Wintering (Icarus Ascending remix)
Remix of Wintering by Koizumi Shinme
It's crazy the things you remember thinking at the time. Like how you hope that letter to your mother doesn't get lost by some psychotic postal worker, because otherwise someone's going to come across your empty bank account and your empty house and think you've been kidnapped by drug dealers, or aliens, or drug-dealing aliens. Like how you've got exactly five changes of underwear in which to find something that puts you at least in striking distance of a washing machine. Like how smart getting a passport three years ago 'just in case' suddenly seems when 'just in case' sends you a postcard from a place you couldn't reliably find on a map except you know it's in the country that's shaped like a boot, halfway on the other side of the world. Like how when the sun comes up in three hours it'll be Palm Sunday, and everyone will get up and go to church, and wave their branches and sing their Hosannas, faces painted only forward on their own tasks, not one turning to catch a glimpse of you as you go.
My stomach lurched as the wheels leapt off the ground with a jerk that said this is your last touch of home, boy, everything from here on out's open water, and I shut my eyes as the plane tilted east, toward the rising sun sleeping just beyond the winedark sea.
I remember back when I was a kid, going through the metal detector all the way to the ramp to see whatever far-flung relatives had deigned visit our corner of Alabama come wheeling their suitcases down the gangplank, all bright eyes and excited anticipation. Of course, they don't let you do that anymore, so I paid my $2.50 for my hour minimum of short-term parking and I drove away as far down the road as I could, until I found a shoulder where I could pull off, far away that no one would bother accusing my hick ass of being a terrorist. Ash Wednesday had come early that year, and I could see my breath against the darkening sky as I got out and sat cross-legged on the trunk of my car, shoving my hands under my armpits to keep them from freezing off.
By the time it lifted off, his plane itself was barely visible against the night, a shadow on a screen of blue-black. I watched until I couldn't see its blinking red lights anymore.
The world doesn't really end, not really -- it just ends for you, personally, and while everyone else goes on with their lives around you, you've come apart, and all the king's horses and all the king's men, et cetera, et cetera. Simple lessons in fate: if the ocean doesn't get you the altitude will.
With no heat, and no lights, and no television, huddling together under a blanket to play cards by candlelight honestly seemed like a totally innocuous and practical suggestion. That was, until my body was pressed right up against his, right to where he smelled like aftershave from heavy emerald bottles and pine needles and other dark green things, right up to where my head tucked under his chin and he was so warm I wasn't shivering anymore.
"Michael," he said, and the puffs of air that made up my name ruffled my hair. "Is this okay?"
"Yes," I said, which was all my stupid reticent mouth could get out of yes, yes, this is more than okay, this is everything I didn't know I want, and if you stop now, I'll fall apart like one of those old cathedrals. I pressed my hands flat to his chest, then slipped them down, feeling even under his t-shirt and sweatshirt the crests and valleys of his body. His ribs stuck out; he hadn't been eating well out on his own, no matter what he told me about the cafés of Paris or the chestnut stands in Venice or the street food in Barcelona. Jay had always been a liar of the highest order, so that anything he said, you believed it.
He put his hand on my hip, like that was where it belonged, and then tried to take it away, so I put my hand over his, because that was where it belonged. I saw the candlelight reflected in those dark eyes, and I wondered why I hadn't had the idea to kiss him years ago. So I reached around to his back and pulled him forward, down on top of me, until he was crushing me and his tongue was in my mouth, which made me wonder a second thing, about which one of us regretted more not having had the idea years ago.
I ran my cold hands up under his shirt, and he gasped at the chill, then grabbed my hands and pinned them on either side of my head, and I let him because I trusted him more than anything else in the world. He let that go on for a while, and then he took one of my hands and put it between our hips, right over a strangely familiar hardness just beneath his fly; then he put his hand over my own cock, cupping it through layers of denim and underwear, and I knew we were on the same page.
