Charles’ hand and pull him inside our apartment, slamming the door shut. I let him go and stalk towards the living room, and yet again Charles scrambles to keep up with. We end up standing by the worn couch where we’ve watched movies together and played video games countless times. Charles stares at me and I stare back.
“Erik,” Charles pleads, stepping towards me, and before I can pull back, he’s grabbing my wrist. His touch feels like it’s burning my skin, “I need to know. You won’t talk to me, won’t even look at me…”
I huff a little laugh. Sometimes it seems all I can do is look at Charles. I spend my entire day doing it, and I wish I could stop. Other times I want to look at him forever, to stare until I’ve had my fill.
“I don’t hate you,” I hear myself say in a voice that I barely recognize.
“Then what?” Charles says, “What did I do? You’re my best friend….”
I don’t answer. His hand is still on my wrist and my fingers itch to touch him, to skate across his pale skin, the inside of his arm, the curve of his shoulder. I just want to touch him…
“Goddammit, Charles,” I spit out, “I don't hate you, I hate....” my voice trails off.
“Hate what?” Charles says, and he’s looking at me again. His gaze feels hot and I want to look away but I can’t. “Hate that I’m a homo, Erik? Hate that I fuck men? I wish I hadn’t ever told you, if I’d have known…”
“No,” I manage to spit out, my voice hoarse and I step towards him, closing the space between us, and Charles still holds onto my wrist, and his touch anchors me. “I hate…”
“Come on, Erik,” Charles says, watching me, “tell me. I want to make this right. I miss you. I need you. You’re my best friend and you left me, and the only reason that I can think is that I told you the truth….”
“No!” I say more forcefully, searching for the words, tears stinging my eyes, and my chest feels tight, that pain that never goes away starts to become unbearable. Then I find the words, the ones that I never let myself think, even in the middle of the night, even when I’m alone in the dark where no one can see shame burning my cheeks. I squeeze my eyes shut and they come tumbling out, entirely unbidden.
“I hate that I want you so much.”
I don’t know the truth until I say it out loud, and in that moment I understand that it’s the truth that I’ve been avoiding for months now. I keep my eyes shut, blocking out Charles’ face that is staring at me, eyes wide with surprise.
“Oh, Erik,” I hear him say. I still cannot open my eyes. My body sways as I struggle to stay still in the darkness behind my eyes, and I feel Charles’ heat as he steps closer to me. He is whispering my name, and when I feel his arms come around my waist, I respond with a deep shiver and dip my head to bury my nose in the crook of his neck.
Charles always smells good, like something expensive, undertones of cinnamon and sandalwood, and I breathe him in, just stand there, inhaling, exhaling, inhaling again. His hands are skimming lightly up and down my back, with almost no pressure, but they are so warm that I feel like they might be leaving a burning trail. I taste salt and realize that I’m crying.
I cannot want this. Not like this, but I do. I have wanted it since Charles told me that he is gay, since I thought of someone else touching him, someone like me. Now I realize that I have wanted to be the one touching him, and this shakes me to the core.
“I can’t,” I whisper, “I can’t…”
“Erik,” Charles says again, and I feel his fingers on my jaw, and he’s turning my face to his. I do not fight his touch and I find that I am looking into those eyes now, the ones searching my face, asking me a question I cannot possibly answer. I am thrumming with tension that I don’t quite understand, and with a groan, I close the centimeters of space between our lips and I kiss Charles. I don’t know what I expected when my lips touch his. It’s not like kissing some of the girls I’ve taken out. It’s electric, and I feel Charles yield to my mouth, sigh into the kiss, and his body is leaning more against mine until it feels like I’m supporting all his weight. The whole room is spinning and Charles mouth opens against mine, the kiss growing wetter, warmer, and he licks along my bottom lip then he deepens it, his tongue tangling with mine.
“Please,” I moan into the kiss, not even knowing what I’m asking. My fingers skim under his shirt, under his jacket, and I find bare skin. Charles jerks at my touch “Please,” I say again.
“I’ve wanted this for so long,” Charles whispers, then kisses me again, and I can barely think as he presses against me and I feel that he is hard, and that makes me realize that I am as well, and what is this that I want so badly it’s starting to actually hurt. Charles lips leave mine and I groan in protest, but then his mouth is by my ear, his breath moist and warm. “I want you so much. I want to touch you, to make you come,” he says softly, then he mouth is sucking on my earlobe and I’m gasping aloud.
I feel greedy, like there is no way I can get enough. He’s kissing me again, and he’s good at it. Damn good at it, and I cannot stop the avalanche of sensation that is coursing through me, my body is begging for relief, and I want to stop the ache that is starting to build. My cock is going from hard to painfully hard, and I can feel that I’m leaking, and it’s never been like this with anyone before. I’ve always approached sex and girls with a vague sense of disinterest, always been able to disengage before I actually felt there was no turning back. Not with Charles. With Charles everypart of my body is on alert, every part of my body wants to see this to fruition. I want to feel him. I want…
I start to pull at his clothes with clumsy fingers, needing his skin, and Charles stops kissing me, pulling back and standing only inches away. He pushes my hands away, shrugs off his coat, letting it fall to the floor, then grabs at the hem of his t-shirt, pulling it over his head. I stare at his slim chest as it rises and falls with exertion, at the freckles that scatter across his shoulders. His hands go to his pants and he’s unbuttoning them, my eyes following every movement of his fingers, and I lick my lips, like I’m hungry, like I’m looking at the most delicious meal on earth. He pulls the denim down his hips and steps out of them, then stands before me with his underwear tenting from his obviously aroused cock, the front of them dark with moisture. I swallow. I want...I want….
My eyes close.
“I want to see you, Erik,” Charles rasps, and I feel tears start leaking from the edges of my eyes. I am standing in the middle of my living room, trembling as Charles’ fingers pull at my t-shirt, and I raise my arms, allowing him to pull it over my head, his fingers brushing my bare skin. He moves forward and I feel him start to mouth along my collarbone, and he’s whispering…
“...I’ve dreamed of how you would taste…”
His mouth is warm and wet against my skin. I shudder hard with arousal and as his mouth makes its way across to my shoulder, Charles’ hands go to the waistband of my sweatpants, fingers skimming along the inside, brushing against the jut of my hip, then they hook around the top, inside the band of my underwear and pull them both down. I shiver as the cool air of the room hits my now entirely naked body.
“You’re beautiful, Erik,” Charles says softly as he stares at me, his eyes going from my face down to my toes, and he licks his lips. Oh god, that tongue comes out and licks those lips that I cannot stop thinking about and I watch the way it curls a little, and I want...I want…. I am gaping at him, slack-jawed, unable to say anything.
“Has anyone ever blown you?” Charles asks, and it seems absurd that we’ve never discussed this. We are best friends after all, but outside of Charles worrying about me getting some sort of disease or a girl pregnant, we have have never discussed our exploits. Partly because mine are exceedingly unexceptional, at least until now. This one will go down in the record books, because after I shake my head ‘no’, Charles sinks to his knees and suddenly my cock is in his mouth and my eyes are rolling back into my head and I’m spitting out his name. My arms are flailing, looking for something to brace themselves on and they find the back of the couch as I stumble backwards, taking Charles with me.
Charles is good at lots of things. Physics. Hugs. Knowing just when I need a good laugh. Remembering that I don’t like mushrooms. And it appears he’s also good at sucking my cock in just the right way that makes my legs go weak and I can’t help but pant and beg him for more.
“Charles,” I gasp as I feel my abdomen start to clench, and I’ve rubbed myself off in bed enough times to know that I’m just about to shoot my wad. “I’m going to…”
His mouth is gone and I whimper.
“Not yet,” Charles says softly, coming to his feet, leaning against me again, his mouth trailing along my neck, “Not quite yet. Not here. Your bedroom, Erik."
Charles picks up his coat and rummages in his pocket, then he takes my hand and leads me towards my bedroom.
When we are inside my bedroom and Charles has stripped off his underwear so we are both entirely naked, he puts his palm on the center of my chest and starts to push me backwards until I feel the back of my calves hit the bed. I tumble backwards onto my comforter and I lie there, panting as he shows me a small bottle in his hand.
“Makes this a hell of a lot better,” Charles says, smiling, squirting the bottle into his hand, then he reaches out and fists my cock, giving it a couple of jerks and slicking it with lube and I moan. I watch him through hooded eyes and it occurs to me for the first time ever that Charles seems older than me, even though I’m eighteen and he’s still only fifteen, almost sixteen. He moves with purpose, knowing what he’s doing and what’s coming next. It makes me feel open and vulnerable.
“Have you done this with anyone?” Charles asks as he pushes my thighs apart and moves to kneel between them. I am aching for some sort of friction and I buck my hips up a little, wanting some relief. Charles puts a hand on my waist and pushes me back down. “Easy,” he murmurs.
“This?” I ask, my words thick with desire.
“Sex? With a girl?”
I shake my head, ‘no’ and Charles arches his eyebrows in surprise. He’s now up on his knees, looking down and me and I want to look away from those blue eyes that hold mine, but I can’t.
“Oh." He says, sounding a little surprised, "A guy?”
