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Otabek doesn’t much care for poetry. This becomes apparent upon his fifth birthday. He peels away the wrapping carefully, as to not disturb the thick butcher paper in which the gift is wrapped. Father had decorated it with brilliant drawings of the mountains which dot the view of Almaty. Of course he’s heard a great deal about this place Almaty, but no longer remembers it. They haven’t been there since he was very, very young. The sky is a mixture of gold and reds that fade into a twilight purple. The grasses in the foreground are not only green, but fade into an autumn rust red. It’s how the grass looks, now that it’s thoroughly autumn.  The mountains themselves are peaked in dark blue, fade into light blue, and look deep and vast as they often do in real life.

Otabek knows it’s a book by the shape and the weight.

At bedtime, his father takes it into his hands which are dappled by darker skin spots and reads to him in a voice that is soft and almost whisper like.

There’s a light in the attic

Through the house is dark and shuttered

I can see a flickerin’ flutter

And I know what it’s about.

There’s a light on in the attic

I can see it from the outside

And I know you’re on the inside…lookin’ out.

 

Otabek wrestles an arm out from underneath the impossibly bulky blankets and tugs at his father’s shirtsleeve. “And then what?”

“And then…” His father turns the page thoughtfully. He looks at Otabek over his gold wire rimmed glasses with a smile. “Nothing. That’s the end of the poem Beka.”

“What do you mean?” He says gesturing to the bulk of pages which are left in the book.

“Those are different poems,” he says as if the thought had never occurred to him that the rest of the pages should contain a coherent story. “Let’s try another one.”

If we had hinges on our heads

There wouldn’t be no sin

 

Father playfully splays his palm on the crown of Otabek’s head. His fingers are long and spindle like.

Cause we could take the bad stuff out.

And leave the good stuff in.

 

Otabek didn’t really like the book, but his father often read to him from it. Otabek, even in his younger years could understand that for whatever reason, this book although far more boring than anything else he had on his shelf, was important to father.


 

Otabek met Yusef that same year. Mother wasn’t in seminar on that day, but she had to come to campus to turn in a paper to her musical theory professor. Her work was on Verdi, and so by that point Otabek had an opinion or two on the composer.

He’d spent many an afternoon at his mothers’ side while she pressed rewind/fast forward in rapid succession on the cassette tape and listened to the same bits and chords over and over again.

“Momma, can’t you play it?” he’d asked when the cassette player finally chewed up and spit out miles and miles of magnetic tape.

Mother looked at him like he had grown a second head.

The flat in Vienna was small. There was his room, his parents room, the living room, the kitchen, and a small room where they kept an upright piano that had seen better days. Yes, it had real ivory keys, but the wood was in desperate need of refinishing. There were water stains, and deep grooves from careless movers.

Yet, it was always kept in perfect tune no matter how sorry it looked.

Quickly, and without another word, they moved to the piano. She’d play a few measures, stop, mash out a few words on the typewriter, and go back to mashing the piano keys.

Father’s office was on the fifth floor of a building where everything was marked by perfect scrolls, ornate fleur de leis patterns, fine archways, and delicate leaves of ivy, all of which were carved into unyielding limestone facades and delicate marble interiors.

“What is your lecture on today little professor?” Otabek’s father greets him with a smile and a pinch to the cheek.

He looks very, very gray today. His hair is always gray. His complexion looks about the same.

“Verdi,” he replies in a matter of fact tone. “I’m tired of it and so is mama.”

In a rush to get the theory paper turned in on time, mother had all but dragged him across campus. His hand stung slightly from the intensity of her grasp. Not to mention he was quite upset they didn’t stop to talk to any of the other graduate students or professors in the department.

The paper weights of music students are far more fun than those of literature students. Where the music students have canastas, maracas, and triangles that make tinny noises, literature students have little more than stacks of unbound papers. Worse still, if you ask them to read the contents of said papers, they’re boring.

His father laughs. It’s a soft and barely there like the chimes mother hung outside the kitchen window which barely float and clink together in the spring breeze. “If you’ve wrung out the great mysteries of Verdi, perhaps you can help us decipher some of these Avicenna texts.”