"I want you to touch me, Michael," he said, and that was all the encouragement I'd ever needed, really. I struggled the button open, then undid the zipper and wrapped my hand around his cock like I knew what I was doing, and I was so caught up in the mechanics of my own role in the proceedings that I almost didn't notice that he was doing the same thing to me. He rolled off me to give us both better leverage, and then we were there on the floor, curled knees and foreheads together, our arms crossing over one another on their way down each other's pants.
I lost track of time there with him, in the near-darkness, more turned on than I'd ever been in my life and yet willing myself not to come, because if I did, this would stop, and when it stopped, it might not start again. But Michael seemed in no hurry to end anything, moving slowly into a rhythm I learned to match. I tried rubbing my thumb against the underside of his cock, and he moaned, so I did it again, kissing him and swallowing the noise into myself. Everything was a learning experience, uncharted territory, the great and familiar unknown.
I was surprised when he came first, finally giving in to the slow, steady pressure and rocking his hips against my hand; I felt him gasp against my mouth, and then I felt my hand grow warm and wet, and that was more than enough to drag me over the edge right after him. I think I may have said his name, or he may have said mine, and then he kissed me again, and everything was right with the world.
By the time I had the thought that we really shouldn't go to sleep on the floor, I had already shut my eyes and let myself fall into the warmth of his arms.
I hate Christmas Day because things always close down for the entire day, even though nobody ever takes the whole day to do Christmas. So the afternoon found us in the far booth of the only open restaurant in town, a medium-quality Chinese place with ten tables and one old waiter who had a face like a panda bear and only spoke about ten words of English. Not my still-dark house, not my parents' place, good neutral ground. Other than the two of us, and him, and whoever presumably was manning the kitchen in the back, the place was deserted. So there was nobody around to hear when I said, like it was a point of fact, "You're gay. That's why you don't come home."
Not even for a second did he try to bullshit me, just kept spooning that radioactive orange duck sauce on top of a pile of fried wontons like they'd done something wrong. "It's not so bad being foreign," he shrugged. "It's easy being a stranger in a strange land. You just have to keep moving so nothing becomes ordinary."
I frowned into my cup of weak brown tea. "That's...." I swallowed, unable to finish with great if you want to keep running away all your life. "But that way you never get to go back to see places you've been. People you know."
Jay picked up a wonton with his chopsticks, expertly dexterous, a dancing skeleton with its own perfectly long fingers. "Better than being an alien in your own house."
I was silent until the waiter brought our food, silent all the way through the meal, until I opened my mouth to ask for the check and nothing came out but rust and air. I couldn't stop trying to pinpoint the exact moment when my own life had stopped being home and started being the place I came from.
"You shouldn't have," my mother told him, and the smile she gave him told us both that she meant it and that she had forgiven us for being late to Christmas morning. If I'd been thinking more clearly, I would've just given up and stayed the night tucked on their couch, but thinking clearly last night was about the last thing you could have accused me of. At least their power had come back on.
He shrugged, and grinned his million-dollar grin. "Course I should've. Try it on."
She slipped the gift on her wrist, a little silver bracelet with tiny Greek letters Jay said the shopkeeper'd told him made up the Hail Mary, though he'd laughed that three weeks in June on the Greek side of Cypress hadn't given him enough of the language to confirm or deny it. I didn't ask him if it'd been one of those presents he'd just picked up because it was pretty, knowing that it'd be useful to someone later, or if he'd known half a year ago whose house he'd be in come Christmas.
I was paying attention to something totally different when a heavy rectangle landed in my lap, wrapped up tight in deep blue paper. "Open it," said Jay, and because I didn't want to call him on being Mr. Bossy Santa in front of my family, I slid my thumb under the seam and parted the folds of paper as non-destructively as I could.
Inside was a wide hardcover book, dustjacket and all, which in some ways wasn't a surprise, because when you're the black sheep of the family and the only thing your relatives know about you anymore is that you were such an avid reader when you were a little boy, the only thing those relatives know to get you for Christmas is whatever Barnes and Noble has on its employee picks shelf. But this volume was huge and thick and in French, and its front cover sported one of Notre Dame's high, blocky towers; the back cover showed the other, and I pulled them open wide in front of me, watching the panorama unfold itself, great grey stone against blue sky.
