Silent and wind-buffeted again, we continued up the increasingly steep slope of Charleton; Asher leaned forward in his chair. Snatches of other people’s shouted conversations and laughter whipped by us. It wasn’t until we were almost at Zeke’s that I realized that we had long since passed the alleyway where I had first found Asher, the four men. Surely he hadn’t forgotten, though. I wondered.
I didn’t have to wonder when we reached Zeke’s. Asher took his hand off his joystick and reached to grasp mine. “Is this the place where you were drinking when…?” he said over the wind.
I stopped alongside him, and nodded, smiling.
His hand tightened on mine. “Can we go in?”
I knew what he meant: Zeke’s was already open, since they served breakfast – but the front door had three steps. “Yes,” I said eagerly, “they have a ramp.” I had asked idly the last time I had been by, daydreaming of a scenario like this one. “Let me go in –” He nodded, and I hurried to find someone who could help, thinking that Asher had to be pretty cold at this point.
Not unexpectedly, it was quiet enough inside that Teddy, a tall guy in his thirties with prematurely salt-and-pepper hair who worked weekend shifts, could go back right away to grab the metal ramp from the storage room. He carried it out, we fitted it into place together, and Asher rolled in, yelling his thanks over a particularly ridiculous torrent of wind.
We ordered tea, coffee, biscuits. I held Asher’s hand under the table as he looked around at the worn, dark wood paneling, the cramped, brass-tapped bar, the dusty assortment of framed newspaper clippings, postcards, and license plates on the walls, the handful of regulars lingering over conversations. “Checks all the boxes,” he concluded, smiling, before tugging at his hand to gently free it from mine, moving it to rub his small hand, whose fingers were stiffly bent. “Sorry,” he said, “still freezing.”
“Should’ve let me warm you up more,” I said.
He choked back a laugh and then cleared his throat loudly; Teddy was coming with the food. I wrapped my hands around my mug and grinned down into my coffee.
We talked lazily: funny little things we’d noticed on the walk over, work, books. (I had started trying to read more, the past few weeks, so I could share more with Asher. I was pleasantly surprised by how much more I liked it when I had him to talk to afterward.) Asher tried to convince me again to join his family’s Thanksgiving dinner. I still wasn’t sure if I was up to it, really was taken aback by how fast Thanksgiving had come – because the arraignment had stood in the way as a glaring distraction. In fact, this was the first time that day that Asher outright mentioned the arraignment: “So you’re willing to sit through four hours of court on my behalf,” he said teasingly, “but not come and eat turkey with a few extra Kleins?” I put my head down, flushing, unsure whether I was being reluctant to the point of rudeness. At the same time, I hung onto one logical point: as hard as it was to believe in the moment, we had only been seeing each other for just over a month. As little experience as I had with family stuff, I was pretty confident that one month was soon to be showing up at a big family event. Asher’s parents had invited me themselves to a family event, that first awkward lunch when I’d met them, but it was easy to tell myself that they’d just been trying to be nice.
I could see Asher really wanted me to come, but he didn’t push when I said nothing more. He just smiled at me with the same glint in his brown eyes that he’d had in the courtyard where we’d kissed.
The memory of how he’d looked after the courtroom flashed back into my mind then, superimposed: his frightening paleness, his eyes tightened with stress, the slow distortion of his posture by his twisting back. I pushed it away, though I knew we needed to go back to it at some point, and soon. But it was so good to see him smile now.
We ordered more tea, more coffee, and then – just before the lunchtime crowd arrived – burgers. By the time we had picked over the last of our fries, I thought it was reasonable to order a beer. To my surprise, Asher did too. He waggled his eyebrows at my expression as Teddy left, and then cheersed me when our drinks arrived.
We fell into longer and longer periods of comfortable silence, just watching the people at other tables, the passersby still whipped by the wind outside, dry leaves flying by. We held hands across the table. I thought about kissing him in bed, later. The afternoon light mellowed.