“Perhaps you shouldn’t force these kinds of problems onto your graduate students,” mother chides as father ushers them into his office.

Walking into the office is like being transported to a strange kind of waiting room where time travelers rest in-between eras. There’s still the endlessly tall vaulted ceilings, alongside crown molding on the walls and baseboards that look like the sugar frosted boarders of wedding cakes. However, the intricate slate and marble and mosaic images end. Instead there’s nothing but dust gray carpet stained with coffee.

The room smells faintly of cigarette smoke and rosemary. Otabek’s only seen evidence of rosemary in the windowsill. Father’s desk is a high topped piece of mahogany carved in the Chippendale style, although he’s heard mother refer to it as “reproduction” whatever that means. On top of it is perched a brand new, bright orange iMac computer. Behind that are two large bookcases. The books spill over into boxes on the floor. These too are an amalgam of old and new. Leather binding, laminated library covers, molding pages, and seventh editions. Blinding light pours in from the large windows that go almost from floor to ceiling.

Accompanying it is a table that father has said is “colonial.” To Otabek it means that it’s very plain. At the table sits a man who is rifling through several mountains of copy paper. He has toner stains on his fingers and on his cheek bones, but other than that he is quite plain. He has a beard neatly trimmed, golden brown eyes. His clothes are at least one size too large.

“I haven’t done anything with the classics since graduate school Darya. This is his project, I’m just along for the ride.” He laughs again, and claps his hand onto Otabek’s shoulder. “Otabek, this is my poor doctoral student Yusef.”


 

Otabek doesn’t much care for poetry, but his father does.

father spends more time in bed than out of it these days. He rarely goes to the university. He climbs into father and mother’s bed and reads to him what he can from the book he got for his birthday last year. He’s not very good, and most of the words he can’t even sound out properly.

Father listens patiently until he decides it’s his turn to read. Otabek listens until father decides it’s time to sleep.


 

Yusef brings twenty boxes of books to the flat with the help of the other graduate students.

Mother tells them to take what they’d like.

Yusef tells her she should go through them first and make sure that there aren’t any special editions.

Otabek can remember standing in the hallway in the little blind spot where the living room melted succeeded to the hallway. Mother stood on one side of the boxes piled high. Yusef stood on the other. “Otabek might like them someday.”

It never really occurred to him that they’d ever see Yusef again. They go back to Almaty for awhile and stay with mother and grandmother in a palace that they call a house. They spend time in Germany, Switzerland, and settle finally on Paris. Mother has a cousin who lives in Paris.

Otabek can recall one of his cousin’s dinner parties. It was a long and stuffy affair, and he very much wanted to rip off his bow tie.

He’d gone to the kitchen specifically to ask for some juice and permission to go upstairs. Mother was at the counter helping his cousin, Alina get out the rest of the china for after dinner tea and coffee.

A man walked into the room and asked where it would be appropriate for him to go outside and have a cigarette. He has a beard neatly trimmed, golden brown eyes. His clothes are at least one size too large. He had no toner on his hands or on his cheeks.

Mother dropped a €1200 Versache serving platter on the floor as soon as she saw him. It was white enamel with a gilded rim. The sharp crack of the china verbalized what the chronically quiet people would never say out loud, and the cascaded shards against the kitchen tiles spoke even more. Things would irrevocably change on that night, much like the plate was irrevocably changed to shards.

Moving forward wouldn’t be easy. Mother didn’t return to Vienna for a reason. There was too much pain in the memories there.


 

Yusef pours over a number of books old and new to find a suitable reading for the ceremony. He sticks predominantly to the classics. It’s his area of study, and it is out of respect. He pours through Treatise on Love, which isn’t so much a poem as it is a jumbled mess of conscious. He toys with the idea of something more conventional, but well outside of his father’s area of expertise; modern Assyrian poetry. There are of course the sonnets of Shakespeare and the works of Rossetti, and Byron.

In the end Yusef settles on a verse that he describes as, “predictable, nothing obscure,” as he pushes the gold rimmed glasses up his nose. Strangely, he doesn’t go for the bridge but pushes upward with his fingertips on the glass. He smudges them thoroughly.  