"It's about cathedrals," he said, and he was leaning over my shoulder, pressing his chest against the point of my left shoulder. I could hear him grinning in my ear as I opened the book to a random page, finding a photograph of a wide rose window with the caption Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres. The sun shone through the pieces of coloured glass, composing its own halo from all the broken rainbows. "That one," he said softly, tapping the page, "is way better in person."
"I bet," was all I could say, brushing my fingers over the heavy glossy paper only inches from his, staring down at a place I'd never seen, using my imagination to paint Jay into the full-colour photograph, the consummate traveller resting only long enough to be captured by a single shutter, only at home in the unfamiliar.
The glow from Jay's digital watch read 4:31, and the only reason I was sure that last number was a 1 and not a 7 was that I watched it turn into a 2, not an 8. I hadn't gotten drunk like that in years. I hadn't felt the need to drink like that in years, not since our graduation party where most of the alcohol I'd consumed had ended up leaving the same way it'd come in. But we'd all come home from church, and Jay had kept telling his stories, and Mom had kept laughing, and Dad had kept pouring the eggnog, and I had kept emptying the cup in front of me, until finally my parents were nodding off where they sat and we were nodding off on the couch, and then we were bundling drunkenly into our coats, heading out into the ice storm for the three blocks between their house and mine.
It wasn't a proper ice storm, perhaps, but it felt enough like one when we were out in it to qualify. I wanted to jam my hands into my pockets to keep them from freezing, but every time I tried to stand on my own my boots slipped on the frozen sidewalk and gravity threatened to smash my head against the pavement, so I wrapped my arms around Jay's elbow, and we held each other upright on the trek home. We walked in silence, every step demanding our full if inebriated concentration. I thought about pulling him down to the ground with me and burying my face in his coat, breathing in his warm scent, and the craziest thing about thinking it was that right then it didn't seem crazy to think it at all.
At the crest of the hill, Jay turned and pointed out into the distance, nearly knocking me over, so I had to cling to him more tightly. "Look," he said, and I followed the line of his arm out past his fingertip, down into the valley below. It was like someone was throwing large, dark blankets over patches of the town, one after the other -- until our turn came, and the streetlight above us gave one last orange sputter before the whole street went dark. Power lines knocked down by the weather, I figured, and if the last time this had happened was any indication, everything might take a while coming back. All around us, free of its constant electrical hum, the city stood silent.
"Happy birthday, Jesus," I whispered into the darkness.
Jay pet my hair. "Hell of a night for it."
Christmas Eve services made me realise I hadn't been to church since last Christmas Eve's services. I felt like a department-store dummy in my grey suit, the one my mom had bought me for high school semiformal events, awkward and expressionless and stiff. I tried as best I could to blend into the copiously frontward pew my family had chosen to occupy, hoping that just standing next to Jay -- even Jay in one of my dad's borrowed and ill-fitting suits -- would be enough camouflage.
He'd always been like that, a distracting beacon that took the heat and spotlight off me. When he walked into a room, you literally couldn't pay attention to anything else. You could try, sure, but no matter where you looked or what you tried to think about, you just kept on coming back to him. Which was fine by me; I never wanted attention a minute in my life. But there were times in my life it had made concentration difficult. Like, for instance, now, as the pastor stood up at the front and gave his lines in the litany, and we called back our bold-print responses, and I couldn't keep my eyes fixed on the bulletin in front of me because every time I let myself slip for a second, I was just staring at him again.
Then the first song started -- 'O Come, All Ye Faithful', one of those I spent every year muttering through because I'd never bothered to learn all the tune, much less the words. Except by the second note, I noticed something was different, and by the fifth note, I wasn't noticing much else at all, because Jay's rich tenor rang out through the sanctuary, turning heads all around us to catch a glimpse of just which angel had left the heavenly choir to come sing with us tonight.
