He had stepped over the chain across the park entrance without a catch, had walked the winding path as steady and forced as the beat of a metronome, and had come to the final milestone before his destination. There was now only one more step for him to go before he would arrive at the answer to his dilemma with D around the corner. And there he stalled.
Once he made this turn, there would be a straight unobstructed path along the river and nothing between him and the bridge. J had told himself all throughout the walk as he heavily treaded, anticipating this terrible moment, that he must not hesitate at this crucial point in the road, but when he reached the corner he automatically slowed his steps. It was as though his body was a car he was driving and he had to slow at the curb to avoid flipping over and spinning out of control. He stood before the turn, before the light of a street lamp, and waited for some signal to guide him forward into the unknown.
Facing the bridge, J desperately looked into the darkness. Thoughts whizzing as frantically in his head as the lost moths flying around the street lamp, he told himself that he had to move forward, that it was only natural to do so, that he needed to force his foot, but he could not stop trying to teleport himself to the bridge.
Then his signal to go came. A small car turned onto highway of the bridge. The night was too dark and the highway too sparingly lit to see the actual car, but he could follow the shine of its headlights against the backdrop of black sky. The car went slowly at first, trundling cautiously over the speed bumps, but then it picked up speed. It shot out of sight, a bright streak of light that pointed him to his destination and, he fervently wished, to D.
J closed his eyes and felt for his courage. He called up all his memories of the times when D had arrived at the meeting place on time. It had been so predictable and stable and faithful then. He thought about how good it had felt, how good it might feel again, and turned the corner with his eyes wide open.
Under his end of the bridge, quietly slouched on the bench there with his head down, beautiful as a dream, was D.
J felt like a sleepwalker as he went towards him. He felt suddenly unwound and less tensed. There was no sense of relief. Seeing D at their meeting place, just like usual but for the shocking exception of the last time, felt obvious and unquestionable. He floated forward as though carried by the river, keeping composed and purposely quiet, and rebuilt his shattered self-esteem on seeing D's distress at his absence as he silently approached him. With every step that he took while being unnoticed by D, who was miserably shaking his head down at the cold cement pavement, he felt almost unbelievably, complexly, happy.
D only looked up when he was a few steps away.
His reaction was immediate. Oh god, he gasped, I thought that you might not, I thought you might have, … But of course you came, of course you did. He came off the bench and in the next moment, had his arms around J.
J reciprocated reflexively, through no conscious thought. It was the only instinctive reaction that he had had since the last time that he had been able to meet with D so many weeks ago. D, so astonishingly solid and real, had his chin nestled into the crook of his neck and was whispering something out of his subconscious. When J heard an apology worded in the mix, he pulled back, feeling that a hook had been caught in his throat.
It's good to see you again, he managed after clearing his throat to no effect. The perceived betrayal from the last night was still fresh on his mind. But tell me what happened.
I tried to sneak out. I really did. But he was right at the foot of the stairs; there was no way to bypass him. I was already looking suspicious cuz of the outdoor clothes I was wearing and I kinda panicked. D ran his fingers roughly through his hair. And I was a meter from the door when he told me to go back upstairs and go to bed and you know how he is and I couldn't say no and I'm so sorry.
J nodded. He well understood D's circumstance cognitively, but he was not physically responding the same way. Any futile words of reasoned empathy that he tried to express caught in his throat.
In the end, all he got out was Okay.
D looked at him. You … understand, don't you J? He was less pleading with J than trying to convince himself. You're okay, right?
J looked away from D, into the polluted water of the river, and silently studied the ever-shifting shadow of himself that was reflected there. He could lie and say to D that he was fine, that he had had complete faith, and had known, before he had known, that something insurmountable must have been holding D back. Or he could tell the truth and tell him that sometime during his interminable wait on the front steps of the apartment in which he had believed that D was peacefully sleeping in, there had been a brief moment in which he had wanted the apartment behind him to crumble in on itself.
I missed you terribly, he finally said and swallowed back the feelings he couldn't word. I … that's all. It had been a month since they had last met and he couldn't believe it.