It’s not strange though. Yusef pours hot water to steep tea, forgets to add leaves, and doesn’t discover the error until the water has gone cold. Yusef takes his shoes off in his unairconditioned office on hot summer days and doesn’t remember to put them back on until he’s taken the train to their flat to come see mother.  

The wedding ceremony is held in his cousin’s drawing room. The antique chandelier was polished until it shone like a mirror made of silver. It was lit with one hundred and twenty individual candles; Otabek counted while the maids in black dresses rushed to finish the preparation.  The room smells of the distinct and addictive scent of mildewed old books and sage scented incense. There are ten people in attendance, including the bride, the groom, and Otabek. The affair begins with an Imam who speaks with a thick accent and has a pair of equally thick eyebrows to match.

Yusef kisses mother three times on the cheek and once on the forehead. He’s seen university students be more open with their affection, but it still feels like he’s intruding on something very private. Mother plays Chopin. Yusef reads from the works of Omar Khayyam

Here with a Loaf of Bread beneath the Bough,

A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse—and Thou

Beside me singing in the Wilderness—

And Wilderness is Paradise enow.

Everyone says that they are a good match. Everyone says that father has given his blessing from paradise. How else can one explain the wonderful circumstances under which they were reunited?

Otabek knows there is a grain of truth to all of these statements. He doesn’t mind Yusef. He doesn’t much care for poetry.


 

When Farida is born a short time later, mother whispers shahada into the sleeping infant’s ear. Yusef accompanies it with his own gift.

Farida

My love

Today it begins

Our lives shining, new

Farida

Yusef recites the poem in a voice that is barely a whisper and somehow more hushed than his usual speaking tone. Otabek wouldn’t know what it said at all if he hadn’t seen it among a dozen other poems Yusef scribbled on napkins and notepads waiting for her arrival.

When the infant is placed in his arms, Otabek decides that he loves Farida. He doesn’t much care for the cinquain that Yusef wrote for her.


 

Six months after Otabek returned to Almaty from training in Detroit, he gets a call from someone he never anticipated.

Years later, the white skirt is gone and so are the tears. Kamilya has cut her dark brown hair shorter. Her face is thinner, and her nose is far more crooked than when he saw her last. She’s still beautiful, just not in that kind of girlish way that he remembers. She’s more assertive in the way that she dresses and carries herself. He would almost say that she was striking in the way that her large tawny eyes sharply contrast with the rest of her small delicate face.

Her lips are painted a dark color of plum, and she wears black eyeliner more thickly than mother does.

“It is good to see that you’re doing well.” It’s more meaningful and more sincere than, “it’s good to see you.” Farida has a new partner. They placed tenth at Worlds last year, but Otabek suspects they’ll rise in the ranks.

“Thank you,” she says as they part from a hug that is shockingly warm and sincere. 

“How do you find your new partner?”

“Ivan? He’s good, but he gives Vera a rash, especially when we go to Moscow to train.”

Otabek raises an eyebrow. He doesn’t remember a Vera.

“My girlfriend,” she replies with a laugh.

Otabek had his own suspicions. He tackles the problem as he would any other. He reads voraciously that summer in an attempt to find a concrete solution to the very abstract problem. Death in Venice, and Cry to Heaven, The City and the Pillar, The Last of the Wine, The Persian Boy, and Numbers. He found the titles easily at the university library to which he had free roam, he felt unashamed to read them under the date tree, but he felt wildly ashamed whenever mother or Yusef would ask what he was reading.

In mid July he gets a text from Kamilya. “Vera and I are going to a club tonight if that’s your thing. They’ll let you in. Just don’t order a drink and you won’t get carded.”

It’s not “his thing,” but Otabek has heard her talk about the club in city center before. His current methods: reading, and thinking about it until he worried a deep line in his forehead; weren’t working. He decided to try another method. She and Vera seem to like it.