As I finished my beer, I was just steeling myself to ask Asher how he felt about the arraignment, when he squeezed my hand and said, “Hey, Roy. Tell me about the first boy you fell in love with.”
I rocked back, rolling my head to one side. “Dddddd – d – d – ddd – damn.” I whacked my free hand into my thigh out of irritation both at getting preempted, and at my stutter.
“What?” Asher seemed to realize that I wasn’t reacting to only his question.
“I was jjjj – j – just set to ask you ab – ab – about the arraignment.” Asher’s contracted arm tightened jerkily across his chest, and he glanced away briefly, an uncomfortable half-smile on his face. “Guess you win at hard q-questions,” I continued.
He squeezed my hand again. “I won’t forget yours is queued. Couldn’t forget, really.”
“I figured. Fffffff – okay. Damn. D-do I really have to do this?”
“It would make me happy,” he suggested hopefully.
“Even if it’s not a happy ssss – suh – s-story? And I t-take forever?”
“Does it have to do with high school?” Asher said, unexpectedly. I looked at him, taken aback. He said, “Could have been a lucky guess – or an obvious one. But no – Allan told me I should ask you about high school at some point.”
“God damn it, Allan.” I pulled my hand away from Asher so I could run both over my hair, feeling trapped.
“Don’t be mad at him,” Asher said, smiling. “You know I would have asked you about it at some point anyway.”
“Yyyy – yeah,” I said distractedly, feeling a little as if I were back in the police station and about to give evidence for the fourth time. I dropped one hand to my thigh so I could keep tapping a finger there, which I hadn’t done in a while, but helped a little when I knew I was going to be stuttering a bunch. “Mm. Okay. Eighth grade. Ssssss. Suh. Sahhh. Soccer.” Damn.
“You get a ttt – two-for-one.” Asher looked puzzled, and I went on, “There were t-t-two guys I got hung up on to sss-start. Just s-started thinking a lot about how they played, what they looked llll – l-like. How good it felt when www – we won, got to celebrate t-together.”
I looked down at the table, tapping, tapping on my thigh. Thinking about the smell of wet, torn grass. The look of a smear of mud across the back of a calf. Laughter, a sweaty hug after a game. Arms slung across shoulders, heads pressed together.
I didn’t feel comfortable saying any of that, and looked up at Asher guiltily after the silence had hung in place for a while. The afternoon sun was full in his face, and his expression was dreamy, warm, as if he could see what I was thinking about; he was leaning back in his wheelchair, absent-mindedly running his hand up and down the forearm of his small arm, occasionally pushing up to stretch the bent wrist joint. After another moment, he said slowly, “What did they look like?”
“Oh, god. Um. One was p-p-pretty short. Brown hair. Kind of neat and quick – really quick and fun to watch when he was on offense. He had freckles. Made me lll – laugh a lot. He always had ssss – suh – something surprising to say. Like… I still try to r-r-remember some of his jokes, and I just… I c-can’t.
“Ssss... some of that might just be me t-trying to forget things.” I said it as lightly as I could, but Asher twisted his mouth to one side. “But it’s also… he just thought about things so d-d-differently.”
Again, I paused, thinking.
“Other was tall – lot taller than me then. I didn’t g-g-grow till later.” That made Asher push himself up in his chair straighter, almost grinning – he was excited to have found out something extra about me when I was younger, I realized, embarrassed. I pushed onward. “Um, dark blond hair. Tan. Kind of cuhhhh – careless. Very cool, I guess. Had kind of long hair, would always –” I mimed tossing my head back at an angle to get hair out of my eyes. Again, Asher grinned appreciatively.
