In the beginning, he was my son. My precious baby boy. Blue-eyed, inquisitive, energetic, a carbon copy of my late wife, Rose. She died from puerperal fever eleven days after he was born. Most of me died with her.
The part of me that was still alive . . . lived for him.
Those first few years were the hardest years of my life, but I wouldn't let myself even come close to giving up. I was a single father, working from home and raising a child on my own with no outside assistance. I sang him tirelessly to sleep every night, cradling him as though he were the world, fragile enough to break if I wasn't gentle enough or if I held him the wrong way. I ran my fingertips through his wispy blond hair while he slept, felt the dip of the fontanel on the top of his tiny head — the delicateness of his life. His existence was a glow in the palm of my hand, a firefly at dusk. He weighed almost nothing in the circle of my arms. It scared me, because it made me realize how easily I could lose him, how effortlessly he could disappear even as I tried to hold on to him and love him, the light winking out right before my eyes.
I could press my ear to his chest, listen to the warm flutter of my baby's heartbeat. Memorize the soft skin of his hands and feet and learn the music of his moods by heart. But I couldn't banish the feeling that one day, he would be gone from my life, like Rose — like he'd never existed at all. So I held him all the tighter and prayed that that day would never come, that he would be with me — my son — forever.
I was there for his first laugh. His first tear. His first step. His first word. As he grew up, I was there to teach him how to feed himself, how to use the potty, how to brush his teeth by himself. I was there to fasten the buttons on his winter coat and tie his shoelaces on a hot summer day. I sat by his bedside and took his temperature and entertained him with stories when he was sick. And when he cried in the middle of the night, terrified into wakefulness by the "monster" in his closet, I let him crawl into bed with me and snuggle up against my side. I was his everything, and he was mine. He was my child, my flesh and blood, the one person to whom I wouldn't have hesitated to give the world.
I loved him so much. God, I loved him so much that I was blind to the sickness manifesting within our two-person family. By the time I finally noticed, it was far too late; it had taken root in the wake of my ignorance, and its tainted blossoms were already unfurling in the darkness.
He was a teenager, growing into his lanky body and the beauty of his youth. I was an older, wearier man of forty-something, a decade past my prime, the lines on my face surfacing as the seasons passed. It was still only the two of us; I hadn't sought to marry a second time. I still wore the ring that Rose had placed on my finger at our wedding. No one questioned my unspoken decision to remain unattached — least of all my son.
He had reached the age when most young men began to show a healthy interest in the opposite sex. Or the same sex, if that happened to be the case. I wanted him to be happy. He was still tender in years — on the cusp of sixteen — but I wanted him to experience the love, the completeness, that I once had. I was fully prepared to accept him for who he was, to embrace him and comfort him and love him if his sexuality was rejected by his peers. But he was unconcerned when it came to girls and other boys. Almost indifferent. I wasn't overly worried, but his detachment seemed too casual. Like he was carefully holding it in place to mask something else. I couldn't fathom what he could be hiding, and I was his father, the person closest to him in his life.
So I found ways to subtly question him. I didn't push — I never pushed — but I was persistent in my efforts. During dinner or while we were doing chores, I would ask him things like, "Who do you think is the prettiest girl in your class?" or "Has anyone caught your eye lately?" All of those embarrassing inquiries that almost all parents like to joke about with their children. I would look at him, at his butter-gold hair and broad shoulders and slim, strong legs, and think, He's a handsome lad. There's bound to be someone who appreciates him, someone whose feelings he returns.
He always found a way to brush off my questions, or dodge around them, or give a vague answer that wasn't really an answer at all. After several months of this, I reasoned that perhaps he did love someone, but wasn't quite ready to share it with me yet. If that was the case, then I had no right to press him. It was up to him to figure things out on his own, and my role as his parent was to give him my unwavering support as he did so.
I was set on leaving him alone to make his decisions by himself. Then . . . there came that night.
The night that . . .
I was sitting in my armchair, darning a pair of socks. It was something that he occasionally made fun of me for — "Guys shouldn't know how to sew that well!" "It's a useful skill to have." "Still . . . I think you're getting old. You'll start crocheting or something next." "You wouldn't be calling me old if you were my age, Alfred. Besides, who else would patch up your socks if I won't?" — but he was quietly doing his Chemistry homework on the end of the couch.
He kept dropping his pencil. The soft clatter of it falling on his textbook was a distraction, and after several minutes, I looked up. He was staring down at the page, his eyes fixed on the air above the book instead of the actual text.
"Is something wrong?" I asked.