Then J's legs gave out under him as D pushed him back, into the past, into happier times, onto the bench. With every moment that they breathed the same air, J could have sworn that D was reeling him ruthlessly in and afterwards, as they caught their breath, he had to fight to keep his internally thrashing emotions from breaking the surface.
When they had to part, J was loosed back into the darkness as he walked back to his apartment, alone in the night streets. His only conscious thought was that the shadows were too dark for comfort and the streetlights too bright. There was no middle ground for him to fit in as he repressed his emotions with every trudge. Though he hit the straight stretch of main street sidewalk when he stepped back over the park entrance chain, he could tell no difference between it and the winding worn dirt path that he had just come off of except that one of them was more artificial.
At the final turn before reaching his apartment, he again found something to make him slow his steps.
Two men were standing next to a couple of trash bags, a little to the side of the sidewalk. One of the men was slurring his speech and making a ruckus; he appeared to be drunk. Reassured with familiarity, J continued walking. As he drew closer to them, however, J realized with sudden fascination that the man was not slurring his speech so much because he was inebriated, but because he was sobbing while he was shouting.
But I don't understand! So what are you fucking saying?
J continued walking towards them as slowly as he could without being noticed. The other man, the non-crying man, started speaking and his voice was calmer, lower, sounding like he had had more experience, like he had lived more.
No, you're getting it wrong. His tone was serious but it also somehow sounded like he was crooning. J couldn't imagine what that same beautiful voice, which he had no emotional connection to, would mean to the crying man, except that it was obviously something that merited tears. It's like this, the wonderfully voiced man said, and he proceeded to quietly explain something that J could not catch above the rush of cars on the street.
The first man started wailing with increased desperation. Will you stop bullshitting me, please!
Still crying hard, he was sucking in breaths of the breezy night air when he could, looking more like a fish out of water than a man out of hope. He wasn't embarrassed that he was bawling in front of the other man and in the public street – he was too preoccupied with his own feelings.
The show of self-absorption, the frantic cussing and begging, was something that made J's mind blank with want, but it was quickly filled with the second man's voice when he started speaking again. His lecturing voice was stern. He did not seem to mind that the man in front of him was breaking down and making no attempt to be quiet. J's mind went blank again when he realized that the second man was unperturbed that he had caused the first man a great deal of pain.
As J walked ever closer towards them, all he was aware of was that he wanted to be them. He wanted to be the first and second man all at once. He wanted to be able to display and expel his own repressed but exquisite pain and he wanted to impassively stand as he watched D choke on his own saliva in front of him.
The second man was saying something that J again could not catch except that it was deeply intoned. It did not matter what the man was saying. The noises he made were comforting and upsetting to the first man who took his words however he wanted to react to them.
When J finally reached the corner, guiltily averting his eyes from the men when he was up close, he heard the second man speaking again. With the men not in his sight, he could imagine that the second man had patted the first man on the shoulder and that the simple touch had flooded the first man with relief that he would not be abandoned, not really, or at least not purposely.
J felt like a corpse as he went away from them. He felt more dead and lifeless than ever before now that he had caught a glimpse of what heights life could go to. Witnessing the embodiment of what he wanted for himself had been exciting for only a moment before it had left him with a hollow in his chest. He dragged himself along, feeling absolutely comatose. With every step that he took away from the two men, who were still cussing and begging and crooning and lecturing with all that they were worth, he felt numbly, stunningly, inhuman.
His only wish was that he be able to feel something more extreme than the dull ache that he could not get rid of even though his misunderstanding of a betrayal had concluded.
Walking up the metal stairs of his apartment building and listening to the clang of his steps, J doubted that he would ever feel, let alone express, the clear sharp pain or calm that he had just seen. The dumb ache inside of him needed to simply be left alone, like a rust stain that had seeped onto white cloth and which wasn't found out and cleared up soon enough. D had been the lemon juice to take away the pain, and now he just needed to put himself out in the sun, covered with a sour taste, and wait for it all to slowly bleach away with time.
The only immediate improvement that J felt he had made in that night was that he had so exhausted himself that he barely had time to set his alarm before he fell asleep. Stretched out on his bed exactly like he had been on the bench with D, he slept like a rock.