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arise, my soul, and sing

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Anthony deeply inhaled and exhaled for the fifth time in five minutes. He looked at his suit and looked away as soon as he felt his heart start pounding.  It's going to be like in The emperor's new clothes , a shrill voice shrieked in his head, way too similar to his mother's,  they'll know who is under the costume you want to wear, they will see who you really are, your desperate soul. You're ridiculous and every single person on this planet will see that .

He sat down on the bed, the suit still hanging on the mirror, frozen in time. He wanted to shred him to pieces and to hug it and wash it with his tears.

He was ridiculous for a number of reasons, the first one being in such a hysterical state for such a small and stupid issue. It was not like when Bee had worn her first skirt in public or Marianne had strolled around Portobello in her first pair of high heels. It was just a bloody shirt and tie; people of all genders had worn them for decades, even centuries.

(but he could not.)

And he was ridiculous because he knew he would look out of place, out of this world in the sense that only an alien could think he would pass in that way, an alien with no idea how the Earth and its customs work. He bolted to the bathroom to look at his face, the not sharp enough yet cheekbones, the hips he hated so much he wanted to carve them out with a butcher's knife, the crooked profile of his nose. What kind of stupid cunt could think  this  was just only remotely okay? He should not go out ever again.

He blinked and, through the tears, saw his sister's face. There was too much sugar on his jaw, between his long eyelashes. He looked down at his legs, his delicate calves. He crumbled on the floor, sobbing and wailing. He needed Zachary, wished for him to hear his piteous cries ringing in the air. Zachary, the only one who had seen the ugly, desperate goo that lurked around the hole his pathetic excuse for a soul once was and still hugged it, not caring about it oozing on him, smelling like sulphur and the most despicable lies. Zachary, who swore every day he was in love with him, even when Anthony's body sizzled with sorrow, even when he lashed out, even when he judged strangers on the streets, even when he shaved off all his hair. Zachary could find the screeching little beasts inside him like anyone else and cuddle them to sleep. Anthony did not believe in God but knew there was something sacred, holy, in this kind of love, in the one that asked not for answers, that accepted with a kiss on the knuckles. He kissed his ring as he angrily rubbed his tired eyes. He thought about their wedding, the one he had been planning since their second date. Today he fantasized about a beach wedding, maybe in Spain where it was always sunny and the sea was clear and maybe there were no fucking seagulls everywhere. Zachary would look so fetching in the white suit Anthony was planning to buy him, the scent of sea trapped between his white-blond curls; Anthony would kiss him after his "I do", inhaling the salt of the water woven with the earthy scent of Zachary's skin, always so warm and welcoming. Anthony had learned with him that bodies could be right, could be home for someone and more than one person at once. That home could be someone's laughter, the peculiar high-pitched sounds they made when they ate something delicious, the soft inside of their thighs as they let you nap on them. Never had Anthony napped better than on Zachary, his fingers threading through his hair - when he would let it grow in peace, obviously.

The floor was hard under him, cruel even. He had been fucked raw on that floor on more than one occasion; he blushed as Zachary's voice echoed in his ears, waxing poetry about how good and beautiful he was. (Zachary, his Zachary, who loved him like he could not do otherwise, who went into battle for him when he was too tired to even lift a wooden sword.) He looked at his wrists, so thin Zachary could hold them both in one hand. He did not hate the thought as much as he had before.

Zachary was sweet; his body did not threaten him, his masculinity was easy to process, darling and mint-fresh, never overwhelming. The lines that formed his arms, hands, knees, were tameable, caring. Anthony could look at him with no anxiety about his own presence in the world, with no envy to poison his tongue. He loved Zachary's stomach, his soft chin, how supple his skin was. His chubbiness was what Anthony first found attractive, how shyly he moved in the space around him as if he were inhabiting a body unfamiliar to him. He would learn that Zachary had been fatter when he was younger and bullied for it relentlessly, even by his siblings, and one does not stop living as a fat person, even when you lose weight. It would make Anthony sad and angry every time he thought about it (he could not do anything about it, Zachary had explained multiple times, and he could not stand being powerless) so he made it a habit to order something for his boyfriend when he did, be it a milkshake from McDonald's or something from one of the hundreds of stationery websites he had shown him during the years. (Zachary had a drawer, in his huge antique wardrobe, dedicated exclusively to those notebooks and pens and pencil cases and washi tapes and more bullet journals a human being could use in their entire lifetime. It filled him with sheer glee.)

