It Wasn’t Supposed To Be Like This
(6 March 2017)
Not the way he wanted it to, not the way he imagined. Not only against his will, but in spite of it. Then he made the decision not to preserve it, not to let it deepen. Yet he didn’t know how to cut it off, its will to live too great. It rattled his moral core, had him questioning his own worth.
So it began.
And he couldn’t stop it.
Alex stared blankly at the black stenciled letters on the expansive white wall, not reading the words they formed or digesting the meaning they conveyed. Just standing there, still. In extremity. Soaking up the quiet to instill a calm, squash his suspicions. He discreetly turned around and surveyed the room. Just him and the zealous security guard, who deflected suspicion back to him. He couldn’t shake the feeling of being “spied on,” like someone was watching his every move. But it was just two men in the last room of the Andy Warhol exhibit at the AGO. I’m being paranoid? he thought, until he caught the guard’s I’m-watching-you look. Or am I?
He returned his attention to the wall, tried to concentrate but couldn’t. It wasn’t always just him and the devout guard. There was sometimes a third. A tall man wearing a blue shirt underneath a light-grey V-neck knit vest and charcoal grey dress pants. He’d seen him at the other end of a room studying a silkscreen or print. Then, when either of them dared to sneak a sidelong glance of the other, they’d glance away the moment their eyes met. Is he stalking me? Or does he think I’m stalking him? Alex tried to shrug it off. It was Tuesday morning and the gallery was empty. Of course, as the only two visitors at the time, they’d keep running into each other. But … He’d heard about “stalking” incidents happening all the time at the Eaton Centre. The silent pursuit, the coy smiles and the exchange of some universal signal understood by all gay men that led to the end play: a five-minute hookup in the nearest washroom stall. But this was the AGO.
And that wasn’t his scene.
Or so he thought.
A steady quietude soon prevailed, easing Alex’s fears. Then, at the hand pressing gently against the centre of his back, his body went rigid. He turned to see the tall man standing next to him, very close to him, his expression set in determination. Was it the tri-cornered smile? The probing metallic blue eyes? The wavy Brendan Hines hair? He couldn’t say for certain or name the force that took control of him. He waited for the security guard to turn away, then followed the guy out of the exhibit room and into the men’s washroom.
Alex locked his gaze on the smiling beauty, who pointed to the open doors of the stalls. All clear! He took a step back as the man advanced, cornering him. Was he really about to do this?
They were inches apart, staring intently at each other, and perhaps waiting for the other to make a move. A nervous laugh, a moment of hesitation, then the guy slipped his hand to the back of Alex’s shaved head and pulled him forward until their lips met.
Nine months ago.
Neither of them knew how it had sustained itself, or how they’d arrived here. A loose, almost accidental association held together by the quiet moments after sex when they lay on opposite sides of the bed, catching their breath. Immured in a necessary silence, and then purposely avoiding eye contact as they dressed and parted ways without any other physical contact.
Was it supposed to be like this?
“You should go.” Alex reached for the blue jeans, bunched on the floor next to the bed, and stepped into them. “I mean it. Go!”
The olive-skinned man, stretched out on his stomach, made a sort of grunting noise. He sat up in the bed, his feet tangled up in the bed sheets, and combed out his hair with his hands as he tried to catch Alex’s eye. “How come you never say my name?”
Alex sat down on the slipper chair angled in the corner between the window and the six-drawer mahogany dresser. He pulled on the socks that had fallen out of the leg holes of his jeans and sat there, still, his gaze held to the floor. Don’t back down now. Don’t be weak or a fool. He raised his eyes and locked them on the defiant-looking beauty. “Is there anyone else in the room?” He bent down to sweep up the blue T-shirt from the floor, pulled it on, and stood. “I mean it. Get dressed and go.” He rushed out of the room.
By the time he reached the living room he felt sick — not sick sick — sick. A sort of spiritual malaise salting the wound of having lived a life of regret. Dreams gone unfulfilled. Unrequited loves. Work that left a void. He walked aimlessly towards the fireplace and contemplated the framed photos on the mantelpiece. He searched each photo for meaning, as if they could somehow explain him and the life he’d lived. He placed his hands on the cool granite mantel shelf, leaned slightly forward and closed his eyes. A pain so acute, like a hammer connecting with the nail head and each tap thundering in his head. He instinctively touched his fingers to his throbbing temples, his eyes closed so tight that when he opened them it took a moment for the picture frames to come into focus. He staggered across the room and collapsed onto the taupe suede sofa. No more pain.
