Part I: The Awakening
Don't talk to strangers. That was what his mom always told him, and he listened. Steve Ho was a practical boy, and didn't see any advantage to disobeying his mom. All he would get was a smack and a "thang lao!" which, considering that he had a distressing tendency to bruise easily, was the last thing he would aim for.
So that was why when the hobo in front of Phuoc Loc Tho yelled, "Hey, you! You with the gray shirt, come back here and pay me. Hey, asshole, come back!" he ignored him and ducked into the safety of the mall.
Afterwards, he felt a little bad about it. He had stopped to listen to the hobo play his guitar and sing. It had been a sad song, just as so many other Vietnamese songs were.
I've left my home behind, a home of palm trees and
I've left my home behind to cross the wide ocean, and oh, how I miss it.
The man had a strong voice, and his fingers had moved over the guitar strings with ease. When he was done singing, he had opened his eyes. "Hey," he had said, smiling.
"Hey," Steve had said. Then he had rushed into the mall without another word, the hobo's expletives hurtling after him.
It wasn't that he was afraid of him, or repulsed. It was just that when the hobo had smiled, his heart had skipped a beat. He placed a hand over his chest as his heart did another flip at the memory. No, no, it was nothing, he thought. He had just been startled, because the hobo had been...good looking. His hair was clean and combed; his clothes were old but neat. But it was his eyes...those warm eyes that had lit up when he smiled.
Steve shook his head and sighed. He needed to focus on getting his niece a birthday present, not wonder why some random street bum had made him all fluttery.
Steve's dad left a long time ago. His brother was serving the last part of a jail sentence, for being involved in a drive-by shooting.
About his dad, his mom said, "It just didn't work between us." Steve accepted the explanation, because his only memories of his dad were ones where he was yelling at his mom.
About his brother, his mom was silent. She never said anything to him about the shooting, but he heard her talking to his aunt all the time. "I don't know where I went wrong with him. Being in that gang, shooting that boy... Even leaving a daughter behind, with that no-good girlfriend of his. What did I do wrong?"
She compensated by smothering Steve. His grades had to be high, his friends all needed to be checked. Steve didn't complain. He knew his mother needed to do this, to reassure herself. He didn't mind. Besides, other than that, it was fine enough with just his mom and him. She cooked, he cleaned, and together they made life work. If sometimes she broke down, weeping and cursing at him for not doing well enough in school, or for having a friend who said "fuck" too often, he locked himself in his room until she had calmed down. Steve didn't make a big deal out of things: if he was calm then life was calm, and what else could he ask for?
His cousin Danny was a different story. Danny played the piano, and like the complex rhythms of his songs, the fierce undercurrents of his emotions were incomprehensible to Steve. Steve still liked talking to him, though, because Danny didn't tell him to "get loose" or "relax" like everyone else did. It was Danny whom he told about the hobo of Phuoc Loc Tho. "He plays the guitar."
"And?" Danny was rushing through his biology homework so he could get to the piano and play.
"And he's pretty good at it. He sings, too."
"Good for him."
"He smiled at me."
"Then he's a pedo."
"You always think the worst of people."
"And they never fail to disappoint my expectations."
Steve put down the manga he was reading. He looked at Danny, who was frowning at pictures of meiosis. Then he said, "When he smiled... My heart--I felt...different."
"Different isn't a very descriptive word." But Danny was looking at him now. "Different how?"
"My heart seemed lighter. Or something. I don't know."
"I hope he was a good-looking bum, at least."
"He seemed okay."
"Then go talk to him."
Steve blinked. "What?"
"If he's good looking, not dangerous, and makes your heart jump--don't look at me like that, it was just a guess--then talk to him."
"But I don't know him."
Danny rolled his eyes and asked, "Then why don't you talk to him, so you can get to know him?"
But the man wasn't outside Phuoc Loc Tho the next time Steve went. Nor was he there the time after that, or on any of the subsequent trips Steve made. The mall was only ten minutes away from his house by bike, so he went almost every day after school. On the weekend he even lingered for half an hour, hoping that the guitar-playing hobo would appear. But he didn't, and Steve pedaled off disappointed.