It’s everything Otabek anticipated but somehow worse. Of course the lights are low, and naturally the low lighting is supplemented by all sorts of awful alternatives: colored strobes, neon, and day glow colors. There’s a fog machine too and the thick smoky substance makes his eyes threaten to well up and water. He can’t even hear the music properly anymore. It takes on a dull throb in his temple and resides there without worry or preamble. Others seem to like it, seem to want to dance to it.

Otabek resigns himself to the balcony with Vera for most of the evening. She doesn’t much care for dancing. She would rather sit at one of the scant outdoor tables and smoke for the duration of the night.

Otabek can feel the weight and the burn of eyes upon him. It starts at the base of his spine and drags upward like nails on a chalkboard to the nape of his neck.

“I think you’re getting cruised,” Vera’s lipstick lacquered mouth moves and forms words. Otabek watches the smoke furl and unfurl around them. He hears the words, but he doesn’t quite comprehend.

The other man is tall and lean. His face is thin and he has long black hair that’s haphazardly assembled into a tight bun on the crown of his head. He’s wearing a dark brown corduroy suit jacket with light tan elbow patches. He’s severely over dressed for the summer weather, and Otabek can understand. He hasn’t taken off his jacket all night.

The stranger’s lips are chapped. The stranger tastes like alcohol.

Otabek swallows the lump in his throat. He feels dizzy as if he’s just stood up too quickly from being seated for a long time. He can feel his heart pounding in his ears alongside the drum and the base pulsating in his temple. 

Otabek very much wants whatever it is this man is offering. He can’t accept.

From what he understands it’s normal to have kissed someone by seventeen, not unheard of to have taken a lover. Otabek does not know this man, does not even know his name. Doesn’t know what kind of music he likes, or what kind of books he likes to read. Doesn’t even know if he likes to read at all. The very notion lays whatever impulse he had out flat and kills it.

He pushes the man away with a firm hand. He leaves the club, and doesn’t bother to tell Kamilya and Vera until long after he’s pushed the bike into the carport outside of his apartment complex.

The experience answers some questions for Otabek but opens many others. Otabek chooses not to seek the answer to these subsequent questions. They don’t seem so important now.  


 

 The questions that cropped up night he went to the club with Kamilya resurface in Barcelona.

It begins with the slip of slender arms around his waist, and it’s punctuated by a warm body against his back.

It continued when Yuri spoke, soft, gruff, and cryptic while simultaneously smiling softly. It seemed as if everything that he said was a secret meant for Otabek and Otabek only.

He watches Yuri’s short program, and by the time his friend is finished with the routine he knows. It grabs him by the gut and pulls him forward in the same way that Yuuri Katsuki pulls his coach around by his tie. Otabek doesn’t quite understand what it is that he’s supposed to do next.   

He doesn’t often consider the possibility of his feelings being returned by Yuri. Yuri is young, and Yuri must grow as a person before he can consider letting someone else in. He doubts it would ever be him.

Occasionally, he does entertain the notion, dangerous as it is. After Worlds where he moves up the podium from last year to silver, he and Yuri’s hands brush together for far too long. His arms feel too hot and too heavy on the bike. Over the summer, he wakes up to text messages from Yuri, and they even Skype from time to time.

He doesn’t so much worry about what mother and Yusef would think. He still finds it highly unlikely that Yuri would ever be anything more than a friend to him. His feelings for Yuri are this nebulous and clandestine thing which he takes great care to hide. The living are of little concern. His conversations with them are tangible and controlled.

But he wonders how his father would feel if he knew that his only son were madly and desperately in love with another man? How would the best Assyrian poetry scholar in the world accept the fact that his son was only the second best skater in the world? Would never carry on the family name?

He wonders if he fixates on these questions because they are superficial. They’re easier to fixate upon instead of deeper more meaningful questions, like why does he constantly seek the approval of a dead man? And, why does he feel as if he has a very real and very legitimate relationship with someone whose face he cannot even recall without aid of a photo? Is it a good thing or a bad thing that he's not satisfied to be among the best, and refuses to let his mind rest until he is the best? 