Silence. Eerie, yet somehow comforting. A silence pierced by the faint sound of him clearing his throat. Alex brought himself forward until his head was between his knees, enveloped by the unsettling energy in the house when he was there — a presence that possessed, impressed a new sense of order.
Don’t be a fool. There’s nothing he can do, nothing anyone can do. The best thing is to just face it, deal with it head-on. Alone. I can’t change it. It happened … It’s happening. Accept it. But I can’t let it mark me, be its victim. Maybe it’s too late. Maybe I’m already … its … victim.
Alex sat back up at the heavy-footed steps detonating on the hardwood stairs. Their eyes met as he rounded the staircase. They were back at the beginning, before words were necessary, when a look or a nervous laugh conveyed it all. Their separateness. Their temporality. Their impossibility.
Running his hands through his now close-cropped hair, the man sat down on the sofa and touched Alex’s thigh. “How come you never say my name?”
Alex shot him a knowing and familiar look, one that Alex often used to dismiss him in moments of anger or to reel him in in tender moments of … love. A covert language that compelled submission, and one that he resented yet would love to master all the same.
“‘You should go,’” he said, imitating Alex’s dismissive tone.
Alex’s eyes were on fire. “Was there anyone else in the room?”
“Not the point.” His eyes went blank, wide with despair. “Besides, you know what I mean.”
“Actually, I don’t.” But Alex knew exactly what he meant. Saying his name gave him power, and wouldn’t that make them real? But we’re impossible. Have been from the beginning. A one-night stand can’t be a prelude to love, an enduring love, can it? Alex didn’t think so. But hadn’t Grindr and Hornet, and so many of the other hookup apps out there, made that the norm? Or was it his previous relationship that had him doubting how love could exist through a myriad of possibilities, and be pure and true? He placed his hand on top of the golden boy’s, halting its back and forth movement across his thigh. Then he stiffened. The rich, smoky scent of “Alive” — a love potion that even the hardest of men couldn’t resist — flooded his nostrils, the pain back and pulsing behind his eyes. Get him out. Now. “Jonathan …” he drawled, outmaneuvering Jonathan’s play for his hand.
“Finally!” Jonathan shifted his body sideways and looked at Alex. “I feel like you don’t know me, or don’t want to know me when you don’t say my name.” He swallowed hard. “It’s like I don’t exist to you.”
“I’m the one who doesn’t exist,” Alex wanted to say, voluntarily censuring himself. “This is impossible,” he said instead. “You know that.”
“No, I don’t know that.”
Alex bolted off the sofa and stood in front of the window, the darkening sky mimicking his mood.
“You know I lo …” Jonathan’s voice faltered at Alex’s raised hand.
Desperation. Don’t say it. I can’t hear, “I love you.” I can’t let myself be hooked. Not now. Not when everything’s falling apart. I’m falling apart. I don’t know him. I didn’t want to … Because of what it would mean, where it could lead. His favourite colour? Author? Book? His middle name? His family? I know nothing. Nothing. That keeps us separated, detached. Makes it so he shouldn’t love me.
Alex, sidling his eyes to Jonathan, felt faint but quickly gathered up his strength. “Christ,” he said in a barely audible voice, his attention again focused on the dark sky. Was he, despite his posturing, already swept up in the things that love was all about? No, impossible. Impossible.
“Look at me.” Jonathan’s voice had the command of a general ordering his troops into battle, but it wasn’t enough. Alex still stood with his back to him, the message loud and painfully clear. Jonathan went into the front hall, grabbed his jacket from the closet and stabbed his feet into his shoes. He came back into the living room and stood just a foot inside the entryway. “I don’t know what just happened here.” His voice rattled with the emotion of a man understanding the betrayal of his most trusted confidant. “In the last fifteen minutes we’ve been completely turned upside-down.”
Alex walked back to the sofa and sat down. He looked in Jonathan’s direction but not at him. “Not really.” His contralto, usually controlled voice flared with a steeliness that he couldn’t tamp down. Nor did he want to. It was necessary for his end play to be successful. His eyes fell on Jonathan’s that were swimming in panic yet at the same time blank. Maybe it wasn’t panic. More so disappointment.
They’d been upside-down from the beginning, from that first kiss in the AGO’s washroom and the exchange of phone numbers that followed. The high of that encounter and of the risk they’d taken couldn’t be sustained, not in the long-term. Not when, in the days and weeks that followed, they met singly for sex. Not dinner or coffee. Not a drink at the local pub or ice cream at the popular roadside stand. Just sex. At his place or Jonathan’s. Often late at night, under the veil of darkness when they wouldn’t be seen, observed. Straight-to-it, uninhibited sex. The talking, as they isolated themselves on each side of the bed, came later, in the last month. Cautious talk about their days. Never about their dreams. Never about the things that made them strong. Never about them. That held Alex to his cause: steer them away from each other and to a solitary life.