"Talk to him yet?" Danny asked whenever he saw Steve.
"He's not there anymore," Steve always said, and he started going to the mall less often. He buried the disappointment in the back of his mind, in the same place he hid the things that bothered him most: his dad and brother's absence, his mother's listlessness, his own preference for boys, not girls. It was a dark corner that grew fractionally, but which was still small enough for him to ignore and the rest of his mind to stay clear and bright. That part was occupied with things like grades, sports (he played basketball), and when he should clean the house again. It kept the dark corner of his mind in check, so that he could regulate the hobo there and get on with his life once more.
Jennifer showed up after basketball practice.
"Hey," one of the other players said, jabbing Steve in the ribs, "your girlfriend's here."
"She's not my girlfriend," Steve said with the same equanimity he had when talking about the weather, homework, or the progress of his favorite basketball team.
"Then why is she here making googly eyes at you?"
Steve thought about this for a moment as he took a sip of water. Then he remembered: "I promised to help her with her AP chem homework."
"She probably thinks you promised her something else, too." The tone was suggestive.
"Don't be a pervert," Steve said, a final parting as he packed up his bag and left.
"Hey," Jennifer said when he walked out of the gym.
"Hey. Sorry I'm late, Coach held us back."
"It's okay. You guys have a tournament soon, right? He probably wants you to do well."
"Yeah, probably. I'm surprised you knew about the tournament."
She blushed. "It...It's in the planner."
"Is it?" asked Steve, who scribbled the day's homework into his battered planner and didn't give it another look.
"Cool." It was the last piece of small talk he made. For the next two hours he only opened his mouth to explain stoichiometry: moles and percent yields and ratios, with only one deviation when Jennifer noticed the bruise purpling his arm.
"I'm fine. Someone bumped into me during practice."
"But that bruise looks nasty."
"I just bruise easily. That's why."
He made up a long, complicated problem for her to do then, and by the time she was done it was getting dark and her phone was ringing repeatedly. "I have to go now. My mom's waiting."
"Okay. See you."
She ran off before Steve could say anything else.
"Maybe you have hemophilia."
Steve's mom said that to him often.
"Mom," he always asked, "have any of your brothers had hemophilia? Or your uncles?"
"Have any of your male relatives had hemophilia?"
"If no one had it then you don't carry the gene, and if you don't carry the gene then there's no way for me to have hemophilia."
"You bruise so easily," was always the gloomy answer. "How do you explain that?"
"I have delicate skin. It has nothing to do with internal bleeding."
He felt fine, anyway. Other than the discolored bruises he gathered after every basketball practice, he was perfectly healthy. He didn't get sick often, and if he did it was only a minor cold that he recovered from in a few days.
But his mom worried. She didn't like it when he went outside, or played basketball.
"You'll hurt yourself," she said.
"I'll be fine. Besides, it's not like you can keep me safe forever."
The truth was that Steve needed the exercise. It helped keep him calm. Dribbling the ball, running up and down the court, aiming, shooting, scoring: it all excised the day's worries and fears, until he was empty again. If he didn't have practice on a certain day, then he would clean the house from top to bottom, and leave it pristine. The point was to keep in motion, keep busy.
A week after giving up on the hobo, Steve decided that the house was dirty and needed to be cleaned.
He said, "I'll be busy all day," and his mom understood.
"I'll be at your aunt's if you need anything," she told him, because when Steve cleaned he liked to have the house to himself.
She kissed him on the cheek and left. Steve put on an old T-shirt and sweatpants, and started at the top. He had dusted, swept, and polished all the upstairs rooms when the phone rang. Pausing in the middle of scrubbing the stairs, he walked over to the kitchen phone and picked it up.
"Hello? Is this Steve?"
"Yeah. Can I ask who this is?"
"Oh, Steve. It's me, Jennifer."
Steve tucked the phone between his ear and shoulder so he could grab a glass of water. "Jennifer. Hey. What's up? Did you need any help with homework?"
"Yes. I mean, no! Um, that is... I called because I wanted to know if you're free tomorrow."
"Tomorrow? I have practice, but only until one. Why?"