The pencil slid from his grip again, tumbling to the carpet. He didn't bend down to retrieve it. "No." There was something in his tone, something bordering on feigned nonchalance. I decided not to bother him about it — whatever the problem was, it would sort itself out one way or another; he would ask for my help if he truly needed it — and returned to my needle. As soon as I lowered my head again, I heard the textbook being tossed aside, and the creak of the couch springs as he stood up, his padded footsteps as he walked toward me. The rustle of his clothes as he knelt down.
His hands took the half-patched sock out of my fingers and set it to the side. I looked at him, confused, needle still poised in midair. "Alfred?"
He had my left hand cupped in both of his. He was gently smoothing his thumbs over the prominent veins, along my knuckles, tracing semi-circles. His gaze was fixed on my ring.
"Alfred?" I tried again, but when he spoke, his words weren't directed at me.
"Mom," he said. He was still looking at the ring. "I . . ." A swipe of his thumb over the shining, scalloped gold, and he raised my hand to his face, to his mouth. "Mom, I'm sorry." He pressed his lips to the thin band, kissing it. His breath was moist on my skin. "Please . . . don't blame me for this, okay? Please don't hate me."
I had no idea what he was talking about. Why was he asking his mother not to hate him? Or was he asking me? And the way he cradled my hand, almost reverently . . . it made me feel warm and slightly uncomfortable. "What —" I began to say, the impression of his mouth on my finger still tingling, but before I had a chance to continue, he leaned in. Our faces were suddenly so close. He closed his eyes, touched his nose to my cheek, inhaled shakily as he pressed our brows together. Down in my lap, his fingers threaded through mine, our hands curving together.
"Dad," he whispered, his voice on the verge of breaking.
Then he kissed me.
My grip on the needle disappeared. I heard it clink delicately as it dropped into my sewing kit.
His lips were soft and yielding, but they kept pushing and nudging and pressing, the tip of his tongue sliding out as he tried to coax me into reciprocation with his mouth. I was numb, my own lips heavy and unfeeling; yet I felt his every touch as if he was searing them into my skin.
The sickness was here — where it had found us, where it had always been.
His tongue was in my mouth, a shy but certain visitor making itself at home. His grip on my hand tightened. I felt his weight on my thighs as he moved onto me, his legs on either side of mine. His other hand came up to touch my temple, my cheek, my jaw, fingertips feather-light as he explored the contours of my face. He breathed, "Dad," and our tongues met halfway. He consumed me until he had memorized me, until there was nothing left for him to discover.
When he finally pulled away, my lips felt a rush of cold. I couldn't speak. A fine thread stretched between us, gossamer, so easy to snap, and in his eyes, I saw nothing but his true desire — the one that he had tried to hide from me for so long.
I loved him so much. He was my son. After Rose passed away, he was the only one I had left, and he was the only one I would ever want.
Moisture on my cheekbone. Our foreheads were still pressed together, and his tears were sliding down my face as though they were my own. Automatically, I reached up to wipe them away for him.
His breath hitched when I touched him. "Dad," he said, voice thick and hiccuping, "do you hate me?" I shut my eyes.
"No," I said softly.
He brought his mouth to mine again, and this time I comforted him, breathed life and love into him even as the taste of salt mingled between us. He showed me his vulnerability; I showed him my acceptance, my tenderness, my strength.
That night, I loved him. We melted into my bedroom, into the smooth darkness, and I loved him with my body. His hair, damp silk in my fingers; his mouth, open and inviting and moist; his legs, twining around my waist as I lost myself inside him. There was pain, pain and the sound of heartbreak, glass softly crackling, but it didn't matter, because I loved him and loved him until he cried into my shoulder and dug his hands into my back, nails sliding into my bare skin. I touched him, and he arched, the sheets slippery beneath us. We revealed, and reveled.
I fell further. He fell with me; I clutched him to my chest and neither of us let go. His body loved mine back even as our lips joined. We made love to each other, and to the shadows all around us, and to the beautiful sickness that had been the beginning and would likely be the end.
His pleasure, his ecstasy, was mine. We collapsed back onto the bed together, no longer desperate, no longer thrumming with energy but with sated exhaustion. I moved my hand over his side, up his ribs, to rest over his heart. His heartbeat was the still the same: warm, fluttering, glowing.
"I love you," he said into the darkness, his hands searching for mine and finding them. "Dad . . ."
"I love you, too," I murmured. Tears beaded in the corners of my eyes, tears that were only my own. My wedding ring glittered at me from the nightstand, surrounded in its own small pool of moonlight, gold within silver.
He was my son. I loved him. And now there was no one else but us.