“Do I have to say it?” Alex’s head arched backwards, and he immediately brought it forward and levelled his eyes at Jonathan. “We’ve been upside-down since the beginning.”
“So what does that mean, exactly? That I’m just some second-rate whore?” Jonathan balled his fingers into fists, then shoved them into his pockets. “I don’t care what you say. This stopped being about sex a long time ago.”
Is he right? Alex wondered. After nine months, could there be something substantial behind the purely physical meet-ups? He stood, crossed to the living room doorway and, with his eyes boring at Jonathan, said, “Please … just … go …” He stepped past Jonathan and made for his office.
The room, much like the rest of the house, was sparse. His large oak desk sat in the middle of the room, his chair placed so he could look out the window into the front yard, and giving the feel of being in a public library. There were two large bookcases, jam-packed with books, against the windowless wall housing the door. A wooden filing cabinet in the corner to the right of the window. In the other corner, a three-foot wooden stature of a lynx. On the walls his diplomas, from the University of Toronto and Harvard, and an erratic display of black and white photos of cities he had visited. He stood near his desk waiting for the sound he thought would never come, took too long to come: the thud of the front door banging shut.
The bang, ricocheting off the listless walls, had him back in his doctor’s office, listening to the bearish voice spilling out words that he couldn’t comprehend.
“I don’t understand,” Alex had said, his throat constricting. “Less than a year ago —”
“It can be unpredictable,” the doctor said, glancing down at the open file on his desk. “We talked about a number of scenarios, depending on —”
“But this …” Alex’s voice cut out, tears pooling in his eyes. “How long?”
“Six months, maybe a year. Depending on treatment.”
“Could it … Could it be a mistake? I mean, could I have longer?”
The doctor removed his black rectangular-framed glasses and set them on top of the file as he leaned back in his chair. “It’s everywhere. The cancer’s everywhere. I’m sorry, but you asked me to always be honest with you. In your case, I don’t see how …”
“… I could possibly beat it,” Alex finished the thought.
Ding, dong, ding, dong. Repeated again and again, with a sort of high-strung impatience, until Alex reached the front door and pulled it open wide. He had no time to react, to prevent the “intruder” from barging into the house. He closed the door and looked at Jonathan, whose face was tied up in knots.
“I can’t accept that we were ‘upside-down since the beginning.’” Jonathan’s voice cracked, and he blinked rapidly to hold back his tears. “Yes, our meeting wasn’t conventional but …” He moved to Alex and held his face. “Something, beyond sex, happened between us. I know it. I feel it.”
Alex took a step back and walked into the living room, Jonathan’s heavy footsteps following behind. He stood at the far end of the room, near the fireplace, with his head hanging low, the pain beginning to rise. Jonathan was right. Something, beyond sex, had happened between them. But the timing was all wrong. Alex thought of it as duty, to not let Jonathan into that other world and the things that death was all about. That was his own labyrinth, his own burden. He spun around, Jonathan staring him down, and was finally moved by the look, a mixture of disbelief and anger, thrown at him. He understood. They were part of each other’s fabric.
“Sit down,” Alex said somewhat harshly, and pointed to the sofa. He sat down in the matching armchair, his eyes roving the room. Their gazes met, then tears filled his eyes and streaked down his face. In that moment he was desperate to feel like he wasn’t alone, and that he was very much, still, a part of this world. Desperate, in perhaps a most childish way, to believe that love had the power to, meaningfully, move the hearts of men. Just one man. Jonathan. “It wasn’t supposed to be like this,” Alex said quickly, his voice strong, inviting Jonathan into that labyrinth.
* * *
Forty minutes later, Alex stopped talking and studied Jonathan, seated on the edge of the sofa and holding the gaze. The moment long and, in the harrowing silence, significant. He had told Jonathan everything, reliving a lifetime of emotion. He was spent. He had no more plays. Jonathan, coming back to the house and holding him to account, had upended his end play.
Then it happened.
Alex blinked magnificently as Jonathan rose from the sofa and crossed to him. His heart raced as Jonathan looked down at him, the beginning of that insouciant smile. Then came the raised hand, and Jonathan’s thumb pressed gently against his lips. The stare intent, probing, deep. But no nervous laughter. No hesitation. Alex rose, cupped his hands to Jonathan’s stubbly face and kissed him.