"Um, well, I was wondering if you'd like to go see a movie with me."
"Yeah? Which movie?"
"American Gangster. And--and it won't just be me. My friends are coming, too. So, um, are you interested?"
"Hmmm..." Steve debated this for a moment. He had a suspicion that Jennifer really was interested in more than help for AP chem. Unfortunately, he wasn't. There couldn't be any harm in just going to the movies, though, especially if it was with her friends. So he said, "Sure, I'll go. Just tell me when and where."
The happiness in her voice made him feel slightly guilty, as if he had just lied about something. But he hadn't: all he'd done was agree to see a movie with her, and not even a romantic movie, at that. As he scrubbed the kitchen floor, he told himself that nothing was wrong, nothing was wrong, nothing was wrong: even if, while Jennifer was bubbling over with excitement, he had thought of the hobo of Phuoc Loc Tho.
The movie theater was across from Phuoc Loc Tho. Steve met Jennifer there and got a shock. As things go, Steve didn't get shocked often. So this was one, a very rare thing; and two, therefore something actually deserving of surprise and perhaps a double take. Steve was still Steve, though, so no double takes were forthcoming, only a quiet intake of breath.
To his dismay, or relief, or both, the man who was crossing the parking lot, guitar case slung over one shoulder, recognized him. "Hey, you're that kid who ran away from me! I thought I'd scared you off permanently."
Jennifer looked confused. "Steve, do you know this man?"
'Um, yeah," Steve said. "In a way."
"We met in front of Phuoc Loc Tho. And you know, I should apologize for yelling at you like that, but you were the fifth person who walked away without paying, so I got irritated." The man smiled. When he wasn't sitting on the sidewalk, he looked even handsomer.
Steve tried to calm his heart by looking at Jennifer's confused face and the amused eyes of her friends. "It's cool. I, uh--I didn't mind."
"You ran into the mall so quickly, though. Come on, were you scared?"
"No!" Steve said. "I wasn't scared. I just--um..."
The man's eyes were knowing. "Just didn't want to talk to a dirty hobo?"
The only thing Steve could think of was, "You weren't dirty."
He laughed, and Jennifer's friends laughed as well. Steve felt like he was in a comedy routine, and he was the butt of all the jokes. "Just for the record," the man said, "I'm not really a hobo. I have an apartment. It's a shitty one, but I do live in it."
"Then why do you play in front of the mall?" asked Steve.
"I needed a way to get some money, since I was between jobs. I've found one now, though."
"Is that why you weren't at Phuoc Loc Tho anymore?"
"Were you checking for me?"
"No! Not at all." Steve fought the blush that was creeping onto his cheeks. Anyway, he thought, I stopped coming because you weren't showing up.
The man started walking to Phuoc Loc Tho. Before he was out of ear-shot, though, he looked over his shoulder and asked, "Hey, kid! What's your name?"
"Steve," said Steve.
"Nice seeing you again, Steve. I'm Tony." He smiled: it was heart stopping, and Steve knew that it would always have that effect on him. "Come visit me at Phuoc Loc Tho, okay? Next time, I won't yell at you, and we can start over." With a wave, he walked off.
"I think he likes you," Jennifer's friend Ryan said.
"Ew, gross!" said his girlfriend, Amanda. "He's like, ten years older, and he's a guy."
Jennifer herself said, "Don't say things like that, Ryan. He was just being nice, right, Steve?"
Ryan shrugged. "Well, all I'm saying is, the only one he talked to the whole time was Steve. And he only asked for Steve's name, not ours."
"What a creep."
"Steve," Jennifer said, looking at him with her large, sad-dog eyes, "you're no going to go back to Phuoc Loc Tho, are you? You won't go and see him again?"
But Steve didn't answer. He was already thinking about when he would be able to talk to the hobo--Tony--again.
"Don't you ever sing happy songs?"
"Sad songs attract more attention than happy ones."
"But wouldn't happy songs cheer people up? That way, they'll want to stay and listen longer."
"When I sing sad songs, people stay and listen, too. They like to think that I'm talking about their personal sorrows."
"But you're not."
"Of course not. I just write about very general sorrows, but since everyone has the same reasons for being depressed, they think it was written specifically for them."