Several of his postcards had detailed the exploits of how he'd made his way through a lot of Europe with just his voice and his guitar. I couldn't imagine hearing him on the street of some foreign subway and not throwing money at him. Part of me was surprised he hadn't come back to the States a billionaire just by busking alone.
Then the hymn was over and we all sat again, and instead of listening to the sermon, I watched him leaf through the green-edged pages of the hymnal. I reached into my pocket and took out a quarter, pitching it lightly into the gap between the pages of 'Angels We Have Heard on High', the closest thing he had to an open guitar case at the moment. He looked at me for a moment, his brows furrowed, missing the joke; then his frown faded into a smile, and he clutched the quarter tight in his fist before slipping it into his pocket.
'Twas the night before the night before Christmas, as my father used to say to us when we were kids, and also a dark and stormy afternoon, which set an atmosphere of not-quite-right clichéd beginnings, perfect for the unexpected sounding of the doorbell. I put down the glass of red wine I'd been trying to develop a taste for and jammed a postcard between the pages of my latest novel to hold my place. All the books on my shelf had held them at one time or another, my army of makeshift bookmarks with postmarks in languages I didn't speak.
The heavy rain on the windows had almost covered the chiming, a harsh downpour from a thunderstorm the forecast expected to turn sinister sometime tomorrow. Alabama doesn't usually dream of white Christmases, and we're certainly not thrilled about icy ones either, but the weather would do what it wanted, and it was up to the rest of us to make do.
The bell rang again, and I shouted, "Coming!" just in case the person on the other side got the idea nobody was home and left prematurely. I unlatched the deadbolt and turned the handle, opening the door into the storm.
It's a tradition some places to tell ghost stories around Christmas, which was the first thing I thought of when I opened the door and saw Jay there, rain-soaked and coatless, holding a pair of duffel bags and shivering, looking only enough like he'd looked the last time I'd seen him that I managed not to think he was a complete stranger.
"Can I come in?" he asked.
I moved aside and pulled the door with me, shell-shocked between disbelief and something bubbling up from within me that I would only describe later as pure joy. I stared at him, wide-eyed, as he moved into the small square of space that passed for a foyer in my house, dripping in a very un-ghostlike manner on my carpet. I swallowed twice, willing my voice not to sound like sand. "How long are you here for?" I asked, because it was the only question that floated to the surface that didn't sound too stupid, unlike did you tell your parents you're back in the country? and have you really been to all those places your postcards said? and did you come all the way back just to see me? and are you going to stay?
Jay shrugged, raking his rain-soaked hair out of his face, and smiled at me. "Maybe spring."
I peered into my English Literature text, frowning at the illustration, when Jay leaned up from his own desk, alphabetically situated behind mine. The picture was a rather boring pastoral number, with common people going about their everyday lives, and I might have missed the point entirely if our teacher hadn't pointed out the pair of adolescent legs sticking out from the water, the fleeting evidence of a terrible plummet into the sea. "Why doesn't he listen to his father?" I asked.
"He can't listen," grinned Jay, leaning close enough that I could feel the breath behind his words. "The story already happened. You can tell it a thousand times, but the ending's already there. There's nothing in it you can change."
I ran my fingers over the glossy page, trying to ignore the pandemonium around me, the inevitable result of an unsupervised class of eleventh-graders. All the people there looked so ordinary, running through their routines, plowing fields, tending sheep, fixed permanently on canvas, never turning their heads for the instant it would take to see Icarus drowning. "Why do you think he did it?" I asked, and immediately I wished I hadn't.
But Jay didn't laugh at me, or call it a dumbass question, or suggest I was a fag for asking it, or anything. He just shrugged and gave me a little half-smile, his gaze even then fixed somewhere on the far horizon. "He got closer to the sun than anybody else ever did."
Before I could press him on what he meant by that, Mrs. Callaway swept back into the room, her presence plastering us all back instantly to our own seats, and when the bell rang to let us out into the late April sunshine, he was the first one pointed toward the door, glancing over his shoulder to make sure I was right behind him; I threw my books into my backpack as quickly as I could and took off after him, running to catch that perfect grin, having forgotten I meant to ask him anything at all.
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