The memory of Zachary’s voice melted into the ghost of his kisses down his spine, of his fingers tickling behind his knees, his mouth between his legs; the ghost of a blessing lightning him up. How he would forget all the hate and fury and self-loathe he had stored under every inch of his skin when Zachary kissed his arms, his ears. 

(“I never learned to draw, unfortunately,” Zachary said, flipping through Anthony’s old paintings (galaxies, dinners and parties lit with the dramatic lights that characterized Artemisia Gentileschi’s rage, Francis Bacon-esque animals from when he was a teenager and the world around him was a constant chain of explosions, ripping everything apart) “but, if I could, I would paint you every day.”

Why should you?” Anthony scoffed, “‘s boring.”  And you will turn into stone if you look at me long enough . His skin was too tight, itchy, these first months after they realised they realised their fling had evolved into something precious while they weren’t looking.

“I can’t paint, darling, but I can see, and I’m a great observer, you know. I noticed that somehow the light from your windows doesn’t hit your skin the same way twice, and I love the profile of your jaw,” he bit it lightly for good measure, and Anthony shivered, “and your neck,” another trail of little bites, “and -”

Stop,” Anthony begged, ants crawling towards his mouth; they were going to enter his stomach and tear it apart if he didn’t build a barricade in time. “There’s nothing beautiful about me. About all of  this .” 

Zachary said nothing; instead, he slowly undressed him, waiting for Anthony to permit him. It took almost forty-five minutes but there he was, Anthony the slug, trembling under Zachary’s mouth, under the calm tornado of his kisses. If Zachary wanted his body, his body was worthy of something - but only in that detached, private dimension. And where Zachary planted a kiss, a flower would grow over time, a flower of which Anthony would eat the petals, hurt and filled with rage, but such was their strength they grew back every single time, taller than before.)

Anthony closed his eyes, still curled up in a fetal position. The weakest flowers were on his hips and the too-delicate curve of his waist; nonetheless, they were there. Nonetheless, they persisted. He tentatively ran a finger over his bones; he pushed a little, hoping they would break, as they felt brittle. They did not. He kept on exploring his skin, frightened as if it were a new land.

(With his heart beating everywhere around his body, he asked Zachary if he could kiss him, one late afternoon seven years ago, as they walked by a group of trees in Greenwich Park. Zachary blushed furiously. “Here? Now?”

Anthony could not say out loud  If I don’t kiss you now I won’t have the courage any more and I won’t see you any more , so he just nodded. “If - if you want to.”

Zachary nodded too, lowering his eyes. He took Anthony’s wrist, leading him behind a tree. He waited for Anthony to initiate the kiss, looking everywhere but his face. Anthony kissed his cheeks first to get him used to his mouth; then a peck on the lips, still a little uncertain. Zachary peered at him under his eyelashes, waiting, hoping; Anthony could not pull back any more and soundly kissed him, needy and hungry - but not as needy and hungry as he really felt, for fear of scaring him off. When they broke off the kiss, Zachary was flushed pink, his eyes ablaze.

"Thank you," he said in a small voice with a hint of sorrow. Anthony stared at him, puzzled.

"Wot for?", he asked, now thinking he was regretting the whole ordeal and something cracked inside him. 

"For indulging me."

Anthony blinked. "... what are you talking about?"

Zachary frowned, somehow hurt, confusing Anthony even more. "Was this a bet?", he asked, his voice cracking on the bottom of his throat.