"Is happiness the same way?"
"No, because different things make different people happy in different ways. It's only when they lose that thing do they become the same as everyone else. Loss is never different, no matter who you are."
Steve drew his legs up and made himself as comfortable as possible as he could, considering that he was sitting on pavement. He thought about what Tony had just said to him. In the short week that he had started meeting him at the mall, he had thought more about things like that more than he had in seventeen years. The reason simply was that no one had ever bothered to talk to him about happiness, loss, or the possibility of finding more than one "soul mate," before he had met Tony. Now he thought about it all the time, or at least until his mind became too crowded and he went to play basketball.
When he had thought for several minutes, he said, "But if every happiness is different, then shouldn't every loss be the same way? Since it would be like...like each loss leaves a unique space or something, shaped like the happiness?"
"Loss is empty space. All empty spaces are the same." Tony finished tuning his guitar and strummed a few chords. He looked at Steve. "There are no shapes to them."
"Well, what about people who haven't lost their happiness? The ones who just haven't found it? If every person needs something different, then shouldn't their empty space be, I don't know, a specific shape so it can be filled with that specific need?" What about his empty space, where a father, a brother, was missing? Was it the same as his niece's, that little girl who asked every day where her daddy was, and if she had one at all? The same as his mother's?
"Before there is anything there is emptiness. The emptiness fills in different ways, but when those things that fill it, that happiness, disappears, then there's just emptiness again."
The thoughts were weighing his mind, so he said, "Okay, this is getting too deep for me." He uncurled his legs and stretched.
Tony shook his head. "You just can't think of a counter-argument."
"Yeah, because most of what you said went over my head."
"You're too lazy to think, that's why."
"It's hard to think after that calculus test."
"Now you're starting to get over my head." Tony chuckled.
Steve remembered that Tony had only finished high school. Music had been more important than education, and his family had disapproved, so he'd moved in with an older friend as soon as he turned eighteen. "I spent five years in a band," he told Steve. "Best time I ever had, even if we lived and ate like cavemen. But then Rick had to go get drunk and kill himself in a car crash, that fucking idiot, and Brian's girlfriend made him quit. The rest of us just sort of fell apart after that. I've spent the last five years wandering around, playing at clubs and on the streets. It's not the same when you're alone on the stage, though."
Steve had no musical talent. He couldn't even song, so all he did whenever he visited Tony was sit and listen to him. He came every Wednesday and Sunday, because those were the days Tony had off from his new job playing at a club. Tony would play the guitar and tell him stories.
"When I was five I told my family I was going to be a musician. Waste of time, they told me. They wanted me to be a doctor, or a pharmacist. I said no. They yelled. I yelled back. They grounded me. I left as soon as I could. I didn't talk to them for a couple of years, but I did send letters to my grandparents. I missed them. They thought I was an idiot, but at least I was their idiot, always."
Often, he sang songs that he had written for his band as he talked about them. "You think I can sing, but I was nothing compared to Henry. He was brilliant. I wrote the songs, but he gave them life. When he sang, he was telling stories like I guess the bards of Greece did. Don't laugh! I'm telling the truth. It's too bad I lost contact with him...
"Brian played bass. I used to make really lame jokes about how his name and bass both started with 'b.' Brian Bass, Brian the Bass Player, haha, alliteration! Everyone told me I was an idiot, and I guess I was. I was the idiot of the group. Henry was the quiet one. Brian was the friendly guy, the boy-next-door. It's no wonder he got a girlfriend before any of us, and managed to stay together with her. Rick was our drummer. He was always getting drunk, or high. What a dumbass. He was so good, too...That car crash was a waste of talent."
Steve learned that that crash was pivotal for Tony. Besides Ricks' death, besides the band drifting apart, Tony had lost someone he loved.
"Her name was Clara," he said. "I used to go out with her. She was catching a ride with Rick to one of our performances when he--you know. When he was drunk.
"She was so beautiful. Maybe just to me, or maybe to anyone who saw the woman she was: warm, kind, generous. She gave her love to everyone. I think I was lucky to get a part of it, the part where her heart really was."
