As the car sped down the long stretch of highway, James stared blindly out the window at the orange hue streaming high into the sky and bleeding into the midnight blue. With the seat belt strapped across his chest, he couldn’t outrun his fears or the man next to him. Trapped.
The whistling of the air conditioner blocked out everything—his thoughts, his breathing, who he thought he was. Swallowing hard to knock down the coffee edging up his throat, James turned to study the guy next to him. Barely a blink, gaze glued to the road, his bronze face expressionless. Blank. He, too, had retreated to his own world, cut himself off from…them. Together. Apart. Was there a difference?
James slouched down in his seat and took a deep breath, his focus back on the rolling landscape. This was the last place he wanted to be, on his way to his ‘in-laws,’ but he hadn’t been able to pull himself out. What was he afraid of? How long would fear hold him hostage to a life that was no longer his own? When they passed a sign that read, ‘Next Service Centre 11 km,’ he cleared his throat.
“Yes, we’re stopping,” broke the steely silence.
That harsh and dismissive tone made James’s body go rigid, and he closed his eyes. He couldn’t say exactly how long—three months, maybe longer—he’d been wondering what falling out of love looked like. Was it the opposite of falling in love? When apprehension and lack of desire replaced that once great anticipation of seeing a new love. When the dread of intimacy with the one you ‘love’ trumped the pitter-patter of a once racing heart. When mechanical, silent, straight-to-it sex deposed the once energetic, vocal, never-enough lovemaking. An act. Transactional. To fill a basic need.
As the car veered onto the offramp, James knew what falling out of love looked like. It was all around him. But was he ready to escape the life that wasn’t his own?
“Are you just going to sit there?”
James didn’t open his eyes until after the driver’s side door had banged shut. Kept his gaze trained on his lap to avoid looking at Zane. Just thinking that name had his stomach dropkicking his intestines. He didn’t move for another few minutes, then undid his seat belt and exited the vehicle. Making his way towards the building, he clasped his hands together above his head and yawned as the morning sun warmed his face. Zane, scowling and tapping his foot, opened the door as he neared.
Inside, they beelined it to the restroom. Now his fear tried to hold his bladder hostage, but it eventually burst. Washing his hands, James saw Zane pacing in the corridor and repeatedly checking the time. Always on a schedule. Always trying to plan every second. James took his time drying his hands.
“Tim Hortons or Wendy’s?” Zane barked.
“Neither!” James screamed inside his head, but submitting to Zane’s will as always, said, “Tim Hortons.”
They stared up at the menu—James with his hands in his pockets, Zane with his arms folded. James glanced to his right. When did everything change? When did we become so happy in our unhappiness? They ordered, then he left and secured a table by the windows.
James studied Zane, who stood sideways near the counter and drummed his fingers into his biceps. He cranked his head in the direction of a high-pitched shrill to see a mother rushing her crying infant towards the restrooms. When he spun around, Zane was easing onto the chair across from him. In the brief moment their gazes met, James understood the message gleaming in Zane’s light-blue eyes: ‘I know we’re not perfect, but you’ll break me if you let me go.’ His look offered a reply: ‘I’m sorry, but I can’t stay here anymore.’ Then he savoured the silence while they ate. A way to stay outside of them, to keep putting off things that needed to be said. Someone once told him that staying was easier. It wasn’t. Staying kept them in an untruth, kept them away from the happiness they both deserved.
James’s gaze landed on the hand resting on his wrist, its roughness stirring an ache he thought was long dead. Maybe it had only ever been dormant. But had the touch ignited the embers of desire or simply unearthed the nostalgia of the past? The rough hands gliding over his body, the wet tongue tracing his earlobe, their bodies locked in a clenching embrace… He raised his head until their gazes met and studied the man looking at him. The squarish face, austere and hawkish, that immediately softened when those thin lips curled into a crescent. The dark full mane speckled with grey. What had happened to them?
“What’s wrong?” Zane asked and smiled faintly. “You’re quiet. Too quiet.”
Since the day they met, Zane’s generous smile had had a certain power over James. Touched that special place in his heart, compelled him to eagerly surrender to Zane’s will. But things were different now. He pulled his hand away and stared at his empty sandwich wrapper. “I think we are.”
“You lost me, James.”
James looked up. “You asked me what was wrong. I think we are.”
Zane collected the empty wrappers, piled them on the tray, then bolted from the table.
James polished off his orange juice, then made his way back to the car, where he found Zane leaning against the trunk. He approached cautiously and unexpectedly reached for Zane’s hand. “It’s not just me, right?”
“No,” was Zane’s barely audible reply. He looked at James. “Is this the end of us?”