"Zachary, what the fuck are you talking about? Could you please explain yourself very, very slowly?"

Zachary distanced himself from Anthony as if electrocuted, the air sizzling between them. His mouth was shut in a dry, hard line. Anthony, like the simple-minded dumbass he was, found him dangerously attractive. He wondered if they could recreate some sort of scenario for that face, one that didn't confuse the shit out of him.

"There's no way you're into me, but I hoped this was just out of the goodness of your heart."

"... Zachary good God I want you to fuck me against this tree, what the fuck are you talking about?"

Zachary, the beautiful idiot, blinked. "That's not true,” he insisted, his cheeks flushing from pink to red.

"Why would I say I want to have sex with you if I was a bullshitter? I’m saying to all of Greenwich that I’d fancy a cock up my arse!"

"I don't know, I’m just sure you’re making fun of me, because this is not possible!"

Anthony frowned, looking at how Zachary was working himself into a state, irritated at himself because he wasn’t making it any better. "What - what is not possible? Why are you this angry?” The sweetest man on Earth was hurting but it was not because of something Anthony had said or did, and he hated that, because he could clean up a mess he made, but he could not do a thing against the monsters under his bed. 

It’s - You are -” he babbled, cheeks aflame, “I'm  fat  and men like you don't like men like  me !" 

He was almost crying, his voice shattered all over the place, and Anthony learned something he actually had no idea of, that bodies could be hard for everyone, and that that pain he shared with Zachary meant he was human - for a little longer, at least.

“I thought about your stomach pressed against my back,” Anthony blurted out because he was a fucking idiot, as if it were something even remotely appropriate to say out loud. Oh, well.

Zachary didn’t reply. He was holding his stomach as he usually did when he was anxious or upset. “Swear to me.”

“Anything you want.”

“Swear you’re not making fun of me.”

“I would never. Not - not about this. Not about… not about my heart,” he said, stumbling all over his trembling promises. “Not about yours.”

Zachary, eyes glued to his shoes, swayed a bit from foot to foot, but at least he wasn’t crying anymore. Anthony stared at him for the longest time - his arms, his thighs, his pretty, unruly curls, tussled by the wind. He wanted to brush them with his fingers and curls them perfectly with his kisses. 

“I’d like to kiss you,” started Zachary, “but I can’t. Not now. But -” he stopped, throwing confused and hurt glances at him in the secret pockets of time between two seconds, “but I’d like to go home with you. If that’s okay for you.” 

Anthony nodded eagerly. He didn’t offer his hand to him but left it limp at his side in case Zachary wanted to grab it. He did not, but Anthony didn’t care; walking with him was enough, for now.)

Goosebumps all over his arms and thighs, Anthony stood up, bones too cold to spend another second more on the floor. He had stripped to his underwear and now he felt like a worm, outside and inside too. He went back to his bedroom, the tiny shoebox he spent most of his time in. He thought about the type of house they’d like to buy, the long nights wasted on Zoopla and RightMove, the fights about wallpaper and furniture, the most serious one escalating so quickly into serious shit territory (“We can’t have black wallpaper all over the house, what kind of child has black wallpaper in their bedroom?” “We can - wait a second, who the fuck talked about kids?” “ You don’t want kids ?”) that they ended up not talking to each other for an entire weekend and a weepy phone call at eight p.m. on Sunday. They were so stupid together and Anthony wanted nothing more from a relationship, the freedom to be stupid and naked and childish and feel secure, comforted, cared for. 

His suit was still there, severe-looking and as beautiful as a raven. He took it in his arms like a lover. He closed his eyes, and there was his father, handsome and shining at his brother’s wedding. There he was, the man he had loved the most, dead too soon to be humanly bearable. (and Anthony was human, as Zachary had confirmed more than once.)

