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Of Eyes that Crave the Light

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Todd felt grief as the sound of snow crunching under his shoes. The feeling of that split-second when the snow seemed to hold, and then the fall--an inch or a foot, sinking into coldness. He knew he was probably ruining a very expensive pair of dress shoes, but he couldn't quite bring himself to care. Italian leather could always be replaced; he'd always be able to buy another pair of black shoes to wear to the next funeral. And the next.

His stomach churned with the old familiar nausea, the sickness of untimely death, and he could taste it in his mouth. He could almost feel the cold of snow soaking through his pants into his knees even though he was still standing, still walking. He'd felt that sickness too many times, three years worth of deaths carving the last traces of youthful roundness from his face. When he looked in the mirror he couldn't see the boy anymore, the one who'd lain in the narrow bed at Welton and burned and dreamed and learned to mourn.

Still, he could close his eyes and see Neil the way he'd shone under the hot stage lights, how the bones of his face painted shadows on him in the chill incandescent light of their dormitory, the way he'd glowed in the flickering firelight of the cave. Every now and then, Todd caught sight of a skinny, pale boy passing by him in a club or the baths--some college-age kid, barely older than they were back then--and for a second he caught his breath, the illogical lizard at the back of his brain wanting to reach out. He'd never even kissed Neil. He'd only touched Neil the one time, his palm glancing across the bare skin of Neil's stomach as they passed in the showers. Almost by accident, more than he could dare to do outright, not nearly enough.

It was 1983, and Todd was exactly forty years old. He was a partner at one of New York's biggest law firms, and his secretary knew how he took his coffee and when he wanted his newspaper. She knew when to send flowers to his mother in Connecticut, but she didn't know that almost every time he asked her to reschedule a meeting it was because of a funeral. Yet another goddamn funeral for a friend or a close acquaintance--one of the faces and bodies that had always, always been there at the parties and the clubs and the uptight functions with all the men looking perfect in their tuxedos--another light blinking out, and New York was getting dark as hell.

He dreamed of darkness, dreamed of the woods on the Welton campus, the brush of pine past his face, wool flapping around his legs, leaves and snow crunching under his shoes, cold air rushing up his nose as he ran faster than could ever have been real. In his dreams, he got separated from the rest, from the pack; he could never find the cave, no flashlights slashed lines through the blackness. Eventually he ran too far, and there were no trees, no stars, nothing he could feel beyond his own body, and in that gasping panic he'd wake up.

Late at night, the approach to the Brooklyn Bridge was about as lonely as things got in Manhattan. Thin traffic of cars and buses and bikes passed by, a homeless person pushed a wire cart full of trash bags, but Todd felt invisible to everybody who passed. He was a white man in a suit, not young enough to be interesting or old enough to be vulnerable. Welton had trained them to be interchangeable cogs in the machinery of upper class life, and even slipped from his appointed spot Todd knew how to blend into the woodwork--or the steelwork--as nondescript as a mannequin in the Brooks Brothers window.

His mother had sent him a card for his birthday, sent him a package to his office address. The box was broad but shallow, and bits of styrofoam tumbled out as soon as he cut the tape with his letter opener. He couldn't help laughing, harsh laughs that spilled from his lips like vomit. His secretary came running in, her eyes wide above the bold striped of blush on her cheeks.

"It's okay, Brenda." Todd had pressed the back of his hand to his mouth, trying to contain the kinds of emotion he tried to never bring to work. "My mother just sent me a--" He flapped his hand over the plastic-wrapped package under the drift of white, forced his voice into control. "A desk set."

"Oh," she said, her Bronx accent clear even in only one syllable. "That was nice of her."

Todd just nodded, he couldn't explain twenty-five years of history. He wondered what kind of catalog his mother had found the set in, what other relics from the fifties were available through mail order. He wondered if she thought he couldn't afford desk accessories--after all, his brother was the truly successful son, with his wife and two children in the suburbs. Todd was just the quiet one, quietly negotiating compromises between Fortune 100 companies and quietly funding theatre productions for teenagers, quietly walking the deck of a faltering ship. He looked outside, and snow was falling.

He worked all day, sent Brenda home at four and stayed on a call to Tokyo until the building grew still around him. He worked on files until even the cleaning people were gone. He nodded at the security guard on his way out of the building and exited onto the street with the package from his mother tucked under his arm. Hours past the neighborhood's midday hustle, empty cabs cruised the dark streets with their numbers lit up and slowed as they passed by Todd. Normally he would have hailed one and been across the bridge in minutes, but that night he needed to walk.

Snow melted on his face and hair. Flakes drifted down past the collar of his coat and chilled the back of his neck. His hands were warm in black leather gloves, his feet freezing as icy water soaked his socks. As he walked out on to the bridge itself, away from the windblock of buildings, cold air cut through his layers of wool and cotton until he may as well have been naked, stripped bare to the elements. Midspan, no other pedestrians in sight, Todd stopped and closed his eyes. The bridge hummed with traffic, and he imagined it was the pulse of the city, pounding on no matter how many died.

The East River circulated below, poisoned and sick itself. Todd looked down at the dark water below and wondered how cold it was, wondered if anything could live in there, wondered how they lived on its banks. He propped his birthday gift on the railing and examined it. Brown leather embossed with golf leaf, cream paper, proof of a love that was steadfast in its impersonality. He stripped off the plastic wrap and crinkled it in his hand before letting the breeze take it. He took a step back, drew his arm close to him, and flung the desk set out into the night. It flew in an arc over the dividers between the walkway and the water and seemed to hang there for a moment, sheets of paper fluttering like seagulls, before it all fell from his sight.

A bike whipping by brought Todd back to himself, back to the feeling of cold slush on his feet, icy air chapping the damp skin under his eyes. He shoved his empty hands in his pockets, put his head down to the wind and hurried the rest of the way across the bridge. He thought about hailing a cab on the other side, but he only had a few more blocks left. By the time he stepped inside his building, shivers were racing across his shoulders, and his feet were numb, his hair dripping streams down his forehead.

The lights were on inside when he opened the door to the condo, and before his frozen brain saw it coming Patrick's arms were around him. He couldn't feel the warmth yet, but he knew it was there in the breadth of Patrick's chest and the strength of his embrace. That was faith, Todd thought, the only kind of faith that made any sense to him.