Steve listened to all of it quietly, even when Tony's voice shook as he talked about Clara. He just placed his hand over Tony's: a single moment, and then he pulled it away.
Only once, he asked, "If you have a job now, why do you still come here to play?"
Tony smiled. "If I didn't come here, how would I be able to see you?"
In the dark corner of his mind, Steve wished that this was true.
Steve's mom wanted to know where he went after school on Wednesdays, if it was the same place he went to Sundays, but all he said was that he went to visit a friend. His mom assumed that this friend was Jennifer, and that the reason for Steve's secrecy was a budding relationship.
But Steve had already told Jennifer, in his calmest voice, that he wasn't interested in being more than friends with her. And even though she kept trying in her timid way, by inviting him to the movies, dinners, and study sessions, to attract his attention, he never did more than teach her how to find the pressure in atm, or comment that she had changed her hairstyle.
He was as unflappable as always. The only difference was that there was happy tint to his calmness, and a fluttering quality about his face, as if emotions were impatient to find expression just behind that calm mask.
Some of the contents of that dark corner in his mind were unearthed, and when they had been dusted off and examined in the light, were found to be innocuous. For example, Steve liked Tony. It was a "like" that went beyond platonic, and after some time Steve just accepted it. The fact that he was gay didn't change much. He was still Steve. Things were just a little clearer now.
For all that happiness, though, there was also anxiety. Steve didn't know how Tony felt about him. He was nice, but that meant nothing when he was nice to everyone (except the people who booed or didn't pay him). Then there was also the fact that Tony was older by at least ten years, and saw Steve as more of a little brother than anything else. The biggest thing, though, was that Tony was still in love with Clara.
Steve was always aware of Clara's presence. He didn't think of it as a ghost, more as of a memory. Clara was the happiness, the loss, and the pain in Tony's songs.
A thousand days, a thousand nights, a
thousand stories, are empty without you.
And not even with a thousand words can I say how much I miss you, how much I love you still.
Tony visited her grave every week. He didn't tell Steve when he went, but Steve always knew because he would show up in front of Phuoc Loc Tho late and smelling of camellias: those were Clara's favorite flowers.
Steve asked only one question about her. "Did you fall in love at first sight?"
"There's no such thing as that," Tony said. He sighed. "But...when I first saw her, I was immediately attracted. Enchanted. So yes, you could say it was love at first sight, in a way."
So Tony would understand if Steve told him that he was also captivated at first sight. He would understand, but--he wouldn't return the feelings that deepened into love as the weeks slipped by. Steve knew this: that until Clara's presence faded along with the scent of camellias, all he could do was wait.
And wait he did.
Part Two: Orpheus and Eurydice
"Clara," Tony said. "Clara the Beautiful. I told her, once, that if she died I would come bring her back, and not fail like Orpheus did. She only laughed and said that the dead don't live again, and that even if there was a way back she would find it herself. She would find it and listen for my music, so she could walk back to me. I wrote Eurydice for her, and played it at her funeral. Of course, she didn't open her eyes and breathe. She was right: the dead stay dead.
"Eurydice was the last song I played with the others. We only performed it one more time, and then we drifted apart. It just wasn't the same without Rick, and I didn't even want to try to go on without Clara."
After that, Steve started dreaming about Clara. He saw her as he imagined Tony had seen her. At nights, she came and said, "Please."
"Please what?" he asked, but she never answered. Instead there was a screech of metal, and then blackness. A single road stretched into the distance. Steve stood at its side and watched as Tony walked along it. His fingers moved restlessly over his guitar, and he sang a song Steve had never heard before. Behind him, Clara walked, feet bloody, eyes lost.
He always woke up in a cold sweat after that dream, and in the time between night and morning, he lay awake, weighed down by nameless fears and worries.
"Is there something wrong with me?" Jennifer finally asked. "Or is there someone you already like?"
Steve looked up from the Calculus homework spread in front of him. "There's nothing wrong with you, Jennifer."
"Then you really do like someone?"
"Who is it?"
"I can't tell you."
"Does that person like you back?"
"I wouldn't know. I don't think so."