James blinked magnificently. “I don’t know…”
“We should go.” Zane yanked his hand free and then moved around to the driver’s side of the car. Climb in, jammed the key in the ignition, and then drummed his fingers into the steering wheel while he waited for James. As the minutes ticked by, he finally honked the horn. Seconds later, James was seated next to him.
They were back on the highway, the stony silence not only comforting but necessary. How had they slipped away from each other? How had their once bountiful love been left to asphyxiate itself? He remembered those mornings when they lay in bed, wrapped up in each other, when no words were needed. Just them, together. Their talks—over dinner, on the sofa, after sex—where no topic was off limits, when they were the most vulnerable. Was it really the end?
Zane finally broke the silence with, “Is it something I did or didn’t do?”
“Not really,” James mumbled.
“What does that mean exactly?” Zane’s voice spiked. “Sounds like I did something.” When James didn’t say anything, he asked, “Is there someone else?”
“No!” James touched his hand to Zane’s thigh. “It’s not like that.”
“Then tell me what it is like,” Zane pleaded.
“I don’t…” James pulled his hand away. “I don’t feel like we’re on the same journey anymore.”
“I don’t know what that means,” Zane snapped.
“It means, we come home from work, eat, barely say a word, and then retreat to different rooms. We used to talk about travelling to Europe, going on a cross-country road trip… It wasn’t supposed to just be about buying a home and filling it with stuff. We said we wanted to experience life.”
“I still want those things. With you.”
“Really. But, James…” Zane swallowed hard. “There’s something you need to know…”
“What are you doing?” James asked as the car again veered off the highway.
“I told you that there’s something you need to know.” Zane glanced at him before completing a turn. He didn’t say anything else until they pulled into the McDonald’s parking lot and killed the engine. Then he undid his seat belt and shifted sideways to face James. “I know things have been strained between us for a while. And I thought you stopped having sex with me because you don’t find me attractive anymore. I have gained a few pounds.”
“Zane…” James threw him a mocking look. “I still think you’re attractive.”
“You don’t act like it,” Zane said with an edge. “But if you think ‘we’re not on the same journey anymore,’ then I get why you won’t touch me. It separates us. Builds a wall.” He raised a hand. “I shouldn’t have just ‘accepted’ it. I should have called you out. But I didn’t.”
“I didn’t say anything,” Zane interrupted, “because three weeks ago I saw Dr. Ashe after…noticing blood in my urine.”
James reached for Zane’s hand. “Why didn’t you say something?”
“I sensed you were trying to find a way to tell me you wanted out.” Zane rubbed his eye. “I didn’t want you to stay because…”
“I don’t know when or why we stopped talking to each other.” James touched his other hand to Zane’s face. “What did Dr. Ashe say?”
“Still running tests, but his ‘guess’ is bladder cancer.” A tear rolled down Zane’s cheek. “But don’t stay if you’re not happy, James. I don’t want your pity.”
James unfastened his seat belt and pulled Zane into a crushing embrace. “I’ll stay because I love you. And we’ll get through this together.” He didn’t resist when Zane pulled away from him. “What do we now?”
“Maybe turn around and go home.” Zane shifted to fasten his seat belt and flipped the engine. “I know you’re not crazy about my family.”
“They’ve never been crazy about me, either.” James reached for Zane’s hand. “But it’s your grandmother’s eightieth birthday, and you’re her favourite grandchild.”
“You never really gave my family a chance,” Zane shot back.
“You could have warned them that you were dating a black man. No, you had to ‘surprise’ them. God, your mother nearly had a heart attack.”
“Well, your mother wasn’t any better. I can still see her pointing at you and saying, ‘You’re dating this piddly white boy?’”
“At least she’s come around. She doesn’t call you piddly anymore.”
They laughed as their fingers intertwined.
“That felt good.” Zane looked at James. “Been a long time since we laughed like that together.”
“Too long.” James released Zane’s hand. “I can drive for a bit if you want.”
Zane smirked. “I’m good. Maybe we can switch if we stop again.”
Once James fastened his seat belt, the car started moving. It wasn’t long before they were speeding down the long stretch of highway, but this time something was different. They were different. James glanced at Zane. “When’s your next appointment with Dr. Ashe?”
“Tuesday at ten.”
“I’ll take the morning off.” James censored himself, then added, “And when you’ve beat this, let’s actually go to Europe. Maybe start with Paris.”
“I’d love that,” Zane said.
Then a silence settled in, one that was both necessary and finally comfortable. They had, in perhaps an unexpected way, found their way back to each other. And as James stole a sidelong glance of Zane, he realized love wasn’t always easy. Mostly because he’d been a prick.