It was a symbol more than everything, the suit, and that was why it was so hard and heavy and wet. It was his rite of passage, the official step into adulthood as a man - he would no longer be a boy, once he had buttoned the shirt up to his chin. As Zachary had faith in words and stories, Anthony had faith in objects, their shape, their weight between his fingers, their story unfurling under his touch.

How he had loved his father and how he still did, ten years after his death. His father did not know Anthony as Anthony, nor did he know he had a gay son. Anthony was sure he would have loved him as he had loved everyone in his life.

He caressed the fine cotton of the shirt, took it to his nose and inhaled; he pretended to feel his father's scent, and that calmed him. He remembered a warm afternoon at the shopping centre, between an ice lolly and a hotdog, when his father and oldest brother asked him if he wanted to buy that baby pink skirt his mum would like so much or his first pair of basketball shorts. He was eight and envied the freedom of his brothers, how they could move freely in the world, how they conquered the space with the aggressive tigers on their t-shirt and how he, instead, had to be good and polite and silent and considerate and dressed in ribbons, a docile gift for other men to unwrap, as his twin sister was - his mother said so. He chose the skirt because he had to even if his mother was not there, his eyes burning and his throat itching. His father smiled and kissed him on the cheek; he would never kiss his brothers, kisses were their private code, and he was so proud of that, the only time his body meant something sweet for him when he was a kid - a secret part of his father's soul. He was not that affectionate with his sister, Anthony never wondered why because he was sure that, upon investigation and questions, he would break the spell and he would be forced to share, and he did not want to. 

He laid the shirt over his chest, smoothing the invisible creases out with a single finger, as if restoring Pompeii. He dared to think he looked good; he struggled to find his father on his own face - but, oh, there he was, in the crease of his eyebrows, the thin line of his lips. 

He drank the disgustingly warm glass of wine he had previously forgotten on the desk, almost knocking it off on the computer, and decided it was now or never - but it all crumbled down when his phone rang the song he had picked for when Zachary called him.  I can dim the light and sing a song full of sad things…

"Hi there, angel," he greeted him, voice as soft as cotton candy.

"Hi love," said Zachary, "I just jumped on the bus, I'll be there in twenty minutes."

Anthony thought of a man in a suit amongst mothers with crying toddlers and teenagers with their jeans ripped at the knees and laughed out loud. "I beg you to send me a selfie. Show me as many people as possible, please."

Zachary chuckled. "Sure thing, my darling. Are you all right, though? Were you crying?"

"I was before, yeah. It's my stupid suit." He sniffled for good measure. 

Oh, how liberating it was, that he could talk like that and Zachary would accept him - wanted to, no less. Zachary cared not for passive compassion, he wanted to be actively present, precise in his love.

"It's not stupid, love. It means the world to you. Do you want to wait for me to dress? I can help you."

The warm fondness of his voice moved Anthony, pinching the strained chords of his weak heart.

( I think about you all the time , thought Anthony as he fought the instinct to stare at Zachary all night from the other end of the table, in the loud crowd of their mutual friends.  Especially in the morning. At the bus stop .

Zachary was friends with Freddy who was friends with Newt who was Anathema’s long-term boyfriend who was Anthony’s best friend since grammar school. Zachary was on his way to becoming a history teacher, Anthony jumped from temporary job to temporary job and he liked that very much - he liked change, he hated the mere idea to be in a place for more than six months, but he liked going back to the places he loved working at. He had worked at Marks & Spencer, Costa, in a garage, as a model for some obscure, hipster new clothing lines, under-the-knees jumpers and butter-soft leather chokers; he liked modelling because it was akin to acting. He chose these kinds of jobs very carefully, always stating beforehand he would not, under any circumstances, show his face naked; but he was tall and, on good days, he thought he had nice legs, and nice, long legs made easy money.