I huff out a little laugh. No. No girls, no guys, no one except my hand, until now. There is nothing about this situation that my body and mind aren’t interested in. I feel like I might explode.
“So I’m your first,” Charles says, leaning over, holding himself above me, his arms shaking with exertion and he’s scrutinizing me with a frustratingly academic interest that feels out of place in the middle of all this. I nod ‘yes’ and his brow furrows. “Oh Erik, I thought...I always thought…”
“Does it matter?” I grit through clenched teeth, bucking my hips up again.
“No,” Charles sighs, “I just…”
For a moment I think he’s going to stop, move away from me and tell me it’s all too much.
“Please,” I say, aching so badly that I want to start crying. Charles bites his lip and looks down at me. Then he slowly lowers his weight onto me until we are flush up against each other and I am trying to arch my back, and then Charles grinds his cock down onto mine and the drag and pressure is so good that I gasp out his name. He ruts against me and I feel something building deep inside, a strange sort of pressure that makes me want to push up against Charles even harder, and I am clinging to his shoulders and my face is buried in his neck, and then I come quickly, too soon, with a deep grunt, hot and sticky between us. Charles stills as I quiver beneath him.
“Oh, Erik,” I hear him sigh and I feel his lips place a soft, sweet kiss beneath my ear. Charles pushes against me softly with his hips, and I feel that he is still erect, but the sensation against my own over-sensitive, flaccid cock makes me jump and I push against the bed, trying to get scramble away from it.
“Too much,” I gasp, and Charles stills again, holding himself above me, staring at me with nothing short of wonder in his eyes. I wonder how I look, what he sees that makes him look at me this way. My gaze shifts to look down, gazing at Charles' cock trapped between us. It’s flushed and red and wet on the tip, pushing up against Charles’ belly, and I feel momentarily confused. Should I be reaching out, touching it or something? Does he want me to put my mouth on him, to give him that same wet suction he did for me? I take a deep, shaking breath and I’m not sure if I can do any of those things. Charles sees the confusion on my face and he gives me a small understanding smile then rolls off me to lay beside me.
“Just kiss me,” Charles says, turning his head to look at me. I can do that. I scoot closer to him and tentatively touch my lips to that mouth, that is not only sinfully red but now is also swollen from kissing me earlier. I hear Charles groan as we kiss, and then he pulls back a little and stares at me again.
“Fuck, you’re about the sweetest, Erik. I just never dreamed….”
I laugh a little because only Charles would describe me as sweet, then I kiss him again, because it’s too much and I don’t want to hear about dreams or the future or anything. I just came all over my best friend. And I'm lying next to him kissing him. And everything inside me is screaming that I’m not a fucking fag like him, I’m not that person, but I also can’t stop wanting him to kiss me one hundred more times and then a hundred more after that. My entire world feels like it’s exploding in front of my eyes and there is no room in the chaos for Charles and his fucking dreams. I kiss him and my mouth is wet and sloppy and he yields under my lips and it’s all so fucking good that I want to die. I notice that Charles is scooting closer to me, that his hips are jerking and that he’s moaning against my mouth. I pull back and glance down to see his hand working his cock at a frantic pace, as if he cannot wait any longer to come, then his hand is grabbing the back of my head and pulling my mouth back to his, into yet another kiss that is then cut short because Charles is throwing his head back and grunting, and I watch how his eyelids start to flutter, and he’s looking at me, unfocused, slack-jawed, then he fucking whimpers and comes. As I watch him something inside me starts to break.
We lie there naked, side by side, for what feels like an eternity. My body is languid and it is begging me to turn over, curl up and go to sleep, but my mind will not stop. Slowly the bliss of sex and orgasm and Charles’ lips and hands slips away and it’s replaced by crushing shame.
What have I done.
I’m not gay.
I’m going to get married, to find a nice Jewish girl, to have a family, to make my mother proud. Rubbing up against my gay best friend until I come isn’t part of that plan. Liking it this much isn’t part of the plan.
“You…” Charles voice is breathy and light, and it echoes in the silence, “you’re amazing Erik.”
I squeeze my eyes shut tight. I am not amazing. I’m ashamed. I can’t do this. I feel Charles’ hand touch mine, asking for permission, and while all I really want is to intertwine our fingers, to feel the way his small hand fits into my larger, instead I pull it away.
“Go,” I say quietly and I hear Charles’ sharp intake of breath. This is the moment that our friendship ends. I sever it with my words, I turn away from Charles, refusing to look at him. I can’t look at those eyes because I know they will be hurt, and I know that seeing Charles hurt will kill me. Because no matter how I feel about what we’ve done, nothing changes the fact that I love him and his pain is my pain, even if I’m the one who’s inflicting it.
“Erik,” I hear him whisper, pleading, “please...you wanted this, I wanted this…it’s okay to want it….”
“No,” I lie, my words angry, and I feel cruel. “I didn’t want it. Not like you. I’m not like you. I’m not a fucking faggot.”
Charles doesn’t answer. I know he’s crying. I can almost hear the tears leaking from his eyes. He says nothing, just stands up from the bed and picks his underwear up off the floor, pulling them on. I still refuse to look at him, staring at the pattern on the comforter that covers my bed. Out of the corner of my eye I see movement as he walks towards my bedroom door. I hear him stop and I know he’s standing in the doorway, looking at me.
“Erik,” he says. “I...I just...I’m sorry, my friend. For everything.” Then he’s gone.
I won’t see Charles again.
I spend the rest of my winter vacation in a funk and my mother won’t stop giving me concerned glances from across the dinner table or while we watch TV. I can’t stop thinking about Charles and what we did, and I play each moment over and over in my head every night until my cock is hard and I jerk myself whispering his name. My chest aches with regret over how we left things and I think I should call him or write a letter, or something, and tell him that I know I was a homophobic asshole, but I’m scared. Really, deeply scared of what all of this might mean. It’s easier to be an asshole than to confront what is happening to me.
I look for him when school starts, just wanting to see him from down the hallway, or glimpse him in the cafeteria. I tell myself it would be enough to be able to look just a little, and maybe he’ll give me a little smile and then all of this might be able to be fixed with some time. He’s not there. I think maybe he’s sick, but he’s not there the next day or the day after that. A whole week goes by and Charles isn’t at school. When he’s still not there the following Monday, I decide to ask my mother over dinner that night. She works in the main office and knows all of what’s going on around the school.
“Is Charles sick?” I ask as I chase my mashed potatoes around my plate. My mother looks up at me and gives me a look of pity.
“Oh, liebling, are you and Charles still on the outs?” she asks, frowning a little. “I thought maybe you’d figured out whatever was going on between you two.”
“We didn’t,” I mutter, now drawing a figure eight in the potatoes with my fork.
“He took early admissions to Oxford,” my mother tells me, “he’s gone, Erik.”
I almost drop my fork. Charles is gone. I can’t hide the way my lip starts to quiver, so I push myself back from the table and tell my mother that I’m really not hungry, and I flee to my room. I stand, staring at my bed, the bed where Charles had spread himself over me, where I had felt his skin against mine, his lips, his fingers. I pull back the covers and crawl under them, and only then do I let myself cry.
Charles and Erik
“Ma!” I say into the payphone at the back of the bar, “I don’t want to work in an office, to sit at a desk all day. You know that!” The B-52s are belting out Love Shack for about the tenth time that night and I silently curse the jukebox as well as the mostly drunk patrons who it seems can’t get enough of this song and are making it hard for me to have a conversation with my mother.
I cradle the phone between my ear and shoulder and play with the gold ring that now sits on my left ring finger. I like the feel of the metal against my skin, the way it shines. My mother asks about Magda and when she’ll be here, and I yell my answers over the crowd. Six more weeks until my wife arrives in the states. I’m pretty sure I’ve told Edie this a couple of times already, but my mother never seems to tire of hearing that her little boy is married.
“I gotta go, ma.” I finally yell. This is an exercise in futility.
“Erik, wait” she says on the other end of the line as I’m trying to hang up, “I forgot. Charles stopped by last week.”
I freeze. His name is the last thing I expect to hear from my mother. I close my eyes. Five years later and it still hurts like it was yesterday. Goddamnit.
“Oh.” I say, trying to keep my tone even, and I can’t decide if I want to say more or if I’ve already said too much.
“He asked about you, said he was in the states for a bit from England,” my mother says. “I told him you’re back too. Funny, you two being back at the same time...”
My mother pauses, waits for me to say something like, ‘neat’ or ‘small wonders’. I don’t say anything. I can’t.
“Erik, liebling,” I hear my mother say, “hasn’t it been long enough? I could tell he misses you.”
“Ma,” I say, my voice cracking, “I...I can’t.”
She sighs in my ear.
“You should, liebling. Whatever happened between the two of you, I know you’ve never been the same since. Time can heal things, you know.”
I highly doubt that. The only way I will heal is if I can get even further away from Charles and the night everything almost fell apart. It’s been five years and I finally have a chance at a legitimate life, a ring on my finger, a fucking WIFE. I don’t say anything and on the other end of the line my mother is uncharacteristically quiet. Finally she speaks.
“Erik,” she says, “I...I told him, well...nevermind. I told him he should find you and try and work this out. That I know you boys love each other.”