Jennifer stood up. Her eyes were sad and tired. "I guess you know how I feel then," she said.
"I do. I'm sorry."
"I can wait."
He shook his head. '"I'm waiting, too, so I can't promise you anything."
He could see: she couldn't wait. "I wish I'd given up sooner. It would have been easier."
"Don't regret anything because of me. Please?"
"That's easier said than done." She walked away without a good-bye, so he would know that this wasn't the end. She would come back, in her own time, when she had let him go in her heart. Maybe then they could say good-bye to what had been, and find something new.
He was waiting for that, too.
Steve cleaned the house so often that his mother worried.
"You'll overwork yourself!"
"I'm not sickly or a hemophiliac. I'll be fine."
"You always say that. One of these days, you'll really hurt yourself. What'll you do then? Say you're fine?"
"Cleaning the house isn't going to harm me, Mom."
"You keep saying that. You'll see, one of these days..."
Steve never answered her, but he did begin to notice something: the bruises on his arms and legs were accumulating, and they refused to fade away.
"Don't you have a girlfriend?" Tony asked.
"No. I don't want one."
"Eh? What kind of boy doesn't want a girlfriend?"
"My kind of boy, I guess."
"Steve, I hope you don't mind me asking, but...are you gay?"
Steve didn't bat an eyelash. "Yes."
"I guess you're straight? I mean, Clara..."
"Clara was Clara. That's all that matters, and gender has nothing to do with my preferences."
"So you could like a boy--I mean, a man?"
"Yes...Steve, do you..."
"Never mind. Forget it--I don't want to know."
The night was soft and melancholy, and Tony sang about Clara. "Dearly beloved," he said, almost speaking. "Dearly departed." The guitar fell silent. He stared across the parking lot. "Still remembered..." He wasn't even talking to Steve anymore, or to anybody but the woman who was there like a faded shadow. "Still missed..."
Steve went home early that night.
The day Steve's brother came back, his mom had a break down. "Get out! Get out of my house, you good-for-nothing bastard!"
Steve sat his brother down on the porch, his mom in her bed, and called his aunt. She came over in ten minutes, followed by his brother's girlfriend and daughter. There was a happy little family reunion while his mom laid upstairs with cold compresses and tea, tended by her sister-in-law. Steve's brother called to him as he sat on the porch with his daughter on his knees.
"Steve! Jesus, you've grown. How old are you now?"
"I'm seventeen," Steve said. He stayed several feet away, unused to his brother's presence, and bothered by the affect it had had on his mother. Personally, he thought she had overreacted, but then again, his mom had always had a flair for theatrics. Either way, he didn't want to get too close to his brother. Anybody who shot a boy without any apparent reason was not anybody who could be trusted, and Steve checked his brother over to see if he had a gun hidden somewhere. He hoped not, because his little niece was laughing and throwing her arms around her long lost daddy, and he didn't like to think about what a bullet could do to her small frame.
Steve's brother ignored him after he realized that Steve wasn't going to offer any more conversation. Steve, looking around, finally noticed that Danny had come over with his mom. He was playing on an imaginary keyboard, eyes unfocused, but when he felt Steve standing next to him, he looked up. He was unusually happy.
"I met someone," he told Steve in answer to his question, mysterious. "But anyway, let's not talk about that. What's up with you? Your mom has been telling my mom that you're always meeting someone after school."
"Is it that hobo?"
"His name is Tony, and he's not a hobo. He's got a house and a job."
Danny grinned. "So it is him. Are you two going out?"
"He said that gender has nothing to do with his preferences."
"Really?" Danny looked interested. "Then I guess you've got a chance, after all."
"Don't look so down about it. And, Steve?"
"You'd better do something about those bruises of yours. Even I'm starting to get worried."
Tony began commenting on the bruises, too.
"Steve, what the hell have you been doing? Your arm is practically purple."
"I've been playing basketball."
"I thought the season was over."
"It is. I've been playing with friends."
Tony frowned. "Do these friends knock you around too much?"
"No." Steve pulled down his shirt sleeve, to hide the discolored marks. "I just bruise easily."
"Take a break then!"