He had met Zachary once, before officially meeting him, at a bus stop. Anthony hated taking the bus, but the car had been making a lot of noises he did not like at all, so the bus would do. And Zachary was there, reading a book so big he had to use both hands. Anthony had gotten curious and asked him what he was reading; he was running on three hours of sleep, and lack of sleep made him cold and over-friendly. Not-yet-known-as-Zachary had not looked up from the book as he answered, “Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell” in a comically flat voice, almost as if he were not sure he was answering to a real person.

“Any good?”

“Quite.”

“Big books guy?”

“I’d say.”

“You’re hating me, aren’t you?”

“Just a little, but I’m good at multitasking, I can be annoyed at you and read at the same time, don’t you worry.”

He didn’t know what it was; the icy bite of the fog at seven in the morning, the aching tiredness in his bones, that kind of funny banter he loved the most in people, but there he was, hoping that the bus would never come just to keep pestering a poor stranger with no interest in him. 

“I’m going to work,” he said, shifting from foot to foot, too much caffeine in his bloodstream. “Photoshoot. I’m a model, y’know,” he boasted, because it usually impressed new people.

“How nice.”

Apparently not this time.

“What are you doing?”

“I’m being nagged to death by a curious model, it seems.”

“That sure doesn’t pay the bills.”

The man sighed, still reading. Anthony noticed how fast his eyes were moving. “I’m going to work too.”

“Yeah? What do you do?”

The man sighed again and finally looked at him. What beautiful, angry eyes he had. “I’m sorry, dear boy, but my bus is coming and I’d hate to abruptly interrupt the beginning of our beautiful new friendship. Next time, if it’s all right for you.”

“Yeah, sure. Tomorrow at the same time, yeah?”

“Sure,” he smiled with glacial politeness, and actually hopped on the bus that Anthony did not hear coming. He realized he had missed his a couple of times but did not care. He texted Lukas that he would be late and that was it.

He changed his commute to drive by that bus stop every day, and sometimes he would see him, always on the same spot, always eyes glued on the pages; he changed so many books in so little time Anthony was amazed. Sometimes he even decided to leave his car home; every day was a new chance of meeting him. He did not, but the hope was always there.

And then he saw him officially for the first time and Zachary Fell, a professor in progress, recognised him at once, blushed crimson and apologized profusely.

"Not a very good first impression, I'm sorry, I'm just not very good with idle small talking. I hope we'll have more time to properly know each other, Anthony."

And there was Anthony, completely and utterly fucked. 

He started taking the bus more frequently, mourning the days when Zachary did not show up. When he saw a little key chain shaped like a double-decker bus he had to buy it.)

"No, I'll be ready when you arrive, love." And he would be. He must be. "I've already waited too long."

"All right, dear. See you later, then. I love you."

"I love you too.*

He wore the suit. He looked at himself in the mirror and Zachary (who entered with his copy of the keys) found him sobbing his heart out, straight and tall in the middle of the room.

"Did you see another video of an ugly cat being adopted?", Zachary fondly mocked him as he hugged him tightly, kissing the top of his head.

"There is no such thing as ugly cats, you monster," Anthony sobbed miserably. Zachary left a kiss on his neck, planting a forget-me-not.

"Can I take a proper look at you, love?"

Anthony shook his head, then nodded, then shook it again, then nodded again. Zachary did not laugh and Anthony was grateful for it. 

He grunted as Zachary let him go, taking one step behind to take a proper look at him. Anthony squirmed under the attention aa he always did.

"You're incredibly beautiful, my darling," said Zachary, smiling so wide Anthony could actually hear it in his voice. "I forbid you to wear those awful skinny jeans ever again."

"You can't, you're not my master," Anthony weakly protested. 

"And you look so fetching in skinny jeans anyway, it would hurt me more than you," chuckled Zachary, taking one step forward again to kiss him soundly. "But you're so handsome in your suit. Spectacular."

"Stooop," Anthony whined, cheeks cherry-red.

"Most handsome man in the world." Another kiss, and another kiss, and another kiss.

"Stop, I mean it!"