If she only knew. I close my eyes, trying to push away what might happen if my mother knew the truth about me. That the love of my life is my best friend. A man.
“I love you, mama,” I say, knowing she means well.
“I love you too, liebling. Now, go eat something. I know you don’t have enough meat on your bones.”
I hang up the phone just as a loud cheer rises up from the bar and the whole place yells out, ‘TIN ROOF, RUSTED!’. I roll my eyes.
I left North Salem after high school, needing to get out of that suffocating town, and more importantly away from the memories of Charles that were around every corner. I worked for the summer after school and saved up my money, and fled to Berlin. I remember clinging to my mother at the gate, not wanting to leave her.
“You need to have an adventure, liebling,” she whispered to me, holding my face in both her hands and leaning forward to place a kiss on my forehead, “you need to find what you’ve been looking for.”
I found that in Berlin.
Berlin is where I discover metal. It starts with needing a job and I learn that if I take a short course in welding I can find a position that pays well, and I think to myself that I might as well. It’s when I use fire to bend metal, to warp it and manipulate it, that I know it’s much more than a job. It’s a calling. The winter after I leave, when Berlin is covered in snow and darkly beautiful, I enroll as a first year student at Kunsgut. My specialty is metal work.
Then there was Magda. Magda is my wife. The word still sounds strange to me.
I met Magda six months ago at a gallery in Berlin where she was admiring some of the metal work I was displaying as part of my senior project. We ended up having a whirlwind romance and after four months I went down on one knee before her and asked her to marry me. She said yes, clapping her hands and throwing her arms around me, and I had held her tightly, happy to have found someone who was such a good match. She was kind and caring, and most of all, Jewish. We were married a week later, not wanting to wait, and the fact that my mother missed the whole event was a detail she hasn’t failed to remind me of during pretty much every conversation we’ve had in the last few months. Right now Magda is still in Germany, waiting to get her visa to come join me, and I am in New York getting our new life together set up.
I step outside the bar and Magda is the furthest thing from my mind. Instead I hear my mother telling me that Charles had come to see her, and I wonder why, after all these years, he chooses now. For five years I’ve stayed away from home. I haven’t even returned for holidays, always finding a reason why I can’t make it. Sometimes it was school. Sometimes it was a show. Other times I was in the middle of a piece and I just couldn’t get away. For five years I’ve avoided being anywhere where there are memories of Charles. I have taken comfort in the fact that we were separated by continents, but now he is again close and things I thought I’d finally let go start to nip at me, reminding me of a past that I’ve never truly let go.
My eyes are wet now, and I wipe at them and curse at myself for still being vulnerable to these feelings after all this time.
I shove my hands in the pockets of my heavy wool coat and tuck my chin into the collar to keep out the unseasonably cold wind that’s blowing along the sidewalk, picking up fallen leaves and trash. My apartment is only a block away from the bar but the telephone isn’t installed yet, so I thought the bar would be a good place to call my mother. Next time I’ll try the bodega up the street. It’s a longer walk but no risk of a rousing round of Madonna’s Like a Prayer while I’m on the phone. I arrive at the somewhat rundown building whose main attraction is proximity to Columbia where I’ll be starting the MFA program in a few weeks, check my mail then head up the stairs to our apartment. I reach the second floor, stride down the hallway and realize that there’s someone standing outside the door of the apartment. I think whoever it is must be waiting for my neighbor across the hall, but as I approach him, I realize I know him. It’s been five years, but I know the way he holds his body, the tension he holds in his shoulders. I stop in my tracks and stare, and everything around me seems to slow down. It’s Charles Xavier standing outside my apartment.
“What the hell?” I say, unable to disguise my surprise.
He jumps at the sound of my voice then turns towards me and my breath catches. I can’t believe it. I’m staring at Charles Xavier. He’s wearing a wool coat and his hair looks windswept, but I imagine so does mine after coming in from outside. I swallow and start walking towards him and only then do I feel that clench in my chest that I thought I’d managed to banish. His eyes grow wide as I approach and they are that same gorgeous blue that I remember. Overall, Charles standing in the hallway of my apartment building might be the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. My eyes sting with tears, and why does he do this to me? All these years later, why does seeing him make everything feel painful and glorious all at once?
“Erik!” he sputters, and his voice his deeper, older. He runs a hand through his hair, messing it even more and stares at me, and I see that he’s afraid. “I didn’t mean..I mean, I just...your mother gave me...I mean, I thought maybe...oh my god…this is the most bloody idiotic thing I’ve ever done.”
He yammers on, staring at me, and I realize that he’s so...um...CHARLES, and despite my shock, I smile. It’s a warm smile and it reaches all the way through me, because I’ve missed him.
“Charles,” I manage to say, and his name rolls strangely off my tongue, and I realize I haven’t even said it out loud for years. Saying his name is almost cathartic, and suddenly I rush forward and gather him in my arms, and although I see a half hearted protest on his part, he’s wrapping his arms around me, and he smells exactly as I remember. He’s taller, more filled out, but still small and compact and he feels just right in my arms.
Charles, my mind cries out. After all this time. My Charles.
“What the hell are you doing here,” I say, laughing a little and looking at him. He looks good. Really good and without thinking, I lick my lips.
“I...I don’t really know,” Charles stammers. “I’m in town and your mother gave me your address, and I thought...I just thought maybe I could see you....”
Now I know what my mother was holding back. This is HER fault.
I let Charles go and fumble around in my pocket for my keys, then go and unlock the door of my apartment. Charles watches me with those same careful eyes the entire time, and I push the door open then gesture for him to come inside.
“Really?” Charles asks tentatively. “It’s okay? After all this time? After…”
After THAT. His voice trails off. I don’t fill in the blank.
“Yes,” I say, smiling, “come in. I can fix you some tea. We can catch up.”
“Catch up,” Charles echoes, sounding a little lost. He follows me into the small dingy apartment I had rented sight-unseen and I tell him to put his coat on the couch while I start the kettle.
“Earl Gray?” I call out as I grab tea boxes from the cupboard. I know I have Earl Gray. I dragged it all the way from Berlin.
“Yes,” comes Charles voice from the living room. I smile. Some things never change. I warm two cups up under the tap then open two tea bags. The kettle whistles merrily and I pour the boiling water into the cups. If Charles hasn’t changed, he’ll want milk and sugar, and I hope that the half and half I bought a few days ago hasn’t gone bad. I wait for a short bit, pull the tea bags out then add in the sugar and half and half. I pick up the mugs and take them out to the living room, setting them on the worn coffee table I’d procured from sidewalk a few days ago, and I don’t worry about coasters. The coffee table is already marked what seems like a million cup rings anyway.
I grab a chair from the eating area and bring it into the living room. I set it down opposite the couch where Charles sits, but still close enough to be able to reach out and touch him, and he’s now picked up the tea and is taking a sip. I watch him swallow and I feel a slow burn of something unnamable in my belly that forces me to glance away, and my cheeks feel hot. He looks at me and I feel some of the tension I’ve been holding start to uncoil. Finally I can look at Charles. Really look at him.
“Listen, the way we left things...” I start, wanting to tell him I was wrong, wanting to say I’m sorry, and that I know I hurt him, but Charles looks at me carefully, then he huffs out a small laugh and waves his hand at me, and I see those fingers, and I feel that slow burn again. I take a sip of my tea, hiding my eyes behind the cup. It’s hot and sweet, but I can barely taste it.
“Bygones,” he says dismissively, smiling, “we were young. I’m just so glad to see you, Erik...so glad.”
I hate that he is writing off the terrible way I treated him as being a folly of youth. I lean in towards him, and I reach out and let my fingers touch his hand lightly, and the feel of his skin under them is so familiar it burns, but I don’t pull back. I don’t want to. I open my mouth again because I can’t let go of this chance to make things right.
“But,” I say, “I need to…”
“No,” Charles says sharply, still looking at me, and something in his carriage shifts slightly, making me feel more on edge. His mouth grows pinched, and now I see the pain in his eyes and I realize he’s been hiding it from me. His casual demeanor, his gentle smiles, have all been an act, a cover for something more dangerous that lies beneath the surface. “I can’t, Erik. I let it all go. I had to in order to move one from you. I came here to see my friend. I didn’t come here to atone for the past. I don’t want go back there. Ever. Those are your demons, not mine.”
Are they only my demons, Charles? I want to ask this, but I stay silent, staring at him, my hand still touching his. He doesn’t pull back and that connection remains.
I wish this were a normal meeting between old friends who have run into each other by chance, but it’s not because every nerve in my body is tingling and I feel my eyes start to fill with tears. I want to grab those hands with their slim, beautiful fingers that fit so well into mine, hold them and beg him for forgiveness. I was stupid and scared and didn’t know what to do with all those feelings, and what they meant. Instead I pull back and Charles shifts his gaze from my face to the ring on my left hand, staring at it for a long minute. He gets a little frown between his eyes, a crease so familiar I want to reach out and smooth it away with my fingertips, then he looks back at me. The mood shifts again and I feel like I’m experiencing whiplash with how fast things are changing between us. Whatever I saw there before, any vulnerability or pain, is gone, and in its place is cold politeness. Charles is good at being polite.