I had never told anyone else this much; I was ashamed to realize that my heart was actually beating faster out of nervousness. But all the same, it felt nice, safe, knowing that I could just tell Asher, knowing that he’d listen, he’d get it. But I kept to myself the fact that Cyrus, who we’d seen at the library, the day I ended up telling Asher about how I used to sleep around a lot – I’d liked Cyrus a lot more than I should have considering how he ended up treating me. And a lot of the problem was, from the first time I’d seen him, I couldn’t help thinking how much he looked like the blond boy on the soccer team. The measuring way they had of looking at things – a long scanning look followed by a private smile, a quick glance away, as if they’d figured out something secret. I didn’t and did want him to figure me out, that boy from eighth grade.
“Man.” I leaned back a bit and rubbed a hand around the back of my neck, shaking my head slightly. I didn’t know how long I’d drifted off.
“So what happened?” Asher asked, softly.
Being gay got shitty, I wanted to say, but didn’t. I pressed my tapping finger into my thigh with extra force. “I duhhh –” My voice evaporated out into a useless exhalation, and I had to pause, swallow, breathe, and start again. “I -– I d-d-d – didn’t really know what was going on. I wasn’t thinking about it that much. So someone f-figured it out b-b-before me. Because I watched so much...
“People started b-being shitty to me. M-m-m-my stutter got really shhh – shitty. It was only a l-little problem, off and on, before that.” I couldn’t help the bitterness that took over my voice. “But it got really bad, s-so that was another excuse to fff – fuck with me. After a year or s-something – felt like forever – I gave up and quit soccer. Still terrible, next few years. Didn’t get better until I started punching people, around the same ttt – time I started growing. Last few years of high school – didn’t talk to anyone, just worked, got the hell out, kept working. Only good thing that whole time was I think my p-parents heard things, but they… didn’t really suhhh – say anything, one way or the other. They always had a lll – lot of other stuff to deal with.” I shrugged awkwardly, looked up again.
The way Asher was looking at me – it was so much better than if he’d said anything. The tenderness.
After another few moments, though, I had to look away again. I propped both elbows on the table, linked my hands together, pressed my mouth against them. I took a deep breath, and another one. I needed to think about nothing for a little while. My head felt hot.
Finally, Asher leaned across the table to touch my hands. His touch was light, cool. “Wanna get out of here?” He made it sound mischievous, though his eyes were concerned.
I unlinked my hands, pushed back against the table, managed a smile. “Yes please.”
We left a huge tip for Teddy; as he wiped down the table, he grinned shyly and said we should come see his DJ set later that week at some place I’d never heard of. I tried not to sound too promising. He got us the ramp again, and we headed out into the afternoon, back into the wind, back down the slope of Charleton. We took it slow; this part of the hill was so steep that I knew it would make Asher nervous, even with his seatbelt, and even taking to the street to avoid the cobblestoned sidewalks.
Every time I glanced down at him by my side, having been wrenched back into the past and out again, I felt as if I was seeing him clearly for the first time. The light flickering in his hair as the wind tore at his curls. The fine shape of his upper lip. The way the afternoon sun made his skin look more golden. Once, just to touch him, I reached out to uselessly push some hair back over his ear. He started at first, his knees drawing up, but then swiftly turned his head to touch his lips to the back of my hand. We smiled at each other. When I put my hand back in my jacket pocket, it was almost trembling with the desire to keep touching him.
A few blocks away from the bottom of the hill, we stopped, silent. We turned, and stared down the blind alleyway where Asher had been attacked, and I had found him.
In the daylight together, coming out on the other side of the arraignment, the alleyway looked smaller to me than it had that night, when it had held so much. Somehow now it looked flat, contained, like a theater set. Anonymous brick buildings on either side.
Set low into the back wall, where I had held up William Riley, there was a half-height metal door, painted black, that must have led into a cellar. I hadn’t noticed it that night. I had a sudden surreal impulse to stride down and knock on the door, see where it led. Would it open back up on that night?
I shook my head slightly and looked down; Asher had put his hand to his neck in a kind of protective gesture, and the line of his mouth was drawn flat. I watched his face, the slowly flexing fingers of his small hand.
Finally he, too, shook his head, and then sighed. He reached for my hand, and said, “Don’t we have a bus to catch?”
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