"Why?" Tony asked angrily, shattering the calm dusk. "Look at you, Steve! Look at your arms. You're covered in bruises. You're thinner than a toothpick. You look like--like you're being abused. Are you? Is someone beating you? If they are, just tell me, and I'll--I'll--"
Steve was silent for a long moment. He was stunned by this outburst, and, unsure of how to react, he said, "Nobody's abusing me. My mom barely comes up to my chest. My brother just got out of jail, but he's too busy with his family. I have no boyfriend." After a moment, he added, "I have no dad, either. He left a long time ago." Tony didn't reply, so he kept going, trying to fill the sudden silence. "Mom said it was because they didn't get along, and I guess that's true, because they were always fighting. From what I remember, anyway... Tony? Are you all right?"
Tony was staring at the ground, his eyes unfocused and moody.
"Tony? Are you okay?"
Suddenly, Tony stood up. "I have to go."
"Why, why, why. Stop asking why! You don't need to know."
But Tony had already stomped off to his old, battered car. He drove away without a single look at Steve, who sat in front of Phuoc Loc Tho, wide-eyed and stunned. The scent of camellias drifted through the air, the only reminder that Tony had been there at all.
Waiting became tedious. Tony stopped coming to Phuoc Loc Tho. Steve's friends began avoiding him, unable to comprehend his stillness. Even his classmates didn't want to talk, perhaps because Ryan and Amanda were gossiping about the strange man he had met in front of the movie theater. Steve noticed, but it was a small ache compared to Tony's absence, and he was too tired to fight.
On the Saturday after Tony left, Steve decided to clean the house. His mother refused to leave, though, because Steve had scoured everything raw just last week.
"You're crazy," she said. "Stop cleaning!"
But Steve was already dressed in his old T-shirt and sweat pants, and he ushered her out of the house. "Go, Mom. Co Trinh said she needed help with dinner, so now's a good time to go over. I'm okay. I just need some exercise. Bye, have fun, and don't worry about me."
This time, he started in the kitchen. He was barely through disinfecting the counter when the doorbell rang. Wiping off his hands, he went to answer it, and came face-to-face with Tony.
"Jesus, Steve! You look even worse than last time. And what were you doing? Cleaning? My god, youare being abused, aren't you, where's your mom, I'm going to give her a piece of my mind--"
"Tony...Tony, calm down! No one's abusing me. I already told you that. I just decided to clean the house because I'm feeling restless."
"...Is that a joke? Because I clean my house only once a year, or when the dust gets too thick, and--damn it, I'm getting off track. Where's your mom?"
"She went to my aunt's house. She's never here when I clean--"
"What kind of--"
"--because I don't like to have anyone around when I'm doing it."
"...Oh." Tony shifted uncomfortably, and that was when Steve noticed that he had his guitar with him.
"...Do you want to come inside?"
He stepped aside. Tony walked in without any hesitation, making towards the couch.
Steve shut the door and followed him. "How did you find my house? And why are you here?"
"You told me once, remember? You said that you lived ten minutes away by bike, on Sparrow Lane, in the small yellow house. The only yellow house."
"I didn't expect you to remember."
"Well, I did, and I came over because I've written a song for you."
"A song...for me?" Steve also noticed that Tony smelled like camellias. He had been to Clara's grave, so why was he at Steve's house now, saying that he had a song for him?
"Yes." Tony had unpacked his guitar and was tuning the strings. "Now don't say anything, because if you do I'll get too nervous."
"I told you not to say anything!"
Steve shut up and waited for Tony to start playing. But... "Wait--"
"Just one question!"
"What is it?"
"Is it a happy song or a sad song?"
"...A happy song."
Tony waited to see if Steve had any more questions. When he was reassured that there weren't any forthcoming, he began to play. It was a sweet song, but at first it didn't' seem to be happy, as Tony had promised.
I saw a boy walk past me.
His arms were full of bruises, his shoulders heavy.
I asked him, "Are you okay?" and he said, "I'm fine."
I swore then that he'd be mine.
He'd be mine, and I would heal those bruises he ignores,
Heal the hurts that he endures.