“Married?” Charles asks, offering me a practiced smile that doesn’t reach his eyes, like we’re catching up at a cocktail party, like we don’t mean anything to each other. “Your mother didn’t say…”
I blink and then I remember. Magda. Oh god, I forgot Magda.
“Yes,” I mumble, and my fingers go to caress the ring again. It feels strange and out of place as I sit with Charles watching me, “Um, not very long,” I say, not knowing why I want him to know that despite the ring, Magda and I are still fresh and new, and really just barely married.
“I should send you a present,” Charles muses casually, sounding distant and strange, then he looks away from me and wipes at his eyes with a hand, and I think he might be wiping away tears, but I’m not sure, “a fondue pot or something.”
“No,” I choke out, “I mean, it’s not necessary. Really.” For some reason I can’t think of anything more awful than a nicely wrapped gift arriving from Bloomingdales with Charles’ name on it.
“Are you happy?” Charles asks, turning his gaze back to me. I look at him, and if anyone else had asked me this question, I would have answered without even thinking. Of course I’m happy. Magda is wonderful. I have a career I love. My mother is a train ride away and stocking my freezer with chicken soup. What isn’t happy about this life? But it’s not just anyone asking, it’s Charles, with his earnest expression and those eyes that are still tinged with pain, and I know that even if I answer that I’m happy, I’m not. Oh my god. I’m not happy. I haven’t been happy in a very long time. I’ve just gotten skilled at pretending.
Everything crashes around me and I feel like the room is tilting and I’m about to lose my balance. Charles question echoes in my head.
Are you happy?
Five years and I thought I’d moved past what had happened, but I haven’t. I’m so unhappy that it hurts. I should lie, but I can’t lie to Charles. Not anymore. Not ever again. I look away from him, my mouth twisting, and I tell him the truth.
“I thought I was. Until I saw you.” I manage to choke out. The moment I say the words, I regret them because Charles looks at me like I’ve just stabbed him with a knife. He just stares, the color draining from his face, and I don’t know why I didn’t just lie, didn’t just keep this illusion between us that we are nothing to each other. Old friends. Nothing more and nothing less.
“Fuck you, Erik,” Charles says quietly. “you can’t do this. Not after all these years. Not after what you did. You can’t tell me that what you did wasn’t worth it, that you’re not happy because you don’t have me. Because you destroyed me.”
I blink. There is finally honesty between us, and I suspect that Charles won’t be sending me that wedding present after all. Charles lower lip is quivering and it takes all of my willpower not to reach out and stroke it with my thumb, to try to still it, as he stares at me with tears in his eyes.
“I loved you,” he says to me. I close my eyes, and Charles’ words jumble in my head and that pain that never seemed like it would leave me in those early months in Berlin is back.
“I was wrong,” I say, and the truth of my words shocks even me. I should have done something differently. I should have been kinder. I should have been less afraid, and maybe Charles wouldn’t have run away and we would have been able to figure out what had happened and what it meant. Maybe it wouldn’t hurt this much.
“You can’t say that, Erik,” Charles says tremulously and he sounds like he’s about to break. “You can’t make me want you all over again. Not when you’re standing in front of me wearing a fucking wedding ring.”
“You want me?” I say blankly as I digest his words. My cock starts to tingle and I remember what it felt like to feel Charles up against me, and if I’m honest with myself, I still dream of it, still wake up hard and aching, and sometimes I roll over and wake Magda just so I can get some relief, fucking her with Charles still in my head. I’ve been lying to myself, telling myself I’d let him go when I never really had.
“I’ve never stopped,” Charles says, looking at me pitifully. “I hate that I can’t stop wanting you.”
“Oh.” I say.
“This is a mistake,” Charles says, shaking his head, “I should have never asked for your address, should have let you stay in my past. I can’t do this. Not now….”
“No,” I protest, but Charles is not listening.
“Goodbye Erik,” Charles says, his voice sounding choked with tears that have yet to leak onto his cheeks. I stare at him, put up my hand but he waves it away. Then he’s gone.
Charles. It’s still Charles, after all these years. It’s always been him. I am left shaking, and I can’t move. For the longest time I stay in that chair, staring into the empty room, the sound of the cars, and it sounds like rain outside.
I’m about to stand when I see something on the floor. I stare at it. It’s a key. A hotel key. I get up and pick it up off the floor and look at it. Charles’ hotel key. I sit in the dark, the key in my hands, and I turn it over and over again. It has the hotel name on it and the room number. I could just...I could just go see him. I want to see him one last time, even if he tells me to fuck off. I could see him again and maybe that would be enough.
The key is warm in my hands, almost vibrating and I glance at the clock. It’s one AM and I am suddenly infused with intent, and I stand up and shove the key into my pocket. I grab my coat and go downstairs to stand on the sidewalk for twenty minutes while I try to hail a cab. Finally one stops and I climb in the back, giving them the address to the hotel.
I will never really know why I do what I do next. It’s not like I was intending to do anything but hand the key back to Charles, to get to see his face, those eyes, to explore the sharpness of his jawline, the curve of his neck just one more time. That’s all I wanted, and being able to look at Charles is something I’ve always enjoyed, to just let my eyes wander up and down his visage with abandon. I’m sitting in the back of that cab, feeling almost electrified with anticipation and my fingers slide together as I clench and unclench my hands into fists, and I feel my wedding ring.
I should turn back, stop the cab and tell the driver to take me home. I should, but I don’t. Instead I feel the gold of my ring with my fingers, twisting it, then I slide it off my ring finger and tuck it into my coat pocket.
The lobby of the hotel is elegant and the whole place feels expensive. A woman at the desk looks up as I walk towards the elevators then goes back to reading the book she has open in front of her. I push the elevator button to go up and glance at the key. The room is 610. When I get inside, I push the button for the sixth floor, then I watch the numbers climb...4...5...6...and the elevator dings, a tinny sound that echoes as the doors slide open. I follow the arrows to where 610 is located and finally I stand outside the door, staring at it.
My breath hitches. I’m almost thrumming with anticipation. Because...
I have come here to give him his key, because he’ll be worried about where he dropped it and probably be charged to replace it, and it’s really the polite thing to do. At least that’s what I tell myself, but as I stand before his hotel door I know I have come for something else entirely. I’ve come for him.
I rap the door with my knuckles. Once. Twice. Maybe he’s asleep. Maybe he won’t hear. I could yell, pound my fists against the wood, and I’m about to knock one more time when I hear the sound of the chain lock being undone and the door swings open. Charles is standing, staring at me, and as he realizes who is bothering him at this time of night, his mouth falls open. Even five years later, I know Charles, and as he looks at me with red-rimmed eyes blinking from the brightness of the hallway, I see that his face holds no trace of sleep. Neither of us have been able to rest since our chance encounter. For some reason this pleases me, to see that he is as affected as I am.
“Erik!” Charles says my name, sounding a bit exasperated and a bit of something else I can’t quite put my finger on, “It’s almost two in the morning...what are you...”
“Your key,”I managed to gasp and I open my hand that’s been clenched around it to show him. He glances down at the key in my palm, then back to my face.
“And,” I say, then trail off because Charles’ tongue is licking his lips and it’s entirely distracting, and I want to step forward but cannot move, and...I want...want so badly to...
“And?” Charles asks.
“I wanted to see you,” I say hoarsely. “I wanted to…”
I step forward and my hands go to Charles’ shoulders, and in one swift motion I pull him to me and I am crushing my lips to his, and there is nothing sweet or hesitant about it. Our mouths open up against each other's, deep, wet. Five years of longing coming to fruition as we crash together and Charles is sobbing...SOBBING...as I kiss him. One hand comes up to curl around my neck, pulling me closer and I realize that we’re still halfway in the hallway, so I step forward, pushing him inside the hotel room as I continue to kiss him over and over again.
My hands trail down Charles back and he feels bigger than when he was fifteen, more solid against my fingers that skin along the fabric of his dressing gown then down to his ass which I cup with my hands then pull him hard against me. This elicits a gasp and I kiss him even harder.
God, I want him. I want him more than I’ve wanted anybody in my entire life.
We don’t talk. There’s nothing to say that won’t hurt. I pull back just long enough to pull off my t-shirt, dropping it to the ground, then I shimmy out of my jeans and underwear then return my attentions to that mouth that makes me shiver. My hands drift to the collar of Charles’ dressing gown, pushing it down his shoulders as we kiss, and then we break apart, panting as Charles unbuttons the blue striped pajamas he’s wearing, letting the top fall to the floor on top of his dressing gown, and he pushes his bottoms down then is finally standing in front of me entirely naked and so beautiful. His skin is flushed and his lips are parted. I glance downward and his groin is no longer covered in prepubescent fuzz but beautiful reddish-golden curls. His cock is erect and weeping and I long to fall to my knees and take it in my mouth, to finally taste him. Instead I step forward until we are standing flush together, my erection pressed into the softness of his belly, and the slight pressure makes me groan a little. I reach around to his back with both my arms and slide my hands down his spine to the curve of his buttocks, then over them to the backs of his thighs. In one swift movement, I hoist him up and Charles wraps his legs around my waist, locking his ankles together, and we start kissing again as I walk him to the waiting bed. My lips leave his long enough to whisper, ‘condom, lube?’, and we both know what’s coming next. Charles nods, worrying my lower lip with his teeth and tells me it’s in the nightstand drawer.