"Incredible," kiss, "stunning," kiss, "showstopping -*

"Zachary!", he shrieked, but he was laughing as he tried to squirm away from his embrace, but without putting too much effort into it. "You're a horrible human being, you are not respecting my boundaries!"

"As if you really have even just one of those," kiss, kiss, kiss.

"Stop moving so much, you’re ruining my shirt and I don't want to iron it again!"

"Oh?", Zachary said with just a hint of sharp teeth, "So you don't want to know about my plans after dinner that would include a very,  very  crumpled shirt?"

Anthony snorted out a laugh. "I think it's illegal to be such a bastard with your cherub cheeks. It's not allowed."

"It's also illegal looking so breathtaking."

They broke down in giggles, and Anthony hid his face in the crook of Zachary's shoulder, hugging his waist. "D'you really think so?", he asked, voice as soft and small as a baby mouse.

"I really do." He kissed his temple, his hands on the waist Anthony loathed so much, that became slightly more bearable when Zachary held it, and only during those moments, "And I know I can't love your issues away, but that does not prevent me from trying. You're stunning, my love, I can't wait to show you off to the world."

Anthony let himself smile. He could let his darling’s words dictate his world view, just for once. "You're beautiful too, you know, even if you don’t believe me."

Zachary smiled and kissed his forehead. He never believed Anthony, but at least he did not protest any more. “I brought you something.”

“A gift!”, Anthony gasped. “For old little me!”

“indeed. I left it by the door.”

“At least I know you didn’t buy me a bunny.”

“You’re correct.”

Anthony stopped in his tracks as soon as he saw them: Zachary had bought him dress shoes, pitch-black and shiny. He shrieked, thanking him over and over again as if he were gifted a million quid crown - but it meant so much more than some stupid headpieces, it meant - oh, it meant he was real. 

“What are you waiting for? Try them on,” Zachary said behind him, “although I’m sure they’re your size.”

He did, and they fit so perfectly he started twirling, ecstatic as if he were already drunk. “You know you’re the man of my life, Zachary Fell? I never loved anything and anyone more than I love you now.”

“It’s so sweet hearing about such honest affection.”

“You’re the man of my dreams,” he continued, wriggling his toes inside the shoes, as happy and grateful as an over-spoiled child at his birthday party. 

“And you’re a drama queen,” Zachary mocked him, but he did not say that they were just shoes, that they were not as important as he thought they were. Zachary understood, quickly and deeply. “Are we going or not?”

But before they could get out of the apartment, Anthony took him in his arms, dipping him to kiss him soundly like in an old Hollywood movie, deep and passionate. He even got a moan out of him. “You’re a miracle.”

“What a sweet-talker you are, my love. Now, let’s go before we got stuck up in traffic.”

Anthony glanced one last look at the mirror and a new worry popped up in his mind because of course it did. “I’m not overdressed, am I? I’m not going to be ridiculous? I know it’s the Ritz, but...”

“You’re fine, love.” He adjusted the lapels of his jacket, straightened a bit his collars, and left a kiss on his chin. “You can never be overdressed or overeducated.”

“You usually are. Overdressed, that is.”

“I, in fact, am not, as Oscar Wilde said.”

Anthony rolled his eyes. “Anyway, you don’t seem excited as I supposed you would be. Have you changed your mind?”

Zachary’s fond smile broke into a huge grin. “Because I can’t yet quite believe that you’re taking me to the Ritz.”

He had saved up for two months for this gift; Zachary always told him about the one time his father took him there when he graduated top of his university and, well, Anthony had quite the soft spot for fathers, it seemed. “I'm a good old-fashioned lover boy, it was bound to happen. One day I'll take you in my Bentley.”

“One day, dear,” Zachary smiled, as understanding as he would be with a child talking about the day he would conquer Mars. “I’m sure of it.”

They kissed once again. Zachary, a hand on his cheek, asked him if he was ready to go.

He didn't really know, but he was for now, and opened the door.