He wonders if he fixates on these questions, because an idealized version of his father that does not, and did not exist.  At PyeongChang, he’s the first Kazakh to medal in men’s figure skating. He’s forever regulated to a quick sideline in an obscure Wikipedia page on Kazakh history. The press releases, the handshakes with just enough pressure and weight, meetings with politicians whose name he cannot remember…He feels more symbol than person after the Olympics.

Then he wins gold at Worlds. There’s something strange and bittersweet about it. Why couldn’t he do this a month ago in PyeongChang?

After he takes gold at Worlds, Otabek returns home for awhile. His apartment makes him feel uncomfortable in his own skin. Regardless of what he’s doing, stretching, making dinner, trying to sleep, he feels the sharp pins and needles feeling of anxiety well up at the base of his spine, his stomach, his shoulders.  No Yuri knocking on his door at six in the morning to go for a run. No JJ knocking on his door at night to see if he wants to go out drinking. The absence of these things make him feel like he’s entered a room and forgotten exactly why, except the feeling is constant.

The feeling isn’t exactly abated when he stays with his family, but it’s almost an adequate distraction. He hasn’t had the opportunity to spend so much time with Farida since she was very young. Farida asks him, “What is that Seung-Gil like?”

“Quiet.”

 “And Jean-Jacques Leroy?”

“Tiresome.”

“Where was Kamilya?”

“She didn’t qualify.”

“And Yuri Plisetsky?”

“Well intentioned.”

“Well intentioned? That’s all?” Between mother, himself and Yusef, they could spend a pleasant afternoon together and speak twenty words between them. Farida repaid all the words they’d saved over the years with interest.

“He’s an honorable man,” Otabek supplies. "My closest friend."

By and large, Otabek doesn’t mind the additional noise. It makes him feel like an actual person again, and less like a prop for morning talk shows, newspapers, and photo opportunities.

Otabek continues to search for answers.

Otabek doesn’t remember much about his father. He believes that his voice was quiet and whisper like, although he does not have proof that this was something true true. Could very easily be something that he invented.

He fills in the gaps in his consciousness with bits and pieces left behind. Photos reveal that the hushed and judgmental voices were true. He was a very old man, and his mother was quite young. Otabek cannot find a photo where he does not have hair the color of ash, dark gray at the root and white near the strand.  His dark skin is mottled with liver spots and deeply creased wrinkles. In the photos, he always looks as if he’s been caught by surprise, yet he’s always smiling.

When mother is in these photos, she’s smiling too. It just seems that in these photos, her smile flows freely like water from a tap. She still doesn’t look like she’d laugh. He’s never heard mother laugh, but he knows she can smile. 

There are drawings too. Butcher paper filled from one edge to the other with thick and oily pastel drawings. There are images of the mountains done in purples and blues. There are drawings of Prater park at night. The yellow contrasts against the black of the paper and looks as if it were glowing. The Brandenburg gate, in stark grays and blacks. Pick a landmark in Europe or Asia and his father probably drew it. There is a whole manila folder of places he can only assume are in China. These pages are older, yellowed on the back, and often dated long before he was born, 94, 92, 91, 88, 87, 74.

These items are all packed away into a large trunk kept at the edge of his bed at mother’s house. He used to spend hours looking at the drawings as a child in rapt fascination in the way that only a child can. There was a certain entanglement in the imagination and the fantastic. Otabek saw himself visiting the Yonghe Temple with father in 1990, or the Eifel Tower in 1998.

As an adult, Otabek doesn’t find answers in these drawings.

There are albums, packed away in another crate. In the basement, there is a casual seating area. No antiques, no heirlooms, just a couch, and an armchair, and a large and bulky CRT television that no longer gets signal. Farida likes to drag him down here to build blanket forts between the couches. Whenever Otabek cannot skate, or play piano, or read, after he’s exhausted all other options, he likes to turn on the television and watch the endless snowfall of static from the screen.

Maybe, if his mood is good, he’ll turn on the old and antiquated sound system. He’ll wait for the bursts of static to clear out from the speakers, and then plug in the large immersive headphones. Slowly, carefully, he’ll watch the needle drop.

His father’s albums consist largely of rock and roll albums from the 1960s and 1970s. He knows from drawings, and from journals that his father completed his undergraduate education in America, and this time was influential to him.