I drop Charles onto the bed and pull open the drawer, and I have this sudden, intense vision of that day that feels both like yesterday and a lifetime ago, and Charles grinning as he tells me that lube makes things a lot easier. He’s right, especially considering what we’re about to do, and this time I know both what we will do and that I want it. I open the condom with fumbling fingers and roll it over my erection then grab the lube. The bottle is cool in my hand and I savor the squirting sound it makes as I put a generous amount in my palm then slick my cock with it. It's the sound of anticipation. I grab a tissue and wipe my hand, then return my attentions to Charles.
He is spread out on the bed, hips undulating slightly as if he can’t entirely control them, watching me and I take my hands and push his legs outward, muttering, “spread for me.” Charles nods dumbly, and obeys as he watches me with careful eyes. I crawl onto the bed and kneel in the space between his thighs and stare down at him. I remember him telling me how beautiful I was the last time we did this and I want to tell him the same thing now. His chest rising up and down as if he can’t take in a full breath. His lips are swollen and his tongue is licking at the them, making me want to forget what we’re about to do and lean down and kiss him until we’re both dizzy. My fingers have left red marks on his pale skin and I see that he still has that smattering of freckles over his shoulders that I sometimes see in my dreams. I lay my hands flat on his shoulders then sweep them down his sides, closing my eyes briefly, and settle them on his hips, feeling the jut of his hipbones beneath my palms. I pull him up towards me and he is pliant and accommodating as I sling his legs up over my shoulders until his ass is entirely wide open and waiting for me. I position my cock against his anus and I hear him moan a little at the contact, then I start pushing into him, slowly, so slowly it makes me want to scream. Bit by bit I slide in until my balls are flush against Charles' ass and I am staring down into his face that has gone slack jawed, head thrown back and as I sit there, not moving, cock buried deep inside him, he groans out my name.
"Erik,” followed by, “God. You...you’re so...ugh, just fuck me. Please."
There is nothing tender about the way I feel. I cannot reach out a finger and trace his cheek or swipe my thumb across his bottom lip. Charles is so tight around my cock, better than my dreams, better than anything I've ever experienced, and my entire body is wound so tightly I feel like about to fly into pieces. Charles is staring up at me with his swollen mouth and his accusing eyes, and I force myself to take in a deep, shaking breath, followed by another as I grapple for any measure of control.
"Fuck me, Erik" Charles says again, this time commanding me, "I need it hard. Make me feel you for days. I need to feel you."
I know what Charles is asking because I want it too. I want to hurt enough that I can finally stop feeling the pain from the cut I made five years ago. A cut so deep that we're both still reeling, both still haunting each other.
I look at his face. His cheeks are wet and the fact that he’s crying makes something inside me snap. With a growl I grip his hips with my hands - and there will be bruises to mark this occasion - hold him steady, pull my cock out until I am just barely inside that lightly resisting sphincter of muscle, causing Charles to keen softly with want, then I slam back into him as hard as I possibly can, giving my thrust the added force of my weight, almost doubling Charles up, pushing him hard into the bed as I give him what he's asked for. My hips grind, I'm dripping sweat onto his skin, and my pace is frantic. I remove a hand from his hips and bring it around to Charles' cock, grasping it tightly and jerking him to my same hurried rhythm. Charles is grasping at the sheets with his hands but because of his position he cannot get purchase and is forced to take everything I give.
It's no time at all before my orgasm overtakes me, almost by surprise and I feel that telltale tightening in my thighs and am able to grunt out, "I'm coming” just before my cock spurts hot and sticky and I'm bucking hard against Charles' ass. I groan out his name. I want to collapse against him, to splay my weight over his smaller frame, bury my face in the crook of his neck and give into the sob that is building deep in my chest, but instead I make myself stay on my knees, working his cock until I see him screw up his face and tilt his head back as he pulses all over my hand.
I pull out and crawl up to bury my face in Charles’ damp chest, and I feel his arms come around me, holding me to him, and I am sobbing, saying over and over again.
I’m sorry for everything. For hurting him. For not knowing how much I needed him all those years ago. For not being brave enough. For hating myself so much that I would destroy someone I loved.
“Erik,” Charles whispers, his face buried in my hair. “Oh Erik.”
I curl into him, inhaling his scent, leaving kisses across his skin, whispering his name. Charles reaches and pulls the soft duvet over the two of us. My body is heavy, and I don’t want to close my eyes but I can’t help it as they drift shut and I sleep.
When I wake, I am warm and comfortable, and there is a leg tangled between mine, and for a moment I think I’m back in Berlin, and Magda is next to me, but then the memories start to trickle back in and I gasp a little as I realize what’s happened. Charles is asleep next to me, his breathing soft and slow, and I adjust a little, causing him to shift even closer, and he is so warm stretched against me, the feeling so astounding that I have to close my eyes against it. I pull an arm free and my hand goes to card through his hair, and I can’t believe that I can do this. I can touch him, feel him against me, and my heart soars.
Charles shifts again and I feel his lips press against my skin, half asleep but still seeking me out, and then they press again. My hand in his hair stills and I feel that slow burn of desire start to curl in my belly, and how is it that I can want him in a way I’ve never wanted anyone. How is he this special? I gaze down at Charles, who is now awake and has lifted his face to look up at me and frowns a little.
“You still have that awful t-shirt,” he says. I can’t help but laugh. `It’s that same damn Ramones t-shirt I was wearing back in high school. Five years, the best fuck of my life, and he says something about my t-shirt.
“I’ve missed you, Charles,” I say softly. He smiles up at me and it’s so achingly familiar. I see my friend again, the one I lost all those years ago. Charles picks up my left hand and gazes down at it.
“No ring,” he says softly. “Does this mean…”
I shake my head and look away. I don’t know what it means, except I knew that the moment I slipped it off there was no turning back. Still, I’m married. I have a wife. I made vows and now I lay in the arms of someone else and nothing has ever felt more right.
“I don’t know what it means.” I tell him, “is that okay for now?”
Charles looks at me thoughtfully and I can tell that he’s thinking about my words. He bends his head and places a kiss in the hollow of my throat.
“For now,” he says, his words muffled against my skin. I don’t want to think about when the now will end. Charles lifts his head and looks at me, and this time I can see some amusement sparking in the blue. “You’ve done this before.”
“Yes,” I say, fighting the urge to explain the last five years, that after him there had been other men, the shame I felt, not about wanting them but about how I had left Charles. I don’t want to tell him that I tried to fuck away my pain. “I have slept with my share of people, but you were my first.”
Charles blinks and is quiet, his fingers skimming along my ribs and making me shiver slightly.
“So, are you gay then?” Charles asks after a bit, and there is an edge to his question, a distant kind of pain.
“I...I don’t know.” I say. “I’ve never had to answer the question before. No one has asked me.”
“I’m asking.” Charles says, his voice serious, and I know that this is something he needs to know. Am I playing with him, am I just another straight guy who likes to fuck men on the side? At the end of the day will I call him a faggot again and walk out? I swallow and think of the best way to answer a question I’m not entirely sure that I know myself.
“I don’t know,” I finally say, not knowing how else to put it, “except I know I’m not entirely straight. Pretty far from it.”
“And Magda?” he asks. “what is she to you?”
Magda. Her name hurts. I think. What is Magda. She’s nice. She’s smart and funny and thoughtful. I like her. We spend time talking, we like the same kinds of books and movies. She’s female, Jewish, can give me children and makes my mother happy. She’s...she’s…I look at Charles who is watching me with careful eyes.
“She’s my chance to be normal.” I say. Charles sucks in a sharp breath, as if my words cause him pain.
“Do you love her?” he asks, his voice quivering in a way that makes it almost impossible for me not to reach out and soothe him, to try to take away his pain. I look at him.
“No.” I answer, saying a truth out loud that I’ve only admitted on my darkest nights when my dreams were especially vivid and I was in almost physical pain from the knowledge that none of this was going to last and none of it was going to fix a fucking thing, and nothing would ever change the fact that I...I….
I say it. I can’t stop myself.
“I love you, Charles. I always have.”
Charles looks entirely stunned.
“Erik,” he gasps, “you can’t. Not after all this time...not now...not when….”
He doesn’t say anything else because I’m rolling myself on top of him, bracing my forearms on either side of his head, my face less than an inch from his, and I kiss him. I kiss him like I mean it, like I’ve missed him, like he’s the part of me that’s been missing for my entire life. Charles moans into my mouth and kisses me back, and everything but the way he feels against me is forgotten.
This time we go slow. I take my time mapping his body with kisses, licking a line across his collarbone, dropping butterfly kisses across the constellation of freckles on his shoulder. He writhes and gasps under me and begs me, but nothing will keep me from exploring every inch of his body. I love him. I know that now. I’ve loved him since we were children and I’ll love him until we’re old and gray. When we are finally rutting up against each other, cocks slick with precome and lube, dragging in a way that makes me see stars behind my eyes and I squeeze them shut and sink into the sensation, I think that this is reminiscent of our first time together but a million times more glorious, because I’m free. I’m finally free.
I never stop to consider that Charles might not be. I never realize that when I come, gasping that I love him over and over again, he never says it back.