In no time at all they were back in Alex’s bed, naked, and searching for each other. The lovemaking was rough, almost savage, and unusually vocal. Complete. They laughed when Alex, his hand covered in lube, fumbled to open the condom package. A silly moment reminding them of their beginning together, when they were nervous and trying to find their rhythm. Now they had their rhythm, and with that silly moment passed, held each other in a clenching embrace, determined to hang on to each other. They were in a race where the finish line offered freedom from a labyrinth and entry into a new world of hope and possibility. With the finish line in sight, they picked up their pace, in the last five hundred yards sprinting, panting, grunting, until they crossed over and collapsed.
Afterwards, they lay there, wrapped up in each other, Jonathan’s head resting on Alex’s chest, Alex stroking Jonathan’s smooth back. No words were necessary. In that moment, the realization of a bond, of something very deep between them.
Jonathan sat up in the bed, drew some of the bedcovers into him to cover his crotch and locked his gaze on Alex. “I’m here. To stay.”
Alex heard the words but couldn’t call them back. “You shouldn’t. Stay, I mean. The cancer’s everywhere, remember? I don’t want you to watch me die.”
“I’m here.” Jonathan reached for Alex’s hand. “To stay.”
Jonathan squeezed Alex’s hand. “You need me. We need each other. I know it by the way you held me, by how you came so close to saying the thing you cannot say. The cancer’s everywhere. Fine. That doesn’t mean you give up. You fight. Fight with everything you’ve got. Be that one percent. Prove the statistics wrong.”
Alex pulled his hand out of Jonathan’s grasp and sat up, his nakedness exposed. “I need to ask you something.”
“What’s your favourite colour?”
Jonathan raised an eyebrow. “My favourite colour?”
Alex nodded. “Green …?”
“Arg, no.” Jonathan bristled. “Red.”
“Really?” Alex scrunched his eyebrows. “That’s so …” He didn’t know how to finish the sentence. “Not what I was expecting.”
“Sometimes I feel like you think I’m a pansy.”
After a brief silence, they laughed.
“You were right. I never wanted to get to know you.” Alex reached out and touched his hand to the side of Jonathan’s face, stroking the short hairs of the two-day-old beard. “I kept telling myself it was just sex.”
Jonathan glided Alex’s hand to his mouth and kissed it. “And now?”
“Now? It’s late. Time to go to sleep.” He winked.
Jonathan groaned, pushed away the bedcovers, and lowered his body onto Alex’s. They were again wrapped up in each other, breast to breast, the look intent, probing, deep. Jonathan slid off to the side, propping himself up on his elbow. Their eyes were glued as they smiled sheepishly at each other.
Alex dragged his fingers across Jonathan’s low brow. “And your family?”
“Parents are alive but divorced. Don’t see them much. They never really took to the gay thing.” Jonathan laid his hand on Alex’s chest. “And I’m an only child.”
“That explains a lot.”
“Hey!” Jonathan playfully pinched Alex’s nipple. “My turn to ask you something.”
“You told me a lot tonight. But I’m curious …” He bit down on his lower lip. “Have you ever been in love? It seems … You’re good at compartmentalizing.”
Alex smiled thinly. He had purposely left something out earlier. It was this. After his first diagnosis two years ago, the guy he had been dating bolted. Alex told Jonathan about that now, and the deep scar it had left.
“I’m sorry,” Jonathan said.
“Don’t be.” Alex gave a wry laugh. “I mean, it obviously wasn’t meant to be. And I like to think that it just happens. Love, I mean. When you least expect it, when you’re not looking for it.” He paused, surprised by the longing rising inside of him. “But to answer your question, yes. I’ve been in love, really in love, once.”
“What was it about him that made you fall in love?”
“He caught me off guard with a really unconventional approach. And he stayed.”
Jonathan shrugged. “What do you mean?”
“I mean …” Alex flicked his eyebrows. “When I told you I was sick and probably dying, you stayed.”
“Oh.” A long silence broken with, “Oh … You mean …”
“You’re the only guy I’ve ever had sex with in a public washroom, and let me tell you … Wasn’t on my bucket list.”
They laughed, fell into a clumsy embrace, and shifted about until their bodies found the perfect position. And stayed like that.
Feeling the warmth of Jonathan’s body against his, Alex wasn’t so sure about his future, but now he had something to hope for, a real reason to fight. And maybe it wasn’t supposed to be like this but love, and its unconventional path, had found him, perhaps just in time.
That was how it happened.
Nine months ago.
Not the way he wanted it to, not the way he imagined. Not only against his will, but in spite of it.
Now, together, they’d preserve it, let it deepen, take control.