It's not time to make a change

Just relax, take it easy

You're still young, that's your fault

There's so much you have to know

Find a girl, settle down

If you want you can marry

Look at me, I am old, but I'm happy

I was once like you are now, and I know that it's not easy

To be calm when you've found something going on

But take your time, think a lot

Why, think of everything you've got

For you will still be here tomorrow

But your dreams may not

Otabek doesn’t much care for music with lyrics. If there’s something to be sung, an opera may be acceptable. Their stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end, unlike many popular songs with lyrics that begin with no context and abruptly end. It’s much like poetry. Despite not caring for them much, he’s listened to each album countless times.

Of course the biggest evidence left behind which help Otabek understand what kind of man his father was are the books. Otabek inherited his father’s library. They were moved from the University office, from flats scattered across Europe, and all of theme were assembled neatly in a room directly above his own in the palace of a house.  No matter if he was nine or nineteen, Yusef always asked permission before he borrowed a book.

For a very long time, Otabek pretended that he enjoyed Tolstoy…Anna Karenina simply because it was an elegant story. He enjoyed the political intrigue. He enjoyed a complex and tragic story of love. By the time he is eighteen, he accepts the fact that perhaps he enjoys the works so thoroughly is because towards the end of his life, father diverged from poetry.  Took a heated interest in Tolstoy. He’s read the research monographs which are typed on thick yellowed paper in a font that is sharp and severe in a way that only a typewriter can produce. The pages are stained with coffee.

There’s a scene in the first arc of Anna Karenina. Anna has first arrived in Moscow. As Vronsky and Anna lay eyes upon each other for the first time, an innocent railman is killed in a horrific accident in which he falls in front of a train. Anna is fearful. Vronsky is infatuated

Otabek can only liken his newfound love for Yuri Plisetsky from both the perspective of Anna and Vronsky.

Would his father be disappointed that his first pangs of love produce these feelings?

One afternoon, his mother asks him to come into her study. Unlike the formal music room, there is no real piano here. There is only a large electric Yamaha keyboard on a slender stand, a few shelves of books, and a contemporary style desk with a cracked marble top.

Otabek believes that it might have come with them from Europe. He can’t be sure.

“Otabek, you’re the only person I know who could be openly proclaimed the best in the world and still doubt his worth.”

At this point in his life, Otabek has been beaten by many of his mother’s blunt instruments. There are of course questions, such as the one he’d just been asked. There are statements, “you’re getting a lot of media attention lately. Not for your skating,” which he’d been informed last year after Marseilles.  And most deadly of all, the question that’s posed as a statement to which there is no response.

She gives him this blow next. “You’re seeking answers where they cannot be found.”

Otabek knows that if he rocks on the balls of his heels his mother will know how truly anxious he is in that moment. He palms an old globe that rests heavy in a stand instead. He lets his fingers turn the sphere from North America, slowly to Europe and then back to Asia. He brushes his fingers purposefully over Almaty and the raised mountain ranges on the globe.

Mother opens the drawer on her desk. From the cherry wood panels, she removes a memo pad with a simple black and white cover. “I do not know if these will settle your mind. I used to believe they were written for me.”

She hands him the book. Otabek accepts. He thumbs carefully through the pages. The writing style matches the faint pencil scratch in the margins of his copy of Anna Karenina, and the writing on the back of the oil pastel drawings.

“But now that I see you,” her voice hitches in a near silent breath that others would miss if they hadn’t spent a lifetime detecting it. “Perhaps I was selfish in my assumption.”

Otabek reads.

You never quite cared, for what I loved most

A parallel line

A strong writ verse

I hope someday, to meet your most

“I believe perhaps, you were the true intended audience.”

Otabek has never much cared for poetry.

Otabek reads the entire notebook in twenty minutes. He still can’t say that he cares for poetry.


Otabek doesn’t sleep much these days. He wanders through the house until he finds a flat surface that isn’t uncomfortable: a sofa, a carpeted floor, an armchair, a guest bedroom. Rarely, if ever his own bedroom. He spent the rest of the day wandering around the house and the yard with the memo book in hand. He reads its contents over and over again, as if each turn of the page grants him permission.