Charles is in town for a week. Business, he tells me, waving me off when I ask more questions, telling me it’s boring stuff. I go back to my apartment to get some clean clothes and Charles comes with me, leaning on the door jamb of my bedroom, looking at me with hooded eyes and parted lips. I tell him I need to shower and he nods, then follows me into the cramped stall. We fuck as much as possible, in the morning, at night, overnight. I sleep in his arms and wake in his arms.
I feel a sort of peace that I’ve never felt in my entire life, and my life is one where I’ve rarely known any sort of peace, if ever. I’ve been fighting everyone and everything for as long as I can remember. I’ve been fighting myself and who I am for the last five years. With Charles there is nothing to fight. When I lie with him in my arms, pressed against me, the only thing I can feel is joy. Pure and utter joy. This is what it means to love someone.
“I could come to England. Move there.” I say a few days later as we’re lying tangled together. I think that we might want to do something besides spend our time in bed, maybe walk around the city, go to Central Park, but then Charles drops an entirely distracting feather-light kiss on my skin that makes me shiver and I decide that there is plenty of time for that later. I'd rather stay right here.
Charles lifts his head to look at me. I see something in his eyes, a sort of worry, but then they go soft as he gazes at me.
“You have your program, darling,” he says. “I would never want you to give it up. Not for me.”
I look at Charles and I’m puzzled. Doesn’t he know I would give up everything for him? Doesn’t he know I would follow him to the ends of the earth? I want to tell him this, to swear to him that I will never leave him again, will never threaten the bond that sits between us. I open my mouth just as he turns attention to one of my nipples, laving the bud with his tongue and I feel it start to go tight. Instead of pledging myself to him for eternity, I arch back and gasp his name, and everything I was going to say slips from my mind, replaced by pleasure.
I know what I have to do. For the first time in my life I am blessed with clarity and the future is sharp and bright. It's all Charles. It’s been almost a week and soon Charles will return to England, and while I don’t know what will happen next, I know that no matter what, it will happen with Charles. The man I love.
I return to my apartment the day they install the phone. Charles has a meeting and I will finally be able to make a phone call without having to use the payphone at the back of the bar. I need privacy for what I’m about to do. I pick it up and dial a familiar number with shaking hands. The voice that answers on the other end is slurred with sleep and I wince at the fact that in my haste I hadn’t noticed what time it would be in Berlin.
“Magda,” I say hoarsely.
“Erik?” her voice crackles, and she sounds surprised and happy to hear me, and I shut my eyes tight, sitting with the phone pressed to my ear, not knowing how to say what I know I must. I take a deep shaking breath.
“Erik?” Magda says again, and this time she sounds more awake and more worried.
“I’m sorry,” I finally blurt out, “I’m so sorry.”
“Baby? What’s wrong.”
“I can’t. I can’t do this Magda. I can’t…”
“ERIK?” She’s starting to sound panicked.
I take a deep breath and it’s followed by my confession.
“I love someone else. I always have. I just didn’t really know, and now I do, and I can’t do this with you anymore...”
It’s finally out. I feel relief. Magda starts to cry. I hear her sobbing softly.
“No.” Magda says softly, and I am almost overcome with a surge of grief as I sit listening to her cry, saying my name over and over again, and I know that even though I do not love her, she truly loves me.
I sit like that for a long time, saying nothing, listening to Magda sob on the other end of the phone, absorbing her grief and sadness, until finally she sniffs and says into my ear.
“Goodbye Erik,” and with a click, she’s gone.
I stand up slowly, my muscles aching slightly from holding still for so long, and I go to the small desk that’s along one wall of the living room and pull out an envelope. I write Magda’s name on it and our address in Berlin, then I go to my coat that I’ve hung on the back of the door, root around in one of the pockets and find the ring I’d taken off days ago. As always, the metal sings to me, warm in my hand, and I look at it. It’s shiny, new, just like Magda and I had been, and it’s better this way. It’s better that we don’t have much of a life to lose. I put the ring in the envelope and lick the sweet adhesive on its back, seal it and put some stamps on it, then put it into the pocket of my coat. I’ll drop it into a mailbox on my way back to Charles’ hotel. Back to Charles, and his arms, the way his smells, and suddenly I want to be with him so badly it hurts. I put on my coat and head downstairs to catch a cab and return to the arms of my love.
I arrive at the hotel and head to Charles room. When I get there, the door is propped open and one of the cleaning staff is inside. At first I think I’ve somehow managed to go to the wrong room, got off the elevator at the wrong floor, but the number on the door is the same. 610. The number on the key. The room Charles and I have been sharing for the past five days.
“Where…” I start to stammer and the cleaning person looks up at me.
“Checked out, sir.” she says tiredly.
“Checked out?” I echo. Charles has checked out? A cold shock courses through me. My head is spinning.
“Your friend, maybe he left you something at the front desk,” the woman says, cracking her gum and looking annoyed that I’m interrupting her cleaning.
I don’t take the elevator. I run down the stairwell, skipping down stairs, flying around corners. I burst into the lobby and run over to the desk.
“Charles Xavier,” I pant at the woman who is staring at me like I’m a madman. I feel like a madman. “Did he check out?”
She opens a book on the desk and scans it.
“An hour ago, sir.” she says. I feel my body start to shake and I’m starting to hyperventilate. I went back to my apartment, I just went back to get some clothes and make that one phone call, and Charles is gone. It’s just like before, and I feel a giant hole has opened in the middle of my chest.
“Did he leave me anything?” I manage to gasp.
The woman blinks at me as if expecting something and I stare back at her, not sure what she wants from me. “Your name, sir?” she finally asks.
“Oh,” I startled, “Um, Erik. Erik Lehnsherr.”
I watch as she roots around behind the desk then she stands up and there is a plain white envelope in her hand. She hands it to me and I take it with trembling fingers.
I don’t open it there. I can’t. Somehow I manage to make it back to my apartment, and I will never entirely remember how. I feel like I’m walking through quicksand and everything hurts. I end up sitting on the couch in the middle of the living room of that god-awful dingy flat that I once thought would be my new home with my new wife. I hold the letter in my hands, turning it over, looking at my name scrawled on the front in Charles’ handwriting. Finally I tear it open and pull out the paper inside. It’s one sheet torn from a yellow legal pad and it’s covered in handwriting and carefully folded into thirds. I open it and blink away the tears that are blurring my vision, then I start to read.
My dearest Erik, it starts. My love.
I whisper his name in the silence of the apartment. Charles. Oh Charles, what have you done….
...I have not been honest with you. I have led you to believe that my life is not complicated and that I can be what you need me to be. I did this because I am selfish and I because I love you. I have loved you for almost as long as I can remember and I love you even more now…
I feel my cheeks start to wet with tears.
...We cannot be together. We cannot build the life that you want, the one that I see in your eyes when you look at me. I have obligations and I did not tell you, but I have someone else in England. Someone who expects me back. Someone who I cannot disappoint...
...You have made more than my dreams come true, because even in my dreams I never imagined us being able to be together like we have this week. I didn’t think I’d even given a chance to see you again, let alone to kiss you, to hold you in my arms. I am and will be forever yours, if not in body, in mind and spirit…
I feel a sob building in my chest and I slowly let myself slide into a fetal position on the couch, because it’s become too much to even sit. I clutch the letter in my hands and I am saying ‘no’ over and over again. ‘No, Charles. Please, no.’
Not now. Not when I’ve finally decided to figure out who I am and what I want. Not when I know for sure that I love him. Not when I know he loves me. Please, don’t do this. Please come back to me. Please...please don’t break my heart.
He’s gone. Charles is gone.
Charles and Erik
“You need to get out more.”
I look at the large sheet of metal in front of me, staring for a long minute, then close my eyes. I raise my hands and hold them in the air, letting it speak to me, letting it tell me what it wants to become as I ignore the unrequested advice being directed my way.
“You look like an idiot doing that, by the way.”
I open my eyes and drop my hands, then go to peer around the large sheet to glare at the woman sitting on a stool by my work bench. She is chewing on a piece of gum in a most unsophisticated fashion and watching me, her eyes appraising me, and she knows what’s coming next.
“Fuck you Emma.” I say.
“That’s exactly what you need, actually.” she says, taking her gum out of her mouth and swiveling around to toss it into a trashcan nearby, “you need to get laid, Erik. It might take some of that angry artist edge off. Make you more bearable to be around.”
“I’m perfectly bearable to be around. Clearly, because I haven’t been able to get you to go away yet.” I growl, returning to the sheet of metal, trying to ignore my friend who seems to be determined to both interrupt me and have a lengthy discussion about my love life. Emma rolls her eyes, impervious to my gruffness.
“What about Scott?” she asks. I frown. Scott Summers, painter, reasonably attractive. Not my type.
“Seriously?” I ask Emma. “He’s a douchebag artschool fag.”
“Um, Erik?” Emma says, giving me an incredulous look, “you’re a douchebag artschool fag.”
Point taken. It’s my turn to roll my eyes. “Not my type, Emma.”
“Then who is?”