Suddenly, the bruises on Steve's arms ached. He hadn't noticed before, but now there seemed to be too many. Tony continued to sing.
I would heal those bruises he
Heal the hurts that he endures...
Tony finished, and set the guitar down. Steve was silent, and Tony asked, concerned, "Steve...?"
"You're an idiot," Steve whispered. His heart was beating quickly, but he felt more relieved, more empty and clean than anything else besides Tony's voice and smile could make him.
"You're an idiot," he repeated. "You don't have to make me yours, when I already am."
Tony gaped, then smiled widely. "Steve, you--you really are?" Steve nodded. Tony hugged him, and Steve smiled as well. But he still smelled the camellias...
"Tony, um...what about Clara? You..."
"I went to her grave today--to say good-bye."
And it was true. Clara's presence no longer surrounded Tony like a shroud. It was gone, as if to leave room for a new presence--Steve's.
So Steve said, "I love you," finally, finally, finally, and Tony kissed him. They stayed like that on the couch for a long moment, for a long, long time, and they would have stayed like that for much longer--
--until Steve's mom walked in, saw her son being caressed by a man clearly years older, and called the police.
Part Three (Epilogue): Dawn
The police said that they couldn't hold Tony for more than forty-eight hours without charging him.
"Charging him? What are you waiting for? Charge him for molesting my son!" Steve's mom said.
But the police explained that nobody had seen Tony doing anything to Steve. Certainly a kiss was inappropriate, but she was the only witness to that, and she had had a history of instability. Besides, Steve wasn't cooperating: he refused to say anything, and it was hard to make a case stick without a statement from him. He was nearly eighteen, too, and Tony had no prior record (except maybe for loitering), much less a predilection for molesting little boys.
Tony spent two days in a jail cell. While he was there, Steve's mom spread the word, thinking that popular protest would do what a trial couldn't. The Vietnamese community has an amazing grapevine, always ready and functioning, and soon everyone at Steve's school had heard. Far from receiving condemnation, though, Tony gained fame. Some students (like Jennifer, who managed to say hi to Steve in the halls now) had older siblings who remembered Tony; or, at least, they remembered his lyrics and Henry's story-telling voice, and they clamored for his complete exoneration, because someone who could write a song like Eurydice couldn't be a pedophile. So in the long run, the publicity jump-started Tony into a successful career.
But Steve was disgusted. He had lost his calm. His mother's maliciousness and his brother's threats to shoot Tony seemed to wake him up, and all of his family was surprised when they heard Steve yelling for the first time in his life, telling his mom that he was gay, that he was in love with Tony, that if his brother even laid a single finger on Tony he would regret it, and that he was leaving. His mom told him that he wasn't leaving: he was being kicked out.
Steve walked out of his house with a duffel bag and his basketball, leaving the net of loss and guilt behind. He didn't know how long it would be before his mom forgave him, if ever, but he could wait. He had had practice.
He didn't spend his whole time waiting, though. He moved into Tony's apartment, helped by Danny, who had taken a liking to Tony. When Tony protested, he said, "I turn eighteen in a week. And anyway, my mom kicked me out."
The apartment was small, and every bit as shitty as Tony had described. But Steve started cleaning the day after he moved in. This time, when he was done, there wasn't a pristine, crystallized space left, but a warm, cozy home, free of the heavy past and ready to be filled again.
Tony took Steve to visit Clara's grave, and Steve placed the camellias on the ground himself. As he straightened up, breathing in the scent of those flowers one last time, Tony said, "Steve... your arms. They're not bruised anymore."
Steve looked down, and smiled when he saw that the last of his bruises had faded away.
That night, Clara came to him for the last time. "Thank you," she said.
And then she disappeared.
Tony's new song Dawn brought his old band members back, even if only for a little bit. Henry was the first one who rang the doorbell, and Tony asked him if he wanted to sing for the recording.
"Hell no," Henry said. "I'm not the one in love with Steve."
But he and the others agreed to play if Tony sang, and the song became an instant hit. It was always on the radio, but Steve liked it best when Tony sang it to him in their apartment, with nobody else around:
That boy is mine, because I've healed his bruises with my
And now I look out the window--I see the coming dawn.