Meet me ‘neath the old date tree

We’ll of everything, nothing, have tea

 

To be Otabek Altin, more than Kazakhstan’s hero.

To be Otabek Altin, more than the son of Alibek Altin.

To be Otabek Altin, more than a medal which demarks a certain point in time, and little else about his worth as a person.

For the first time in months, it feels like Otabek has some semblance of clarity. He likens it to someone dunking his head in ice water, or having your ears pop after a long and turbulent flight.

It’s well after midnight. He’s dressed in his pajamas, and he takes great care to miss the squeaky board on the stairs that lead up to his room. He pads against the carpet and avoids hardwood floors in the house.

Otabek rocks up on the balls of his feet to get to the top shelf in his closet. He retrieves a wooden cigar box with bright red and green letters stamped on the top that read Havana’s Finest. Inside was inlayed with soft green velour. Each of his medals, from juniors til now, were tucked inside. Carefully, and with great consideration, he selects his first Four Continents gold. It’s cheating. It doesn’t show that he’s the best in the world like his Worlds gold, or even among the best in the entire world like his Olympic medal. But, he has another Worlds gold. He can spare one.  

Next, he goes to the utility closet that’s tucked away on the main floor. He retrieves a hammer and tack.

Otabek feels a particular shade of absurd as he tacks the tears the fabric strand from the medal. There’s the very real and very distinct possibility that mother will not be pleased when she comes out to the garden and discovers it there.  He taps with the hammer once, twice, three times until the bark gives way and the nail is deeply buried into the tree.

Despite it only being may, it is quite hot outside. The cicadas have come out of their burrows to molt and to moan.  The grass tickles against the bottoms of Otabek’s feet and itches when it grazes against his ankles. Maybe he should’ve bothered with shoes.

Otabek’s breath comes in short bursts although he hasn’t done anything particularly strenuous. He can feel the faint drip damp feeling of a cold sweat breaking out on his back. He places a hand against the bark of the tree and leans his weight into it.

He’s acutely aware of the fact that he’s alone, and the corners of his eyes are burning. He doesn’t let a single tear fall because he feels the furthest thing from sadness now.

“I’m the best figure skater in the world right now,” but his voice is barely a whisper. He’s never dared to say such things out loud, even if they were by definition true. “Except,” he worries the bottom of his lip with his teeth. It’s complicated, to explain yourself to someone who already has all of your secrets collected and tucked away so that no one can find them. “A lot of the attention is still on Seung-Gil Lee, as he took gold in PyeongChang,” he explains. “I mind that he has the gold. I can’t say that I mind that he has the attention.”

Otabek speaks quickly, he can feel with each word he utters his wherewithal drying up. “I’m in love with a man. Yuri Plisetsky.” Otabek expected to feel as if a great weight had been lifted off of his chest when he finally acknowledged it, spoke it out loud and made it tangible and unretractable.  “He doesn’t know it yet, but…He is also a dear friend. I’d like it if you’d some day met.” Instead, he feels as he does at the beginning of the new season: overwhelmed by new choreography, incensed to accomplish his goals.

The next day, Otabek does little more than read out by the tree and enjoy the feeling of marble beneath his still bare feet. He loves the classics, but he needs to keep up on contemporary books too. He reads Homegoing in one go, and then begins The Association of Small Bombs. He tries not to steal furtive glances at the tangible evidence of his raw and unhinged emotion pinned to the tree.

The medal is not the only distraction.

His phone buzzes constantly, with photos and texts. Yuri with wisteria in his hair. Yuri dancing with Yuuri Katsuki. Today is Viktor Nikiforov and Yuri Katsuki’s wedding.

“You should’ve agreed to be my date. We could’ve rented a motorcycle and torn out of here when things got too cheesy.” Otabek drops his phone when he reads the screen. With shaky hands he picks it back up. Otabek is not a man to assume, or invest in false hope, but he knows an opportunity when he sees one.

“Come to Almaty instead. It’s quiet here.”