Emma looks at me and I look away, pretending that I’m absorbed in the metal I’m staring at, an artist at work, hiding the fact that after all these years, the pain still makes tears well up in my eyes. Emma knows what I’m doing. She’s been through hell with me these last few years. She knows what I’ve Iost.
“I’d love to find that bastard who hurt you so much and punch him in the stupid posh nose.” Emma grumbles. I smile at her. "How long has it been since you've been with someone, Erik? Eight years?"
"It's not like I'm celibate," I say with a raised eyebrow. "I've been with my fair share."
"You know what I mean, Erik. Not who you've fucked. How long since you've been in a relationship. Actually DATED? Woken up with someone, went to bed with them too, watched TV together, made breakfast. All that boring domestic stuff, plus sex."
I stare at her. "Never, really. I mean, not since Magda."
Emma is my best friend. She knows my entire past. We met at Columbia, when I was stumbling through my MFA, barely sleeping, barely eating, destroyed because Charles had left me. She was doing their photography program and we became friends after she came to take pictures of me working welding metal and we ended up sitting at a bar and drinking together afterwards. That first year at Columbia when everything looked bleak and there were times when I thought it might be better if I were dead, Emma was there. She had sat with me as I cried through long, dark nights, rubbing my back. She made me tea and held my hand, telling me it would be alright. She told me that even if you lose the one person you love, you haven’t lost yourself. After a while, I actually started to listen to her.
Emma saved me.
Emma and I are cut from the same cloth. We are diamonds in the rough, ugly and harsh on the outside and shining brilliant underneath. We are survivors, always ready to get down and dirty, always looking for a fight. We both have hearts that are tender and carry their wounds for a lifetime.
She is the one who helps me discover what happened to Charles.
Emma is the only one I’ve ever told about what happened. I was drunk and sad and the whole story came pouring out one night as we were sitting in that awful apartment above the bar, the snow coming down hard. I told her about falling in love with my best friend and how he would always leave me, and she let me buy my face in her shoulder and sob until I felt entirely dried out. I’ve always felt that it was being able to finally tell someone everything that helped pull me out of the melancholy that at times felt like it might swallow me up. Even my mother, who had barely blinked when I told her I was gay, doesn’t know about Charles.
Emma tries to hand me something a few weeks after my drunken confessional.
“New York Times put all their archives online,” she said, smiling smugly, clearly proud of herself.
“So?” I shrugged.
“Just look at it, Erik. It’s Charles.”
I blink at her and take the papers. It’s a printout of an article, the headline says Media Mogul Buys Rare Book. The picture accompanying it shows a smiling Sebastian Shaw standing beside a case that holds a book. Beside him stands Charles, a smile on his face, looking straight into the camera. I look at the date. The article is written just after Charles left me in 1989.
“He was in town to bid on the book for Shaw.” Emma says. “His name is in the article as the expert who represented Shaw.”
Sebastian Shaw is one of the most powerful businessmen in the world. He owns a vast empire of television and print media. He has the power to change laws, to influence elections, to bend the public to his will. He is known to be a ruthless man and is rumored to have ties within international crime syndicates. He’s a bad man, and Charles is standing next to him, smiling. This is the complication Charles was talking about.
“Does it make it better?” Emma asks as I stand staring at the picture, looking at Charles, missing him.
“Kind of,” I say quietly.
I start to search for articles about Shaw and I find pictures, and often Charles is there. Sometimes he’s standing in the background. Sometimes he’s next to Shaw. The papers call him Shaw’s companion or friend. I know better. I remember the letter, the one I keep folded in my wallet, the creases almost worn through. I think of his words. Obligations. Someone he cannot disappoint. If Shaw is his lover, I imagine leaving him for me would be no small thing.
I remember that summer long ago when Charles would show up at my door, bruised, bloody, and if he's involved with the likes of Shaw, it wouldn't be the first time Charles was involved with someone who would hurt him.
"Earth to Erik," Emma says and I blink, shake my head a little, letting my memories of Charles drift away. It's taken time but he's mostly become part of my past, a bittersweet memory of what might have been. I can remember him without being dragged back down into despair. It feels good, like maybe I’ve sort of moved on.
"What about that French sculptor, Remy whatshisname. I think he's queer."
“Shut up, Emma. Do you have to offer up every artist in the vicinity for me to fuck?” I growl, picking up my welding torch and flipping my mask on. “You might want to look away.” I slowly make a cut in the metal.
“San Francisco Moma wants your proposal for their sculpture garden in two weeks.” It appears that Emma does not care that I’m busy and is going to keep talking to me despite the fact that I am now obviously ignoring her. I turn off the torch and flip my mask back up.
“I’m almost done with it,” I grumble. It’s a huge honor to be asked to create an original piece of the scope that SFMOMA has requested, and I think I might have to rent out a warehouse in order to do what I’m envisioning.
I’ve come far in the art world. My sculptures are displayed around the globe, from Paris to L.A. I have regular commissions. I make a decent living. Some have called me the Chihuly of metal for the complex, tangled creations I sometimes come up with. I have created pieces that tower hundreds of feet over the people admiring them and pieces that can sit in the livingrooms of the wealthy who allow me to have a studio in New York City where I live and work. I do a few gallery shows a year, and this Saturday is my latest one. I know this is why Emma is nagging me about my personal life. She has told me that she hates to see me alone at these things, no one to stand by my side. Over the years I’ve reminded her that I don’t need anyone by my side. I’m a grown-up. It goes without saying that the one person who I might want to be with me left me years ago. I don’t want just a warm body. I want him and only him, and although I can now sweep his memory aside, it still stands that no one but him will do.
“You’ll help me with setup on Friday, right?” I ask Emma. She looks at me and I glare back at her. It’s her fault, after all, that this isn’t just any other show coming up. It’s the first time I’m going to show my most prized work, the one I’ve never let the public see. The buzz is huge and I’ve already done a couple interviews about my mystery piece.
Fall of the Angel.
It’s one of the many pieces I made in the couple years after Charles left, when my pain was so fresh I thought I might not survive. These are not the pieces I put out to the public. They are reflections of my soul, and they are what Emma tells me are my absolute best work. She had begged me to put one in the show, and after a few months, I had given in. Just one, and it would be the one that means the most to me. Sweeping metals wings, the form of a man falling forward, his back arched, and from the ground, hands pulling at him. It’s unlike most of my work, that tends to be abstract. And it’s huge, towering twenty feet, which means they will need a crane and flatbed truck to move it. It’s as imposing and overwhelming as my loss is, and in a few days the world will see it.
“You owe me, Emma,” I say, narrowing my eyes into a somewhat serious glare, “You’re the one who convinced me to show that damn piece.”
She sighs and glares at me, “Only if you let me take pictures.”
Emma has an ongoing series of photographs, the artist Erik Lehnsherr at work through the years. You can see me from a young 23 year old MFA student holding a torch in one hand, a cigarette dangling off my lips that are curved in a half hearted sneer, looking at Emma with consternation as she snaps my picture, to me at 30, working in my studio, standing at the top of a scaffold, pouring molten metal down a tube, my shirt off, my chest covered in a sheen of sweat, my face smudged with dirt and my hair sticking up wildly. She calls it art. I tell her that it’s nothing more than exploitation. Still, I indulge her because she’s my friend. Her series has gained a lot of attention in recent years and she actually hung the pictures at show last year, which was accompanied by a blog of her work for people to peruse. She’s good, but I haven’t been entirely fond of the exposure her work has given me.
“Fine,” I huff. I turn back to my project, staring at the metal again. It’s not like I would ever say no anyway.
“I love you, Lehnsherr,” Emma says, and I know this is her exit. It’s always how she leaves me. She slides of the stool and walks over to me, standing on tiptoe and bussing me on the cheek. "And you stink and need a shave."
Three days later I am clean but I have readily ignored Emma's suggestion about my personal hygiene when it comes to shaving. I scratch at the light ginger growth on my chin and consider growing a full beard. That will really piss off Emma. This thought amuses me greatly.
The gallery is full of people, strolling around with glasses of wine, chatting in small groups, standing in front of my sculptures finding deep meaning. I hear some people saying that the artist is in attendance. Yes, I think, he is indeed here, is feeling surly and he really could use a scotch right now. I hate these fucking events but undoubtedly a few pieces will sell tonight and that's the whole point. At some point I will have to stand by the gallery owner and be introduced to the room and after that I won't have a moment alone.
I stroll by the huge sculpture that dominates one corner of the gallery stand in front of it, staring up at it. Now that it’s in the gallery it looks even larger and more imposing. It takes even my breath away. Fall of the Angel. The twisted metal wings span almost the whole room. I stare up at it, seeing all its faults, wanting to take it home and work on it just a little more, to hide it from all the eyes that are gazing at it, and I regret Emma talking me into putting this one into the show. Because like Charles it feels eternally raw, and I hate that it’s in public now. It’s like I’ve put my heart on display. Fuck.
Emma told me that maybe it would bring closure, that if I shared this with the world maybe I could let go of some of my pain. Nothing can take away my pain, but I accepted that a long time ago. This just makes it feel closer to the surface. As I stare up at it, I wish it wasn’t sitting in the gallery. I feel that anyone who looks at it can see the real me, and I feel vulnerable. I wish it was back in storage, only for my eyes, hidden away.
"Spectacular, isn't it?" a voice to my left says. I continue to stare upwards, ignoring the person who interrupts my revery, partly because I don't want to be recognized. Not quite yet. Partly because I don't want to leave this moment.
"Somewhat," I say distractedly. "It's not quite perfect."
"Oh, I think it's perfect," the stranger says. I frown a little, wishing she would stop talking to me, "I'm a big fan of this artist. And this...this is the best of his work I’ve ever seen."
"Oh," I say dismissively.
"My boss is a big fan too." The stranger says, and at this point I huff out a laugh. Probably some god damn pretentious hipster tech millionaire. "He's interested in buying this piece."
I swallow. There are always some pieces that I know will sell. There are others I don't want to sell. This is one of the ones I will to keep for myself.
"Really," I say, my voice amused. I feel irritable and flip. "He can't afford it..."
I turn my head, a wolfish smile on my face, ready to whoever is bothering me in her place and I find that I'm looking at a rather average woman, smartly dressed, slender build, long brown hair, and she’s gazing at me over expensive looking glasses. She has a smirk on her face that tells me she’s known all along who she’s talking to.
“Hello Mr. Lehnsherr,” she says, extending her hand, “I’m Moria McTaggert.”
I take her hand in mine and shake it.
“I’m not selling the piece,” I tell her.
Moira McTaggert huffs out a little laugh, “Everyone has a price, Mr. Lehnsherr. My job is to find yours.”
I roll my eyes. I don’t think she understands what I’m saying. I will not sell this to anyone. It belongs to me.
Moira smiles at me, and if I’ve said something entirely ridiculous. I frown a little, feeling a bit put-out that whoever this is won’t just leave me alone.
“I think you should meet my boss.” McTaggert says, “he can be very persuasive.”
“Your boss can fuck off,” I growl. I’m about to turn and leave when McTaggert actually reaches out and puts her hand on my arm. I flinch at her touch.
“Erik,” she says smoothly, and I wonder if her using my first name is part of her attempt to get me comfortable, “you should meet my boss. He wants to meet you. And he really wants this piece for his collection. Maybe if you meet him, explain why it means so much to you, you two can come to an understanding.”
No one is going to ever understand what this means to me. No one.
“No thanks,” I say. “
“If he’s outside, why doesn’t he just come in and tell me himself that he wants to buy it so I can say no to his face?”
“Erik,” she says again, looking annoyed but her voice is still smooth and measured, “just come with me.”
Maybe McTaggert is afraid if she doesn’t do everything in her power to procure this piece she’ll end up fired, although she doesn’t strike me as someone who is afraid of much. Since she won’t take no for an answer, I decide I’ll humor her and tell her boss to fuck off, then I can get this goddamn event over with and go home. She starts walking towards the door and I follow her, and I see Emma waving at me from across the gallery. I gesture to her that I’ll be back in a minute and she points at her watch. I’m guessing they’ll introduce me soon. All the better. I can tell this douchebag that Fall of the Angel is not for sale, and that I have to get back right away. I follow McTaggert out the door onto the sidewalk and look around to see which way she’s gone. She’s to my left and I start to follow her when I see her walking up to a man….
I go cold. It’s not some random art-loving asshole with too much money standing on the sidewalk looking at me. It’s Charles. Oh god, Charles.
“Mr. Xavier,” I hear McTaggert say as stare, “he refused to listen, just as you said. I brought Mr. Lehnsherr out here to talk to you himself.”
I swallow. Charles.
He looks older, more lines around his eyes, and I can see a shock of gray at his hairline. He's wearing a deep navy blue suit that is fitted perfectly to his slim physique. He is so gorgeous, more than the last time I saw him, and as always he steals my breath. I should be seething with rage, turning to walk away, refuse to even talk to him, but I can’t. I just stare.
"Charles?" I finally manage to ask, my voice hoarse, "what...what are you doing here?"
“I came to buy art Erik,” Charles says smoothly, as if it should be obvious. I gape at him.
“Seriously?” I ask. His assistant is looking at me, then at her boss, then back at me, and she looks confused. Clearly this is more than about buying art. Charles glances at her then waves her away, and she turns and walks as few paces away.
“I want to buy your piece.”
“For Shaw?” I spit out, and as my shock slips away, I feel anger start to well up.
A shadow passes over his face at the mention of Shaw.
"You know about that, then?" He sighs. I nod. Charles runs a shaking hand through his hair and I realize that despite his calm demeanor, he's nervous.
“I do,” I say.
“I’m not here for Shaw,” Charles says, “that’s over. I’m here for me. And...and I wanted to see you.”
Something inside me tightens. I can’t do this. Not after all this time. Not when I have found a way to live without him.
"Charles." I gasp. "Don't. You can't. If you want the sculpture, you can have it. No cost. It’s yours anyway, but you already know that. How could you not? You know me. You’ve known me my entire life. I...I just can’t do this again. I can’t go through losing you. It...it almost killed me.”
“Erik,” he says softly. I lift my eyes to his, pleading with him. Please, set me free. Maybe then I can move on, can find someone to share my life and bed, because he is the only one who can let me go.
“Let me go,” I hear myself say out loud. Charles says nothing. He just looks at me, and I want nothing more than to run up to him, take him into my arms, feel him against me, but I don’t move. That’s a dream and all I really want is to not dream anymore.
Charles says nothing. He just looks at me.
I turn and walk away as my shoulders start to shake and the pain that always sits below the surface starts to well up, and all I can think to myself is 'please, not again.' I head back toward the gallery’s front door, and I’ll tell Emma I feel ill, to tell the gallery manager I’m going home, and then I’ll start trying to figure out how I’m going to survive this all over again.
"ERIK!" Charles yells from behind me. I freeze at the sound of his voice. I turn to face him, hands clenched into fists. He is still staring at me but now he looks wretched, worn down and...oh god, sad. So sad. The polish is gone and I’m looking at the real Charles.
"Leave me alone, Charles," I spit out.
"No." Charles says forcefully, walking towards where I’m standing. "I need to do this. You’re right. I didn’t come here to buy your art. I came here because you are the one thing in my life that has been constant. You are the one person who has loved me in spite of myself. I came to ask you for one more chance. I need just one more chance. Please Erik. Please tell me you haven't let me go. Because I know that I'm still holding on to you. All these years later, I'm still holding on."
I blink back tears. I’m still holding on too. I’ve never let go, not matter how much I wanted to.
“Shaw,” I say, hating the man’s name on my tongue. “You went back to him. How could you love me but go back to him?”
“Oh Erik,” Charles sighs, “Shaw is a terrible, cruel man and I have not always made the best decisions.”
I remember long ago, Charles bruised and bloody, at my door asking for shelter. If my path has been a painful road of self-discovery, Charles has faced ten-fold what I’ve gone through.
“I lost myself, Erik,” Charles says. “It was only when I found you again that I started to be able to see how deep I’d gotten. I thought I loved Shaw, but he never loved me back. I just couldn’t leave him eight years ago. I belonged to him and he holds tightly onto his possessions. I couldn’t....”
“You belong to me,” I hear myself say, and my voice sounds strange and forceful, “you always have. Don’t you see that? Don’t you see that we belong to each other?”
“I do now.” Charles whispers, coming towards me and stopping about a foot away. Now I can study his face, take in his puppy dog eyes that droop at the corners, his mouth that never ceases to be beautiful, the tired look on his face, like he’s already lived a thousand lives.
“You left me,” I say.
“I know,” Charles says, “but I’m here now, and if you say you’ll have me...if you say I can come back into your life, if you’ll let me love you, I’ll never leave you. I’m yours Erik. I always have been, but now I can give you all of me.”
I look at Charles and I don’t just see the man standing in front of me looking wrecked, I see my friend. The one who waited for me every day at school. The one who saw through all of my bluster and decided to be my friend. The one who came to me for help when he was in danger. The one who could only find safety in my arms. I see the man who I will never stop loving, and I’m such a fucking idiot to think that he is the one who can release me. I will never be free of him. And now he stands before me, telling me that he is mine, and if I decide to reach out and take what he is offering, he will be mine forever.
My heart soars.
“Okay,” I say, watching him with careful eyes. Charles blinks in surprise, as if he was expecting something more, but it’s all I can say. Anything else would have me falling into his arms and blubbering, and that can happen later.
“Okay?” Charles says slowly. “Okay, what Erik?”
Okay, he can hold my heart in his hands. Okay, we can go to bed together every night and wake up every morning. Okay, we can build a life together.
“Okay to everything,” I say quietly as I close the distance between us and slot his hand into mine. Charles’ breath hitches and I feel his hand grip mine so hard it hurts, but I don’t complain, because Charles is holding my hand. I lead him to the door of the gallery, back into the crowd.
“Okay.” Charles says as I look at him, answering my unspoken question, and he starts to smile. I push through the door.
“Erik!” I hear Emma call the moment I’m inside, “I’ve been looking for you…um….oh.” Her voice trails off as she sees Charles, who is now leaning against my side. “OH!” she says even more sharply.
“This is Charles,” I say to Emma as she gapes at me, and I smile, feeling light and alive. The world is going to have to deal with a happy Erik Lehnsherr, “my boyfriend. And you’re not allowed to punch him in the nose.”